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Detroit: A City of Superheroes

AFROTOPIA - Doug Coombe

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By Ingrid LaFleur
September 11, 2013

“Without an image of tomorrow, one is trapped by blind history, economics, and politics beyond our control. One is tied up in a web, in a net, with no way to struggle free. Only by having clear and vital images of the many alternatives, good and bad, of where one can go, will we have any control over the way we may actually get there in a reality tomorrow will bring all too quickly.” ---Samuel R. Delany, author

I’ve come to understand how the future is completely influenced by our current circumstance and past experiences. It’s like there is a box we pull from to construct how the future looks, feels, smells...all shaped by things we have seen, read, have been told. In hopes of inspiring people to think as far outside their comfort zone I made education a component of my curatorial project AFROTOPIA. I want to make sure that the magical world of Afrofuturism--science fiction, ancient mythologies, non-western cosmologies-- were somewhere in that box.

I created my first class, the Young Futurist Academy, for youth at the Carr Center. For two weeks and seven hours a day we dove into Afrofuturism. Having never taught before it was initially a scary thought to be in a classroom filled with teenagers. My Virgo tendencies kicked in and I prepared the most thorough curriculum filled with text by Prof. Derrick Bell, Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany, interviews with Sun Ra and the music videos of Janelle Monae, all with the goal of inspiring radical imagination.

On the first day of class I quickly learned that teaching is not all about giving information it’s about learning and co-creating. One must be attentive and perceptive and open to the fluid exchange between student and teacher. It is within those moments that I also learned children already have a radical imagination, it just must be given space to flourish.

Their first assignment was to choose superhero names. For some reason I thought this would be the easy part. I just knew everyone had a superhero name, in fact I have three. Apparently that puts me squarely in a nerd category. Some of students knew about superheroes inside out but never thought of themselves as one. I promptly fixed that. They were a bit uncomfortable with the requirement to only call each other by our superhero names (which I continue to do even though class is over), but they got used to it, especially when they had to decide what their super power. This was critical thinking on 10! They could not be like any other superhero, it had to be original, which is quite difficult since Marvel and DC comics have been producing superheroes since the 1930s. It became a discussion/debate for about an hour, or so. I enjoyed the seriousness in which they took the assignment. That’s when I knew we were gonna have lots of fun.
There were seven students in the class: Cole-Mind, age 16, psychic abilities; Wink, age 11, teleportation and the ability to walk through walls; Trinity, age 12, multiplies herself 13 times and super strength; Zeno, 11, super speed and control of nanites (tiny robots); Magic Dude, age 11, uses dark magic for good; Sphynx, 16, telekinesis; and Blaze, 12, manipulates fire. I am Dr. X and my villain is Monsanto. It was great way to slide in food politics. Although I was saving folks from Monsanto, my true focus as Dr. X was to help these seven superheroes harness and grow their powers.

The second assignment, was imagining Detroit in 3210. I assumed they would imagine a fantasy world where we would magically solve all our problems. Boy was I wrong! They had houses and cars constantly on fire, aliens invading, locus and meteorites coming upon us, pollution so bad we would need masks to breathe, and my favorite, no real music would exist. Wow, no real music! This last one came from the musician of the group. We laughed about it, talked about it and then I thought about it. It became clear to me that whatever we adults are saying around children coupled with the media is having a greater affect on how Detroit’s youth envision the future of their home. I couldn’t leave such a dystopian vision hanging in the air. My meticulous curriculum went out the window.

The next following days we read Derrick Bell’s Space Traders and focused on various mythologies beginning with the Dogon myth of the alien Nommo imparting knowledge. Then we dove into Detroit’s own Afrofuturism through Drexciya, the electronic music duo who created the aquatopian myth of pregnant African women who went overboard during the atlantic slave trade populating an underwater world. Drexciya's music are the sounds emanating from this aquatopia. In response to this myth they drew their own mythology and created sound art to accompany it.

I then decided it was time to address those dystopian visions and so a comic book was in order. These superheroes had to really think about how they became superheroes, learned of their powers and how to use the powers correctly. Who their nemesis was and how they would defeat them and resolve the issues they created in that dystopian world. I was hoping this exercise would help them create a bond with their superhero character in preparation for the movie that was to be made the next week.

The group chose a team name, ATEN, an aspect of the ancient Egyptian sun god Ra, as in Sun Ra. I love they unconsciously without any direction from me brought it back to the Godfather of Afrofuturism. For their movie, Team ATEN Saves Detroit, they made costumes, props, their own G-rated weapons based on the comic book stories. To see their creativity expressed through a variety of media was exciting. We shot the movie in one day. As I write Cole-Mind is editing it. The movie will be exhibited during the Detroit Design Festival. At the end of it all they seemed to have a good grasp of the central message that they control their destiny and shape the future.

I’m so proud of my students my heart bursts when I think of them. It became clear to me that within my students is AFROTOPIA and the Young Futurist Academy allowed it to shine through.

So tell me, what is your superhero name?  
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