From music to construction, Afrofuturism has been a term coined by many to explain many facets of Black identity and life. The word’s conjunction of “Afro” and “future” has allowed the term to be used to describe anything encapsulating Black imagination that does not exist yet. However, scholars have worked to cultivate an all-encompassing definition. In “The Underground Railroad as Afrofuturism: Enslaved Blacks Who Imagined a Future and Use Technology to Reach the Outer Spaces of Slavery” (2019), Dann J. Broyld defined “Afrofuturism as the intersection of race, innovation, and technology to visualize future liberation.”1 Afrofuturism is built on the idea that Black American existence and prosperity in the future is definite because of the tools that Black people have cultivated in the past. The creators of the Richmond National Slavery Museum decided to make this theory the basis of the museum’s propagation.
The term Afrofuturism was first popularized by author Mark Dery in the 1990s, and its history has been associated with musical acts like Sun Ra. However, Afrofuturism’s genesis can be traced back to the 19th century, in science fiction books. As outlined by Lisa Yaszek in “Afrofuturism, Science Fiction, and the History of the Future” (2006), authors like Martin Delaney were cultivating a connection between Black people and science by creating alternate realities in which Black and Cuban enslaved people “engineer a successful revolution.”2 Throughout the early and mid-20th century Black authors like W.E.B. Dubois and Black musicians were using art as a metric to create new worlds in which Black people could understand freedom differently from the false promises the system gave them.
In current times, Afrofuturism has been integrated into the mainstream by being the plot philosophy of major movies and albums. It made its way into politics and protest movements. It has also been applied as a framework in how many scholars view histories. Many people have told the history of Black people in American as non-autonomous victims to the original crime of the country. Afrofuturism has reimagined the history of enslaved people as technologists who encoded a change into American DNA. The theory does not see Black people as “primitive or backward.”3 Afrofuturism sees their survival tools as the motherboard or battery for Black people’s resistance today.
The main goal of Afrofuturism is shifting the way history is told, to aid the present in the future. Black past is often placed in a negative life. The has been an incredible amount of violence that has been perpetrated and replicated against Black bodies for generations. But Afrofuturism makes Black peoples enslaved past as a citation for a better future. As highlighted by Syrus Marcus Ware in, “Ancestors, Can You Read Us? (Dispatches from the Future)” (2020), this thinking can help present people see a “future beyond the current epoch of Black social death and insecurity and this time marked by the ever-present capitalist forces of greed and the persistent script of police and state violence.”4
The contract architectural firm for the Richmond National Slavery Museum, SmithGroup wrote that Afrofuturism with being implicated in the museum by its “contemporary expression of traditional African values reimagined through the lens of the Black experience in America.”5 One of the ways that this is perpetuated is through the outside design of the building. The museum is a Building Parti; is planned to be built at a slant, with a hypotenuse being a rooftop garden, mirroring the lines of the American flag (figure below). The museum is built directly on the slave jail grounds. The elevation of parts of the garden is supposed to symbolize history being pushed above ground, like a hand forcing history to be unearthed. The future plantings of America are dependent on the forgotten history of people who this country has exploited.
Another way that Afrofuturism is ingrained in museums’ plans is through the placement of ancestors’ names. There was a cemetery on Lumpkin’s property. However, through city planning, the land was given partially to a Hebrew Cemetery and the rest of it was left unmarked. The names of people who lost their lives are often forgotten. Putting them on a wall, allows us to remember those names and their history, but it also means that they are placed at eye level. One does not have to look down to the ground to see Black ancestors. They must look forward and up at the wall to know who these people are. This encapsulates the Afrofuturist philosophy, because it shows that the Black lives and struggles are the past are not solely in the past. They help us to see our future.
A core part of Afrofuturism is that the art created in its name must be linked to a certain radical resistance. However, the nature of creating art, especially Black art is often commodified and co-opted. While it is infused with Afrofuturism, the creation of the museum is primarily being funded by the Richmond City Government, which has currently criminalized and jails Black bodies. It has taken away Black voter rights, and the police (funded by the local government) has tear-gassed Black citizens for protesting for human rights. They are the body that is hurting Black resistance. While this museum might help people rethink Black history or propel them to make a change they would not have before, real systematic change can on be activated if the body that funds the project stops hurting Black people, or it will inherently continue the sin of false promises from the past. As Felicia L. Harris said in “Tell Me the Story of Home’: Afrofuturism, Eric Killmonger, and Black American Malaise” (2020), “it is evident that even the wildest imagination of Black futures cannot escape meditations on a past that is ever-present, particularly when appealing to mass audiences.”6
1.Dann J. Broyld, “The Underground Railroad as Afrofuturism: Enslaved Blacks Who Imagined a Future and Used Technology to Reach the ‘Outer Spaces of Slavery,’” Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Studies 6, no. 3 (2019): 170-185, 170.
2.Lisa Yaszek, “Afrofuturism, Science Fiction, and the History of the Future,” Socialism and Democracy 20, no. 3 (2006): 41-60, 44.
3.Dann J. Broyld, “The Underground Railroad as Afrofuturism: Enslaved Blacks Who Imagined a Future and Used Technology to Reach the ‘Outer Spaces of Slavery,’” Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Studies 6, no. 3 (2019): 170-185, 172.
4.Syrus Marcus Ware, “Ancestors, Can You Read Us? (Dispatches from the Future),” Journal of Canadian Studies 54, no. 2-3 (2020): 558-561, 558.
5.SmithGroup, Architectural Concept Development (rva.gov, 2019), accessed December 3, 2021, https://www.rva.gov/capital-improvement-projects/lumpkins-jaildevils-half-acre-slave-trail-and-shockoe-hill-african.
6.Felicia L. Harris, “‘Tell Me the Story of Home’: Afrofuturism, Eric Killmonger, and Black American Malaise,” Review of Communication 20, no. 3 (February 2020): 278-285, 284.