An Afrofuturism Genre Study Using Computational and Literary Methods



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Afrofuturism is a literary genre first defined by Mark Dery in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future” as speculative fiction that addresses African-American themes and concerns. My usage of the term builds on later scholars’ work by including the diaspora and focusing on such themes as the malleability of time and the nature of social change as keys to understanding the genre. Here I present a genre study of Afrofuturism with two components. For the computational textual analysis, I take a sample of Afrofuturist literary criticism and run the texts through a program. This program compiles lists of words which are found most often and near each other within those texts, and assigns a numerical probability describing how likely that string of words is to be an accurate representation of a particular text. Using this method, I have identified the three most significant themes in the scholarship and can reason out claims about the rest of the field based on those. The second part is a more traditional literary analysis in which I examine and compare Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Invisible Man has only been analyzed using an Afrofuturist perspective once before, by Lisa Yaszek, and I expand on her findings by focusing on time in the two novels. These authors use the possibilities inherent in the past, present, and future at different moments as experiments, points of reflection, and political tools in their narratives, and ultimately tie their characters’ futures to ideals of self-determination and community.