The LSA Institute for the Humanities and the University of Michigan Arts Initiative explored how Afrofuturism — a cultural aesthetic emerging in the 1990s that combined elements of science fiction and Black popular culture — manifests in art today in a virtual panel Wednesday night. 

The panel was a part of the University’s Octavia Butler Week programming in honor of African American author Octavia Butler who received a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1995.

Four panelists were featured and the panel was moderated by Christopher Audain, managing director of the U-M Arts Initiative. The panel discussed the intersection of art and Afrofuturism in light of the upcoming U-M theatrical adaptation of Octavia Butler’s post-apocalyptic novel Parable of the Sower

Naomi André, professor of Afroamerican and American studies and women’s and gender studies, began the panel discussion by talking about the function of art in an Afrofuture. Andre said Afrofuturism is a space of possibility and art can help realize that possibility.

“Metaphorically art can be a spaceship,” Andre said. “The destination of the spaceship is that space of possibility … a place where Black people are treated as fully human. A place where Black folks do not need handouts or special treatments. It is a space where all people are part of the same whole where the smartest and the best people come from all racial backgrounds and ethnic backgrounds. Art can help us think of these places, envision these landscapes.”

Tananarive Due, a lecturer in the department of African American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, spoke about her work with horror. As a genre, Due said, horror can be a form of escapism for members of the Black community because the danger portrayed is not real, unlike the ever-present threat posed by white supremacy.

Due then spoke about her mother’s experience as an activist in the 1960s. She said that her parents were living proof that change was possible through action and that through activism, change was already happening. 

“I’m often struck by the irony of how that social agitation in the 1960s was in sort of a futuristic vacuum,” Due said. “Because you’re fighting for a future you do not know how to even anticipate, and in fact, some of the things that those activists in the 60s would have considered futurism were already happening, but just outside of their knowledge, which is one of the things about Afrofuturism that is so exciting. It’s not only the arts, but it’s the activism.”

Susana M. Morris, an associate professor and scholar of Black feminism, Black digital media and Afrofuturism at Georgia Institute of Technology, then spoke about the power she felt when she first met Octavia Butler.

“The idea that the only constant (in the world) is change and that we humans, even working class Black girls with big ideas have the power to truly shape our world for the better or worse, was thrilling,” Morris said.

Morris then spoke about the idea of a “positive obsession,” something that Butler described herself as having. 

“(Butler) called her deep unmitigated desire to create art and share her work a positive obsession,” Morris said. “Butler said her positive obsession became a higher calling and wished everyone to have a positive obsession. 

John Jennings, professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside, also spoke at the panel about the rise of Afrofuturism and his work translating Octavia Butler’s novels into graphic novels. 

“I can’t relate how difficult it was to work with but also the amount of pressure it was … thinking about this from a kind of vantage point of us collaborating with Octavia Butler and trying to figure out how to translate her words into a graphic novel,” Jennings said.

In the question and answer portion of the event, Rackham student Symone Campbell asked the panelists for recommendations of texts or films for Black students who want to learn more about Afrofuturism.

“Start with the dark matter series,” Jennings said. “These are collections of speculative fiction by and about people of color. They are a really good subsection of work in various genres.”

Morris added that Afrofuturism is closely tied to the idea of Black joy, which celebrates the accomplishments and experiences of the Black community, despite centuries of discrimmination and trauma.

“Afrofuturism as a cultural movement is fundamentally Black joy centered, because to posit a future where Black folk are centered, not marginalized, where we are absolutely necessary for the continuance of human society is a hopeful project, is a project that is joyful,” Morris said.

In her final remarks, Due said that younger people have a different perspective and that the younger generation has the ability to question aspects of the world that older generations have settled into.

“There’s a part of us that has settled for what reality is and the way the younger generation has not, they look out and say why,” Due said. “So let’s … have the imagination at least to listen to someone who’s trying to picture and point a path toward a different way.”

Daily Staff Reporter Genevieve Gruenler can be reached at