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UB Humanities forum on Afrofuturism and Black Utopias

Author: Gabrie’l J. Atchison

On November 19th, 2020, scholars in the field of Afrofuturism and Black Utopia gathered for a virtual conversation about the role of Black Utopian thought within African American history, and its importance for our current inflection point on race relations.

Dr. Victoria W. Wolcott

The panel was organized and facilitated by Dr. Victoria W. Wolcott, Professor of History at the University of Buffalo and was presented by the UB Humanities Institute in conjunction with Humanities New York (Buffalo Humanities Festival: Utopia digital programming for 2020-2021). Dr. Wolcott is the author of a forthcoming publication, Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement (forthcoming, University of Chicago Press). The other panelists were, Julian C. Chambliss, Michigan State University, John Jennings, University of California, Riverside and Alex Zamalin, University of Detroit, Mercy.

In his 1994 essay, “Black to the Future,” Mark Derry coined the term “Afrofuturism.” Dery states that, “Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture—and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future—might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism.” Dr. Chambliss expressed how much he appreciated the open-ended, “for want of a better term,” in Derry’s definition because it allows the definition to evolve as the field evolves.

During the UB Humanities forum and subsequent Question and Answer session, panelists covered a broad range of categories including the themes of Afrofuturism in early African American literature, the inclusion of artists from parts of the African Diaspora outside of the United States, and the centrality of Feminist or Womanist thought in the artform.

Dr. Wolcott raised the issue of actual utopian cooperative spaces, intentional communities created by African Americans throughout history, which grew out of a need for protection from racism and capricious violence.

Dr. Wolcott raised the issue of actual utopian cooperative spaces, intentional communities created by African Americans throughout history, which grew out of a need for protection from racism and capricious violence. Zora Neale Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida is one example of an all-black, self-governing town created after the Reconstruction Era. She explained that to a certain extent, Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) serve this purpose of racial separation for protection. She also mention The Freedom Georgia Initiative, an intentional community constructed recently in response to the murder of George Floyd. Central to these spaces, both real and imagined, are freedom, the right to work one’s land, citizenship, and a sense of belonging.

What seems to distinguish expressions of Black Utopias from other utopian expressions is the presence of social consciousness around black suffering. There also seems to be a desire for interracial participation. The creators of Black Utopias want to create spaces that are also safe for white people. The art offers a critique of racism, sexism, and capitalism.

The UB Humanities Forum provided an opportunity for those of us outside the academy to engage with scholars in a way that is not often possible. The panelists also seemed genuinely thrilled to have a space to engage with others who are similarly passionate about the topic. Perhaps the most valuable part of the talk were the breadcrumbs left by speakers (and often in the online chat) about books for those of us who are interested in further exploring the topic.

The following are just a few titles to get you started. Black Utopia: The History of An Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism (Zamalin, Columbia University Press, 2019), Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents (Butler,  Warner Books, 1993 & Seven Stories Press, 1998 respectively), and, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. (Thomas, Grand Central Publishing, 2001).

Lead image of Dr. Victoria W. Wolcott.“SO close to finished! ‘Laughing From My Heart Center” by Lisa McLymont (lisamc369 on Flickr) CC BY-ND 2.0

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