Columbia University Libraries is pleased to announce the opening of “Literary Afro Futures,” an exhibit that will be on display in the Butler Library Lounge (Room 214) as part of a “New and Featured Books” program. This program showcases items from our collections that have been curated around a topic of international relevance. Displays rotate every six to eight weeks, and feature books in three categories: newly-published titles, popular titles, and Columbia authors. All items circulate. You can check out these books at the Butler Circulation Desk (3rd floor), OR at the Self-Check Kiosks (in the main lobby or on the 3rd floor) OR use Columbia Libraries’ new Self-Check app!
“Literary Afro Futures” is a sampling of science fiction and fantasy novels (including comics), novellas, poetry, short story anthologies, and works of literary criticism by African and African Diaspora authors. This small selection is meant to be evocative and to inspire discovery of the library’s collections. The exhibit celebrates two closely-related literary genres about the future: “Afrofuturism” and “Africanfuturism”.
“Afrofuturism” is a concept and a movement in the visual arts, dance, fashion, film, music, theater, literature, and philosophy which has been popularized worldwide especially in the last five years by the American Hollywood films “Black Panther” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”. As a literary term, it first emerged during the 1990s and referred to science fiction by African American authors who imagined Black people as the main protagonists in the storyline and in an imagined future United States or wider universe. It was also applied more broadly to other forms of Black artistic and cultural expression, especially in the field of jazz music and in the visual arts. In a special issue of the journal South Atlantic Quarterly (October 1993), Euro-American cultural critic Mark Dery first coined the term in his introduction to a set of interviews he conducted with three, well-known African American intellectuals, sci-fi writer Samuel R. Delany, musician Greg Tate, and cultural studies scholar Tricia Rose. The same text re-appeared in print as a book in 1994 entitled Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. In 2002, African American social scientist Alondra Nelson edited a seminal collection of essays on the subject for the journal Social Text, bringing the concept more fully into the academy and inspiring its use across the disciplines. A more recent formulation in 2017 by African American novelist, screen writer, and lecturer, Ytasha Womack seems to capture the spirit of the discourse around the term as it has evolved since then:
“Afrofuturism is a way of looking at the future and alternate realities through a Black cultural lens. A Black cultural lens means the people of the African continent in addition to the Diaspora…It is an artistic aesthetic but it is also a method of self liberation or self healing. It can be a part of critical race theory. And in other respects, it’s an epistemology, as well. But it intersects the imagination, technology, Black cultures, liberation, and mysticism.” (“Afrofuturism: Imagination and Humanity.” February 26, 2017, The Sonic Arts Festival, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; via Sonic Acts, YouTube.com)
To be sure, futurism has a long history in African American letters. In the Butler Library exhibit, readers will encounter 20th and 21st century African Diaspora authors familiar to many fans of sci-fi and fantasy, such as: Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, and Andrea Hairston; as well as the poetry and prose of futurist musician Sun Ra. But there are also two seminal works from the early phases of African American speculative fiction by Pauline Hopkins and George Schuyler, as well as anthologies, such as Dark Matter (2000), which include short stories of futurist fantasy, by the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, Charles Chestnutt, Amiri Baraka, Steven Barnes, and Charles Saunders, among others.
“Africanfuturism” is a much more recent term. In 2019, the award-winning, Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor offered the following in a blog post:
“Africanfuturism is similar to ‘afrofuturism’ in the way that Blacks on the continent and in the Black Diaspora are all connected by blood, spirit, history and future. The difference is that africanfuturism is specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West. Africanfuturism is concerned with visions of the future, is interested in technology, leaves the earth, skews optimistic, is centered on and predominantly written by people of African descent (Black people) and it is rooted first and foremost in Africa. Africanfuturism does not have to extend beyond the continent of Africa, though often it does. Its default is non-western; its default/center is African.” (“Africanfuturism defined.” Nnedi’s Wahala Zone Blog. October 19, 2019.)
In addition to several works by Okorafor, the exhibit offers examples of “Africanfuturism” by other Nigerian Diaspora writers such as Tade Thompson, Deji Bryce Olukotun, Roye Okupe, and Tochi Onyebuchi; as well as anthologies of African sci-fi and speculative short stories from around the African continent, such as Africa Risen (2022) and the UK-based series: AfroSF ; AfroSF2; and AfroSF3.
A list of all of the books selected for the exhibit is available online.
For more introductory information about “Afrofuturism”, see: De Witt Douglas Kilgore’s “Afrofuturism” in The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) and Daylanne K. English’s “Afrofuturism” in Oxford Bibliographies (2019).