Afrofuturism recommendations

I’ve been fortunate enough that many of my personal and scholarly interests coincide. Examples of where this has served me well are my multiple public presentations and conference presentations on Afrofuturism. Not to mention a monthly nerd-out session on Afrofuturism with the lovely folks at the Kheprw Institute.

As Ytasha Womack describes it, Afrofuturism proposes ways of looking at the future “through a black cultural lens”—of imagining black people as part of that future, whether they are flying rocket ships, wearing space suits, engaging with technology, communicating with alien beings, or simply living and thriving in a time beyond today. I thought I’d share some of my favorites that fall under the increasingly widening rubric of Afrofuturism.

First: some explainers!

A couple of my own introduction to Afrofuturism are below, but neither are as exciting as these primers from Dust and This American Life:

Dust. There are many great videos explaining the roots of Afrofuturism, but here’s one of my favorites. The Dust series stands out because of its combination of cool animation and its focus on music.

This American Life. One of my favorite podcast episodes ever. This episode of This American Life starts with (white) host Ira Glass graciously handing off his show to producer, journalist, and resident Afrofuturism aficionado Neil Drumming. The entire episode (transcript here) is worth a listen, but here are the acts broken down: 

  • Act 1, Metropolis Now (12 min): Neil talks to a Detroit mayoral candidate who is running on an Afrofuturist platform. Part of what intrigues me about this is it illustrates how the use of the term Afrofuturism has become quite diffuse and nebulous in certain contexts, but can nevertheless have community applications.
  • Act 2, Past Imperfect (12 min): This next one is extra brilliant in my opinion: Azie Dungey (also a writer for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) recounts her time playing a slave for tourists on George Washington’s estate
  • Act 3, The Black Sea (6 min): An original song about <it’s a surprise> by the hip hop group clppng., and featuring Hamilton performer Daveed Diggs

And here are couple of contributions from me:

  • Indiana Humanities TILT mixer. I was fortunate enough to present an introduction to Afrofuturism at a cocktail party-style event organized by Indiana Humanities. Here’s that presentation, dusted off several years later for my literature students:

Purdue Black Cultural Center (BCC). Alongside professor and filmmaker Jonathan Gayles, professor Deborah Whaley, and  Niobe comic illustrator Ashley Woods, I participated in “Afrofuturism x Aesthetics,” a panel discussion facilitated Dr. Marlo David.

Afrofuturist Art

Joshua Mays – Celestian Prophesy (2015)

Joshua Mays: This self-trained artist and muralist based in Oakland, CA, creates beautiful and fantastical work that many think as fundamentally representative of Afrofuturism (despite his own misgivings about the title). He talks about his artistic journey in this interview and video.

Paul Lewin: Born in Jamaica, Lewin’s work often features his country’s national bird, as seen here and in one of my favorite monograph covers ever, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas‘s The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. Lewin’s work often fuses Caribbean and African myths and storytelling traditions. He speaks here in an interview with Afropunk.

Lina Iris Viktor is a conceptual artist, painter, and performance artist who often uses an ancient technique of gilding her works with 24-carat gold. Born to Liberian parents in London, Viktor has exhibited her work all over the world and divides her time between London and New York.

More about her gilding work at a 2019 exhibit in London is here.

Afrofuturism and Literature

The Fifth Season – the first of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy

N.K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season: No Afrofuturism booklist (especially one of mine!) would be complete without N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Its breath-taking debut, The Fifth Season, is a masterpiece of worldbuilding. Jemisin made history by winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years in a row for each of the books of this trilogy. (Jemisin’s acceptance speech for the third Hugo is one of my favorites. Click for the video and transcript.)

Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: I’ve already raved about Dr. Okorafor‘s Binti in a previous post, but after having reread it again for a recent course, I can confirm that all of the books in the series are eminently readable and enjoyable.

Maurice Broaddus – Pimp my Airship: This captivating adventure, which Broaddus started pretty much on a dare, may be the first to combine Afrofuturism with steampunk. A bonus: Reading it inspired me to learn more about the history of Indianapolis and to listen to some great music. (Each chapter title is also a song title.)

Trivia time! It’s worth pointing out that Edward A. Johnson (born in slavery in NC and the first African-American member of the New York state legislature) wrote a utopian novel featuring African Americans and dirigible airships in 1904.

Butler - Parable of the Sower

Octavia Butler – Parable of the Sower:

“All that you touch You Change.

All that you Change Changes you.

The only lasting truth Is Change.”

The first of what would have been Butler’s Earthseed trilogy, Parable of the Sower spawned a religion and a philosophy. It is also an absorbing, unique, and deftly written dystopian novel.

Horror writer Tananarive Due and minister Monica Coleman host a series of virtual conversations discussing Butler as both a seer and a balm. (Due also also teaches Afrofuturism and horror at UCLA.) I share some highlights of the opening discussion here.

Happy reading!

Bonus, since I mention the This American Life Afrofuturism podcast above. For more on my favorite podcasts and how I use them in the classroom, see the below thread:

Graphic novel recommendations

Lately I’ve been having many conversations—both inside my online classrooms and on social media—about graphic novels. They’re often my go-to reading for fun and/or distraction, and my list of favorite books at any given moment usually has a number of graphic novels featured on it. Here are a few graphic novels that speak to me:

Personal and public history

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

Rereading this refugee story while sheltering in place was oddly comforting to me. This is a beautiful graphic memoir about the author and her family’s escape in the 1970s after the fall of South Vietnam and their attempts to remake their lives in another country. It’s also about to connect with family when you are separated by distances that seem hard to bridge. The phrase “personal and public history” comes from the poet Natasha Trethewey and is a good way to think about how memoir can indeed represent an individual story while reflecting a broader history.

More in this category:

  • The March trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell: This trilogy has won all the awards, and all were well-deserved.
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi: About a young girl and Iran’s cultural revolution. I share this image a lot with students to get them to understand the power that can exist in just one panel.


Maus by Art Spiegelman:

The classic to end all classics. I often say that Spiegelman’s struggles to get people to take the medium seriously are why we have so many graphic novels today. Once you read and reread this one, the book about the book, MetaMaus, is also worth a look.

More in this category:

  • Palestine by Joe Sacco (introduction by Edward Said): I would call this one graphic journalism, even more so than Spiegelman’s Maus. However, if one is expecting objectivity, then you may be disappointed as Sacco prominently foregrounds his fallibility, moments where his imagination fails, and also highlights how his very presence affects those he interviews and the kinds of stories they tell.
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: This beautifully written memoir was eventually made into an award-winning Broadway show.
  • One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry: The author’s quirky style in both her art and her writing of her autobiofictionalography are unmistakably unique.
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore. Along with Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, Moore revolutionized our ideas of what comics could do.

Some middle grade and YA favorites

This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

Something about this one always reminds me of going to the beach as a child. This was the first graphic novel to make the short list for the Caldecott Medal in 2014, which unfortunately opened it up to wider criticism when it became the most challenged book of 2016, for reasons that aren’t really quite clear to me.

More in this category:

  • El Deafo by Cece Bell: Find an excerpt of this semi-autobiographical story of the author (as bunny) at this link.
  • American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang: This one, and March above, could have easily been placed in the Classics category. Its three storylines and artistic styles make it a fun read. Here are some sample pages.
  • Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson: I enjoy watching the 16-year-old Kamala Khan attempt to balance being a Muslim teenager while also being a superhero.

For fun

Monstress by Marjorie M. Liu

I’m a big fan of art nouveau-inspired work, so Sana Takeda’s art in the award-winning series Monstress is worth the ticket on its own, but the intricate worldbuilding and storytelling of this high-fantasy saga is epic. I have yet to read the latest issue but at this point I may just (happily) start again from the beginning. Also, did I mention there are cats?!

More in this category:

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg: This episodic (in a good way!) is strange, touching, and beautifully drawn. Find an excerpt here.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan: This is my only entry on the list without (actual) words, and even though some of the artwork is available to view online, nothing compares to just getting lost in this story in print form.

Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Faith Hicks, et. al.: This is Girl Scouts meets Adventure Time meets X-Files. (Stevenson, by the way, has also done work on Adventure Time, in addition to her wonderful graphic novel Nimona). I haven’t read the entire series, but what I’ve read so far is great.

On my to-read list of graphic novels:

  • My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris (I’m currently reading this one – borrowed from my public library’s Hoopla account) and the art, story, and presentation so far are really striking. I wish I had it in print instead.)
  • Aya by Marguerite Abouet & Clément Oubrerie

I would love to hear your recommendations to add to my list! 🙂

Suburbs and class in Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere

Indiana Humanities began an initiative, called INseparable, which asks us how we contend with boundaries like class, race, and urban and rural spaces. After teaching Celeste Ng’s amazing novel, Little Fires Everywhere, and Season 3 of the podcast, Serial, I am inspired to think of the in-between space of the suburb.

In my research, I’m often preoccupied with liminal spaces and who occupies them. Together, Serial and Ng’s novel provides the perfect examples of the divergent issues that can occur in those spaces. Not to mention that the consequences of the history of Shaker Heights in Ng’s novel are fascinating, as are the dramatic differences between Shaker Heights and the very nearby suburb of East Cleveland that takes up a lot of the interest of the creators of Serial. In some ways, the suburbs are the ultimate liminal spaces. At the same time, however, many center suburbs in our thinking of “real” America.

Here’s a quote from Robert Beauregard that solidifies this idea of the suburb as the embodiment of the US:

"Suburban life anchored a standard of living commensurate with the nation's status as the leader of the ‘free world’ and established the country’s economy and form as the best hope for affluence, democracy, and world peace. Life in the suburbs was a mark of American exceptionalism and a model to which all nations could aspire."

When we think of popular depictions of suburbs in literature, the ones that often come to mind are predominantly white and middle class:

  • John Cheever – Bullet Park
  • Richard Yates – Revolutionary Road
  • Alice Sebold – The Lovely Bones
  • Jeffrey Eugenides – The Virgin Suicides
  • Rick Moody – The Ice Storm
  • Judith Guest – Ordinary People

In fact, other than the above examples of Serial and Little Fires Everywhere, the one example that came to mind of a non-white family at the suburban novel’s center is Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003), and it’s fair to say that even with this immigrant family, we are looking at people with fairly privileged backgrounds. With Ng and Serial, we have some versions of the above, but also other stories and experienced highlighted from the margins.

The link to the post on Little Fires Everywhere and suburbs is here:

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and Serial logo, season three

Postcolonial Literature: bookish distractions

Hello postcolonial literature students (and maybe fellow postcolonial literature fans),

If you want some for-fun novels that also count as intellectual work (says the person who taught a course on Beyoncé), here are some literature recommendations that connect (some more loosely than others) to the issues, theories, and histories we’ve been discussing this semester in Postcolonial Literature. I’ll add to this list as I come up with more ideas.

Oyinkan Braithwaite – My Sister, the Serial Killer
Braithwaite’s thriller is pure pulp in the most wonderful way possible. I listened to this on audiobook for free using my public library’s Libby app last summer, and the reader for it was really good as well (and can give you a good sense of the pronunciation of names and places – I think the actor’s name is Adepero Oduye). Super enjoyable if you like this kind of story.

Braithwaite worked at a Nigerian publishing house before publishing this book, and currently lives in Lagos. Here’s a 5-minute author interview:

Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood & Bone
This YA fantasy has all of the elements that you’d expect of the genre (star-crossed romances and friendships, family drama, ALL THE FEELINGS, etc.) but set in a time and place that interacts with Yoruba culture, West African myths, and more.

It’s the first in a series called the Legacy of Orïsha, of which there are currently two at the moment. Negotiations are in progress for a movie version.

Alexander McCall Smith – The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (series)
My BFF is so obsessed with this series that she has now started to drink the redbush (rooibos) tea enjoyed by the many characters in this mystery series. I can think of no higher recommendation than this.

Nnedi Okorafor – Binti
I know this is a cheat because this was already on your syllabus anyway, but this space drama about the title character – the first of her Himba tribe to attend one of the finest universities in the galaxy – is just great, and at 90ish pages, it’s also a quick read. It’s the first in a wonderful trilogy, but I think the ending of the Binti #1 is satisfying enough that you can opt to continue or not depending on your interests. (We’ll discuss this one online in connection with a short film later this semester.)

Okorafor has a number of other books that you may enjoy, including her Akata Witch series and a quirky and politically-timely comic called LaGuardia.

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children
Remember how I was complaining that we just don’t have time in the semester to read this gorgeous and important book? Well, guess what…? You can still read the book for fun!

Seriously, this one is a classic and you’ll learn from the first few pages whether or not you will enjoy spending time with the verbose and witty narrator, Saleem. If you are a Rushdie fan, I also highly recommend his novel, Shame (on Pakistan, with a breathtakingly memorable female protagonist), and his children’s adventure, Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Malaka Gharib

Malaka Gharib – I Was Their American Dream
This Egyptian-Filipino artist created this cute and touching graphic memoir, and also shares her zines and other artistic endeavors on Twitter and on NPR. And bonus! – there’s an arts and craft section in the book. For more graphic novel recommendations, click here.

An interview and sample pages can be found here:

NPR Code Switch: When Xenophobia Spreads Like A Virus

In this episode of Code Switch from NPR, the amazing historian Erika Lee (author of The Making of Asian America: A History) breaks down the connections between xenophobia and the coronavirus known as COVID-19. By the way, that’s me speaking in the first 12 seconds of the episode.

Issues of contagion and concealment go hand-in-hand, especially when the contagion involves viruses unseeable by the naked human eye, or what one author who I won’t name referred to as the “the faceless brown mass” of those entering the US from Mexico. Associating contagion with a particular group of people allows some to place blame without taking on responsibility.

Of all the things I said for the episode, I’m really glad the assistant editor chose to use this particular snippet on visibility. I’ve been contemplating issues of in/visibility for years now. Here, for instance, is a blog post from when I was connecting invisibility to race and gender in literature: (More of my articles and online posts are located here.)

Click this link to listen to the episode of Code Switch on NPR, “When Xenophobia Spreads Like a Virus”:

NPR Code Switch Erika Lee coronavirus COVID-19 Leah Milne