To Tulsa & Beyond: Lessons of Afrofuturism in Policy Advocacy

By Maddie Trice & Clarence Okoh 

The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s recent decision to dismiss a case brought by survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre is a powerful reminder that American legal and political institutions can engineer unjust futures from unjust pasts. But advocates must reject the future that white supremacy insists is inevitable and instead nurture radical imagination by reaching across disciplines to experiment with authoring our own future. 

As we commemorate the Juneteenth holiday and Octavia Butler’s birthday, advocates should revisit Afrofuturism, an idea that the scholar and artist Ytasha Womack defines as “the intersection between Black culture, technology, liberation and imagination … a way of bridging the future and past and essentially helping to reimagine the experience of people of colour.” Afrofuturism offers vibrant, Black-constructed, artistic, and political visions of the future that are often rooted in but not constrained by histories of racial injustice. This is an imaginative terrain where artists and activists can speculate, anticipate, and predict what the future holds for Black people, providing a powerful tool to think past the political constraints of the present to discern how we might defeat encroaching racial dystopia. Afrofuturists can help us imagine a world where Tulsa survivors are offered the justice long denied by state actors. And those speculative, liberated futures can become the North Star guiding us toward justice and liberation.  

Octavia Butler’s Parable series, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, lend particularly vivid insights on ways to approach radical social change amid our current political (and literal) climate. The series follows Lauren Oya Olamina as she navigates the “Pox,” a dystopian version of the United States facing total economic collapse, mass displacement, neoslavery, and paramilitary racial terrorism motivated by a white, Christian nationalist president promising to, as Butler writes in the 1990s, “make America great again.” Olamina confronts this reality by overcoming a series of moments similar to the Tulsa massacre where her idyllic, multicultural communities are destroyed by mob violence without legal or political accountability.  

Olamina’s strategies for surviving racial dystopia invite critical questions that advocates should consider in navigating real-world challenges:  

  • What does it mean to act abundantly in a world of scarcity? 
  • What could it look like to pre-suppose empathy as a foundation for legal and policy decision-making? 
  • How can we replace a politic of disposability with an ethic of mutuality and collectivism? 

In the Parable series, the consequences of the climate crisis have led to mass displacement, hunger, and violence. These conditions enable racist ideologies to spread and justify violence against groups falsely blamed for the country’s problems. Despite these circumstances, Olamina leads humanity into a “destiny among the stars.” Her survival begs the question: in working to eliminate injustice, what does it mean to act abundantly in a world of scarcity?  

The Parable series also speaks to the role of empathy in advocacy and activism. Lauren Olamina has a condition known as “hyper empathy,” where she literally experiences the pain of others if she sees it. In her world, this is a critical weakness and liability, so she hides it. However, it is hyper empathy that awakens Olamina to alleviating the pain of others, by forming safe communities and protecting other vulnerable people from suffering and violence. The novels position empathy as a strength even when others perceive it as a weakness. What could it look like to presuppose empathy as a foundation for legal and policy decision-making?  

From a disability justice lens, the Parable series also brings into stark focus the ways that a violent world disables and disposes of Black women and femmes. Though COVID had not yet occurred when she wrote these books, Butler observed that disability and gender would be treated as weaknesses and liabilities in a future riven by climate change. The policy failures of the COVID pandemic and rollbacks on reproductive freedom offer real-world examples of Butler’s fictional admonitions. These circumstances might lead us to ask, how can we replace a politic of disposability with an ethic of mutuality and collectivism as reflected in Olamina’s Earthseed communities?  

The utility of Afrofuturism in advocacy is only limited by our collective imagination. In moments of total defeat, our ability to author new worlds becomes a bulwark against despair and an invitation to principled struggle. Octavia Butler’s work reminds us that even amid our Tulsa moments, other futures remain possible.