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MSU museum exhibit explores Afrofuturism through Black comic characters

MSU Museums

Detroit writer and activist Adrienne Maree Brown pointed out that the experience of Black Americans, is by definition, a story of science fiction. Enslaved ancestors had to dream up a Black future that was unlike anything they experienced.

One of the most vital places for experimentation for science fiction and fantasy is in the comics. A new virtual exhibition at the Michigan State University Museum lays out a full panorama of Black Futures, as envisioned in panels. It’s called “Beyond the Black Panther: Visions of Afrofuturism in American Comics.”

Its curator is Julian C. Chambliss. He wears many hats at MSU, as an English professor and as a curator for the MSU Museum. But what is Afrofuturism? 

“I like to ask people to think of Afrofuturism as the intersection of speculation and liberation, and in the context of comics, these are the stories and characters that have something to say about the future from a Black perspective,” Chambliss said.

Chambliss points out that there are prominent themes in Afrofuturist comics. These comics pull Afro-diasporic elements, spirituality through ancestry, and a question of science. 

“Much of our sense of modernity is rooted in a European understanding of science. What does it mean for us to think about really the long and complex history of African thought and practice, and its contributions to science in the American context?” Chambliss asked. “There are real contributions made by people of color, get skewed in the narrative of progress and innovation in the American experience. And so this is a place where we can have some attention drawn.”

Creating new characters and stories can be difficult for any comic artist to do because stories and characters created in the early 20th century are still being built upon in modern comic books. When many of the original and beloved characters are white characters with white stories, it is not easy for Black creators creating new stories and characters to breakthrough. 

“Past success is is a predictor of future success. And so new characters from new creators, that are people of color telling different kinds of stories, struggle to find space. And that is always been the case and it continues to be the case,” Chambliss said.

But new comic creators, specifically Black creators, are out there. Chambliss hopes that his exhibit at MSU makes consumers of comics and other media search a little harder for original and diverse creators. 

“Right now we're in this weird place, or perhaps not weird place, but a place where all the desire to see things like Afrofuturism, to see sort of black speculative work of various forms, are driving people to go out and find this stuff,” Chambliss said. “You know, this exhibit is in my way of saying, as you're consuming this, remember that there's a world of things that you might not have seen.”

Support for arts and culture coverage on Stateside comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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