NORTH LAWNDALE — Imagine a future for the people of the black diaspora if their ancestors had been free from European colonization, the transatlantic slave trade and 400 years of chattel slavery and bondage.
Would it resemble Wakanda, the fictional nation-state in “Black Panther,” where technology and innovation are seamlessly melded with ancient mysticism and spiritual practices? Or perhaps the pan-African community would be the pioneers of interstellar space travel and the first to discover intelligent life in the cold depths of the universe.
There’s no way to know for sure. But in Afrofuturist literature, black readers can see their cultures and traditions transposed onto the conventionally white-dominated narratives of sci-fi.
West Side readers interested in exploring the possibilities of Afrocentric science fiction are invited to join the very first book club convened by the newly reopened Douglass Branch Library in North Lawndale. The club will heavily showcase works of black literature from the library’s African American heritage selection, one of the most popular categories at the library named after esteemed abolitionist and former slave Fredrick Douglass.
At the top of the book club’s reading list is “How Long ’til Black Future Month?,” an Afrofuturist novel by N.K. Jemisin, the first black author to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, which she won three years in a row beginning in 2016.
The book is a collection of short stories on parasitic alien invasions, hoodoo (folk magic) in the Civil Rights era and 20 other worlds built around technology, science and fantasy injected into black histories and futures.
The book club is spearheaded by library branch manager Taylor Bayless, who said the format will make it easy for newcomers since each story is self-contained.
“It’s got a lot of variety in it, and also because it’s short stories I hope it will be really accessible for readers. So if you’re a big reader or you’re someone who is just getting into reading, hopefully everyone can find your way into that book,” Bayless said.
One of the book’s stories tells of a 19th century Haiti where steam technology and rigid airships played a pivotal role in the fight to end slavery on the island and resist French colonization.
“That story is this action-packed, awesome Afrofuturist spy love story. It was one of my favorites in my collection,” Bayless said.
That story, “The Effluent Engine,” illustrates Afrofuturism’s ability to imagine alternative pathways not only for technology, but for understanding things like gender politics, religion, sexuality, queerness and socioeconomic status from perspectives that are rooted more in an African rather than Western tradition, Bayless said.
And since many black Americans have had their personal and cultural histories erased by being forced to give up mother tongues and the whitewashing of pop culture, conversations about Afrofuturist literature are a great way to imagine new possibilities.
“You can’t be what you can’t see. It’s really hard to envision futures without examples. I also just think the power of science fiction and telling stories about our future, they’re always actually about our present and how to navigate our present,” Bayless said, adding that since sci-fi stories are too often told exclusively from a white, cisgender male perspective.
The first meeting of the book club will be Jan. 29 at the Lagunitas Taproom, 2607 W. 17th St., which Bayless said was chosen so the club members would be able to meet and unwind with food and drinks as they discuss the book.
Copies of “How Long ’til Black Future Month?” can be checked out at the Douglass Branch Library, 3353 W 13th St., and other libraries around the city.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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