"Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures," exhibit at the mithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is open until March 2024. Photo credit: Josh Weilepp/NMAAHC

Afrofuturism exhibit at Smithsonian looks to the past to understand Black folks in the future

4 mins read

Exhibit features more than 100 objects and reveals this evolving concept’s historic and poignant engagement with African American history and popular culture.

It was 1999 and the world was supposed to have fallen with Y2K. As a young reporter at a Black newspaper, my assignment load was for two and I was partying like it was the end of the world. Juggling beat stories and entertainment features, my editor, a voracious reader, gave me a book titled, Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler. She said it was a great author to cover during our last months of the millennium.

After interviewing Jamaican fiction writer, Nalo Hopkinson, for her debut book, Brown Girl in the Ring, I was enthralled with novels featuring Black girl protagonists in otherworldly, futuristic themes. Casually cracking the book open, my curiosity was present, but superficial. My allegiances were to Walter Mosley, but it ended that day. 

The first few pages of Parable of the Talents projected me to a post-apocalyptic Oregon with a young woman named Lauren Oya Olamina Bankole. A Pasadena, California teen, she’d formed a new society after the world imploded from climate, sociological and economic issues. 

I grew up 22 miles from Pasadena, and never thought a savior could rise from the drought tolerant plants of a mountainous L.A. suburb. One of the protagonist’s names, Oya, is a Yoruba deity who represents revolution by tearing shit down. Lauren was I, and I was her. 

Enthralled, I set up an interview with Ms. Butler. When the publicist reached out to me, she explained that the author was a recluse who gave few interviews, but granted me a phoner, or an interview over the phone. Ms. Butler was from Pasadena, and wanted to speak with the local Black paper. This is how the old heads respected the Black press back in the day. Now, not so much.

Let me get back on track. In whole, I wasn’t ready for the interview. With a year and some change under my belt, I arrogantly did not research Ms. Butler enough. I knew nothing about her writing of Black folks shapeshifting and on spaceships since the 1970s. My questions were at best, a pebble-sized ripple in her textured life. Yet and still, the ripple effect has had a lasting impact.

The interview turned out to be more of a lesson and an experience. What I remember about the conversation was Ms. Butler’s deep tone. If it had a color, it was the darkest mahogany. Her cadence was slow and measured, but expansive with every word. She explained her writing career, and how she approached developing her characters. 

In the discussion, she said she wrote in the morning. I kept plucking for more insight and I recall closing my eyes and listening. I ate every punctuation. She spoke in slow sing-song. God, I wanted to write like her. But, in mid-sentence, as I held on to descriptive explanations, the phone went dead.

She’d hung up on me. The publicist who was on the phone profusely apologized, but I was not offended at all. I felt full. The story I wrote was blah. I had a deadline to make. What I did do was go to Eso Won Books to request every Octavia E. Butler publishing they had. My mind fell into her world for the remaining months of 1999. While it was the end of the world for some, Ms. Butler gave me insight and inspiration. That perhaps, Black girls from ghettos would save the world.

Quantum leap to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) this Memorial Day weekend 2023. Now I am a professor teaching a food sustainability course in Washington D.C. Farms and futures became my calling. While counting college students from my class, I am a little weary from being some of the thousands walking through the architecturally brilliant building.

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Opening of the Afrofuturism exhibition is a video with author, Octavia E. Butler. Photo credit: Ark Republic/Kaia Shivers

Since its opening in 2016, NMAAHC has welcomed more than 8.5 million in-person visitors and millions more through its digital presence. Occupying a prominent location next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. 

Known as the Blacksonian, as a note, I like to start at the bottom of NMAAHC. To me, the belly of the museum exhibition is the keel of a slave ship. But in that part of the exhibit, the waiting lines are always snaked past Sweet Home Cafe when I visited, just like today. Exasperated, I left the queue to explore other showings on the floors above. 

Right as I was about to jump on the escalator, a staffer stopped me. “Have you seen the Afrofuturism exhibit?” She asked. “Oh no,” I responded in pleasant surprise. She pointed to her right and there stood a 10 foot video of George Clinton speaking while wearing an Arabic belly dancer mask. I floated into the dark room projecting his image. A few minutes later, I saw Ms. Butler’s photo and rare video footage of her speaking in that mahogany timber. I’d landed on The Mothership.

The “Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures,” investigates Afrofuturist expression through art, music, activism and more. This exhibition explores and reveals Afrofuturism’s historic and poignant engagement with African American history and popular culture. From the enslaved who looked to the cosmos for freedom to popular sci-fi stories inspiring Black astronauts, to the musical influence of Sun Ra, OutKast, P-Funk, Nona Hendrix, and others.

Through the 4,300-square-foot temporary exhibition, curators meticulously assembled a variety of objects from Afrofuturism pioneers to show how those of African descent look at the past to understand their presence in the future. From Octavia Butler’s typewriter, Nichelle Nichols’ Star Trek uniform as the character Lt. Nyota Uhura and Erykah Badu’s head wrap.

A highlight of the exhibition is the Black Panther hero costume worn by the late Chadwick Boseman. The Black Panther is the first superhero of African descent to appear in mainstream American comics, and the film itself is the first major cinematic production based on the character.

The exhibition also utilizes select objects to elevate stories that speak to Black liberation and social equality, such as Trayvon Martin’s flight suit from Experience Aviation, and his childhood dream of being an astronaut.

“Trayvon Martin’s flight suit tells the story of a dream of space flight ended tragically by earthbound violence,” said Kevin Young, the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “We are honored to tell more of Trayvon’s story, exploring his love of flight and mechanics and his fondness for science and technology. Afrofuturism charts the joy of a rich, imagined future, often in the face of injustice.”

The Afrofuturism exhibit will be up until March 2024.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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