Futuring: Afrofuturism for Aftershocks
In this podcast featuring current scholars Adaiah Hudgins-Lopez and Myesha Jemison as they expand on their written article (below). They discuss the challenges of organising Black History Month celebrations at Trinity College, University of Cambridge and offer practical advice and reflections for fellow students and activists hoping to organise in similar ways.
Access the podcast transcript here:
In October 2021, we found ourselves, by our estimates, to be two of only three Black women in our Gates Cambridge cohort, and two of only five Black women postgraduates matriculating at Trinity College. Within these spaces where our cultural identities were peripheral, our conversations during late night study sessions and spontaneous meals led us to identify three major common interests: a passion for Octavia Butler, Afrofuturism, and quality education. During our undergraduate years, we both took courses in African American studies that accentuated the importance of Afrofuturism and speculative fiction in generating the realities we want to see in our current world. This coursework encouraged us to acknowledge our present crises and combat them head on.
The same year, Trinity College, the wealthiest of the 31 colleges at the University of Cambridge (with an endowment of approximately £1.5 billion GBP/$2.06 billion USD), matriculated its largest-ever cohort of Black students. As the College has continued to increase its Black student population, Black students—like us—have urged Trinity to support the celebration of our heritage(s) and become a place where we can feel a true sense of belonging.
Our decision to lead Trinity College’s 2022 Black History Month planning committee (which also included fellow graduate and undergraduate students Isuri Ratnayake, Aprajit Mahajan, and Cameron Zhang) was predicated on a desire to marry our knowledge of where Trinity fails us with concrete steps for it to rise to the occasion. While Trinity had monetarily supported student-led endeavours—such as celebrations and social events bringing Black students together—there had been some missed opportunities for the institution to engage with these efforts more deeply.
These missed opportunities culminated in an unfortunate speaker selection for the 2021 Black History Month formal. This speaker discussed his personal journey from a wealthy Nigerian lifestyle to poverty in the UK, and shared personal stories of police discrimination through “stop and search,” even as he expressed that Black students should support such policies that rely on profiling, despite the rhetoric of movements like Black Lives Matter. This was punctuated by an impromptu student walk-out in protest of the College-endorsed keynote speaker. We later found out he had not been properly vetted, as he was selected due to last-minute attempts by students to find a keynote speaker in the September prior to the start of term. As we reflected on this incident, we recognised that Black History Month celebrations also needed the time and space to acknowledge Black lives and their impact beyond how we have experienced life in response to marginalisation and violence—namely regarding the history of trans-Atlantic slavery and being targets of police brutality. We felt this was a time to highlight the brilliant contributions of our Black predecessors and to acknowledge our value and capabilities as students at Trinity College.
Thus, the theme we chose in 2022 was “Black Futures: Innovation and Generation at Trinity.” We saw “generation” as representing the dual meanings of creation, and of legacy or descendancy. It allowed us to envision a new way of engaging with the Black community within Trinity College and the broader University, while acknowledging the history of Black brilliance that preceded our arrival.
"...we recognised that Black History Month celebrations also needed the time and space to acknowledge Black lives and their impact beyond how we have experienced life in response to marginalisation and violence—namely regarding the history of trans-Atlantic slavery and being targets of police brutality. We felt this was a time to highlight the brilliant contributions of our Black predecessors and to acknowledge our value and capabilities as students at Trinity College."
We started by building on the efforts of students before us. This included continuing a photo exhibition profiling Black students at Trinity College, as well as holding a formal hall dinner. (Unlike previous formal halls, we wanted to focus on celebrating Black culture in every aspect of the night. To this end, we invited Shaniqua Benjamin, Croydon’s Poet Laureate, to perform a number of her works, and the menu for the night was pan-African. It included BBQ meatballs and fried okra for the appetiser, curry chicken and rice for the entrée, and fried plantain with caramel ice cream for dessert, as well as rooibos tea, South African wine, Ugandan and Ethiopian coffee, malta, and Jamaican Ting as beverages). Additionally, we organised a series of discussions around Black futures that featured Black professionals from various disciplines, industries, and cultural backgrounds. We also added more social events—like a trivia and bar night in the College—to invite the broader Trinity community to engage in social activities celebrating Blackness.
When we developed our theme, we knew that the concepts underlying “Black Futures” might be new to many people, including those within the African diaspora. We wanted our programme to fill this gap. While we achieved this in part through our events, we also created a Black Futures Syllabus that covered concepts like Afrofuturism, Caribbean Futurism, African-Futurism, sankofa, and ubuntu. We saw this syllabus as a beginning, where Black students could practise “futuring” in their families and communities, Trinity College, the University, and beyond. It grew from our understanding of quality education as involving both academic and non-academic engagement, and the importance of learning from canonical works as well as oral histories, storytelling, dancing, singing, watching, listening, and being in the world with others. To learn relationally, through our bodies and in dialogue with others, requires a steady, patient, and humble mindset and bodily orientation. Our ancestors survived and found joy through play, love, and ubuntu. We know that their innovations, which are the foundation for much of what we have today, came through improvisation, and we uphold these logics as our foundation to “futuring.” “Futuring,” then, is intentionally envisioning pathways forward by engaging in community-based, relational ways of knowing, and learning to acknowledge our roots, attend to our present-day realities, and play with imagined futures.
Within the University and Trinity College, supporting Black students—or any student— demands an orientation to “futuring.” Educational spaces give students the opportunity and flexibility to explore and experiment, get things wrong, acknowledge and learn from mistakes, grow and change alongside others, and understand new ways of moving in the world. However, we must feel able to make sense of our own history alongside our present to do “futuring,” by asserting the possible and envisioning multiple selves that can be actualised. Invoking the legacy of Octavia Butler, we wanted to demonstrate that educational institutions are a space of possibility for Black students, and, through our efforts with Black History Month, we wanted to show Trinity College and the University how it can support Black students by creating such spaces for “futuring.”
Listen to our podcast episode, where we discuss the politics and difficulties of organising projects such as ours within a university space that often has a different agenda, and what it meant—both practically and personally—to participate in an agenda of “futuring” within the context and limitations of Trinity College.
Adaiah Hudgins-Lopez [2021, 2022] is a PhD Social Anthropology candidate at the University of Cambridge.
Myesha Jemison  is a PhD History and Philosophy of Science candidate at the University of Cambridge and the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence. They are members of Trinity College.