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There Are Black People in the Future

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I write non-linearly. I take notes on various pieces of paper, on my phone, and on my desktop, and they are in no particular order. Most of my writing evolves from a stream of consciousness: flurries of typing coupled with notes covered in the chicken-scratch yet Unabomber-esque style of text known as my handwriting. My writing style often frustrates me—it’s anxiety-inducing to be so disorganized, and I sometimes can’t read my own handwriting. But while reading Black Futures and writing this review, I believe my methods helped me. In the editors’ letter, writer and curator Kimberly Drew and New York Times Magazine staff writer Jenna Wortham suggest that Black Futures is not necessarily meant to be read in chronological order. I read and wrote in response to what resonated at various times, in various places, at various paces. 

The origin story of Black Futures begins with a Twitter DM between Drew and Wortham in 2015. How fitting that such a mundane moment would birth an entire literary universe. Wortham and Drew took more than a hundred submissions by journalists, artists, critics, essayists, organizers, and more, and elegantly transformed them into a collage of the Black radical imaginary. It is a flurry of Black joy, Black expression, and Black connection. 

I found Black Futures’ intentionality delicious. Tiny textual moments in the bottom-left corners of numerous pages gently suggest related entries throughout the book, adding to its non-temporal, non-traditional format and nature, and emphasizing the editors’ wishes that you read at your own pace and in your own way, and get through it how you want to get through it. Any path will be an exercise of interstellar and intertemporal travel through a Black-ass book. 

I am here and I recognize my right to be here, whether or not whiteness acknowledges it, and that right includes my position in this world, and my ability to make my own world and my own future.
Teri Henderson

The variable permutations for connection that this book creates reminded me of an article titled “And So Shaped The World” from the literary journal Obsidian, Vol. 42, No. 1/2, Speculating Futures: Black Imagination & the Arts. “Under the powerful lens of Afrofuturism, the impossible is possible,” writes Sheree Renee Thomas. “It is creative alchemy. The spirit and the rhythm of a culture are preserved and transformed; the past is not only contested but is sacred space.” These words succinctly describe the time-traveling and majestic experience of Black proximity that I explored through the vehicle of Black Futures—each word in the text is creative alchemy. And this book will exist and outlive me as an archive of what Black creative expression was at this time, for the remainder of Western notions of time. 

“What does it mean to be Black and alive right now?” This is the question that guided Drew and Wortham in assembling the book. For me, it means countless things, and despite the prevalence of white supremacy, extrajudicial murders being broadcast and permeating our psyche, the active erasure of our histories, the microaggressions and struggle, we are still here. We remain here, tethered to this battered planet, this flawed country that was built on the backs of ancestors who were literally stolen from Africa.

I am here and I recognize my right to be here, whether or not whiteness acknowledges it, and that right includes my position in this world, and my ability to make my own world and my own future. Like so many of my peers, I do this by writing, creating, and relishing the majesty of my Blackness, and my time spent with the wonders of Black Futures was in recognition of the future-world-making of the Black folks who were a part of creating the book.

Alisha Wormsley, The Last Billboard (Jon Rubin project 2009-2018), East Liberty, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Jon Rubin, 2018, courtesy of the artist.

The contents of Black Futures are divided into ten multicolored chapters: Black Lives Matter, Black Futures, Power, Joy, Justice, Ownership, Memory, Outlook, Black is (Still) Beautiful, and Legacy. They read like track titles on a mixtape for a great, tumultuous, and radical love. I think of each chapter as a portal where Black brilliance is performed and illustrated in different ways. 

Because I didn’t know what to expect until I opened Black Futures, there were many surprises throughout its more than 500 pages, like the conversation between Arthur Jafa and Tina Campt regarding his Love is the message, the message is Death, another seminal work that has made me cry. It was interesting to see stills from Love is the message printed side by side on a page—effectively slowing down the original video work that is set to Kanye West’s spiritual masterpiece “Ultralight Beam,” and isolating images of James Brown, Muhammad Ali, Lauryn Hill, smoldering planets, and various viral digital moments that stirred me and brought me to tears when I first saw them. Many of these images are identical to screenshots I’d taken of the video that I have saved on my desktop for a time in the future when I have the mental space and capacity to write about it.

Author’s photograph of Black Futures, page 83, featuring a Sim created by Amira Virgil.

Here are just a few more of Black Futures’ many remarkable moments, some sad, some joyful. Amira Virgil’s “The Black Simmer” has one of my favorite sets of images in the book, and it’s paired with text describing how she created a platform to correct the lack of Black representation in the gaming world, particularly for Black people who play The Sims. Elsewhere, Zadie Smith writes about the hauntingly beautiful work of Deana Lawson—her melodious description of curtains and portals in Lawson’s photos gave me literal chills.

Activist and author Adrienne Maree Brown appears in these pages, poet Danez Smith is here too. In “A Call To Action,” Latoya Ruby Frazier writes about Flint’s water crisis, and her stunning photos depict that ongoing act of environmental racism and injustice. Somewhere past the middle of this thick book, Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s words “Are We There Yet?” appear as white text on a black background, repeated eighteen times and mirrored on both sides of the spread. Rasheed’s work opens the section called “Outlook” and speaks to the book’s title, naturally begging more questions: Have we arrived at Black Futurity? Did we survive? 

A third of the way through, Floridian chef Kia Damon has a recipe for fried pig ears, which made me smile and think of my mom, an Arkansas woman who loved to eat pig ears and chitlins drenched in hot sauce and accompanied by onions. This book made me think of my mom more than I had in a long time. As someone who made me love my own Blackness, she would have loved to read this book.

Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Are We There Yet?, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist

[Image: Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Are We There Yet?, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.]

Of course, Baltimore shows up in these pages too. Devin Allen’s work is one of the first three photographs in it: an iconic image from the 2015 Baltimore Uprising that would later be published on the cover of Time magazine, showing a Black man running in front of police, cloaked in grey and black.

In “Independent Subtexts,” Baltimore-born and NY-based Devin N. Morris shared some of his favorite zines from his personal collection. I have long admired Morris’ work—his 3 Dot Zine is a prolific compilation of Black art and Black stories—and I appreciated the intimate, enriching gift of reading his personal anecdotes and descriptions. One of his selections is “Learning from Lexington,” a zine about the historic Baltimore market written by UMBC students, designed by Markele Cullins and published in 2017. Morris also selected the third issue of True Laurels, Lawrence Burney’s zine that centers the work of Black creatives in Baltimore—another beautiful example of Black Futures’ magical cross-references, illustrating the labyrinth of Black creative connection.  

In later pages, Burney offers a Black Baltimore history primer titled “The Enduring Legacy of Baltimore’s Arabbers” with photos by Giancarlo Valentine. Burney writes beautifully about the Arabber tradition, which goes back for generations, and how Black people historically carry traditions with us in various ways. His essay is a call for the preservation of the Arabber tradition and the documentation of their unique culture. He describes the sound of the horses’ hooves and bells as the “music of tradition… the sound of nurture… a lullaby of nostalgia.” And when I read this, I heard those bells too. 

In “These Walls Can Talk,” New York Times critic Wesley Morris (who also co-hosts a podcast with Wortham) describes the experience of walking into the National Portrait Gallery and seeing Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama and Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama. His level of detail and exquisite precision in describing the emotions one might experience while encountering the images, as well as adding historical context about the public’s reaction to them, signify one way in which Black Futures acts as an archive. 

In the “Ownership” section, graphic designer Jerome Harris remarks on Pattie LaHelle’s YouTube series, “Got 2B Real,” cleverly defining and exploring the art of shade. His words accompany a beautiful illustration in his signature style: black space and white text elegantly entwined in humorous swirls. The text, “Haters are people who read with no resume and critique with no credentials. Is that you?” swims across the page. Harris, a former professor at MICA, is one of my favorite people to follow on social media

The same section includes Deborah Roberts’ research for her Pluralism series, for which the artist typed the names of more than 250 African-American women into a document. As she typed, the squiggly red lines indicating misspelled text appeared under every name, showcasing the attempted digital erasure and minimization of Blackness. This piece resonated with me as a Black woman from Texas (and a fan of Roberts’ practice)—I have spent many moments correcting white people who have committed microaggressions by misspelling my name, or have assumed that Teri is short for something longer or more white like Theresa. 

 

Untitled by Many, Benjamin Biayenda

While forward-thinking, Black Futures is simultaneously about Black pasts and Black presents. I was blessed to know a few of the contributors and felt ecstatic to see their names in print and to know that their creative work will travel across the world in a form that will outlive our digital age. I also was ecstatic to think about how many Black people will encounter work they’ve never seen before, names that they’ve never read and will subsequently become familiar with.  

I spent several hours with the book. I read most of the text, but made an explicit point to look through and trace every page with my fingertips. I completed this exercise twice, allowing my eyes and hands to dance over the words, images, artworks, and photographs of these scholars, poets, and alchemists in order to honor their labor and legacy. I took it all in and afforded myself space to process all of the moments, some sad, some hopeful, some bright and elegant, while others held palpable pain. And throughout it, I asked myself, “What does it mean to be Black and alive right now?” 

For me it means power, presence, prescience, and the ability to garner peace. Blackness is about subverting bullshit. As a Black woman navigating the disorienting hypocrisy of the white art-world microcosm that’s present in Baltimore, this book is a holy text that I will keep close to my chest. It’s a tool to combat those things that always accompany the radiating joy of Blackness: the lows, the despair, the racism. I turned to it in reaction to a few moments of microaggressions and professional unintentionality. Much like Hank Willis Thomas’ “Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot,” contained within the book’s first few pages, Black Futures will serve as a survival guide while navigating my own Black Future. It will rest on my shelf in a sacred space, vibrating with the voices of Black creatives and revolutionaries. I am indebted to them.

I have written a lot recently about how much of my days are spent alone. My quarantine pod is minuscule compared to some people that I know. I see my friend Malcolm the most, I call my Aunt Peaches in Dallas every day, but I faced this year of uncertainty primarily by myself. When this book arrived on my doorstep, and I brought it into my apartment, I was connected with other Black creators in a more physical form. It feels important and slightly embarrassing to note that this was one of the few books that I’ve read during the entirety of quarantine, and I’m so glad that I waited to savor it. The weight of this book was comforting, and it was remarkable to be able to look at and have a tactile engagement with art at home during a period where my existence has mostly been reduced to digital exchange. Virtual reality was secondary here, although the editors suggest reading with a device in order to look things up. 

No Sesso Getty 2k19 Collection by Pierre Davis, Photography by Brandon Stanciell, courtesy of the artist
What does it mean to be Black and alive right now? It feels heavy—and light. Like fresh honey and cold steel. Blackness is agony and ecstasy. Black Futures defies categorization.
Teri Henderson

Even the book’s cover design felt like everything: Black with iridescent text, each letter is a kaleidoscope of the journey that awaits the reader. Opposite Ayana Jamieson’s “Far Beyond the Stars”—which includes strategies for building a Black archive, inspired by the great writer, archivist, and Black future-world-builder Octavia E. Butler—rests a digital collage by Lauren Halsey, “Untitled (Blueprint).” Halsey’s work is the perfect partner to Jamieson’s words. Black figures anchor the bottom of the scene which is populated by Louis Vuitton-covered houses, Black women with Louis Vuitton bags, crowns, gold teeth, Egyptian sphinx, and street signs from Watts, California. In the middle, Rick James squats atop a tie-dyed planet. In the top right-hand corner, handwritten instructions invite: “Enter the Realm.”

In the “Legacy” section, I was thrilled to see Sadie Barnette’s work accompany her conversation with the scholar Simone Browne. I have thought a lot about how emerging and young collectors might not be able to afford to buy original works from their favorite artists, but they can afford prints. I have been wanting to purchase something by Barnette for probably five or six years, so when I saw her beautiful work here I legitimately wanted to cry. Her “Untitled (Baby Dress),” plugged in among her words, has been saved on my phone. It was my background for a while. Barnette’s signature pink-glitter backgrounds, collaged with images of Black people and framed by white borders, were instantly identifiable for me. Finding work by Barnette, Rahim Fortune, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, David Leggett, Cauleen Smith, and so many other Black people that I admire, and being able to hold them close to me, is a luxury. 

What does it mean to be Black and alive right now? It feels heavy—and light. Like fresh honey and cold steel. Blackness is agony and ecstasy. Black Futures defies categorization. I believe it is inherently magical. The volume closes with a singular black page, followed by an index of the contributors, a who’s-who of the Black creative ecosystem. I listened to the mix on page 38 that King Britt made; Kelela’s “Frontline” was the soundtrack to me wrapping up this journey of completing this review. Black Futures was a Goosebumps-style, thrill-inducing, choose-your-own-adventure tome that I wished would never end. It’s fitting that a volume filled to the brim with so much poetry and prose from Black voices would be this elegant and cacophonously sublime.

I faced a lot of anxiety in writing this review because I believed it impossible to do justice to the legacy and labors of the Black people who made it real. I recognize now that my assignment was simple: My duty was to tell you how this book affected me, how it made me feel, how it changed me. Black Futures allowed me to feel less alien, more whole, more centered. Less isolated, more real. More vulnerable, more joyful.

Jenna Wortham (photo by Naima Green) and Kimberly Drew (photo by Tyler Mitchell)

 

*****

 

Black Futures editors Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham are doing a virtual book tour. Tonight, December 3, their discussion with Camonghne Felix is hosted virtually by Sixth & I and Loyalty Books. For tickets and more info, click here. For other book events, click here.

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