Columbia University Libraries is pleased to announce the launch of a new component of the: “New and Featured Books” in the Butler Library Lounge, Room 214. This display will now include a set of circulating items from our collections that are curated around a topic of international relevance. Display themes rotate every semester, and feature books in three categories: newly-published titles, popular titles, and Columbia authors. You can check out these books at the Butler Circulation Desk (3rd floor), OR at the Self-Check Kiosks (in the main lobby or on the 3rd floor) OR use Columbia Libraries’ new Self-Check app!
“Literary Afro Futures” is the opening theme in the Fall 2023/early Spring 2024 program. On offer is a sampling of science fiction and fantasy novels (including comics), novellas, poetry, short story anthologies, and works of literary criticism by African and African Diaspora authors. This small selection is meant to be evocative and to inspire discovery of the library’s collections. The exhibit celebrates two closely-related literary genres about the future: “Afrofuturism” and “Africanfuturism”.
“Afrofuturism” is a concept and a movement in the visual arts, dance, fashion, film, music, theater, literature, and philosophy which has been popularized worldwide especially in the last five years by the American Hollywood films “Black Panther” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”. As a literary term, it first emerged during the 1990s and referred to science fiction by African American authors who imagined Black people as the main protagonists in the storyline and in an imagined future United States or wider universe. It was also applied more broadly to other forms of Black artistic and cultural expression, especially in the field of jazz music and in the visual arts. In a special issue of the journal South Atlantic Quarterly (October 1993), Euro-American cultural critic Mark Dery first coined the term in his introduction to a set of interviews he conducted with three, well-known African American intellectuals, sci-fi writer Samuel R. Delany, musician Greg Tate, and cultural studies scholar Tricia Rose. The same text re-appeared in print as a book in 1994 entitled Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. In 2002, African American social scientist Alondra Nelson edited a seminal collection of essays on the subject for the journal Social Text, bringing the concept more fully into the academy and inspiring its use across the disciplines. A more recent formulation in 2017 by African American novelist, screen writer, and lecturer, Ytasha Womack seems to capture the spirit of the discourse around the term as it has evolved since then:
“Afrofuturism is a way of looking at the future and alternate realities through a Black cultural lens. A Black cultural lens means the people of the African continent in addition to the Diaspora…It is an artistic aesthetic but it is also a method of self liberation or self healing. It can be a part of critical race theory. And in other respects, it’s an epistemology, as well. But it intersects the imagination, technology, Black cultures, liberation, and mysticism.” (“Afrofuturism: Imagination and Humanity.” February 26, 2017, The Sonic Arts Festival, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; via Sonic Acts, YouTube.com)
To be sure, futurism has a long history in African American letters. In the Butler Library exhibit, readers will encounter 20th and 21st century African Diaspora authors familiar to many fans of sci-fi and fantasy, such as: Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Tim Fielder, Andrea Hairston, Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemisin, and Nisi Shawl; as well as the poetry and prose of futurist musician Sun Ra. But there are also two seminal works from the early phases of African American speculative fiction by Pauline Hopkins and George Schuyler, as well as anthologies, such as Dark Matter (2000) and the follow-up volume, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (2004), and Black Sci-Fi Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales (2021), which include short stories of futurist fantasy, by the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, Charles Chestnutt, Amiri Baraka, Steven Barnes, Sutton E. Griggs, and Charles Saunders, among many others. Yet another notable anthology brings together speculative short stories by contemporary writers of African descent from across the globe in Mothership: tales from Afrofuturism and beyond (2013).
“Africanfuturism” is a much more recent term. In 2019, the award-winning, Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor offered the following in a blog post:
“Africanfuturism is similar to ‘afrofuturism’ in the way that Blacks on the continent and in the Black Diaspora are all connected by blood, spirit, history and future. The difference is that africanfuturism is specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West. Africanfuturism is concerned with visions of the future, is interested in technology, leaves the earth, skews optimistic, is centered on and predominantly written by people of African descent (Black people) and it is rooted first and foremost in Africa. Africanfuturism does not have to extend beyond the continent of Africa, though often it does. Its default is non-western; its default/center is African.” (“Africanfuturism defined.” Nnedi’s Wahala Zone Blog. October 19, 2019.)
Certainly, Okorafor is not alone in creatively imagining Africans in the future. By way of introduction, see an online selection of African-authored short stories in Africanfuturism: an anthology. (2020), edited by Wole Talabi, and published by the open-access, Wisconsin-based, African literary magazine, Brittle Paper ; see also, “Afrofuture(s)” published in 2015 by the Nairobi-based, pan-African writers’ collective, Jalada Africa.
Futurism and elements of what may be recognized as ‘science fiction’ are not new to modern African literature either. They have their roots in a corpus of 20th century African speculative writing which feature magic, myth, the supernatural, technology, and the future. As Dike Okoro states:
“Historically, the relationship of African fiction writers and the SF/fantasy tradition probably spans five decades or more. Postindependence works and recent works by African novelists and short story writers posit the ways the neocolonial experience influences novelists and short story writers whose stories embody features that today defined as traits of speculative fiction and represent what might be categorized by critics as “African futurism.” (Okoro, Dike. “Futuristic themes and science fiction in modern African literature.” In: Futurism and the African Imagination: Literature and Other Arts. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY : Routledge, 2022. p. 9.)
The exhibit in Butler Library centers on the more recent forms of “Africanfuturism” by Okorafor and other Nigerian Diaspora writers such as Tade Thompson, Deji Bryce Olukotun, Roye Okupe, and Tochi Onyebuchi; South African writers Masande Ntshanga and Rachel Zadok; Kenyan newcomer Davis Njoroge; Ugandan writer and filmmaker Dila Dilman; as well as anthologies of African sci-fi and speculative short stories from around the African continent, such as Africa Risen (2022) ; Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories From Africa (2015) ; and the UK-based series: AfroSF ; AfroSF2 ; and AfroSF3.
A list of all of the books selected for the exhibit is available online.
For more introductory information about “Afrofuturism”, see: De Witt Douglas Kilgore’s “Afrofuturism” in The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) and Daylanne K. English’s “Afrofuturism” in Oxford Bibliographies (2019).