What does it mean to be Black and alive right now? And what do future generations need to know? At the tail end of a traumatic year—one in which Black and brown lives were particularly threatened under the weight of racial violence and a global pandemic—these questions feel especially salient. In Black Futures, New York Times culture journalist Jenna Wortham and former Metropolitan Museum social media manager Kimberly Drew seek to answer these questions within a cache of Black multimedia magic.
“For us, it feels essential for it to come out right now in this particular moment that so many of us are trying to wayfind and figure out what we want and what we need,” Drew shares. “I think the thing that I’m really proud about in this book is that it can be a companion to so many people in this moment of insecurity and confusion.”
But the book—an arresting extension of the duo’s Black Futures Project, which was born from a direct message exchange on Twitter years ago–spans beyond this moment. It is a time capsule of past and present, encompassing art, essays, memes and more from over 100 Black contributors. And it begs its readers to imagine a world in which they have the power to not only preserve their history, but also protect their futures.
“In the iteration and the existence of the book itself, we have created a thing that feels imaginable,” says Wortham. “It feels like we’re creating this alternate reality in the ways that we’re empowering people to think about their own futures. I think the urgency around wanting to preserve our stories and what it means to imagine [our futures] in a book is kind of a radical concept.”
We hopped on Zoom with Wortham and Drew to discuss Black Futures and the powerful impact it’s making in this wayfinder moment.
Unbothered: Congratulations on Black Futures. It’s such a big deal that there are two Black women behind this and that sisterhood is part of this moment. What was it like working with each other on this project?
Jenna Wortham: Honestly, Stephanie, it’s such a pleasure to be talking to a Black woman for this. I was reflecting today on how if this book had come out at any earlier moment in time, we’d be talking to so many white people and having to explain so many things and answer so many weird questions. It’s just such a gift and it feels so good for those who are interested in interviewing us and talking about the book to come with such a vested interest, so gratitude for you to start!
What’s it like working together? It’s hilarious. We have a lot of fun. I feel like we’re really good about checking in and making sure that the balance of our relationship doesn’t skew too heavily towards work. And I think the times that it has, we both have really struggled with that. It hasn’t felt great. But we did meet because of the project and got to know each other because of it and then became friends as a byproduct.
Publishing is hard. Deadlines are really hard. I feel like no one told me how hard it was gonna be to make a book when we started.
Kimberly Drew: It was one of those things that tapped into every single one of my insecurities, and it was such a beautiful gift to be working in partnership—one, to be working with a writer who I also am a fan of, and having [Jenna] on the team and then, once we sold the book, having so many incredible writers who looked at us and said, “Yes! What do you need?”
I think that spirit of openness helped to quiet some of those inner voices of doubt and made it really hard to think of anything other than the investment and forward motion of the text. But I know a few years ago when we started I was like, “I can’t visualize it. I can’t imagine it.” And there were so many conversations that were led by Jenna that were like, “Oh, we’re gonna get it done, and if there is an issue, let’s get to the bottom of the issue.”
I think for us in our partnership, as friends, collaborators, and as fans of each other separately from this project, it was really important to consistently come with a level of vulnerability that I think is essential and key to starting a business with one of your best friends and having that be in any way successful. [Laughs]
What did some of those initial conversations look like? Because this actually started as a bit of a smaller idea and has since blossomed into what I’ve been calling a museum in book form. How did you get to the magnum opus we have now?
KD: There were a lot of moving image files. It really looked like a Tumblr before it looked like a book. I think so much about our “B*tch Better Have My Money” budgetary spreadsheet that we started a million years ago. It was really fun from the beginning, and I think we slowly circled ourselves into what we wanted the project to fully be in its final iteration.
JW: We had a lot of trust from One World, too. In hindsight, there were so many meetings when we had nothing to show and we were just like, “Oh trust us, it’s coming along!” And [publisher and editor-in-chief] Chris Jackson was just like, “Great!”
It was really terrifying. We were ready for the creative part and the visionary part. We were not ready for all the paperwork, we were not ready for the constant feeling of being on call for five years more or less, but we had a lot of trust from the publishers. I think that allowed us to trust in our own vision, and I think the book itself was such a process of stepping into my own agency and trusting my own instinct as a creative thinker and somebody who does pay attention to culture.
Random, but I’m a really big nerd and Futurama fan, so when I first heard the name Black Futures, I envisioned myself in a spaceship traveling through time. In many ways, this book does take you on a trip through time within the context of Black culture’s past, present, and future. Was that the inspiration behind the title?
KD: I think what is really beautiful about the title, which Jenna came up with, is that it’s a multiple. My future is different than Jenna’s future, than your future. There’s this initial understanding that it’s [representative of] all of us. In the construction of the book, yes there’s definitely nods to Afrofuturism as a concept, but more broadly, it’s really that understanding that we will continue to exist, and that’s my favorite principle of Afrofuturism in general because there is such an understanding that there is a potential for violence and erasure and discounting of our contributions to culture.
The title is really a hope and understanding that we all have a potential for a future and they’re all multiplicitous.I think having finished the book now, it’s really important when both Jenna and I continue to drive this home, that it is everyone’s duty and everyone has the opportunity and hopefully the capacity to build what they imagine to be their Black future. It’s really this kind of invitation project.
JW: I love that it’s come up that maybe it was born out of science fiction. Obviously “future” portends to something that is happening in the future, so that makes sense, but it’s also been really exciting to think about why this book, even though everything that’s in it is tethered to a real world thing, feels improbable. In the iteration and the existence of the book itself, we have created a thing that feels imaginable. It feels like we’re creating this alternate reality in the ways that we’re asking people and empowering people to think about their own futures. I think the urgency around wanting to preserve our stories and what it means to imagine [our futures] in a book and publishing is kind of a radical concept. It does feel like science fiction for those of us who work in this industry especially.
I love what Kimberly stated about hope, because you two signed this book with One World right before the 2016 election, and then went on to pull this project together during a period when it felt like Black and brown lives were especially under attack. I think there’s something to be said about this book coming out during the 2020 election season, where—upon learning that the current administration will be on its way out in January—a lot of people are now feeling a sense of relief and hope.
KD: To keep it a buck, it would have been really easy to say this is the Trump administration Black book, and we would probably sell twice as many copies. It’s so unfortunately encouraged for Black practitioners to make things in opposition to things that happen in quote unquote mainstream culture. But the book was born of Blackness, and the book is interested in Blackness [outside of these last four years]. For us, it feels essential for it to come out right now in this particular moment so many of us are trying to figure out what we want and what we need. Do I wanna do Zoom yoga? Or do I wanna do a tarot reading? Or maybe I should try outdoor acupuncture or whatever have you to make things feel okay, to make yourself feel okay, to maybe figure out if okay is even a possibility.
I think the thing that I’m really proud about in this book as it exists now in this moment is that it’s not the solution to the confusion, but it’s really something I hope will sit beside us in this moment where we’re trying to make sense, and maybe even have a moment of remembering!
Recently, there was a conversation about the Got 2B Real YouTube channel being taken down, and it’s so great to have in our book Jeremy O. Harris responding to Got 2B Real, which is weird, niche, Black internet culture, but so beautiful and valuable. It’s like that best friend that reminded you that maybe you weren’t too weird to be loved. I hope that resonates with readers.
Since we’re talking about Black futures, I wanna look ahead and ask you each to share your thoughts on the future of Black museums and entertainment in our present COVID world.
JW: Woaaah, woaaah, woaaah! That is like Deep Space Nine!
That’s where the book took me. [Laughing]
KD: I think it’s hard to say! I think on an individual level, it’s the investments that we make right now that will help to determine the future. It’s buying tickets to public programming that’s facilitated online. It’s becoming a member of your favorite institution. Thinking of ways to participate within or outside of or beside institutions. If we look at it at a macro level, it’s impossible to answer because we just don’t know what’s gonna happen. But on a micro level, we have these opportunities to invest. The importance can’t be understated.
JW: I think everything moving into this virtual space has sparked such interesting conversations about accessibility and programming and capacity for programming that I think are really valuable. I was just looking up the name of Tyler Mitchell’s 24-hour cinema. I think it was called Night at the Cinema. [I think] about how invigorating it was and how incredible it was. I was present for a lot of the first one and that was tremendous and that was incredible and I think seeing what Black people are doing with TikTok—there was the kid who was doing all the incredible stunt work who ended up getting signed. Also, Sarah Cooper, who is making a career out of doing these YouTube and Twitter impressions. There’s all these opportunities to flourish and make new things, and I do love that that keeps happening even in these moments of quarantine.
At the same time, we’re still vulnerable and I think so much of the book is trying to look at that tension between the creativity that’s possible and all these platforms and then the deep fragility of what it means to put out our creativity for free. I keep thinking about during the uprisings in late August, Warner Music Group pays like what, $85 million for that Daquan Instagram account? Which is like digital Blackface to the max. Again, we’re constantly being asked to innovate and perform on these platforms [that] inherently love Black culture but don’t value Black people. They want Black content without Black creators and so I think the book is constantly trying to raise that awareness around how valuable we are for ourselves and to be careful.
On that note, what are each of you demanding from the world in 2021?
JW: My immediate instinct is just more softness. More gentleness. My friend Mary always says that sensitivity is such a superpower, and I just really think that we’re punished for our sensitivity. By being empathetic, by being tuned in, by paying attention you’re really asked to hold so much and transmute so much and process so much. It’s really been a hell of a year, so I really hope that there is some reprieve and some relief in 2021. I don’t even know what that looks like. I don’t even know if that’s a possibility, but I at least wish it for ourselves in our daily lives.
KD: I agree. I think part of me wants to be mischievous, though, and say I hope that there is maybe a more productive version of the terror that happened in June.
JW: [Laughing] Chaos factor!
KD: Yeah! Like I would love everyone to know that they could be canceled at any second and to take that energy and make it its most productive, because I’ve had so many terrible work experiences and partnership experiences, I think so many people have. And there was such a moment of insurrection and I kind of loved it. I was kind of thriving through it. I think it was hard to see people unearthing trauma, but I really loved that moment. I don’t know how to describe it in a way that doesn’t sound completely chaotic, but I’m like, “You can get canceled! And you can get canceled!”
“You can all get canceled!” In your Oprah voice. [Laughing]
KD: Yeah! I kind of loved what was maybe starting to be born out of that, because I don’t know that we got to a point of what the goal was, and so I kind of would like to figure out like what’s the point of the Black square!? I gen-u-ine-ly want to know, and I don’t want to just complain about who’s posting them. I want to know what happens next. There was so much momentum. What happens to that energy? I don’t want to just go back to some version of what was happening before. And I don’t think that necessarily has to be brewed from fear, but I think staying on your toes is something that a lot of Black people know very f**king well, and I would love for that to be the culture.