Course Spotlight: AfroFantastic: Black Imagination and Agency in the American Experience

October 29, 2020

By Rob Humphreys ’16MBA

Students having a discussion in the Cornell Fine Arts Museum.
On October 7, students in the RCC course visit the Cornell Fine Arts Museum to discuss interpretive frameworks for the AfroFantastic exhibition that runs January 14 through April 12.Photo by Scott Cook.

A new course for first-year students culminates with an exhibition at Rollins’ Cornell Fine Arts Museum.

Whether it’s George Clinton descending from a spaceship at a P-Funk concert or Black Panther joining forces with other crime-fighting Avengers on the silver screen, the intersection of black science fiction, fantasy, and Afrocentrism can be a “fantastic” place.

At Rollins, a new project-based Rollins College Conference (RCC) class is examining the complex social and political forces linked to Afrofuturism—black imagination and agency in the American experience.

Instructor

Julian Chambliss, professor of history

History professor Julian Chambliss and Ena Heller, director of the Cornell Fine Arts Museum.
Ena Heller (left), director of CFAM, and history professor Julian Chambliss (right) discuss the AfroFantastic exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum.Photo by Scott Cook.
Several books from CFAM’s collection, including W.E.B. Dubois’ anthology Darkwater.
Several books from CFAM’s collection, including W.E.B. Dubois’ anthology Darkwater.Photo by Scott Cook.

The Scoop

From early efforts such as Martin Delany’s Blake; or the Huts of America (1859) and Sutton E. Griggs’ Imperium in Imperio (1899) to Sun Ra’s fantastic musical revolution in the 1970s, future-oriented narratives have provided powerful markers of societal transformation.

Beyond fantastic escapism, black engagement with future visions challenges societal expectations and creates a space to reshape the meaning of the American experience.

“It’s important to study the mechanisms in which oppressed people and those outside the mainstream might search for tools to empower themselves and look beyond contemporary circumstances,” Chambliss says. “This course is like a toolkit to unpack questions of community, identity, and culture.”

Chambliss adds that the term Afrofuturism is somewhat of a misnomer. While the content is typically future-oriented, the fictional literary and cultural aesthetic often includes past or present-day utopian-like settings that deviate from an era’s dominant societal narrative.

For instance, this could include everything from a black man writing about an African-American shadow government in late 19th-cenutry Texas (Griggs) to a jazz musician in the Civil Rights era changing his name to an Egyptian god and claiming to be on a peace-preaching mission from Saturn (Ra).

Professor Chambliss and students discussing art in the CFAM.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Snapshot

To cap the semester, the course’s 10 first-year students will contribute interpretative frameworks for the AfroFantastic exhibition January 14 through April 2 at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum (CFAM).

When we caught up with the class in the fall, students were studying how universalism, binarism, and religion impacted America’s post-colonial era. In addition, they were examining pieces that will be on display in the exhibit, conceptualizing various ways to design the galleries.

Some of the items on display will be books, comics, artwork, and abstracts from the Alfond Inn collection.

RCC students in a discussion.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Student Perspective

Germain Neizil ’20, a social entrepreneurship major, likes how the class uses a sci-fi theme to depict the intricacies of black history and culture.

“I am astonished by the wealth of influential African-American historical figures that I was previously unaware of,” he says. “Dr. Chambliss has introduced me to a new world where every turn is a discovery that feeds my curiosity.”

Sara Bornett ’20 says she didn’t learn much about African-American history in high school. But “being in this class,” she explains, “has helped me to tie an emotional connection with the past of my people. I deeply appreciate Rollins offering this course.”

Students discuss Afrofuturism at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Did You Know?

At Rollins, a variety of academic disciplines integrate their curriculum with CFAM. In recent years, the museum has benefited from students:

  • Translating Spanish label texts in the Clive Gallery
  • Developing on-campus marketing campaigns for the museum
  • Performing classical music in the galleries
  • Writing and recording audio guide stops
  • Estimating proposed investment values for works in the permanent collection
  • Volunteering and serving internships

“We always emphasize that we are a teaching museum,” says Amy Galpin, CFAM curator. “We are here to serve our campus community and to share this space with all students.”

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