“A Veil Was Broken”: Afrofuturist Ytasha L. Womack on the Work of Science Fiction in the 2020s
One task of science fiction is to knock us off-kilter — to transport us to altered times and places, the better to question our own world. But sci-fi has renewed competition in that department from reality itself. The quickening storm of events in America in the last half-decade, culminating in 2020 in the Covid-19 pandemic and the uprisings against systemic racism, has unmoored us from old norms and expectations with a suddenness that societies witness perhaps once or twice per century. The future is upon us in its full uncontrolled ferocity, and it takes all our resilience just to adapt from week to week and keep steering toward hope.
But at least one movement within sci-fi may be equal to this moment, in part because it grows out of a history of displacement, atrocity, and instability. It’s Afrofuturism, the effort to explore technological and social change from the point of view of people of African descent and members of the African diaspora.
Ytasha L. Womack, a Chicago-based author, filmmaker, scholar, and dance therapist, helped explain and popularize the genre in her widely cited 2013 volume “Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci Fi & Fantasy Culture.” And she explores and expands it in her own fiction, including the “Rayla Universe” series, about a resistance fighter on a future Earth colony that’s fallen into dictatorship. She is a former reporter for the Chicago Defender, the nation’s oldest Black-owned daily newspaper, and in 2010, she wrote “Post Black,” which celebrated the huge range of African American cultural, social, and political identities overlooked by mainstream media portrayals.
In an email interview in July 2020, featured below, Womack told me she believed that the tumultuous events of that year had finally begun to reawaken white Americans to the ways they consciously or inadvertently contribute to the invented hierarchies that overlook or oppress people of color. In one sense, therefore, the pandemic, the resulting economic upheaval, and the explosion of resistance to violence by the state against private citizens are more material for the kinds of social change that Black people have struggled to promote for centuries. From this larger perspective, Womack says, Afrofuturism is simply one modern manifestation of the age-old “resilience tools” that help Black communities enact and navigate that change. And while we’ve started to gain some distance from the traumatic events of 2020, Womack’s thoughts feel as fresh as ever, given the persistence of the coronavirus and that other very American plague — white supremacy.
Wade Roush: It’s been five months since the coronavirus pandemic exploded in the United States, and two months since police murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, and I think it’s fair to say these are difficult times. So I wanted to ask first: how have you been coping with 2020?
Ytasha L. Womack: 2020 has been revelatory, insightful, and I found myself thinking on resilience, particularly in the content of Afrofuturism. In December 2019, I had the deep urge to complete the draft of a graphic novel I was writing before March 2020. I had the very strong feeling that spring 2020 would be fluid. I had a lot of speaking engagement requests for that period and some other possible work, and I just felt like I had to finish this first draft of Blak Kube, my story about Egyptian gods and creativity, before March or else. I wasn’t aware that this ethereal nudging was speaking to a greater societal shift.
Nevertheless, the day I finished the draft was the same day I led a live dance and music improvisation experience at the Adler Planetarium to bring the Rayla 2212 utopia to life for “A Night in the Afrofuture.” I coordinated freestyle interplay between DJ/sound healer Shannon Harris; Leon Q, my cousin and a trumpet player; Kenneth “Djedi” Russell, a tap and West African dancer; Discopoet Khari B, a poet and a house music dancer; another conga player; and myself. I was a space dance conductor of sorts and we did these interactive shows utilizing call and response dance with an unsuspecting audience in a 360-degree visual dome usually reserved for sky shows. I led audiences in dance movement with an array of Afrobeat, Chicago house, samba, and South African house music as our music of the new utopia.
The event felt like a vortex of energy. I like using music and dance to create multidimensional spaces as a metaphor for exploring both inner and outer space. African/African diasporic dance at its core has functioned as interdimensional. People were so happy. It felt like the beginning of one thing and the end of something else.
The following morning I flew to Atlanta to speak at Planet Deep South, a conference on Afrofuturism. The conference is designed to highlight southern voices and works in Afrofuturism. The conference took place at the Atlanta University Center, an amalgamation of historically Black colleges. I’m a Clark Atlanta University alumna and my initial experiences with Afrofuturism took place on that campus. The conference was organized by Dr. Rico Wade and Clinton Fluker. I gave a keynote speech on Afrofuturism literally at noon the day after the “Night in the Afrofuture.” Ruha Benjamin spoke that evening on discrimination in computer applications and algorithms.
Dr. Wade gave me a tour of the rampant gentrification in Atlanta. Within two or three days I was in New York City for an event for Kehinde Wiley. As soon as I landed I learned the event was canceled. The next few days, I was in New York going to the Brooklyn Museum for Kehinde’s show with my friend Ravi. Talk of the virus was mounting. Then South by Southwest was canceled and it felt as if a door was shutting and I had to slide through a window of time to get back home.
Three days later, I was back home in Chicago buying bags of nonperishable groceries, reading how to survive the apocalypse guides, and hunkering down for the Illinois stay-at-home order that was in effect. Somewhere in those moments before lockdown, I remember being in a health food store with mostly African American patrons. People were stocking up on garlic, ginger, echinacea, and every herb or vitamin people knew of to build their immune systems. People were walking around with lists of supplements and teas that family members gave them to buy. In that moment, I grew angry.
Simultaneously, my stepdad was trying to schedule appointments with his doctor. He believed he had the virus. His physician wouldn’t see him. When he went to [the] emergency [room], he was told he had acid reflux. In order to get a COVID-19 test in the early weeks, one had to have a letter from their physician. We tried to get other physicians to meet with him. None returned calls. By the time we got him to a clinic with a physician who would give him a test, he had to be rushed to the hospital and placed on a ventilator immediately. My mother had to go into self-quarantine. We couldn’t see my stepdad. I was quarantined because I spent time with both in the previous day. For the next two days, I’m reading nothing but news from futurists posting dire scientific information for the world. During the period I’m thinking, outside of the information that’s recommending masks and cleaning processes, where are the tools of resilience?
Where is the inspiration to keep one fed and their soul enriched during tough times? I literally found myself thinking on spirituality, food, family. Who are the people I talk to to keep my consciousness vibrating highly? What music has the ideal lyrics and frequencies to keep me uplifted? What combinations of food are best to enhance my immune system? What candles do I light? What scents and colors keep me feeling vibrant? How do you hold a healing consciousness for others? What dances keep me refreshed? Am I engaging with nature enough? I was so thankful for all the people who wrote books, created music, and made movies in the past that I could engage in during that bizarre period. I was so thankful for deejays like DJ D-Nice, Questlove, and others who claimed the role of the deejay as a musical shaman.
Within two weeks my stepdad was off the ventilator and back home. The experience was a miracle and I had a very transformative experience putting to practice basics around spiritual grounding, food, and consciousness. The following week, at my brother’s urging, I started a weekly Instagram Live called Utopia Talks.
These epiphanies were, literally, my month of March. When the atrocities with George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and later Rayshard Brooks took place I had a conscious awareness of tools to work with around resilience. I had an uncle who was murdered by a police officer in New Orleans in the 1970s before I was born, so my family has created practices of remembrance and healing around such atrocities. I spent a great deal of time in May and June devoted to a daily processing of the politicization of the daily shifts, some of which were in line with incidents of the past, others of which were not.
So many of the core issues go back to our nation’s Civil War and the creation of the Constitution itself. I found myself doing a lot of ad hoc history lessons. I had several conversations with friends about how the Founding Fathers were quite comfortable with the institution of slavery when they were creating the Constitution. There were a number of people quite uncomfortable with its end and not supportive of the protests for civil rights that followed or the BLM [Black Lives Matter] protests today.
Nevertheless, it became overwhelmingly obvious that many Americans in the midst of the BLM protests just didn’t know history. Many were clueless around the history of Africans in the Americas in a way that was shocking. The Iroquois Nation was heavily borrowed from in the creation of the US Constitution but you almost have to be in a graduate-level history course to know that. Unless you’re a history major in a school that values diversity or a life-long reader on a quest, one can completely miss the basics, and become quite defensive about it. Then you have others who present history in this bizarre propagandized fashion that has people ready to fight you when you tell them it’s not true.
For many, pop culture is the lens for understanding history, which means that Black history for much of the populace hinges on the rise of a new music subgenre created by Black people or an unknown moment like [the] Tulsa massacre referenced in a popular television show like Watchmen. Fortunately, the Internet is a great source to get the basics if you can follow the social media bread crumbs that led you there. Many people are looking for references for books, films, and documentaries to get some framing for what’s going on. I started doing history lessons on my Utopia Talks because you can’t talk about futures without knowing histories, which were futures for their predecessors. However, in Afrofuturism, time is treated as nonlinear, so it becomes a healthy way to explore histories, futures, and resilience.
Nevertheless, I’ve had daily conversations around everything from the philosophy behind the politicization of masks to Indigenous frameworks to marketing pivots to mass manipulation to Maroon societies of Africans in the enslaved Americas. In some ways, this period was about processing everything you’d ever learned, reassessing philosophical frameworks, and getting grounded in what’s important.
That said, I’ve become vegan for the season. Between work, Zoom birthday parties, and virtual lectures, I’ve developed quite a few story ideas. I completed my graphic novel Blak Kube for Megascope. I did the edits in June 2020, miraculously. When June was over so much had happened from protests to looting to Juneteenth to virus surges nationwide, I couldn’t believe it all happened in four weeks. I’ve been watching a lot of Korean cinema with my best friend and making an unusual amount of soups with garlic and ginger. I just learned that the current president is sending troops to my city. I prayed about it and I’m fine.
WR: You’re both a practitioner of science fiction and futurism, in the form of works like the Rayla 2212 books and your Bar Star City film project, and a chronicler of the field through your groundbreaking survey Afrofuturism. In your mind, what good can sci-fi and futurism do for readers and audiences in the here and now? And do these forms of expression take on a different importance in times of crisis?
YW: I would like to see more visions that reflect what a healthy society looks like. I would love to see more schools of thought around healthy futures that were created as worlds that people can read [about] in a book or watch in a film. Healthy societies can have issues, conflict, and all the drama required of a story. I’d like to see more that reflects a kind of world we’d like to live in. I’d like to read a sci-fi story and say, “Gee, I’d like to live there. This place seems like it treats people fairly or at least values doing so.” I’d like to see more stories where resilience tools from the past are put to use. Obviously, there’s sci-fi that does this, but I’d like to see more. Perhaps that’s why I write in the genre, as a way of problem-solving futures, or as Toni Morrison said, to write stories you’d like to read.
I understand that a world moving through or in a dystopia makes the hero’s journey a fundamentally high-stakes one. I think many creators are more inclined use history to frame their dystopias than to frame utopias or protopias. But for many, writing in a dystopia is a form of problem-solving, and for others it’s a release valve.
WR: COVID-19 deaths among African Americans have been two to three times higher than what you would expect based on their share of the US population. It’s not as if the SARS-CoV-2 virus has revealed disparities in healthcare and health outcomes; rather, it’s exploiting this longstanding form of injustice and making it worse. Can sci-fi writers and other artists and creators do anything to help call attention to this nightmare?
YW: I don’t know if they need to call attention to it. The news, the protests, the outrage, and the data are doing a great job of exposure. If someone doesn’t feel a gut reaction to at least say, “I don’t want this in our society,” then it’s not a question of exposure to information, it’s a question of empathy. It’s a question of, well, if you’re not Black, Latino, a front-line worker, living in a nursing home, or a crowded city, why should you care? It’s a question of why should I wear a mask to protect someone else? It’s a question of why are so many in our society quick to otherize people as if we aren’t connected? This is beyond individualism. Is it mass narcissism? In that respect, sci-fi does write about otherism and how it functions using both the alien and cyborg metaphors. I would love to read more sci-fi that demonstrates how we are all connected. I would like more stories on protopias or with idealized societies in the backdrop. We need more visions of the future that aren’t so reliant on technological innovations but also reevaluate human organizing systems and the philosophies that undergird our world.
WR: When you published Afrofuturism back in 2013, part of what made the field so exciting was that, as you wrote, it “combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs,” often in the service of a message of self-determination. But 2013 already feels like a different era, when we’d somehow leapt into the future by electing and reelecting an African American president. It turned out we had no idea what challenges were coming, all building up to the traumas of 2020. Do you feel like current events are changing the conditions under which Afrofuturist work gets produced?
YW: Afrofuturism existed long before the term was created and will exist beyond this period. I don’t see the times as dictating its necessity. People of African descent and the African diaspora will have a relationship with the future, space, and time and will pull from culture, experiences, and the resilience tools to navigate it in part because that’s what humans do.
WR: Has it become harder to sustain the genre’s trademark mix of “imagination, technology, the future, and liberation,” as you described it in the book?
YW: Black people don’t have the luxury of abandoning hope and dreams because of shifts in politics. W. E. B Dubois wrote the sci-fi story The Comet in the 1920s, and while there was a literary cultural renaissance afoot, I wouldn’t call that the best of times for Black Americans. Ezekiel’s wheel as a spaceship reference was in Black spirituals during enslavement. People looked to hope because they had to. Sojourner Truth in the early 1880s said she’s “going home like a shooting star.” When François Mackandal led a six-year rebellion of self-emancipated Maroons against plantation owners in Haiti in 1752, nearly forty years before the Haitian Revolution, people claimed that during his capture he turned into an animal and flew away.
Many African cosmologies from the Dagara to the Yoruba are inherently interdimensional, as evident in the symbolism of the art and architecture. The narrative of hope that often threads the tougher times is about moving forward. That said, I think Afrofuturism, the term itself, was popularized during Barack Obama’s presidency in part because it gave some people context for him existing. Shortly before his presidency the idea of a man of African descent being president of the United States for too many felt like some distant utopia or creative science fiction. To paraphrase a quote in Afrofuturism by longtime activist Jesse Jackson, Sr., you can’t move forward with cynicism. That said, there’s a big demand for more stories and works by Afrofuturist creators.
WR: From your standpoint, is it getting any easier over time for people of color and LGBTQ voices to find an audience and make a living in sci-fi? And under sci-fi, let’s count TV, movies, books, comics, music, and all the forms through which the future is explored. Is the publishing and editing establishment in sci-fi becoming any less white and less male?
YW: There’s definitely a greater interest in diverse stories because the audience of sci-fi lovers are demanding it. People want to see stories that provide other insights into the human experience and the realm of the imagination. Independent creators on both the comics and literary side have been self-publishing works with diverse voices consistently to new audiences for the past decade or so. Publishers are responding to that demand.
WR: I’m a Marvel fan, so I have to ask you a question about Black Panther (2018), which had a Black director and a nearly all-Black cast and introduced mainstream audiences to Afrofuturism in spectacular and dazzling fashion. Has Black Panther made it easier to explain what Afrofuturism is?
YW: The success of Black Panther has made life easier for Black sci-fi creators. It was a gamechanger and gave everyone’s work a bump up. All these creators who were viewed as niche or fringe were suddenly at the center of this fascinating conversation around “Afrofuturism.” Creators could make very edgy experimental music, like composers Nicole Mitchell, Moor Mother, or Angel Bat Dawid, and could flourish in new ways because new audiences had a way to frame their work. Visual artists, writers, and theorists suddenly had a larger world to play in with their works.
WR: Do you ever worry that in the hands of a giant media conglomerate like Marvel/Disney, Afrofuturism might become too mainstream and begin to shed its more radical or leftist elements?
YW: We’ll see more mainstream works utilizing Afrofuturist ideas and creatives. There will be more people with a desire to create pulling from ideas in that arena. We’ve seen that in the past two years with both Marvel and DC. Whether people are doing work with large corporations or independently, both scenes ultimately complement one another. Black people will have a relationship to space, time, and the future regardless. Every Afrofuturist story isn’t Black Panther and I don’t think people expect it to be.
WR: Outside the United States, which regions and communities are producing the most notable and exciting science fiction? Are there any international sci-fi authors or books you’re enjoying right now?
YW: Brazil has a robust Afrofuturismo scene of theory and works. There’s a book called Afrofuturismo written in Portuguese that I’ve just ordered. I’ll have to translate it via Google until an English edition comes out. I spoke at a virtual conference of Brazilian Afrofuturists recently and I’m really excited by the depth of their work. Jelani Nias of Toronto, Canada, has a cool book called Where Eagles Crawl and Men Fly. Toronto has a robust scene and is home to the annual art show Black Future Month curated by Danilo McCallum and Quentin Vercetty. It’s also home to A Different Bookstore which has a great Black sci-fi and fantasy selection.
Afro SF: Science Fiction by African Writers edited by Ivor W. Hartmann is a good anthology. The book came out a few years ago and has a wide range of works from authors across the African continent. I also like Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Pierre Bekolo. I’ve seen some great Afrofuturist short films and features from African creators from Kenya, Nigeria, and Cameroon. I’ve had some great conversations about dance theory as Afrofuturism with dancers from Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Cuba. The ideas in Afrofuturism are fairly understood within the African continent/diaspora, it’s just a question of whether people utilize the term to frame their works or not. In many parts of the world, the United States included, many within the diaspora just see what we’re calling Afrofuturism as life.
WR: Is Afrofuturism a potential template for other culturally inflected futurisms—say, Latinofuturism or Sinofuturism?
YW: I don’t want to say it’s a template. People all over the world have relationships to space, time, and the future with a unique cultural lens. However, the term has created ways to narrow the focus on literary works, music, and more from specific cultures. I think it’s given rise to conversations on the shared aesthetic and philosophical thought within other cultural lenses. It’s pretty exciting. Within African/African diasporic communities, the term “Afrofuturism” helped people to anchor and frame the works they were creating or ideas they were tossing about. I think terms like “Indigenous Futurism” and others are doing the same for Indigenous creators and helping audiences to find them.
WR: George Floyd’s killing became the tipping point in a national movement for police reform and seems to have led to a recognition that in this country, racism and policing are two sides of the same coin. Can Afrofuturism or other forms of sci-fi help us imagine a world where policing isn’t necessary, where mass incarceration is a thing of the past, or where the law is finally enforced equally without regard to skin color?
WR: In Afrofuturism, you quote activist Adrienne Maree Brown, who says abandoned urban communities like her home town of Detroit or post-Katrina New Orleans can feel like the post-apocalyptic places we see in sci-fi. But she adds that if you look deeper, you see how communities are rebuilding from within. She writes, “It’s not the end of the world, it’s the beginning of something else.” At the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna—since there’s nothing redeeming about a pandemic, or police killings—I wanted to ask whether you think there’s a prospect that the traumatic events of 2020 will challenge American communities to find creative ways to repair inequality, rebuild the healthcare and public health infrastructures, and end racism once and for all?
YW: To quote goddess practitioner Lettie Sullivan, a veil was broken during this period. Many have awakened to the fact that there are grave disparities and that they could consciously or inadvertently be contributing to [them]. In a very real way, people are thinking on how they are contributing to systems with hierarchies that kill people or complicate their lives. The widespread protests and the demands for more books to give historical framing around how we got here are all a part of that.
One lesson from COVID-19 is that yes, there are racial disparities in treatment and stress. However, walls, gentrified neighborhoods, and gated communities can’t protect people from a virus. It’s literally our ability to care for other people by wearing a mask that protects us all. The same can be said about racism. No one, in the end, benefits. Minneapolis is not a highly diverse city, and this mostly white city was in the midst of protests, fires, looting, and police attacks when people challenged the murder of a Black man by police officers. Who benefits from that?
A white, Midwestern science fiction professor told me once that he prided himself on going to the best schools, reading the best books, and later in his adult years stumbled across Octavia E. Butler. He fell in love with her works and was disgusted that he’d never heard of her before. Why hadn’t he studied her in his classes coming up? Why was she not mentioned as one of the greatest writers of his time in his literature classes? He literally said that all this time he thought he’d been to the best schools and was introduced to the best writers only to discover that there was a whole world of amazing Black creatives alive during his lifetime from the same country he’s come from that he’d never heard of. Were these schools the best? Did he receive a good education? He can’t even call himself well-read due to racism, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Frantz Fanon said that racism didn’t benefit the victim, perpetrators, or those who found themselves complicit in it all. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. Why? Because we’re all human beings living on a shared planet. Yes, this is a moment to create or enhance our systems so that they care about the well-being of people. It’s an opportunity to center humanity and the planet.
Yet, I do see people caring for one another. There’s an abundance of “neighborliness.” I had three neighbors pass away during this period. After one neighbor’s funeral, the procession of cars came to my block. The cars were led by a purple and gold carriage carrying the body. Yes, I wrote that correctly. A carriage. A fairytale Cinderella-style carriage with gold trim. A minister on a remote microphone asked if any neighbors wanted to say a few words. Some said prayers. One guy came to the mike and gave this rousing inspirational prayer for the block, all followed by a balloon launch. Over a hundred balloons were sent into the sky in honor of this man who most in our society would describe as ordinary. Despite this, he made an impact. Here we were, literally two days after the first wave of protests and looting, and we’re doing a balloon launch. People who didn’t even know the guy were participating in this shared respect for life. This moment of humanity was heartwarming. We did this as a celebration of life. We did this as a recognition of a new ancestor. But the collective acknowledgment of life elevated us all. We, as a block, were all uplifted. In that moment, I said, “We’re going to be okay.”
Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology writer, host and producer of the tech-and-culture podcast Soonish, and co-founder of Hub & Spoke, a nonprofit collective of independent podcasters. He is the editor of the science fiction anthology Twelve Tomorrows, and the author of “Extraterrestrials.”