If you had the power to imagine the future of race, what would it look like? This is the central question that I sought to explore with students enrolled in my new advanced course this fall quarter, "Ethnofuturist Rhetorics: Imagining the Future of Race." Having just wrapped up the course, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the experience.
Cross-listed in both the Program in Writing and Rhetoric and the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford, this course offered an in-depth study of ethnofuturism, a rhetorical movement to envision the future of race relations. I was inspired to teach this course because I have long been an admirer of speculative/science fiction, which has a unique ability to get me to reflect on present-day issues in ways that other genres cannot. Darko Suvin famously explained this phenomenon when he theorized in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979) that science fiction produces “cognitive estrangement,” thus allowing us to notice the constructedness of our current reality and interrogate the status quo. I wanted to design a class where I could explore this phenomenon with my students.
As a teacher and researcher who specializes in antiracist rhetoric and critical race studies, I sought to actively disrupt the traditional canon of science fiction, which tends to be written by, for, and about white/cis/hetero men. Too often, canonical science fiction erases people of color from the future or problematically whitens them to feed a post-racial fantasy. And there is a long history in the United States of using speculation about the future as a rhetorical tool to reinforce capitalist, white supremacist, fascist ideologies. In designing this course, I sought to decenter whiteness in speculative fiction and present ethnofuturist speculative rhetorics as an important corrective to the white popular imaginary’s insistence on characterizing people of color as frozen in time, technologically stunted, or pushed to the margins.
We started the course by examining examples of speculative ethnofuturist rhetoric (such as films, stories, comics, visual artwork, music albums, and visual reality projects) produced by Black, Asian, Latinx, and Native rhetors, assessing how they envision the future consequences of existing racial systems and imagine alternative possibilities for societal race relations. I carefully designed my syllabus to showcase a variety of genres produced by authors of different racial identities, so that students could see how ethnofuturism serves as a powerful liberatory rhetorical framework for all communities impacted by white supremacy, as well as take inspiration from different genres when designing their own ethnofuturist texts later in the term. Despite their many differences, these texts all share a commitment to envisioning what it could mean for people of color not just to survive but also to thrive in the future.
In the second part of the course, students followed in the footsteps of these ethnofuturist rhetors by selecting a racial justice issue that they wanted to learn more about and creating their own work of ethnofuturism designed to consider the future of this issue. Many chose to work in more conventional narrative forms by writing short stories and poetry collections. Others took on more unconventional forms, including a play, a virtual reality project, and a work of interactive fiction. I am so impressed with how these projects are able to do so much at once, including address a contemporary racial justice issue, effectively incorporate an ethnofuturist framework (like dystopia, magical realism, historical revisionism, alternative timelines, etc.), and appropriately engage the rhetorical conventions required of their chosen genre. In one project, a student sought to address the lack of mental health support for Black people suffering from racial trauma by creating a virtual reality experience that allows users to enter a wellness center where they can undergo healing not only by using contemporary therapeutic methods, but also by being transported into the past (where they can experience a personal history free of racial injury) and the future (where they can imagine what their future might look like without racial injury). Other final projects were similarly moving and compelling, with some offering dystopian visions (such as by imagining how technological advancements will only exacerbate the violent militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border) and others imagining utopias based on racial liberation (such as a future in which the prison industrial complex has been eradicated).
It was especially exciting to be joined by two guest speakers this quarter. The first speaker was one of the authors represented on the course syllabus, Walidah Imarisha, an Afrofuturist writer/researcher and Assistant Professor in Black Studies at Oregon State University. She joined us via Zoom to talk about her research and writings, and the students greatly appreciated having the opportunity to ask her questions about her short story “Black Angel,” her craft, and the anthology of social justice-oriented speculative fiction called Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements that she co-edited with adrienne maree brown. She also offered some valuable advice to my students, who were embarking on creating their own ethnofuturist texts. For example, she reminded them that ethnofuturist writing (what she has termed "visionary fiction") is "fundamentally hopeful." In addition, she encouraged them to keep a central question in mind as they designed their visions: "How can we have the kind of society where everyone's needs are met?"
The second speaker was Rev. Dr. Sakena De Young-Scaggs, the Senior Associate Dean for Religious and Spiritual Life and Pastor of Memorial Church here at Stanford, who completed her Ph.D. research on how Afrofuturism can be used as a framework for creating liminal spaces of Black joy. She joined us in person to present on her important research and lead the students in a lively conversation. It was inspiring to hear her speak about how the speculative Black arts can serve as a liberatory platform for "renewal and resistance" and support communal gatherings (such as comic book conventions and science fiction reading circles) to circulate "milieus of personal hope with a vision for a better future."
It was a true honor to be able to teach this class to such a dedicated group of Stanford students. I am grateful to the Program in Writing and Rhetoric for making this teaching opportunity possible and for spotlighting the class in the program's latest newsletter. I hope I am able to offer this course many more times in the future!
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