Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures

A conversation with curator Kevin Strait about the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture's exhibit and Afrofuturism’s influence on American culture.

In this Ask an Archivist, Choice sits down with Kevin Strait, curator of the Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History & Culture. Kevin provides a background of Afrofuturism, and explains how the exhibit came about and what inspired its title. Kevin further discusses the theme of space and its relationship to Black resistance and describes how the exhibit places the past, present, and future in conversation. Kevin closes with what he hopes viewers take away from the exhibition and his thoughts on Afrofuturism’s influence on American culture.

How would you describe Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures to a perfect stranger? What is Afrofuturism?

I would say there is no “perfect stranger” to the concepts and ideas that give Afrofuturism its meaning in our culture. While the term is certainly new to many, Afrofuturism connects to broader ideas about freedom and agency that speak to every audience. This exhibition explores this connectivity, defining Afrofuturism as an evolving concept expressed through a Black cultural lens that reimagines and reclaims the past and present for a more empowering future.

The central idea of the exhibit is to introduce the audience to the term and explore how African American artists, orators, leaders, and intellectuals historically have utilized themes of technology, mysticism, space, and heroism to envision futures of Black liberation and convey an expansive and empowered image of the Black experience. Initially relegated to academic discourse, Afrofuturism has surpassed boundaries, evolving as a philosophy, a cultural platform, and a dynamic lens to view culture that incorporates the influence of science, technology, as well as notions of time and space, to interpret the Black experience. Through objects, media, images, and stories, our exhibition maps out this alternate pathway of expression, innovation, and creativity for our audience to explore the myriad ways that Afrofuturism has served as a platform for the expression of Black identity. This exhibit also emphasizes a broader understanding of Afrofuturism, not simply as a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy but as a central part of the larger tradition of Black intellectual history.

“Afrofuturism has surpassed boundaries, evolving as a philosophy, a cultural platform, and a dynamic lens to view culture that incorporates the influence of science, technology, as well as notions of time and space, to interpret the Black experience.”

Though the term Afrofuturism was coined by writer and cultural critic Mark Dery in 1993, the exhibit demonstrates that Black activists and artists embraced and expanded Afrofuturist themes long before then. Why is it so important to spotlight early examples of Black speculative thinking, and how do they inform our current understanding of the concept? Could you share an example from the exhibit?

Blake; or The Huts of America by Martin Delany, 1859–62, 1970 edition. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © 1970 Floyd J. Miller)

In many ways, the exhibit serves as an exploration of the Black imagination and the ways that the imagination and speculative thought serve as the most powerful tools against subjugation. For the enslaved, the imagination was a tool to provide solace and hope, and the earliest examples of literature from Black writers, orators, and abolitionists utilized literacy as a new and essential technology that empowered Black people amid the backdrop of slavery and societal racism. With the written word, the power of literacy and invention helped lay new tracks for the Underground Railroad to create pathways for Black people to reimagine their futures as free individuals.

Tracing the history of Black speculative thought and expression from the era of slavery and into the 21st century helps to foreground Afrofuturism and provide the audience with a pathway to interpret its conceptual history. Afrofuturist themes and expressions gave additional voice to the creatives and intellectuals whose works grounded, identified, and located Black culture in an increasingly technological world. The exhibit features work from Martin Delany’s Blake; or, The Huts of America to Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka and W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Comet” to display how Black authors emerged at the turn of the 20th century and provided the earliest voicings of Afrofuturist themes in literary works.

Creating fictional landscapes and exploring topics of rebellion, resistance, pride, and power, literature was a crucial outlet for Black authors reflecting on the shifting racial and technological dynamics of the newly industrialized age. As industrial and technological changes reshaped the world, the underpinnings of Afrofuturism began to emerge in literature to provide a relevant and poignant critique of race in our society.

Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures includes over 100 objects from film, literature, and music, featuring artifacts from Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther suit to Octavia Butler’s typewriter. How did an exhibit of this magnitude come about? Were you originally more interested in incorporating objects from music or film, or was there always an aim to approach Afrofuturism more broadly?

Purple star costume designed by Sun Ra and worn by Arkestra members, early 1990s. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

The ideas for this exhibition first emerged in 2011 when I travelled to George Clinton’s home in Tallahassee, Florida to seek out, collect, and interpret the stage prop known as the Mothership that was, at the time, retired to the living room of the funk music legend. As the museum began its work, the challenges of displaying such an iconic object became apparent, not simply from a perspective of logistics, but how to convey, through interpretation, the symbolic meaning of inanimate objects — prompting discussions not only about the evolution of Black stagecraft, but importantly into the meaning behind objects and how certain pieces come to harbor the aesthetics of the donor’s art. The Mothership is a projection of George Clinton’s wide interests beyond music and art, incorporating a larger message about freedom and liberation that blends Clinton’s broad interests in science fiction, monster movies, Black Power, Civil Rights, and pulp culture in its unique design.

The Mothership was the catalyst for discussing Afrofuturism at the Smithsonian and for collecting objects around this topic. It also opened a wider discussion at the museum about interpreting the symbolic meaning of objects alongside their historic importance. With over 30 years of scholarship and research, Afrofuturism connects to music in numerous and poignant ways, but it is also voiced through literature, visual art, fashion, on stage and screen, through comics and pulp art, political activism, and more. From the writings and visual charts of W. E. B. Du Bois, to a space-themed costume sewn by Sun Ra, to the Black Panther costume worn by Chadwick Boseman, the objects displayed within the exhibition all reflect Afrofuturism’s influential reach across the African American intellectual tradition.

Could you talk about the name of the exhibition, “A History of Black Futures”? How does it exemplify the main themes of Afrofuturism and of the exhibit itself?

The title was devised to give the audience some footing into this broad, complex, and potentially brand-new topic. While the subject of Black futures holds infinite threads and possibilities, the title helps place the exhibit narrative into a historical overview, providing examples into the thought, practice, and expression of Afrofuturism that stretch across time and space, and throughout the Black Diaspora. Invoking a timeline, the title attempts to provide a linear discussion for the very non-linear subject of Afrofuturism. The title, while giving a sense of Afrofuturism’s broad influence and output, also works to preview the themes of the exhibition that surface throughout the visual displays and narrative text. It points to notions of freedom and liberation in both physical and imagined spaces — movement over land, over water, through space and time, individually and collectively towards a goal of freedom — as well as themes of innovation and evolution and primarily how Afrofuturism develops and adapts to address the reality of racism by eschewing racism’s power to gain a more empowered vision of the present and future.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) offers a “Searchable Museum,” an interactive, highly visual website that features online versions of the exhibitions. What is the value in offering digital, accessible ways to connect with the museum’s offerings? Did creating the digital companion site for the “A History of Black Futures” exhibit inform how the physical space is organized (or vice-versa)?

Since the pandemic, the NMAAHC has worked to digitize its collections and exhibition content, moving towards the goal of providing accessible digital content for our global audience, as well as additional content to augment our physical exhibitions. Every physical exhibition presents limitations of scope and size, and the Searchable Museum reduces those limitations, expanding the content to incorporate more stories, more examples, and more sights and sounds than what is possible in a physical space. The digital companion site for A History of Black Futures was created shortly after the exhibition, with the goal of introducing the exhibition to new, online audiences and to delve further into the exhibition content with new stories and added pieces from the museum’s collections.

An outfit of Janelle Monáe’s on display in the “Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures” exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. (National Museum of African American History and Culture)

One of the central themes in the digital Afrofuturism exhibition is Space is the Place. Could you build on the importance of this theme and its connection to Black resistance and liberation? What does the inclusion of the Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership, Nichelle Nichols’s Lt. Nyota Uhura costume from Star Trek, and Lola Flash’s self-portrait series syzygy, the vision in the exhibit further communicate about the role of space for Black communities?

Space is a recurring visual and contextual theme in the exhibition because it’s the natural domain for the imagination. So much of Afrofuturism is about the idea of liberation through exploration, and the exhibit traces this connection by examining how Afrofuturism incorporates space and the cosmos as a central line of its expression. Space is a dominant metaphor in Afrofuturist literature, music, and art, serving as a canvas to illustrate and project ideas about the future. Visualizing the cosmos as a domain free of racism, sexism, poverty, and other Earthly-bound constraints has been associated with African American music-making since its inception, and the exhibition features numerous examples beginning with Sun Ra and extending to P-Funk, OutKast, John Coltrane, and Janelle Monáe. Similarly, the exhibit features works of art from Lola Flash whose work fuses together an array of moods and images but ultimately gives way to notions of joy and agency.

Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures bridges gaps between the past, present, and future. How does the practice of building on history to envision expansive new futures connect to the collective nature of Afrofuturism? How do sampling and collaging build on this?

I think Afrofuturism provides a pathway to interpret and analyze speculative thought and it’s important to incorporate how imagination and speculative expression fuels the ways that African Americans have survived and thrived when other pathways have been closed or limited.

With music, a perfect marriage of speculative expression and sonic innovation emerges to give audiences a better understanding of how Afrofuturism and its central themes of innovation and liberation reach a global audience, providing a sonic platform for futurist ideas. Innovation is crucial to the creation of music because it pushes the art form forward while simultaneously broadening the dimensions of the art and culture that fosters and supports the music.

The exhibit features musical examples from across genres but also focuses on hip hop’s creation and the use of sampling to bridge musical concepts of the past and present. Utilizing the available tools of turntables and the emerging technologies of sampling and looping beats to create sounds, hip-hop emerged in New York City’s South Bronx and surrounding boroughs during the late 1970s and eventually dominated the entire world.

Can you provide some examples of how Afrofuturism illustrates or re-imagines the Black experience in current-day life?

Thinking about the present and our connected lives, Afrofuturism provides a useful platform for today’s activists utilizing technology to organize, protest, and shape public discourse about race. While racism remains a fixture of American culture, the 21st century has exposed societal ills to a greater number of people across the globe, thanks to technology. Digital technology has changed and greatly expanded the way people mobilize around issues of race. As these digital platforms allow for the influx of ideas, the conversation about race has broadened its boundaries, incorporating causes from prison reform, environmental racism, trauma, and transphobia to grant a broader understanding of how these issues affect underinvested communities and connect systemically within the nexus of race. 

Maj Charles Bolden’s flight suit, red tunic worn by Nichelle Nichols in her role as Lt. Uhura in Star Trek, and a flight suit worn by Trayvon Martin on display in the “Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures” exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. (National Museum of African American History and Culture)

How does the exhibit function as a form of social commentary? How does Trayvon Martin’s flight suit fit in, and what does it reveal about Afrofuturist themes of celebration, survival, and memory?

The entire exhibition explores Afrofuturism from the perspective that Afrofuturist thought and expression has existed in relation to, and alongside the radical voice that historically frames Black art and activism. In essence, Afrofuturist expression provides an alternate mouthpiece for voicing social commentary, and the exhibition serves to provide different examples through music, literature, art, film, and activism.

In the final area of the exhibition, we’ve displayed a case housing the red tunic worn by Nichelle Nichols in her role as Lt. Uhura in Star Trek. To the right is a flight suit worn by Maj Charles Bolden, who was inspired by Nichols for her role in the show and by her work with NASA to recruit Black candidates into the field. To the left of Nichol’s tunic is the flight suit worn by Trayvon Martin while attending and training in Experience Aviation, a STEM education program, in his early teens. Inspired by his uncle’s work in the field, Martin was a devoted student and dreamed of working in aviation. His father recalled, “It was a badge of honor for the students to have the flight suit with the patches on it. . . He loved it.” This case is especially meaningful to us at the museum, as we take this close look at his life and aspirations, and how dreams and reality intersect in the language of Afrofuturism.

Through art, oration, music, and literature, Afrofuturists explore futures where white supremacy holds no power, implementing various scientific, digital, literary, and artistic technologies to create new futures and new ideas based in the possibilities of joy, liberation, invention, and freedom.

Is there anything you hope people walk away with after viewing the exhibit? What do you aim to communicate about Afrofuturism’s influence on American culture?

It’s my hope that audiences will walk away from the exhibition seeing, understanding, and experiencing Afrofuturism’s influence in meaningful ways. It has gone beyond the boundaries of scholarship, emerging not just as a trend but as an influential driver of African American culture. Afrofuturism can be seen and felt in cultural spaces, institutions, and other expos dedicated to the thought that there are indeed Black people in the future, heard and interpreted across all fields of art. And it continues to evolve—as a fluid theory, an influential and trendsetting aesthetic, and a diverse and dynamic cultural platform with a deep intellectual tradition and history. Afrofuturism provides an identity for the multitude of activists, intellectuals, and creatives who envision new worlds through their cultural output. Through art, oration, music, and literature, Afrofuturists explore futures where white supremacy holds no power, implementing various scientific, digital, literary, and artistic technologies to create new futures and new ideas based in the possibilities of joy, liberation, invention, and freedom.

Photo of Kevin Strait.
Image of Kevin Strait. (National Museum of African American History and Culture)

About the interviewee:

Kevin Strait
Museum Curator
National Museum of African American History and Culture

To learn more about the Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures Exhibit, please visit:

To learn more about the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAC), please visit:

This interview was conducted by Ashley Roy. She is the digital media assistant at Choice.

Enjoy this interview on Afrofuturism? Check out our TIE Podcast episode, Ekow Eshun on Afrofuturism, Black Speculative Thought, and In the Black Fantastic, and Resources for Understanding and Engaging with Afrofuturism.

Looking for more? Check out more Ask an Archivist interviews from Choice.