On re-imagining race through speculative fiction

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This January, I had the wonderful opportunity to co-teach a course with a good friend and colleague, Novian Whitsitt. Forty-four students from across the majors at Luther enrolled in our particular version of Paideia 450, an ethics-centered course that all students must take before they graduate. All J-term courses are intensely focused, but this time the students were highly engaged, Novian and I were energized by bringing our unique but complementary areas of expertise together and the current climate of active resistance to systemic racism made the course significant—both challenging and rewarding. I decided to use this blogging opportunity to share some brief highlights from the experience to honor the work the students did with us and hopefully to initiate conversations, to-read lists and ideas that folks might bring to classrooms or workplaces beyond Luther.

We decided to build this specific class around speculative fiction for a couple of reasons. One is that after an initial conversation about a couple of novels that'd come across our radars, we both started noticing all kinds of speculative fiction (science fiction, horror, fantasy, alternate history and other genres that imagine different worlds) popping up that explores race and racism explicitly and often with great sophistication and nuance. The other main reason is that we suspected these novels, films and music might provide laboratories in which the 46 of us could think through the histories, ideologies and mythologies of race and racism with a productive distance from the stories happening in the U.S. today. But there's a cool catch to this too: that distance is largely an illusion. Students readily connected elements of the strange stories we read, watched and heard back to reality today as we know it. As Kim Stanley Robinson put it in an interview with The Guardian, "I think I do science fiction because I feel like if you're going to write realism about our time, science fiction is simply the best genre to do it in. This is because we're living in a big science fiction novel now that we all co-write together."

One of the most memorable and I believe highest impact assignments of the term was a group creative project in which randomly assigned teams were tasked with creating an original speculative fiction that explored matters of race and racism, share it with the class and give a reflective presentation on what they learned through the process. I've assigned lots of group creative projects in other classes, but I've never seen students so aware of what was at stake in every decision, from writing a script to casting to avoiding or trying to leverage conventional stereotypes. Students struggled, in a good way, with anticipating audiences and working with their own social networks on campus. Plus, during our term there was a highly publicized scandal concerning the visual ad for a monkey-themed hoodie by H&M. That case gave Novian and me the chance to help students translate the skills they were developing in the project to potential professional environments in the future. After all, an ad like that gets generated by a team, evaluated by a team and approved by a team; yet, in that and many other cases, it seems no one spoke up vehemently enough with an ethical argument opposing the ad. Learning literature, film and other media equips students with a sense of how significant The Narrative always is, and it provides a set of tools to work with The Narrative for the common good in their future lives as professionals, citizens and members of all sorts of communities.

By way of wrapping up, Novian and I took note of which texts struck chords effectively, and I want to share a few for anyone who'd like to venture into fascinating worlds. The recent film, "Get Out," could have used several more days for discussion, it was that good; and nearly all of the class had already seen it outside of any academic setting. The pairing of the 1920 short story The Comet by W. E. B. Du Bois with the 1959 film "The World, The Flesh, and The Devil" (starring Harry Belafonte) got us all thinking about how post-apocalyptic fiction raises lots of unique questions and how the answers the stories themselves provide can offer pessimism, optimism or deep ambiguity. The short novel The Ballad of Black Tom inspired and awed us, and that was enhanced by a gracious Skype visit from the author, Victor LaValle. And a collection of music videos by Janelle Monae ("Q.U.E.E.N.," "Many Moons," and "Cold War") caused a lot of brain tissue in the room to melt and ooze out of ears onto the classroom floor.

If you check out any of these, feel free to send along your reactions, or if you've read or watched speculative fiction that explores race and left a deep impression on you, I'd be glad to take your recommendations.

Andy Hageman

Andy Hageman

Andy Hageman joined the Luther College English Department in 2011 after work and studies that took him to Shanghai, China, for six years and completing his doctoral studies at the University of California, Davis. Grounded in American literature and cinema along with aesthetics and critical theory, Professor Hageman's research engages with questions about techno-culture and machines in the social imaginary, ecological narratives and images in writing and film, and convergences of science and fiction in science fiction. At Luther, Andy teaches courses that include American literature, EcoMedia, Paideia, and Film, and he has published on a wide variety of topics that range from David Lynch's film and television to the 1921 Czech play that introduced the term "robot." Most recently, he co-edited an issue of the journal Paradoxa with the theme "Global Weirding." He lives in Decorah with his wife and two daughters, and if you walk the trails around town, you will likely bump into them as they love exploring the outdoors together.

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  • April 12 2018 at 11:58 am
    Griffin Neal
    What a great topic, I'm surprised I don't know almost any of these works! I definitely didn't know that DuBois wrote fiction, I'll absolutely be checking that out. As for other works of the sort, the rap group CLPPNG (which has grown in notoriety since its vocalist landed a role in the original cast of Hamilton) has a recent album called "splendor and misery" which recounts a black slave revolt in a sci-fi setting. It actually won a Hugo award, being the first music album to do so since 1970. I haven't listened to it myself, but I think I will after reading this got me interested in the subject.
  • April 16 2018 at 10:44 am
    Andy Hageman
    Thanks for the response and the recommendation of that album! I appreciate the suggestion. And if you're interested in more of Du Bois's fiction, he did another speculative story called "The Princess Steel" from approximately 1908/1910.

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