From Sun Ra and George Clinton to Janelle Monae and NK Jemisin, the Afrofuturist movement has touched most major art forms over the past several decades. Ytasha L. Womack, Afrofuturist scholar and author of Rayla 2212, walks us through the origins of the movement through to the present, exploring the neighborhoods of this genre with as much affection as the foundations underneath them.
This book is equally at home in a personal library or on a college syllabus. It can be read cover-to-cover (which I did) or in segments relevant to your current interests, whether they be feminism in the movement or afrosurrealism. Womack is both informative and accessible with a wealth of citations from academia and the arts alike. And you don’t need a background in critical race theory to get a grip on Afrofuturism; after all, the arts came first — the theory came later. If you can jam to Parliament-Funkadelic or cheer on Uhura, you are already on your way.
Like the contemporary cyberpunk, steampunk, and solarpunk movements, Afrofuturism is a way of reimagining the future. By envisioning the future through a Black lens, Afrofuturism critiques the past and constructs a whole new frame for viewing the Black experience. One question I had going in was, “How would modern conceptions of race even factor into a society in the stars?” Womack addressed this in the second chapter, which revolves around race as a social construct — one that correlates to humanity’s relationship with the unknown, i.e. aliens and outer space. Imagine a person taken by surprise aboard a foreign vessel to a land beyond their imagining, a fate unknown. Am I describing the life of an East African person in the 17th century, or the story of an alien abduction? Womack evokes such questions throughout the book, transcending the frame of race to show us how Black history and, more importantly, Black futures reflect society at large.
If you are new to Afrofuturism, this book is an excellent place to start. Womack eases you into the theory and gives you plenty of source material along the way — I recommend “The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra” as listening music, if you’re so inclined. You may even be familiar with some of them and find yourself surprised to see Afrofuturism applied to their work. And through it all, Womack never gets lost in the weeds; she ensures critique and theory never outshine the humanity at the heart of the movement. And it is a movement, one that gains momentum with every drawing of corn rows under space helmets, each new verse about the stars.