To my students

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[I don’t normally share these things, but here is the note I sent to my students in AFRI 1100X, “Black Speculative Fiction,” this morning, at the close of our class]

All,

I hope that you and yours are well and safe.

As I said on zoom the other day, it has been my pleasure to learn from you and to read through this extraordinary genre with you. It has been nothing less than a gift to have been so deeply immersed in the Black speculative tradition in this particular semester, and to have done so with you – former advisees, students from past classes, concentrators in Africana Studies, American Studies, and Ethnic Studies. I drew strength from our meetings, and I have missed them so, in the days since everything changed.

The class was a gift, of course, and also a heavy responsibility. As we’ve learned, the core questions of this tradition are both imaginative and existential. What is a Black future? Can Blackness and humanity co-exist? Are “the Black” and “the human” antagonistic? Does the speculative tradition resolve this antagonism? And what is the relationship between the vast speculative tradition we’ve explored – marked by spacecraft, end-of-the-world comets, time travel, magical powers, doppelgängers, and body-snatching – and the baseline structural real that shapes our everyday lives today?

That, of course, is where we started the semester. To that already difficult list of questions, I would add these: what does it mean to be envisioning a Black future in the midst of a pandemic that targets Black and Brown communities, that illuminates so many layers of structural inequality? What does it mean to be deep in the speculative, to be reading a genre sometimes derided as escapist, to be almost free of this reality, all while we are in the midst of these murderous state-sanctioned “re-openings” of the economy, eugenic attempts to “begin again” or to “restore” that can only be understood as intentionally, willfully genocidal?

Perhaps, in conversations with friends and family, some have wondered if this class was a quirk, or a “fun” distraction added to a difficult schedule, but I see it is utterly central to this current moment, and far more important in the longer run than organic chemistry or international development. Tell them to look around. There are other speculative traditions, we are reminded; and they imagine a future, or a present, devoid of Blackness and Brownness. They, too, can be operationalized. They, too, can inspire, if perversely. And the devotees of those traditions are attempting to bring them to life right in front of us. So this is not a time to look away. As I wrote the other week, be prepared.

But also: keep reading.

When you went home, I was determined to keep our conversations going, but also to present you with this truth: once you discover a body of literature, and once you realize its power, it will find you back. Find you back no matter how terrible (or wonderful) things might seem. So I made sure that every week something came to you, whether it was the work of Eve Ewing, NK Jemisin, or Nnendi Okorafor. It might seem odd, I must confess, to replace the medieval, face-to-face connections of the classroom with the neoliberal networks of Amazon and zoom.  But that, I want to remind you, is the way of the undercommons, of fugitivity, and of radical Black study: to realign and repurpose the technologies of the “modern university” to enable intellectual work that would ordinarily be unsanctioned or impossible. These fragments of the speculative tradition that arrive in your mailbox or on your doorstep aren’t just opportunities to read and escape. The means of their arrival is, in a way, the very thing we have set out to study.

And they are a reminder, as well, of the intellectual debt we owe to each other.

Keep it going, if you can. And know that if you can’t keep it going right now, if you can’t just click on “buy now,” the genre will find you back. Somehow.

As for us, our story is not over. I owe you.

I will see you someday.  Someday in the future.

Yours,

Matt