Afrofuturism – envisaging the Africa that we want
Where do Africa and the diaspora sit on the key issues that are confronting us? Onyekachi Wambu contemplates the perspectives of Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism.
The calls for restitution of looted artefacts and ancestral remains from Western museums and cultural institutions has reawakened interest in the African past. This interest should not be limited to the past but should extend to the future, expanding the activity of the small group of nerdy futurologists and sci-fi fans amongst us.
Of course, the Wakanda films (Black Panther and Wakanda Forever) are triggering a new interest in the future and its connections to the past, but this is a response to fiction derived from a comic book. Beyond this kind of fantasy, what do ordinary African people actually make of the future and how do they integrate the past, present and the future into one seamless experience?
A small experiment was conducted by me, ahead of a paper delivered at a Ghanaian conference on Afro-futurism. The experiment asked five ordinary Londoners of African descent how far in the past they were able to personally imagine themselves in history.
Despite representing a small, mainly Christian sample, the results were nevertheless interesting. For all five, there was a personal three-generation journey to a great-grandparent – proving the continuing power and limitation of the oral, personal testimony in transmitting knowledge, and the way it disappears after only a few generations.
Beyond that, they repeated general national stories of what was going on in their corner of the ‘Atlantic world’ during the last 500 years. The furthest back they could get, though, was through an Abrahamic religious story explaining the birth of, and peopling of, the world.
When really pushed, the religious story idea was eventually and messily reconciled with the other scientific ideas floating around about human evolution, with them then identifying themselves as descendants of the first humans on the East African plans. But this was fuzzy and generally poorly thought-out. No story emerged on how the wandering East Africans became the basis for their own modern African language, or ethnic group whether from the continent or diaspora.
When the experiment turned to views of the future – those with children imagined descendants two or three generations into the future – grandchildren and great-grandchildren towards the end of this century – and then the filled this in with general stories about space travel to other planets drawn from sci-fi films.
Or again when really pressed, they had dystopic, apocalyptic ‘end-time’ visions rendered from religious eschatology. Not one produced an upbeat positive vision of their country of heritage or what it might look like in the future. No utopian visions – instead empty space once more in Africa: there be dragons – again! Projecting this time from us, unfortunately!
Afrofuturist or Africanfuturist?
Despite the AU’s own global secular 2063 vision of the ‘Africa that we want’ – linked to its sixth diaspora region – the experiment showed the practical and essential need for the kinds of engagement and intervention around time and space that movements of Afrofuturists have been contemplating.
Afrofuturism has been a mainly US diasporic movement, linking western technology and modernism – and taking in writers like Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler, musicians like Sun Ra, Parliament, and film makers like Wakanda’s Ryan Coogler.
This genesis in the western technosphere has created its own challenges with continental African practitioners such as the well-known Nigerian-American speculative writer Nnedi Okorafor, who prefers the term ‘Africanfuturist’.
For her the difference simply put, is that in Afrofuturism, Wakanda builds its first outpost in the US, whereas in her Africanfuturism, Wakanda builds its first output in a neighbouring African country. There is a tension here between the continent and diaspora about legitimacy – which is the river source and which the tributary.
What are the implications for pan-Africanism if the diaspora and the continent cannot see themselves as a common river, with the same head source, or feel comfortable in movements that aim to blend our past to our present, as well as create our common futures?
Creating these common futures a thousand years hence is also about responding to today’s challenges – where do Africa and the diaspora sit on the key issues that are confronting us, whether technological, environmental, or involving the genetic manipulation of humans, or resource scarcity. Ultimately our future-gazing movements are about the role of the imagination and creativity in manifesting new worlds out of nothing within time and space.