Afrofuturism, Utopia, and the Prospect of a Better Now
by Woody Dismukes
Issue 10: Afrofuturism | 1,766 words
connection, © rolffimages/Adobe Stock
Recently, I was approached by an editor friend of mine to assist with founding a creative writing program in Brooklyn for low-income teenagers, many of whom would be Black and Latinx. Our first course would aim to utilize the themes of Afrofuturist fiction to teach our students how to conceive of a better tomorrow, not only for themselves, but for the communities they live in. Having worked in social services for most of my professional career, I was excited and hopeful to share my enthusiasm for writing, alongside my passion for community building.
Within two weeks of beginning my plans for this new program, the stories surrounding the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd all began to rise to the attention of the national media, and the country was set ablaze.
Though I am ashamed to admit it, I first thought that the media attention of these cases would blow over. Too many times have we seen the same egregious misconduct at the hands of law enforcement go unchecked, unpunished, and largely unnoticed. The images of militarized police forces patrolling the streets of Ferguson, Missouri will forever persist in my mind as a seminal moment in the development of my racial consciousness. Twenty years before that, Rodney King had been beaten to near death by officers in LA. I could list name after name after name and never reach the end because this story is older than the country itself, and there is no end.
But something about this moment was different. These stories did not end naturally with the news cycle. The protests did not subside despite criminal provocation by police and national guard members in nearly every major city in the United States. Despite isolated incidences of rioting and looting, protesters stood united in their mission to dismantle the systems that have granted our country’s law enforcement immunity from the consequences of breaking the very laws they are sworn to enforce.
Still, I was unsure of how to approach this topic with my students. I have become exhausted watching the same narrative of violence play out over and over again with the same unchanging conclusion, the characters perpetually played by the same actors. The story has become as stale as hard bread, and I no longer know of any other course of action than to learn to swallow it down. It is utterly impossible for me to think of a better tomorrow that does not involve drastically refined policing laws. My students are a part of the exact population that is most at risk of falling victim to the ills of the criminal justice system and over-policing. Many of the children and adults I have worked with throughout my career already have.
To better ground my intentions for the class, I returned to Afrofuturist source material for answers, and what better place to start than with the works of whom many would hail the godmother of Afrofuturism: Octavia Butler. Reading through her collection of short stories Bloodchild, there was one story in particular that stuck with me, “The Book of Martha.” In this story, the main character, Martha, is selected by God to save humanity from self-destruction by changing any aspect of humankind she wishes. However, she quickly discovers that the more drastic her changes are, the less sustainable the world becomes.
At first—to my surprise—Martha chooses to limit humans’ ability to have more than two children. Certainly, in this moment, I would have chosen something along the lines of a blanket abolition of all systemic racism or more consistently competent world leadership. But that is not the story Butler wants to tell.
Unsurprisingly, Martha’s attempt at population control does not work, and she decides to take back her initial decision. After further consultation with God, Martha ultimately chooses to change one single aspect of humanity: dreams. She tells God, “I want them to have the only possible utopia… a private perfect utopia every night—or an imperfect one.”
For many of us Black folks, Afrofuturism is an outlet into our own perfect utopia. It allows us to imagine and travel to worlds we cannot conceive of living in. It allows us and others to look beyond the immediate cosmetic changes society attempts to bandage itself with in times of significant strife and envision the truly prophetic possibilities that would constitute real, substantial change.
What I want from this program is for my students to gain real, tangible power from the ability to imagine change. I want them to utilize the infinite bounds of their creativity to conjure solutions to problems I have long become too jaded to solve. I want them to summon stories that foresee tomorrow’s issues before those issues even have a chance to arise. That is the power that futurist fiction holds.
And, I think that is precisely what makes Butler’s story so memorable. By the end, we don’t know if Martha’s decision helps or dooms humanity. Not even God knows. We don’t know if Martha ends up happy with her decision or regretful. All the reader knows for certain is that in the end humans will still give birth and die and a real waking utopia will never be found.
It sounds like a bleak conclusion, but there is actually something comforting in this idea. Martha is a novelist by trade, and God predicts that with humanity’s enhanced dreaming capabilities, there will no longer be the same need for stories. Humans will create their own incredibly vivid stories each night. The skills once needed to render an alternative reality into the written word will become entirely obsolete. And still, Martha stands by her decision.
Martha understands that perfection is beyond the grasp of even the Lord Almighty. But within the imperfections of the world, Martha finds a way to allow every human a small but powerful little place where everything can be as they want it to be. It’s not utopia, not exactly—all the problems that exist in a person’s life when they go to sleep remain when they wake—but it is something that can’t be taken away from them, that can’t be dictated by an outside force, something wholly and completely their own.
I don’t know if the four Minneapolis police officers charged for murdering George Floyd will be convicted. If they are, I don’t know if they will even serve any time. I don’t know if all of Breonna Taylor’s murderers will be so much as fired from their jobs, or if the three men that lynched Ahmaud Arbery will get what they deserve either. In the end, even if justice in every single one of these cases comes to fruition, I don’t know if it will change anything or make me feel safer, more secure in my skin.
I don’t make these points to be intentionally pessimistic. I hope more than anything that we are on the precipice of a change not seen in the entire history of the United States, and there is a lot to be hopeful for in the renewed energy of resistance against the current status quo. But like a dog that has been beaten, I have been trained to expect little from the collective citizens of this country.
Still, despite my disillusionment, I know that writing has saved me on more than one occasion. My imagination may not always have a concrete impact on the living world around me, but if nothing else, my stories have offered me refuge in both good times and bad. The same refuge that Martha offers to humanity.
I feel it is my duty to pass this ability to imagine and write on to my students. It is an ability that will allow them to build worlds with bodies impervious to bullets, beings with necks too strong to be snapped, and homes with walls that cannot be broken. Worlds that can be born in an instant. Worlds that exist right now. I cannot say if the worlds they create will ever begin to bleed into the one they are forced to live in. I hope, but cannot say for certain.
Now, as I near the end of the program’s first session, my students have begun to turn in their stories to me. In the students, I sense similar anxieties to my own. Many of the stories are apocalyptic, where the world must get worse before it gets better. One student in particular wrote of a zombie-like virus that was created and released by white supremacists to destroy a newly formed egalitarian social structure. Another wrote of a world populated by clones used as slaves. They detail the fears that surround them in fantastical ways that induce the reader with the same sense of fear.
Even in the most apocalyptic of stories, I always see the shining light of resistance in my students’ characters, the glow of empathy or solidarity with their readers’ struggles. Sometimes, it comes through in something small, such as a tragedy that teaches siblings how to find love in each other. Other times, it is revolutionary, like when one of those slaves figures out how to dismantle the entire system. What is truly remarkable is that my students always manage to find some measure of hope amidst the darkness, no matter how dim.
Of course, other students chose brighter, more optimistic settings. One wrote of a Hogwarts-style school, not for witches and wizards, but for superheroes. A school not filled by blonde and redheaded protagonists but by people who looked like him. There is resistance in this too. The story itself is a form of resistance.
As their teacher, I still am unsure whether I am any more certain about our country’s future at the end of the course than I was when we began. The utopia that I envision has not come to fruition beyond my own imagination, nor have the utopian dreams of my students. But what I do know is this: no one can take these dreams away from my students. The dreams are theirs and theirs alone. Whether they are dark or whether they are hopeful, their dreams are invincible. Their dreams are immortal. No matter how much death and destruction others will reap around them, their dreams will persist, their dreams will survive.
 This piece was written in October 2020 and edited in November 2020. As of November 8, 2020, no Minneapolis officers have been convicted in the murder of George Floyd; for Breonna Taylor, the main police officer involved in her murder was indicted with wanton endangerment; and for Ahmaud Arbery, the three men who lynched him have been indicted for murder.
Woody Dismukes is a Brazilian-American poet, author, and social advocate living in Los Angeles, California. He attended Clarion West in 2018 and was awarded an inaugural Ignyte Award in 2020. His work is featured in or forthcoming from Lightspeed, Nightmare, FIYAH, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, and elsewhere.