“You don’t have to be black to be blessed by black creativity.” -Clement Price7
Kids love heroes. Superheroes have been popular among American children since the advent of the comic book and before. Today, the immense popularity of Marvel Universe movies affirms this. Kids, and I notice this in my classroom, love superheroes. All of them. Almost as surely, they don’t see many superheroes of color, or even main characters in comic, sci-fi or fantasy movies. If they do, they are in support roles (Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in The Avengers), or worse – as static characters meant to support the more dynamic white characters. Billy D. Williams’ Lando Calrisian in the Star Wars films is a criminal and smuggler, who may have been a main focus like Han Solo had he not lost the Millenium Falcon to him on a bet (portraying the only notable black person in the epic films also as a gambler).8 Warf, Michael Dorn’s character in the popular 1990’s tv show Star Trek: The Next Generation is one of the only Klingon people – a race marked by dark skin and anger issues – who can remain calm enough to present himself and be accepted in the uniform and role of a starship officer, the rest of whom are mostly white (with the exception of Lavar Burton as the blind Jordy).
Yes, students love their heroes, big and hyperbolic and flight-ready, and most of the heroes available to them are white or of European descent, indicative of a dominant culture constantly excluding them. How does this weigh on the mind and soul of a child of color who wants to dream and explore the stars and the future in art? Jemisin sums it up: “How terrifying it’s been to realize no one thinks my people have a future.”9 She had to write her own fantasy novels to find black characters in that genre, as Butler did. If we don’t forage through the library or bookstore or online database to find the stories that spark the imagination of children, it’s not likely – if they’re not purposefully looking for it – that they will simply stumble upon it. Therefore, they are prone to go on loving their white superheroes, without giving much thought to what that essentially micro-aggression is doing to their confidence or imagination regarding what they may accomplish. The damage spreads to white students who are also reinforced in the attitude that heroes – leaders, teachers, saviors – are all white. There are few instances where underrepresentation is not dangerous, but underrepresentation in the imagination of children can be among the most impactful.
I would like my students to discover heroes of color in speculative fiction and art, talk about why they’re so scarce, brood on what values America has or lacks that lead to underrepresentation, look at all of this through a critical eye, and ultimately decide for themselves how much further they’d like to consider, study, enjoy, or even create their own products of imagination, whatever that may look like.
In order to do that, we must start with some important objectives as background to study race:
- One important objective for students will be to learn about and be able to utilize Critical Race Theory. An important tool for updating our understanding on issues of race in America, CRT allows us to view texts, media, history, even each other through a lens of understanding that race is important, relevant, and impactful in the decision-making of people in charge of education, books, politics, media, really everything.
- Another objective for students will be to reflect on colonialism and the dominant narrative of American culture, and what are the counter-narratives: what do they look like? How are they subversive or enlightening? Who can they reach? What is the impact?
- A third objective for a foundational background in race studies is to analyze the psychology of oppression, racial domination, and the culture these things yield. Colorblind racism impacts every aspect of education, particularly in an English classroom where we discuss literature, news media and current events, history, and how we personally confront and interact with these things.
With this foundational background in place, we will continue with objectives concerning representation in speculative fiction and a hallmark cultural product of that: Afrofuturism.
- Students will explore the varying definitions of Afrofuturism and be able to identify exemplar artists, their origin and work, and what each means to African-American agency and individualism, place in the power structure, and significance as speculative art in the American imagination.
- Students will be able to identify and analyze central figures in Afrofuturism including: Octavia Butler, Sun Ra, Jean Michel Basquiat, and other artists, writers, and scholars.
- Students will synthesize these studies by dwelling on the battle for representation in classic and modern culture.