"Sci-Fi for Social Change" Event Fosters Social Imaginary

Friday, March 31st, at 1:00 PM, several students, faculty, and community members gathered for a “Sci-Fi for Social Change” event at Swarthmore. The two-hour public event consisted of a screening of the short film “The Space Traders,” a subsequent panel discussion and Q&A session with Afrofuturist authors, and a book signing.

Assistant Professor Jamie Thomas of Swarthmore’s Linguistics Department organized the event in collaboration with faculty specializing in Linguistics, Creative Writing, and English Literature, including Professor Nathalie Anderson and Professor Gregory Frost. The President's Office Andrew W. Mellon Grant sponsored the event; other events sponsored by the grant include Dr. Eve Ewing’s Poetry in Context.

Professor Thomas wrote in an email to the student body: “From the recent Black Panther film to the Star Wars reboots, sci-fi has been in the spotlight for its power in helping us vision new, more equitable futures. How do you envision equality? How can we write new science fiction? What is Afrofuturism?” speaking on the inspiration and goals for the event.

The event began with a screening of the 20-minute short film “The Space Traders” (1992), based on the short story by Derrick Bell. In the film, aliens offer the American government advanced technology to alleviate pollution and help the environment in exchange for all of America’s black population. The American people must then vote whether to accept this proposition and how to determine which people qualify for exchange. The Afrofuturist film examines subjects such as colorism, interracial relationships, anti-blackness, and class and racial tensions. The film was met with much audible laughter, shock, and engagement on the part of the audience. After the film, the panelists were introduced.

The panelists present were Fran Wilde, award-winning sci-fi fantasy novelist of Cloudbound and Updraft, Li Sumpter, PhD, Afrofuturist author and co-founder of MythMedia Studios, and Alex Smith, sci-fi short story author and co-founder of METROPOLARITY Afrofuturist collective. Each panelist gave an introduction, spoke a bit about their work, and provided their reactions to the film, after which the audience asked questions and engaged in conversation.

Many of the panelists felt that the film illustrated the power and relevance of sci-fi as a medium for discussing social issues, relating the film to the current social and political climate in the United States. Panelist Li Sumpter, whose work focuses on mythology, psychology and Afrofuturism, felt the film to be reminiscent of more recent movies, illustrating the relevance and reality of the themes it dealt with: “One of the things I thought was really cool was the timeless element of it...The issues are still very relevant today. It still hits home, to the point where you know it’s absurd and you know that it’s a bit of a satire...but I think that it reminded me a lot of Get Out and some of the things that we accept as absurd, but then are also very frightening if you think about the reality of that.” She later went on to discuss “the politics of colorism” the film portrayed.

Panelist Fran Wilde, who has written and published about thirty short science-fiction stories, also echoed the realistic nature of many socially relevant sci-fi stories, saying “One of the things that happens as a sci-fi writer is that you start to get a little worried that the things that you are writing are going to come true.” She referenced the current social and political climate in the US: “As you think about the past couple of years...We’re talking about deportation, talking about immigration, talking about health care, talking about a lot of issues that we all thought were well-safe and it’s not that easy. And thinking about this as a sci-fi movie is one thing, but what would this look like looking back on the history of the United States?”

Along with very overt instances of racism, the film also depicted subtle microaggressions and exploitation of black bodies coded in words of love and admiration. Panelist Alex Smith, whose work focuses on “projecting” queer people and people of color into the future, referenced a moment in the movie when a white woman displays admiration for a black talk show host in one breath and insults the entire black race in the next. He spoke of the complex relationships white people have with black entertainers and celebrities. “I love the dichotomy that this movie displays about the subtleties of white supremacy and microaggressions,” Smith said. 

After the panelists provided reactions to the movie, the audience engaged in community discussion and posed questions. One audience member highlighted a scene from "The Space Traders" in which many members of the black community came together around the alien’s proposition and found, even among themselves, disagreement and division. “I think that is a contemporary challenge that we struggle with. And that we struggle to be honest with ourselves about the divisions that do exist and how difficult it is to be unified.” This comment led to a discussion about solidarity in marginalized communities. Sumpter offered that solidarity around liberation is deeply explored in sci-fi, as in Alex’s work, but that she herself explores solidarity around survival. “When it comes to aliens versus humans,” she said, “We finally realize we’re all in this together.”

After discussing the movie, the panelists offered thoughts on the goals and difficulties of their writing. “The stuff you’re writing about is scary. You don’t want what you are writing about to come true,” Sumpter said. She noted though that, at the same time, the importance of her work is inextricably linked to how uncomfortably close to reality it is.

“You don’t want to bring fear, or terrify folks, but you want to get folks over that hump of denial. That is what science fiction has done for me,” said Sumpter.

Fran Wilde said that much of the importance of Sci-fi for her is grounded in the idea of sci-fi as a way to imagine futures that spot light and insist on marginalized identities. She said that many visions of the future do not hold space for POC, queer people, and people with disabilities.  “You’ve gotta write yourself into the future,” she said.

Alex Smith affirmed this notion, saying that he especially enjoys writing characters that are underrepresented in stories, media, and science-fiction. “Those voices are needed, desperately.” Speaking to young writers in the audience, he said, “If you are questioning whether your writing is not going to fit what we see over and over, the Harrison Ford characters etc. If you are wondering if your work questions that, that’s great. That is what is needed right now.”

After the discussion, the panelists set up in Eldridge Commons to speak with students and to sell and sign their work.

Emma Morgan-Bennett ‘20 left the event thinking about the power and timelessness of the arts. “I loved the movie, it made me think a lot about the parallels between the past and the present in regards to race as portrayed by the arts. I also loved being introduced to the concept of Afrofuturism!”

The event also advertised a sci-fi short story contest; the work of its first-place and second-place winners will be featured in Voices.