Afrofuturism and Black Literature
Afrofuturist themes and expressions gave additional voice to the creatives and intellectuals whose works grounded, identified, and located Black culture in an increasingly technological world. Creating fictional landscapes and exploring topics of rebellion, resistance, pride, and power, literature was a crucial outlet for Black authors reflecting on the shifting racial and technological dynamics of the newly industrialized age.
Part of the larger genre of speculative fiction that emerged across the Black diaspora in the 19th century, Black science fiction writers and the stories they created gained prominence in America and abroad by the mid-20th century. Constructing complex narratives about aliens, androids, and cyborgs, Black science fiction authors prompted new dialogues about Black identity through allegorical narratives that critiqued race in American society. Their stories represent the diversity of Black science fiction writing in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Pauline Hopkins was born in 1859 to a socially prestigious, highly educated family. She was encouraged in her academic pursuits and became a playwright, novelist, journalist, and editor. Three of her four published novels used realistic and romantic themes to explore the African American experience, while her fourth novel Of One Blood took a more speculative turn. The novel explores themes of racial passing, scientific innovation, and spiritual and cultural pride. Of One Blood takes the reader on a journey from Boston, to Egypt and Ethiopia, and on to the hidden fantasy nation of Telassar. Learn more about Hopkin's story.
Fiction is of great value to any people…It is a record of growth and development from generation to generation. No one will do this for us; we must ourselves develop the men and women who will faithfully portray the inmost thoughts and feelings of the Negro with all the fire and romance which lie dormant in our history…
A strong-voiced and sharp-tongued writer who is better known for his mid-life turn as a leading Black conservative, George Schuyler published Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940. A satirical science fiction novel that lampooned major figures of the day like Marcus Garvey, Madame C.J. Walker, and James Weldon Johnson, the novel tells the story of a Black scientist who invents a technique that can turn Black people white. Schuyler’s novel describes the effects this technology has on issues of segregation and assimilation.
The entanglement of medicine, technology, and race has been an enduring theme in Afrofuturist fiction. Historically, the myth of biological differences among races of people served as a scientific rationale for racism, slavery, and other oppressive practices. Based on the false idea that Black people have higher thresholds for pain, trauma, and suffering. For centuries, Black people have been experimented on and relegated to what cultural critic Ytasha Womack refers to as “technological sites”— as bodies lacking humanity and therefore rightfully subjugated to experimentation in the pursuit of medical research and scientific innovation. Read this story to learn more about the history of racism in science and its impact on Black health.
Since the publication of his first novel at the age of 19, Samuel “Chip” Delany (b. 1942) has gone on to publish more than 40 works during a seven-decade career. The winner of multiple Nebula awards for excellence in science fiction and fantasy, Delany is the first mainstream African American science fiction writer and is a literary progenitor of Afrofuturism. Growing up gay and Black in Harlem during the 1940s, Delany later became an outspoken cultural critic who explored themes of race and sexuality in his work. Delany also addressed the lack of diversity within the science fiction genre and the literary industry more broadly.
Groundbreaking author and Afrofuturist icon Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006) emerged as a powerful voice in science fiction in the 1970s. In contrast to the styles of white male authors who dominated the field, Butler wrote stories that featured heroic Black characters, including Black female protagonists in books like Kindred (1979) and Parable of the Sower (1993). Butler’s characters often challenged the social hierarchies of race, class, and gender, or were portrayed as survivors in oppressive worlds. By exploring Black cultural themes in many of her works, Butler’s unique voice forged a path for other nontraditional voices in science-fiction.
Following in Octavia Butler’s footsteps, N.K. Jemisin is a leading Black female science fiction novelist. Jemisin’s novels feature new planets and new species and confront contemporary issues such as climate change, gender, and ethnicity. Her first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was followed up by her “Broken Earth Series”, which became the first trilogy to win the prestigious Nebula prize for each book. Jemisin’s most recent work, the “Great Cities” series, describes a world where cities are sentient and live through human avatars. Her rich cast of borough avatars represent the diversity of New York City and battle the shared enemies of gentrification and loss of community.
…here is why I write what I do: We all have futures. We all have pasts. We all have stories. And we all, every single one of us, no matter who we are and no matter what’s been taken from us or what poison we’ve internalized or how hard we’ve had to work to expel it — we all get to dream
N.K. Jemisin, Nebula and Hugo award-winning author
Colson Whitehead has written both realistic and speculative fiction, but his 2016 alternative history novel, The Underground Railroad set a new standard for Afrofuturist literature. The 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows Cora, an enslaved woman who escapes on the Underground Railroad. But in Whitehead’s telling, the railroad is a literal train on buried tracks that heads north, taking Cora on a journey through states with drastically varied laws around race and freedom. The Underground Railroad is not the first novel in which Whitehead explored alternate Black timelines. His novels The Intuitionist and John Henry Days take completely different approaches but still explore Blackness, race-relations, and time.
Speculative fiction is also growing as a popular genre across the African continent and within the African diaspora. Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, a Nigerian writer, editor, and publisher has been a leading voice for a new generation of African science and speculative fiction authors. He is the first African author to be nominated for and to win the most prestigious awards in speculative fiction, including the Nebula and Hugo awards. After editing and publishing the first Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction anthology, Ekpeki served as a co-editor of Africa Risen, an anthology featuring authors from Africa and the African diaspora. Africa Risen received praise from Publishers Weekly and Booklist and was nominated for the 2023 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Fiction.