In recent years women of color have consistently won awards for their often transgressive speculative fiction. Hugo and Nebula award winner Nnedi Okorafor is one of these nontraditional writers who have achieved success by taking African history and culture and giving it a fantastic, futuristic feminist twist. In the September/October 2017 issue of Asimov’s, sf old guard writer/critic Norman Spinrad calls her Hugo-winning novella Binti “something else again,” suggests that “nothing quite like this has ever been written and published in English” and concludes that “This would be a kind of post-modern space opera if it weren’t so serious in literary, psychological, and anthropological intent” (204). Structurally Okorafor’s stories often depart from both golden age sf and the heavy, complexly interwoven literary novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but they do not come out of nowhere. (Until now, Spinrad obviously has not been paying attention to a substantial sea change that has been occurring in the genre particularly since the beginning of the twenty-first century.) Most of Okorafor’s work is well-honed YA hero journeys, often structured in a series of vignettes similar to comic books or graphic novels. (In her Wahala Zone Blog, Okorafor explains that she learned about Joseph Campbell’s hero journey from her instructor at Clarion, Steven J. Barnes [“My Report”].) Furthermore, the lives of her characters are inextricably entwined with popular culture: food, music, art, and technology. To best understand her work, it is valuable to examine its dynamic connection to the Afrofuturist movement that began after World War II.
Afrofuturism is a way of looking at the past and imagining a future where Africans, African-Americans, and other African diaspora can be equal participants in creating a sustainable, egalitarian future. It is a movement that has been significantly influenced by music and art. Like other writers of color such as Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemisin, and Nisi Shawl, Okorafor was informed by the Civil Rights Movement’s active reclamation of black history and culture that resulted in the Afrofuturist movement. Beginning with stories written in early creative writing classes, Okorafor takes contemporary problems such as bullying, racism, bigotry, ecological disaster, and out-of-control venture capitalism and moves them into the fantastic landscapes of Afrofuturism.
Going Back to the Roots
The roots of the Afrofuturist movement began decades ago in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s when people of color sought to reclaim the cultural richness of African descent through music and art as well as literature (Womack, 16–17). Although slavery had been officially abolished, ideological and political racism remained. Despite DNA proof of the unity of the human race, segregation continued to divide cities and performance of specific racially defined behaviors was expected. (In the late ’50s, this author’s Tennessee aunt had a black housekeeper who cooked fried chicken for the family but would not join us for dinner because it was not considered proper.)
Beginning in the ’50s, Afrofuturism was informed by the futuristic music of American jazz composer Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount (1914–1993), who legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra. Inspired by the space race, he sometimes wore spacesuits when he performed and claimed he was an alien abductee from the planet Saturn on a mission to preach peace. Throughout the rest of his life, he refused to recognize any other cultural identity (Wilson np). Correspondingly, ’60s psychedelic poster art combined with an Afrocentrist Black Arts movement that melds modern digital art techniques with fantastic African patterns and colors (Womack, 144). It is a surreal expressionist style that informs contemporary comic books and graphic novels and has recently rebloomed on the covers of scholarly books and literary anthologies created by artists such as John Jennings, “an advocate of using comics to shape black identity and Afrofuturism” (Womack, 144). In January 2017, Jennings published a graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred.
Four of Jennings’s covers are shown here. They demonstrate a blending of historical, technological, tribal, and magical tropes, an intertextual weaving seen in Okorafor’s work as well. The cover illustration of Mothership is reminiscent of Phoenix, the main character in Okorafor’s novel The Book of Phoenix (2015).
Cover to Afrofuturism by Ytasha L. Womack (Chicago Review Press, 2013)
The illustration on Ytasha L. Womack’s Afrofuturism perhaps bears a resemblance to a prosthetically enhanced, techno-feminist Lieutenant Uhura, magically cyborged by the third eye of enlightenment.