Black History Month discussion: Wakanda meets Ann Arbor

February 8, 2023


When what two people have in common is that they have each worked with Beyoncé, chances are their conversation will unfold in a pretty fascinating way.

As part of the University of Michigan’s Humanities Afrofutures, Academy Award-winning production designer Hannah Beachler and cultural historian Scott Poulson-Bryant, U-M assistant professor of Afroamerican and African studies, will sit down Feb. 9 to have that conversation, “Wondering Wakanda,” for all to hear. The event, 5:30-7 p.m., is free and open to the public and takes place at Rackham Auditorium.

From the Black Panther franchise to the Oscar-winning film Moonlight and Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, Beachler has worked on some of the most influential pop culture moments of the last decade.

Poulson-Bryant co-founded VIBE Magazine in the early 1990s and has profiled iconic artists like Janet Jackson, Will Smith, Prince, Eminem and Beyoncé, to name just a few.

Harkening back to his days as a journalist, Poulson-Bryant aims to learn more about Beachler’s process, her views on world building and the influence these pop culture works can have on communities.

“I went into planning for this conversation with the same philosophy I use to teach my classes,” he said. “I want my students to walk away with two things: to feel inspired to think critically about the world around them and to have gained a vocabulary that allows them to talk about race in meaningful ways. I want them to be inspired to make art and inspired to think about Blackness as an intrinsic part of this nation’s history, present and future.”

Presented by the Institute for the Humanities, Humanities Afrofutures is a month-long series of events at U-M bringing together scholars, artists and activists to reexamine the past, explore critical issues in the present and create a space for imagining possible futures.

Shaunda Bunton, assistant director of public programming and engagement at the institute, hopes to see a long line of engaged and interested students queued up to ask questions at the end of the conversation.

“I’m hoping this conversation will spark a feeling in students that they can see, feel and touch an artist who has made an indelible mark on things that are very familiar to them,” she said.

Bunton also facilitated the crowdsourcing of a soundtrack for the event series. The community is encouraged to add songs to the playlist in themes of Afrofuturism, American history and African American history (just keep it clean!).

In one way or another, it all comes back around to Beyoncé (yes, she is already featured on the aforementioned playlist five times).

Poulson-Bryant teaches a creative nonfiction writing class named for three popular Beyoncé songs: “Flawless/Formation/Freedom: Writing About Race, Gender and Popular Culture.”

“Beyoncé is the perfect text in very many ways for thinking about race, gender and popular culture all together, and because the students write personal essays in the class, I thought combining those three analytics would free them to think capaciously about race and about these identities we all carry and wear,” he said.

Above all, what can his students learn from Beyoncé? Joy.

“She has always expressed joy in her performance, her music, her perspective and point of view,” Poulson-Bryant said. “Even on records like Lemonade where she is discussing dark, heavy stuff, she never loses this sort of joy and pleasure of Blackness, and being a Black woman and her offerings to the world.”