Afrofuturism: A Brief Origin Story + Some of Its Key Players
AFROFUTURISM: An Origin Story*
Over the years, the concept of Afrofuturism has captured the attention of mainstream media outlets— receiving mentions in popular fashion, film, and music. Although this idea has taken center stage with the success of films like Black Panther, few know how to define the idea or give it a detailed, precise chronology.
Afrofuturism, like the genre of science fiction, started as a landscape of escapism, ideals, and fantasy. In the new millennium, both have become reality. “AFROFUTURISM” as an all-enveloping mythology compounding the black narrative across time and space (including slavery); it combines elements of science fiction, history, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentrism, magic realism, graphics, film, and music to address black individuals in past, present and future society at large.
It acts as the catalyst for imagination—creating space for black individuals to do so. It serves as a platform to catapult our hopes, dreams, visions, and ideals. This, in turn, allows us to shape and form our own realities through divine attraction and manifestation.
We control our own myths and therefore, time and space from here on out. This genre is of utmost importance as it continues to help unite children of the African diaspora through oral tradition and collective perception. While this short piece provides insight into Afrofuturism's meaning and beginning in America, the genre has existed since the birth of melanated civilization, exemplified in the ancient Dogon, Mayan, Khmetic, and Sumerian cosmological mythos.
Asking one to unpack and define Afrofuturism is to ask one to define the word “black”. A word so subtle, it causes overthought and before one knows it, the meaning of what one has just understood slips through grasp.
It’s as simple as a Kendrick bar:
Before Afrofuturism, we were force-fed narratives that had little to nothing to do with us that were crafted by white folks who will likely never understand us. Before this mythology, we settled on ancestral heroes from the motherland, black American inventors, and the early pan-African movement. There was not much of a springboard for us to dream and manifest with. In the advent of Afrofuturism and the creation of our own stories through media, there was no need to settle ever again. We began to realize we had the power to create our own destiny all along. In providing a loose timeline for this concept, we root ourselves in the past applications of Afrofuturism, tying us to a well-informed future where we can shape this theory masterfully.
To speak to the origins of Afrofuturism, we begin with Jackie Ormes, our pioneer trailblazer in afrofuturism— using comics to create some of the first idealized backdrops for blacks in America. Her art began in the African-American newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier. Her first strip Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem was published in 1937 and syndicated to fourteen other periodicals until 1940. From 1942-1945, Ormes had several black panels published in both the Courier and Chicago Defender. Her characters paved a unique path for black women and illustration nationwide.
During the decade of the 1950s, white authors like Isaac Asimov, along with Ralph Ellison, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury and H.G. Wells crafted fantasy futures filled with flying cars, space travel, dystopia, utopia, and the like. Although these writers lack melanin, they sparked a movement and distinct method of storytelling that was adopted by black and brown folks shortly after.
The 1960s had the largest impact on Afrofuturism, by far. It is here where many black mythos were born. Many of these narratives are just now finding mainstream popularity— exemplifying a time-space collapse of our oral and written tradition. The ancestral griots keeping track of our narratives have transformed into modern-day prophets.
In 1961, a young Stan Lee and Jack Kirby create the character Black Panther in an early Fantastic Four spin-off. The dynamic duo continues, launching X-Men in 1963, with Professor Xavier and Magneto cleverly disguised as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively (according to the creators). Both of these pieces provided desperately needed visibility and inclusion to the then-emerging world of comics.
Right around this period, in 1962, Samuel R. Delany writes complete and wholly black sci-fi universes: beginning with The Jewels of Aptor, Captives of the Flame, The Towers of Toron, City of a Thousand Suns, The Ballad of Beta-2— just to name a few. Delany, according to history, is the first black Afrofuturist novelist. These books unleashed a multitude of possibilities and helped blacks to imagine themselves in the same dreamscapes that white writers and illustrators created ten years prior.
Nichelle Nichols became the first black woman in space during the television program Star Trek as Lieutenant Uhura in 1968. Mae Jemison, the actual first black individual in space (orbiting almost three decades later), thanks to Nichols’ representation for inspiring her career at NASA.
As the 1970s arrived, Sun Ra, the jazz pioneer, known as one of the first free-form improvisionists and users of synthesizers, produces the galactic film Space Is the Place. Around this time, in 1972, the black Marvel artist Billy Graham helps bring the character Luke Cage to life. At the peak of waves and vibes, funk is born. Parliament Funkadelic, Earth, Wind and Fire, Pharoah Sanders, Miles Davis, Lonnie Liston Smith and Kool & the Gang are all regarded as afro-futuristic funkateers. Improvisational jazz and funk gave sounds, frequencies and melodic lyrics to the rise of black consciousness.
Towards the end of the decade, black women deliver in the form of the yin and yang that is Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler. Butler drops Patternmaster and Mind of My Mind as Ms. Morrison drops the magic realist Song of Solomon, from 1976-1977. Octavia unearths her entire futurist fantasy universe; unleashing Survivor, Kindred, Wild Seed, Clay’s Ark and the Xenogenesis trilogy from 1978 to 1989. Toni then gifts us with Beloved and Jazz, completing her trilogy that effectively breaks down the linear timeline of an average black individual in America. Both writers taught us that we are the master and creator of our own worlds and that we are all mighty in our creative process.
Back over at Marvel Studios, the world’s first black comic editor emerges after pretty scarce representation in the industry. Christopher J. Priest (born James Owsley) is hired to the editorial team in 1979 after interning there for a year. From 1985 to 1986, he is the only editor on Spiderman, while also writing for Captain America’s compadre The Falcon, as well as Power Man and Iron Fist. The Falcon and Power Man are both black characters.
At the peak of these three historical careers, blacks in space are normalized with the big-screen appearance of Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian in the breakout and wildly popular franchise Star Wars, during their Return of the Jedi release (1984). It is here that we not only dream, but believe wholeheartedly, that we are heroes, space travelers, and master builders. In the same exact year, the movie Brother from Another Planet releases, dwelling on the question, “what if homie was a martian?” It is often compared and accompanied by Space is the Place, it's interstellar brethren.
Uncoincidentally, five years later in 1989, Guy A. Sims and illustrator Dawud Anyabwile create the Brotherman comic series, which becomes one of the most visible comics for us, by us, during its time. Three years later, sensing an important gap in diverse comic publishing, Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, Derek Dingle, along with Christopher Priest, launch Milestone Media, home to Static Shock, Hardware, Blood Syndicate, Icon, Shadow Cabinet, Xombi, Kobalt and Heroes. Each headlining superhero is a person of color.
To know and understand that black folks in the United States have challenged the way in which we are seen and portrayed in less than a century is sort of magical. Afrofuturism helps place a starting point in our own self-actualization. The moment we began to re-imagine our narratives and tell our stories through our own lenses is the moment we took our power back. The victors in civilization and society, by and large, are those who safeguard their history and narratives.
In less than 100 years we have evolved into storytellers, griots, prophets, and gatekeepers of our people. We have imagined utopias for our children to dream and grow up in. Blacks are mighty. We have come to accept nothing less than our true worth: in print, on screen, and through speakers.
*Please read + research Afrofuturism for yourself as we all have different interpretations on what it is and how it has shaped the way in which we connect to our blackness— past, present, and future.
For Further Reading, Check Out:
Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America by Bradford W. Wright (available for purchase here)
"The Man Who Made Black Panther Cool" by Abraham Reisman’s for Vulture
If You’d Rather Watch Your History:
Comic Book Confidential (1988), directed by Jon Mann, available on Amazon Video