Earlier this year, Jaison Oliver encountered one of Facebook’s, often annoying, memory posts about the first meeting of his Houston Afrofuturism Book Club. The old image was from 2016, dating the club back further than even he would have guessed.
“The only reason I know it was 2016 is because of Facebook,” Oliver recounts. “[Back then] I wanted a space for people to come together.”
Fast forward four years and the club is still holding meetings, albeit virtually. And while the setting has shifted from local bars to windows on computer screens, the goal of sharing thoughts examining how Afrofuturism and other speculative fiction works from black creators reflect society has only grown in importance.
“In a time like this, it’s helpful to build up the muscles of our imagination,” Oliver says. “Otherwise we fall into the same typical traps of diversity and inclusion or just investing money into certain communities, and all of these piecemeal solutions. We need to reimagine a lot of how our society works.”
According to the Wikipedia, the genre Afrofuturism was coined by Mark Dery in 1993. The genre represents a fusion of the aesthetics and culture behind the African diaspora with technology and, often, science fiction. Oliver has long held a strong interest in broader science fiction, but decided to narrow the focus of the club to increase awareness of all types of Afrofuturism and black creators.
“Yeah, this was mainly looking at black communities within these different [mediums],” he says. “I read a lot of general science fiction but I read a lot of science fiction from creators who are of African descent. I wanted a space for us to come together and talk about the different books or movies or TV shows, or even albums and pieces of art, and create a time to meet people and explore them with one another.”
The most recent meeting took place in late July and covered Angela Y. Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete?. Twenty people joined the Zoom meeting, each with different interactions with jails and prisons, which enabled an in-depth discussion about imprisonment, punishment and harm that went beyond even the United States’ relationship to the Prison-Industrial Complex, Oliver says.
“Someone suggested this book about abolition, and it all relates to Afrofuturism,” Oliver says of the most recent discussion. “People for generations have thought about what society looks like when black people are free and able to live our lives fully. What does liberation look like?”
The setting for these clubs is typically intimate with a range of 5-20 people, and while July’s selection featured subject matter directly dealing with racism in America’s prison system, the club doesn’t always choose selections with an overt weightiness. In the past, they’ve watched popular films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and even recently watched Netflix’s Raising Dion.
On August 23 the club will discuss the 1998 French film Kirikou and the Sorceress, plus an Amazon Prime watch party on August 21.
“It’s more about the space we’re creating then focusing on the specific issues,” Oliver says. “ With Kirikou and the Sorceress, [it’s] a French cartoon, with nothing to do with America and nothing to do with social issues we’re all talking about directly now.”
The book club is funded in part by the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance. Oliver says the extra help in the form of grants helps him buy reading materials that aren’t available at libraries and has most recently helped him with the Zoom account used by the club. Providing a virtual space during quarantine has also opened the club up to people from around the world, with July’s club meeting including people from Texas, North Carolina, Germany and Nigeria.
“People have always been interested in it, whether it be friends who live locally or those who live elsewhere. People have always said ‘ah, I wish I was in Houston for that,’” he says. “ A lot of people are interested, because a lot of folks are new to this topic. They want a space to come together and we’re definitely getting people from all over.”
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Another potential reason for newcomers could be the heightened sense of awareness involving social justice since the death of Breonna Taylor on March 13 and of George Floyd on May 25. Despite this, Oliver says he hasn’t gotten a ton of interest from people outside of the black community.
“I haven't seen a lot of new non-black people coming to the book club,” he says. “No, I don’t think I’ve seen the demographics change much. I think people are often surprised at how segregated our social circles can be, the people who are interested have likely seen it by now and have made up their minds.”
Going forward, whether its friends or newcomers joining in, Oliver’s goal remains the same: to give people a space to connect through discussions revolving around the vast genre of Afrofuturism.
For more information about August’s Afrofuturism Book Club meeting, please visit the club’s Eventbrite page.