A federal grant will fund efforts by a Maine non-profit to teach residents across the state about a growing Black science fiction genre.
The National Endowment for the Humanities announced this month that it had granted the Maine Humanities Council $250,000 to teach people across Maine about Afrofuturism, a cultural movement most closely aligned with science fiction that typically portrays Black people in a technologically advanced future.
Even if many Mainers don’t recognize the term itself, they are likely familiar with at least one work within the genre. The 2018 film “Black Panther” contains elements of it, as do works by R&B singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe, rock musician Jimi Hendrix and funk ensemble Parliament-Funkadelic.
“People have been really intrigued by these texts that they’ve maybe never heard about before,” Associate Director of the Maine Humanities Council Samaa Abdurraqib said. “Or maybe they’ve been curious about sci-fi, and they’ve never read sci-fi by Black and brown authors before.”
The Portland-based Humanities Council decided to showcase Afrofuturist texts to residents in the wake of the May 2020 killing of Geoge Floyd by Minneapolis Police officers and a desire by its partner to include more readings on race and racial justice, according to a statement from the organization.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive, said Abdurraqib, who is also director of the Afrofuturism project.
The council saw within the genre a reflection on the power of creativity to move toward a future free of oppression and boundaries. It noted a parallel between Maine’s official slogan “The Way Life Should Be” and a central question posed by texts in the genre “How should life be?”
The primary way that these new titles will reach readers is through the council’s discussion project program: several Afrofuturist titles have been added to lists that libraries, schools and museums, among other organizations, can request to be part of book groups organized by the Council. The group even provides the books.
The organization makes a point to develop programming across rural and urban sections of Maine: events planned for the coming months range 350 miles from Kennebunk to Frenchville.
This year’s Reader’s Retreat event next month will also spotlight Octavia Butler’s Afrofuturist novel “Wild Seed,” a 1980 book that tells the story of two immortal Africans whose travels span centuries. The council has already sent 400 copies of that book across the state for the retreat and other discussion groups, Abdurraqib said.
The Afrofuturism genre has actually been tied to Maine for more than a century: Pauline Hopkins, who wrote “Of One Blood,” considered one of the first Afrofuturist works and among the titles the Humanities Council is highlighting, was born in Portland in 1859.
For the Council, the goal is to engage with both Black and non-Black Mainers on the difficult, and often existential, questions posed by the titles. Around 40,000 people (3 percent of the state’s population) in Maine identify as Black, according to recent U.S. census data, a number that includes a substantial portion that identified with multiple races.
Something that is especially striking about Afrofuturist works is that while they usually take place during times of strife, including war or food insecurity, they feature characters who want to build community and collaborate to create a more secure and just future, Abdurraqib said.
“They focus on liberation, often for Black people, that then leads to liberation for all people,” Abdurraqib said. “And that’s a really beautiful thing.”