There is a new king of the box office, and his name is Black Panther. Marvel’s newest blockbuster has been generating buzz for months now, and it set records in its opening weekend. It is one of the first superhero movies to feature a black character as its protagonist. Most people agree that this has been much too long in coming, and it is refreshing to see a black superhero on screen. But Black Panther is not just groundbreaking because of its lead and predominantly black cast; it is also forging new horizons because of where it is set—the nation of Wakanda.
For those that are unfamiliar with the comic, Black Panther’s real name is T’Challa, and he is the newly crowned king of the African country of Wakanda. Wakanda is unlike most African nations portrayed on screen. Because of the discovery of a very valuable element, Wakanda has become incredibly wealthy and technologically advanced. However, the rest of the world is unaware of this because Wakanda is disguising itself behind the false veneer of a third-world country—an easy façade to maintain considering that the dominant image of Africa is one of poverty and instability.
The fictional Wakanda is an example of what is referred to as Afrofuturism—a term you have probably been hearing a lot lately surrounding Black Panther. But what exactly is Afrofuturism?
If you are a fan of science fiction, you may have noticed that the stories tend to take place in either America or Europe and follow a white protagonist. This is not surprising given that the genre of science fiction has predominately European/American roots (although there is still considerable debate about where science fiction actually began). But this is beginning to change.
Chinese and Japanese authors, who are naturally setting stories in their own countries, are writing more science fiction. Moreover, the cast of characters that inhabit even Eurocentric stories have become more diverse. However, there are still few examples of science fiction being set in Africa and/or featuring a black lead character. This could be because of a lack of attention given to science fiction authors of color. Whatever the reason, it is rare to see the future envisioned from the point of view of a black character.
This is where Afrofuturism comes in. Afrofuturism is the exploration of the future through the lens of black characters. Afrofuturism does not necessarily have to take place in Africa like in Black Panther. However, it does incorporate black history and culture, and it examines possible futures through that perspective. To that end, there have been some great novels coming from African and African American authors that explore the future from a non-European perspective.
If you are interested in an exciting new take on science fiction, check out some of these great novels:
- Dawn by Octavia Butler — After a terrible nuclear war leaves Earth uninhabitable, an alien race decides to step in and try to save what is left. Two centuries after the war, a woman named Lilith Lyapo is tasked by the aliens to lead the few surviving humans in an attempt to repopulate the now-healed Earth.
- Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor — Set in a future Sudan, the light-skinned Nuru oppress the dark-skinned Okeke. It is up to Onyesonwu, the child of a Nuru and an Okeke, to use her powers to defeat her evil sorcerous father. This book is a wonderful combination of both fantasy and science fiction.
- Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson — In a dystopian, futuristic Toronto, a young girl of Jamaican-Canadian descent struggles to survive in a city overcome with poverty and crime after the rich have fled. When the wealthy start harvesting the bodies of the helpless, she must rediscover the oral traditions and natural healing of her transplanted culture in order to survive.
- Everfair by Nisi Shawl — An alternate history that explores what might have happened if the natives of the Belgian-controlled Congo had developed steam technology a littler earlier. It’s a great story but also a wonderful history lesson of this often forgotten genocide.
These are only a few of the blossoming number of science fiction books springing from black authors. Moreover, with the success of Black Panther, there is hope that the trend of more diverse science fiction will continue. By expanding the horizons of what is possible and breaking through old stereotypes, we might see more cities like Wakanda in the pages of our books and on our screens. It is an exciting time to be a science fiction fan!