Learning from the Past

July 27, 2022

The Afrofuturism Seminar (ENG 329) offers a rich perspective on Black culture, both historic and current, while opening students’ eyes to prolific Black cultural production and expression in the dominant culture and around the world.

“Because of institutionalized racism and oppression, Black people are innovators by necessity,” says Assistant Professor Makeba Lavan. “Racism, conscious or otherwise, is a dehumanizing force.”

For some students, this may be the first time they have purposely learned about or discussed Black culture from a positive, non-pathological point of view. It’s a paradigm shift that can be life-changing, positively affecting any career or life experience.

“I went to graduate school to write about Octavia Butler and I had to create my own study on Black women’s speculative fiction. Every time I teach, I ask myself what I would have wanted in my introduction to the subject,” Lavan says. “That’s why my class has a very historical foundation. Afrofuturism is a bit of a misnomer. Aside from centering people from the African diaspora, it also embodies the spirit of Sankofa, a Twi word that means go back and fetch it. Essentially, we cannot create the future we want unless we know the past and are committed to doing better.”

At its core, the seminar is an interdisciplinary humanities course that pulls from history, Black studies, literary studies, sociology, legal studies, and autoethnography. It encourages students to gain knowledge and to grow into better global citizens by studying and learning from those who came before. The curriculum also adds creative elements, such as the visual arts, by partnering with the Grinnell College Museum of Art and visiting the Center for Afrofuturist Studies in Iowa City for a zine workshop. This holistic approach embodies Grinnell’s liberal arts ethos by offering a richer understanding of these diverse teachings. Past students have remarked on the value of the class, which opened up avenues to learn more about the complexities of American history and culture.

“Each time I teach this class, students email me months later to discuss books they've read or connect a current event to something we discussed in class,” says Lavan. “That’s when I know the course has made an impact. They think about things and reach out months and even years later.”

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