The kind of thinking I hope to explore with students in this unit is what I am calling an “Afrofuturist Aesthetic.” That is to say, it is a unit that is grounded in the ideas of Afrofuturism and the spirit of creation that drives Afrofuturist work. In paraphrasing the words of Mark Dery, Alondra Nelson states “Afrofuturism can be broadly defined as ‘African American voices’ with ‘other stories to tell about culture, technology and things to come.’
1 And while only some, not all, of the students or ‘voices’ in my classes identify as African American, the Afrofuturist mindset of engaging with and composting “other stories” about “culture, technology and things to come” is one that I know from experience to be widely engaging to students who identify in all sorts of ways. Nelson herself positions Afrofuturism not simply an artistic moment with a definitive beginning when she states “Though [Afrofuturism] was first used by Dery in 1993, the currents that comprise it existed long before.”2 It is the currents, as Nelson calls them, that I am particularly hopeful of tapping into through the process of critical analysis and creative response in this unit.
The choice of Clotilde Jimenez as the artist for all three texts studied by students in this unit is intentional in supporting the Afrofuturist aesthetic. As someone who claims Afro-Latinx heritage, Jimenez is one of millions of Americans whose mixed-race background is representative of the changing conceptions of how we define our countries’ racial demographics. In a June 2021 article in The Atlantic, Alba, Levy and Myers claim that “by softening and blurring racial and ethnic lines, diversity is bringing Americans together more than it is tearing the country apart.”3 The concept of seeing a future where racial and ethnic lines are rethought from how we currently conceive them, specifically from an African American perspective, seems to fall into the category of ‘things to come,’ as Nelson defines Afrofuturism. Jimenez’s work is described on the website of gallerist Mariane Ibrahim as doing the work of “exploring rigid definitions placed on Black and queer bodies.”4 This kind of exploration also seems to fit soundly into the definition of Afrofuturism laid out by Nelson, in particular when she centers the importance of “other stories to tell about culture.”5 In learning a bit about Clotilde Jimenez’s background and seeing how he translates his story and identity into his art, students will be encouraged to assume that Afrotfuturist mindset in considering what parts of their own stories they wish to tell and how that might help them see what’s to come for them, and how people like them operate in the world now and into the future.
By designing this unit so the summative task is one that requires the composition of a creative response, I am also hoping to situate the pedagogy of the unit within an Afrofuturist aesthetic. The rejection of a formal essay as the summative task for this unit is particularly intentional, as the essay format or academic writing in general can be seen as standing for an educational system that has, in the United States at least, largely failed to support, develop and uplift the voices of students of color, particularly African American students. One only needs to look at the most recent reports of SAT scores across school districts in our very own state in Connecticut to see that there are long-standing differences between the scores of white students and students of color. By asking students to compose a creative response and centering students as the storytellers in this unit, I am hoping to challenge the very idea that standardized tests, and more standard measures of achievement like the formal academic essay as it is often taught in English classes, is a valid measurement of students’ intellect. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi stated in an article in 2016, “Our faith in standardized tests causes us to believe that the racial gap in test scores means something is wrong with the Black test takers–and not the tests.”6 By inviting students to engage in the creative process and not being prescriptive about the format their final response takes, this unit challenges this, as Kendi would call it, racist belief, that something is “wrong with Black-test takers.” While I certainly believe the mental processes that go into composing a formal academic essay still have an important place in the high school classroom, the nature of academic writing is itself changing - and thinking beyond having students respond solely through academic essay writing is part of this unit’s Afrofuturist aesthetic and seeing what, in terms of student response, are the “things to come.”