Afrofuturism, a term originally coined in scholarly circles, is a recurring theme in literature, art, music, film, academia and more, and an intellectual platform that African Americans have utilized to liberate themselves by re-imagining futures and realities of Black life.  This concept also has historic roots that stretch across time and throughout the African Diaspora.

Our museum highlights five Black icons who helped define the ever-evolving concept through their activism, artistry and humanity. Their influence spans across disciplines, genres and decades – while re-imagining the past, present and future through a Black cultural lens. 

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773. Written by Phillis Wheatley. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, CC0

Born in West Africa and sold into slavery before her emancipation in 1775, Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was the first Black author and second woman to publish a book of poems. She learned how to read in both Greek and Latin at age 12 and began writing poetry at age 14.

At age 20, she wrote “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” a collection of essays. She used her writing to fight against inequality. Personifying imagination as a feminine force capable of freeing the enslaved from earthly boundaries, Wheatley’s work imagines new futures for Black people, providing a template for the literary practice of Afrofuturism.

Republished collection of Phillis Wheatley poems

This hardcover book, published by R.R. and C.C. Wright in 1909, contain poems written by Phillis Wheatley(1753 - 1784).  Wheatley's poems were originally published in London in 1773.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of M. Denise Dennis, in honor of the Dennis Family
Imagination! Who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Phillis Wheatley

Octavia Butler

Groundbreaking author and Afrofuturist icon Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006) emerged as a powerful voice in science fiction in the 1970s. 

Science fiction writer Octavia Butler

Photograph by Patti Perret.
Reproduced courtesy of the Octavia E. Butler Estate

Photography by Patti Perret. Reproduced courtesy of the Octavia E. Butler Estate

Rather than mimic the styles of white male authors who dominated the field, Butler wrote stories aligned with Black cultural themes and with Black characters, often as heroic survivors in oppressive worlds.

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Many of her works, including “Kindred” in 1979 and “Parable of the Sower” in 1993, feature Black female protagonists challenging social hierarchies of race, class, and gender. Butler’s unique voice forged a path for other nontraditional voices in sci-fi.

Image of the cover of Mind of My Mind
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, A gift from K evin Strait and Robert Jackson, Book © Octavia E. Butler, Cover image © John Blanche
You’ve got to make your own worlds. You’ve got to write yourself in. Octavia Butler

Jackie Ormes

Jackie Ormes (1911–1985) was the first African American female syndicated cartoonist to be published in a newspaper. Though not a science fiction writer, she pioneered the expression of Afrofuturism, writing and illustrating comic strips to create idealized worlds for Black characters, specifically, Black women and girls.

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Rejecting racial stereotypes such as the mammy and pickaninny, Ormes created a space for original, carefree and dynamic Black comic characters and stories with “Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem” and “Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger.” 

Cartoonist Jackie Ormes' "Torchy Togs"

Cartoonist Jackie Ormes' "Torchy Togs" published on March 3, 1951. 

Ohio State University Libraries / Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum

Often, her lead characters were female, strong and witty. Ormes published cartoons from 1937 until retiring in 1956. Her first strip was published in 1937 in “The Pittsburgh Courier” and “The Chicago Defender,” both African American newspapers

Cartoon
Torchy Brown could never have been some kind of mushy soap opera. She was no moonstruck crybaby, and she wouldn’t perish between heartbreaks. I have never liked dreamy little women who can’t hold their own. Jackie Ormes

Nichelle Nichols

Nichelle Nichols (1931–2022) starred as Lt. Nyoto Uhura, chief communications officer of the USS Enterprise and captivated fans of the “Star Trek” television series from the start of its 1966 prime-time debut. Nichols made history playing a nonmenial role, breaking significant ground for Black women in television, film and beyond.

Nichols

A versatile performer and accomplished singer and dancer, Nichols considered leaving the series after one season to pursue Broadway aspirations. She remained, however, after a chance conversation with Martin Luther King Jr. at an NAACP fundraiser. A fan of the show’s multicultural vision of the future, King persuaded Nichols of her character’s positive impact and her importance as a role model for Black children and young women.

Nichelle Nichols speaking with students about the space shuttle in 1977.

Nichelle Nichols speaking with students about the space shuttle in 1977.

NASA

She also inspired a generation of women and people of color to enter the fields of aeronautical and aerospace engineering—including famed astronauts Mae Jemison and Guion Bluford. In 1970s and 1980s, she helped NASA recruit new astronaut candidates including Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., the fourth African American astronaut in space and the first African American to lead NASA.

Red Starfleet uniform worn by Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek
Space travel benefits us here on Earth. And we ain't stopped yet. There's more exploration to come. Nichelle Nichols

Nona Hendryx

Musician, producer, activist, and futurist, Nona Hendryx  (b. 1944) is driven by her constant push to re-create and reenvision her art and image, utilizing technology to invent new musical and aesthetic forms of creative expression.

Nona Hendryx, a musician, producer, and futurist

Musician, producer, mentor and futurist Nona Hendryx, circa 1985.  RCA Records/Getty Images

As a founding member of the pop group Labelle, she wrote songs such as “Cosmic Dancer” and “Space Children” about Black futures, citing Superman comics, quantum theory, and the film “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman” as inspirations.

Spacesuit costume worn by Nona Hendryx of Labelle

Nona Hendrix wore this silver, spacesuit-inspired costume while performing with Labelle in 1975. It was designed by Larry LeGaspi (1950-2001), who also provided costumes for P-Funk and Kiss.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Nona Hendryx of Labelle.

She envisioned the space-age look of the group with Puerto Rican designer Larry LeGaspi. Creating art without boundaries within a music industry that historically imposes strict ideas around genre, gender, and race, Hendryx makes music to not only challenge but destroy existing norms.

Nona Hendrix, a musician, producer, and futurist performing at the Met

Nona Hendryx performing at the Met, 2020. Metropolitan Museum of Art / Paula Lobo

Afrofuturism rekindled my childhood fascination with science, space, astronomy, and I introduced
it into the music . . . that I wrote.
Nona Hendryx

Re-Imagining the Past, Present and Future

To learn more about the genre-spanning movement, visit our “Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures” exhibition, which explores the past, present and future of this dynamic concept. 

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