Envisioning an Afrofuturistic institute

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

Afrofuturism intertwines African diaspora culture with science and technology, envisioning future possibilities. It is gaining recognition in both academic and creative circles. At the forefront of this exploration is Tech, where scholars delve into the nuances of Afrofuturism, emphasizing its potential to reshape societal understandings of science, technology and race.

“Afrofuturism has been developing, especially in the United States and the West, but really throughout much of the world for the last 200 years,” said Dr. Lisa Yaszek, a national figure and Regents Professor of Science Fiction Studies at the Institute. 

This genre has received significant public attention over the last fifty years, finding robust expression in films, video games and literature.

Yaszek’s path to becoming a prominent figure in the study of Afrofuturism reflects a deep engagement with science fiction, literature and a commitment to highlighting the voices and experiences of the African diaspora within these fields.

Her academic pursuits and personal interests naturally guided her toward Afrofuturism. With a background in American literature, her initial focus was on the intersections of science, technology and literature. 

This interdisciplinary approach led her to explore how different voices and perspectives, particularly those marginalized in mainstream narratives, engage with current and past scientific and technological themes.

Yaszek offered a comprehensive explanation to define afrofuturism, “It’s a kind of literature that blends together the themes and techniques of the modern speculative genre science fiction, fantasy and horror, along with African and Afro diasporic cosmologies,” she said.

 This blending serves not only to entertain but also to challenge societal assumptions, encouraging diverse visions of the future.

Highlighting the genre’s unique perspective, Yaszek emphasized that Afrofuturism is “definitely very much about speaking, Black and especially African American and Afro diasporic experiences.” This focus ensures Afrofuturism remains a space where Black experiences and contributions to science and technology are celebrated and explored in depth.

Yaszek pointed to several pivotal figures and works that exemplify Afrofuturism’s reach and impact. She referenced the mid-20th century jazz musician Sun Ra and acclaimed author Octavia Butler as significant contributors to shaping the genre. According to Yaszek, Sun Ra’s ethereal music and Butler’s powerful narratives provide profound insights into the African diasporic experience through speculative fiction.

Afrofuturism positions technology as a pivotal tool for liberation and exploration. “It blends together the themes and techniques of the modern speculative genre … along with African and Afro diasporic cosmologies,” Yaszek explained. 

This approach allows for unique explorations of how technology can be used to navigate and transcend limitations imposed by societal structures.

Yaszek implored students to explore Afrofuturism. In Afrofuturist narratives, science often serves as a medium of empowerment, enabling characters to redefine their relationship with the world and the cosmos. 

Through Afrofuturism, science becomes a way of knowing and reimagining the world, deeply intertwined with African diasporic traditions and knowledge systems. The speculative futures envisioned in Afrofuturist works are marked by profound engagement with science and technology. 

For instance, Butler’s “Kindred” uses time travel to explore the historical and ongoing impacts of slavery, weaving a complex narrative that connects past, present and future.

Afrofuturism’s exploration of science and technology extends beyond fiction — influencing perspectives on innovation, design and societal progress. 

By envisioning technologies integrated with African and Afro-Diasporic cultures and values, Afrofuturism “encourages a more inclusive approach to technological development and scientific research,” Yaszek said. She continued this sentiment by emphasizing how Atlanta celebrates Afrofuturism.

Atlanta’s landscape is vibrant and diverse, reflecting the narratives that originate from its core, particularly in the Afrofuturism domain. “The city is not just a passive backdrop for fictional worlds like Wakanda in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it is a living, breathing hub of speculative creativity and Afrofuturistic exploration,” Yaszek said, highlighting Atlanta’s dynamic and contined contribution to Afrofuturistic art and literature.

The city abounds with science fiction producers and creators, creating an environment where speculative artists do not only envision futures but also actively construct them. Yaszek remarked that these artists are “dedicated to celebrating the rich history of thinking about the future in Atlanta and building new futures in Atlanta.” This dedication manifests in the myriad expressions of Afrofuturism across the city, from public art installations to numerous community-based collectives.

One of the most visually striking examples of Afrofuturism in Atlanta is the art along the Beltline. Here, graffiti artists and Afrofuturists have turned the urban environment into a canvas that honors the city’s history of Black and women’s activism. Yaszek pointed out that this artwork is not only “cool looking” and full of “selfie opportunities” but also serves an educational role, engaging the public with the city’s rich cultural history and speculative futures.

Several collectives and organizations in Atlanta, according to Yaszek, “nurture Afrofuturistic creativity”, such as the State of Black Science Fiction Collective and the Atlanta Futurist Collective. These groups offer a venue for science fiction authors and artists to collaborate, share their work, and connect with the community. Yaszek also mentioned that Subsume Studios, an Afrofuturist art incubator by Dedren Snead, “is vital in this ecosystem” supporting artists and fostering partnerships.

The partnership between Tech and Atlanta’s Afrofuturistic art community further continues to showcase the city’s evlving and innovative spirit. 

Over the past decade, Yaszek’s collaboration with local artists and collectives has resulted in annual events at Tech that merge academic inquiry with creative expression. As Yaszek concluded, the efforts “not only enhance the university’s cultural landscape but also reinforce ties between Georgia Tech and the wider Atlanta art community.”