Course on Afrofuturism brings together UChicago students and community members

Taught by Assoc. Prof. Eve L. Ewing, the class explored the multifaceted genre

Afrofuturism is a blending of many genres, beliefs and histories. The artistic aesthetic and critical framework brings in “elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs,” writes Chicago author Ytasha L. Womack in Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture.

It would stand to reason that a course on the topic would also be a medley—pulling in literature, music and other art forms.

Taught by UChicago Assoc. Prof. Eve L. Ewing, “Afrofuturism(s)” took the blending of elements one step further: The undergraduates in the class explored the topic alongside students from the greater Chicago community.

“What makes this course so radical—to me—is the way it challenges every aspect of my educational experience,” one student wrote in an anonymous evaluation. “More than ever, it feels like education is becoming siloed and very individualistic…This class said: What does learning look like when we invite our community to be a part of the learning process?

“It means deeper and richer conversations in which life experiences are taken to be as important and valuable as theoretical arguments or academic lexicon.”

A community approach

Afrofuturism has been a core theme Ewing’s work for many years. Ewing, an associate professor in UChicago’s Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity (RDI), underscores the city of Chicago’s particularly rich influence on Afrofuturism—including poet and artist Krista Franklin and musician Sun Ra.

In deciding to teach a course on the topic, Ewing noted that Afrofuturism is an area where there remains a lot of debate about what it is and what it is not.

“That kind of intellectual engagement­—with ideas being in flux and open to collective debate and definitions—is something I was hoping students would get out of this class,” Ewing said.

And that collective debate would include a broader set of voices. Members of the wider Chicago community were invited to apply to take the class alongside UChicago students.

The department received more than 70 applications. Those chosen included “an amazing diversity of people,” Ewing said. Most came from around the South Side of the city; some work in the nonprofit sector, one person works in theater, another clears tables at a restaurant, and yet another works as a full-time hairdresser.

With nontraditional students come nontraditional challenges. Because of work schedules, the class took place in the evening, with a meal provided. And everyone received the technology and building access that an enrolled student would have baked into their university experience.

“Part of what I'm calling for is to have a little bit of a blurrier understanding of what that inside-outside dichotomy even means,” said Ewing. “That's something that I've been interested in for a long time and something that RDI as a department is interested in.”

“Afrofuturism(s)” was the second course in the department to bring together UChicago students and members of the community. Previously, Prof. Cathy Cohen and Alice Kim, Director of Practice in the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, offered a mixed-enrollment course to UChicago students and those incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center.

Exploring Afrofuturism

Ewing says Afrofuturism was an ideal topic for a community-engaged course because the readings, films, and other media are appealing to a very broad audience. It’s also an area, she said, where knowledge could be a bit more democratized.

“The readings have been wonderful,” says quilting activist Dorothy Burge, a community member in the class. “We have also seen some incredible films, which I have really been inspired by. Some of the music that I have listened to for years—to have it connected to Afrofuturism has really been an incredible experience for me.”

The course opened with a basic question of, “What is Afrofuturism?” Readings included Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures, along with Mark Dery’s article “Black to the Future.” The following week explored individuals often considered Afrofuturists who were working before the term was used, which included reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ short story “The Comet.”

Leaning into debate and critique, the class read Nnedi Okorafor’s work, an author who vehemently insists she is not an Afrofuturist despite being widely described that way by cultural critics. They also considered Roland Barthes’s idea of the “death of the author” in which the writer does not get to decide how their work is perceived by the public.

The course also included excursions. After discussing themes of utopia and dystopia within Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, the class took a field trip to the Hyde Park Art Center to see “The Alien-Nations and Sovereign States of Octavia E. Butler.” The exhibit was created by Chicago‐based artist Candace Hunter, who gave an artist's talk and answered students’ questions.

Over the course of the quarter, the students worked on a collaborative Afrofuturist zine—a D.I.Y., self-published work they presented in a media showcase at the end of the course. The students’ zine included short films, poetry, fiction, sociological critical analysis, music composition and a curated art collection.

And—as hoped—the exploration of different ideas went beyond the class content.

“I really just wanted to engage with the community outside of the school,” said Elijah Jenkins, a second-year student in the College. “A lot of times in normal classes, we are talking about applications, but don’t really get to connect with the real world. When the RDI department was offering a mixed enrollment class, it offered an opportunity to connect with people who have jobs and lives besides studying.”

Ewing says intergenerational relationships formed within the class, with students asking the community members for their advice and opinions. She says the conversations that occurred before and after class, or during meals, were more valuable than she could have anticipated.

“Every single person in that class brought thoughtful, generous, rigorous, incisive, critical perspectives that helped us build a meaningful learning community,” she said. “If what we want is to provide University of Chicago students with the most cutting edge, innovative, insightful learning, there are people with wisdom, people with things to say throughout our city — and they're coming from many different communities and bringing so many different forms of knowledge.”

In addition to the students, Ewing acknowledges the staff and graduate students who came together to build a thoughtful classroom: Course co-designer Samuela Mouzaoir, AB’20, class teaching assistant Misha McDaniel, Danielle McConnell and Jacqueline Gaines.

This article was adapted from a story originally published on UChicago’s Division of Social Sciences website.