Black History Month provides an important opportunity to center African American history and literature in middle and high school classrooms. Many teachers highlight the stories of African Americans of the past, but this Black History Month, I invite you to consider teaching Afrofuturism as well.
Afrofuturism is a literary and cultural movement that reimagines African American history through the lens of science fiction and fantasy. The Black Panther franchise provides a touchstone that exemplifies the genre for students of different ages and identities. The broader world of Afrofuturism, though, comprises a rich set of texts with which to engage students in critical reflection on identity, history, and the future.
I’ve successfully utilized Afrofuturist writing, music, and media in my eighth-grade English classroom using the following strategies.
‘How Long ’til Black Future Month?’
My favorite way into teaching Afrofuturism is a blog post by the fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin titled, “How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?” Jemisin juxtaposes topics as varied as The Jetsons, The Lord of the Rings, experiences of Black History Month, and the work of Janelle Monae, to question the way Black History Month focuses our collective attention on the struggles of the past.
High school students can likely engage with the essay as written; with my eighth graders, however, I’ve shared a more age-appropriate framing and adaptation. The essay has served as an effective provocation for sparking critical reflection among students on the meaning of Black History Month and the promise of Afrofuturist perspectives. Together, we’ve considered questions such as What is lost in interpreting Black history through stories of suffering, oppression, and resistance? What if we think about Black futures instead?
The Story of Cindi Mayweather
One of the reasons why students find Afrofuturism so compelling is the many artistic forms it takes. One of my students’ favorite examples is always Janelle Monáe’s short film Many Moons, which is part of a sequence that tells the story of Cindi Mayweather, a futuristic android caught in the midst of an illicit love affair with a human.
A natural complement to Jemisin’s essay, the piece is narratively, musically, and visually complex, and thinking about it helps my students realize how Afrofuturism informs popular culture.
Having seen Monae’s work, students are ready to find their own examples of Afrofuturism in videos by Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and others. They are also prepared to explore the deeper history of Afrofuturism in music in the work of groups like Parliament-Funkadelic or the Sun Ra Arkestra.
Ra’s film A Joyful Noise is a complex example, and students may not grasp all of its layers, but wrestling with its tapestry of myth, sci-fi, and experimental jazz is a great way to strengthen their powers of interpretation and expand their sense of what’s possible in science fiction.
Afrofuturism and Afrofantasy
The “futurism” in Afrofuturism foregrounds the importance of science fiction, but when it comes to literature, I find the subgenre Afrofantasy—which centers histories, mythologies, and cosmologies—to be an especially rich field for students to explore.
Afrofantasy offers students a complex set of narratives that inspire them to question the Eurocentric assumptions behind the fantasy that they often encounter on their own. Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone and Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch have been mainstays in my Afrofuturism unit; I’ve also had success with Tochi Onyebuchi’s Beasts Made of Night.
These novels create a fully imagined universe in which characters explore questions of identity, history, and difference. They can be a challenge for students who are accustomed to straightforward, linear narratives that don’t require much background knowledge in order to engage, but their difficulty also makes them important texts for teaching self-monitoring skills and expanding students’ senses of how literature can or should work. Students exploring these novels come away with a more capacious sense of what fantasy can be. And they learn a great deal about themselves as readers, as well.
Teaching with Afrofuturism helps reframe representation during Black History month and beyond, providing a set of narratives in which Black characters are heroes in the kinds of sci-fi and fantasy stories that account for so much popular culture.
But Afrofuturism also makes available a rich variety of questions that enable students to reconsider their imaginations of the future. Students might engage in critical analysis about, and write and discuss questions like, these: Who do our futures include? Who do they exclude? How can Afrofuturism help us imagine the future differently?
The texts mentioned above work well for short discussions or creative or critical writing exercises that might happen in the midst of an already-existing unit. What might an Afrofuturist say about the Cybertruck? Dreams of interplanetary exploration? The underlying causes of climate change?
These can also be strong project prompts if you let students decide how to represent what they know. My students have made paintings, sculptures, choreography, stories, poems, and short films using Afrofuturism as inspiration. Whether you build a whole unit out of Afrofuturism or spend a few minutes exploring along with your students, the variety of literature, music, and media that Afrofuturism offers can enliven any study of African American history and literature. It also asks us to think more critically and creatively about representations of the past and the future that we encounter every day and that we can weave into equity-centered curricula in Black History Month and beyond.