Anyone familiar with the multiethnic city of Zion from the Matrix trilogy or the time-traveling androids in the music of Janelle Monáe has engaged with Afrofuturism—a loose artistic movement exploring African-American themes through the tool of science fiction. From the cosmology of Parliament-Funkadelic to Octavia Butler’s Lilith trilogy, the rich history of Afrofuturist art and its capacity to explore a wide range of social phenomena make it hard to believe that the unifying term “Afrofuturism” was only coined about 20 years ago, and that Ytasha L. Womack’s Afrofuturism: The World Of Black Sci-Fi And Fantasy Culture is the first book to attempt an overview of the movement. The very existence of a primer for those unfamiliar with the life and mythology of Sun Ra or the fiction of Samuel R. Delany is welcome.
Afrofuturism is certainly helpful for the uninitiated, and Womack effectively communicates the depth, texture, and entrancing, almost mystical appeal of Afrofuturism and the worlds it creates. There’s an intimidating amount of material, and for the most part she provides a sense of the importance of each artist she discusses, most visible in her loving ode to the life and work of Sun Ra. Though some sections spend too long on historical detail and others too little, the focus on context still helps Womack convey the importance of Afrofuturism as something bigger than any of the individual artists. Several less-renowned artists benefit from Womack’s attention to detail and explanatory powers, particularly visual artists working in a field less ubiquitous and accessible than The Mothership Connection. As both a look into the history of an aesthetic that has touched so much popular entertainment and a tool for persuading readers to check out the more obscure artists, Afrofuturism is a great success.
But the same breadth and descriptive quality that makes Afrofuturism a useful text simultaneously limits Womack’s ability to dig deeper into the implications of the work and the unique power of much of the art she describes. Several sections amount to little more than history without analysis, which, while well written, don’t add much beyond a helpful signpost to worthwhile art. That lack of depth wouldn’t be a problem if Womack didn’t attempt to engage with the implications of much of the art she discusses. In fact, Afrofuturism is at its best when Womack digs in to the connections between science fiction and black thought and culture, like the use of aliens to explore the African-American outsider experience. The thought-provoking quality of those passages makes the by-the-numbers history portions pale in comparison.
Once the initial joy at the existence of such a text wears off, other problems present themselves. Occasional autobiographical elements (and references to Womack’s own Afrofuturist sci-fi work) crop up but fall flat rather than providing a valuable personal perspective. Though Womack touches on all of Afrofuturism’s heavy hitters (it’d be impossible to cover everything in an introductory text), there are some notable omissions, particularly Deltron 3030’s self-titled dystopian sci-fi opus from 2000. These absences, though somewhat frustrating, highlight how much excellent Afrofuturist art there is, and how much remains to be explored. In that sense, Afrofuturism is primarily useful as a window into several worlds of black science fiction, but may also encourage curious newcomers to look for another guide.