Afrofuturism: Everything and Nothing

Namwali Serpell

Whence the “Afro” in “Afrofuturism”? In the 1994 interview with Samuel R. Delaney that inaugurated the term, Mark Dery defines Afrofuturism as “speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture—and, more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” This would suggest that the “Afro” in Afrofuturism is the “Afro” in the old-school census classification, “Afro-American” rather than, say, the “Afro” in the newer-fangled “Afropolitan,” the word that Taiye Selasi coined in 2005 for “the newest generation of African emigrants … [with a] funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes … ethnic mixes … cultural mutts … multilingual … Africans of the world.”

Someone like President Barack Obama would seem to give the lie to any firm distinction between Africans of the Americas and Africans of the world. But in the 1990s, the lines of connection Dery drew in “Black to the Future” between speculative fiction and black culture—lines as tenuous and as striking as the puns he favors—were very much limited to a US geography: “African Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees. They inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done to them; and technology, be it branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, or tasers, is too often brought to bear on black bodies.”

Broadly speaking, none of this is limited to African American history. Abduction, intolerance, dismemberment, experiments, and weaponry have been inflicted on black bodies in the motherland, too. The resonance of this ancient nightmare with sci-fi was almost too perfect in Blomkamp’s 2009 indie hit film District 9. But even a quick glance at the history of black science fiction shows that, however appropriative and naïve, Afrofuturism’s reach back to Africa itself is a pervasive trope, from the ruins of an advanced Ethiopian civilization in Pauline Hopkins’s 1903 Of One Blood to Sun Ra’s Egyptian accoutrements to the inexhaustible polyvalence of the Middle Passage. And the recent swell of African American artists making music (Janelle Monáe), fiction (N. K. Jemisin), and art (Laylah Ali) within this rubric seems to have set off a wave of African artists—many Afropolitan in effect if not in name—intent on bringing the Afro back to Afrofuturism. As is often the case these days, this phenomenon has acquired a certain curatorial cachet for museums, conferences, festivals, listicles, and panels: the meme is mother to the making.

And what of the art being made? South Africa has been a particularly rich source, perhaps because its great wealth allowed it to build technology earlier and explicitly on the back of black labor. Apart from Neill Blomkamp’s films and the best-selling novels of Lauren Beukes (author of the time-traveling murder mystery The Shining Girls), the pop-hip-hop-techno group Die Antwoord (“The Answer” in Afrikaans) has been dabbling in science fiction tropes for years. The rest of the continent is catching up. Much attention has been paid to the Ethiopian post-apocalyptic film Crumbs (2015, dir. Miguel Llansó), the Kenyan science fiction short film Pumzi (2009, dir. Wanuri Kahiu), and Afronauts (2014, dir. Frances Bodomo), a surreal short film set in Zambia and directed by a Ghanaian American—the latter two debuted at Sundance. The last few years have seen the publication of AfroSF (2012), an anthology edited by Ivor W. Hartmann; Omenana’s issue X, ten flash fictions displayed at the African Future Lagos conference; Jalada’s Afrofuturism issue; and a volume of the scholarly journal Paradoxa devoted to “Africa SF.” The Dark Matter anthology series, edited by Sheree Thomas and devoted to speculative fiction by people “of African descent,” has a third volume forthcoming, subtitled “Africa Rising.”

Wangechi Mutu, <em>She’s Got the Whole World in Her</em> (2015). Photograph by moroccanmary / Flickr

That most of the manifest literary output of African science fiction is in the form of the short story is not too surprising—the genre has always been catholic about length, as open to operatic trilogies as to stories (Bradbury and Asimov wrote both). But that it has thus far been a collection of little things poses a problem for considering “African science fiction” as a genre to be theorized, rather than merely (repeatedly) heralded. Dery begins his essay on Afrofuturism with a “conundrum” about absence: “Why do so few African Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other—the stranger in a strange land—would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African American novelists?”

As Afrofuturism has begun to migrate back to the motherland in earnest, the same relative dearth continues to plague theorists and writers. Even Mark Bould, whose introduction to Paradoxa’s issue on African science fiction offers a comprehensive if nebulous syllabus, implies that it is nascent: “If African sf has not arrived, it is certainly approaching fast.” The appearance of a deluge—a trend, a fad—is in effect a trickle. Is this just what happens when you cross blackness with futurity? As Dery asks of African Americans, “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” Or is this lack specific to African literature, where energies might seem to be better directed toward, say, political critique of corruption, poverty, disease, and unemployment?

Nnedi Okorafor, born in the United States to Nigerian immigrants, both bridges this breach and fills it. She appears on lists of black sci-fi on either side of the Atlantic. And while she says that she has “issues with [the label] Afrofuturism,” she is one of the most prolific black writers of speculative fiction out there, and has set several of her fantasy and science fiction novels on the continent. Okorafor, in other words, is Afropolitan and African American: she insists that her “flavor of sci-fi is evenly Naijamerican (note: ‘Naija’ is slang for Nigeria or Nigerian).” Yet in an essay on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website, Okorafor herself bemoans the scant canon:


Here’s my list of “African SF.” It’s really short … How do I define African SF? I don’t. I know it when I see it … The main fact is that this list DOES exist. Africans ARE writing their own science fiction, contrary to what some may think. But the fact is that Africans need to also write more of it.

When building a canon, the question of inclusion becomes paramount. If the African v. African American debate seems unduly academic or divisive, just imagine when the question of race comes in: what does it mean, as Okorafor notes, that the first major African science fiction film, District 9, was directed by a white South African? In another essay, “Is Africa Ready for Science Fiction?,” Okorafor cites two experts—a Nollywood director and a scholar of African fiction—who both essentially say no. Though she is more optimistic on the question, Okorafor explains: “In Africa, science fiction is still perceived as not being real literature. It is not serious writing.… African audiences don’t feel that science fiction is really concerned with what’s real, what’s present. It’s not tangible.”

But to take the intangible, the unreal, the absent and make of them a world is precisely the mandate of science fiction. In his remarkable ur-Afrofuturist film Space is the Place (1974), Sun Ra, adorned in Egyptian regalia, travels to Oakland, CA to recruit black folk to colonize the planet Saturn. Like some kind of intergalactic Marcus Garvey, he wants to “set up a colony for black people … bring them here through transmolecularization … or teleport the whole planet here … through music.” He tells dissipated hipsters at the local youth center: “I’m not real. I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we’re both myths. I do not come to you as a reality. I come to you as the myth. Because that’s what black people are, myths.” Afrofuturism’s insight is to elide the African diaspora with outer space as loci of blackness, roiling vats of inky, rich, infinite potential. The etymology of utopia, after all, is ou + topos, or not + place. Introducing himself to a wino, Sun Ra cryptically declaims: “I am everything and nothing.”

Even as Afrofuturism has begun to migrate back to the motherland in earnest, the same relative dearth continues to plague theorists and writers.

Okorafor’s most squarely science-fictional novel, Lagoon, both enacts and theorizes what it means to be ex nihilo, to emerge out of nothing—or rather the presumed nothing—at the heart of darkness. The Prologue of the novel, entitled “Moom!,” begins with a set of dark collisions that epitomize this conceit: “She slices through the water, imagining herself a deadly beam of black light … She is aiming for the thing that looks like a giant dead snake … She stabs into it … It blows its black blood … All goes black.” This “she” turns out to be a swordfish—in her latest incarnation; her last form was a yellow monkey—penetrating the loading hose of an oil refinery in the “lagoon” from which Lagos takes its name.

Coincidentally, at the exact same moment, a space ship—“an enormous object, all shifting oily black spires and spirals and brown and yellow lights”—crashes into the lagoon. Its alien inhabitants grant the water spirit a new shape (eyes like the blackest stone, retractable spikes on her spine), triple her size, and double her weight: “Now she is no longer a great swordfish. She is a monster.” Her metamorphoses continue apace when she emerges from the water onto Bar Beach on the occasion of another, more prosaic collision of humans: Adaora, a marine biologist in a struggling marriage; Anthony Dey Craze, a popular Ghanaian hip-hop artist; and Agu, a soldier whose conscience has just gotten him punched. They meet as the impact of the space ship in the water sends up a fist-shaped wave that almost drowns them and washes the water spirit ashore as a “naked dark-skinned African woman.” They name her Ayodele.

A fascinating subject for Adaora’s scientific gaze, Ayodele’s metamorphosing powers are amped by the aliens into biotechnology. Her skin is made of tiny vibrating balls that atomize and rearrange at will, accompanied by a screech of marbles on glass, allowing her to assume any shape. It turns out she can do the same to others. When Adaora’s home is swarmed by the army, the police, fundamentalists, protestors, and rubbernecking locals, Ayodele runs off, metamorphosing along the way like Daphne. When soldiers corner her and try to blow her to bits, she returns the favor:


Where the soldiers had stood, heaps of raw meat wriggled … [Adaora] heard the sound of marbles again … the wet piles of meat, the scattered clothes, even the spattered blood, were gone as though they had never been there.

In their place was a plantain tree, heavy with unripe plantain … Ayodele had taken the elements of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine and magnesium that had been Benson and the other soldiers and rearranged them into a plant. Does the soul transform, too? Adaora wondered. She’d never believed in God but she was a scientist and she knew that matter could be neither created nor destroyed. It just changed form.

The terroristic tenor of the alien landing and Ayodele’s explosions—Boko Haram hovers in the background of this novel—is offset immediately by the intimation of a new, green beginning. Suicide bomber as atomic gardener; out of nothing, everything. Like the birth of the planet earth, a collision prompts an explosion, then a contraction back to stable form.

This dynamic movement of matter characterizes Lagoon as a whole. Lagos itself is presented as a throbbing, sprawling network of networks—an LGBTQ protest group called Black Nexus, an evangelical church, 419 Internet scammers, the police, the army—whose members coincide at random as they try to account for the weird goings-on in their already anarchic city. One minor character, a visiting African American rapper, thinks: “If there is one city that rhymes with ‘chaos,’ it is Lagos.” The city is said to give birth to itself, eat its young, eat itself. It becomes a monster populated by monsters as the aliens, who “pass for Lagosians,” emerge from the water: “Some of them were dressed in various types of traditional garb, some in military attire, some in police uniforms, others in westernized civilian clothes. Most of them were African, a small few Asian, one white.” Like Ayodele, who often uncannily mimics others when she transforms, the aliens reflect both the humans and the oscillation between “African Chaos” and “Black Nexus” already latent in Lagos.

This alternation between dilation and contraction is a pulse under the novel’s skin. While we occasionally return to our initial A-team of four, a host of other characters proliferate in short chapters that skitter between perspectives and Englishes. In keeping with the novel’s chaotic retroposthumanism, these characters range from animal to vegetable to mineral to spirit to various syntheses and collisions of these elements. There is a particularly memorable encounter between an alien passing as a Nollywood star—“there was a flicker of oddness about her … like a double-exposed photo”—and a native spirit said to haunt the famously dangerous roads of Lagos. This “Bone Collector” makes one road rise up “in a huge snakelike slab of concrete, the faded yellow stripes still in view,” rippling “into a concrete wave” that sends cars and people to their doom. The confrontation between ancient spirit and futuristic alien is epic: “that woman, she was from outside this earth, yes. But … that thing that was haunting the road, it was from here and had probably been here since these roads were built, maybe even before then.” It leads to a sacrifice as Hollywood as it is Nollywood: “‘Collect my bones and then never collect again,’ the woman said. ‘I am everything and I am nothing. Take me and you will be free of your appetite.’”

Afrofuturism’s insight is to elide the African diaspora with outer space as loci of blackness, roiling vats of inky, rich, infinite potential.

Lagosians come to see the aliens as “agents of change,” punning on their metamorphic capacities, which are keyed to reflective and political ones. Ayodele, on the run, a self-described “ambassador,” becomes a hero for simply saying what she sees (“Your land is full of a fuel that is tearing you apart”), reflecting Lagos back at itself like the water from which she emerges. In a deeply disturbing climax, and in the tradition of black heroes both African and African American, her body is riddled with bullets. Her final transformation is to become a figure for transformation: she vaporizes herself into a white mist, “rolling like a great wave over all of Lagos … everyone was inhaling it.”

Ayodele can broadcast herself on any communication device, and the aliens and the spirits are repeatedly aligned with the mutable and reflective and political affordances of media itself. While the novel adheres to print, it continually invokes other forms—television, newspaper, radio, the Internet, and film, including a “Deleted Scene” and a “Special Bonus Features” glossary of pidgin. The mobile phone is king, its portability matched by its mutability and ubiquity: “… so many people in Lagos had portable chargeable glowing vibrating chirping tweeting communicating connected devices, practically everything was recorded and posted online in some way, somehow. Quickly. The modern human world is connected like a spider’s web.”

In Lagoon, mythos and technos intermingle. An italicized chapter announces, three-quarters of the way in, the novel’s presiding spirit: “I am Udide, the narrator, the story weaver, the Great Spider. I roll onto my back and place my hairy feet to the earth above me. I feel the vibrations of Lagos. This way, I see everything.” The weaver of stories is presented here across several axes of symmetry—flipping underneath the city to listen, see, feel; roaming the roads to spin stories across the modern human world. This accords with the novel’s imperative toward politics as reflection—“change begets change”—but it also hints at a fundamental and perhaps detrimental reliance on realism.

Nnedi Okorafor at a 2014 Scottish PEN event. Photograph by byronv2 / Flickr

That might seem an odd thing to say about such a riotous speculative romp. But at its core, Lagoon seems to use science fiction as an occasion to reflect the cultural clashes and contradictions of Lagos, by far the most vivid character in the novel. In her acknowledgements to Lagoon, Okorafor says she was both inspired by and writing back to Blomkamp’s incredibly popular and quite racist District 9. To center the locus of alien contact in Lagos instead of Johannesburg, to make the aliens benevolent eco-ambassadors: these are pointed political moves, but essentially corrective ones, aimed at bettering our present-day reality. It is no accident that the novel begins with a swordfish destroying an oil pipeline, an incident Okorafor says she took from the headlines.

At its best, science fiction operates as the articulation of outlandish metaphors, even puns. Often, these resonances across ostensibly disparate notes—aliens and Africans, miscegenation and crossbreeding—produce eerie harmonies and genuine novelty. For all its plenitudinous variety, Lagoon sings a recognizable song, the old ditty that tells us Africa has always been sc-fi, that all this has happened before, and all of it will happen again: “If anyone gon’ be flying around, shootin’ lasers outta they eyes or jumping in the water and making shock waves because they can, it would be a bunch of Africans.” The notes of this chord may only be discernible to one audience (a readership familiar with alien contact stories) or another (a readership familiar with Afrodiasporic mythology). But even when they do chime—as when Ayodele’s bullet-ridden body uncannily conjures Mike Brown’s autopsy report, or a character calls the alien spacecraft “the devil’s danfo” (a rackety Lagosian bus)—the result is like one of those radio mash-ups that are so popular these days: more new flavor than original cover. 

Okorafor recently appeared on a panel at the Black Comix Arts Festival in San Francisco. Asked about the future of Afrofuturism, she responded this way:


I think that we’ll see more Africans directly from the continent writing this kind of literature. I think that what they’re going to write is going to have, like, a different flavor as well. And what I also would like to see in terms of “Afrofuturism” is just more diversity in the types of writing. I’d like to see female writers, writers with disabilities, just more variety within Afrofuturist writing. That’s what I’m waiting to see. ’Cause right now it’s so small, you know, and it’s slowly building, it’s slowly building, and it’s increasing and growing. But I’d like to see more of that. And I’d also like to see really … an extremely successful Afrofuturist writer—extremely successful as in like best-selling status—who’s mediocre. I wanna see that.

Okorafor is already spearheading these efforts: Africanizing black sci-fi, diversifying it, making it popular. But as for this last, the kind of best-sellerish mediocrity she imagines for Afrofuturism—one that matches the thinness and flatness of a world wide web where, as the novel’s epigraph says of Lagos, “nothing works yet everything happens”—well, maybe we should be careful what we wish for.