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Racing the Future: Roberta Wolfson's Advanced PWR course, “Ethnofuturist Rhetorics: Imagining the Future of Race”

Rev. Dr. Sakena De Young-Scaggs visits Dr. Roberta Wolfson's advanced PWR course

Recently, Dr. Gabrielle Moyer discussed Dr. Roberta Wolfson's new advanced PWR course, “Ethnofuturist Rhetorics: Imagining the Future of Race,” with her. This course was offered for the first time in Autumn 2023.

Gabrielle Moyer: What inspired you to teach this particular Advanced PWR course, “Ethnofuturist Rhetorics: Imagining the Future of Race”? Was there a particular moment or reading that was the catalyst for its creation?

Roberta Wolfson: I’ve long been an admirer of speculative/science fiction, which has a unique ability to get me to reflect on present-day issues in ways that other genres cannot. Darko Suvin famously explained this phenomenon when he theorized in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979) that science fiction produces “cognitive estrangement,” thus allowing us to notice the constructedness of our current reality and interrogate the status quo. I wanted to design a class where I could nerd out with my students about this phenomenon. As someone who researches antiracist rhetoric and critical race studies, I wanted to actively disrupt the traditional canon of science fiction, which tends to be written by, for, and about white/cis/hetero men. Too often, canonical science fiction erases people of color from the future or problematically whitens them to feed a post-racial fantasy. And there is a long history in the United States of using speculation about the future as a rhetorical tool to reinforce capitalist, white supremacist, fascist ideologies (consider the RNC’s recent “Beat Biden” ad, which offers an AI-generated dystopian vision of the country’s possible future if Joe Biden is re-elected in 2024, or the fact that the alt-right constitutes a large part of the science fiction fan base). In designing this course, I sought to decenter whiteness in speculative fiction and present ethnofuturist speculative rhetorics as an important corrective to the white popular imaginary’s insistence on characterizing people of color as frozen in time, technologically stunted, or pushed to the margins.

A selection of book covers from Dr. Wolfson's class

A Selection of Titles from Dr. Wolfson's Course

GM: You bring a fantastically diverse set of authors (Black, Asian, Latinx, and Native rhetors) as well as genres to this course (films, short stories, novels, comics, visual artwork, music albums, and virtual reality projects)--each an example of speculative ethnofuturist rhetoric.  Was there a particular text that students were most compelled by and do you have a sense of what made it so compelling for them?

Dr. Walidah Imarisha Joined the Class Via Zoom

RW: I carefully designed my syllabus to showcase a variety of genres produced by authors of different racial identities, so that students could see how ethnofuturism serves as a powerful liberatory rhetorical framework for all communities impacted by white supremacy, as well as take inspiration from different genres when designing their own ethnofuturist texts. Despite their many differences, these texts all share a commitment to envisioning what it could mean for people of color not just to survive but also to thrive in the future. I think my students appreciated all of the texts, but perhaps the most popular were Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower, Derrick Bell’s short story “The Space Traders,” Lisa Jackson’s virtual reality project Biidaaban: First Light, Jeremy Holt’s Made in Korea, Sabrina Vourvoulias’s Ink, and Walidah Imarisha’s “Black Angel.” It was especially exciting to be joined by two guest speakers this quarter (Many thanks to Christine Alfano and Harriett Jernigan for helping to connect me with these speakers and make these awesome guest visits happen). The first speaker was one of the authors represented on the course syllabus, Dr. Walidah Imarisha, an Afrofuturist writer/researcher. Once a PWR lecturer and now an Assistant Professor in Black Studies at Oregon State University, she joined us via Zoom to talk about her research and writings. The students greatly appreciated having the opportunity to ask her questions about her short story “Black Angel,” her craft, and the anthology of social justice-oriented speculative fiction called Octavia's Brood that she co-edited.

Dr. Roberta Wolfson's Advanced PWR Class

Dr. Wolfson's class during Dr. Imarisha's Zoom visit

The second speaker was Rev. Dr. Sakena De Young-Scaggs, the Senior Associate Dean for Religious and Spiritual Life and Pastor of Memorial Church here at Stanford, who completed her Ph.D. on how Afrofuturism can be used as a framework for creating liminal spaces of Black joy. She joined us in person to present on her important research and lead the students in a lively conversation.

GM: Which text did you most enjoy teaching and can you describe what that source allowed or provided you as an instructor?

RW: I enjoyed teaching so many of the texts, so it’s very hard to pick just one. Although I probably felt the most comfortable teaching the works of fiction, given my own research expertise as a literary/narrative studies scholar, I found the most rewarding text to teach to be the music album Splendor & Misery by the experimental hip hop group clipping., which was the second music album ever to be nominated for a Hugo Award. This album tells the story of the sole survivor of a slave uprising on a space ship, who (with the help of the ship’s artificial intelligence system) embarks on a long journey of intergalactic travel searching for a place to call home. I had to get outside of my comfort zone to teach this text, as I am not a musicologist and had never facilitated the rhetorical study of an album before. But the conversation and insights that emerged from unpacking this album were fantastic, and I found myself learning so much from my students in the process.

GM: We are in the last week of the quarter and I imagine students are in the process of finishing up their final project. For the assignment, you ask students to draw upon their own personal and disciplinary interests to select a racial justice issue they want to research in greater depth. Then you ask them to create their own ethnofuturism that explores the future possibilities and outcomes of this issue. Can you describe one or two of these projects for us, that really begin to achieve what you were hoping for in developing this assignment?

RW: My students created so many inspiring and compelling final projects. Many chose to work in more conventional narrative forms by writing short stories, plays, and poetry collections. Others took on more unconventional forms, including a virtual reality project and a work of interactive fiction. I’m so impressed with how these projects are able to do so much at once, including address a contemporary racial justice issue, effectively incorporate an ethnofuturist framework (like dystopia, magical realism, historical revisionism, alternative timelines, etc.), and appropriately engage the rhetorical conventions required of their chosen genre. Some students created dystopian visions (such as by imagining how technological advancements will only exacerbate the violent militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border) while others imagined utopias based on racial liberation (such as a future in which the prison industrial complex has been eradicated). In one particularly unique project, a student sought to address the lack of mental health support for Black people suffering from racial trauma by creating a virtual reality experience that allows users to enter a wellness center where they can undergo healing not only by using contemporary therapeutic methods, but also by being transported into the past (where they can experience a personal history free of racial injury) and the future (where they can imagine what their future might look like without racial injury). 

GM: The texts and assignments for this course look to science fiction as it envisions an alternative future for race relations. I wonder if you can talk about your own relationship to science fiction as a rhetorical form. I was just teaching Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement last week, and he has this idea about science fiction that it postpones the current [climate] disaster to a distant future or makes it appear improbable, as though “climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.” Would you say that science fiction can help us address the realities and inequities of race, or do you think it has different ends?

RW: The notion that speculative/science fiction can help us address the realities and inequities of race is a key premise of my class. Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha use a term called “visionary fiction” that I think importantly highlights the focus of ethnofuturist speculative rhetorical production on liberation. In their introduction to their anthology Octavia’s Brood, they describe visionary fiction as “science fiction that has relevance toward building new, freer worlds from the mainstream strain of science fiction, which most often reinforces dominant narratives of power. Visionary fiction encompasses all of the fantastic, with the arc always bending toward justice” (4). The works that we read, watched, and listened to in my class were all united in this central aim: to expose the structural violence of present-day realities and to imagine alternative worlds/futures/possibilities free of racial inequities. I think what the students found most exciting about this class was our focus on imagining liberation. We did not shy away from frankly examining the racial injustices of our present day. But we also did not stop there. We took our analysis one step further by theorizing what it could mean to build antiracist, anticolonial, anticapitalist futures in which these kinds of injustices no longer exist.