With all the struggles exacerbated by the pandemic, it has become harder for a lot of people to imagine the future. At the same time, imagining the future has become that much more important—not only to get through the pandemic, but to create a world of economic and racial justice. While Black Speculative Futures started forming in Professor Christina Knight's mind at the end of last year, the themes and methods of the course have become especially resonant this semester.
Christina Knight, an assistant professor of Visual Studies at Haverford, is teaching Black Speculative Futures this semester as a Center for Experimental Ethnography Fellow at Penn. The course, which is cross–listed in the Anthropology, Africana Studies, English, and Fine Arts departments, explores how Black artists, activists, and theorists have imagined futures—and encourages students to imagine and embody a future themselves.
Along with reading and discussing work from various genres including short stories and films, the class engages in its own creative exploration of the speculative through weekly movement exercises and an open–ended final project. While about half of each three–hour seminar consists of a seminar–style discussion about the readings and theory, Christina Knight invited her sister—dancer, choreographer, and dance instructor Jessi Knight—to teach movement exploration for the remainder of each class session. Artists who have taken a variety of approaches to a Black speculative future have also visited the class to discuss their work and offer students insight into their creative process.
In addition to bringing together critical and creative approaches that are often compartmentalized into separate courses and “consider[ing] movement practice to be a kind of critical framework, its own kind of epistemology,” Christina Knight designed the course to allow students to bring in the various aspects of themselves that often get separated out when they enter the classroom.
The seminar–style parts of the class and the embodied knowing part of the class, Jessi says, are intended to “connect and [...] give the student a very full investigation of self and self–knowledge in lots of different capacities.” She says that this semester has shown her how important it is for the students “to be able to connect with themselves physically and to be able to hone in the tools that are actually already in their toolboxes.” She was struck by how the class has responded to the movement exploration “in an agreement that this sort of physical work of tapping into who you are, what you already are, what you already bring to the table, is so vital.”
“I find that classroom spaces often times, in subtle ways, tell students that your personal archive, the way that you’ve come into the world, your parents, your background, what you dream about, occult practices that maybe are linked with your identity, all those things are meant to be put to the side so that you can do the serious critical work of thinking,” Christina Knight says. “And I think that I’m invested in students showing up as their whole selves; I want to think about what those kinds of [...] practices, those kinds of ideas, those kinds of dreams, what those do if they can be incorporated into our method.”
The themes of the course align with the artistic practice that Christina Knight and Jessi Knight have been working on for the past several years through their company, knightworks dance theater. The sisters have created two parts of a trilogy exploring the end of the world and what comes after—a theme that runs through many of the readings in the Black Speculative Futures class—and are working on the third installment, to which students in the class have contributed choreography.
The first reading of the semester, adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy, has informed how the course operates. “The idea with that text is that she thinks that everything works in a fractal mode, which means that things that happen on a smaller scale, as you scale up, hold the same shape,” Christina Knight says. In Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown explores an approach to social change where “if you transform yourself, it transforms the way that the society works.”
“I wanted to start with that for this semester, because I wanted to start thinking about, what are ways that we transform the academy. For instance, the way that students who are marginalized or underrepresented fit into the academy, how do we make it a space that actually accommodates them. And one of the ways that I wanted to try doing that was by teaching a different kind of class,” Knight says.
Instead of writing a paper, students are working on open–ended final projects where they engage with Black speculative futures through creative practice. Just as the readings and guest artists imagined Black speculative futures in a wide range of ways, Knight says “the sky [is] the limit” for how students can engage with the course themes through this assignment. On the last day of class, students will share their projects and their thought process. Knight is intentionally emphasizing the process of creating, and not only the outcome, in the final project—as well as throughout the semester. “I think the most important thing [that I wanted students to get out of the class] is that I wanted to create a space where students could create together, I wanted to create a kind of safe space to explore new ideas,” she says.
John Anderson (W’21) says that the class is “designed in a way where it doesn’t feel hierarchical, like everybody’s opinions are valid, and everybody can bring their own field and their own experience into the class. The dynamic of the class is something that I personally have never seen before as a student, in terms of just, how friendly it is and just how productive it feels.”
The course has brought together both undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of academic backgrounds. Christina Whittingham (C’22) was searching for courses to take as a prospective fine arts minor and was drawn to the course’s focus on Black art and Black futures. She is working on an acrylic painting that reimagines the future of Harlem by drawing on its history. The idea for the painting resonates with a reading from the class, “the river” by adrienne maree brown, a short story set in Detroit, in which the ancestors “came back to reclaim the city and reshape it for its future.” She says that the course has helped her reflect on the ways in which futures that people imagine have different impacts on different social identities. “You think about a future, what kind of future do you imagine, and if that's really for everyone, how is it for everyone?”
Azsanée Truss, a first–year Ph.D. student studying communication, found the class through the Center for Experimental Ethnography, as the program aligns with her research interests in critical media literacy, which looks at the relationships between information and power. She is using a collage and dance to visually “explore what the end of the world might look like because of climate change and then how we would go about building something better afterward.” She says that the course has shown her that “imagination isn’t just this silly thing we do in spare time,” but “serves a really practical purpose” because it “allows us to determine what we should be working toward.”
The course has also pushed her thinking through the ways it has reframed critical theory and applied it to academic practice. “We have all of these critiques of the academy and of the world and of [...] the systems that exist, but [the approach to critique, for example, when we read adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy, was] how do we apply it within our own academic work—in our scholarship, and in our research, and what we write, and how we theorize about these things—how do we apply this mentality of healing and building something better to that work,” she says.
John decided to take the class after happening upon it because of their passion for Afrofuturism. They are making an experimental narrative film about the apocalypse for the final project. When I asked them what they think they’re going to take away from the class, while they end up highlighting the level of camaraderie and engagement in the class (“the people really make the class”), they begin: “I’m taking the whole class with me. I don’t know. Am I to say one specific thing, ‘cause the entire class honestly is just that impactful.”