Afro-futurism and Social Work: How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Janus-faced helmet mask. Liberia Ejagham people.

My initial venture into Afro-futurism put me face to face with my past. I found myself standing squarely in the present looking at a familiar history of Black intellectual thought and asking how it could inform futures of liberated Black child well-being.

Old questions with which I have wrestled as a Black woman, a social worker, and a social scientist re-emerged. New questions wedged themselves into these already complicated set of ideas and concerns.  In this entry I want to share my current thinking and invite others into a conversation. I’ve organized my thoughts into three broad questions that are guiding my ongoing exploration of Afro-futurism.

How does futurism shift my historical relationship with Black intellectual thought?

As I began learning about futurism, I experienced déjà vu. I knew I was in familiar territory. Why? Because Black utopian futures are foundational to Black experience in North America – they have been both a means of survival and a template for change. For example, historian Dann Broyld’s analysis of the underground railroad illustrates the way fugitive slaves used technology to reach the “outer spaces of slavery”. Black artists such as Sun Ra and Parliament Funkadelic are well known for creating future planets wherein Blacks are flourishing protagonists. Political scientist Cathy Cohen maps a queer politics in which disparate marginalized people form coalitions that transform politics and create new forms of liberation.

So, as I went deeper into the tech-inspired literature on mainstream futurism, largely produced by white men, I kept asking myself what it would look life if the experience, knowledge, and histories of marginalized people were more central. Foresight practitioner, Pupul Bisht, is the founder of the Decolonizing Futures Initiative “a global project that aims to engage marginalized communities in imagining their preferred futures in order to inform and inspire inclusive policy-making and innovation”. This project is an example of futurism that assumes a radical shift in social arrangements. In her book project Queer Times, Black Futures, critical theorist Kara Keeling draws an analysis between futures work based on an assumption of liberation and those of corporate giants such as Royal Dutch Shell whose futures scenario building is dependent upon the ongoing oppression of people, lands, and economies. In Afro-futurism the histories of Black intellectual thought breath into a new space. They animate critical controversies and open portals to multiple transformed futures. I then asked myself how I could focus my attention on tensions that run through this literature.

Album Cover Mothership Connection

One of the key ideas of Black liberation and how I am seeking balance amidst the controversies running through it?

I was gutted the first time I read Calvin Warren’s “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope”. In it he asks, “how do we rescue a sacred notion of hope from a politics of hope?”. For the purposes of this conversation, I will limit my discussion of the manuscript to pointing out a distinction Warren makes between sacred hope and the politics of hope. Sacred hope is a cultural inheritance necessary to the ongoing investment in existing as a Black American living under white sovereignty. This form of hope is not invested in a particular political project. One could affiliate within a range of political projects and hold a sacred notion of hope. A politics of hope invests in forms of “expression, perception, and conceiving of hope” (p.219) within existing political and economic systems. We here this form of hope in slogans like Jesse Jackson’s “keep hope alive”, or Barack Obama’s “Hope” campaign poster. It suggests that if we continue to work within current political trajectories, we will eventually reach “the mountaintop” of which the Revered Martin Luther King spoke. Warren questions the certainty with which Black Americans invest in a politics of hope and suggest that we might find great clarity by abandoning it. 

Pluto with Bubbles by Marcus Kiser

I don’t remember the last time I felt so personally defeated by an academic manuscript. I became defensive. I said he was speaking in the abstract and was out of touch with everyday life. I uttered the words that drive me nuts when others speak them – “well what do you think we should do then?”. When I took a knee, I had to acknowledge how a politics of hope has informed my personal and professional identity. Therefore, it struck at a core question. Who would I be without a politics of hope? I challenged myself to consider the merits of his argument while maintaining my commitment to act. I realized that he was touching on a critical tension with which we must struggle as we look toward the futures of Black child well-being.

Opening myself to Warren’s ideas enabled me to rethink familiar concepts like Black subjectivity and the role of imagination in social science. Finally, it pushed me to consider how concepts of hope circulate through social work knowledge and practice.

How should social work respond to Afro-futurism?

She’s got the whole world in her by Wangeshi Mutu

As social workers we are well aware of the daily concerns that demand our immediate attention. At the same time, we have another mandate. We are called to engage with our field’s historical contribution to oppression. We are called to engage in new bodies of literature and experience to lay a foundation for emerging notions of liberatory practices. These activities are less immediate and requires us to expand our intellectual terrain, reflect on our worldviews, and step out into brave new practice spaces. I don’t want to look back ten years from now and say that I was busy dealing with the day to day and therefore could not consider the future of our field.

There is a great deal of uncertainty or undecidability in futures work. I don’t view this trend as a weakness of the approach, but an honest confrontation with reality. Social work continues to drift toward an ideal of technical and moral certainty. While I am supportive of the role of social science in investigating critical questions, I equally embrace acting with incomplete knowledge, being open to what emerges, and yielding to the agency of marginalized voices.

I would like to hear from you. How should social work focus on the history of Black intellectual thought and events as we imagine futures of liberated Black child well-being? How should social work face Afro-futures?  

Written by Tonya Bibbs

Written by Tonya Bibbs


I am an Associate Professor at Erikson Institute in Chicago, Illinois. I am interested in policies and policymaking that supports families in achieving their child rearing goals. I am also interested in how Black children achieve child well-being under conditions of marginalization. I enjoy the interdisciplinary exchange I experience in the Social Work Health Futures Lab Fellowship, linked here, and am committed to crafting new visions for social work practice, knowledge, and research.