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Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures

Past. Present. Future. These ideas are at the center of Afrofuturism, a movement that combines elements of art, science, culture and more to reimagine Black lives. The latest exhibition at the National Museum of African American History & Culture uses objects from films, music, television, comics, fashion, theater, literature and more to show visitors the vibrant history behind Afrofuturism and its impact on Black culture. A portal guides visitors through the exhibition’s three different displays. Enter Zone 1 to travel through the key moments in the History of Black Futures. Then take the portal to Zone 2 to discover New Black Futures, before concluding the journey at Zone 3, Infinite Possibilities. Each display highlights different objects and figures throughout history to illustrate the expansiveness of the movement by including tributes to science and science fiction, theater and film as well as music and space.

Objects like Octavia Butler’s typewriter and manuscript stand out as concrete references to the pioneering of Black authors in science fiction literature by demonstrating the outlet Afrofuturism has provided for authors. Although Octavia Butler has certainly inspired many modern sci-fi authors, her impact on writers of color is clear. Her success encouraged modern writers of color to tell their stories and showed them that there is space for them to express themselves. Without Butler as a figurehead, authors like Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin may have lacked the inspiration to share their own stories.

Cover of Octavia Butler’s 1977 science fiction novel: Mind of My Mind

Other important innovators in science are also represented in the exhibit. Topics such as the dangers of racialized medicine include figures like Henrietta Lacks and Dr. Ernest Just, the Black pioneers of medicine. Another notable relic is Benjamin Banneker’s Almanac. As the first African American to have scientific work published, Banneker used his almanacs not only to document the vast scope of scientific topics he would become an expert in, but to challenge existing assumptions about African Americans.

The theatrical and film artifacts include more modern relics of Afrofuturism, such as the Black Panther suit, a hoodie from Luke Cage, and costumes from The Wiz on Broadway. These pieces allow audiences to see heroes of color, such as strong Black women and characters who aren’t one-dimensional stereotypes but powerful representations of the Blackness that has been missing in popular culture.

Carl Hall and Stephanie Mills in the 1978 stage production: The Wiz Photo by Martha Swope ©The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Music also plays a huge role in Afrofuturism, and some of Outkast’s hits can be heard floating through the exhibit. Visitors can also find noteworthy memorabilia, like the chair used in Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson’s "Scream" music video and Erykah Badu’s headdress, supplementing the sounds and giving tangible examples of musical futures envisioned by Afrofuturists. Another important artifact on display is Sun Ra’s space harp, which produced futuristic sounds that symbolize the tight-knit communities of early jazz and gave way to the urban Black Arts Movements of the ’60s and ’70s and the Black Rock Coalition of the ‘80s. Music’s ability to connect generations of people is not lost in the exhibit— instead it is a spanning reminder of the Afrofuturist roots that have allowed musical expression to grow beyond what was ever imagined.

Another dominant metaphor in Afrofuturist media is that imagined worlds can become a reality in outer space. It is a place where the dreams of Afrofuturism can transform and materialize to form an escape from the known into the unknown, or perhaps a better unknown. The exhibit includes the Red Starfleet uniform worn by Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Nyota Uhura in Star Trek as well as the spacesuit worn by prominent Black astronaut Charles F. Bolden during his first mission to outer space. Heartbreakingly, Treyvon Martin’s spacesuit from space camp is included too. Standing in as a mere shadow of the boy, the suit can be viewed as a representation of the dreams he had and the dreams that were lost the day he died, serving as a reminder of the better world Afrofuturism aims to imagine.

Afrofuturism may be a new concept to some, with the term becoming better known due to films like Black Panther, with strong roots in science fiction and fantasy. However, the hope for this exhibition is to emphasize a broader understanding of Afrofuturism beyond those genres. It aims to spotlight the strong ties to tradition and Black intellect that spans generations. Ever evolving, Afrofuturism is a way African Americans have “engaged the past and the present to think about the future,” says NMAAHC Director, Kevin Young. Wandering through the expansive exhibit gives visitors the ability to do just that. In a world that is constantly adapting and developing, this exhibit stands out as a necessary connection to the past. From Benjamin Banneker to Black Panther, the rich legacy of Afrofuturism asserts that, above all else, even if you can’t imagine a new world, you can always imagine a better one.


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