Looking for Humanity in Science Fiction through Afrofuturism
From the Series: Speculative Anthropologies
From the Series: Speculative Anthropologies
As a queer man of color, I am recently finding it hard to side with humans in the science fiction I read. As in real life, human characters in science fiction keep making terrible decisions. Though I love Isaac Asimov and the Foundation series, I always felt that his framework for planetary exploration was rooted in colonialism. The interplanetary politics and immigration laws portrayed were sadly reminiscent of those permeating postcolonial history. Mirroring my own growth as an anthropologist, my taste in science fiction, too, matured. I didn’t throw away Asimov and Frank Herbert. Instead, I paid closer attention to the social structures being replicated in their books. Nowadays I am wary of anthropology that replicates the racist power structures of the twentieth century, and long for one that more closely relates to the science fiction I consume. Afrofuturism gives me hope in this regard.
I was drawn to Afrofuturistic speculative fiction because it deals with issues of oppression more directly than so-called classical sci-fi, which relies on metaphors and allegories to explore inequality and oppression (see Bould 2007). Reynaldo Anderson (2016, 230) states that “Afrofuturism is the current name for a body of systematic Black speculative thought originating in the 1990s as a response to postmodernity that has blossomed into a global movement.” Whereas classical science fiction often imagines new civilizations in which to play out narratives of injustice, the authors of color at the forefront of Afrofuturism relate to those themes straightforwardly and explore them using real-world history and imagery.
One of my favorite works is Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, which deals with ethnic conflict and colorism-based oppression in a futuristic and magical African continent where the protagonist’s birth is the result of gender-based violence. Another of my favorites is N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, which explores racism and eugenics in a literally broken geography that is the direct result of oppression. Both authors are black women, and black women are also the protagonists of these stories. This is the speculative anthropology I want to see more of—one that reframes the narrative outside of a colonial framework and removes the white male authority in terms of both theory and practice.
Afrofuturism provides inspiration for some of us in anthropology to see ourselves in the future, in a way that many intellectual movements neglect. I completed my undergraduate degree in Puerto Rico, and the first year of my graduate program in the United States was incredibly confronting. Mindful of Audre Lorde’s well-known quotation, I found myself wondering what I was doing in the master’s house. How would I be able to dismantle anything using the master’s tools? I remember ferociously critiquing Oscar Lewis’s La Vida and other works based in Puerto Rico like those of Sidney Mintz, Julian Steward, and Franz Boas. All of them came to the island to study us and reduce our existence to a culture of poverty and peasantry. We are supposed to forgive and forget, but how can we do so when we still don’t have enough seats at the table? How are we to tell our stories with gatekeepers replicating old power dynamics?
There is no greater insult than to be shut out of narrative. Much like the anthropology that many have experienced, classical science fiction was at best color-blind and at worst racist, sexist, and ableist. For example, why did Star Wars make room for countless fantastical aliens but only one black Jedi? And why did the people of Arrakis in Dune have to rely on a white savior to civilize them? Given this tradition, it’s radical to dare dream of a future where people of color, and especially people of the African diaspora, are not only included but also integral to it.
Even before Afrofuturism became a recognized movement, Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Talents warned the United States of falling apart because of religious fundamentalism. In Kindred, one of Butler’s most famous books, the main character had to suffer the consequences of being dragged back in time to slavery-era Maryland, where she is forced to confront her racial identity and family history. We can use this kind of speculative thought to break away from the master’s tools—not with the canonical perspective of the mainstream, but with the boldness of an approach that decenters a white, male, cis, able-bodied hegemony.
This approach does not have to be exclusively Afrofuturistic. The series Westworld does a good job of drawing parallels between robot bondage and slavery. It sets a robot uprising in an undetermined future, in which guests immerse themselves in a Western movie fantasy setting of the post–Civil War/Reconstruction era. In the second season of Westworld, I found myself rooting for the nonhuman robot characters because I felt more compassion for these Hosts—who were seemingly behaving like humans—than for the humans who created them. Similarly, in the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie, I sympathized more with the insurgent AIs than with the human characters. I believe this is because I can relate to the experiences of injustice and oppression behind those characters’ narrative choices.
If season two of Westworld is right and humans can be reduced to a behavioral algorithm, then what does that mean for the study of human behavior? As dystopian literature seems to be inspiring today’s despots instead of warning them, historical mistakes keep being repeated; the idea of such algorithms seems conceivable, given that current systems of power keep being replicated in our own discipline. This metaphorical algorithm points us beyond inclusion; rather, we need to decolonize the way we practice and utilize anthropological knowledge.
While science fiction keeps exploring the line between colonizer and colonized, Afrofuturism overturns that relationship. As the contributors to the volume Women Writing Culture (Behar and Gordon 1996) encouraged us to do, we need to create new canons everywhere we can. I contribute to this decolonized canon (see also Harrison 1991) when assigning readings in my classes: I decide which anthropological knowledge my students are going to associate with anthropology. This is why my anthropology, in theory and praxis, is inspired by Afrofuturism. It rejects the supremacy of Western schools of praxis and, instead, proposes (and builds on) frameworks that center those being studied as protagonists in the narrative.
Anderson, Reynaldo. 2016. “Afrofuturism 2.0 and the Black Speculative Arts Movement: Notes on a Manifesto.” Obsidian 42, nos. 1–2: 230–38.
Behar, Ruth, and Deborah A. Gordon, eds. 1996. Women Writing Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Bould, Mark. 2007. “The Ships Landed Long Ago: Afrofuturism and Black SF.” Science Fiction Studies 34, no. 2: 177–86.
Harrison, Faye V., ed. 1991. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology of Liberation. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.