December 30, 2019

Afrofuturism Can Save us All

Myron strongBy Myron Strong

“The world of ‘what is’ can be supplanted by the world of what never was or what could be.”

I spoke these words to an audience of college students during a presentation on pop culture and Afrofuturism this past spring. As I explained Afrofuturism, I shared the story about the many times I stargazed as a kid, but how this one time in particular that my mom and I actually saw a UFO. My memory of the experience isn’t as clear now, but I do know that it triggered my imagination.

Immediately after my presentation, students came up to me and I began to further connect the ideas between black people and science fiction and sociology. That experience left me thinking about ways to integrate Afrofuturism into my classes as a way to both reach students and to complicate the many long held canonical teaching beliefs.

But what is Afrofuturism? Simply defined, Afrofuturism, a sub-genre of science fiction, has long used techno-culture and science fiction as a lens for understanding the Black experience by placing Black people in fantasy and technological societies. It places the imagination at the core by providing an alternate narratives and intersectional understandings, often by chronicling stories of alien abductions, time travel, and futuristic societies. It extends to art, philosophy and music.

In general, science fiction compliments sociology well. So well, that in Summer 2018, Contexts published a collection of articles dedicated to understanding the relationship between sociology and science fiction. The authors do a great job discussing many of the ways science fiction both help explain sociological concepts and also offer predictive futures of societies.

Dan Hirschman, in “Why Sociology Needs Science Fiction,” gives some specific examples, including using an episode of Black Mirror’s “Nosedive” to explain Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy’s vision of a society increasing stratified by credit scores and app rankings. Stating that “beyond their explicit pedagogical value, shows like Black Mirror provide a common language for fan communities to make sense of present events.”

In “Resistance and the art of worlds,” Rick Searles explains how Malka Older’s series Centenal Cycle imagined system of global micro-democracy, in which “truth” is policed by a single organization, and how in a world where the cost of production for communication nears zero, how is one able to distinguish truth from falsehood? The author connects it to the 2016 election where platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google disseminated false information and warns against have organizations that act as the arbiter of truth.

It’s fair to say that most mainstream books in the genre of science fiction do not have people of color as lead characters, so even when they explore specific issues like race, gender, inequality, stratification .and so forth, there are limitations. Afrofuturism provides an intersectional perspective that simultaneously explores multiple issues and oppressions. What might take a series to explain may be done in one character. In my article, “Afrofuturism and Black Panther,” I analysize the main antagonist Eric Stevens (AKA Killmonger). Examining his aims shows the layers of not only his character but also the narrative itself.

Killmonger wants Wakanda to use its technology to arm Black peoples around the world to fight colonization and its postcolonial effects globally. He is characterized by his roots in American institutions such as housing, education, social neglect, racism, and the CIA. His experience is carefully framed within a long history of patriarchy, oppression, military training, and racial socialization. Killmonger emerges as a hero to many Blacks who can identify with his pursuit of the true villains: colonization and racism.

Afrofuturism offers an opportunity to sociology because it challenges us to not only think how we are teaching, but also encourages up to take a broader interdisciplinary approach to society. Though it focuses on the Black experience, it can be argued that it also creates a path of discussion for all people of color as well. Sociology needs to continue to adapt and needs to challenge old paradigms. If reaching students is the goal, it may be important to tap into their imaginations. One of the first things I learned from Ytasha Womack’s book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, is that if we want a better world we have to be able to imagine it. Because if we can imagine it, we can begin to make change.

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