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For Ytasha Womack, the Afrofuture is Now

ScienceFor Ytasha Womack, the Afrofuture is Now


On Feb. 17, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago unveiled a new sky show called “Niyah and the Multiverse,” a blend of theoretical cosmology, Black culture and imagination. And as with many things Afrofuturistic, Ytasha Womack’s fingerprints are all over it.

Ms. Womack, who writes both about the genre and from within it, has curated Afrofuturism events across the country — including Carnegie Hall’s citywide festival — and her work is currently featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Afrofuturism is perhaps most popularly on display in the “Black Panther” films, which immerse viewers in an alternate reality of diverse, technologically advanced African tribes untouched by the forces of colonialism. (In 2023, Ms. Womack published “Black Panther: A Cultural Exploration,” Marvel’s reference book examining the films’ influences.)

But examples of the genre include the science fiction writer Octavia Butler, the Star Trek character Nyota Uhura and the cyborgian songs of Janelle Monáe. Some even envision the immortality of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were taken without consent for what became revolutionary breakthroughs in medicine, as an Afrofuturist parable.

Ms. Womack was one of the scriptwriters for “Niyah and the Multiverse.” She spoke with The New York Times about what Afrofuturism means to her, the process of weaving the genre’s themes with core concepts in physics and how the show aims to inspire. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How do you define Afrofuturism?

Afrofuturism is a way of thinking about the future, with alternate realities based on perspectives of the African diaspora. It integrates imagination, liberation, technology and mysticism.

Imagination is important because it is liberating. People have used imagination to transform their circumstances, to move from one reality to another. They’ve used it as a way to escape. When you are in challenging environments, you’re not socialized to imagine. And so to claim your imagination — to embrace it — can be a way of elevating your consciousness.

What makes Afrofuturism different from other futuristic takes is that it has a nonlinear perspective of time. So the future, past and present can very much be one. And that’s a concept expressed in quantum physics, when you think about these other kinds of realities.

Those alternate realities could be philosophical cosmologies, or they could be scientifically explained worlds. How we explain them runs the gamut, depending on what your basis for knowledge is.

Which Afrofuturist works have influenced you?

I think about Parliament-Funkadelic, a popular music collective of the 1970s. As a kid, their album covers were in my basement. A lot of artists during that era — Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Earth, Wind & Fire, Labelle — had these very epic, Afrofuturistic album covers, but Parliament-Funkadelic sticks out. There’s one depicting Star Child, the alter ego of George Clinton, the lead musical artist, emerging from a spaceship. That sort of space-tastic imagery was abounding for me as a kid.



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