Contending with Nightmares and Dreams: Designing Liberatory Black Futures through Lovecraft Country’s Speculative Counterstorytelling
by Ashieda McKoy and Arturo Cortez
[page 35] Abstract: Our article specifically addresses a need to understand speculative storytelling as an agentic lever in the creation of more just and equitable futures for Black communities. Thus, Lovecraft Country serves as a pedagogical example that helps Black spectators collectively understand both nightmares and dreams as tools of hope and possibility, resistance, and agency. Particularly, episodes that comment on respectability—or the ways in which Black folks shed our literal and metaphorical skins as capital exemplified by the “Strange Case” episode—materialize in the realm of nightmare, of the oppression that haunt our pasts and presents. Conversely, episodes that story the power of manifesting who we want to be now and in the future, as in the seventh episode “I Am.,” make for collective dreams that help us move closer to our imagined futures. Lovecraft Country, then, asks us to move through both the nightmares and dreams, or as Sankofa directs us, to contend with the horrors of our pasts to imagine the futures of our own making. Here, we point to the pedagogical possibilities of Lovecraft Country as a speculative counterstory that reimagines narratives of Black pasts/presents into stories of agency and resistance authored by Black communities themselves.
Keywords: Black futures, nightmares, public pedagogy, Sankofa, speculative counterstory
Speculative storytelling offers important commentary on race, gender, power, (dis)ability, pedagogical practice, and, through counterstory, opens up avenues for liberation, particularly in the ways the speculative implores Black1 communities to imagine otherwise free alternative worlds (Boaz 242, 255; Schalk 2; Toliver 512). Conversely, the speculative also elucidates our nightmares through visualizations of technological threat, unchecked power of individuals or the state, and a fear of the unknown—what is “new and strange”—whether it be differing technologies, [page 36] species, or practices (Urbanski 14,17). Essentially, speculative storytelling’s nightmares express our deeper fears about the present and future and yet present hopeful warnings or pedagogical tools for creating alternative futures (Urbanski 10). Thus, we find it important to offer a discussion of everyday learning practices and design considerations for building learning environments that leverage speculative storytelling to both critically interrogate our nightmarish pasts (and presents) and, more importantly, support opportunities for dreaming—for collectively imagining the realities we want to live in and telling the stories we want to tell. Specifically, we argue that the Afrofuturist diasporic concept of Sankofa offers a set of learning and design tools for collectively building these just and equitable futures with Black communities. Here, we draw on the notion of Sankofa appropriated from its Ghanian origin as meaning “it is not taboo to go back and retrieve what you have forgotten or lost” or leveraging the past in building an imagined future to support our examination (Temple 127). In this regard, the HBO series Lovecraft Country, produced by Misha Green and Jordan Peele, among others, is a public pedagogical example of Sankofa that skillfully narrates Black lived histories—lived nightmares of subordination, technological fear, and violence—and transforms these stories into narratives of agency, ingenuity, community, and hope.
We recognize the act of spectating as an active practice that encourages agency and/as resistance (hooks 95). Therefore, in watching Lovecraft Country, spectators not only emerge empowered, but learn to imagine and design toward the futures of their dreams. Consequently, Lovecraft Country serves as a pedagogical tool that helps Black spectators collectively understand both nightmares and dreams as tools of hope and possibility, as tools for resistance and agency. Particularly, episodes that comment on respectability and access—or the ways in which Black folks shed our literal and metaphorical skins as capital, as Ruby does in Lovecraft Country’s fifth episode “Strange Case”—materialize in the realm of nightmare, of the horrors of power that haunt our pasts and presents. Conversely, episodes that story the power of manifesting who we want to be now and in the future, as in the seventh episode “I Am.” (the period is part of the episode title, emphasizing that it is a declarative statement), [page 37] make for collective dreams that help us move closer to our imagined futures. Lovecraft Country, then, asks us to move through both the nightmares and the dreams, or as Sankofa directs us, to contend with the horrors of our pasts to imagine the futures of our own making. Here, we essentially point to the possibilities for learning that emerge when we examine Lovecraft Country as a pedagogical tool, that is a speculative counterstory that reimagines narratives of Black pasts into stories of agency and resistance authored by Black communities themselves. We begin with a brief discussion of the theories that animate our speculative counterstory framework. We then move into a discussion of how Sankofa exemplifies this framework, followed by an analysis of two episodes of Lovecraft Country through this frame, paying attention to how they highlight everyday Sankofic learning of ritual and imagination. Finally, we conclude with how we see this framework offering design implications for the creation of learning environments that center the everyday practice of Black folks as they organize towards more just and equitable futures.
Lovecraft Country as Public Counterstory
Traditionally, pedagogy is most commonly defined as the method and practice of teaching, particularly as an academic subject or theoretical concept, whereas public pedagogy has been best defined as locating culture as a site for learning and critique (Giroux 342). Specifically, Henry A. Giroux positions culture as a political educational force that offers “both the symbolic and material resources as well as the context and content for the negotiation of knowledge and skills” (353). This means that culture is dynamic, existing as both tools and practices immersed in our surrounding communities and institutions, and as such is a socio-political construction. Our notion of public pedagogy stems from Glen Savage’s iterations on the term, namely that public pedagogy is a concept in educational research that we can “‘think with’ in tangible ways” to (re)consider expansive interpretations of what we know as public(s) and pedagogies (112). In this way, learning is a multi-dimensional agentic practice that engages many publics (both inside and outside of schools) in forming new relationships with information, technology, learning, and [page 38] each other—learning is people’s everyday experiences, interactions, and practices with tools and other community members. In line with Savage’s examination of public pedagogy that centers everyday social and cultural experiences, we explore Jordan Peele’s speculative storytelling as a form of public pedagogy that engages a larger public in the creation of new relationships with narrative, learning, information, technology, and ultimately with one another, thus offering implications for the design of learning environments.
Drawing on critical race media studies and critical race media projects, we offer Lovecraft Country as an imaginative speculative counterstory that animates the resistance, transformation, and unyielding hope emerging in the everyday practices of Black communities. William F. Tate discusses counterstories or “voice scholarship” as an avenue for people of color to speak with experiential knowledge to illustrate the irony and contradictions of certain policies in education (248). These counternarratives, stories told from the “magical faces at the bottom of society’s well,” narrate the persistence of racism but also reinterpret, reimagine, and disrupt the harmful discourses about Black cultures and communities (Bell 13). Thus, counterstories offer learning and design opportunities for building new relationships with information and technologies and facilitate reflections on power (who has it and who does not) and the ways Black folks (re)author stories of resistance and hope. Relatedly, in drawing on Paulo Freire’s notion of literacy as providing people the opportunity to read the words and the world as they move through stages of consciousness—magic, naive, and critical—the practice of critical race media studies explores how entertainment media can be used as a pedagogical tool to analyze intersectionality, challenge deficit discourse, and ultimately raise social consciousness by first exposing racist tropes in media, then developing strategies to critically recognize societal power dynamics in media and the everyday, and finally confronting and navigating power and domination (Yosso 54-56). Consequently, popular media such as Lovecraft Country serve as a tool for Black folks to recognize power and domination and begin to re-author their own (counter)narratives in relation to these dynamics. Furthermore, critical race media projects offer media products (such as newspapers or films) as literal and [page 39] figurative spaces that encourage a “recuperation of memory,” a telling and archiving of histories and stories of resistance (Alemán and Alemán 289). In the tradition of critical race media studies with an understanding of Lovecraft Country as a critical race media project, we recognize the series as speculative counterstory, a pedagogical tool that challenges deficit narrative and tropes of Black folks, subverts homogenous truths of reality, exposes white privilege and complicity in reifying systemic oppression, all while encouraging coalition building for Black communities (Alemán and Alemán 295-296). Essentially, centering speculative storytelling as counterstory means that we recognize and privilege learning in the everyday practices and narratives of Black communities as they strive for the futures of their dreams.
Sankofa as Everyday Practice
Sankofa has been taken up and stretched by African diasporan people to mean everything from cross-racial and faith-based collaboration to a rather oversimplified definition of “god’s omnipotence” depending on varying origins and translations of the term (Temple 147). We exemplify our speculative counterstory framework for learning and design through the Afrofuturist notion of Sankofa, most closely translated from its Ghanian proverb as meaning “to profit in the present from experiences of the past to prosper in the future” (Jorgensen 120-121). Guided by commitments to public pedagogy and critical race media studies and building on Sankofa’s tradition as proverb (as proverbs are indeed lessons in themselves), we understand Sankofa as more than symbolism, rather as a principle that expands definitions of learning to include the ways Black communities routinely engage with (oppressive) histories, technologies, systems of power and still collectively imagine and organize towards more just futures. Specifically, we offer two different traditions of Sankofa, Sankofa as ritual and Sankofa as imagination, as lenses for seeing learning in the everyday practices of Black communities and inform how we might purposely design learning environments to support and encourage these practices. [page 40]
Sankofa as Ritual
In her historical tracing of Sankofa as a practice, Christel Temple recognizes a particular tradition of the proverb being taken up in the intersections of Afrocentric psychology and education, namely by Asa G. Hilliard, III, who cautions that any modifications made to our culture can only come after knowing our culture and traditions (142). Temple further describes how this Sankofa tradition emerges in modern counseling practices as an act of participation or ritual that specifically involves the practices of “rebirth and renewal” (143). In this way, Sankofa is a practice that helps Black folks return to themselves by connecting them to both their histories and futures. Or, as Kenya T. Parham states, Sankofa as a practice can help Black people “return intellectually, emotionally, behaviorally, and spiritually to the source of truth, harmony, and spiritual place in their life” (qtd. in Temple 143). Therefore, understanding ritual as a practice of Sankofa affords learning as a sort of rebirth—a transformation—but this learning originates from an often-turbulent process of reacquainting ourselves with our histories, cultural traditions, and communities, as well as rediscovering familial, historical, and cross-continental connections, and less publicly told narratives of personal and collective agency, innovation, and resistance. Sankofa as ritual helps us see nightmares as learning, as an opportunity to contend with fear and pain, yet turn often hellish historical narratives and lived experiences into sites of growth, collective revisioning, and agency.
Sankofa as Imagination
In a community-based speculative design project entitled “Sankofa City,” Karl Baumann et al. leverage the notion of Sankofa as “infrastructures of imagination” that critique and build on existing technologies (and their implementation) in order to empower communities to design future technologies imbued with their cultural values and future goals (1). Of importance, the authors emphasize the ubiquity of imagination as a deeply human phenomenon, thus framing all people as “designers” regardless of experience or expertise. Specifically, their practice of Sankofa concretizes through [page 41] four processes: 1) speculative questioning or organizing ideas and imaginings (dreams) around “what if’’ questions and related scenarios; 2) prototyping: creating models and personas for designs and the individuals who might use them; 3) creating design fictions or hypothetical scenarios that showcase the efficacy of imagined designs; 4) presenting to community stakeholders who are positioned to make actionable implementation of the designs (Baumann et al. 2). Consequently, understanding Sankofa as a practice of imagination centers learning as a process of envisioning the future by re-mediating our past and current phenomena (and technologies) into actionable designs that better support our cultural values and goals.
We situate the speculative storytelling of Lovecraft Country as public pedagogy in the ways it opens up new opportunities for learning inside and outside of schools and affords new relationships to technology, learning, and other learners. Moreover, in leveraging both critical media studies and critical media projects, Lovecraft Country is a counterstory that reimagines and retells often painful and traumatic Black narratives to center agency and resistance. Exemplified through an understanding of Sankofa as the everyday learning of ritual and imagination, Lovecraft Country serves as a public counterstory that supports Black communities in the organization of more just and equitable futures. Thus, we understand this series as a pedagogical tool that aids in the design of learning and learning environments that inspires the resistance and agency of Black communities as they pursue equity, justice, and ultimately, freedom.
Being Unmade: “Strange Case” (Episode Five) as Nightmare
Each episode of Lovecraft Country features a different director; episode five, “Strange Case,” directed by Liberian-American Cheryl Dunye, visualizes our notions of nightmare as a pedagogical tool. Although our analysis of this episode relies on some everyday understandings of nightmare, we also draw on definitions of nightmare as hopeful warnings, pedagogical lessons that illustrate our fears around developing technologies, unparalleled power, and encounters with new and strange beings, practices, communities, etc. (Urbanski 14). In particular, we see nightmares as a Sankofic [page 42] learning that makes us sit, rather uncomfortably, with our fears and reacquaint ourselves with the most horrific parts of our pasts and presents in order to imagine otherwise to worlds and practices beyond what exists and toward futures of our own making. Moreover, as we continue to engage in the ritual of revisiting and contending with our nightmarish fears and histories, the practice becomes less about engaging our fears and more about how we start to reauthor these nightmares to become the narratives, worlds, and practices we value and design therefore exemplifying the very notion of a speculative public counterstory. Consequently, the “Strange Case” episode materializes as a nightmare in the ways it visualizes our fears, particularly around unchecked power and experiencing the unknown, yet it also asks us to contend with these fears and see them as contexts to imagine and design otherwise. Specifically, Ruby’s routine process of shedding and rebirth in “Strange Case” exemplifies Sankofic learning as each transformation leads her to discover something new about her own power as a Black woman and how she might design her own future.
To understand “Strange Case” as a speculative nightmare we rely on both everyday definitions of nightmare and more specific definitions of the term that paint them as hopeful warnings or learning opportunities. Everyday understandings of nightmares characterize them as “frightening” dreams or “an experience, situation, or object” that takes on a “monstrous character” and produces “feelings of anxiety or terror” (“Nightmare”). Yet, speculative nightmares also serve as cautionary tales that reflect and visualize our fears around technology, power, the unknown, and warn of the possible future (public) implications of these scenarios (Urbanski 8). Particularly when it comes to a fear of the unknown, these nightmares elucidate our anxiety of the alien—something so strange, so unlike what we know, something we can’t contain (Urbanski 146). These nightmares also arise from a fear of “what now?” or once we encounter aliens or unknown entities, a deep uncertainty around how to identify or interact with them (Urbanski 146). Hence, in the opening moments of “Strange Case” we start to see a nightmare unfold as Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) wakes up in a body completely alien and the fear of the unknown is present and palpable. This episode begins with a shot of a white woman (Jamie Neumann) [page 43] waking up in a silk-sheeted circular bed looking strangely at her hands, then her body as she finds her way to a mirror, her legs folding under herself. When she finally draws in her entire body, she slaps her face in disbelief, begging herself to “Wake up, Ruby.” In this moment, the viewers learn that, indeed, the white woman in the mirror is supposed to be Ruby, but not the brown-skinned, tall, and warm character we are used to seeing as Leti’s sister. Spectators can see and feel Ruby’s anxiety materialize on screen through her rapid, yet unfocused movements and repeated directions to herself to “wake up.” While we recognize these scenes as the beginning of Ruby’s nightmare, she seems to think so as well—actually begging herself on the screen to “wake up” and get out of this dream. But the nightmare continues when Ruby’s body does not change; instead, she continues to exist in a white woman’s alien body.
After stumbling out of the house and onto the main street in her white skin, Ruby is brought to William (Jordan Patrick Smith) by the police. As viewers witness William taking Ruby back into the house, the scene is accompanied by a loud soundtrack of what sounds like the cracking and breaking of bones. These unnerving sounds charge us again into nightmare as we can imagine limbs snapping and tearing through flesh. Speculation is matched by a nightmarish visual of Ruby being laid down on a clear-plastic covered floor, screaming with every convulse and contort of her body. She tries dragging her body away from the scene but is yanked back to the spot by William. As the camera zooms in on her face, skin pulls and protrudes as if there is something underneath trying to get out. William then slices Ruby with a long silver knife like gutting a fish and blood splashes and oozes all over the floor as the camera recedes. The scene ends with William scavenging objects, likely organs, from the bloody cavity. These moments where Ruby’s body starts to unnaturally transform exemplify multiple notions of nightmare. Firstly, waking up in a white body that is completely new and strange to Ruby is frightening enough, but when spectators hear the jarring sound of bones cracking, see the bulging and puncturing of Ruby’s white skin and blood pooled around her body like a shadow, her body becomes decreasingly human-like and increasingly more unfamiliar, more alien. Ruby’s screaming and clawing to get away in [page 44] these moments speak to pain she is experiencing in the process of being ripped open, but they also exemplify an anxiety around being uncontrollable, of a body “unmade” as Ruby puts it later in the episode when she speaks of this very experience. Feeling connected to our bodies usually means we feel in control of them, but in Ruby’s case her body literally and figuratively does not belong to her, she cannot contain or control its movements. She feels so estranged from how her body looks and is now acting that it feels completely unknown, alien, to her. The strange and uncontrollable way Ruby’s body behaves in these moments exemplifies a notion of nightmare, but nightmare also exists in the ways William interacts with Ruby in these scenes—from physically dragging her body back to the bloody mat to hacking her open and pulling out body parts. William agitates a fear around how we often understand aliens as enemies, and therefore determine that it is acceptable to destroy them (Urbanski 151). In this vein, nightmare is both a pervasive fear of becoming something entirely unknown as well as a fear of how to engage this unknown, namely the impulse to utterly destroy what we do not understand.
However, Urbanski reminds us that nightmares are not all doom and horror; rather, they offer hopeful warnings or lessons for crafting alternative futures. The pedagogical aspect of nightmares emerge as Ruby continually engages in this practice of ripping apart, shedding her white skin, and returning to her familiar brown-skin body each time. In this ritualistic process of shedding and returning to herself, Ruby learns something new about power and (her)self with each rebirth. We see this iterative learning as Sankofic in that allowing opportunity for ritual, opportunity for Black people to shed the white skins of respectability and assimilation and be born anew through a (re)centering of our own authentic values and desires as Black people, is a robust opportunity for learning through which new relationships to learning, self, and future goals emerge. As white supremacy routinely demands that non-white bodies conform to whiteness, we see the shedding of these white skins, the shedding of these white-aspiring practices, as Ruby does in “Strange Case,” as a liberatory process that allows Black folks to return to themselves, claim their power, and rewrite their futures. As such, this episode is a speculative counterstory that supports [page 45] both Ruby and spectators in turning nightmares into sites of agency and resistance where designs of better possible futures are developed.
We begin with Ruby’s first transformation at the opening of the episode where she wakes up in panic, ostensibly confused and horrified by the completely new white body she seems to inhabit. Explained earlier, Ruby’s first transformation sets up the episode as a nightmare but also introduces a horrific, yet pedagogical practice of Ruby shedding her white skin or literally ripping apart to return to herself. However, the second time Ruby transforms into the white woman’s body, she languishes in the skin, learning what it means to experience whiteness as currency—what it means to be free of worry. She walks slowly and, after getting over the shock and alienness of her transformations, contentedly down a busy street, not expected to move out of the way, to assume less space, or being made to feel uncomfortable: she is, after all, in a white woman’s body. After spending time in the white skin, she again undergoes an unmaking— a shedding of her white skin to return to her brown body. In the wake of this transformation, Ruby finds the power she is afforded as a white woman addicting, which makes her deeply crave this same power as a Black woman. Moreover, this particular unmaking makes Ruby hyper aware of how differently her white and Black skins are treated within the confines of a white supremist society. Therefore, Ruby begins learning the power of/within her own body and how, to taste more of the power she’s never been afforded in her Black body, she might use her white woman’s privileged skin to her advantage over her next couple of transformations. For example, the next time Ruby transforms into a white woman she takes an interview at the upscale department store where she has tried over and over to work as a Black woman but, as is typical of the 20th century American landscape, has never been successful. Yet, in her new white skin, Ruby immediately lands a job (as assistant manager) after the current manager takes only a cursory look at her “impressive” credentials. As white supremacy assures, in using her white femme body as currency, Ruby is able to get the job she has worked so hard to obtain as a Black woman instantly, with seemingly little regard for her qualifications or credentials. For a while after this transformation, it seems [page 46] as if Ruby is content with her rather unusual assimilation and the power that her white transformations afford. But over the course of Ruby’s next couple of transformations, the draw of whiteness begins to fade, and Ruby’s unmakings move into true moments of rebirth where, instead of leaning into her white power, she sheds (rejects) her white skin and the white aspiring politics of respectability and recenters her body, experiences, and goals as a Black woman.
After Ruby’s first few transformations, it seems as if she is content to reclaim, through her white skin, some of the power she’s never experienced in her Black body. By the end of the episode, however, her transformations do not lead her to embrace the white skin and cling tightly to the privilege she’s been afforded. Rather, she realizes that, the more she tries to enact a sense of whiteness, the very power that most respectability and assimilationist politics requires, the more she feels alienated from her body, values, past and future as a Black woman—from who she is and wants to be. This is exemplified in the ways that Ruby no longer feels as familiar in the places that she used to, such as the dance clubs and bars in the Black community that she previously frequented as both a singer and community member. Specifically, in a scene where Ruby (in her white skin) goes to a Black neighborhood bar with her co-workers from the department store, she ends up sitting alone and uncomfortable in the booth watching them dance and sing—so close to her Black community but also so alienated from it. This scene triggers Ruby’s conscious decision not to ingest a special potion that would prolong her time in the white skin any further. Rather, she chooses to let the white skin shed from her body right in the back alley of the club. This particular shedding is a deliberate and immediate refusal of the white skin, of whiteness, and of her white privilege. It is in this moment that Ruby begins to recenter and reassert her Black femme body toward a liberatory future of her own making. While this ritual of shedding to return anew is nightmarish, it is also a practice of deep learning that teaches Ruby (and viewers) that having power, white dominant power or even assimilationist power, won’t make her innately powerful or comfortable; rather, the power that comes with centering exactly who she is—her values, communities, and traditions as Black woman—and taking charge of her own future is [page 47] what matters most. In essence, Ruby’s unmakings become remakings, rebirths, where she is returned intellectually, emotionally, behaviorally, and spiritually to her Black body, values, and dreams. Consequently, opportunities for learning and design here are in contention with these hard narratives and practices that highlight and reify white supremacy or white-aspiring politics within our Black pasts and presents (i.e. nightmares) so that we might shed or reject them—even when those practices afford a kind of privilege, as it did for Ruby—and remake/reimagine them into narratives and practices that reintroduce Black bodies, histories, and futures as sites of resistance, agency, and hope. In this way, unmakings become remakings, where Ruby and viewers learn to resituate power away from whiteness and within Black bodies and Black futures.
Ultimately, Ruby’s Sankofic learning is best exemplified through her last transformation and rebirth. She uses her white skin to get inside the office of her oppressor, her gatekeeping and predatory department store boss, but deliberately sheds her white skin to reveal her true Black self. She then uses this rebirth and the reclamation of her Black femme power to subordinate her boss. She ties his hands behind his back, forces him into a position on the floor beneath her where he cannot not fight back, then aggressively penetrates him with a stiletto heel all to the beat of Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow,” a song that only heightens Ruby’s energy and power felt in that moment. In this vein, Ruby’s ritualistic unmakings and rebirths over the course of the episode become less about enjoying and enacting her new white privilege and more about how these transformations bring Ruby home to herself, her values, and her authentic power as a Black woman. As exemplified by Ruby’s last transformation, this means rejecting a present and future bound within the confines of white supremacy and instead claiming the agency and power that already exists in our own Black (femme) skins to change and rework these futures, namely by reasserting and recentering our authentic Black desires, values, and selves now and for our futures. “Strange Case,” then, is a nightmarish speculative counterstory that offers important learning around white power and supremacy, and, more importantly, how Black people begin to resist and organize otherwise towards more freeing and [page 48] inclusive futures. Ruby’s nightmares, and nightmares in general, are powerful pedagogical tools that surface an important kind of Sankofic learning that implores Black folks to confront (and shed) our horrific pasts and presents in the confines of white supremacy and remake these narratives to recenter our authentic values, desires, and power as Black people in futures of our own making.
What If?: “I Am.” (Episode Seven) as Dream
“I Am.” begins with layers of Hippolyta’s (Aunjanue Ellis) notes, drawings, equations, and ideas heaped onto the bed and floor in her search for how to open Hiram’s orrery, believing it is a key to how her husband George (Courtney B. Vance) was killed. She touches and taps the orrery, pulling on levers, twisting, and turning it—she tinkers until she gets angry and throws the device on the floor in frustration and lays down beside it. Seeing the orrery from a new perspective, tilted on its side and out of its original context, finally gives Hippolyta a clue for how to open the structure. This opening scene centers Hippolyta’s curiosity and imagination as she tinkers with all sorts of tools—from equations and doodles to her own body—in her quest to open Hiram’s orrery. While “Strange Case” is a sort of horrifying and anxiety-inducing kind of nightmare, we see Lovecraft Country’s seventh episode, entitled “I Am.” and directed by Danish director Charlotte Sieling, as a dream that centers the positive imagination, hope, and possibility of Black folks as they organize towards better alternative futures. In particular, this episode concretizes learning as collective (re)imagination or the ways in which we ask “what if”‘ of our past and present selves, practices, worlds, etc., to develop (and design) towards other possible worlds and futures for ourselves and others. In this regard, “I Am.” is a public counterstory or pedagogical tool in how it helps Hippolyta and viewers reimagine and (re)design their current worlds into ones of their own making.
Hippolyta does not wield her imagination and curiosity passively; rather, “I Am.” details how (collective) imagination is an active process that requires new designs, tools, relationships, and practices. In this vein, understanding imagination through the Sankofic practice of speculative questioning means that Hippolyta and spectators can [page 49] leverage their dreams as tools in imagining otherwise, as concrete and agentic tools in authoring and redesigning their own futures. These “what if” or speculative questions are imperative for the exploratory learning which organizes communities’ collective imagination into actionable constraints around solving particular social issues (Baumann et al. 3). Moreover, this process of naming and situating oneself in possible futures concretizes through the agentic learning practices of prototyping and developing personas or modeling the designs of new tools/ practices/ relationships/selves/ skills, etc., in the experiences and values of community members (3). These prototypes and personas ultimately come together in the creation of design fictions—imagined scenarios or possible futures—that bring the designs to life (4). Hippolyta embodies this process of Sankofa as imagination through her various teleportations over the course of the episode. This process is activated collectively and supports Hippolyta in imagining other possible futures, then agentively claiming those futures through her literal teleportations into them. Therefore, as a speculative counterstory, this episode supports Black folks in leveraging dreaming and our imaginations, particularly through the practices of speculative questioning, prototyping, and design fictions, to concretely design our Black communities, values, and desires into the futures of our dreams.
This Sankofic learning begins for Hippolyta when she decides to go on an adventure to track down details of George’s death. She follows coordinates engraved on Hiram’s opened orrery to an abandoned structure housing a telescope and strange machinery. Hippolyta tinkers with the machine until she manages to get it up and running and discovers the machine opens a portal to new dimensions. After a few moments, Hippolyta is sucked into the portal and finds herself greeted by machined entities on an entirely new planet. Waking up later, naked, with a microchip embedded into her arm, Hippolyta meets a tall brown femme cyborg being with an afro (Karen LeBlanc) who identifies themself as “I Am” and informs Hippolyta that she is “not in a prison.” Rather, I Am asks Hippolyta, strongly, “Where do you want to be? Name yourself. Who do you want to be? Name it! Name it!” I Am’s questioning leads Hippolyta to really imagine her own freedom, her own power—the future places and spaces she [page 50] wants to inhabit and who she wants to be in these spaces. And by telling Hippolyta she is not in a prison, I Am reminds her that the only constraint is her (lack of) imagination. Here, I Am’s questions serve as speculative questions that start Hippolyta on a quest of designing herself into the future by imploring Hippolyta to imagine otherwise alternative worlds—asking “what if” of her current contexts, issues, practices, and selves to new designs of the future. As I Am reminds Hippolyta, speculative questions remind us that imagination is a tool that can break us out of our current “prison,” the prison of living within the confines of white supremacy. These questions ultimately allow Hippolyta and spectators to engage in the agentic and resistance practice of imagining otherwise free futures of our own making.
In answer to I Am’s speculative questions, Hippolyta visually conjures up the future places that she wants to inhabit and the future Hippolytas that she wants to be—dancing on stage with Josephine Baker, in an African village of Black femme warriors, or in a world where her husband isn’t dead. Visualizing models for her ideal future selves and worlds simulate the practices of designing concrete personas, prototypes, and ultimately design fictions for new possible futures. Specifically, in a process akin to developing personas, Hippolyta actively imagines who and how she wants to be now and in the future. In her dream, she creates the versions of herself (and others) that matter to her and quite literally writes them into her future. This process is extremely important for Hippolyta as well as for Black femme-identifying viewers, as claiming our existence in the future is a radical act of power that purposely challenges white dominant narratives and structures of oppression. Similarly, envisioning new tools, practices, contexts, and skills through Hippolyta’s imagined future creates prototypes of new future designs. Imagining these models and personas allow urgent values and interests to emerge as she actively learns how to manifest her ideas into material designs. In our view, these practices lead to important and agentic learning and design that generates new relationships to tools, technologies, information, and selves. Furthermore, in contextualizing Hippolyta’s new personas and prototypes into new possible futures, Hippolyta is ultimately creating design fictions where she imagines and quite literally transports herself into [page 51] these futures, designing herself into them. In imagining to other possible worlds, other contexts and scenarios, such as dancing on stage with Josephine Baker, an African village of Black femme warriors, or a world where her husband isn’t dead, Hippolyta actively and agentively reauthors her own future. Together, the practices of speculative questioning, designing personas, prototypes, and fictions build agency in exactly the way it did for Hippolyta, allowing her a greater confidence to name (and design) who she wants to be and what matters to her across space and time. Essentially, by imagining who and where we want to be in the future, Black people rewrite narratives of our futures and engage in the Sankofic learning of materializing our dreams into concrete action, thus embodying the powerful pedagogy of speculative public counterstory.
Another example of learning through imagination arises as Hippolyta finds herself immersed in one of her new dream worlds: dancing on stage in France with Josephine Baker (Carra Patterson). In a final talk with Baker, Hippolyta realizes all the anger she is keeping to herself in being made to feel “small,” more ordinary and unimportant than she has ever wanted to feel in her everyday life as a Black woman, partner, and mother within a white hegemonic society. Baker offers Hippolyta yet another speculative question, yet another opportunity for learning: “So, Miss Hippolyta, what are you gon’ do with all that anger?” By asking Hippolyta how she is going to make her way out of feeling powerless, Baker is asking Hippolyta to both envision and make actionable steps towards building the future of her dreams. In answering I Am’s and Baker’s speculative questions by “naming herself”—literally shouting out her own name loudly into the sky and visualizing her dreams so that she may teleport—Hippolyta is designing herself into futures of her own making. The practice of speculative questioning has again led Hippolyta to concretizing her dreams, specifically a dream through which she is able to act on “all that anger” Baker cautions her about. Relatedly, Hippolyta designs herself into a community of African femme warriors where she and other Black femmes don the personas of protectors of the community. She imagines herself being taught the skills of a fierce warrior—strength, resilience, and combat skills—surrounded by a circle, a sisterhood, of fellow Black woman [page 52] warriors. She then imagines herself donning and operationalizing warrior tools—a spear, armor, and even a headdress. These future designs, personas, and contexts come together as design fiction through which Hippolyta, in the process of becoming an African warrior protector, is able to physically exhaust some of the anger and powerlessness she feels in her oppressive reality. Through this dream, Hippolyta equips herself with the learning and tools she needs to feel stronger, to find and recenter her own power that was always within her, but, as she says to Baker, was increasingly made small. Armed with reawakened strength and power, Hippolyta then designs herself into yet another dream world: home in her bed with her husband, a time or dimension where George is not dead. After seeing him alive again, she begins to tell him how small and invisible she has felt in their relationship; how she lets everyone else’s needs, particularly George’s, and interests continuously eclipse her own. Finally communicating her feelings of invisibility and discontentment to her husband is ultimately the agentic dream that brings Hippolyta to her own liberation—a future where she is floating, weightless and unbound, in a brand-new world that she explores freely and curiously with George; a world where she finally names herself “Discoverer.” Imagination, particularly when in conversation with speculative questioning and the development of personas, models, and design fictions, is an opportunity for Sankofic—concrete and agentic—learning in the design of possible futures for both Hippolyta and viewers.
Just as Hippolyta was able to transport herself amongst various presents, pasts and futures because she named (designed) herself into these spaces, developing personas, models, and fictions to craft ourselves into the future leads to learning and design that generates new relationships to tools, places, each other, and ourselves. Namely, speculative questioning’s “what ifs” start us on the journey of imaging otherwise, while visualizing future selves, communities, tools, practices, and skills through the lens of prototyping further concretizes these possible futures, and ultimately bringing all of these new designs together in the narrative of a new imagined world/context teleports or concretely designs us into the futures of our dreams, just as it did for Hippolyta. [page 53]
This paper highlights how popular media can be pedagogical tools for understanding both nightmare and dreams at sites for learning and learning design. First, we examined Lovecraft Country as public pedagogy in its ability to activate new opportunities for agentic and resistance learning, whereby the act of spectating affords viewers new empowered relationships to (future) learning, technology, information, practices, tools, and other learners. We then explored Lovecraft Country as the agentic and resistance practice of (speculative) counterstory that supports Black people in reimagining and designing their often-horrific pasts/ presents bound by the confines of white supremacy into the liberatory futures of their dreams. This learning comes together and is exemplified through the Ghanian notion of Sankofa, a notion of learning and design that highlights everyday Black practices, tools, and communities in pursuit of freedom, particularly through the practices of ritual and imagination. Ultimately, we see Lovecraft Country as a public counterstory that helps support a sociocultural imagination as well as the everyday cultural practices of Black communities in organizing towards more just and equitable futures.
Specifically, nightmare, or the Sankofic ritual of routinely (and painfully) shedding the respectability and assimilationist narratives that white supremacy has enforced on Black bodies, also provides opportunities for Black communities to remake these narratives into stories and practices that reaffirm Black values, traditions, future goals, and sense of self. Sankofa as ritualistic learning, while often difficult, is a transformative process that centers the agency and growth of Black folks as they imagine and organize toward building futures that better reflect their values and goals. Along with nightmares, dreams become concrete sites of learning where imagining more just and equitable futures is a process of collectively designing ourselves into the future through the processes of speculative questioning as well as developing personas, prototypes, and ultimately design fictions. In this way, imagination is not a passive but an active process that ignites agency and future change.
In our view, leveraging the speculative in traditional learning contexts such as schools and classrooms can exist beyond conversations of the literary genre, especially if it’s being used to reimagine the plight of Black folks towards [page 54] liberatory and proleptic ends. Our article specifically addresses a need to understand speculative storytelling as an agentic tool in the imagining and creation of more just and equitable futures for Black communities. Consequently, by understanding learning more expansively, as the ways in which we navigate and resist oppressive systems and practices every day, we believe speculative (counter)stories, like Lovecraft Country, can be used in learning environments to contend with the horrors of white supremacy, and more importantly, showcase how Black communities consistently combat this oppression through collectively (re)authoring narratives of resistance that design and organize towards the futures of our dreams.
1. In the legacy of an Afrofuturist literature and aesthetic, we claim the term Black in this essay as synonymous with African diasporic communities.
Alemán, Sonya M., and Enrique Alemán Jr. “Critical Race Media Projects: Counterstories and Praxis (Re)Claim Chicana/o Experiences.” Urban Education, vol. 51, no. 3, 2016, pp. 287-314.
Baumann, Karl, et al. “Infrastructures of the Imagination: Community Design for Speculative Urban Technologies.” Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Communities and Technologies. 2017, doi:10.1145/3083671.3083700.
Bell, Derek. Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. BasicBooks, 1992.
Boaz, Cynthia. “How Speculative Fiction Can Teach about Gender and Power in International Politics: A Pedagogical Overview.” International Studies Perspectives, vol. 21, no. 3, 2020, pp. 240-257.
Giroux, Henry A. “Public Pedagogy as Cultural Politics: Stuart Hall and the Crisis of Culture.” Cultural Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, 2000, pp. 341-360.
hooks, bell. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, edited by Amelia Jones, Routledge, 2003, pp. 94-105.
“I Am.” Lovecraft Country, season 1, episode 7, HBO, 2020, www.hbo.com/lovecraft-country.
Jørgensen, Anne Mette. “Sankofa and Modern Authenticity in [page 55] Ghanaian Film and Television.” Same and Other: Negotiating African Identity in Cultural Production, edited by Maria Eriksson Baz and Mai Palmberg, Nordiska Afrikainsitutet, 2001, pp. 119-142.
“Nightmare,” def. N. 2, 3. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2022, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nightmare.
Savage, Glen. “Problematizing ‘Public Pedagogy’ in Educational Research.” Handbook of Public Pedagogy: Education and Learning Beyond Schooling, edited by Jennifer A. Sandlin et al., Routledge, 2010, pp. 103-115.
Schalk, Sami. Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. Duke UP, 2018.
“Strange Case.” Lovecraft Country, season 1, episode 5, HBO, 2020, www.hbo.com/lovecraft-country.
Tate, William F. “From Inner City to Ivory Tower: Does My Voice Matter in the Academy?” Urban Education, vol. 29, no. 3, 1994, pp. 245-269.
Temple, Christel N. “The Emergence of Sankofa Practice in the United States: A Modern History.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 41, no. 1, 2010, pp. 127-150.
Toliver, S. R. “Can I Get a Witness? Speculative Fiction as Testimony and Counterstory.” Journal of Literacy Research, vol. 52, no. 4, 2020, pp. 507-529.
Urbanski, Heather. Plagues, Apocalypses and Bug-Eyed Monsters: How Speculative Fiction Shows Us Our Nightmares. McFarland, 2015.
Yosso, Tara J. “Critical Race Media Literacy: Challenging Deficit Discourse about Chicanas/os.” Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 30, no. 1, 2002, pp. 52-62.
Ashieda McKoy (she/they) is a writer and doctoral student in the School of Education at University of Colorado Boulder. With an emphasis on Learning Sciences and Human Development and Teacher Learning, Research, and Practice, McKoy is particularly interested in designing teacher learning environments using an Afrofuturist lens. Specifically, they are passionate about collectively dreaming up new futures and future learning environments with teachers, students, and communities. McKoy also received an MFA in Creative Writing from Virginia Tech and has won national awards for teaching and poetry. [page 56]
Arturo Cortez, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Teacher Learning, Research and Practice, and Learning Sciences and Human Development at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he is also a fellow of the Institute of Cognitive Science. Broadly, Cortez explores the possibilities of co-designing for consequential learning in intergenerational and transdisciplinary learning environments that include educators, young people, and multiple community members. More recently, he founded the Learning To Transform (LiTT) Video Gaming Lab to help build models for equity-centered educator and student learning through the design of deeper relationships across everyday contexts.
MLA citation (print):
McKoy, Ashieda, and Arturo Cortez. "Contending with Nightmares and Dreams: Designing Liberatory Black Futures through Lovecraft Country’s Speculative Counterstorytelling." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 7, no. 2, 2022, pp. 35-56.