I was intrigued by the popularity and the means by which the movie, The Black Panther, explored the idea of justice within a fantastic land of Wakanda--loosely based on Africa. Science fiction allows for the impossible. It may have scientific possibility or may be filled with mysticism, spirituality or an attempt to make sense out of a myth.4 Generally, science fiction is a “tool for imagining possible futures and technologies.”5 It can give us a vision of a desirable future or show what to avoid. In either case, it inspires us to strive for a better tomorrow. Science fiction can be the vehicle to drive us into lands where we have never set foot and yet which—because they are cognitively linked to the world we do know and are invested with our actual longings--seem like home.6 It allows us to be in the past, present and a utopian future simultaneously. As a genre, Vint states it is difficult to define exactly what science fiction is.7 She offers instead a list of motifs such as alien encounters, robots and other created beings, travel through time or outer space, apocalyptic or perfected futures, posthuman descendants, and Artificial Intelligences that serve to signal or mark a work as science fictional. She states that it is the cultural power of these icons at work that help create mythologies that help us grasp the experience of human life in a world dominated by scientific thinking. In this curriculum, I wish to extend this intrigue to exploration of utopias within the genre of science fiction--specifically Afrofuturism.
Afrofuturism is an intersection of imagination, technology, the future and liberation.8 Ingrid LaFleur is quoted as defining it as a “way of imagining possible futures through a black cultural lens.”9 Others have said it serves as a “philosophical compass” that “emerged in response to the transformation of African peoples through the oppressive forces of discrimination and out of a nexus of migration, international and domestic social movements and conflict, influences of technology, and black music, religion, and literature. It can establish a counternarrative and delegitimize the institutions of dominant’s power while allowing the nondominant ‘s ability to collectively imagine or organize for an alternative future.10 I saw it as a way of challenging my students away from visceral responses of “This book is whack!” to language development and creation empowerment.11 I believe the genre, Afrofuturism contains sufficient cultural relevance for students to shift from a placid acceptance of a literary world voyage where they internalize not being valued or seen to a world of their own creation. A world where they are not only comfortable saying “I think the character/author presented a limited or racist view of the “Other” character because…..”or If the character/author had said/done this __ then there would have been a place for the “Other” that was not offensive or limited.” In this capacity, students are empowered to take over narratives and manipulate social constructs reconfiguring them both to fit their vision of a utopian just world.
I teach at a K-8 magnet school with a focus on architecture and design/science in New Haven where over 65% of the students qualify for free lunch and my English Language Arts classes are filled predominantly with middle school students of color: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, African, African American, Caribbean American, East Indian, and Laotian. And at the risk of sounding like a cliché, my English Language Arts curriculum from the district and the state is filled with mandates and standards for my students to master (and I won’t mention the effects of mandatory standardized testing). Nowhere in this language arts curriculum is race listed as an implied or explicitly stated concept that should be taught. Do I as an educator need to address the concept of race when a chosen text does not explicitly bring up the topic? Is there a need to expand literature analysis to include the Critical Race Theory for middle schoolers?
In my current teaching world--a reality driven by standardized testing data and insufficient resources for books and supplies, my analysis of this false dichotomy is a resounding yes. To discuss race is not only efficient but also beneficial to my student’s social and emotional learning. As an educator, to not discuss race in the classroom may be irresponsible. For instance, as educators, we often use/reuse “good literature” from “free sources.” Such works we may classify as “classic.” We make choices based on a works’ artistry, longevity, universal appeal, or relevant themes. We make judgments or decisions from our lens as to whether to use texts or not based on student accessibility and often forget to calculate the costs of such use to our students who are looking for themselves and a place in the world through literature. We forget that even though our sources for “good literature” may be “free,” there is a cost. Oftentimes, the cost is the lack of diverse voices and the one dimensionality or negative representation of people of color. As we share literary experiences with our students, if we fail to discuss race in our critical thinking inquiries about what it was like to live in a particular time, place, or condition, we run the risk of creating false impressions of the world, our student’s place within it or assist them in their search for identity.
Using Critical Race Theory (CRT) lens is one strategic way an educator can assist middle schoolers develop language that can be used across the disciplines in response to text for both content and context. Students need to be equipped with a lens by which they can access and question texts on their own. They need a methodology for examination of text that allows them to critically analyze “well-constructed” and “not so well”12 text for its racial undergirding and its corollary intersectionalities. It is easy for them to discern hateful text when it is written as graffiti or a string of epithets hurled at a group based on individual characteristics or group membership. But it requires a deeper awareness to analyze these aspects of text when they appear “normal” and part of “good” literature. Showing students the power of CRT will provide them with a tool they can use for analyzing text and provides an opportunity to discuss the impact of race or how the lack of race in literature impacts them. All students benefit from learning how to critique literature and not worry about being penalized for expressing their realities.13 We as educators can serve as change agents by requiring conversations about race that allow for an opportunity to develop language and ways of critical thinking.
CRT is a theory of knowledge that distinguishes belief from opinion that was originally developed by legal scholars to address the effects of race and racism in the legal system. It has been extended to examine literature. The main tenets of Critical Race Theory14 are:
- Race and racism is so embedded in our lives and institutions in the United States that we don’t see it as aberrational;
- White and “other” interest convergence--people of color will not achieve racial advances until deemed important by middle- and upper-class whites (until those advances intersect with the economic interest of whites);
- Each group has a unique voice to share its story or counter-story--a story that questions the foundations or premises of a story being told; and
- Whiteness is a property--being white in the United States has its privileges--as a member of a dominant group (whites) have benefited from different racializations of the “other.”
Culturally relevant teaching is a term created by Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) to describe a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.15 By teaching students how to analyze text using CRT lens, teachers would assist students develop tools to explore, discover, and analyze text for the construct of race within literature.16,17 By learning and implementing the tenets of CRT, students will develop a means for examining the intersectionality of race with gender, class, sexual orientation, and national origin within text. Students will explore how authors and artists use language and images to define, develop, ascribe value to gender roles, sexual orientation expressions, present utopia, and self v. societal projections, perceptions, experiences, and external and internal responses to “otherness.” Using literature as a segue or a microcosm of our world, this curriculum could serve as a guide to understanding that the fluidity of the concept of race as defined by both legal and social constructs. Teachers and students would be able to share in discussions critiquing text in its social context, providing contexts for understanding, sharing their lived experiences and learning about their respective cultural wealth. In this role teachers would not only meet district and state curricular requirements but also as bridge builders between students’ home and school lives. Teachers would be further developing students’ higher order thinking by asking students to make connections to text, self and the world around them.