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Imagine Otherwise: andré carrington on Race in Science Fiction

Imagine Otherwise: andré carrington on Race in Science Fiction

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April 6, 2016
andré carrinngton wearing a grey blazer, blue button-down shirt, and blue patterned tie

What role does race play in imaginative literary genres like science fiction and fantasy? Can we broaden the confines of what we consider political and academic? How do Black creatives and intellectuals engage in the work of imagining otherwise?

In episode 7 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews African American studies scholar andré carrington about how bringing Black representation to academia is a form of activism, why we should complicate our current understanding of popular culture and race, and what sustains him in doing his social justice work.

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Guest: andré carrington

andré carrington is an assistant professor of African American literature at Drexel University.

His first book, Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction (University of Minnesota Press) interrogates the cultural politics of race in the fantastic genres through studies of science fiction fanzines, comics, film and television, and other speculative fiction texts.

andré’s writing has appeared in Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in SocietySounding Out!Callaloo, African & Black DiasporaJournal of the African Literature AssociationStudio magazine for the Studio Museum in Harlem, and books including A Companion to the Harlem RenaissanceThe Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Blackness in Comics and Sequential ArtRace/Gender/Class/Media 3.0, and Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call.

In 2015, he co-organized the first-ever Queers & Comics international conference through CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies in New York. He teaches courses in African American and global Black literature, Black liberation movements, gender and sexuality studies, comics, science fiction, and literary theory. He’s also a birder.

"Black creativity tries to imagine that the future will not be what the past has been and what it is now" Quote from andré carrington on Imagine Otherwise

We chatted about

  • How blackness can disrupt dominant racial presentations in science fiction and fantasy (02:00)
  • The speculative fiction of blackness (09:00)
  • The integration of art, activism, and academia in andré’s work (11:30)
  • How bringing Black representation to academia is a form of activism (00:00)
  • How andré’s critical lens differs from a more common scholarly trend (21:00)
  • Imagining otherwise (25:30)

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Takeaways

Collectively imagining otherwise through science fiction

Even though we are living through spectacular moments right now, imagining the future as a part of African-American diasporic culture has always been part of the traditions Black people have developed.

How Black creatives have always imagined otherwise

Black creativity tries to imagine that the future will not be what the past has been and the future will not be what it is now.

The intrinsic motivation of activist work

Even if it’s not always fun to do, there is a hope and a promise and a sustaining kind of vision that allows people to stay motivated doing that kind of work to imagine the future, even when it’s hard.

andré’s approach to studying race and science fiction

Racial marginalization is actually not like the subordination of certain kinds of culture. One of the ways that I wanted to [study] that is to draw attention to the fact that science fiction as a genre is both marginal and popular at the same time. There’s a tremendous amount of investment in it.

The importance of Black professors

There are so few of us who are part of the mainstream, predominantly white institutions’ faculty. It’s not activist work to be a Black academic, but it’s a job that so few of us get to do and that so many more of us should get to do.

Imagining otherwise

[I imagine] a world in which the kind of work I do is more available to people who want to do it.

More from andré carrington

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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    Transcript

    Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

    Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

    Cathy Hannabach (00:23):

    Hello and welcome to episode seven of the Imagine Otherwise podcast. Our guest today is andré carrington, an assistant professor of African American literature at Drexel University. His first book, “Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction,” which was published by the University of Minnesota Press interrogates the cultural politics of race in the fantastic genres through studies of science fiction fanzines, comics, film and television, and other speculative fiction texts. andré’s writing has appeared in Present Tense, a journal of rhetoric in Society, Sounding Out, Callaloo, African and Black Diaspora, Journal of the African Literature Association, Studio Magazine for the Studio Museum in Harlem, and books, including, “A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance,” “The Blacker the Ink: COnstructions of Blackness in Comics,” and, “Sequential Art: Race, Gender, Class media 3.0,” and, “Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call.”

    Cathy Hannabach (01:24):

    In 2015, he co-organized the first ever Queers in Comics International Conference through CLAGS, the center for LGBTQ studies in New York city. He teaches courses in African American and global black literature, black liberation movements, gender and sexuality studies, comics, science fiction and literary theory. Thank you so much for being with us, andré.

    andré carrington (01:49):

    Thank you.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:51):

    Let’s just jump right in. You’re the author of a wonderful new book, “Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction,” that just came out by the University of Minnesota Press. What’s your book about?

    andré carrington (02:04):

    The book really tries to take a different approach to the genres of science fiction and fantasy that a lot of us are familiar with if we grew up reading science fiction or fantasy novels or playing video games or reading comic books where a lot of the same themes are represented and that we now see as really, one of the dominant genres in TV and movies. What I tried to do with the genre that I don’t think has been done that much in the study of literature or really in any medium, is to bring a really conscious and consistent attention to questions of race in, not only the science fiction and fantasy genres, but in the whole concept of genre itself. The first part of that is recognizing that the ways we think about race in American culture are profoundly linked to the ways that we express ourselves and put our energies into media and culture.

    andré carrington (03:04):

    Another significant part of that is recognizing that the way that people express their desires, their political aims, their senses of identification are all based on the raw material that the society around them gives us to work with. One of the major arguments of the book is that black people’s participation in creating literature and film and media and comics changes what those media are able to say and thus, changes what we can say about the categories like genre that we sort them into. I also think that the tendency to understand media industries, culture industries, the academic institutions that produce knowledge in our society, to the extent that all of these have taken shape in a profoundly racialized society in which white people have been the dominant group throughout their history really, we can’t help but recognize the presence of traditional, conventional race thinking that reinforces racial hierarchies, stereotypes and dynamics of marginalization, even in some of the narratives that we look to, to hope for ways to shape a different kind of society in a different kind of future.

    andré carrington (04:23):

    A lot of studies of science fiction look to its utopian possibilities. Other studies look to the use of scientific thinking to perpetuate ideas of race from really, the beginnings of maternity until the 20th century. To the extent that some studies look at the science fiction and fantasy that black people produce, I don’t know that there has been until now with the rise of Afrofuturism and increasing attention to it and hopefully with the innovation that my book makes, I don’t think that there’s been so much self conscious attention to blackness as a site where what we call speculative fiction or what we call fantasy really emerges that black people autonomously and on their own terms articulate within our lives and in our relationship to the dominant culture, a sense of what we want these genres and these modes of thinking to mean for us.

    Cathy Hannabach (05:21):

    That sounds fascinating. I’m so excited for this book to come out.

    andré carrington (05:25):

    Me too.

    Cathy Hannabach (05:29):

    One of the things that I really love about the book, and there are many, but is the kind of careful attention that you give the relationship between blackness, futurity and fantasy. This is something that as you note in the book, a lot of other science fiction or fantasy based fields of study or cultural productions that are linked to blackness kind of take up this connection between blackness, futurity and fantasy. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that, why this interest in futurity and fantasy, particularly in the context, and maybe this is part of your answer, I’m not sure, particularly in the context of a social and political landscape that in many ways, tries to erase black life and black futurity or the potential of a future for black communities through state violence, through the prison industrial complex, through foreign policy, through war attacks on welfare rights? The list kind of goes on and on, police shootings, et cetera. Can you talk a little bit about the significance of futurity and fantasy for black cultural production, for black communities more broadly in the context of these attacks on it?

    andré carrington (06:42):

    I think that’s an excellent question. In a way, work of any variety, artistic work, academic work, activist movements, work in any area of our culture and society that tries to and invest in imagining and realizing a future for black people is always timely, right? Even though right now we see more attention to Afrofuturism as a mode of thought, and even though right now we are in the midst of an ongoing movement that proclaims black lives matter and demands justice for state violence that has plagued black communities across lines of age and class and gender, even though we are living through really spectacular moments in confronting those problems right now, I think that imagining the future as a part of African American culture, Africanized

    [inaudible 00:07:38]

    culture has always been a part of the traditions that black people have developed. But there’s a way that the dominant culture has a future for itself in mind, and it’s a future that consists largely of maintaining the same unexamined assumptions, the same unseen or conscious prejudices, the same taken for granted organization of society and perpetuating it into the future.

    andré carrington (08:05):

    I think that one concept that I introduced in the book is what I call the whiteness of science fiction. I juxtapose that idea with what I call the speculative fiction of blackness. When I talk about the ways in which our dominant culture has kind of colonized the future has taken for itself the assumption that the racial hierarchies and inequalities and disparities and life chances that we already live with would be intact in the future, that they could unproblematically just proceed the way they are going now, or that in some magical way they would resolve themselves without doing the self conscious work to change things, but I call it the whiteness of science fiction, and it shows up not just in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, but also in the ways we plan for future, the order that our legal institutions and intellectual practices strive to maintain.

    andré carrington (09:01):

    The speculative fiction of blackness on the other hand, is a concept that on its face might not immediately seem to include a movement like black lives matter along with things that we might more readily [inaudible 00:09:15] with fantasy like black superheroes and black artistic spaces that create kinds of utopias or black musical and performance practices that envision other worlds or possible other origins and destinies for black people, but in all of those practices and in the activist movements that try to really stake a claim to the future for black people, I call that the speculative fiction of blackness because it’s the counterpart and I think the counterbalance to a sense that black people’s lives and destinies are determined by the past we’ve had, by our subordination up until the present. I think that in so many ways, a lot of black creativity, including in activist movements, tries to imagine that the future will not be the way the past has been in the future, will not be the way it is now, that we can determine what that looks like on our own terms.

    Cathy Hannabach (10:13):

    That sounds wonderfully creative and fun, right? It’s kind of staking a claim for pleasure and creativity and creation and speculation. That’s always already contextualized within a system of constraint, and as you point out, is tied to histories of violence, but need not be determined by them. That’s very powerful.

    andré carrington (10:36):

    Absolutely. I think that doing that kind of work, even though it’s difficult, should be rewarding. Right? Even if it’s not always fun to engage in, even if it’s not always fun to do, there is a hope and a promise and a sustaining kind of vision that I think allows people to stay motivated doing that kind of work to imagine the future even when it’s hard.

    Cathy Hannabach (10:59):

    Yeah. Well, this brings us to the kind of nexus of the show, this integration of academia, art and activism and it’s one of the reasons why I was so excited to have you as a guest on the show because in many ways, this book in particular, but your work more broadly is such a fantastic example of that interweaving. How do you see those kinds of crisscrossing in your own projects? How do you combine art, activism and academia in the service of social justice or social change?

    andré carrington (11:35):

    I actually think that, and maybe my approach to this is a little different from some people who are invested in some of the same questions that are in the focus of my intellectual work. I think that black people in particular, African Americans in particular, the of enslaved and free people of color in the United States, we are so sorely underrepresented in the intellectual infrastructure of our society. There are so few of us who do this job of being a professor and although the academic profession is really stratified and very gated according to rank and even disciplines and elite and more accessible institutions, black people are underrepresented throughout the ranks of the academic profession and we’re disproportionately located in historically black colleges and universities that really are organized because of our prior exclusion from the educational system and try to really establish and maintain a real foothold for black people to continue to be scholars and learned people.

    andré carrington (12:47):

    There are so few of us who are a part of what’s understood as the mainstream, who are part of predominantly white institution’s faculty that I think it is not activist work to be a black academic in itself. It’s absolutely not, but it’s a different kind of job and it’s a job that’s so few of us get to do and so many more of us should be able to do.

    andré carrington (13:10):

    One of the ways I think about the value of the work I do is that, first of all, I do think it’s worth it to portray to other black people who aspire to go to college, who go to college and seek careers, who enter into middle-class professions and have the good fortune and the good situations in their life prevail so that they have good life chances to look to a career like this as an option for them and not to consider a career like this, something that’s off limits to them, but I also think that just living and persisting and kind of contradicting the notion that black people are inherently not an intellectual people is important enough to me that not doing the work I do with the sense that it is also activism and doing the work I do with the sense that it’s related to art and creativity, but in itself it’s actually a different kind of thing within culture.

    andré carrington (14:07):

    I think that what sustains me and what gives me a sense of my connection to the other ways people intervene in society through knowledge and through really deeply felt concerns and hopes, what sustains me in doing that work is thinking that this is enough, right? That this is right, that this is something I and we as a people deserve to do. If we are doing it, if we fully participate in this profession, as well as if we fully participated in the arts, if our activist aspirations and mobilizations succeed or gain ground or just continue to struggle and survive, that we are in the process of transforming society, right? We’re making use of the widest possible range of options available for us to live our lives

    Cathy Hannabach (15:04):

    Among many of your projects and kind of connected to your academic work, but also kind of letting you enter into another vein, you’ve also been very active with CLAGS, the Center for LGBTQ Studies at the Graduate Center in New York. You’ve put together some fantastic events and conferences and workshops that themselves combine art, activism and academia in different ways for different communities. But one of the things that I love about your work with them and really the center’s work in general is this insistence on bringing together culture, art, the kind of creative sectors of life with kind of activist desires, as well as rigorous theoretical and academic inquiry. What maybe advice do you have for others who are interested in those kinds of collaborative projects or working with other people, either with CLAGS in particular or just in general, who want to do this kind of collaborative projects, bringing together art, activism and academia in whatever way makes sense for them and the project that they’re doing? What kind of advice might you have for those folks?

    andré carrington (16:17):

    I think one of the most useful things that I’ve learned is to be open to learning from a really wide variety of interactions and dialogues and situations. I have learned so much from the work I did co organizing the queers in comics conference last year through CLAGS with Jen Camper, who was a wonderful artist and resource for queer comics, creators and cartoonists. In the course of organizing that, I got to meet so many artists whose work I admired in the medium of comics and so many more people who were doing the kind of work that I knew was out there, but hadn’t encountered because I didn’t sort of initiate my learning about web comics and about ‘zines and then follow up on it and find out, “Okay, why is this so compelling to so many people? What does this do for the people who make it and for the people who are invested in what it offers them as creative possibilities?”

    andré carrington (17:23):

    Being willing to learn from working artists, being willing to learn from people who had been making comics since the 70s and 80s, meeting the kinds of people who created comics that I read as a teenager and showed me that there were so many ways to create in an art form that we might take for granted as kind of trivial or an art form that we would think is interesting, exciting and compelling, but it’s kind of already spoken for kind of already colonized, that still maintains the terms of the dominant culture. I saw so much creativity there that it really reinforced my sense that being willing to learn from people who do things differently, and who inhabit the world differently, who relate to the nature and the value of the work they do differently is so vital. I found just endless opportunities to do that through CLAGS.

    Cathy Hannabach (18:20):

    A lot of the genres that you write about in the book, but also in your other work are forms of popular culture, right? Obviously comics, but also things like blockbuster movies, these kind of giant, studio funded movies that tend to do really well, popular TV shows, as well as kind of cult TV shows or TV shows with cult fandom, fanzines. All of these are our genres that have been historically associated with popular culture with, “low culture,” that have been denigrated in a lot of ways, and even in a lot of scholarship as frivolous genres, as genres that are not serious, that are not supposed to matter as much as serious academic inquiry. As all scholars who’ve ever worked on popular culture run into this historical as well as often present assumption that what they do, they’re studying things that in it of themselves don’t matter.

    Cathy Hannabach (19:18):

    Clearly they matter quite a good deal. Sp how do you navigate that? Why do you turn to popular culture? What does that do for you, specifically the genres that you look at, and what does it allow in terms of creating a sense of otherwise or a sense of futurity or a sense of a different kind of world, both on behalf of the artists that create these things, the filmmakers, the comic artists, the fans that write the ‘zine, but also in terms of the academics that study them and often those are crisscrossing communities as well?

    andré carrington (19:57):

    Yeah. I think that overlap between scholars and fans, that overlap or that line between fandom and research, between participatory culture and participant observation, between learning and really taking part in the reshaping and the interpretation of popular culture, that kind of work is so exciting and is in many ways, it’s always been the nature of literary studies and the nature of film studies and the nature of sociological and anthropological studies of contemporary culture. But I think that to the extent that studies of science fiction and fantasy television [inaudible 00:20:43] bring those modes of attention and those amateur [inaudible 00:20:49] creativity and those every day [inaudible 00:20:52] of interpretation and critique for in the way that they approach popular culture really teach us so much about the ways that all of us consume popular culture and also participate in its production. We make it useful. We articulate what it means to us and we determine what it means in the market and in our minds and in our interactions.

    andré carrington (21:16):

    I think that learning from popular culture is… There are actually two distinct ways of relating to it that I think of as especially relevant to being an academic and to doing the kind of project I did on science fiction and fantasy. The first way of thinking of things relies on that sense that science fiction and fantasy exists sort of subordinated to proper literature or high culture or Avant garde or artistic creative cinema and things like that, and says that the subordination of those marginal genres, those trivialized and maybe more explicitly market based and less aesthetically valuable genres, is something like the subordination of marginalized groups of people along racial lines. That line of argument is so prevalent in so many studies of science fiction that I thought about it as a sort of a trope that really plays into what I call the whiteness of science fiction.

    andré carrington (22:23):

    It’s a way of thinking about race that we might not even understand as about race, but it’s actually a mediation of the ways that our concepts of culture and race are so bundled together and nested within each other. I wanted to get away from that kind of thinking to deal with and confront the ways that racial marginalization and subordination are actually not like the subordination or marginalization of certain forms of culture, and one of the ways that I wanted to do that was to draw attention to the fact that science fiction as a genre is both marginal and popular at the same time, that there’s a tremendous amount of investment in it and the notion of participating in the creation of that kind of culture as a sort of marginal position in our society is actually, I think a pretty inaccurate idea.

    andré carrington (23:17):

    But actually participating in creations of visions of the future and interpreting popular culture, determining what popular culture means to the broader public or within the marketplace, those are actually positions of enfranchisement and to me, that means that black people’s participation in them is a social justice issue. That’s one way of thinking about it. The other way I think about this dilemma and this opportunity that comes with being invested in popular culture as scholar is something that I think is great that I see going on now is Janet Mock author, cultural commentator, critic, writes for Marie Claire, her show’s so popular. The thing I like about it is that she says that part of its mission is to expand the balance of what’s considered political. I really liked that because it isn’t so much invested in kind of elevating what people are doing on Instagram or what people are saying in web series or individual performances that people give on a TV show or memoirs that people have written that maybe we haven’t taken a look at.

    andré carrington (24:24):

    It isn’t so much invested in saying that these things are so much more valuable or prestigious or elite on the terms of the dominant culture. It’s more invested in saying that these things are a part of the lived experience and texture of what our culture is like in everyday life for everyday people, and that even if you are in a position to create a cultural product that reaches huge, huge numbers of people, the point is not necessarily what ideologies are embodied in that cultural product or what norms it reinforces, although those are very powerful. The point from this perspective of being invested in popular culture as far as I’m concerned, is the way that that stuff reaches so many people because reaching so many people as something popular means that you reach people who are profoundly different, who are situated very differently in our society, who have different relationships to power and that, I think is an opportunity that looking at other forms of culture doesn’t necessarily give us.

    Cathy Hannabach (25:29):

    One of the things that we talk a lot about on this podcast, our guest’s version of a better world, right? The podcast itself is called Imagine Otherwise. Your book kind of takes up this question quite directly as well as your other work, this idea of imagining something different, right? Audrey Lord, the kind of brilliant black lesbian feminist poet, scholar, teacher, cultural producer, whirlwind of a person that she was wrote that our visions begin with our desires. So what world do you desire? I want to ask you, what world are you working towards?

    andré carrington (26:14):

    I can’t think about the world I desire or the vision I work toward without thinking historically without thinking about the past. One of the things I hope for most is to be able to mobilize a wider vision of the past and a wider vision of what the world we have now gives us to work with that I see us using a great deal of the time. A big part of that is recognizing that black have always been intellectual, recognizing that black people in the US, black people across the globe have always been diverse groups of people with diverse ways of life and diverse relationships to each other, that we have always had ways of living and relating to each other that we can term lesbian, gay, bi, and trans or queer, and that we’ve named them different things and we’ve inhabited them in ways that are fulfilling and consistent in a harmonious, but that we don’t get to make use of in the society we live in today because so much of our ways of life are constrained by sort of the limits of what we can imagine.

    andré carrington (27:30):

    I think that what I desire for the future is a world in which the kind of work I do is work that’s more available to more people who want to do it and a world in which the kind of identification that comes with the sort of work I do, the to the extent that being a professor means you’re pretty much a nerd and being a black professor and a queer professor and somebody who’s a cisgender man puts me in a peculiar and really narrow category of identification. I’d like a world in which that wasn’t so peculiar, right? Not in which it went away or was less special. I like who I am and I like what I can do in the society as it is right now. It’s pretty amazing, but I very much like for more people to be able to articulate a relationship to the kinds of things that I feel very fortunate to do without necessity, without constraints, without being told they can’t, without being told by their circumstances that they can’t.

    andré carrington (28:35):

    To the extent that I can envision or can see how other people have envisioned, broader [inaudible 00:28:42] strengths in our lives, greater opportunities in our lives and greater room to just try ways of life, to try things and fail, aspire to things and realize them or to aspire to things and find fulfillment in the aspiration, in the trying to make things possible. I would like to work toward envisioning that kind of world.

    Cathy Hannabach (29:09):

    Sounds like you’re off to a good start with this book.

    andré carrington (29:12):

    I hope so. I think so.

    Cathy Hannabach (29:14):

    Well, thank you so much for being on the podcast and sharing your visions, your scholarship, your activist and popular culture work as well. Thank you so much.

    andré carrington (29:25):

    Thank you, Cathy.

    Cathy Hannabach (29:27):

    Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Editing for this episode was done by Julie Lenard. Be sure to check out our website at ImagineOtherwise.com to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.

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