A talk with Manchester Futurists — 17 June 2021.
What does it mean to be African in the future? How will that affect Black culture, technology, and the future of work? I explore African and Afro-futurism with the Manchester Futurists.
Hello, my name is Edafe Onerhime. I’m a technologist. I specialise in making an impact with data. I help people change how they think about and use data to make decisions and build products. My motto is ‘Data + Design + Culture’. I believe that culture influences what data we collect and use, and the data we have available influences our culture in turn. I live and work in Glasgow, Scotland, with my wife and cat.
Now, I’m not an expert in African and Afro-futurism, more an enthusiastic consumer of creative works. I’ve been fortunate enough to discover the movement early. Over the next hour, come with me as I explore what the flourishing African and Afro-futurism movement means to me: to be Black, gifted, and represented.
What Even Is African & Afro-Futurism?
At its heart, Afro-futurism is the projection of Black cultures and Black experiences into the future. Afro-futurism flourishes in Black art, spirituality, theatre, writing, philosophy, technology, and more. You’ll find a tendency for the movement to be dominated by North Americans.
So Janelle Monae’s trio of studio albums (The ArchAndroid, The Electric Lady, Dirty Computer) might come to mind when you think of music. Marvel’s Black Panther is an easy example to reach for in graphic novels and films.
Africanfuturism diverges when it sheds the dominance of North American culture and focuses unapologetically on the African experiences. Nigerian-American sci-fi/fantasy writer and professor Nnedi Okorafor defines Africanfuturism in her essay “Africanfuturism Defined”. She focuses on Africanfuturism as a sub-category of science fiction and Africanjujuism as a subcategory of fantasy. Today, those labels, like many labels, are re-tread and redefined by us, the audience, and the producers of the works we love.
We’re not here to argue about labels and what falls into these categories. We’re here to talk about what it’s like to experience African & Afro-Futurism, in my case as an African, an immigrant, and a queer woman.
A Black Philosophy of Hope
Both Afro-futurism and Africanfuturism to me are about hope: A hope for the future. A future where Africa’s children and her diaspora are unfettered by liabilities of the past — be that historical or modern colonisation. It’s a future where you as a Black person are represented in all of your Blackness by default.
Let’s explore the ‘by default’ a little more. For years when reading my preferred genres (science fiction, fantasy, magical realism), I’d been indoctrinated to expect characters to be white by default. Black characters tended to be in the minority and identified by their skin colour — usually something food-related like cafe au lait or chocolate and very little else. White characters were rarely described as white — it was simply implied that they were.
Around 2005, I read Anansi Boys by the English author Neil Gaiman, when it struck me: the main character was Black! I was amazed. I went back to the start of the book and carefully re-read to see if his colour was mentioned anywhere. No, it was pretty subtle. I mean, the clue was in the name. Anansi is the trickster god of West Africa. I knew him from stories. I still hadn’t put it together because of the ‘white by default’ thinking that accompanied my fantasy genre reading. It got me thinking — what else is out there? What’s written by people who look like me?.
We often hear the saying attributed to the cyberpunk writer Bill Gibson “The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed”. Before, I’d think this meant the future hadn’t reached this place or that place geographically. Now I ask who has this vision of the future and who is or isn’t benefitting from it?
So that, in a nutshell, was how I began seeking out afro-futurism, then African futurism. My search led me through science fiction and fantasy to the art and music in this movement. While my interest is mainly in music and fiction, you can find examples in other creative areas.