Afrofuturism: Liberation and inclusion
beyond literature with N. K. Jemisin
by Clara Bigoni

For all those who have to fight
for the respect that everyone else is given without question
(Jemisin, 2015)

Afrofuturism is a complex and multifaceted cultural current that took its first steps when the seemingly undefeatable whiteness of science fiction stopped playing a universally accepted role and started being consistently and systematically challenged (Carrington, 2016). This cultural and philosophical movement has the potential to overcome the differences that are so often used as a catalyst for conflict; it has been employed to connect and unite people, through the recovery and reclamation of often forsaken and silenced pasts and histories. Afrofuturism uses African, African American and black diasporic perceptions of past and present as ways to reconnect people of all kinds; it does not only aim at the promotion of non-white, African and African American literary and artistic production, but it is also centered on the creation of a more inclusive, more universal paradigm that will hopefully address everybody’s dreams, desires, hopes and futures. Afrofuturism tries to fill the void left by white male dominance in the field of science fiction by blending different cultures and traditions into a less exclusive and exclusionary genre. Many authors and artists have actively contributed to this shift; their joined forces are currently helping influence society in a positive and critical way.

‘Octavia Butler’ picture by Nikolas Coukouma. African American author and spiritual mother of black women writers of science fiction signing one of her works.

Significant contributions in literature

I just knew
There were stories I wanted to tell
(Octavia Butler)

The fundamental ideals and progression of afrofuturism cannot be detached from some very resounding names. The very core of this cultural current is based on the desire to represent underrepresented subjects, give voice to silenced groups, and rewrite neglected histories that have been substituted by the dominant and singular European history. A famous African American author who paid special attention to these needs and was able to create critical and groundbreaking narratives was Octavia Butler. Afrofuturism would not have been the same movement without her contribution. Octavia Butler paved the way of science fiction literature for black women writers; she was able to free many authors and readers from the sedimented belief that marginalized categories are not allowed to have a future or to dream of a different reality (Hampton, Brooks, 2003). Butler explored many different themes that deal with the concept of otherness in an attempt at overcoming marginality and exclusion. In her works, she deals with otherness and transformation through the representation of altered bodies and non-standardized approaches to sexuality and gender roles. These themes are mixed with the rewriting and exploration of postcolonial histories and considerations about either a forgotten or deliberately silenced past. African American experience in the United States is therefore strictly intertwined with feminist claims and desire for justice in her works (Federici, 2016). This is why she is often considered as the mother of afrofuturism and the spiritual mother of many female authors to come. Novels such as Kindred (1979) and Parable of the Sower (1993) are examples of how speculative fiction can serve social and political purposes, and, most importantly, they are significant examples of how marginalized categories can overcome their subaltern state to become a role model for entire generations.
Of course, Octavia Butler is not the only relevant author who has contributed to the birth and growth of afrofuturism and it would be utterly simplistic to stop at her now famous name. Afrofuturism became the international movement it is today thanks to multiple and interdisciplinary contributions that enriched and diversified it. Nalo Hopkinson is another important figure on the black science fiction scene. Hopkinson is a Jamaican-born Canadian writer who combines science fiction tropes and themes with Caribbean culture, folklore and legend. (Watson-Aifah, 2003) In Brown Girl in the Ring (1998) and Midnight Robber (2000), she focuses on the themes of self-recognition and struggle to reconcile one’s different, sometimes contrasting identities and cultural traits. (Rutledge, Hopkinson, 1999) Such themes are typical of the African American experience in the United States and are deeply rooted in the concept of double-consciousness theorized by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) when exploring the challenges non-white people had to deal with when looking at themselves through the eyes of a racist society. Through afrofuturism, these issues are brought back to life with new consciousness; by using different means, these themes are explored from an alternative, more contemporary perspective.

Nnedi Okorafor also combines science fiction with her African origins. She was born in the United States by Nigerian parents and because she is not Nigerian born, in order to build her narratives, she had to rely on storytelling and oral accounts. In her work, she focuses on postcolonial narrative and harshly criticizes all kinds of colonization (cultural, economic, political). In works such as Who Fears Death (2010) and Lagoon (2014), Okorafor manages to reverse the depiction of conquest as a glorious and heroic endeavor and emphasizes the issues connected to it, such as postcolonialism and its true meaning in real-life Africa (Burnett, 2015). By using speculative fiction devices, she is able to analyze present-day problems that affect Africa and African people and to put forward different possible solutions.

‘Cyrus Kabiru’ picture by Fabian Alonso. Nigerian artist Cyrus Kabiru photographed near one of his C-Stunners posters.

Contemporary examples in visual arts

I feel like one of nature’s soldiers.
(Cyrus Kabiru)

Literature is not the only field where afrofuturism has spread; visual arts are also a very prolific environment for afrofuturists. A very interesting and promising artist is Cyrus Kabiru. He is an emerging Kenyan artist who blends his African origins and traditions with futuristic hints. More specifically, he builds sculptural eyeglasses that display both a resemblance with traditional African jewels and steampunk-like ornaments (Komisa, 2018). His sculptures are made of recycled materials assembled together as a mix of two very distant albeit interconnected fields: tradition and future. Kabiru proposes a rethinking of his African origins through a future-oriented perspective. He manages to successfully blend concepts of preserving and praising of one’s traditions without forgetting to keep an eye on the future. Through his art, Kabiru is telling stories; stories about his past, his African background, stories about present and future problems in the African continent. His work is deeply rooted in his environment and cannot be detached from Kenya or the streets of Nairobi, where his art is shaped and created. Exemplifying instances of his futuristic work have been exhibited all around Europe and in the United States in the past ten years; currently, his sculptures are included in the exhibition KUBATANA, in Scandinavia, and in Material Insanity at the MAACAL in Marrakech, Morocco.
Another promising Kenyan visual artist is photographer Osborne Macharia. He identifies as a proud afrofuturist who uses science fiction and fantasy imagery to convey traditional African aesthetics through alternative perspectives. He focuses on postcolonial narratives as a way to reclaim African history and traditions and uses the devices of afrofuturism because they allow him to reshape his past, present and future from his own, personal point of view, without external dominant impositions. In addition to the redefinition of African stereotypes, the most popular themes he explores are distorted perceptions about gender and age, marginalization, and social exclusion. Being convinced that storytelling can help change people’s perspectives, he is determined to use his art to make a positive contribution to society. His works are currently exhibited in Stuttgart, Germany as a part of the Fumes and Perfumes 6.0 exhibition.

‘N. K. Jemisin’ picture by Laura Hanifir. African American writer and record-breaking winner of three consecutive Hugo Awards, Nora K. Jemisin, author of the Broken Earth trilogy.

N. K. Jemisin

The world is broken and needs fixing—and that’s a good thing!
(N. K. Jemisin)

The authors and artists that have been cited are very heterogeneous examples of how pervasive and prolific afrofuturism has become in recent times. It has spread through all fields: literature, philosophy, photography, painting, cinema, and so on. It has been interpreted and reinterpreted in very different ways by artists coming from very diverse backgrounds; however, afrofuturists share common objectives and convey similar themes. Despite the difficulty of choosing one exemplifying model over others, in this case it can be useful to focus on a writer who has recently made history with her latest trilogy and who has given an example of hope and persistence to the speculative fiction scene. Nora K. Jemisin is an African American writer whose brilliant career has interested many readers and critics. She has won three Hugo Awards, one for each volume of her Broken Earth trilogy and despite harsh criticism against her unwanted presence from reactionary groups, she proved to be an unquestionably talented writer. Drawing inspiration from everyday racism and the necessity to understand and fight it, her contribution to afrofuturism has been strong and distinct. Jemisin’s participation in the movement is particularly interesting because of the social messages she conveys through her work. The dedication of her first volume perfectly explains what her aim is and how she fits in the current of afrofuturism as a politically and socially committed movement that is addressed primarily to those people whose absence in literature and art has always been considered right and natural: «For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question» (Jemisin, 2015). Her intention is to give voice to the voiceless through the critical rethinking of their past and present, in addition to an optimistic reconsideration of their dreams and hopes. Jemisin forms part of afrofuturism by tackling themes and issues such as racism, reconsideration of the past as means to understand the present, oppression, marginalization, and dehumanization, in an attempt to reach a universal and inclusive narration where everyone’s dreams matter. Through her Broken Earth trilogy, she manages to address all those people who are normally excluded from speculative fiction narration and to prove them that something good can emerge from sufferance and injustice, just «Don’t be patient. Don’t ever be. This is the way a new world begins» (Jemisin, 2017, p. 398).

Between fantasy and reality: making a change beyond literature
The Fifth Season (2015), The Obelisk Gate (2016), and The Stone Sky (2017) are the award-winning novels that best represent Jemisin’s desire to speak to the oppressed and marginalized. The Broken Earth trilogy is based on a double level of interpretation, a literal one, and an allegoric one, which makes reference to real-life and historic events. Jemisin’s protagonists are a group of oppressed and systematically exploited people who are kept separated from the rest of society due to physical characteristics. They are called ‘orogenes’ and have the ability to control the kinetic and seismic energy of the Earth; in other words, they can both cause and quell earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. This is a very useful skill in a land which is constantly hit by catastrophic cataclysms. However, despite their usefulness to society, they are deemed dangerous and uncontrollable, intrinsically different from other people, and therefore they are captured, imprisoned, and surveilled. Social exclusion is one of the most detailed themes in the trilogy. It disrupts cohesion among members of the same community and has the effect of separating and establishing impassable boundaries. It is reinforced by factors such as discrimination, deprivation and poverty and is based primarily on the concepts of power relations and inequality (Bossert, D’Ambrosio, Peragine, 2003). In the trilogy, there are groups of people—those in power—who are considered to be more important, even ‘more human’ than others; the former employ social exclusion to reestablish their assumed superiority and their value as rulers, while the latter are systematically weakened and discouraged. The concept of social exclusion is inextricably linked to that of dehumanization. Scholars have defined dehumanization as a psychological process often associated with racism that consists in demonizing the enemy to the extent that he/she loses the privilege to be considered human—that is, the dehumanized are not worthy of humane treatment (Brown, 2018; Smith, 2011). In Jemisin’s trilogy, those in power are allowed to subjugate and enslave orogenes because the latter are not deemed human and therefore they are not protected under common laws. Because orogenes are regarded as dangerous and evil, they have to be incarcerated, constantly controlled and threatened. This system works so well because dehumanization is a logical and psychological process that creates enemies and a justification for the violence that is perpetrated against them (Smith, 2011). One of the protagonists of the trilogy, Essun, wonders why orogenes must be subjugated and controlled. The answer she finds is simple yet painful: orogenes are not people in the eyes of society, they are monsters waiting to be polished into usefulness and eliminated if they try to rebel or if they do not comply with their obligations (Jemisin, 2015). In order to be able to consider certain groups less than human, a society has to engage in the process of ‘enmification’, or creation of an enemy. Enemy making serves the purpose of convincing the majority of society of the presence of an enemy that actively threatens them and therefore has to be eliminated or forcefully pushed away (Sion, 2018). Once the enemy is established, it is necessary to associate dehumanization to enmity, so that any action that is taken against the enemy is fair and justified. In Jemisin’s narration, society has turned orogenes into the enemy of the people and has convinced everybody to fear and hate them to the extent that when orogenes are captured and enslaved nobody feels the need to complain. The processes of enmification, dehumanization and social exclusion are all put into action and explored in the Broken Earth trilogy. What makes this trilogy so valuable is the fact that Jemisin does an exemplary job in making it clear that she is not merely telling a fictional story; in fact, nothing she describes and makes reference to is ever detached from reality. The narration presents continuous, clear but not foregone references to the reader’s society, and the processes of exclusion, dehumanization and enemy making in the trilogy are reflections of historic and real-life events. Orogenes are derogatorily called ‘roggas’, an offensive, almost taboo word that causes the recipients to experience feelings of confusion, self-hatred and uncontrollable anger. «It has never occurred to her that roggas—she stops herself. She. She is a rogga. All at once she does not like this word, which she has heard most of her life. It’s a bad word she’s not supposed to say, even though the grown-ups toss it around freely, and suddenly it seems uglier than it already did» (Jemisin, 2015, p. 89). In this passage, the protagonist realizes the actual meaning of the offensive word which is constantly referred to her and her companions. It is not something immediate or easily explicable; it is a feeling of being inadequate and unfit, forever unwanted and undesirable. What her society tells her constantly by labeling her as rogga is that she is not welcome among other people, normal, non-monstrous people. The derogatory term that is used throughout the trilogy bears a strong, non-casual resemblance to its real-life counterpart which is used to categorize, offend, and discriminate people of African descent primarily in the United States. By establishing this parallel, Jemisin is able to connect everything that orogenes have to endure and are forced to overcome in her trilogy to African American experience of slavery, oppression, marginalization, and violence in the United States.

Throughout the trilogy, orogenes and their lives are described more in detail; as the narration progresses, the analogy with historic examples of slavery and violence becomes more evident. For example, orogenes who do not abide by the rules, or are not skilled enough, try to rebel, or do anything that is not acceptable in the eyes of those who control them, are either eliminated or transformed into ‘node-maintainers’. Node-maintainers are orogenes who are put in a coma and whose bodies are kept alive by machines; their only purpose is to quell earthquakes in critical areas. When the protagonist finds out about this inhuman practice, she realizes that the people like her are «not people at all» (Jemisin, 2015, p.144). Orogenes who are turned into node-maintainers are most useful to society because they are «reliable, harmless, completely beneficial» (Jemisin, 2015, p. 142). This means that the only way orogenes can be accepted by their society is by submitting themselves to whatever law, rule, and treatment (no matter how violent, cruel, or unjust they may be) without question. Orogenes have been enslaved, made desperate, transformed into tools and weapons, controlled and often killed (or ‘lynched’; again, Jemisin’s use of vocabulary is but casual) for centuries (Jemisin, 2016). This is clear and accepted by everybody, even those who are subjected to such atrocities, because they cannot see any possible alternatives: «You hate the way we live. The way the world makes us live. Either the Fulcrum [1] owns us, or we have to hide and be hunted down like dogs if we’re discovered. There should be a better way. There isn’t» (Jemisin, 2015, p.123). And again, «If a whole society has dedicated itself to their subjugation, after all, then surely they deserve it?» (Jemisin, 2017, p. 312). Oppressive societies aim at instilling the belief that some people deserve a better treatment than others not only in those who are allowed to enjoy certain benefits but also in those who are barely considered to be human. Through her narration, Jemisin exposes the oppressive pattern that has been put into place many times during history, and, more specifically, that has been used against African American people. The story she tells is a story of sufferance, oppression, marginalization, violence, and desperation, but it is also a story of resilience, endurance, resistance, courage, and love. The Broken Earth trilogy ultimately sends a positive message of hope; it shows a future where despite injustice, people still believe in the necessity to do good, change, evolve, become one. Her message is addressed to the broadest readership possible; it aims at finding common ground where differences are a strength rather than a weakness. It shows the readers that it is possible to reach freedom—which shouldn’t be a conquest but a right—and that the key to justice is inclusiveness and respect. But in order to reach these objectives, first it is necessary to be aware of past unjust events and behaviors to subvert and improve the present and the future.

The recovery of memory through fictional narration has the potential to be incredibly successful because it gives the reader the possibility to explore such memory from a different point of view. The narration can still be enjoyable if the readers do not realize what they are being truly confronted with, but in this case, it loses its main purpose: to make a change. By connecting orogenes’ sufferance with African American exploitation, enslavement and oppression, the readers are given the proper tools to reconsider, restore and reclaim history. By blending and associating these experiences with her fictional (and yet so painfully realistic) characters, Jemisin manages to create an open and inclusive paradigm that allows the readers to think critically about a variety of issues, primarily racism, social exclusion, and marginalization, but also systematized use of violence, instillation of fear as means to terrorize and coerce people, and erasing of inconvenient past events. Her close focus on African slaves in the United States perfectly serves the purposes of afrofuturism: the call for a rethinking of the past in a critical way, promotion of inclusiveness and acceptation, critique of racism, rediscovery of origins and traditions that have been silenced and annihilated by dominant and violent impositions. By turning speculative fiction into a more critical genre, Jemisin and other afrofuturists are contributing to making a change beyond literature; they are managing to reach the excluded and marginalized through a narrative that finally aims at being truly inclusive.

“The dreams of the marginalized matter”
When N. K. Jemisin proved that a non-stereotypical science fiction work could win the Hugo Award in spite of reactionary protest, she also made clear that the representation and account of the dreams, hopes and imagination of marginalized people are important, too. For a genre such as science fiction, whose very nature is to present alternatives to the perceived reality, it is fundamental to include every possible imaginative option, not only the most popular ones. European mythology is not the only existing mythology, white characters are not the only strong, brave, and good characters, and women can be the hero, too. The Broken Earth trilogy was successful because Jemisin managed to fit together both universal themes than can be shared and understood by all readers as individuals belonging to humankind, and themes which are too often either silenced, taken for granted, or avoided. The strength of the trilogy lays in its coexisting universality and inclusiveness. The same thing goes for afrofuturism in its entirety: this cultural and philosophical movement ultimately aims at inclusivity and universality through the rediscovery of African, African American and black diasporic past, through the regaining of lost, forsaken, or silenced traditions, cultures and histories and though a critically more inclusive approach to science fiction and art. Thanks to contemporary contributions coming from authors, artists, photographers, directors, and philosophers whose traditions, histories, and social and economic backgrounds are often radically different albeit united by common traits and future aspirations, afrofuturism is currently evolving into an all-embracing, truly inclusive current.

[1] The Fulcrum is the place where orogenes are sent when they are separated from the rest of society. It is an institution where orogenes are trained to become servile and useful; if they fail, they are either eliminated or sent away where nobody can see them or know what has happened to them.

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Clara Bigoni è laureata presso l’Università degli Studi di Milano in Lingue e Culture per la Comunicazione e la Cooperazione Internazionale. La sua Tesi di Laurea esplora la trilogia Broken Earth di N. K. Jemisin focalizzandosi in particolare su oppressione e inclusività. Coltiva una forte passione per la letteratura contemporanea, la sociologia e la fantascienza come luogo di incontro dei suoi interessi personali e accademici. Oltre all’italiano, che è la sua madrelingua, parla fluentemente inglese e spagnolo.