Tananarive Due on “Afrofuturism: Dreams to Banish Nightmares”

By Ali Banach

On this windy afternoon, Tananarive Due took to the Key West Literary Seminar stage to deliver a lecture about the genre of Afrofuturism and its role in books, cinema, and music. Toward the beginning of her talk, Due offered a working definition of Afrofuturism as “speculative work,” including science fiction, fantasy, and horror, created by members “of the African Diaspora.” As an author writing Black speculative fiction and as a professor in Black Horror and Afrofuturism at UCLA, Due brought an academic, writerly, and personal perspective.

            Due underlined the importance of Octavia E. Butler’s work for the Afrofuturist imagination. Regarding the climate crisis as a dimension of the genre, Due stated, “Octavia was fixed on these things.” Due spoke to Butler’s body of work: “Everything she wrote was begging us to wake up.” She explained that Butler, in her writing life, wrote “from her heart space.” Due celebrated the recent adaptation of Butler’s novel Kindred to the screen as a huge step for the genre and its practitioners.

Naming Butler as its pioneer, Due emphasized the urgency of Afrofuturistic writing not just for representation, but additionally as a vehicle to propel society away “from the brink” and toward “utopia.” Due redefined “utopia” as “a verb, not a noun”; something forever out of reach but as a forward movement.

            Due foregrounded her talk as a personal fan of speculative work but made sure to critique the harmful conventions of the associated genres. She outlined the reduction of Black characters in horror movies to tropes including spiritual guides, faithful servants and sacrificial characters. She explained that, “Very often tropes are frankly lazy writing.” Due advocated for the inclusion of Black Afrofuturist writers in writing rooms and in Hollywood, emphasizing the turning point of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.

            Picking up a common thread that has weaved its way through this year’s seminar, Due also spoke on Afrofuturism’s role in music. She defined Afrofuturism in music as a “blending of musical genres in a way that moves the form forward.” She cited the work of George Clinton, Prince, Janelle Monáe, and Missy Elliot. She highlighted the way their sound was forward-looking and formally imaginative.

            When outlining roadblocks to access, Due touched on the bias against genre fiction. She argued that, “Authors in the realm of speculation are actually carrying a little extra weight” than those writing literary fiction. In addition to creating compelling emotional scenarios, they also must build worlds. However, genre fiction including horror, fantasy, and science fiction is often denigrated in academic institutions. Due’s lecture crafted a compelling case for the political and social work of Afrofuturism. She explains the urgency of an imaginary that asks, “What if there were no hierarchies?”

            In the question portion following Due’s talk, author Ashley C. Ford asked about the importance of nurturing Black children, about teaching them “how to imagine in the other direction,” toward future and happiness and possibility. Due answered that the first part of nurturing a child’s imagination is to teach Black history. The second part is to teach them to dream. Due summarized, looking outward at those gathered in Key West; “That’s what I love about Afrofuturists… it’s really about the interaction between past, present, and future.”

Ali Banach is a current MFA candidate at Columbia University. She is from Mechanicsburg, PA.

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