What is Afrofuturism? A closer look at the design of ‘Black Panther’
Excited for Black Panther? So are we. Which is why we’re rolling out obsessive coverage with Black Panther Week.
Among the images glimpsed in Marvel’s first Black Panther trailer was a tribal elder in an emerald suit with a matching lip disc, a body modification found in the Suri and Mursi tribes of Ethiopia.
Warriors draped in blue “blankets” (or Seanamarena) soon followed, drawn from the Basotho peoples of South Africa. Alongside them were women in red beaded war garb – the Dora Milaje, Black Panther’s female Royal Guard – their vivid outfits remixed from the Maasai ethnoculture of Kenya and Tanzania.
Black Panther looks like no Hollywood film we’ve ever seen, and it belongs to a deeply rooted artistic philosophy that’s often overlooked: Afrofuturism.
The term was coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in “Black to the Future,” a 44-page essay from 1993 in which Dery, a white writer, interviews several prominent African American voices: sci-fi author Samuel R. Delaney; musician and former The Village Voice writer Greg Tate; and Tricia Rose, the director of the Center for Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University.
Dery’s definition of the philosophy is as follows:
Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future—might, for want of a better term, be called “Afro-futurism.”
The unique aesthetic of Black Panther, which has been setting the internet ablaze at regular intervals, can be attributed to its largely black cast and creative team (a rarity in American studio filmmaking), as well as the decision to push back against modern science fiction’s penchant for Western design norms.
The genre has often coded colonized peoples and their cultures as the “alien” or “other,” as seen in the Klingons’ Fu Manchu facial hair on the original Star Trek or the Sand People’s Arab-inspired thawbs in the original Star Wars. This tradition continues to this day, with indigenous extraterrestrial tribes in Avatar and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets being little more than haphazard mixtures of Native American and African iconography.
Black Panther is Afrofuturism writ large, the incorporation of distinctly African and African-American narrative symbolism as a means to reclaim modern blackness.
Black Panther, on the other hand, paints its human heroes with an authentically pan-African brush, interweaving Wakanda’s advanced technology with imagery straight outta the Continent. This is Afrofuturism writ large, the incorporation of distinctly African and African-American narrative symbolism in sci-fi as a means to reclaim modern blackness.
In his essay, Dery investigates (among other things), contemporary urban uses of technology – specifically the “beeper culture” of the ’90s, though its modern equivalent would arguably be the carving out of black spaces on social media.
Delaney expands on this concept, referring to the “scratch” and “sampling” methods of hip-hop remixing as “a specific mis-use and conscientious desecration of the artifacts of technology and the entertainment media.”
For instance, the beatbox and the “robot” dance, landmarks in the evolution of hip-hop culture, represent the remixing of the human body: a labor force with limited access to tech innovation recreating technology itself, as if in opposition to systems of control.
In effect, Afrofuturist art has always been at odds with the norms of the mainstream. The black perspective in America has often lent itself to particularly unsettling genre fiction – like, most recently, Jordan Peele’s Get Out.
Though contested by 21st century Afrofuturists, Dery’s comparison of modern African-Americans to “the descendants of alien abductees” offers a metaphorical link between stranger-in-a-strange-land alien tales and the experiences of an entire people uprooted from their homes, forced to exist in a world that is not their own – much as Peele’s protagonist Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) must adapt to the conventions and microaggressions of his girlfriend’s suburban family home.
For many African-Americans today, the largely white mainstreams of both entertainment and politics might still feel like alien worlds to which they are outsiders. As Tate puts it, “Being black in America is a science-fiction experience.”
Novelized science fiction played host to Afrofuturist ideas for the better part of the twentieth century, from authors like Samuel Delaney to Octavia Butler (particularly her Xenogenesis trilogy, which uses the intermingling of human and alien societies to explore cultural hybridization in a manner similar to postcolonial theory). The literary trend remains alive and well today, with the likes of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series of novellas.
But whether as direct narrative or philosophical backdrop, Afrofuturism has always made its way to other mediums. It’s seen perhaps most prominently in the work of jazz musician Sun Ra, whose space-age “Egyptian alien” aesthetic and incorporation of digital synthesizers remixed and elevated the genre, with transformative live performances acting as vessels for grandiose, regal visual narratives yet unexplored.
Which brings us, of course, to the King of Wakanda. Created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Black Panther, much like his “Afrofuturist” label, was a white creation. Their modern definitions, however, hinge on black artistic contributions.
Much of the Panther’s modern mythology and characterization came into being in the late ’90s with writer Christopher Priest, whose storyline “The Client” brought King T’Challa face to face with his metatextual New York roots. But it was Reginald Hudlin’s 2005-2008 run that began to delve into the geopolitics of Wakanda through a modern globalist lens.
This set the stage for the character’s current print incarnation: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ and Brian Stelfreeze’s heady political saga “A Nation Under Our Feet,” on which much of the film’s recombining of technology with African tribal symbolism is based.
In Wakanda, unlike in much of the real world, African history and modern innovation are not treated as mutual exclusives. In Coates and Stelfreeze’s comic, and in the Marvel Studios film, the nation’s ancient culture and its 21st century inventions appear to have evolved not only side-by-side, but as one and the same.
Black Panther is not the only piece of Afrofuturism in the recent American mainstream. Ava DuVernay’s “Family Feud” short for Jay-Z’s 4:44 posits a future filled with intersections of black, female and Native American leadership. Add to that Janelle Monáe’s Fritz-Lang-meets-Sun-Ra cover for The ArchAndroid and DuVernay’s own upcoming A Wrinkle in Time, and you have yourself the gradual re-emergence of a trend.
However, there’s little denying that Marvel’s Wakandan saga is the most prominent example of Afrofuturist art in recent years – in part because of the money and widespread distribution behind it, but also in part because it’s arguably the most potent.
As an artistic philosophy within the constraints of both America’s own racial history and within the cultural context of the global West, Afrofuturism exists in opposition to a white, postcolonial status quo – whose normalcy stems from prioritizing Western philosophy and design at the cost of cultures disallowed from achieving their full potential in the past.
There’s little denying that Black Panther is the most prominent example of Afrofuturist art in recent years.
The premise of Black Panther, as with most Afrofuturist art, goes against the grain of history itself – a violent chronology that stripped African cultures of resources and opportunities, and stripped African peoples of their languages and identities when they were enslaved in America and elsewhere. Few modern African-Americans know their exact origins, and African nations are rarely portrayed in anything resembling positive light in Western media despite their advancements.
Much of what has come to be known as Western culture was dependent on the systemic destruction of African heritage. Wakanda becoming an integral part of one of Western culture’s longest-running mainstream narratives – the Marvel Cinematic Universe – is a small step towards undoing the contemporary effects of that destruction, whether by way of creating a new narrative of blackness on a global stage, or simply by affording black artists more opportunities.
Dery’s essay begins with an ominous quote from George Orwell’s 1984: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” This rings especially true when defining modern cultural narratives that are broadcast to all corners of the globe.
Fittingly, he follows this up with thematically appropriate lyrics from Def Jef’s “Black to the Future,” (for which the essay is named) as if in attempt to unearth the affirming African American counter-foil to the Orwellian omen:
Yo, bust this, Black
To the Future
Back to the past
History is a mystery ‘cause it has
All the info
You need to know
Where you’re from
Why’d you come and
That’ll tell you where you’re going.
It is in the re-envisioning of a future for black people, despite their present systemic oppression in every area from voter suppression to police brutality, that Afrofuturism’s take on the past is born.
Within the fiction of Black Panther, Wakanda is a nation untouched by Western influence at any point in history, representing the peoples of postcolonial Africa had they been allowed to exist and advance on their own terms.
Afrofuturism, it would seem, is here to stay.
But Wakanda is also untethered to any one specific African ethnoculture (although its “official” language is Xhosa, its influences spread far beyond Bantu), thus allowing it to be a collective reclamation of pan-African identity for those in the global African diaspora uprooted centuries ago.
It is both Afrofuturism as contemporary African advancement, prioritizing non-white, non-Western symbolism in its design, as well Afrofuturism in the context of black America. It transforms a stolen history into a portrait of sci-fi heroism through a character whose superhero mantle is not a thematic externalization of psychosis disconnected from “real identity,” as is the case with most superheroes in the Western individualist paradigm.
The Batman was the sole creation of Bruce Wayne, a white man who came from old money but had little reason to connect white readers to their roots. The Black Panther, on the other hand, was passed down through unbroken generational lineage – a luxury rarely afforded to African American readers. It’s the Western superhero remixed and reclaimed as a symbol of deeply rooted cultural and tribal identity.
Perhaps most promising in all this, however, is that there is little in common by way of influence between Black Panther and the other aforementioned modern Afrofuturist examples. Even the film’s own soundtrack, much of which sounds like tribal instruments beamed into a digital future, has yielded its own distinctly Afrofuturist feel.
“All The Stars,” the recently released music video from Kendrick Lamar and SZA, is as unapologetically African as the film, bringing Lamar face to face with gilded Nubian goddesses arriving like alien messengers within a luminous floating temple. But there is barely a narrative or aesthetic element that overlaps with Black Panther itself.
They are each their own unique entities, telling their own stories and carving out their own spaces for contemporary and historical blackness within the mainstream. There is much yet to be explored, and given that there is no singular avenue to Afrofuturist art, there is much yet to be reclaimed. Afrofuturism, it would seem, is here to stay.