Afrofuturism’s Place in Modern Classrooms
The cultural impact of the 2018 film Black Panther cannot be understated. Americans like never before have an avenue in elite culture to explore an African nation advanced beyond the rest of the world. Most importantly, children of Afro and European decent alike are pondering a world where heroes can look like them, or not. They may even be advancing to cultural openness, and that is precisely what the cultural content aspect of this curricular unit is meant to facilitate through study of Afrofuturism.
Keeping in mind that this is not meant to fill a gap, as much as it is meant to inspire general inclusion and acceptance of all cultures as relevant and important, opposing the dominant cultural perspective of loyalty to and exclusive use of Canon literature. Another colorblind perspective we will work to do way with is that study of African culture is a specialization as opposed to a necessity, therefore condemning it to condescension. The following artists should be in every art history book, music curriculum, and literary anthology. As things currently stand, they might only be found in those of African-American studies, or other specialized as opposed to general studies texts, if at all.
Pillars of Afrofuturism to Teach Race and Anti-Racism: Butler, Basquiat, Sun Ra
The resources for examples of Afrofuturism in culture are virtually boundless. There is a book written on Kendrick Lamar and the speculative impact of his album To Pimp a Butterfly (link in “Teacher Resources” section), and justifiably so. From mid-20th century works to modern pop culture and blockbuster film, Afrofuturism has grown into more than a cultural movement, it is a genre. Combining the future with history in innovative and exciting ways, Afrofuturism presents a grand concept of African triumph, providing artistic outlet for students of color – and any student – to imagine futures of more civil equity. As an educator, one could draw on a vast universe of palpably impactful culture: art, books, music, essays, poems, speeches, films. For these purposes we will focus on three pioneers in three different mediums. In literature, we will look at selections from a science-fiction writer whose reputation is nearly hyperbole itself, the esteemed Octavia Butler. For art, we will focus on the enigmatic phenomenon Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose depictions of race, and what the famous Whitney exhibition called “Heroes and Saints” of significant African-American importance, shook up what the world would think and do with art, conversation and fashion. In music, we will focus on the self-proclaimed interstellar traveler and jazz-funk pioneer Sun Ra.
What better place to introduce these concepts to students than with music? Where better to begin than Saturn? Modern students will not be unfamiliar with music conceptualizing space or transcendental philosophy necessarily: plenty of modern artists touch on said concepts, particularly Janelle Monae (who is mentioned again in the “Classroom Activities” section regarding these artists). But many may not know just to what extent classic American pop-funk-jazz artists like George Clinton and Sun Ra took the concept. Sun Ra claimed to have himself been abducted by ambivalent aliens to Saturn where he was encouraged to communicate to the world through his music. The music in question became a futurist jazz phenomenon, consistently incorporating themes of both ancient Egypt and outer space. Through his work, we see the juxtaposition of history with concepts of the future that are the hallmark of Afrofuturism.
In a 2018 feature on Sun Ra on Public Radio International, Afrofuturism is described by poet Eve Ewing as “the simple premise that black people are going to continue to exist into the future.” The simplicity lessens, according to Ewing, when describing a diasporic people who, particularly in America, have historically faced and indeed continue to face annihilation.15 For artists like Sun Ra and Octavia Butler, a desire to leave planet Earth is proudly betrayed. Afrofuturists connect the future and technology with history: the past, diasporic culture, injustice, as well as successes and dramatic human progress.
Describing on the same radio program the music of Sun Ra and George Clinton, Trisha Rose of Brown University relishes: “They... were almost like superheroes; like an alternative species of people of African decent were coming to tell you that basically things were okay.” She goes on to describe Afrofuturist musicians as those who create worlds through which people of color can imagine a place where they were not as disempowered.16 This works as a view through a lens of Critical Race Theory. Some may consider the music of Sun Ra or Parliament-Funkadelic as simply good music. Why bother reading too much into it? Wouldn’t it be racist to consider it anything more than good funk and jazz? Yes, incidentally it would be racist. The music, costumes, world-building and culture of Sun Ra imagined a world of equality and progress that did not exist, can inspire those who would have it exist to make it so, and can be scrutinized as effective counter-culture.
Activities comparing and contrasting Sun Ra to modern artists can be found in the “Classroom Activities” section below.
Jean Michel Basquiat
Jean Michel Basquiat was a black American artist of Puerto Rican and Haitian decent whose heyday spanned the mid-1970’s to late-1980’s. While he died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27, his prolific output during his active years left the world with subversive, dichotomous work combining words and pictures, sarcasm and wit, social criticism and commentary on the black American experience. His art is frenetic and complex, at times looking like the notebook scribbling of a disturbed middle-school kid, while simultaneously demonstrating mastery of drawing, color, mixed-media, and facilitating anti-racist concepts. In his work “Molasses” (link to image in the “Teacher Resources” section), we can see a depiction of modern slavery (i.e., incarceration), with a robot looking on with a defeated look on its face: not even in the future will justice be righted. Even the title “Molasses” sounds like a reference to sugar cane which was harvested by slaves. Basquiat often depicted dichotomy, rich versus poor, old versus new, and often – as in this case – the technological versus the historical.
There is an analysis activity of Basquiat’s “Molasses” in the “Classroom Activities” section below.
Butler was such a popular science fiction writer it almost feels erroneous to consider her work as part of the counter-culture. However, popularity does not discount – in fact it perhaps enhances – the currently subversive impact of Afrofuturist works (again consider the popularity of Black Panther). Any number of Butler stories could be scrutinized for these purposes. We will take a closer look at one of her more popular novels, Dawn, for which it has been recently announced director Ava Duvernay (13th, A Wrinkle in Time) will be directing a television show bringing the book to life. This is an essential example of Afrofuturism, focusing on the power, prowess, and presence of a woman of color who is the first human who can withstand coexistence with aliens. Flipping the script of black as “other” and contrasting the main character with a very alien race, Butler presents a character who not only navigates the alien world with poise and aplomb, but contemplates consistently in subtext the juxtaposition to treatment of American slaves.
Lilith, who has lived through not only the tragic deaths of her husband and child but an apocalyptic nuclear war, awakes hundreds of years later on an alien spacecraft, where she is expected to adapt and reproduce to repopulate earth for the benefit of her alien captors and, according to them, what remains of the human race as well. The allusion to slavery is so palpable it’s obvious, yet Lilith’s journey feels fresh for seekers of speculative fantasy and cathartic African-American heroism. In Dawn, Butler juxtaposes historical black experience with a future with nothing but possibility, opportunity, and agency.
There is a quote analysis from Dawn by Octavia Butler in the “Classroom Activities” section below.
Throughout, the important focus should be that these are lost, as opposed to specialized, aspects of culture. We strive to understand that these hallmarks of Afrofuturism are as significant to our culture as anything in the Canon. They are not something to plug in as a missing piece, but something to understand as a puzzle piece, illuminating our students to aspects of culture that are by nature subversive, because the dominant structure of our society has relegated them to the sidelines for the comfort, wealth, and continued supremacy of a dominant race. Octavia can help us travel to places where that is not the case; where individual agency is attainable by anyone. Basquiat strived to juxtapose the mainstream with the subversive in order to contrast and illuminate the latter. Sun Ra, if you asked him, traveled himself to different planes in order to search out enlightenment. Following in his footsteps is imperative to antiracist pedagogy, and we don’t even have to travel as far as Saturn: a bit further than the dominant narrative will do.