Phi Beta Kappa Endowed Speaker: Hazel Carby

Ian MacDonald’s class entitled “E.T.s, Aliens, and Visitors: Assessing the Other in Science Fiction” welcomed Hazel Carby of Yale University. The Phi Beta Kappa endowed speaker brought her lecture, entitled “Black futurities: Shape shifting beyond the limits of the human.”

“Flow,” Carby read, as she went on to show a photo of Jacob Lawrence’s work: “The Migration of the Negro” from his book “The Migration Series.” The art tastefully complimented Carby’s voice as she spoke of slave journeys, accompanied by the song “London is the Place for Me” by Lord Kitchener.

Such aesthetics were a highlight of the overall presentation, moving through the stages of African American existence in America with the use of art, poetry and music to explain that “emancipation still has yet to come,” she said.

Rebecca Holmes, ‘16, is reading “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler, along with other members of the class. Holmes valued Carby’s “comment about how Butler used the story to explore slavery in different ways: by gender, by societal norms, by domination.”

The lecture “made me view [‘Bloodchild’] in a whole different light. I found myself re-reading it later that night and picking up on those themes,” she added.

Carby’s segment entitled “Plantation Remains” told the tale of Peter Norton, a wealthy man who gave pieces of art to his friends every Christmas. Artist Kara Elizabeth Walker used Norton’s tradition as an ironic comment on emancipation today in her silhouette pop-up book “Freedom, a Fable.”

The book opens to a pop-up art of a path leading to a plantation. “Is it past? Is it history? Does it signal it is always here to the present?” Carby read.

The photos moved from a stark black and white silhouette of the plantation to a grandiose photo of the Corbin-Norton House in Martha’s Vineyard, leading audience members to reflect on how our vision of a white plantation looks in modern day.

“Freedom, a Fable” was given to Norton’s friends that Christmas.

“Black bodies are not lives of investment, but disinvestment,” Carby read, referring to the mass incarceration of black bodies in the U.S. as a reproduction of the colonial traditions in which America fled.

Samuel Troyer, ‘17, felt her parallel was “certainly intriguing. Systemic predation on the poor in this country, particularly poor people of color, is not a new revelation, but Carby demonstrated it rather effectively. She highlights the utilization of black bodies for profit and how, in many ways, it has not changed,” Troyer recounted.

MacDonald’s course looks “at the ways in which aliens have served as allegorical stand-ins for various contemporary social ills. Sometimes this is made pretty evident, as in H.G. Wells’s ‘War of the Worlds,’ in which he explicitly compares his Martian invasion to the British genocide of the Tasmanian Aborigines,” MacDonald said.

“Carby’s presentation helps point to how Black writers negotiate the genre to reclaim the utopian avenues made available in science fiction without replicating literary structures with roots in colonialism and imperialism,” MacDonald added.

The speech was particularly insightful for MacDonald, whose doctoral thesis was about Afro-futurism and “the ways the African novel engages with and navigates both technology and futurity,” MacDonald said.

Carby has three separate publications, and received her Ph.D. from Birmingham University.

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