Afrofuturism in the Classroom


The groundbreaking Approaches to Teaching the Works of Octavia Butler (2019), edited by Tarshia Stanley, features a powerful essay by my colleague Ximena Gallardo. Gallardo describes how her students engaged with new technologies (writing code and creating web pages) and gained fluency in multiple research methodologies in order to develop the “necessary background to become authorities on different aspects of Butler’s work.”

This essay–an examination of the historical and contemporary research skills necessary to teach award-winning science fiction writer Octavia Butler’s writing–suggests Afrofuturism as a field that can liberate minds. Three recent texts–from B. Sharise Moore, Tricia Hersey, and Alexis Pauline Gumbs–make powerful arguments that Afrofuturist-inspired teaching can repair psyches that have been battered or painfully truncated by society’s supremacies and hierarchies. Their work offers an invitation to rethink art and education, and it’s true–we need new visions of both.  Many Afrofuturists reveal, through their art, an interest in dismantling old systems. They write fiction that manifests, that purposefully puts forth a vision into the world. The work of Moore, Hersey, and Gumbs, then, explores theory, but it also challenges us to act: What does the school of the future look like? How do we nurture each other’s spirits and minds? What information constitutes authentic knowledge? How do we spark problem-solving?

For historians of Black intellectual culture, it may seem odd to consider a future-centered discipline, particularly as a tool for understanding contemporary realities. But Afrofuturism reveals the links between the past, present, and future. B. Sharise Moore includes both trail-blazing Afrofuturists (Martin Delaney, Pauline S. Hopkinson, Robert Hayden) with bright new talents (Audrey T. Williams, Zetta Elliot). And in her discussion, Alexis Pauline Gumbs threads the voices of contemporary activists and scientists of color with old-school scientific guidebooks; in hers, Tricia Hersey references the Black Panthers and reminds us that innovative, problem-solving education has always been part of Black culture. In all three books, we see how engaging with Afrofuturism necessitates an understanding of history.  For example, AfroSurrealism, a subset of Afrofuturism 3.0, according to scholar Reynaldo Anderson, is inspired by the antiracist Surrealist activities and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. (If the Black Arts Movement demanded that we realize that art has real, tangible effects on communities and individuals, then the Afrofuturist Movement furthers those conversations.)

Younger readers may be interested in Conjuring Worlds, which describes itself as the first Afrofuturist textbook.  B. Sharise Moore aims at “marrying curriculum and Afrofuturism to create a one of a kind textbook that would feature some of the best writers and artists the genre had to offer.” Moore’s textbook does offer poems and short stories from leading Afrofuturist writers. Adult readers will probably be familiar with renowned writers such as Tananarive Due and Sheree Renée Thomas, and young adult writer Zetta Elliot’s powerful poem “Incantation” will blow you away.  Elliot’s poem, like  Audrey T. Williams’ haunting work “Great Dismal Speaks” or Troy L. Wiggins’ dreamlike “Ascension,” heavily references science and history. Conjuring Worlds provides thoughtful lesson plans and activities that are essential for any teacher (or for parents home-schooling post-pandemic). These lesson plans correspond to the readings and incorporate math (“show your findings in an infographic”), science (“[d]esign a diorama of the Great Dismal Swamp and its ecosystem”), and history (“Interview at least five elders in our family and/or community”).

Moore’s textbook succeeds at many levels and manages to be both student- and instructor-friendly. Moore includes glossaries for the stories and the poems and rubrics for the creative activities within the book: Conjuring Worlds can help instructors evaluate worthwhile creative assignments (writing interviews, creating multimedia presentations, drawing maps, and building science experiments, board games, and video games) that can be difficult to assess. We come to see, as the award-winning Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki puts it, how “fiction, specifically the sci-fi, cli-fi, indigenous, Afro, and other African descended futurisms…address such real-world issues in the most memorable ways.” Teaching Reading in the 21st Century, a text from the educational company Pearson, argues for a “wide range of techniques to gauge students’ strengths and weaknesses.” By including multiple forms of inquiry, Conjuring Worlds inspires us to research and apply knowledge.  

Afrofuturism-inspired teaching can help us understand how to “address real-world issues” in a compassionate and relaxed community. Many on social media know Tricia Hersey as the founder of The Nap Ministry, an organization that offers safe, communal napping experience. Hersey argues for rest as resistance, and Hersey’s Resurrect Rest School, founded in January 2020, encourages both “deep study, community care, and “commitment to education as a key to our freedom.” The Rest School is “an ode to the Freedom Schools of the 1960s.” Hersey’s Rest School offers an opportunity to “study, analyze, and discuss text together…to dream up new ideas…There are herbal teas, healthy snacks, fellowship, and it all ends with a collective nap.” Who wouldn’t want to experience that?  Relaxing isn’t a luxury; it’s a way of rejecting a capitalistic “grind culture” that leaves us “zombie-like in Spirit and exhausted in body.” In other words, we can’t question or fight oppressive systems when we are too exhausted to do so.  In her argument that people learn and engage more deeply when they are relaxed and less anxious, Hersey’s work ties in with Conjuring Worlds. At the end of her new book, Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto, Hersey elicits a new–and vital–conversation about education: learning should encompass pleasure, joy, connection.

Hersey first began incorporating Afrofuturism into her practice when she taught in an after school program for teenagers: “About halfway through a fourteen-week program, I began to understand that I should shift the curriculum. I needed to move away from my original lesson plans and go deeper into guiding their imagination via studying Afrofuturism. I did this because every week these young people wrote about the reality of their lives, the poverty, the drug abuse, the unemployment happening within their families, the prison industrial complex many had experience with…There was no balance, no hope, and no invention for what could be. So I turned to science fiction, comic books, music, and film to introduce the teachings of Sun Ra, the father of Afrofuturism, Octavia Butler, Missy Elliott, and the blockbuster movie Black Panther that was premiering at the same time as our residency together.”  Rest is Resistance may encourage learners to explore the depths of their imaginations through fiction, through art, but it also argues for analysis. Hersey believes we should “surrender to the unknown,” to create portals “for deep rest, care, leisure,” and search and understand our psyches.

Students in one of my first-year composition courses have been reading Gumbs’ Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. Initially, I was interested in how students respond to creative nonfiction versus poetry or fiction (in my other composition course, I’m teaching fiction). In our Department’s argument-heavy composition courses, which requires that students form and analyze arguments, I wondered if the implied arguments found in creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry could inspire strong writing. It has. Gumbs’ writing pulls us through a range of ideas, as she explores how dolphins, whales, and seals can teach us about survival and community. Although perhaps more challenging to read, students have made insightful comments about Undrowned. In one class, a student read chapter three, a discussion about a dolphin species no longer called by its Indigenous name; the student then wrote an excellent essay explaining how naming can be a form of colonization.

Gumbs roots her work in science. We learn about evolution and dorsal fins; we learn about different species of marine mammals. Gumbs creates a powerful argument about how we’re all connected and part of a larger ecosystem. Of Octavia Butler and Jewelle Gomez’s work, we learn, as scholar Alexis Lothian writes, that the “future is a commodity that is highly in demand.”  The same could be said of Gumbs. Gumbs cautions us against destroying our planet while inviting us to locate accountability buddies and create our own meditations, among other suggested activities.

For new readers and for writing instructors, Moore’s Conjuring Worlds is a treasure and a delight. Rest is Resistance will also expand minds and create vital conversations about the kind of education that allows us to dream and create more broadly. Undrowned, which ends with an appendix of learning and meditation activities, inspires deeper thought. During a time when many educators (and students) are exhausted from the challenges of the pandemic classroom, Conjuring Worlds, Rest is Resistance, and Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals remind us that learning can be one of life’s most authentic pleasures.

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Rochelle Spencer

Rochelle Spencer is the author of AfroSurrealism and the co-editor of All About Skin. She teaches writing and composition at LaGuardia Community College in Queens.

Comments on “Afrofuturism in the Classroom

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    Fantastic. Thank you so much for including Conjuring Worlds!

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      It’s a wonderful book; thank you for pushing ideas forward.

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      Thank you, Karl…All are welcomed to investigate the beauty and intelligence of Black culture…Afrofuturism argues that advanced technologies cross boundaries; this can make it hard to draw clear lines. You raise interesting points. I’ll look into this and will learn more.

  • Avatar

    Thank you, Karl…All are welcomed to investigate the beauty and intelligence of Black culture…Afrofuturism argues that advanced technologies cross boundaries; this can make it hard to draw clear lines. You raise interesting points. I’ll look into this and will learn more.

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