By Khushy Vashisht
A new English class in Toronto Metropolitan University’s (TMU) Black Studies minor is giving students the opportunity to explore a “Black aesthetic that employs science and speculative fiction tropes” in literature, film, art and music, according to the course’s description.
The course—called Afrofuturism: Black 2 The Future—is running for the first time at the university and is providing representation through a new lens.
This upper liberal course, available to all TMU students with no prerequisites, was developed by the course’s professor, Anne-Marie Lee-Loy. Two main ideas were taken into consideration when inventing the course: creating a rich, comprehensive course for the minor and considering the 2020 Anti-Black Racism Campus Climate Review Report in which Black students expressed a need for increased representation.
The term “Afrofuturism” was first coined in the 1990s by American writer and cultural critic Mark Dery. The term was defined in the Los Angeles Review of Books as a “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.”
However, Lee-Loy thinks it’s better to talk about the core values of Afrofuturism rather than settling on a specific definition.
“There are multiple definitions of Afrofuturism and it changes over time as well,” Lee-Loy said. “Even though everyone goes back to Mark Dery’s coining of the term, the core values, visions and themes have been in existence for much longer than that.”
In Lee-Loy’s definition of Afrofuturism, she said it “sticks closely with a framework for people in the African diaspora that allows them to dream alternatives in the past, present and future that resist [and] challenge subvert identities that have been constructed for them.”
She first recalled hearing the term from Jennifer Burwell, an associate professor in TMU’s English department and Lee-Loy’s colleague. Yet, she also remembered seeing aspects of Afrofuturism in the “funkadelic parliament” of the musical group Earth, Wind & Fire as well as Sun Ra, a famous jazz musician who Lee-Loy says is “sometimes considered the father of Afrofuturism.”
Lee-Loy mentioned the conversation surrounding the concept of Afrofuturism rose significantly after the release of the Marvel movie Black Panther. After doing more of her own research, she realized the film is greater than just Black and post-colonial science fiction. It incorporates the resistance of “being negated as Black people,” by using tools such as speculative art, horror, science fiction, fantasy and more.
After attending a post-colonial science fiction seminar in 2018, Lee-Loy had thought about starting a course about Afrofuturism at TMU but was delayed by the pandemic. In 2022, she formally pitched the course idea for Afrofuturism: Black 2 The Future to run a year later in 2023.
Elizabeth Jones, a third-year psychology student at TMU, is currently taking the course both to pursue a Black Studies minor and to expand her knowledge of Black culture. Afrofuturism is a new concept for Jones, one that was first introduced to her through this course, which she said is sad.
Jones said she views Afrofuturism as placing Black people into “narratives they were previously excluded out of” and preventing them from being reduced to fit stereotypes. She used the Disney show Good Luck Charlie as an example of Black stereotyping where she refers to the main character’s best friend, Ivy Wentz, to be presented as “the sassy, Black best friend.”
“There’s always roles that are repeated over and over again,” she said. “I feel Afrofuturism sheds a new light on [the fact] that Black people can be included in science fiction.”
Jones added, “Most of the time, we’re excluded [from] those specific spaces because people deem those spaces not for us.”
The course brings something valuable to Jones: the exchange of different perspectives and life experiences. She brought up a class discussion regarding juju—defined by Merriam-Webster as “a fetish, charm or amulet of West African peoples.” Due to her religious upbringing, Jones was raised to believe that juju had negative connotations, but the discussion created a space for Jones to be open to diverse beliefs.
Jones expressed that without the classes she’s taken for the minor, she would not have been exposed to Black-centered literature. She believes that even courses not included in the minor should try to diversify their readings by incorporating more diverse voices.
Jones identified a few problems she first ran into with the Black Studies minor, much of which she said she felt was inaccessible to students.
She mentioned that the minor was not effectively promoted to students and many of the classes that are supposed to be available for the minor don’t run during the school year.
“I was frustrated because I want this so bad, but I feel it’s not advertised enough for us,” said Jones. “Some of the courses aren’t available for both semesters but they are still listed…why be there if I can’t take it?”
When asked about the inaccessibility of the Black Studies minor at TMU, the university said in an emailed statement to The Eyeopener that students “can find information about the Black Studies minor in Arts on the website which includes what it is, why it is important, and the history of the minor. You can also find the course offerings on the website, which are available in the fall and winter semesters.”
The new English course also invites professionals to talk about their work and its relationship to Afrofuturism.
On Sept. 27, Ekow Nimako, a renowned Lego artist, visited the class in TMU’s Victoria Building to discuss his work and its connection to Afrofuturism. As he opened his presentation, he said, “I wish I had an Afrofuturism course when I was studying.”
After moving from place to place as a child with his older brother and mother, Nimako’s family moved to London, Ont. He called it “a strange experience” after discovering his “fondness for building with LEGO” and experiencing both subtle and prominent forms of racism.
Nimako’s LEGO work consists of both geographical civilizations as well as people, all created with Afrofuturistic elements in mind. He gave his own definition to the class as to what Afrofuturism means to him: “A cultural movement, aesthetic and genre that envisions Afrodiasporic people at the centre of their own stories. Advanced technology, liberated futures, inclusion and reimagined aspects of history are a major part of the philosophy.”
He also called Afrofuturism—reflected both in and out of his work—to be a “liberatory practice.” He said, “it helps us to go past the shadow and drudgery that we’re living in this world.”
Lee-Loy touched on the concept of Black joy within the works of Afrofuturism and throughout history, referencing the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in the Americas.
“Black people have sung about this, danced about this, written essays about this, done reports about this,” Lee-Loy said. “But in that creation, in that resistance, there’s always been laughter. There’s always been music…there’s always been dreamers.”
Jones appreciated the passion Nimako brought in his presentation when he spoke of his work.
“I was just really fascinated seeing how into it he was,” Jones said. “At first glance, you just see them as Legos but hearing him get deeper with why he did what he did was very inspiring.”
The course also comes with a unique final assignment—which is different from the essays English classes typically offer. According to its syllabus, students are expected to “create an Afrofuturistic cultural item” of their choice and present it in a class exhibit.
Lee-Loy said she hopes this provides a purpose of offering TMU students a place to express themselves in a creative aspect. The students aren’t limited to the way they showcase Afrofuturism because it exists in every creative element.
Jones said she wants to incorporate aspects of African folklore in her final assignment while keeping it modern, giving Nimako’s work as an example. She expressed feeling scared by “not being the most artistic person out there.” However, she’s also excited to see what she and her peers can come up with.
Lee-Loy left off on a positive note of support and commitment. “There are dedicated scholars who really want TMU to be a place where its Black students can feel that their interests, history [and] their perspectives are valid and can be vaporized,” she said.