This semester I thought the class of my dreams: an English colloquium on Black Speculative Fiction. I spent a good part of the spring and the summer putting together the “perfect” syllabus (Fun fact: there’s no such animal) to try to teach students the importance of my research, and overall I think I did a pretty good job. We had a great semester exploring various Black Speculative Fiction stories, music, books, movies, and TV shows and a lot of them were exposed to ideas that they wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. But honestly, the biggest value from the class wasn’t what we talked about, but what it did for me and especially the students.
The first day of my class I had a small size, maybe about 12 folks in all. We talked a little bit about what this class would be, I gave them a diagnostic to test their knowledge of the speculative arts, I got their info, and we moved on. I thought I was gonna have a real cute little class, but by the time the next Monday came around I had 16 students. That was cool, a real nice class size, and then the following week I had 20. By then I was like..."Whoa. Okay this is gonna be a comp class in a minute. I was not ready for that", but it didn't stop. By the end of the semester I had a whopping 23 people in a lit class and there were still people who wanted to get in but couldn’t for various reasons. I won’t lie, I was kind of upset at how much the class had swelled until I sat back and listened to a few convos that were going on inside of it one day. I heard a few of the guys, two football players and one guy who literally came to sit in, arguing about who the richest superhero was. I heard a group of young women talking about My Hero Academia. There were some others talking about planning their Black Panther watch party and a few others still engaged in some gaming conversation. I realized then how necessary this space was for groups of geeky and nerdy Black young adults to get together and talk unabashedly about their interests. Even when I had visitors (usually the siblings or friends of my students, but sometimes other students and teachers as well) they all talked about how they felt really at home and welcome in the classroom. I had, someway, made a Blerd Safe Haven right at Clark Atlanta University, the same place that twenty years earlier had the biggest meetup of Black Speculative Fiction writers ever seen. I felt kinda proud of the success of the class then.
That was an achievement in and of itself, but I had to also make sure that the instruction is worthwhile. Can't sit back and just point to how good everybody feels if I'm not showing that they're learning stuff. I split the semester into four (4) genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and (Alternate) History, and we spent about a month on each genre learning what it means to Black people and how we can use it to talk about our experiences. We spent the beginning of the semester learning what Black Speculative Fiction was and being introduced to some of the giants like Octavia Butler. In Science Fiction we were able to understand how important it is for black people to reclaim their status as masters of technology and no longer be viewed as simple tools. We talked about medical experimentation, aliens, cloning, and Afrofuturism to achieve that understanding. From there we moved on to my personal favorite: Fantasy. The students read Legend of the Orange Scepter and we used the Elementals to talk about how important it is to normalize Black children being adventurous, heroic, and able to make mistakes and grow up learning from them. We even got to watch some Static Shock and talk about the most famous Black superheroine: Storm, to show how Black heroes, though few in number compared to white ones, can empower and inspire us in ways that must be recognized. The students were engaged, they were loving the texts, and they were learning all sorts of stuff, like how music can be Afrofuturistic and how since Fantasy usually features child heroes it gives children something to look up to.
My second favorite genre, Horror, started off with a discussion about the timeline of Black horror and an understanding of the fact that Horror often excludes Black fears. There's a reason why we're never in horror movies: that stuff doesn't scare us (normally) and our fears aren't recognized. What does that mean? Well, simply put, what scares us isn't "real", so it can't be Horror. According to the "mainstream", police don't REALLY kill for no reason, racism is over, and there's no such thing as Ancestors so you can't make that any of that into a Horror story. Of course that's all bull, so we were able talk about Black rooted fears like colorism, the Middle Passage, and liberal racism this section, all the while seeing those fears played out in the form of movies like Tales from the Hood and Get Out. Get Out was an especially big thing, since I got to bring in a whole other class to watch it and I had experience talking on a panel about the film. The final section, (Alternate) History, let us look at the timeline of Black life, stretching before the Transatlantic Slave Trade, all through enslavement to reconstruction, and up until the mid-20th century. We even got a chance to talk about people erased from the construction of history, like SGL Black folx in Africa and the Americas. I got all of them to test some historical knowledge by presenting on the sub-genres of (Alternate History), and we even got to compare the 1997 Roots to the 2016 remake. Let's just say those discussions were interesting. The class ended with the students talking about their final papers and showing what they had learned from this long and eventful semester. Believe it or not, it was quite a bit (a lot actually).
Teaching my Black Speculative Fiction class just reaffirmed the importance of a teacher’s role. Sure, my composition and research classes are always doing the good work, but it wasn’t until this semester that I realized the benefits of encouraging students to turn their passions into possible careers. So many of my students are artists, looking to turn their passions into filmmaking, writing, or illustrating careers. A few of them are psychologists who use Black art to dig deeper into the Black psyche, and a lot of them are business majors who will hopefully be able to make viable business plans using Black content and Black creators. As teachers, we have a special duty to cultivate future scholarship and expose our students to ideas they would have never thought of previously. It’s the reason why I taught my students about the many Black people in the speculative genres (like letting them meet Milton Davis), why my sister scholar is creating a class on Black Girl Rage and why things like Black Sex and Love, Black Queer Studies, Africana Women’s Studies and the like are so important. We must use the classrooms as spaces for true education: one that challenges the hegemony and encourages critical thought. I used my classroom to make my students think critically about Blackness, how it is portrayed, and who portrays it. I also used the classroom to try to make a safe space for people to feel comfortable talking about the things they loved, and as teachers we have to do the same. We have to challenge our students to do the work outside of our classrooms and give them the space to START the work inside of it. Because, I mean, if you’re not doing the work with the people you teach what the hell are you doing?
What do you think of my Black Speculative Fiction class? Do you think teachers (in or out of the classroom) can really effect change? Leave your comments, questions, and concerns below and don't forget to like, share, and subscribe!