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Do you know what the term Afrofuturism means? It was used approximately 30 years ago to define cultural and artistic productions (music, literature, visual arts, etc.) that imagine a future for Black people without oppressive systems and examines how Black history and knowledge intersect with technology and science, according to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH)
According to the Association, afrofuturist elements can be found in the music of Sun Ra, Rashan Roland Kirk, Janelle Monáe, and Jimi Hendrix. Other examples include sci-fi writer Octavia Butler’s novels, Marvel film “Black Panther,” and artists such as British-Liberian painter Lina Iris Viktor, Kenyan-born sculptor Wangechi Mutu, and Caribbean writers and artists such as Nalo Hopkinson and Grace Jones.
This year, ASALH is incorporating Afrofuturism in its Black History Month theme of “African Americans and the Arts.” The National Museum of African American History & Culture at the Smithsonian Institute also addresses Afrofuturism in its recent exhibit. Using more than 100 objects from music, film, television, comic books, fashion, theater, literature, and more, the museum’s latest exhibition covers over a century of Afrofuturism’s rich history of expression. It investigates its impact and broad influence on American culture.
On its website, the Museum paid homage to five Black female icons who helped define the ever-evolving concept through their activism, artistry, and humanity. Their influence spans disciplines, genres, and decades – while reimagining the past, present, and future through a Black cultural lens. 
Phillis Wheatley
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 to read in 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.
Octavia Butler
Groundbreaking author and Afrofuturist icon Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006) emerged as a powerful voice in science fiction in the 1970s. 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.
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.
Jackie Ormes
Jackie Ormes (1911–1985) was the first African American female syndicated cartoonist 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.
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.” 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. 
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 by playing a nonmenial role, breaking significant ground for Black women in television, film, and beyond.
A versatile performer, accomplished singer, and dancer, Nichols considered leaving the series after one season to pursue Broadway aspirations. However, she remained after a chance conversation with Martin Luther King Jr. at an NAACP fundraiser. King, a fan of the show’s multicultural vision of the future, persuaded Nichols of her character’s positive impact and importance as a role model for Black children and young women.
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 the 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.
Nona Hendryx
Muscian, 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.
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.
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 challenge and destroy existing norms.

Ebony Huerta Wells has over 25 years of writing and media experience. She was a former business journalist with a major newspaper and worked for other niche publications.

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