Young, Black, and Magical: The Renaissance of YA Afrofuturism and Speculative Fiction
YOUNG, BLACK, AND MAGICAL: THE RENAISSANCE OF YA AFROFUTURISM AND SPECULATIVE FICTION
In the late 2010s, an explosion of young adult (YA) novels by Black women flooded through a previously White-dominated sphere, topping publisher lists week after week. Novels like Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star (2016), Nic Stone’s Dear Martin (2017), Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (2017), and Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X (2018) explicitly addressed social justice concerns such as anti-Black violence, colorism, immigration, police brutality, and sexual assault. The YA Renaissance was born out of a growing Black feminist political climate characterized by Black women taking charge of their bodies, voices, and communities. This reclaiming of Black stories in both literature and reality is reflective of movements like Black Lives Matter (2013) and Say Her Name (2015). With its young audience’s desire to see themselves and their environments within the texts they engage with, YA literature is one of the genres most responsive to social change, and this orientation is especially evident in YA speculative fiction. Speculative fiction, an umbrella term for nonrealist fiction, includes science fiction, fantasy, dystopia, utopia, and horror. Black speculative fiction authors have often utilized fantasy tropes to highlight racial disparities through different species, realms, and worlds.
Youth literature scholar Marek C. Oziewicz describes YA speculative fiction as “one of the most important forges of justice consciousness for the globalized world.” Justice consciousness refers to a protagonist’s awareness of and desire for social justice; these protagonists’ stories are largely “predicated on the dream of justice.” Young Black female protagonists from YA speculative fiction who embody this awareness and desire include Alice Kingston from L.L. McKinney’s A Blade So Black (2018), Jane McKeene from Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation (2018), and Zélie Adebola from Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone (2018). All three fantasy novels respond to and comment on the political, social, and racial unrest prevalent at the time of their writing. McKinney’s take on Alice in Wonderland and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ireland’s reimagining of a zombified post-Civil War United States, and Adeyemi’s creation of an entire world in which White people do not exist, all place Black girls at the center of their stories while resisting White hegemony over the past, present, and future. These novels’ protagonists envision imaginative ways to dismantle oppressive forces as they individually work toward power and survival not just for themselves, but also for their communities. These stories demonstrate what a Black women’s YA speculative fiction tradition can do for Black girls as well as for diverse audiences: Black girls have the ability to dismantle and reimagine the systems that had previously suppressed and rejected them.
With its young audience’s desire to see themselves and their environments within the texts they engage with, YA literature is one of the genres most responsive to social change, and this orientation is especially evident in YA speculative fiction.
Unfortunately, many Black women authors once avoided speculative fiction entirely. According to Ann DuCille, early Black women writers gravitated toward realist genres in order to address race through corrective depictions aimed at combating real-world biases. In the words of Sami Schalk, their Black female characters were “infallibly good” in order to “fit within the cult of true womanhood via the politics of respectability.” Coming out of this long tradition, Black women YA authors were essentially pigeon-holed into realist genres. As a result, until relatively recently, speculative works by Black authors have been nearly nonexistent in the YA field. Luckily, Afrofuturism has begun to bridge the gap between Black YA and Black speculative fiction. At its most basic, Afrofuturism is a genre of art, literature, and music in which the histories and futures of the African diaspora are (re)imagined. Afrofuturism in literature was a response to the neglect of White speculative fiction authors, who failed to include Black characters in their work as anything more than an alienated “Other.” The use of Afrofuturism in YA fiction was first popularized in the early 2010s with the publication of Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch (2011). (It is essential to note, though, that Okorafor does not identify as an Afrofuturist, but as an Africanfuturist, which is a movement rooted in the African continent rather than the West.) Following the success of Akata Witch, there was a boom in Afrofuturist YA lit in the mid-2010s as Afrofuturism became more popular with mainstream audiences.
According to Black feminism and Afrofuturism scholar Susana Morris, Afrofuturism has evolved into “a way of knowing, understanding, and creating in the world that transgresses the bounds of Western notions of progress, identity, and futurity.” In Black women’s YA speculative fiction in particular, Afrofuturism has been deployed in such a way that Western ideologies are cast aside: time is relative, African spiritual and religious traditions are reclaimed, Black women are powerful, dark skin and natural hair are embraced, and magic is valued as much as science. Black women’s Afrofuturism, in the words of Esther Jones, “challenge[s] narratives of authority, recoup[s] denigrated African spiritual and non-mainstream ideologies as sources of legitimate knowledge and authority, and develop[s] ethical codes that result in patterns of relating more humanely across difference.” This can be seen in the work of Afrofuturist greats like Octavia Butler and Jewelle Gomez, as well as that of more recent Afrofuturist authors such as Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, and N. K. Jemisin. Through the prominence of justice-oriented lenses in Afrofuturist studies, Black women are ensuring that the futures envisioned in their texts are ones that exist outside the patriarchal narratives that are so often found in the speculative fiction of the past.
A Blade So Black, Dread Nation, and Children of Blood and Bone...act as a timely, straightforward, and powerful intervention in contemporary Black feminist political thought, as activists are asking how to imagine — and what it means to imagine — an American culture that values Black women’s lives.
In A Blade So Black, Dread Nation, and Children of Blood and Bone, the stories of Alice, Jane, and Zélie, respectively, act as timely, straightforward, and powerful interventions in contemporary Black feminist political thought, as activists are asking how to imagine — and what it means to imagine — an American culture that values Black women’s lives. While scholarship about Black fiction often focuses on literary tropes associated with Black women, many times Black mothers, these YA stories are incredible examples of the complexities that exist within teen-centered narratives. As Black YA continues to grow, it remains responsive to pressing social issues. The incorporation of Afrofuturism into the genre ensures an autonomous place for Black girls of the future, as well as of the past and present. Furthermore, this genre prioritizes stories in which Black girls enact subversive, unconventional, and undervalued ways of being and resisting that can change and expand their futures.
While publishers and the media are beginning to reexamine their portrayal of Black lives, the value that they place on the stories of Others, and the voices that they amplify, it is also important to engage with and consider the Black YA fiction that is not being celebrated within the current Black feminist political climate. While realist Black YA gained widespread acclaim with the movie adaptations of The Hate U Give (2018) and The Sun Is Also a Star (2019), Black YA speculative fiction still has yet to appear on the silver screen. The genre did gain traction in the popular media with Children of Blood and Bone’s explosive debut in 2018: author Tomi Adeyemi reportedly signed a seven-figure book deal, the novel was optioned for a movie before it was even published, and it has since spent over two years on The New York Times Best Sellers list. However, the climate in which the novel gained popularity was a very specific one. Children of Blood and Bone was published less than three weeks after the Black Panther movie premiered in early 2018. In fact, Adeyemi herself describes the book as “Black Panther with magic.” But how would a Black YA fantasy novel fare in the current media landscape without the boost that Black Panther offered? Novels such as Dread Nation and A Blade So Black, for example, which were published in April and September 2018, respectively, did not garner a fraction of the attention that Children of Blood and Bone did. Still, all three novels stand on their own in important ways regardless of how the mainstream media received or ignored them.
Despite Black women’s consistent portrayals as villainous, witch-like characters in mainstream television series and movies, like The Vampire Diaries’ Bonnie Bennett or The Pirates of the Caribbean’s Calypso, they very rarely receive meaningful, complicated character arcs. Considering the limitations that exist within the wider public imagination when it comes to Black characters in fantastical settings — beyond those portrayed by Will Smith, that is — it is evident that texts such as McKinney’s A Blade So Black, Ireland’s Dread Nation, and Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone contribute much-needed narratives for Black girls. Within a culture that appropriates, capitalizes on, and fetishizes young Black girls, the stories of Alice, Jane, and Zélie are important expressions of Black female agency. Their show of autonomy, imagination, and survival directly contests the image of Black narratives as voyeuristic tragedies. The imagining of Black girlhood in the past, present, and future, as well as the alternate universes that Black YA fiction, Black feminism, and Afrofuturism offer, represent the vast capabilities of these genres, fields, and methodologies. It is proof of why they must be celebrated both by critics and in the mainstream. Moreover, given YA fans’ love for a series, sequels to each of the aforementioned texts have already been released in the last year. Although I have yet to read them, I can only hope that in the continuation of Alice, Jane, and Zélie’s stories, the magic remains, and that these young Black female protagonists continue to find the power to thrive in imaginative ways.
The incorporation of Afrofuturism into the genre ensures an autonomous place for Black girls of the future, as well as of the past and present. Furthermore, this genre prioritizes stories in which Black girls enact subversive, unconventional, and undervalued ways of being and resisting that can change and expand their futures.
Charlotte Taylor just graduated from UT Austin with a Master of Arts in women’s and gender studies. Her thesis examined the intersection of Afrofuturism, Black feminism, and YA literature. Her experience in academia combined with her experiences living and traveling abroad have fostered her passion for diverse communities, ethics, feminism, inclusion, innovation, and literature. She is passionate about spreading knowledge and narratives from and to diverse communities and hopes to begin a career in feminist publishing in order to do so. You can find her on LinkedIn.