I somehow discovered Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, Aaron McGruder's comic strip The Boondocks, and this framework related to race and technology developed by Alondra Nelson around the same time when I was beginning my graduate studies at Pennsylvania State University.
Nelson had been organizing formal discussions about afrofuturism by 1998 and a public forum in 1999. Whitehead's novel was published in early 1999, and McGruder's comic strip was syndicated in April 1999.
I had relocated from Mississippi to Pennsylvania in the fall of 1999. In retrospect, I suppose that move from the South to the Northeast at that moment was crucial.
The student newspaper at Penn State was running The Boondocks strip when I arrived, or at least when I started paying attention. At a university that was so large (more than 40,000 students) and majority white, McGruder's strip gave me a cool and useful connection with black art and ideas. The feelings of isolation and displacement that Huey and Riley Freeman felt about being "pilgrims in an unholy land" was one I could relate to in many ways living in a college town known as "Happy Valley."
I had first met Alondra in the spring of 1998 when I was a participant in an exchange program between my home school, Tougaloo College and New York University. At the time, Alondra was a graduate assistant for a class taught by Tricia Rose and Lisa Duggan. Alondra and I kept in touch, but it wasn't until 1999 and early 2000 that I became more and more immersed in conversations about afrofuturism.
Sometime during the summer or early fall of 2000, I traveled over to New York City to visit some friends. One of my homegirls, the artist Torkwase Dyson, was reading a paperback issue of Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist. She told me it was a book about elevators by a black writer who lives Brooklyn. I took a note to remember to pick up that book about elevators.
Looking back, it was important that I was reading a speculative novel about the mechanics of elevators at the time that I was trying to learn more about this critical framework, afrofuturism. At this time, I was also following the ramblings of Huey, a brainy, militant-minded black boy.
This semester, I'm teaching this literature course "Black Nerds Unite." Not surprisingly, my students and I will cover compositions by Whitehead, Nelson, and McGruder.
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