Feature: Afrofuturism and Black Excellence at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture

Chicago offers a variety of events to commemorate Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when America “officially freed” enslaved people. For an even deeper dive into the vast nation-building contributions of African Americans this June 19 and beyond, visit the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, DC.

NMAAHC exterior and Washington Monument. Photo by Karin McKie.

Founded by a 2003 act of Congress, the NMAAHC opened as the 19th Smithsonian museum on September 24, 2016. The collection consists of more than 40,000 artifacts housed within the massive, yet intricate and welcoming, building designed by architects David Adjaye and Philip Freelon, who won a 2009 competition for the project.

The structure was inspired by design and designers throughout the African diaspora, including shapes from West African Yoruba crowns for the building’s corona, and the ironwork of enslaved Southerners for the bronze lattice work encompassing the outside. Founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III said, “This building will sing for all of us. The museum will tell the American story through the lens of African American history and culture. This is America’s story and this museum is for all Americans.”

Museum exterior detail. Photo by Karin McKie.

The colossal collection would take days to explore in full, from permanent compendia to temporary exhibitions, all presented via thorough and engaging signage, touch screens, and a plethora of well-curated items. There’s a genealogy area, where folks can make appointments to search ancestries. A bright hall of multimedia displays chronicles a multitude of Black athletic stars and their milestones. Visitors can drive a car in the “Follow the Green Book” exhibit. Participants can learn step dancing moves via an interactive video display similar to the Dance Dance Revolution game. An entire floor is devoted to African American’s contributions to everyday items and clothing, including a quote from The Colored Museum playwright George C. Wolfe: “God created Black people and Black people created style.”

Those unable to visit in person can peruse the digital resource guide and digital collections, like “Chez Baldwin,” an exploration of writer James Baldwin’s life in France, about which he said, “once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I could see where I came from very clear. You can never escape that. I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both.”

The Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures temporary installation runs until March 24, 2024, and deftly reveals the historic and current engagement of African American history with modern culture to envision the future. The term grew out of anti-racist and abolitionist rhetoric of the 18th and 19th centuries. Of late, Black technological prowess has been explored in Marvel’s two Black Panther movies. But the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda—with representative items prominently featured in this engrossing exhibit—is just the latest stop on a journey begun long ago.

The exhibit notes that “imagination is the most powerful tool of a subjugated people. For the enslaved, a tool that provides solace and hope and one that achieves the unimaginable reality of personal freedom.”

The marvelous array of multimedia components throughout this exhibit begins with artifacts and videos about West African stargazers of the Yoruba in Nigeria and Benin. Early African American luminaries are also highlighted, like the first “African American geek” Benjamin Banneker (co-designer of the nation’s capital and a descendant of the Dogon people). Author Ytasha Womack is quoted as saying, “the Dogon’s star bond with Sirius and ancient Egyptians’ unexplained technologies are the basis for Afrofuturist lore, art and spectacle.”

W.E.B. Du Bois. Image courtesy NMAAHC.

Other writers are explored, such as Phillis Wheatley, Martin Delany, Thomas Mafolo, as well as W.E.B. Du Bois and his concept of  “the veil.” Du Bois’ metaphorical “veil” underpins Afrofuturism and held three connotations: first that darker Black skin was a physical demarcation of difference from whiteness. It was also a suggestion that whites don’t really see Blacks as true Americans, alongside Blacks who lack the clarity to see themselves outside of white American perceptions. He said, “it dawned on me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.” He added that “the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only like him see himself through the revelation of the other world.”

The exhibit draws direct lines from the writing of past centuries to more recent times. Authors from the post-Civil Rights era created an avant-garde collective called the Black Arts Movement (BAM), a second Renaissance following the Harlem one. Folks like Audre Lorde, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou created a living cultural dialogue with ancestral African traditions. American science fiction author Octavia Butler (1947-2006) is also explored and quoted, counseling marginalized scribes: “You got to make your own words. You’ve got to write yourself in.”

Octavia Butler. Image courtesy Butler Estate.

American race relations are often alienating, which feeds the concept of an “alien nation” both terrestrial and extraterrestrial. Exhibit signage supports that alien constructs are central to Afrofuturist output. From robots or pseudo people to real humans, the trope of a marooned alien expresses the feelings of isolation, despair and displacement, akin to searing moments of Black history like the Middle Passage or ongoing American segregation. An excerpt of the 1988 short film Afronauts, by Ghanaian filmmaker Nuotama Bodomo, is shared, inspired by the real story of Zambia’s failed effort to launch a 17 year old into space.

Afrofuturism also showcases Black medical advances, both unintentional, as with Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were used without her knowledge or permission to make important advancements in cancer research, and intentional (local historian Shermann “Dilla” Thomas notes the first open-heart surgery was completed by a Black Chicagoan in 1893). Pioneering Black cardiologist L. Julian Haywood first documented the importance of EKG monitoring, and George Washington Carver, born into enslavement a year before emancipation, brought us peanut butter and much more as a scientist, inventor, agriculturalist and educator. 

The futuristic music section of the exhibit is electric, literally and metaphorically. Archival instruments are displayed as key, groundbreaking musicians and their compositions are piped in via sound and video on the walls and even the floor. Snippets include Jimi Hendrix’s jamming “Voodoo Child,” Lee Scratch Perry’s reggae “I Am A Madman,” trippy Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place” (and his Arkestra’s use of a “space harp,” like an electrified African thumb piano), and Outkast’s “Prototype,” where the video intro states “traveling 3000 light years from their home planet Proto, a small family of extra extraterrestrials visits Earth. Moments upon landing, they experience the rarest of all human emotion: love” (half of the band calls himself the spacey-sounding André 3000). Outkast’s band name already codifies societal marginalization, and their second studio album, ATLiens, is a portmanteau of their home city and Black mecca of Atlanta and their own brand of alienation. Erykah Badu, the “queen of neo-soul” and André 3000’s former partner, has one of her towering headwraps on display, a symbol historically rooted in the power of Black female culture. Afrofuturists aim to stake a claim to their own language and to take up the space that they have been denied and yet richly deserve.

Nona Hendryx. Image courtesy NMAAHC/Getty Images.

Nona Hendryx (one-third of the trio Labelle) and her silver space costume from a 1975 TV performance are referenced, along with her song “I Need Love.” Bernie Worrell, the “Wizard of Woo” and his spacey synth jams, are featured, as well as one of the bands he played with, the funky, theatrical collective Parliament-Funkadelic. P-Funk’s bassist Bootsy Collins always exudes future-core, as well as legendary bandleader George Clinton, especially for their 1975 platinum-certified concept album Mothership Connection. Clinton said, “I had to find another place where they hadn’t perceived Black people to be, and that was a spaceship.” Vernon Reid’s colorful guitar from Living Colour’s breakthrough anthem “Cult of Personality” is displayed in all its future-evocative glory.

Vernon Reid’s guitar played in Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality.” Photo by Karin McKie.

The intersection of futuristic costumes, props, stage sets, lyrics and performances are plumbed with material about Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Grace Jones, Earth, Wind & Fire, Herbie Hancock and his Memorymoog synthesizer, James Brown and his capes, TLC’s “No Scrubs,” and Michael and Janet Jackson’s 1995 collaboration, the set-in-a-spaceship “Scream” (the video’s giant white command chair is displayed here). Theatrical singing and celestial ethos from the 1975 Broadway show The Wiz, an African American take on The Wizard of Oz, is referenced as well.

Afrofuturism in film and television concludes this exhibit, with nods to Star War’s smooth-talking sleeper agent Lando Calrissian of Cloud City (as well as former Storm Trooper character Finn), Wesley Snipes’ Blade the vampire hunter (who used his brand of tech to launch the Marvel Studios juggernaut), and The Matrix’s mentor Morpheus. The Watchmen comic book was turned into an HBO TV series, and is where many Americans first learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre. Another featured Black superhero is Miles Morales, the Afro-Puerto Rican Spider-Man, along with Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Lt. Geordi La Forge (played by LeVar Burton, who also played Kunta Kinte in the seminal slavery series Roots), who views the world through his own technological veil, a VISOR (visual instrument and sensory organ replacement) to counteract his blindness.

The original Star Trek’s Lieutenant Nyota Uhuru’s iconic red mini-dress uniform is displayed. Nichelle Nichols played the starship’s communications officer, whom Trekkie Dr. Martin Luther King encouraged to stay in the series to represent Black excellence. It worked, because her character inspired real-life Black astronauts Mae Jemison and Guion Bluford. Trayvon Martin’s flight suit from when he attended a STEM program reminds viewers of his brutally stolen future. He had wanted to follow his uncle into the field of aviation.

Trayvon Martin’s flight suit. Photo by Karin McKie.

The last alcove contains those Black Panther costumes and references, the logical next step for Afrofuturist thinking, along with this quote from sci-fi writer N.K. Jemisin: “I think one of the most radical things that anyone in this world can do is to imagine that Black people have a future.” See Oscar-winning Black Panther costumer Ruth Carter speak at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre on Sunday, June 11, as part of the spring Chicago Humanities Festival.

Grab a bite at the museum’s food stop Sweet Home Café too. Classic African American cuisine is featured using locally sourced ingredients. I had a delicately fried crispy fish with tangy hot sauce, tasty collard greens and ham hocks with flatbread, plus creamy grits with fried onions to cap off this cozy cultural immersion. FYI—the Smithsonian Gardens team switches out the 216 Heartleaf Philodendrons every six months on the “green wall” in the center of the restaurant, near a plaque with a quote by Maya Angelou: “I’m concerned that Americans are losing that place of meeting. There are very few times we can be more intimate as to share food together.”

An introduction to the NMAAHC with director Kevin Young is here, and Afrofuturism’s digital toolkit is available here. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History & Culture is located near the Washington Monument at 1400 Constitution Avenue, NW, in Washinmgton DC, accessible by the Smithsonian Metro stop. The museum is open on Tuesdays-Sundays from 10a-5:30pm ET, and Mondays from 12 noon-5:30pm ET. Free timed-entry passes are available 30 days in advance, but book early as they go quickly. Veterans, active-duty personnel and first responders can enter with a military or work ID. Try to plan for a weekday trip, as weekends and holidays are peak visitation times. Founding director Bunch reminds visitors that “there are few things as powerful and as important as a people, as a nation that is steeped in its history.”

NMAAHC. Photo by Alan Karchmer.

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Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.