It’s tough to ignore the fact that popular culture is heavily rooted in white culture. The Literary Canon is now notorious not only for its historic intellectual value, but also for its lack of diversity and therefore has become an entity of relative ire for urban educators. Teachers often intentionally branch outside of this Canon for books representing and written by people and authors of more diverse backgrounds.
“Nerd” culture is arguably even more entrenched in white culture. The highly intellectual worlds of science-fiction and fantasy – under the umbrella moniker “speculative fiction” – which portray a new world of possibilities, engage and inspire the imagination, and could even result in a successful life course when committed to by students choosing to do so, have been historically white-washed. Of the classic American and European works – the ones we all know from childhood and often into our adulthood: Star Wars, Star Trek, Back to the Future, The Lord of the Rings, and others – N.K. Jemisin notes they “claimed to be the fiction of the future, but. . .still mostly celebrated the faces and voices and stories of the past.”2 Jemisin, recent winner of an unprecedented three consecutive Hugo Awards (a top award in the genre), writes extensively about characters of color, having not seen herself in her favorites growing up and wanting to correct that.
It is that corrective journey this unit will address. Authors like Jemisin are not uncommon these days, but do have an identifiable origin. Many proponents of the genre would identify that origin as Octavia Butler, including Jemisin herself. Butler, widely regarded as the one-woman vanguard of black speculative fiction, is the most readily attributable influence for modern takes on the genre, as well as the most steadfastly available “classic” sci-fi author for people of color to see themselves in larger, other, future universes. Walidah Imarisha, co-editor of a collection of modern science fiction fueled by social justice, Octavia’s Brood, describes the late author’s intersection of said justice with speculative fiction: “Butler explored the intersections of identity and imagination, the gray areas of race, class, gender, sexuality, love, militarism, inequality, oppression, resistance, and – most important – hope.”3 In the 80’s and 90’s as many black and brown communities faced the War on Drugs – and modern mass incarceration was taking up speed – speculative fiction marked a space for readers to imagine other, better worlds, rooted in social justice, Black futurity, and a utopian sense of possibility. Today, social urgency is more overt. #blacklivesmatter and other movements, youtube and other media platforms, have brought the struggle into stark public spotlight, and the black speculative fiction movement is reaching higher heights. It’s a perfect time to teach both the modern and the classic.
To have this conversation, we must start with the concept of representation in popular culture. Butler and other artists of the Afrofuturistic movement who will be considered in this curricular unit were and are fighting to be represented in every aspect of popular culture. The underrepresentation of people of color in speculative fiction can be compared to similar underrepresentation in many forms of art and popular culture, and indeed underrepresentation in societal considerations: incarceration, law and police treatment, education, income equality and opportunity, and many others. We will also pore over different yet complementary views on what Afrofuturism actually is.
Afrofuturism, a concept that has underlined many fantastic instances of African-American art and culture since the Civil Rights movement, is gaining steam as a popular cultural philosophy. The term itself was first coined by Mark Dery in the early 1990’s.4 Defined more recently by Ytasha L. Womack, a speculative artist who literally wrote the book about it in 2013, “Afrofuturism is an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation.” She then quotes Ingrid LaFleur who defines the concept as “a way of imagining possible futures through a black cultural lens.”5 The concept spans many differing types of art. Think of the space-aged themes in the music and album art of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, the frenetic pop Africanism of Jean Michel Basquiat's paintings, the agency of black characters through time and space of Butler herself, and of course the modern film blockbuster Black Panther. These artists envision futures or alternate dimensions, or even alternate mind states, where people of color are of central focus, dominant of agency, technologically and intellectually advanced, and even emancipatory. Why does it not have more mainstream popularity? Would the reader find this author/teacher too bold as to accordingly wonder why we’ve only had one black president, and no women as of this writing? Black thought is subversive. It has been exalted as well as punished by death in our country’s history. It is accepted more widely in different places, and still treated as second class or worse elsewhere. It is representative of the subjugated culture, and therefore in all its forms faces prejudice. To accept it more widely this country must do better, must try harder to what I will refer to in this unit as decolonizing its imagination. If colonization of a land originally inhabited by “others” has evolved into one dominated by said colonizer, then we must work as a culture to decolonize. In this unit we will attempt to do so starting with art, our minds, our imaginations. Can we imagine a world where black thought is not subversive, but simply regarded as thought? We’ll try to first imagine a classroom where that is the case. Imarisha, in Octavia’s Brood, laments that “decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive form there is: for it is where all other forms of decolonization are born. Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.”6
The concept of Afrofuturism will be explored in more depth in the “Teaching Strategies” section.