The above sections highlight the important things to consider when navigating counter-culture, and especially when encountering dominant culture. Utilizing Critical Race Theory is important for both, therefore it might be powerful to start by scrutinizing a piece of Canon literature or art through the lens of Critical Race Theory. Utilizing the aforementioned precepts, it will probably be fascinating to see what you and your students find.
Following that experiment, it may come more naturally to address colorblind racism while reading through Butler, listening to Sun Ra, and appreciating the art of Basquiat, which we will do next.
Analyzing Quotes from Dawn by Octavia Butler
Students will read on their own and in class, and respond to appropriate journal entries (do-nows) covering the concepts the book addresses. For these purposes, I will highlight several quotes that I plan to analyze with my students as examples of the use of anti-racist pedagogy, and important Afrofuturistic concepts.
Quote 1: When Lilith first encounters the aliens who are holding her captive, she asks whether it is male or female. The response is: “’It’s wrong to assume that I must be a sex you’re familiar with,’ it said, ‘but as it happens, I’m male.’”17
This quote offers several points for analysis. For one, gender – another major signifier of otherness – is brought up almost immediately, reminding us of the importance of perspective. Also, Lilith is a black character, and Butler is conveying to her reader that even when racism is taken off the table, sexism is still apparent, reminding us that counter-narrative is multi-faceted, and we must remain sensitive to many different considerations (and does it allude to any of her possible struggles as a black woman?). Also of note – might this be considered an early tribute to the struggle of trans people? Or, if not, it can certainly be compared to their modern struggle.
Quote 2: As Lilith grows to understand more about the aliens, she becomes more comfortable, albeit extremely cautiously. This does not stop them from attempting to “mate” her with another human captive. They set up a meeting under the guise to her of simply that: meeting. He tries to rape her, which she forgives based on his desperation from captivity, and tries to explain this to the aliens. Their response: “He was content with his. . .family until he met you.”18
We can jump right into the #metoo implications of blaming a woman for being attacked. Also, another clear allusion here is the alien captors as slave masters. They attempt to mate their two captives, and still believe they are justified in doing so, even after evidence to the contrary (the attack) is presented to them. What does it take for an oppressive culture to realize it is wrong? Generations? Centuries? Do they ever actually realize it? Are we living that truth today in America?
Quote 3: When discussing the merits of their own ways over that of humanity’s (now essentially extinct), the alien says to Lilith: “Your people contain incredible potential, but they die without using much of it.”19
Lilith herself broods on the irony of this comment, that humans often realize this as well yet do not strive to use more of our own potential. Through this analysis, and overall inclusion and equity of curricula, may we strive to do just that.
Analyzing “Molasses” by Jean Michel Basquiat
A link to an image of the painting is in the “Teacher Resources” section below. It can also be easily googled, and will of course be imperative for this activity.
This painting is rife for analysis using Critical Race Theory. Over a starkly pink background, it depicts a human-esque driver in a car carting two prisoners in a cage. While all three of these characters are brown, the prisoners are animal-esque. They drive off into the only gray section of the painting, accounting for about 5% of the background of the canvas – clearly driving off into something, perhaps the void of incarceration. Bringing up the rear of the cage-car is a robot. Fairly standard when one thinks of a robot, it stands out because of the sad look it has on its face.
Assuming that this work is addressing a society of racial ills, where – for example – black and brown men are incarcerated at a rate of one in three for lesser crimes (a statistic that may have increased to this number since Basquiat’s day), we can assume that whatever the race of the “officer” driving the car, the prisoners in the back are black men.
What, however, do we make of the robot? It is in no way clear what race it might be. Here is where we see this work as an exemplar of Afrofuturist art. The robot is the future, the prisoners the “past” (Basquiat’s present), and it is sad to see that the criminal justice system is still unbalanced.
This of course, as art, is all up for interpretation, which I will encourage my students to do through scrutiny, written analysis, and class discussion.
Comparing and Contrasting Sun Ra’s Music with that of Modern Artists
The dominant American narrative in speculative fiction is that the future is white. As mentioned in the beginning of this curricular unit, this is apparent in many of the most popular works of fantasy and science fiction. Therefore Afrofuturism is still the counter-narrative: it makes apparent that black people will be a part of the future. Sun Ra dressed in outrageous space-aged costumes mixed with homage to ancient Egypt. This subverted modern (for the time) concepts of what an African-American should and could be, influencing modern musicians like Janelle Monae. The two are both mentioned in the radio feature highlighted earlier, and therein are two songs worth comparing and contrasting: The Lady with the Golden Stockings by Sun Ra, and Sincerely, Jane by Janelle Monae (also mentioned in the radio feature).
Catchy, calculated, and countering what was thought could be done with music, these songs are an opportunity to engage even the most disinterested student. Links to both songs are in the “Teacher Resources” section below.
The important thing to remember overall when attempting to help students decolonize the American imagination is that no matter what artists we decide to highlight, what we are teaching is that everyone deserves to imagine a future with people like themselves, whatever that may look like. In Octavia’s Brood, Imarisha finalizes the introduction to her wonderful collection of stories with poignancy that we can incorporate into teaching Afrofuturism: “We [African-Americans] are already science fiction walking around on two legs. Our ancestors. . .dreamed about a day when their children’s children’s children would be free. They had no reason to believe this was likely, but together they dreamed of freedom, and they brought us into being.”20 If slaves were the earliest American speculative fiction writers, their descendants certainly deserve a representative place in what all our children learn today.