In his 1993 essay, “Black to the Future,” the cultural critic Mark Dery coined the
term “Afrofuturism.” He defined Afrofuturism as a genre of speculative fiction which
“addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture”
and which includes “images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” In
the thirty years since its coinage, the term has infiltrated literary and academic
discourse, and become a popular and powerful framework for imagining Black futures.
But Andrew Shephard, assistant professor in English at the University of Utah, wants
to push back on one basic aspect of Afrofuturism: its emphasis on the future.
When Shephard first encountered Dery’s essay on Afrofuturism, he found it exciting
that someone had identified a specifically Black tradition within the speculative
genres of science fiction and fantasy. And he still does. But he also has scruples
with the traditional definition of the term. “I wonder if that term may have outlived
its utility,” he said. “Or at least, be too constrictive a descriptor for the richness
and diversity of Black speculative thought.”
In his current book-in-progress, “Temples for Tomorrow: African American Speculative
Fiction and Historical Narrative,” Shephard explores the long tradition of Black fantasy
and science fiction works that look to the past, rather than to the future. These
narratives, which Shephard describes as “Afrospeculative” often reinvent the past,
using sci-fi and fantasy elements to construct alternate histories in which, for instance,
European colonizers were successfully expelled from Africa, or in which it was Africans
who colonized the Americas, not the other way around.
“The erasure of our cultural roots has led to something of a vexed relationship towards
our own history,” says Shephard, speaking of the peoples of the African Diaspora.
“As such, our past is as speculative as any futures we might imagine.”
Shephard’s book consists of four chapters, each of which explores a different category
of Afrospeculative fiction. From Charles W. Chestnutt to Samuel Delaney to Octavia
Butler, Shephard charts how writers of Afrospeculative historical narratives construct
complex temporalities that are not exclusively future-oriented. In the book’s opening
chapter, Shephard examines African American Conjure tales, stories which feature African
folk magic and hoodoo Conjuring traditions. These stories reveal the tension between
20th-century American technoculture and an Afrodiasporic cultural identity. But while
modern technologies did at times pose existential threats to Black folk traditions,
Shephard is interested in how they interact productively in these texts as well. For
instance, in one story, “The Conjure Man Dies” by Rudolph Fisher, a Black scientist
and a Black Conjure man work together to solve a crime and come to admire each other
in many ways. This is just one of several stories Shephard writes about that portray
complex and mutualistic interactions between African folk magic and 20th-century technologies.
His analysis undercuts the possibility of a simple binary between a “rationalist”
Western future and a “supernaturalist” African past.
In subsequent chapters, Shephard examines Afrospeculative works which “remap” Africa,
grappling with what it means to feel nostalgia for a home you’ve never known; neo-slave
narratives, and their representation of the afterlives of slavery, in which time is
not linear but eerily recursive, bringing fresh iterations of enslavement and empire
with each new development of late capitalism; and Black steampunk works which reimagine
the Victorian era in playfully anachronistic ways, while simultaneously refusing to
romanticize the age of empire.
In all these instances, science fiction and fantasy tropes offer powerful ways to
reconceptualize the past. Shephard has long been interested in so-called genre fiction,
that is, science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, mystery and so on. These works
are sometimes defined in opposition to “literary fiction,” that is, serious works
of literature which merit academic study. “As you can imagine, I’m not crazy about
that definition,” says Shephard. For him, genre is exciting because of the way it
must balance familiarity and surprise. He says you can think of genre as a kind of
contract or agreement between reader and writer: “The reader goes in with certain
expectations, knowing the genre of the story, and if those expectations aren’t met,
might feel disappointed.” But within that framework of expectation, a successful work
of genre fiction must also provide something unexpected. “The fun of genre,” he says,
“is seeing how far one can push or bend these expectations without breaking the contract
with the reader.” The works that he studies exemplify that principle, bending familiar
tropes of science fiction to reimagine Black pasts.
In writing about the Afrospeculative, Shephard has articulated a term that is more
capacious than “Afrofuturism.” Imagining how things might have been, he argues, is
an inseparable part of imagining what still could be. Thus, speculative visions of
the past operate in the service of imagining a Black Utopian future. Shephard’s research
reveals the power of literary genre, the complex enmeshment of the future and the
past, and the multidimensionality of Black aesthetic tradition—a tradition, he says,
which is a kind of magic in itself.
Jana Cunningham, University of Utah College of Humanities
firstname.lastname@example.org | 801-213-0866
Published December 5, 2022