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Lord Nealli by Rogier De Boevé (rogierdeboeve.com)

On September 14, I spent the day in the Chancellor Green Rotunda at the “Ferguson is the Future” Symposium, and I have spent every day since then trying to process the magnitude of what I learned there.

The symposium was co-organized by Princeton professor Ruha Benjamin along with scholars Moya Bailey and Ayana Jamieson. Its subtitle states its intention as “Incubating Alternative Worlds Through Arts, Activism, and Scholarship”. The day was divided into three panels, each featuring a diverse group of renowned scholar-artists:

“Parables of the Present Dystopia” including Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, and Rasheedah Phillips; “Filming the Future” focusing on black filmmakers and their work; and “Inner & Outer Spaces: Community Organizing” including Ferguson community leaders Johnetta Elzie, Brittney Packett, and DeRay McKesson and other prominent activists.

So what did we talk about? Perception. Reality. History. Sci-fi. The future. Black people as sci-fi and as the future. Creating and dismantling systems. Fiction and poetry and identity and representation. Education. Sexuality. Pursuing passions and fighting, always. Science. Technology. Police brutality. Utopia. Apocalypse.

The basis for the conversation was a rich tradition of black intellectualism and art called Afrofuturism. Speakers referenced and riffed on commonly treasured works, and were met with snaps, cheers, murmurs of appreciation. Many had first come to Afrofuturism through Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, the story of a woman who is unwillingly transported from her present day to the world of her enslaved ancestors.

Afrofuturism wants you to step back and see the slave ships as space ships. As author Nalo Hopkinson said, African people were snatched up from their homes by invaders, forced to cross an entire ocean, and deposited in a foreign place where their abductors tried to take away their culture, language, and history. That kind of thing sounds more like science fiction than reality. And of that culture, language, and history, Hopkinson says, “We remade them. Where we could not remake them we conjured them. We rebuilt ourselves as people anew.” Thus, the African American story is rewritten as one of supreme victory— and one that is ongoing.

Afrofuturism has been around for decades, but seems to be gaining increased prominence in the wake of recent American upheaval (hence the reference to Ferguson in the title). Dr. Reynaldo Anderson said, “We were literally fighting about the future of the black imagination last August.” He added that we can “look at Afrofuturism as a decolonization of the Black imagination.” It’s about getting so far ahead of your times that the problems you currently face are no longer “just the way it is”. At the heart of this symposium is the unalienable right to be that radical, to create new worlds in place of the ones that oppress us.

I quickly understood that this event would go beyond the usual when Professor Benjamin began with a call and response of a quote from renowned sci fi author Octavia E. Butler. Three times, she proclaimed, “There is nothing new under the sun,” and each time the audience chanted back, “But there are new suns.” This was our “clarion call” for the entire day.

In the words of Adrienne Maree Brown (sci-fi scholar, artist, healer): “All organizing is sci-fi; if you’re trying to change the world, you’re engaging in sci fi activity.” As writer and organizer Walidah Imarisha put it, “All deep social change at the time it was created was considered unrealistic.”

At the same time, other speakers warned that we must beware of “old suns masquerading as new suns”. What might appear to be a brand new world on the surface might be the same old same old hierarchies and oppression underneath the shiny technology. In other words, “what is futuristic is not necessarily progressive.” And vice versa, I suppose.

Midway through the third panel, a question arose about why so much of modern science fiction falls along a utopia/ dystopia binary—why don’t we ever do something more interesting? Adrienne Maree Brown’s answer was that “our obsession with dystopia is our realization of what we’ve already set in motion.” This applies to global warming (true apocalypse), but also to more mundane forms of human interaction. Some people, she said, are currently living in a utopia and some in a dystopia, and those exist at the same time. Perhaps in our relentless study of these two extremes, we’re trying to reconcile their existence in a world that makes sense. Ours, of course, does not.

I realized that we have to be intentional and radical in imagining what kind of world we want to live in in the future.

I cannot write my revelation any better than these combined statements from visionaries:

  • “We are creating the future whether we are intending to or not.” —Walidah Imarisha
  •  “We have the skills to create the future that we want.” —Nalo Hopkinson
  •  “We can’t build something we can’t imagine.” —Ursula Le Guin
  •  “We will reshape the entire world if necessary and it is nec- essary.” —Walidah Imarisha

Despite all my grand aspirations to help craft a better future and a better country, I had never taken the time to envision it, to imagine how the average citizen would live in a utopic America. Instead, I usually approach social justice from a highly realistic, fact-based standpoint: what’s the problem and how do we fix it? Yet I inevitably hit a wall when I return to the deeper societal inequalities that no policy could possibly touch. And that’s where radical imagination comes in: we have to dream new worlds into existence before we can ever hope for them to materialize.

I would never be so haphazard with my own happiness as to hope to end up loving my life simply by coming up with good fixes to the problems I found with it. I have specific ideas about what shape my own life might take and I take time to imagine myself living it. Why should it be any different with a society?

I remembered that art and other forms of creative expression are not separate from the social progress movement.

As author and screenwriter Tananarive Due said, “Artists do and can have a role.” I sometimes mistakenly think of writing poems and novels and songs as just pursuing your own passions. It’s not. It’s contributing. It also inspires others, just as all of the speakers discovered Afrofuturism from their own early brushes with artistic role models. Andrea Hairston told an amazing story about meeting one of her heroes, Alice Childress, a black actress whom she had seen on TV as a child. After receiving Hairston’s fan letter, Childress ended up inviting her over for lunch. When Hairston told her hero how much it had meant to her as a child to see a black woman being represented, Childress said, “So what are you gonna do? Don’t just eat my food– I saved your life, whose life are you gonna save?”

Ruha Benjamin reminded us that we are all organizers, scholars, and artists. We are “shape-shifters” and we are never confined to filling just one role.

Tactics for progress need to be abstract and concrete at the same time.

As Walidah Imarisha said, “We can only have so many poets; we need folks with skills to utilize technology in poetic, visionary ways.” While actress Andrea Hairston introducing herself by saying, “I’m trying to find a map to tomorrow and it has to include the past and the questions that I cannot explain,” Dr. Nettrice Gaskin spoke about teaching students of color in her community to create prosthetics and other advanced biotech.

The second panel included screenings of films that combined these two properties of visible and nonvisible entities. M. Asli Dukan’s documentary, “Invisible Universe,” tackles the way black characters are dispensable in traditional sci-fi media. In “Endless Shards of Jazz for a Brutal World,” actress Numa Perrier wanders through an industrial wasteland with the words “Tubman, Turner, Truth” repeated as a dreary mantra throughout. The film depicts the way racism feels in America through a female vampire who can only survive by drinking her own blood. Another film by queerpop singer-songwriter Be Steadwell shows a young queer black girl (who seems to be mute) who wanders into an extraterrestrial rave. Everything freezes and a futuristic singer and cellist begin to play a haunting song only to her. Then everything un-freezes and she stumbles on.

While M. Asli Dukan’s work was a concrete archive of injustice that educated the audience, the others dwelt in that realm of the “map to tomorrow” that I did not understand in the traditional sense, and we needed both.

This dialogue was only possible because of the unique environment that everyone in the room helped create.

Chancellor Green Rotunda can be intimidating, but that day we could have been sitting in armchairs in the corner of an intimate coffeehouse. Everyone’s positive energy and focus formed a supportive network of intention. The panelists were personally addressing every one of us, equally including my Asian-American self and the white friend I was with.

It is not only desirable that everyone feel equally involved in a space dedicated to celebrating blackness, it is crucial, because everyone is equally implicated in our societal inequalities. Professor Benjamin noted that social scientists had “calculated over 83,000 excess deaths per year in the African American community alone: the equivalent of a major airliner filled with black passengers falling out of the sky every single day every year.” While we absorbed this awful statistic, she went on to say, “If white Americans comprised their own country, they’re still much worse off than many other populations around the world. So that the deep-seated inequities that make up the fabric of this country get under everybody’s skin. Ultimately, no one is immune.

This is the kind of space and conversation that Princeton desperately needs.

Professor Glaude describes it as “thinking carefully together in public.” It is a bubble that is safe but not insulated, because everyone brings such different perspectives. Nalo Hopkinson defined a utopian community as one “that manages to argue with itself and survive . . . a place where you have to learn to get along, where everyone is from somewhere else.”

Although “Ferguson is the Future” was an environment of love, people were not hesitant to call each other out. During the activism panel, an audience member asked a question about the relative value of yelling in the street as a form of protest. Netta was quick to point out that the question demonstrated an academic and elitist privilege that many of those on-the-ground protestors don’t have. DeRay added, “The moment we leave the streets, we lose.”

This symposium drew heavily on the resources of a powerful institution but was unmistakably independent in thought. Netta joked, “In my real life I couldn’t even afford to breathe the air at Princeton… This is very expensive air.” Bringing all these people together surely took a tremendous amount of funding (as evidenced by the long list of sponsor departments/programs), but it could not have been applied to a more beautiful end: a gathering of Afrofuturists in what author Daniel José Older called a “historic bastion of whiteness”. Those two quotes sum up the consistent tone of the dialogue: humorous and serious at the same time, respectful and irreverent, academic and crunk; yes, in Professor Benjamin’s words, we celebrated “an unapologetic, some call it crunk, commitment to creating something different, more just and joyous.”

After the panels, we broke out into small groups to start to unpack our thoughts. My group discussed how to hold onto this way of thinking once we got back to the real world, where your al- lies in the fight will not always be there to hold space for you.

Here’s why we have to try, though: in the words of the speculative fiction author Steven Barnes, “You students right now have the opportunity to walk through a door that people have been pounding on for four hundred years. In essence, all of you out there are what I would call the hope and the dream of the slave: people who could stand up and say ‘No, we’re here. This is who we are. You do not get to define who we are. This is what the world is.”

I think scholar Lisa Bolekaja summed it all up when she stepped up to the microphone and greeted the crowd with “What’s good, future?”

Correction 10/22/2015: An earlier version of this article credited the featured image to inspirationfeed.com. The image was created by Rogier De Boevé as a cover for the album “Tha Art of Slapp” by Lord Neallion. More of De Boevé’s work is available at rogierdeboeve.com. The Nassau Weekly sincerely regrets the error.