Afrofuturism and the
Potential for Hope
ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH
Science fiction and Hollywood have popularized so many versions of ”the viral outbreak”
that there's an uncanny sense that we've been here before. And yet, I'm sure the rapidity
of recent cultural shifts feels new and unwelcome to many. When I think of the coronavirus
outbreak from a racial perspective, an aspect that stands out to me is the jarring,
uneven experience of time. We know that due to health disparities, political and social
violence, racism, and economic loss, each of us is navigating the pandemic very differently;
and the daily factors that either cushion or steal from our individual time banks
make the difference between life and death. I can think of no stronger illustration
of the pandemic's chronopolitics than the killing of Breonna Taylor. Working double
shifts as a COVID frontline responder, Taylor was an African American paramedic with
dreams of a future in nursing. She was shot after midnight, during a no-knock warrant
delivered to her home in a gentrifying neighborhood. Three months later and in the
wake of George Floyd’s murder, social media hashtags finally earned her the attention
that her death deserved. The legal gridlock currently protecting the officers involved
triggers an entire century of trauma vis-a-vis the criminal justice system, which
disproportionately impinges on Black families’ physical and sensorial experience of
time. As an African American woman sheltering in Utah where the pandemic crisis has
been managed fairly well, I feel very lucky. But I also recognize that my identity
in America puts me at risk no matter where I live. I am only as secure as my social
net at any given minute.
What I appreciate about science fiction is how it inspires questions about society’s progress and the human ability to intervene. Twenty years from now, will we still mourn Breonna Taylor? Are we doomed to cyclical behavior? Will race relations in this country ever change? One strand of science fiction that helps me process these types of questions is Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is a cultural philosophy expressed through literature, fashion, music, technology, and activism that uses Black diaspora cosmologies to imagine alternative futures for people of
Afrofuturism injects hope into mainstream science fiction’s dystopia without disregarding that life is hard and the future can be frightening. In the collection Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, named for the incomparable sci-fi author Octavia Butler and which incidentally opens with a story about the racial fallout of an epidemic, writer Alexis Pauline Gumbs responds to the thrust of Afrofuturism in a piece depicting an archive of saved emails in which a 12 year old writes to her ancestor of five generations past:
"Ancestor Alexis... last year I did a project for our community about your time, the time of silence breaking...People broke a lot of things other than silence during your lifetime. And people learned how to grow new things and in new ways. Now we are very good at growing...everyone is supportive of growing time, which includes daydreams, deep breaths, and quiet walks...It seems like people are growing all the time in different ways. It was great to learn about you and a time when whole communities decided to grow past silence."3
I find this passage hopeful because, although it appears change may take decades,
the character alludes to one of the coronavirus pandemic’s most important reminders,
in my opinion—that painful realities can be offset by growth. The ancestors in Gumbs'
story intentionally push past the danger of silence and accept that the discomfort
of resistance might characterize their time. In this passage, and elsewhere in the
narrative, Gumbs also suggests alternative uses of time: dreaming, reflecting, breathing,
and dancing. Combining struggle with contemplation and celebration is an Afrofuturist
My aim here, however, is not to suggest that the work of "silence breaking," which I would call social justice, is simply a matter of reflection or cheer. Rather, I am arguing that reckoning with the present and leveling the experiential field of time requires creative tools, such as the lens of Afrofuturism. In classes focused on this literature, for example, students discuss the multiple meanings of "taking one's time," how in one context it valorizes an intentionally slower pace and in another, it can mean seizing an opportunity to guarantee redress no matter how long it takes.
In a science fiction, imaginary, just as in real life, catastrophic events happen. Things break. Divides are revealed. But to reflect on time is to move towards change, and with change comes the potential for hope.
1Eshun, Kodwo. “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism.” The New Centennial Review Vol. 3, No. 2, globalicities: possibilities of the globe (summer 2003), pp. 287-302
2 Goddess, Moor Mother. “Forethought.” Black Quantum Futurism. Afrofuturist Affairs, 2015.
3 Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. “Evidence.” Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. AK Press, 2015.