South to the Future

I had the sincere pleasure of visiting Durham, NC for the first time to be a keynote speaker for a symposium at Duke University–Black Is, Black Will Be: On Black Futures. I got to share keynote duties with my esteemed colleague Dr. Regina Bradley, spend some time with Dr. Mark Anthony Neal (hardest working man in showbiz, right?) and take part in a two-day dialogue among faculty, students, and community members holding down the African & African American Studies Department. (There were also burgers and beer, because of course.)

 

 

The trip was incredibly productive, not least because it started with an interview for Left of Black with Mark Anthony Neal! Those studio lights are hot, and those HD cameras are no joke. Professor Neal had the questions right out of the gate, and after recording a convo with me that I’m excited to share in the upcoming months,  Professor Bradley jumped in.

 

The symposium itself was wonderful. I’ve been feeling very much like the second verse of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, lately, and arriving just after the events commenced, when the song had just been sung, felt just right. Not good, but right. Lyrics and credits, below.

In addition to discussions of future-oriented Black cultural production, we really dug into the roots of Black worldmaking. From the spiritual quandary articulated by Olaudah Equiano, to the Middle Passage and the ocean’s depths, to marronage, to sonic insurgency (!) we really did the damn thing.

My talk, Against Prophecy, was part meditation, part inquiry. I really wanted to bring together the material I’ve been teaching in a current course on Science Fiction with the work I do in Speculative Blackness, which forwards an argument for grounding speculation and criticism in Black critical thought. In this instance, I was hoping to connect the questions of race, empathy, the human, and debate over whether we can rely on speculation to predict or plan for the future. The way of doing this was reading a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” through the lens of Suzanne Césaire’s “Leo Frobenius and the Problem of Civilizations.” The illustration that seemed appropriate for this was an artist’s rendering of the planet Kepler-22b as a “green planet,” a plant world.

The conceit of Le Guin’s story, and the poem by Andrew Marvell from which it derives its title, is an extended metaphor for plant life–which Le Guin extrapolates onto the an entire planet. Alien life–the truly alien–is not something with which we can empathize. In a way, the future is like that, too: there’s no one there we can understand, even if it can understand us, because it is/was us in the past. So empathy, embodied by a character in Le Guin’s story who also calls to mind the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, comes up against a limit at the point of its full realization in human form. So does prophecy, in my view.

Anyway, what you all really need to know is that Dr. Regina Bradley is the truth.

Regina delivered her keynote presentation, Trap or Die: Trap Music as a Site of Critical Storytelling in the Hip Hop South, after we had already been slain by the brilliant offerings of Destiny Hemphill and J. Kameron Carter. There was, necessarily, sound.

The end of the symposium was a perfect meeting of the minds. Said Mark Anthony Neal, he saw Arthur Jafa (!!) and Greg Tate (!!) having a conversation a couple decades back, and they’ve been continuing it ever since. AJ shared his incredible film project Love is the Message/The Message is Death, and I was captivated. As are we all, still. It was current and it was full of grim reminders, but it had futurity.