In 2015, New York Times Magazine writer Jenna Wortham, contacted writer, curator, and then-Social Media Manager at The Met, Kimberly Drew, with intentions to create a zine that would center Black art. The Instagram exchange marked the beginning of a friendship and professional partnership that would birth Black Futures — a polyvocal anthology of Black cultures that brims with life, urgency, and radical imagination.
In their foreword, Wortham and Drew establish Black Futures as a work that belies lucid classification: “This is not an art book. This is not a scholarly journal. This book is a series of guideposts for current and future generations who may be curious about what our generation has been creating during time defined by social, cultural, economic, and ecological revolution.” The sweeping text, which spans over 500 pages, is divided into ten chapters that guide (but by no means confine) a collage of artworks, dialogues, essays, images, memes, tweets, recipes, and more authored by hundreds of Black creators. Wortham and Drew assure us that Black Futures does not strive to be a “comprehensive document” — for Blackness will never fit neatly in a book — instead the text invites reflections on a question replete with possibility: What does it mean to be Black and alive right now?
Many of these reflections educate. Protest works are documented alongside organizing tactics that serve as how-to guides for movement building in the 21st century. These entries evince collective consciousness about issues ranging from prison abolition to ocean justice and contemporary calls to action across institutional spaces and digital landscapes.
The digital portrait “Free Cyntoia” by artist Jana Augustin for instance, chronicles the 2017 campaign that demanded clemency for Cyntoia Brown, who was sentenced to 51 years in prison at the age of 16 for shooting a man she was coerced to have sex with. Free Cyntoia renders a grief stricken, 16-year-old Brown wearing two braids and guarded by an alarming orange background that recalls the color of her prison uniform. The work is a snapshot of the kind of viral visual media archived in Black Futures that ignites anger and rallies the public to organize. In this case, in defense of those subjected to the horrors of the carceral state and its insidious marriage to misogyny and white supremacy.
But anger is just one emotion on the spectrum that Black Futures invokes. The anthology amuses, soothes, and heals as much as it incites. Its contributors impart a deluge of care-taking strategies to temper the terror that haunts Black life. Featured artists niv Acosta and Fannie Sosa propose rest as a liberatory tool. Photographs of their ongoing performance installation Black Power Naps, reveal lush sanctuaries where beds are shrines and leisure is ritualized. Black Twitter gems like #thanksgivingwithblackfamilies offer comic relief on a holiday that pays homage to the onset of American colonialism. Writer and photographer Antonio “Tone” Johnson gifts us intimate portraits of Black-owned barbershops and communicates that for many Black men, barbershops double as “sanctuaries in a hostile land.” Meanwhile, interdisciplinary artist and writer Sable Elyse Smith bestows the sweaty, exhilarating, pleasure-filled journey that is queer nightlife in her 2016 essay, “Ecstatic Resilience.” Celebratory images of Black queer parties around the world follow the nostalgic essay and I flip through them gingerly as relics of a time when we could dance safely together. These rituals, traditions, and dialogues become something akin to life-hacks — blueprints for unlocking Black joy in a world that does not value Black life.
It is never an easy task to determine what to keep and what to discard. And today, as we move through cultures oversaturated with opinions and judgements, the tedious chore can be an oppressive one. To build the world we want to see is to be faced with this everlasting battle of scrapping and retaining, of abandoning and starting anew. This struggle, as Wortham writes in an interview with the author Ta-Nehisi Coates, is required: “the resistance is the reward.” In these contexts and beyond, Black Futures reckons with this daunting task, declaring revolutions eternal and Blackness limitless.
Black Futures (Penguin Random House, 2021), by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham, is now available on Bookshop.
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