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Nnedi Okorafor speaks at TEDGlobal 2017. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

Lit Bits: Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism at the Library of Congress

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This is a guest post by Sydney Villegas, a former intern in the Library’s 2023 Archives, Heritage and History Advanced Internship Program (AHHA)

The principle of sankofa, an Akan word originating from Ghana, represents the idea that to move on to a bright future, we must return to, remember and reclaim the past; this principle can be found is a lot of literature and art by African and African American creators, and gets to the heart of Afrofuturist writing and thought.

Nnedi Okorafor speaks at Library of Congress Young Readers Center. Still from event video, “Authors Nnedi Okorafor & Mehrdokht Amini.”

Today, to celebrate Women’s History Month, we focus on women who wrote in this genre, starting with Nnedi Okorafor, a Nigerian American author notable for her African-oriented science fiction and fantasy writing for both children and adults. Okorafor’s works include “Akata Witch” (2011) and “Binti” (2015), both of which have been made into series, and her children’s book “Chicken in the Kitchen” (2015), which she read at her event at the Library of Congress in 2016. Although her writing falls under the umbrella of Afrofuturism, Okorafor has specified her writing focus by coining the terms Africanfuturism, which is future-focused writing that is directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point of view, and Africanjujuism which, according to Okorafor, acknowledges the blend of existing African spiritualities and cosmologies with the imaginative and the speculative.

In 2022, Okorafor was a guest on the Library of Congress’ “Space on the Page” podcast, in which she, alongside author Lucas Mix and astrobiologist Dr. Betül Kaçar, spoke about her novella “Binti,” the ways that identity and our history of space exploration both inform our imagined future in space and how science fiction writing can help us imagine this future in more inclusive ways. Below, listen to how they discuss aliens, engineering, immigration, astrobiology and space travel.

The podcast explores how “Binti” connects to Okorafor’s own experiences as a child of immigrants:

“[W]hen we have science fiction narratives and we have like the human beings going to another planet and meeting others there, we still call them aliens. We are the aliens in that situation. The immigrant narrative is very much a part of ‘Binti.’ And I remember when I wrote it, I was not thinking about it at all. But I’m the child of immigrants and I’ve grown up hearing the narrative of immigrants like all my life. So, you know, that’s inevitably going to make it in there.”

Collections Connections

In 1993, scholar Mark Dery first coined the term Afrofuturism to describe rising literary trends that combined a focus on Black characters with emerging ideas about technology and culture; evident in Okorafor’s writing, these trends continue to thrive and evolve. In 2019 the Library of Congress hosted a panel focused on Afrofuturism titled “What Was, What Is & What Will Be: A Cross-Genre Look at Afrofuturism” with Tananarive Due, N.K. Jemisin and Airea D. Matthews, who explained,

“Afrofuturism, at least for me, allows that opportunity, the opportunity to be many and one. The opportunity to be forward and back. And also the opportunity to think about […] my person, my self, as something other than what currently is. The imagination as a powerful force in oppression, which is what the Black experience in America has been.”

Robert Pruitt, “Star pilot,” 2012. Reproduced by permission, Brandywine Workshop. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collections. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2013650525/

Afrofuturism has a deeply rooted history extending much further back than the ’90s, when it was first recognized. From NASA’s beginnings, Black scientists were making vital contributions to space exploration. This involved African American women mathematicians like Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson, who were the focus of the Academy Award-nominated 2016 film “Hidden Figures.” Read more about their lives and work in this blog post: “Hidden Figures No More: African American Women in Space Exploration”.

Nighttime View of a Space Shuttle Launch from the Kennedy Space Center. Photographer Don Browning, 2000. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collections. https://www.loc.gov/item/2021669930/

As Black women enabled us to physically reach space, they also paved the way in writing space and technology-focused, future-minded science fiction literature. In the ’80s and ’90s, writers like Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison speculated about time travel, complex interactions between past and future and alternate universes all through a lens focused on Black experiences.

Toni Morrison [author, at her upstate New York home]. Photographer Bernard Gotfryd, between 1980 and 1987. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collections. https://www.loc.gov/item/2020731966/
Other Afrofuturist writers include Amiri Baraka, Sun Ra, Samuel Delany and author and musician Janelle Monáe, whose science fiction novel “The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer” was featured at the 2022 National Book Festival.

Janelle Monáe, Photo credit: Jheyda McGarrell.

I first was introduced to Nnedi Okorafor’s books in 2021 while working with the Teaching Africa Library at my university. I found her writing to be stunning in its descriptions and characters and very accessible for someone like me who doesn’t have too much experience reading science fiction and fantasy books. I was instantly able to connect it to other Afrofuturist authors I had already encountered, such as Octavia Butler. Exploring the Library of Congress archives for Afrofuturist connections proved to be very rewarding, and I was excited to find materials in unexpected places, such as the NASA images. Afrofuturism to me means acknowledging how limitless Black writing and imagination truly are. It is one thing to see your identity reflected in media set in the present, but to see yourself having a place even within an uncertain future instills a sense of pride and belonging in one’s community and culture.

We hope you enjoyed this Lit Bit and learning more about Afrofuturism. How does Afrofuturist writing and thought resonate with you? What are your favorite Afrofuturist books, songs or artworks?

“The title of this blog post has been changed from its previous version to reflect both preferred and general terminology in the Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism genres.”

Comments (3)

  1. Please don’t leave out NK Jemisin! She is amazing.

    Marlon James also needs a mention.

  2. Thank you for this informative article! I’m impressed with the participants featured! Send more!

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