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black utopia: a continent as vast as the cosmos

April 25, 2019
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There are a few things more aggravating than being a Black female fan of science fiction and fantasy. If it’s not wondering if Leia and Luke have any Black women friends in this galaxy far, far away, then it’s asking “where are the Black people?” when watching the last 20 minutes of Interstellar. As an African fan, the genres can feel that much more distant from everything I have come to understand my Africanness to be. If I wanted to take a ride to the stars and beyond, I had to hitch a ride on someone else’s hero’s journey when right on the African continent, according to Quarts Africa, the Dogon tribe of Mali believed they are the descendants of an extraterrestrial race hailing from the Sirius B star system. Africans have been looking up at the stars for too long to not be drowning in space-travel stories.

I’ve always had this obsession with Africans understanding our place on our tiny blue dot, as a part of something bigger. I wanted Africans to see themselves in grander narratives, amongst the stars. When my fever dream of an all-Black Star Fleet crew waded away with time, I had come to realize that I had made that age-old mistake of looking outside of the continent for solutions already solved by our African storytelling forebearers. Our stories were already there, waiting to be re-discovered and given new life through a new generation of storytellers. Unfortunately, the deepest most intriguing parts of the African continent have only been explored in science fiction and fantasy as foreign, almost alien lands for white heroes to venture through and conquer. Even with such alluring and fantastical lore sculpted by a long and storied history, the perspectives of African storytellers have largely been ignored, until now.

Innovation is at the heart of African DNA. When you place African kids and teenagers in dystopian-like conditions, then there are bound to be some Katniss Everdeen’s to crop up. The point is that those teenagers deserve their own Katniss Everdeen. Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor did one better by creating a brilliant and authentic Black girl protagonist as the titular character Binti. Born to the Himba tribe — one of the world’s most revered African tribes — in a future where bio-engineered fishes with scales that withstand space, transport university students across galaxies. Even though Binti experiences racism in the book, her journey travels free of the weight of a Western lens, as this autonomous African girl travels amongst the stars, on her talent alone, without her family’s permission. Binti turned mathematical equations into magic, brokered peace deals and saved lives, all while proudly covering her hair in the red clay of her people, with her ankles clinking with customary steel rings. In one African science fiction novella, the human desire for exploration becomes an affliction of humanity as a whole and the notion of African exploration is given new, far-flung realities to explore.

Okorafor joins the likes of Tomi Adeyemi and Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu in a new generation of storytellers that Kahiu describes as “the next line of science fiction storytellers that have always existed, we’re just continuing the lineage.” Black sci-fi and fantasy storytellers have never had as much exposure and opportunities as now and that is in large part owing to the predecessors that plowed through regardless. “So often in our own lives, we have been written out of our histories, so we want to write our children into our futures so that we make sure that there is a place for them for when they come into imagining themselves in the future,” Kahiu told Quartz Africa.

The political themes that sit at the heart of some of the sci-fi stories are often ignored or downright denied by the “stop making everything political” brigade. This is owing to the stark whiteness of the genre, which can often obscure the didactic legacy baked into its DNA. These stories were created as bridges between people and ideas, much like the didactic myths passed down through African tribes for millennia. At the heart of the entertainment was a lesson and it is the most marginalized people in history that used the storytelling to subliminally fight back marginalization. Now the exploration of African stories in this era can encourage the habit of imagining a better future for the continent uplifted through African innovation. Afro-futurism is the bridge between now and the future.

The white saviors of yesteryear were replaced with Black explorers — of the continent, world and the universe. It’s a sort of re-introduction to our autonomy, where we get to ask questions about our future of the African continent and the diaspora. Suddenly, the narratives of despair that eclipse the breadth of African storytelling are replaced by more authentic narratives that seem foreign but feel eerily familiar. It’s like reading Octavia Butler for the first time and realizing that you’ve been fed a lackluster conception of your history and world and that the true vibrancy of our storytelling capacity lies focusing on the legacy of storytelling in our communities and going back to those narratives. Nuance and depth had been given to people who looked, spoke and thought like me. We take the power of that representation and manifestation for granted.

The Black sci-fi/fantasy storyteller has the unique ability to unpack the injustices of the world and expanding them into new, more expansive contexts. Where the current guard of science fiction can imagine everything but Black people in the world’s they’ve created, the new guard will fill in the color that the genre was desperately missing through the exploration of untouched narratives from the continent and beyond. We are all we ever needed to tell our stories because our origins are as expansive and wondrous as the universe.