Ask the Expert: What is Afrofuturism? | MSUToday

“Ask the Expert” articles provide information and insights from MSU scientists, researchers and scholars about national and global issues, complex research and general-interest subjects based on their areas of academic expertise and study. They may feature historical information, background, research findings, or offer tips.  

Michigan State University Professor Julian Chambliss is widely known for his scholarship on Afrofuturism, the Black Imaginary and Black superheroes, especially within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he runs a dedicated website called AFROFANTASTIC. His research interests focus on race, identity and power in real and imagined urban spaces. His digital humanities work intersects the MSU Department of EnglishMSU Libraries and MSU Museum. Additionally, he teaches undergraduate courses on Afrofuturism and his engagement with the topic spans into community outreach. 

As part of Michigan State University’s Juneteenth Celebration, Chambliss will be speaking on Afrofuturism in his keynote, “Not Only Darkness: The Legacy and Future of Black Speculative Practice.”

“Afrofuturism” was first coined by author and culture critic Mark Dery in his 1993 essay, “Black to the Future.” Since then, Afrofuturism has grown as an artform, practice, methodology and area of study. Here, Chambliss delves into what Afrofuturism is as a practice, as well as ways it shows up in culture and artistic work, often most easily identified through the visual arts and music.

Professor Julian Chambliss

How would you define Afrofuturism?

I define Afrofuturism as the intersection between speculation and liberation inspired by the concerns of Afro diasporic peoples. It tends to mix questions of science, technology and knowledge creation geared toward a more liberatory framework. 

At the core of Afrofuturism is an emphasis on trying to create a system that’s more equitable with a core goal of collective care for everyone.  

Since Afrofuturism is theorized in opposition to the development of the exploitive system linked to colonialism, it considers the ways “modern” institutions do not always care for everyone because of hierarchical structures that use race and gender as means of control. A lot of times Afrofuturism is really asking us to think about how the system we know can be made safe for everyone, and I think that’s part of the reason it’s so appealing to so many people.

What does speculative fiction mean as connected with science fiction and Afrofuturism? 

Speculative work offers alternative pathways and different ways of thinking about individual, community and society structures. These speculations can be broad or can be very narrow. 

Those kinds of speculations have distinctive styles, but the goal is always to tell an interesting story. When thinking about the tradition of speculative fiction, the stories are socially relevant and speak to the potentialities of a progressive transformation in society. 

When I talk about Afrofuturism, I think the political element is rooted in the reality of the politized nature of society. Arguably anytime people of color speculate in the public sphere it is political because their speculation is going to reflect their concerns and their critiques drive public narrative about systems that are unfair and practices that stigmatize. 

Using science fiction writers as an example like Octavia Butler, who really was concerned with hierarchy, race and trauma in her work, we can then see models for a better kind of community practice. Her “Parable” series (“Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents”) imagines an equitable community with an emphasis on sustainability, gender equity and mutual respect built around collaborative action. 

Butler is creating these systems in reflection of the way our real-world practice fails. She is speculating on that failure and examining the possible way the hierarchies in our society create inequitable systems and practices. It’s important to recognize these speculative ideas are born from a consideration of the lived experience of women and people of color. This is why these imagined worlds matter so much.

What are some common misperceptions about Afrofuturism? 

The most common misconception of Afrofuturism is that it is essentially only future oriented, that it is exclusively Black people in spaceships or Black cyborgs. 

The easiest way to think about this is that at any moment, especially in the context of the Western Hemisphere, there has been a Black person who has thought about and speculated on liberation. They’re thinking about liberation or speculating on different pathways, so they must think, quite literally, outside of the system. For them, that system is oppressive, so they must imagine a different path. This is not new.

If you consider historic liberation movements of any kind, at some point, someone must have the political imagination to imagine reform. You could argue that the United States is ideally suited to achieve liberatory vision because the system is driven by people engaging in voting and holding those in office accountable.

What are some of the important nuances that are part of Afrofuturism? 

The obvious nuance is this idea around futurity. In fact, Afrofuturism is very concerned with the past, and this is one of the reasons why time is so important. We tend to, especially in the Western context, think about time in a very linear way: the past, the present and the future. Whereas present, past, future is a more accurate way to describe how Afrofuturists think about time. This gives rise to a consistent concern with recovering things that were lost in the past, understanding the nature of the loss in the present and building a better future. 

The nuance around trauma is also very important. There are things in the past that people want to recover, but there’s also emphasis on truth and reconciliation in Afrofuturism. One of the things Afrofuturism does is that it emphasizes understanding the truth of past trauma so that we can recognize the legacy from it. There are things in the past that we need to understand are rooted in a system that is oppressive. There are also things lost because of that oppressive past we need to recover.  

All of this is born of disruption, displacement and erasure associated with the assumption of settler colonialism. There are lots of groups of people, especially in the context of the Americas, which strive to remember the past in a way that ensures that the current generation and future generations have an identity that supports and affirms their existence.


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