Guest Column: On Afrofuturism by Glenn Parris

The term Afrofuturism was coined by Mark Dery in 1993 and reached a worldwide audience, in large part, due to Ryan Coogler’s groundbreaking Marvel film, the Black Panther, a superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This article explores the concept through my upcoming Afrofuturistic novel, Dragon’s Heir, The Archeologist’s Tale, which is being republished by Outland Entertainment in 2021. 

I have been a science fiction fan since I could walk. Engrossed in cartoons like Astroboy and Gigantor at three years old, that curiosity would lead me to watch Saturday morning adventure cartoons like the Herculoids, Space Ghost, and the Fantastic Four to the Marvel Parade of heroes by the time I was six. I suppose I got into science fiction the way most young people do, by learning to read. I started with comic books at age six years old. I had a preference for Marvel comics. They had a more intriguing story structure than D.C. at the time. Once a fan, you are hooked, I guess. 

Before I go on, I want to pay homage to the brilliant Chadwick Boseman, who lost his battle with cancer earlier this summer. It has been said many times, but Chadwick’s journey brings it home; you never know what struggles other people face every day. 

From what I understand, Chadwick Boseman had been fighting cancer for over four years, which means that he was diagnosed and receiving treatment during the filming of Black Panther and probably Captain America Civil War. My respect also goes out to Stan Lee, who we also lost in the past couple of years. His writing and editorials marched me right into more complex thinking about story and character development. 

I never could understand why many English teachers denigrated science fiction and exalted Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, which weren’t as intricate or compelling at the level of middle school and high school teaching. I took from this that there must be other mythology of note and found a few short West African, Native American, and Chinese legends and myths to consume.

I graduated into science fiction short stories and novels when I was about ten and then took off from there. I still loved cartoons and comics because I’m very visual in my imagination. As an African American, the five senses are where I speak from. Like good cooking, a story needs some spicing up. Must have some surprises thrown in there! That’s storytelling. We heard it from Grandma, Grandpa, aunts, and uncles. 

I learned to add some plausible scientistic explanations to my stories based on my scientific education. I am an Afrofuturist. Afrofuturism powers science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery from any African diasporic perspective, regardless of the subjects or characters portrayed. 

In my opinion, Hollywood is inbred. I don’t think it is a racist thing as much as a business thing. It’s very, very expensive to make movies. It’s similarly expensive to produce books, so the establishment goes with themes and stories that have already worked. Story ideas that have never been proven, never get tried. Too risky. Unless someone has the vision, courage, and resources to produce something new and fresh or stumbles onto a story that goes viral into an unexpected goldmine, new things don’t get a shot. 

Star Trek was considered a non-starter. Had it not been for Lucille Ball, it would have died on the cutting room floor. Another example, Dune got rejected for publication over a hundred times because it was like nothing else before it. Both stories were “too complicated,” the former about pointy-eared aliens considering moral dilemmas, the latter about space Arabs battling imperialism no less. Star Trek became one of the longest-running franchises in television or movie history, and Dune turned out to be called the Bible of science fiction. Who’d have guessed? By the way, I can’t wait to see what Dennis Villeneuve does with his adaptation of Dune next month!

Once Hollywood realizes it’s got a goldmine, it throws all kinds of money at it and repeats it, twists it, and rings it dry until it finally stops making money. Then it goes on the list of successes to be re-imagined at some future slump in the industry as a vehicle for a studio looking for a boost in publicity. Star power goes a long way, too.

So, what has all of this to do with Afrofuturism? Well, did you ever wonder why black audiences find it so hard to sit quietly through a horror movie or sci-fi thriller? I believe it’s because it doesn’t reflect our world experience or conventional wisdom. Seriously, who runs back to see what a crowd of people are running from for dear life? Who goes to investigate an unearthly noise in a dark cellar when they’re all alone in a strange house on a stormy night? Who picks up a gnarled hitchhiker with grey slimy skin on a dark country road? Would the same motorists pick up an unshaven black man with a tattoo or two under the same circumstances? Of course not. That would defy credibility. People of other ethnicities enjoy the same stories told for centuries but have different details, motivations, and outcomes.

This is my take on it. When I first started reading science fiction, my mind would travel to MY version of the world as described. I visualized many World-Theaters, putting specific faces and voices into the stories as I directed my Mind-Plays. I’m a graduate of The Bronx High School of Science, which has generated many creatives that have graced the covers of books and the small and large screens recently. My alumni that we all pay homage to are my Bronx Science predecessors; the Godfather of Afrofuturism, Samuel R. Delany; astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson; and my high school successors; actor Jon Cryer and actor/director Jon Favreau of Ironman fame, among others. It’s why I so vividly remember so much of the fiction I read. Once I cast the story, it’s burned into my memory.

When I finally got into college, then medical school, I didn’t have the time to keep up with my entertainment reading lists. I sort of lost touch. Between my training and starting my private practice, I had a brief opportunity to read a little. Still, I didn’t have any material handy or any easy source to look for fresh science fiction or fantasy. One day, I found myself watching a paleontology documentary on dinosaurs’ life and times, as described by Robert Bakker, James Horner, and Philip Currie.

I have always had a scientific predisposition to writing. I always gravitated that way, but I also observe shifts and patterns in social currents. We are an interesting race as human beings. We are one species. We may have different skin colors, hair texture, and slightly different facial features, but we are all one species. It occurred to me that people who have traditionally been in power for a long, long time don’t understand that. They cannot see what’s going on in terms of vulnerable populations, be they Africans, African Americans, Afro-Caribbean, Native Americans, indigenous people of Australia, East Asian, or South Asian.  

When one is in a position of power, one tends to justify keeping that power or authority. That happens on the micro-scale, as in a family or small business, and the macro scale, as in global colonialism and imperialism. Power becomes comfortable. Once you have it, you naturally want to keep it; you want to pass it on to your progeny. It becomes viewed as a birthright. To rationalize this intent, one has to convince one’s self that one deserves it. Perhaps it’s in the blood.

In my upcoming novel, Dragon’s Heir, The Archeologist’s Tale, I used a different culture and species as a form of Afrofuturistic allegory. I’ve often been asked how Dragon’s Heir relates to Afrofuturism. I didn’t want to write a story, where I would flip the script, so to speak, and have Africans or African Americans in a position of political or military dominance over Caucasians or Europeans. That’s been done before. I also didn’t want to come off as preachy. I wanted to demonstrate what it might be like if an incredibly powerful, almost invincible force had no conception of hominid evolutionary history and no interest in learning about us. 

Imagine an Earth borne culture, The Efilu, which had benign contempt for the entire human race. Not that they hate us; they don’t care. They tread over our cities as carelessly and with as much disregard as they have for our rights and freedoms. When challenged, these visitors don’t understand what’s the matter. In general, mammals are insignificant, intrinsically inferior, and of no consequence except when the Efilu find themselves unarmed and surrounded by humans. These visitors feel very uncomfortable. “Why are humans so aggressive?” They feel frightened. Perhaps all people do when facing the unknown, becoming very defensive. 

That’s the atmosphere I created in Dragon’s Heir. It’s the ultimate saga of caste told from the perspective of Vit Na, the point of view character at the top of the food chain. She represents the pinnacle of privilege, even in Efilu culture. The Efilu Realm stands as a 70 million-year-old civilization of hundreds of sentient species borne of a dinosaurian lineage, population numbering in the trillions ruling together in harmony. The picture of diversity at its best. How could they be racist? In my descriptions, these people appear more like African and other indigenous peoples than anything else. But the twist is, they are not. Not only are they not of African ancestry, they are not even human. They descended from dinosaurs, as we did from primates. Beings that lived, thrived and came to a spacefaring peak, over 65 million years ago, return to exert their right of Eminent Domain upon the Earth. Yet we see the same petty frailties, jealousies, arrogance, and agendas that we find so familiar in our lives and histories.

When the meteorite struck the Earth, the Efilu failed to prevent the devastation that followed. They felt that they would be too inconvenienced adapting to the carnage and ruin to remain and rebuild the Earth. They might have to struggle under living conditions that they weren’t accustomed to and considered beneath them. They had already begun terraforming other worlds in our solar system and experienced no guilt when they evacuated Earth. They left us, the mammalian vermin they called Jing, here to die. 

Well, one species among their number remained behind to restore the planet and save us. With guidance from the ones we came to call Dragons, Earth recovered, and we evolved to fill the vacant niches left by the Efilu and, in so doing, evolved to look like the Efilu. So, it’s a clash of cultures that mirrors our history on Earth and serves as a dark reflection of our moral motives and choices. Echoes of incredulity propagate the possibility that ancient peoples might harbor the ability to accomplish what the modern, western world could not. 

A lot of the challenges that we’re struggling through right now, these Efilu have been through over and over again. So, Vit Na’s people know just how to tap or nudge a civilization into making choices against its interests. Today, we see how certain groups are manipulating the news and making us doubt what we see with our own eyes. The shock of appalling events can go on so long that nothing surprises us anymore. We become numb and prone to inaction and acceptance. Our world is in uncharted waters. There is so much uncertainty. 

Again, what informs my writing is what I’ve read in transformational stories penned by great authors, including one I consider my mentor, Octavia Butler’s Patternist series, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and the iRobot stories. Of course, as I’ve said, Dune is one of my favorites. Buried in these stories is this recurring concept of people being chased, being exploited, being used, and exterminated with extreme prejudice. When I decided to write this story from an alien perspective, an alien character, I had to establish a norm for Vit Na and her people. I had to provide references for a world we don’t know. The only way I could conceive of to do that was to create an encyclopedic dictionary I called the Abridged Jing Pen Translator.

There are so many undiscovered Afrofuturists. So many great creatives have already passed away. The only immortality that writers have is their work and ideas. We need to enjoy all these treasures while they are still with us. I look forward to a vigorous exchange of ideas and further discussions on Afrofuturism on November 8 with Samuel R. Delany, Eugene B. Redmond, Hope Wabuke, and many others, including our audience. This is my Afrofuturism concept. What’s yours? See you in November!

The Afrofuturism and Black Speculative Arts virtual series takes place on October 11, November 8, and December 13, the second Sundays of each month at 2 pm (PST), 3 pm (MT), 4 pm (CST), and 5 pm (EST). The October and November portions of the series are roundtable discussions, while the December program is the reading of poetry of an Afrofuturist immersion and is curated. The participants represent cultural and literary ambassadors discussing their work and what it means to be an Afrofuturist and how the Black Speculative Arts are impactful throughout the African Diaspora.

To register in advance for this program, please click onto:

 https://bit.ly/30fthgf. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

Doctor and Author, Glenn Parris, expert in Afrofuturism and self-described lifelong sci-fi nerd, his interest in the topic began as a tween before the term Afrofuturism was even coined. As a graduate of The Bronx High School of Science, along with Samuel R. Delany, and Neil de Grasse Tyson, he was in good company to have his interests encouraged.  

Parris encompasses his own dichotomy: physician by day, his scientific outlook informs his creative work.  He writes in the genres of sci-fi, fantasy, and medical mystery.   As one of the too few African-American men practicing medicine, his unique perspective makes his writing compelling and makes him an engaging speaker.