In a critically acclaimed 1998 episode of the future-based series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Captain Benjamin Sisko — portrayed by African-American actor Avery Brooks — experiences a vision where he sees himself as Benny Russell, a talented science fiction writer for a small magazine in 1950s New York. Simultaneously, Russell is haunted by futuristic visions of himself as spaceship commander Ben Sisko and, from them, pens a dramatic tale that he submits for publication. Though the staff loves his story, the magazine’s editor tells the passionate writer it cannot publish it since its readers would never accept a Black hero. An apparent compromise is reached and Russell celebrates with a night out with his fiancee before a close friend is gunned down by two white police officers who then brutally beat Russell when he protests at the scene. After recuperating for a month and now walking with a cane, Russell limps back to the magazine to find its owner has not only decided against publishing his story but is firing him. Distraught, Russell has a nervous breakdown and collapses while hysterically screaming these memorable words:
“I am a human being, dammit! You can deny me all you want, but you can’t deny Ben Sisko — he exists! That future, that space station, all those people, they exist in here [pointing to his head], in my mind. … You can pulp [trash] a story, but you cannot destroy an idea. Don’t you understand? That’s ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea! That future, I created it and it’s real! Don’t you understand? It is REAL! It’s REAL!”
“You can’t limit my imagination,” science fiction lover Jarvis Sheffield says, recounting the tortured cries of the episode’s main character. A multimedia specialist, educator and founder of the popular site, blacksciencefictionsociety.com, Sheffield feels such episodes exemplify how “science fiction is a way to illustrate social ills and bring them to the forefront,” be it directly or “without saying it outright.”
Similar to the editorial leadership that dismissed Benny Russell’s futuristic tale with a Black hero, the mainstream science fiction community has traditionally depicted a future largely devoid of people of African descent. And though there has been recent progress in this area with the likes of John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and a number of darker-hued superheroes in the Marvel universe, today’s growing Black science fiction community is not waiting for anyone’s permission to create its own future.
“Afrofuturism is a form of representation in that it asserts that people of African descent are in the future, were in the past and are very present,” says Ytasha L. Womack. The author of several books, including “Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci Fi and Fantasy,” Womack is currently at work on the Afrofuturistic film “Bar Star City.” Though Afrofuturism and Black Science Fiction are “pretty interchangeable,” she describes Afrofuturism as “a way of looking at the future or alternate realities through a Black culture lens” that intersects with “the imagination, technology, liberation and mysticism.”
While Womack points to the artistic manifestations of the genre in film, music, wardrobe and literature — including those of Sun Ra, George Clinton, Samuel Delany, Flying Lotus, Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson and Grace Jones — Afrofuturism continues to represent in contemporary mainstream culture via the artistic and stylistic expressions of Beyonce, Rihanna, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, Willow Smith, Solange Knowles and Andre 3000, as well as in Marvel characters Luke Cage and Black Panther.
Such representations are a symptom of a growing medium. Accordingly, the number of regional conventions — or “cons” as they are commonly called — devoted to Black science fiction has significantly increased over the past decade. “When I first started my site, there were only three Black cons, the Black Age of Comics Convention in Chicago, the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention and ONYXCON in Atlanta,” recalls Sheffield, adding, “Now, there are at least a dozen.” He also reports, in the past decade, his site has grown from 20 registered members to over 5,000, with 11,000 now in his Facebook group.
Pinning down the beginnings of this growing phenomena is no easy task. “I think it’s important to remember that the ideas within Afrofuturism existed before the notion of race was created,” Womack says. A more recent yet far from comprehensive accounting of the Black employment of science fiction as social advancement or critique could be traced back to Martin Delany’s 1859 novel, Blake or the Huts of America, depicting a Utopian rebellion of enslaved Africans. It would extend through 1903 and Pauline Hopkins’ Of One Blood, where a medical student discovers he’s descended from divine African kings and destined to rule, and then through W.E.B. DuBois’1920 post-apocalyptic race tale, The Comet.
Jump ahead to the 1960s and ’70s and such a thread would likely include the astral and visionary musical projections of John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament Funkadelic and Sun Ra, alongside the speculative and metaphysical writings of Delany, Butler, Ishmael Reed and Toni Morrison. All these artists in their own ways incorporated futuristic, surrealist or alternate-universe themes within their art along with overt or veiled notions of racial progress. In doing so, they contributed to the foundations upon which Afrofuturism — first coined as a term in 1994 by social critic Mark Dery — would later find its footing.
“As a social critique, Afrofuturism recognizes that race is a technology,” says Womack, noting that, “race and the power imbalances associated with it was created to justify the transatlantic slave trade.” That said, she feels this recognition of race as a technology is “a reminder that it was created and the power imbalances can be dismantled.”
But, while science fiction has been used by Black artists historically for this dismantling process, there is no consensus on whether such critique should occur directly or indirectly. Or even if representation, in itself, is enough, given the tumultuous times we live in.
“There’s been a big push recently to use Afrofuturism as a tool to express and deal with issues of social justice,” says Milton Davis, author and owner of MVmedia, a publishing company specializing in science fiction, fantasy and sword and soul. How deep someone goes with this approach, Davis says, “depends on the individual. I’m the kind of person who feels that you deal with important issues like that directly, face to face, as opposed to expressing it in my fiction.”
“I see a lot of fiction coming out that is expressing what the issues are, but I haven’t seen any that really offer solutions to those problems,” continues Davis, who feels, “If you’re going to take on that task of writing social justice issues within your text, then you also need to offer some viable solutions.”
One solution, for Sheffield, suggests that whatever the Black sci-fi community decides to do, it should “continue to press for equal representation in the mainstream,” while simultaneously “building our own table.”
But, before you can build it, you must be able to imagine what your own table looks like.
“Many people in challenging situations looked to the realm of the imagination to experience their own humanity when others questioned their status as humans,” Womack says. “Afrofuturism encourages the use of the imagination to ultimately connect with ourselves.”