Afrofuturism and the Intersectionality of Civil Rights

Afrofuturism and the Intersectionality of Black Feminism, Civil Rights, the Space Race, and Hip Hop: Abstract and Excerpt


African American women have been early adopters of national and international initiatives, such as abolitionism, civil rights, women’s rights, space travel, and hip hop—from Maria W. Stewart’s anti-slavery and women’s rights speeches in the 1830s, to Mary Talbert’s launch of the Niagara Movement in 1905 as a precursor to the NAACP, to Katherine Johnson’s career at NASA in the 1950s, to Sylvia Robinson’s launch of hip-hop into the mainstream in the 1970s, to Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement in the 2000s.

These women overcame sexism and discrimination to achieve their goals. Yet, the same misogyny and bigotry exists today, not only in society in general, but within the hip-hop community. Examples include noted physical abuse of women at the hands of artists such as Dr. Dre, R. Kelly, and Nas; encouragement by record labels to include misogynistic and derogatory phrases in rap lyrics, and the commodification of rap and sex. Female artists such as LaBelle and Grace Jones broke barriers in the music industry to promote their messages of female empowerment and racial unity. These messages have evolved in the hands of newer artists like Missy Elliott, Janet Jackson, and Janelle Monáe.

Given the prominence of African American women in historical and present-day social, technological, and cultural movements, any depiction or description of Afrofuturism must feature efforts by African American women to build upon their achievements of the past to expand the rights of people of color. The qualities these pioneering women embodied—adaptability, courage, and perseverance—have laid the ground work upon which Afrofuturistic aesthetics (from an American perspective) can grow.



What is Afrofuturism? For the purposes of this paper, it will be defined as “A cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, horror, history, and magical realism to examine and revise both the past and present experiences among the African diaspora.” Afrofuturism is a means of recapturing and revising history that was lost to or, rather, taken from, the diaspora.

But when did Afrofuturism really begin? Was it at the dawn of time, when humankind took its first halting steps? When hunter-gatherers settled around the campfire and told stories? During the migration of modern humans out of Africa, supposedly around 250,000 years ago? Was it during slavery, when those captured hoped and worked for a better tomorrow? Perhaps the 1950s, when Sun-Ra claimed to have been teleported to Saturn and told by aliens to speak through music. It is beyond the scope of this paper to say one way or another. However, one concept that rings through history is that African American women have been, and will continue to be, pioneers in issues related to Afrofuturism—from Maria W. Stewart’s anti-slavery and women’s rights speeches in the 1830s to Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement in the 2000s, and beyond. Despite enduring misogyny, marginalization, oppression, and racism, African American women have persistently struggled to have their voices heard while working to improve access to education and opportunities to help make a better life for their communities and their futures.

This paper will explore the underpinnings of Afrofuturism through the prism of historical African American women and their efforts in securing a stable future for their community through activism, communication, creativity, and stalwartness.

Maria W. Stewart

An abolitionist, orator, journalist, teacher, and women’s rights activist, Maria W. Stewart was one of the first American women to make public lectures. Her deeply religious background informed her speeches as she adjured African Americans to work toward self-improvement, encouraged them to live moral lives, urged women to stand up for their rights, highlighted the inequities in education and opportunity, and noted the benefits that whites derived from slavery1

“We have pursued the shadow, they have obtained the substance; we have performed the labor, they have received the profits; we have planted the vines, they have eaten the fruits of them” (An Address [speech], 1833).2

In the 1830s, slave holders ruled the South and subscribed to the widely held beliefs that women should reflect the tenets of True Womanhood—piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Women were expected to hold fast to these ideals in order to embody and present the best of womanhood. Piety was to be accomplished through the study of Scripture and work for the church.3 As written in the Second Annual Report of the Young Ladies Literary and Missionary Association, “you may labor without the apprehension of detracting from the charms of feminine delicacy.”4 Purity was to be maintained by women giving over their virtue only to a husband. Submissiveness was a choice. As George Burnap stated in a series of lectures titled, On the Sphere and Duties of Woman, “She asks for wisdom, constancy, firmness, perseverance, and she is willing to repay it all by the surrender of the full treasure of her affections.”5 Domestic life was the purview of the woman, who was expected to provide a cheerful atmosphere and tend to the needs of those for whom she was responsible.3

African American female slaves, however, could not hope to aspire to these lofty ideals. For piety, she was not excused from labor to take missionary journeys, nor was she, usually, taught to read. For purity, she could be raped at any time by the plantation owner. For submissiveness and domesticity, she could scarce make a voluntary choice, since slaves were beaten into submission and forced into domestic labor.

Stewart projected wisdom and hope in her countenance and words. Her sentiments would be reflected more than 130 years later in a famous speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—

“It is not the color of the skin that makes the man, but it is the principle formed within the soul” (Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria Stewart, 1834)6

Read the rest of this article in the upcoming Boogie Down Predictions: Hip-Hop, Time, and Afrofuturism, to be published by Strange Attractor/MIT Press. Order here: