By Stephanie Harp
As Maine Humanities Council considered topics for its annual Big Question, in light all that had happened during the Maine bicentennial – the pandemic, George Floyd’s death, and the uprisings that followed – they wondered, “What if things were different?” They turned to Afrofuturism/ Africanfuturism, a literary genre that flips Maine’s motto, “The way life should be,” into a question: “How should life be?”
“Every year in the Big Question program, we ask a really interesting question. We invite speakers to come and give talks based on their takes on that question,” said Maine Humanities Council (MHC) Associate Director Samaa Abdurraqib. When reflecting on the traumatic events of the last few years, MHC settled on “What if…?” as the 2022 Big Question. The genre of Black speculative fiction, as Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism are called, imagines an alternative present or future based on new ways to survive and thrive by engaging with each other, community, and the natural environment. “We thought about the tension between people wanting to ‘get back to normal’ and the reality that ‘normal’ wasn’t actually good or equitable for so many people. We often ask people to learn through history, but Afrofuturism expands our imagination by removing our compulsion to look at the past and think ‘realistically’ about the future,” Abdurraqib said.
Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism bridge art, literature, and music using a Black cultural lens, from the premise that “there can be a future for Black and African-descended people that either begins with Black liberation or provides a clear pathway towards Black liberation,” according to the MHC website. Nigerian-American fantasy and science fiction author Nnedi Okorafor has explained the distinction between Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism by using a “Black Panther” reference: “Afrofuturism: Wakanda builds its first outpost in Oakland, California, U.S.A. Africanfuturism: Wakanda builds its first outpost in a neighboring African country.”
“What if…?” activity guidelines post on the MHC website from January 18 to February 3, culminating in a live Zoom. Registration is free and the asynchronous discussion activities will remain available for a year. MHC will release short lectures by four guides. Marine scientist Skylar Bayer, an assistant professor of biology and aquaculture and extension specialist at Roger Williams University, who asks, “What if our food weren’t so tied to money?” Embodied Equity consultant René Goddess Johnson discusses what liberation really could look like. Maine Developmental Disabilities Council presents pieces of “In the Shadow of Pineland,” asking, “What if everyone were truly valued?” Framing the discussion is Ian-Khara Ellasante, an assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies at Bates College. By early January, 75 participants had already registered for the Big Read.
MHC Discussion Projects, which are similar to reading groups, also offer a focus on Afrofuturism/Africanfuturism. The Discussion Projects program provides support and facilitators to individuals and organizations for convening community members for rich discussions, grounded in texts. Multiple reading lists (mainehumanities.org/featured-reads/) include Afrofuturism/Africanfuturism books embedded in wider thematic lists that feature equality, climate change, a pandemic, poetry, and picture books, in addition to a focused list of Black speculative fiction.
“Afrofuturist texts often are imagining and trying to answer the different kinds of questions that we all are grappling with right now. What does the other side of oppression look like? What does liberation look like? How to rebuild after devastation? How do we form healthy connections with the land that is around us in a sustainable way? These are the kinds of questions that benefit all of us,” Abdurraqib said. “Many of the texts we’d been working on back in 2019 focused on the past. It felt as if we were entering a good time to focus on new and possible futures. It felt like a crucial time to be in a creative and imaginative space.”
The Discussion Projects and the Big Question are warm-ups to MHC’s annual Readers Retreat, a multi-day event that brings engaged readers together for a deep dive into a single book. This year’s retreat will be May 20-21. At the moment, MHC plans an in-person program, depending on COVID conditions, at Southern Maine Community College, South Portland. It will feature Octavia E. Butler’s Wild Seed, the first book in the renowned African American author’s Patternist series. The author’s website describes Wild Seed’s main characters as “an entity who changes bodies like clothes” and “a shapeshifter who can absorb bullets and heal with a kiss,” who travel from “African jungles to the colonies of America.”
This year for the first time, MHC is co-sponsoring a statewide Discussion Project, which Abdurraqib is facilitating. Co-sponsor is The Third Place, a collaborative, co-working space building community capacity for entrepreneurs, community builders, and professionals of African descent. This particular Discussion Project is open only to participants from communities of color. “What’s really exciting is it is now full – 25 participants from across the state – all BIPOC,” she said. “We are reading Wild Seed. We are reading the graphic novel version of Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and we are reading a couple of chapters of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture by Ytasha Womack, an academic book about Afrofuturism and its history and context.” The Octavia Butler Legacy Network has provided archival interviews with Butler, and one of its founders, Dr. Ayanna Jameson, will lead a workshop for facilitators.
MHC uses Discussion Projects to encourage attendance at the Readers Retreat and to prepare participants for the retreat’s two-day, deep dive into the text. Since June, the council has distributed copies of Wild Seed to 16 Discussion Project groups of about 20-25 people each, which means 325-400 books. “We’re also beginning to send out copies of Wild Seed to community partners who are either co-sponsoring our Readers Retreat event in May or community partners we’ve reached out to in our early recruitment efforts. In the next few weeks, we’ll be sending out approximately 100 copies for those folks,” said Abdurraqib.
She said Octavia Butler’s work is resonating with readers in Maine and around the country right now because the texts address so many themes that are relevant at the moment. “What if there’s a pandemic? What if the political systems aren’t speaking to what people need? What if there’s a housing crisis? The book is dealing with all of these things that, in this state, we are experiencing right now.” People have come to Maine in the last few years, as they have been doing for a long time, to get away and start anew. “So many of the texts that we are offering in our programs are looking at how do we rebuild, how do we form community when there are so many factors that are trying to break us apart and splinter us,” she said.
MHC has spent the last two years looking at the bicentennial from different perspectives, including Wabanaki history and the New Mainer experience. “What’s so exciting about this new focus of the programming is that it’s all future thinking,” said Abdurraqib. “It’s like we’re at a pivot point now. This is a pivot from the past two years looking backward, and now we’re going to spend the next three years, at least, looking forward.”
Her enthusiasm is apparent. “This is humanities in action – using the amazing creativity of the human mind to confront oppression and get away from boundaries. That’s ‘why Afrofuturism?’ right now.”
For more information and to register for the Big Read project, see mainehumanities.org/program/the-big-question.