The Books Briefing: Imagining Black Futures

Afrofuturism draws from the history of the African diaspora to imagine liberatory possibilities for the future: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Black Panther
Marvel / The Atlantic

The death of Chadwick Boseman last week revealed the ability of art to imagine new, daring possibilities for the future. In his roles as T’Challa, Jackie Robinson, and James Brown, Boseman expertly portrayed Black icons and heroes, providing visions of hope by embodying individuals who challenged power narratives. That is, in many ways, the core of Afrofuturism, a tradition represented in a long line of books written by Black writers such as Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany. These writers dared to build worlds infused with elements of magical realism, fantasy, and technological innovation to realize dreams of resistance and freedom.

Afrofuturism draws from the history of the African diaspora to imagine liberatory possibilities for the future. In his essay about writing the Black Panther comic, Ta-Nehisi Coates described how comics go beyond escapism, offering potent critiques of society. Nalo Hopkinson’s prophetic 1998 novel Brown Girl in the Ring and Lesley Nneka Arimah’s 2017 short-story collection What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky depict nightmarish futures, though the tenacity of their characters provides solutions for transcendence. In Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi taps into West African folklore to tell a story that resonates with the history of racial violence that informs today’s protests.

Afrofuturism’s power extends further than long-overdue representation in science fiction for women and people of color. The genre examines the intricacies of race, class, gender, and sexuality to create worlds. As N. K. Jemisin told The Atlantic’s staff writer Vann R. Newkirk II in 2016: “It does take people who understand systems of power, who understand the complexities of how people interact with each other to depict that.”

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

Mona Van Duyn
Marvel / The Atlantic

The return of Black Panther
“In Black Panther there is a simpler question: Can a good man be a king, and would an advanced society tolerate a monarch? Research is crucial in both cases. The Black Panther I offer pulls from the archives of Marvel and the character’s own long history. But it also pulls from the very real history of society—from the pre-colonial era of Africa, the peasant rebellions that wracked Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages, the American Civil War, the Arab Spring, and the rise of ISIS.

Daniela Yohannes

Where fantasy meets Black Lives Matter
“In a time of great loss, when the world we’ve known has disappeared, [Maxine Kumin] reminds us that the act of recollecting can be a source of beauty in itself.”

Rebecca Cook / Reuters

The 1998 dystopian novel that eerily foresaw 2013 Detroit
Like Hopkinson's fictional “Toronto, Detroit's inner city has a high rate of African-Americans living in poverty. But in Hopkinson's narrative, they become the main characters, both the victims of the economic situation that they had little hand in creating and the heroes, responsible for the city's eventual renewal.”

📚 Ti-Jean and His Brothers, by Derek Walcott

A photo illustration of two faces forming a vase between them
Laura Hanifin / Hachette / Zachary Bickel / The Atlantic

N. K. Jemisin and the politics of prose
“A rich tale of earth-moving superhumans set in a dystopian world of regular disasters, The Fifth Season manages to incorporate the deep internal cosmologies, mythologies, and complex magic systems that genre readers have come to expect, in a framework that also asks thoroughly modern questions about oppression, race, gender, class, and sexuality.”

Diego Main / Getty

The powerful pessimism of What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky
“A spirit of willful perseverance suffuses Arimah’s collection, too, and pulls it back from the brink of total bleakness. Above all, her writing conveys respect for the people who claw their way through relentlessly difficult lives.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kristine Guillaume. The book she’s reading next is A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

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