Drawing on the past to visualize the future: What Afrofuturism means and why it matters

If you turn to the Oxford English Dictionary to understand Afrofuturism, you’ll find the definition: A movement in literature, music, art, etc., featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of Black history and culture.” But, like most movements, it’s not that simple

Coined in the 1990s by Mark Dery, a renowned author and culture critic, Afrofuturism has gained traction over recent years with its futuristic designs and fantastic concepts. With influences in film, art, and pop culture the style appears in  Marvel’s “Black Panther” films and Beyonce’s “Renaissance” album, but Afrofuturism is more than an aesthetic, it’s a cultural movement where history and imagination play key roles in designing futures filled with optimism, inclusion, and expressions of freedom.

Afrofuturism and its significance

The movement may seem to be a popular fashion trend but for Afrofuturists, it provides a sense of clarity about who they were and why they were drawn to things that weren’t usually accepted in their culture or by their peers. That was Ingrid LaFleur’s experience.

A former mayoral candidate and the founder and director of The Afrofuture Strategies Institute (TASI), LaFluer has been studying Afrofuturism for more than 20 years.

“It was helpful because my Blackness was always called into question,” says LaFleur. “Growing up in Detroit, I went to public schools, Bates Academy and Renaissance High School. So, during that time, especially during my time at Bates Academy, my Blackness was questioned because of the way I sounded. So when I found out about the term, I was just like, ‘yes’, because everybody was there, all of us Black nerds, weirdos, everybody on the fringe was in this space, and it felt even freer.”

Image co-created by Ingrid LaFleur and Midjourney / Instagram

To LaFleur, Afrofuturism is “an ancestral-based and non-linear method of discussing the Black experience using speculative modalities, such as surrealism, science fiction, fantasy, as well as horror.” 

“We are essentially creating, or exploring the possibilities of futures for Black bodies. And I think it's a way of creating a better relationship with the Black body. I think it's a liberatory practice for everyone, no matter if you're Black, white, it doesn't matter.”

While Afrofuturism discusses issues relevant to Black communities, advocates like sociologist Dr. Morgan T. Strong believe it can benefit people of all backgrounds by shifting perspectives and challenging normalized ways of thinking about race, technology, and the future. “The world of ‘what is’ can be supplanted by the world of what never was or what could be," he posted in a recent blog on the benefits of Afroturism in education.

Image co-created by Ingrid LaFleur and Midjourney

What I really love about Afrofuturism is that the deeper you dive into it, the less likely you are able to define what ‘Blackness’ is,” says LaFleur “That doesn't mean that which we understand Blackness to be doesn't exist anymore, it's just that you come to find out that Black people exist in such a wide spectrum, that you can't say that is Black music, or that is Black fashion, or that, is a way a Black person speaks.” 

Currently attending graduate school at the University of Houston for her Masters of Science in Foresight, which involves methodologies for researching the future, LaFleur believes the movement can help to reconnect people to history, and cultivate a better perspective moving forward.

“Once you start to understand the entanglement and the sacredness of that connection, then everything just starts to open up and blossom.”

Image created by Ingrid LaFleur and MidjourneyAn example of her work is her collaboration with Midjourney to reimagine the future of sick or injured Africans who were thrown overboard on slave ships coming to America. In the mid-90s an electronic duo from Detroit, Drexciya, produced techno music based on a futuristic myth that the children of the pregnant mothers who were drowned, learned how to adapt and live underwater, creating a race of sea dwellers called the Drexciyan. Breathing life into the stories, LaFleur and Midjourney have visualized an alternative future that recognizes a horrific past. 

Costume designs from the film "Black Panther" are on display at the Charles H. Wright Museum. Photo supplied.

To see is to believe

Visualization plays a key role in understanding Afrofuturism. 

“We want and need to see what [Afrofuturism] looks like. We need to see what we can imagine it being,” says Dr. Kelli Morgan, senior curator of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. “Whether it’s in our own separate space, or whether it’s blueprints, we need to be able to have the tangible things such as sculptures, installations, and sound to come back to as a framework or as a set of directions.” 

Morgan is a renowned Detroit curator, educator, and social justice activist who specializes in American art and visual culture. She gained her Ph.D. in Afro-American studies and a graduate certificate in public history and she “mentors students, emerging curators, and regularly trains staff from various museums how to foster anti-racist approaches in collection building, exhibitions, community engagement, and fundraising.”

“I’m going to be frank, traditionally white museums and art institutions are colonial spaces,” says Morgan. “They were spaces that we were never supposed to inform, we were only supposed to be on display. There has to be somebody in the field who's willing to tell the truth about the positions that we're in […] BIPOC women, artists, and museum professionals have lost their careers speaking out against this stuff in the 90s and I was just tired of people acting like that wasn’t the reality. My work is important for the mental health of people that look like us that work in predominantly white spaces.”

Ruth E. Carter. Photo supplied. Presently, the Charles H. Wright Museum is displaying the exhibit “Afrofuturism in Costume Design. Over 60 original pieces created by Ruth E. Carter are featured, including the costume designs of “Black Panther” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”. Carter became the first Black person to win an Academy Award in the costume design category, earning Marvel Studios their first Oscar.

The spark for the exhibit ignited after Carter visited the museum for a behind-the-scenes discussion about her process, and she credits the success of her designs to her research, which she describes as a “slow and patient process which cannot be rushed.”

For Morgan, Afrofuturism is the space or notion of a future where Black people appropriate technology, prosthetics, science, and art to “produce a future that white supremacy doesn’t allow them to live in the present.” 

“I personally want people to witness the possibility and the reality of how beautiful, amazing, brilliant, and wonderful Black is. It’s a Black woman’s tradition to create something out of nothing. It’s that Black magic that I want people to take away from the exhibit.” 

The exhibit runs through March 31st and tickets must be purchased. General admission for adults is $30, seniors are $20, youth between 5 - 17 are $15 and children under five are free. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., except for Thursdays, which is open until 7 p.m.

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