Steampunk as Afrofuturism
by Maurice Broaddus
Afrofuturism is hot right now. Ever since Black Panther made its seismic splash, the term has been bandied about and suddenly folks are “discovering” black writers who have been out there doing the thing for years. The original “Pimp My Airship” steampunk short story was published in Apex Magazine in 2009, the beginning of what would be termed “steamfunk” (steampunk through the black cultural lens). Steamfunk and Afrofuturism do very similar work.
The term ‘Afrofuturism’ was coined in 1994 by cultural critic, Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future.” He defines it as “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture — and more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” Ytasha Womack defines Afrofuturism as “an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation.” Similarly, steampunk is speculative fiction that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century steam-powered industrial age. They are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century British Victorian era or the American “Wild West,” in a future whose technology revolves around steam power.
Afrofuturism has a larger aesthetic mode, encompassing visual art, music, film, literature, and fashion to create a framework to critique our present, that’s rooted in history and looks to the future derived from Afrodiasporic experiences. Afrofuturism mixes science fiction and social justice, imagines the future through art and the lens of black experience, and is rooted in black people’s pursuit of a better future for ourselves on our terms.
Steampunk, with its emphasis on Victorian era ethos, features an aesthetic rooted in the era's perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art. Historically, steampunk ignored the “darker” aspects of the Victorian Era, such as colonialism, sexism, classism, racism, and chattel slavery; its Make Literature Great Again mindset erasing POC. [In recent years this has been examined with works such as Steamfunk! by Milton J. Davis, The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia by Jaymee Goh, Steampunk World/Steampunk Universe by Sarah Hans, Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley, and The Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark.]
In my novel Pimp My Airship, all the poet called Sleepy wants to do is spit his verses, smoke chiba, and stay off the COP’s radar—all of which becomes impossible once he encounters a professional agitator known as (120 Degrees of) Knowledge Allah. Beneath the comic romp, there’s some serious business that gets done, which coincides with the work that defines Afrofuturism.
Rooted in history.
In my steampunk world—from “Pimp My Airship” to “Steppin’ Razor” to Buffalo Soldier to the nearly dozen other short stories set here—America lost the Revolutionary War and remains a colony of Albion. The legacy of slavery and colonialism have sown the seeds of racialism. Oppressive societal control systems have been built. And in this cauldron of racist systems, the city of Indianapolis—and the people who live there—struggles to figure out what it wants to be.
A framework to critique our present.
Sleepy and Knowledge Allah have grown up in communities isolated by redlining, forgotten and abandoned in the undercity known as The Tombs. As their adventures escalate, these accidental revolutionaries have to navigate systems of an over-policed state, mass incarceration, and run up against the industrial-military complex arrayed against them.
Eye to the future.
To overcome the way society remains unequal, there has to be visions of a future where the problems are solved. Revolution takes many forms. To paraphrase Tananarive Due, even imagining ourselves with a better future is an act of revolution. Each person has a simple question to answer: have you had enough? When that answer becomes yes, you have to leverage your gifts—be you poet, artist, or writer—to act where you are and lend your voice to The Cause.
Afrofuturist art is the intersection of a black cultural lens, technology, liberation, and imagination. It bridges the past and future to critique the present. Afrofuturism is about: Remembering, Resilience, and Resistance. It creates awareness, raising consciousness, and maps potential futures; beginning with a journey of self-discovery, exploring black identity; and involving a radical imagining as systemic baggage gets deconstructed. Afrofuturism allows conversations about race and oppression that people don’t know how to have. Pimp My Airship, with steampunk trappings as its backdrop, constantly asks the Afrofuturist question “What future do you want to see?” as it imagines alternative visions of tomorrow. Maybe with steamfunk meeting Afrofuturism, it’s time for a new genre label. Perhaps, as editor Bill Campbell suggests, “Funktrofuturism.”