Saturday, February 15, 2014

Retelling origin stories of Afrofuturism and The New Jim Crow

For a few years now, I've retold the story to the young folks in my classes about how a "student" named Alondra Nelson organized a large group of people to talk about the intersections of race, technology, and speculative fiction. She organized the gathering of ideas and people under the label "the Afrofuturism List" or "The List" for short, which operated as a list-serv on Yahoo.

"She was a student, just like you," I say in my closings of the story. "I mean, imagine that: one of you organizing a wide-ranging conversation about artistic culture or intellectual ideas. What would that be like?"     

In recent years, I've added to my arsenal of origin stories. I tell the one about how a young sister was attending a protest rally and noticed someone's sign that referred to unjust mass incarceration as "The New Jim Crow." The sister thought about the sign and idea for a while, and eventually went on to write a book on the subject.

That book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, has become a tremendous contribution to conversations about widespread injustice in this country. "Imagine what kind of ideas one of you in this class is going to come up with," I say, "after observing and working with community organizers in the processes of advocating for justice. You'll be just like Michelle Alexander."

There's pressure and excitement involved with me speculating that the next Alondra Nelson or Michelle Alexander could be a student in my class. Doing so causes me to set the standards for the class and myself at certain places.

No doubt, it's important to introduce students to stories about slavery liberation struggles, Civil Rights and Black Power activism, and other major historical moments. But I've learned that there's also motivational value in seemingly micro, contemporary histories like the origins of Afrofuturism and The New Jim Crow.    

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Mark Anthony Neal, and Writing about Black Men

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