Since the editors of the anthology Black Futures aspire to nonlinearity—encouraging readers in the book’s introduction to enter the text wherever they please—I will start on page 95: a conversation involving artists Rodan Tekle, Sean D. Henry-Smith (aka S*an D. Henry-Smith), and Destiny Brundidge. “Black people are so thirsty for other Black people—anything! What are you thinking? What do you like? Who do you love? Do you love me?” Brundidge says. “I think that’s a slippery slope, where Blackness plays in, because we . . . get super hyped about each other whenever someone does something cute, then we’re all doing it, and that’s so easy to exploit.” Tekle asks the group whether the complexities of Blackness get dumbed down for the sake of popular media. Henry-Smith qualifies their response: “Sometimes, but maybe the bar is already low.”
This exchange gestures toward both the opportunities and the potential pitfalls of the moment that Black America finds itself in. On the one hand, interest in the goings-on of the Black community is arguably higher than ever before. Racist institutional structures hindering upward mobility, the effects of segregation and redlining on access to fresh food, and the implicit bias affecting the quality of medical care, among other topics, have all been elevated to the level of front-page news by mainstream media, under the assumption that America writ large will care, or at least pretend to. However, this degree of attention has a consumerist dimension, which in turn induces one to conceive of Black consumers as a monolithic block. Few people would dispute the empowerment emanating from Black alternativism and Black nerdom, or deny the agency created by their rise, in counterpoint to whatever is currently being pilloried as #SoWhite. But there is something odd about these new avenues proliferating simultaneously with all the hashtagged names of the latest Black people brutalized by the police. (In this context, #BlackLivesMatter seems the perfect catchall for the myriad intersections of location, class, and interests that consider skin color a factor—you are Black anywhere; your life has value everywhere.)
Yet fixating solely on plight can lead to that other unfortunate sinkhole: Blackness as a never-ending problem to overcome. This is the myth of the Magical Negro underpinning films like The Butler and The Green Book. Elizabeth Alexander, in her New Yorker essay “The Trayvon Generation,” gets at this in regard to works addressing Black contemporaneity, though she takes great care to value all the artists mentioned. “Why, in fact, did Earn drop out of Princeton?” she asks of Donald Glover’s character in the TV series “Atlanta.” “Why does Issa”—Issa Rae’s lead character from the show “Insecure”—“keep blowing her life up?” For Alexander, the point was to highlight the grave risk of Black people failing to account for joy. Both shows are groundbreaking in their characterizations and their resistance to the full-blown comedy genre, but like corporate strategy or sports teams constructed to win championships, mass media operates in a perpetual state of parity. “Don’t you think [both shows are] about low-grade, undiagnosed depression and not black hipster ennui?” Alexander says she asks any young person who will listen. But “black hipster ennui” is easier to reproduce. It stands to reason that, by the time the bracing sensibility of these and other works arrive down-market, they will have already become pernicious.
In other words, the only way to get it right is to get it all, which Black Futures attempts to do, despite characterizing the effort as impossible. The book’s editors, Jenna Wortham, a journalist at the New York Times Magazine, and Kimberly Drew, a curator who formerly served as social media manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, initially connected via Twitter with the goal of putting out a zine—a notable detail, if only to mark their book’s amalgamated visual language and playfulness. Black Futures draws from commissioned pieces and previously published material that ranges in length from a single spread to several pages. It’s not uncommon for a poem to follow screenshots from social media, or an annotated collection of zines to lead into a gallery of nameplate jewelry. Pages are color-coded by content: green for recipes, yellow for wisdom or trend observations, black for poetry, and white for incendiary essays and artworks. The beginning of each entry has a “Related Entries” note in red nestled in the lower left corner, directing readers to other parts of the book. The only organizational detail that feels expected is ordering the material by theme: “Black Lives Matter,” “Black Futures,” “Power,” “Joy,” “Justice,” “Ownership,” “Memory,” “Outlook,” “Black Is (Still) Beautiful,” and “Legacy.” Wortham and Drew recommend reading Black Futures next to a device, and hope readers will follow ideas down their various rabbit-holes, but the book’s structural quirkiness makes reflex googling unnecessary; its form renders the activity of thinking about Blackness in and of itself.
With race-centered projects such as this, it’s often difficult to parse how ideas and images might affect the uninitiated, and whether their reading experience is tinged with voyeurism. But to a Black person (or at least this Black person), the feeling of being seen is all-consuming. “Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less / familiar than the rest,” Walt Whitman wrote. Or, as Adrienne Maree Brown put it in her contribution, a “recipe” for how to reclaim our skin: “This is your living body; this is what aliveness feels like.”
Though Drew and Wortham expressly state that Black Futures is not an art book, its contributors are overwhelmingly artists, novelists, and poets: Teju Cole, Kara Walker, Eve L. Ewing, Hanif Abdurraqib, Samantha Irby, Danez Smith. Doreen St. Félix of the New Yorker defends architect, poet, and critic June Jordan’s vision of a progressive architecture in Harlem (attributed, in its 1965 publication in Esquire, to her collaborators R. Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao underthe profoundly racist headline “Instant Slum Clearance”). Zadie Smith extols the virtue of Deana Lawson’s photography—portraits of Black people as “creative godlike beings” who do not “know how miraculous we are.” LaToya Ruby Frazier, who has arguably done more than anyone else to document the gutting of the Black middle class by capitalism and a hostile government, reminds us that the water in Flint, Michigan, is still lead-tainted, while Wesley Morris, Wortham’s colleague at the Times, describes the feeling of seeing Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald’s unorthodox official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian.
As a lifelong Chicagoan, I was pleased that the city’s artists factor so heavily into the Black Futures vision. Amanda Williams’s “Color(ed) Theory” photographs show houses slated for demolition that she covertly painted in a palette based on products commonly associated with Black people, the colors of Ultra Sheen and velvet Crown Royal bags evoking a sense of place. Photographer Dawoud Bey’s 2018–19 series “The Birmingham Project” testifies to the dignity of Black personhood by documenting the community of Birmingham, Alabama, where one of the most devastating domestic terror incidents in US history took place: the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. I gasped at Nina Chanel Abney’s Penny Dreadful (2017), a beguiling composition of a person being hugged (detained?) by a police-like figure as onlookers watch with flashlights pointed at their backs (and a cluster of hands holding smartphones documenting the scene). I smiled with recognition upon encountering my colleague at the School of the Art Institute, Shawné Michaelain Holloway, discussing her work’s exploration of sexuality, technology, and power structures with Tiona Nekkia McClodden.
But, you know, #BlackAesthetics. Could the cynics among us reduce these entries to a bracing but obligatory bout of Black bohemianism? Well, sure. Yet in aggregate, they capture a rich multiplicity of worldviews that have always been present in the Black community. Seeing decades of hard-won excellence ordered and contextualized at an opportune moment in time dispels the reactionary bogeyman of “wokeness,” the notion that Blacks are being brainwashed into residing on a de facto liberal “plantation.” I wouldn’t call Hank Willis Thomas a conservative, but his Black Survival Guide, with its tips on how to stay alive in the event of a police riot typed over screen-printed images of inner-city chaos, taps into the Black Conservative tradition Ta-Nehisi Coates identified in the Atlantic more than a decade ago, encompassing figures such as Bill Cosby, Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X, who share “a skepticism of [white] government as a mediating force in the ‘Negro problem,’ [and] a strong belief in the singular will of black people.” And you can call the Montgomery, Alabama, National Memorial for Peace and Justice “woke” if you want, but it’s stupid—knee-deep in an era overtly concerned with the survival of monuments—to denigrate a new one, and one serving as a virtual mass grave for lynching victims at that. Granted, when looking for clues about how to live, it’s overwhelming to engage with so much that has been thought, said, and built. But the solution, which Drew and Wortham hint at, is not necessarily to dogmatize one viewpoint over another: it’s to affirm a shared humanity by looking at viewpoints together in their totality. Black disability, Black kink, Black agrarianism, Black politics, Black arts, Black hair, Black love, Black Twitter, Black survivalism—all Black everything.
So the moments that jump out—the only constant in this wealth of pluralism—are the instances of Black camaraderie. Black Futures establishes this early on, with an illustration of the original DM exchange between Drew and Wortham that sparked the idea for the book, and most of its sections contain at least one conversation between two or more people. In a work spawned through outreach, it’s fitting that the act of Black people sharing ideas and experiences is so thoroughly catalogued.
In other places, charmingly low-res photographs emphasize the stakes of letting Black people exist as themselves. There’s Jelani Cobb tearing it up at Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Black Genius Joint in one entry, while another features late-night revelers at the Promontory (Chicago again) in a 2016 photo by Vino Taylor. And in the “Legacy” section, Jeremy O. Harris’s breakout Slave Play isn’t represented by an excerpt from the script, but by a group of four photos documenting the Broadway production’s Inaugural Blackout Night, in 2019, for which Harris reserved all 804 seats in the theater for Black people to watch and discuss what they saw. If the Black inclination continues trending toward autonomy, and creating a space for the community to properly frame its creations, then the future looks bright, indeed.
This article appears in the May/June 2021 issue, pp. 28–32.