Literary and Critical Theory Afrofuturism
Daylanne K. English
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0004


Afrofuturism refers to a flourishing contemporary movement of African American, African, and Black diasporic writers, artists, musicians, and theorists. Afrofuturism comprises cultural production and scholarly thought—literature, visual art, photography, film, multimedia art, performance art, music, and theory—that imagine greater justice and a freer expression of black subjectivity in the future or in alternative places, times, or realities. It also offers speculation about a world wherein black people are normative. Afrofuturism can also imagine dystopic worlds to come, with contemporary injustices projected into, and often intensified in, the future. However, Afrofuturist works do not always look to the future but, rather, often unsettle notions of linear time. More broadly defined, Afrofuturism reimagines not only new forms of temporality but also new black experiences and identities via science and speculative fiction or other artistic and intellectual means. It often does so by exploring both the potential and the pitfalls of technoculture and posthumanism. Although the movement has certainly exploded in recent years, especially since 2000, its intellectual and aesthetic underpinnings can be traced back to mid- and late-19th-century African American novels that imagined alternative realities and communities for black people.

General Overviews

Because the movement is relatively young, there have been, to date, few comprehensive overviews of Afrofuturism. However, a number of key works do provide effective introductions to the movement’s tenets, aesthetics, significance, and history. Dery 1994 coined the term Afrofuturism and offered an early introduction to and definition of the movement. The Afrofuturism special issue of the journal Social Text (Nelson 2002) represents a watershed moment in the development and theorization of Afrofuturism. Together, the essays in the issue represent essential reading on Afrofuturism, covering topics from the late-19th- to early-20th- century antecedents of the movement to the revolutionary possibilities created by an Internet community of color. Akomfrah 1996 likewise offers an indispensable overview of Afrofuturist thought and cultural production, especially music, from the African diaspora. Eshun 2003 offers an important theorization of the complex temporalities of Afrofuturism, with a focus on African and African diasporic artists, musicians, and writers. Womack 2013 provides a more popular and accessible introduction to Afrofuturism. Jackson and Moody-Freeman 2011 is among the most useful collections for providing an overview of the movement; it includes eleven scholarly essays that consider speculative and science fiction and futuristic poetry, film, comics, and television in relation to blackness and race. Dubey 2003, although not specifically focused on Afrofuturism, nonetheless offers strong analysis of the theoretical significance and political power of science fiction by African American writers. Similarly, Iton 2008 does not focus on Afrofuturism but establishes strong connections among politics, political activism, and black popular culture.

  • Akomfrah, John, dir. The Last Angel of History. New York: Icarus Films, 1996.

    Uses an impressionistic film style to present Afrofuturist ideas about time travel, computer technology, and alienation. Centers on a character called “the Data Thief.” Includes interviews with a wide range of African diasporic writers, musicians, and theorists, such as Octavia Butler, DJ Spooky, Samuel Delany, George Clinton, Derrick May, and Greg Tate.

  • Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” In Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Edited by Mark Dery, 179–222. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.

    Coins the term “Afrofuturism.” Documents the movement’s multimedia and interdisciplinary nature and identifies the movement’s central figures and texts as of the mid-1990s. Includes interviews with science fiction writer Samuel Delany, cultural critic and Afrofuturist theorist Greg Tate, and scholar of contemporary black US culture and popular music Tricia Rose.

  • Dubey, Madhu. Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226167282.001.0001

    Provides strong theorization of postmodern African American literature, focusing on urban settings and representations of print culture. Includes chapters on Afrofuturist writers Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, framing their work in terms of digital and print texts and the postmodern city.

  • Eshun, Kodwo. “Further Considerations of Afrofuturism.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3.2 (2003): 287–302.

    DOI: 10.1353/ncr.2003.0021

    Provides a rich overview of the political, economic, and social contexts for Afrofuturism in a broad black diasporic context. Argues for Afrofuturism’s representation of the past as a means to develop counter-futures. Includes consideration of writers, visual artists, filmmakers, and theorists.

  • Iton, Richard. In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195178463.001.0001

    Although not explicitly about Afrofuturism, this book offers a framework for understanding the political possibilities inherent in the movement. Argues for the fusion of politics and black culture, particularly popular and vernacular culture, in the post–civil rights era. Notes, for example, that significant political debates of the 1970s were articulated in and through R&B music. Challenges Weheliye 2002 (see Music and Technology) and others by questioning the efficacy of technological mediation in black music and other cultural expressions.

  • Jackson, Sandra, and Julie E. Moody-Freeman, eds. The Black Imagination: Science Fiction, Futurism and the Speculative. New York: Peter Lang, 2011.

    This essay collection begins with a useful editors’ introduction that gives an overview of black characters in science fiction and other futurist works. Also offers good working definitions of science fiction and futurism. The essays cover a wide range of media and artists and writers, along with works from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, to Walter Mosley’s and Nalo Hopkinson’s science fiction novels, to the films of Will Smith.

  • Nelson, Alondra, ed. Social Text 20.2 (Summer 2002): 1–146. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    Includes important essays that trace Afrofuturism’s roots in late-19th and early-20th century- African American novels to its manifestations in early-21st-century digital communities and electronically mediated music. Also includes photographs, fiction, and poetry, along with an interview of Afrofuturist author Nalo Hopkinson.

  • Womack, Ytasha. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-fi and Fantasy Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

    First book-length treatment of Afrofuturism. Womack begins with a personal narrative of her own encounters and engagement with the imaginative and political possibilities of Afrofuturism. She then offers a broad and accessible overview of Afrofuturism’s history and how it flourishes in a 21st-century multimedia context.

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