Ask the Expert: MSU Professor Julian Chambliss on “What is Afrofuturism?”

“Afrofuturism” was first coined by author and culture critic Mark Dery in his 1993 essay, “Black to the Future.” Since then, Afrofuturism has grown as an artform, practice, methodology, and area of study. In this Ask the Expert piece, Michigan State University Professor Julian Chambliss delves into what Afrofuturism is as a practice, as well as ways it shows up in culture and artistic work, often most easily identified through the visual arts and music. 

Chambliss is widely known for his scholarship on Afrofuturism, the Black Imaginary, and Black superheroes, especially within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he has a dedicated website called AFROFANTASTIC. His research interests focus on race, identity, and power in real and imagined urban spaces. His digital humanities work intersects the MSU Department of English, MSU Libraries, and MSU Museum. Additionally, he teaches undergraduate courses on Afrofuturism and his engagement with the topic spans into community outreach. 

As part of Michigan State University’s Juneteenth Celebration, Chambliss will be speaking on Afrofuturism in his keynote, “Not Only Darkness: The Legacy and Future of Black Speculative Practice,” and he will participate in the MSU WKAR virtual screening of the film Afrofuturism with a panel discussion.


Portrait of a smiling African American man with glasses in front of a bookcase.
Professor Julian Chambliss, Department of English, Michigan State University

How would you define Afrofuturism? 

CHAMBLISS: I define Afrofuturism as the intersection between speculation and liberation inspired by the concerns of Afro diasporic peoples. It tends to mix questions of science, technology, and knowledge creation geared toward a more liberatory framework. 

At the core of Afrofuturism is an emphasis on trying to create a system that’s more equitable with a core goal of collective care for everyone.  

Since Afrofuturism is theorized in opposition to the development of the exploitive system linked to colonialism, it considers the ways “modern” institutions do not always care for everyone because of hierarchical structures that use race and gender as means of control.  A lot of times Afrofuturism is really asking us to think about how the system we know can be made safe for everyone, and I think that’s part of the reason it’s so appealing to so many people.

What does speculative fiction mean as connected with science fiction and Afrofuturism? 

CHAMBLISS: Speculative work offers alternative pathways and different ways of thinking about individual, community, and society structures. These speculations can be broad or can be very narrow. 

Those kinds of speculations have distinctive styles, but the goal is always to tell an interesting story. When thinking about the tradition of speculative fiction, the stories are socially relevant and speak to the potentialities of a progressive transformation in society. 

When I talk about Afrofuturism, I think the political element is rooted in the reality of the politized nature of society. Arguably anytime people of color speculate in the public sphere it’s political because their speculation is going to reflect their concerns and their critiques drive public narrative about systems that are unfair and practices that stigmatize. 

“At the core of Afrofuturism is an emphasis on trying to create a system that’s more equitable with a core goal of collective care for everyone.”

Using science fiction writers as an example like Octavia Butler, who really was concerned with hierarchy, race, and trauma in her work, we can then see models for a better kind of community practice. Her Parable series (Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents) imagines an equitable community with an emphasis on sustainability, gender equity, and mutual respect built around collaborative action. 

Butler is creating these systems in reflection of the way our real-world practice fails. She is speculating on that failure and examining the possible way the hierarchies in our society create inequitable systems and practices. It’s important to recognize these speculative ideas are born from a consideration of the lived experience of women and people of color. This is why these imagined worlds matter so much.

What are some common misperceptions about Afrofuturism? 

CHAMBLISS: The most common misconception of Afrofuturism is that it is essentially only future oriented, that it is exclusively Black people in spaceships or Black cyborgs. 

The easiest way to think about this is that at any moment, especially in the context of the Western Hemisphere, there has been a Black person who has thought about and speculated on liberation. They’re thinking about liberation or speculating on different pathways, so they must think, quite literally, outside of the system. For them, that system is oppressive, so they must imagine a different path. This is not new.

If you consider historic liberation movements of any kind, at some point, someone must have the political imagination to imagine reform. You could argue that the United States is ideally suited to achieve liberatory vision because the system is driven by people engaging in voting and holding those in office accountable.

What are some of the important nuances that are part of Afrofuturism? 

CHAMBLISS: The obvious nuance is this idea around futurity. In fact, Afrofuturism is very concerned with the past, and this is one of the reasons why time is so important. We tend to, especially in the Western context, think about time in a very linear way: the past, the present, and the future. Whereas present, past, future is a more accurate way to describe how Afrofuturists think about time. This gives rise to a consistent concern with recovering things that were lost in the past, understanding the nature of the loss in the present, and building a better future. 

The nuance around trauma is also very important. There are things in the past that people want to recover, but there’s also emphasis on truth and reconciliation in Afrofuturism. One of the things Afrofuturism does is that it emphasizes understanding the truth of past trauma so that we can recognize the legacy from it. There are things in the past that we need to understand are rooted in a system that is oppressive. There are also things lost because of that oppressive past we need to recover.  

All of this is born of disruption, displacement, and erasure associated with the assumption of settler colonialism. There are lots of groups of people, especially in the context of the Americas, which strive to remember the past in a way that ensures that the current generation and future generations have an identity that supports and affirms their existence. 

An African American man stands in front of a screen that displays covers of "Action Comics" books.
MSU Professor Julian Chambliss is widely known for his scholarship on Afrofuturism, the Black Imaginary, and Black superheroes in comics and within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

What are some of your favorite examples of Afrofuturism? 

CHAMBLISS: Some my favorite examples of Afrofuturism are historical because I’m a historian. I really like some of the 19th century Afrofuturist novels because they highlight how Black speculative practice operates in a post-Civil War moment. They really represent a particular set of African American musings about systems of equity and inclusion. 

Sutton Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio is really interesting to me because it’s a person operating in the 1890s thinking about what it requires for African Americans in the context of post-Reconstruction America to be liberated. You can see the same set of ideas across primary documents, political movements, and different people during that time like W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. 

I’m a huge fan of the comic book character Black Panther. That’s a prime Afrofuturist example and is definitely the thing that introduced Afrofuturism to me as a field of study in comics. Comics are referenced in the original essay where Afrofuturism is defined. Mark Dery used Black-drawn and Black-written comics as an example of something manifesting Afrofuturism. 

One of the things about comics is that they are inherently a space of speculation. There is no limitation on the potentiality of the page, and so you can really explore speculative practice in comic form. Comics are an accessible entry point for Afrofuturism for most people.

How does music fit into discussions and works of Afrofuturism? 

CHAMBLISS: One of the places that people were really able to discern Afrofuturism is in music. You can see the speculative elements in the performance, lyrics, and practice of musical artists.  

You can hear musicians talking about freedom. You can see the ways they manifest those ideas in their performance. Musical artists inspire us to break from expectations through their music. We can see it in Jazz. This is an American music form created by Black people that is built on improvisation. The Blues in a similar manner offers a musical language steeped in the social and cultural narrative of the Black experience. 

“One of the things Afrofuturism does is that it emphasizes understanding the truth of past trauma so that we can recognize the legacy from it.”

Hip hop is also very Afrofuturist. It’s a world of sound created in the break, in the space between beats, that’s transformed and elongated to become an acoustic landscape where people are providing counter storytelling that documents the Black experience in the public square. 

We need to remember music is information. Music created by Black people has a long tradition of providing visions and insights that we can trace back for generations. Music is telling you about the past, it informs your trials and tribulations of the Black experience, it links you to Black diaspora experiences. It is, in the worlds of Erik Steinskog, a Afrofuturist sound scholar, an example of the “changing same.” It’s something that changes, but it’s also something that remains the same, so it’s a connection to the past that evolves and strengthens and continues to inspire.

As a practice, how can Afrofuturism ideas and principles be applied to different fields and disciplines?  

CHAMBLISS: One of the things about Afrofuturism is that it does ask us to think about the ways that knowledge practice, regardless of the field, might impact or create moments of inequity. If you were thinking about a system of practice as a kind of learned system, what Afrofuturism is asking you to think about are ways that a learned system has inequities built into it from a structural standpoint. 

Afrofuturism asks: Are there ways from a structural standpoint, from a practice standpoint, that you can reimagine a particular system that would be more equitable? Afrofuturism is not always asking you to stop doing something. It’s asking you to think about the ways that you do it and what are the outcomes that you’re aiming for. 

From that standpoint, you can be Afrofuturist doing anything because your goal is to speculate around creating a system that’s more equitable and creates greater care and inclusivity for people in it. That’s part of the reason Afrofuturists find traction in lots of different spaces. Afrofuturism opens the door to a kind of innovative thought process.