Black History Month Spotlight: Learn The Difference Between Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism in Genre Fiction
For Black History Month we are delving into stories and projects from our favorite black creators. However, this is also a great time to explore some of the nuances within genre fiction. Over the years, a number of sub-genres have popped up in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy. Among these are several areas specific to the black experience: Afrofuturism, Africanfuturism, and Africanjujuism. These sub-genres are too often used interchangeably. But there are distinct differences between them that are important to recognize. Let’s delve into the difference between the genres, and give credit to the authors leading the way in each area.
Afrofuturism Centers The Black Experience In The Western World
The term Afrofuturism was coined in 1993 and originally came from an essay by Mark Dery titled “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” Dery himself is a white man who works as a writer and cultural critic. In these interviews, he spoke to a number of African-American writers and creators about their place in the genre.
Image by Matt Kennedy via Marvel Studios
In the years following the essay, a number of high-profile black authors laid claim to Afrofuturism as a genre across all mediums. It often describes fiction that focuses on the black perspective and experience, typically within the Western world. It specifically refers to science fiction where aliens, space travel, and cutting-edge technology feature prominently. Some examples of Afrofuturist works include the MCU Black Panther movie. A number of projects by African-American musical artists such as Sun-Ra and Janelle Monae also fall into this category.
You’ve Probably Already Read Some Afrofuturism
Octavia Butler | Image via Author’s Website
Novels by legendary speculative fiction writer Octavia Butler have also been retroactively labeled Afrofuturism. Butler’s novel Kindred is often cited as a work of Afrofuturism, as it follows a young black woman who is thrown backwards in time to the era of slavery in America. The focus on the black experience is paramount to the story. But it takes place within American history and cultural context.
Other novels by Butler that fit more into the “hard” science fiction aspect of Afrofuturism include her Xenogenesis trilogy. In this series, an alien race offers humanity a deal to save both of their species by cross-breeding to create an alien-human hybrid race. A black woman named Lilith is at the heart of the first novel. It is she who must make the choice that will change the course of humanity forever. This series still falls under Afrofuturism, with themes that parallel the history of African enslavement in America. Later books also parallel a struggle for basic human rights as civilization “progresses.”
Butler is not alone when it comes to science fiction written by black authors that have been retroactively labeled Afrofuturism. Other prominent authors of color such as W.E.B Dubois, Samuel R. Delaney, Victor LaValle, and Charles Saunders have also recently been categorized as Afrofuturists ahead of their time.
Author N.K. Jemisin | Image via the MacArthur Foundation
Other well known contemporary black authors that work in the Afrofuturist realm include MacArthur genius N.K. Jemisin whose Hugo-Award winning Broken Earth trilogy imagines a post-apocalyptic Earth. This series firmly straddles the line between Afrofuturism and the fantasy genre that weaves both science and magic together.
Africanfuturism Focuses On The Non-Western Experience
Image via Tor/Forge
In the context of Afrofuturism, the concept of Africanfuturism is quite simple to understand. It is a genre that focuses on the black experience outside of America. Specifically within the context of African countries, and the African diaspora throughout the world. These stories focus on African peoples and cultures outside of Western tropes.
Africanfuturism is a relatively new genre, and it is certainly related to Afrofuturism. But it is important to note that they are not interchangeable terms. They literally live in two different worlds.
Author Nnedi Okorafor | Image via Wikimedia Commons
Author Nnedi Okorafor gets credit for coining the term Africanfuturism with regards to her own work. In the past, Okorafor did identify some of her work as Afrofuturist, but she has shifted that language in recent years to classify it under two new terms: Africanfuturism for the sci-fi work, and Africanjujusim for her fantasy novels.
The Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor is a prime example of the Africanfuturist genre. This series follows a young woman from an African tribe who travels to space to attend an elite university. There are abundant aliens and future tech in this series, and really demonstrates Okorafor’s dedication to exploring new ideas and futures for African people.
Defining Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism
Okorafor has written many times on the subject of Africanfuturism, and how it differs from Afrofuturism. In an excellent essay on her blog, Okorafor lays out some essential tenets of Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism.
“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. It’s less concerned with “what could have been” and more concerned with “what is and can/will be.” Africanfuturism… will tend to naturally have mystical elements (drawn or grown from actual African cultural beliefs/world views, not something merely made up).”
Africanjujuism is another term is used by Okorafor to classify “a subcategory of fantasy that respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true existing African spiritualities & cosmologies with the imaginative.” Much like Africanfuturism is a subcategory of the science fiction genre, Africanjujuism is more directly tied to the fantasy genre.
Okorafor also notes that the terms should always be written as one word. With no hyphens or capitalization of the words futurism or jujuism. Okorafor says that Africanfuturism is “not a wall, it is a bridge” for the various groups of the African diaspora to come together in genre fiction.
Discover More Authors Working In Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism
Author Tade Thompson | Photo by Carla Roadnight via Macmillan Publishers
Nnedi Okorafor is not the only author working in the genre of Africanfuturism however. As the sub-genre has taken off, more and more black authors are also finding a home in this newly created space. Author Tade Thompson is another notable inclusion on this list of Africanfuturist authors. He has written essays about the importance of African science-fiction and fantasy, as well as the dangers of othering and infantalizing groups based on genre distinction.
Authors like Kacen Callender; Micah Yongo, Namina Forna, and Suyi Davies Okungbowa are a few more excellent contemporary black authors who center African stories, cultures, and diasporas in their work. However, many of these authors are working in the fantasy genre. So it might be more accurate to call their work Africanjujuism, according to the definitions set by Okorafor.
Learning The Difference Between The Sub-Genres Is Important
Photo by Ian Kiragu via Unsplash
For anyone paying attention to the words used in the different genre terms, it isn’t too difficult to figure out the differences. And any readers picking up these authors will see the difference in terms of a book’s setting, mythologies, and cultures. These sub-genres certainly inform one another, and can sometimes overlap. But that doesn’t mean the terms should be used interchangeably.
And it is not just in the realm of genre fiction that these sub-genres come into play. Afrofuturism, Africanfuturism, and Africanjujuism all show up across media in fashion; music, television, film, and comic books as well. Learning the difference between these sub-genres is vital for anyone who truly seeks to understand the black experience not just in America, but around the world. It is important to place creative work in a historical and cultural context, and distinguishing between the sub-genres of “African fiction” allows space for black creators to work outside of a white Western perspective.
There are many sub-genres and sub-categories in the realms of science fiction and fantasy. We already know what terms like ‘steampunk’ or ‘grim-dark’ means when it comes to sub-genres. It shouldn’t be difficult to learn how to differentiate between Afrofuturism, Africanfuturism, and Africanjujuism. And the genre distinctions are clearly important to authors like Nnedi Okorafor, who is paving the way and creating new spaces for all of the young black authors who will follow in her footsteps.
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Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.