“I know the world is bruised and bleeding,” Toni Morrison once said. “And though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.” Because it’s from that very chaos, she noted, that wisdom is born. And it’s this sort of poetic alchemy that art comes from.
For decades, Black people have transformed fear into fortitude, pain into perseverance, despair into decadence, and oppression into opulence. We have healed civilizations through paint strokes and poems and photo-chemical manipulations of light. We’ve danced across stages not built for us and made them ours. And through such radical creative expression, we’ve addressed the inequities that have plagued us while simultaneously lifting ourselves from under them.
For Black folks, art is a means of deliverance. Authors like Akwaeke Emezi have used words to birth worlds in which Black identities exist from behind masks and beyond binary. Rappers like Noname have sparked movements in the fight for literary liberation. And artists like Gio Swaby have used canvases to write love letters of Blackness and womanhood when we needed them most. For this year’s Black Is The New Black, R29Unbothered is honouring these three vanguards not only for their work, but for the life it so crucially breathes into us.
Featured on the cover of TIME Magazine as a 2021 Next Generation Leader, Akwaeke Emezi is best known for their stirring debut novel, Freshwater, which is in early development as a TV series at FX. Inspired by Emezi’s own life, the autobiographical memoir details Emezi’s experience as an ogbanje, a “trickster” Igbo spirit born into a human body. Freshwater was a resounding success, garnering accolades like being named a New York Times Notable Book in 2018 and becoming a finalist for multiple other prestigious honours.
That success would lead to Emezi publishing not one, but another three books in the following years: PET (2019), a young-adult novel about a Black trans girl (the book would later become a National Book Award finalist); The Death of Vivek Oji (2020), a New York Times bestseller about a family who loses a child they never really knew; and Dear Senthuran (2021), a powerful Black spirit memoir exploring gender, body, survival, and stepping into one’s power.
A National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honouree and recipient of many other acknowledgments, Emezi has three additional works being published in 2022: Bitter, Content Warning: Everything (their debut poetry collection), and You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty (their debut romance novel). Publishing seven impactful bodies of work in a four-year span is an impressive feat for anyone. But for Emezi, it's simply their calling. “My work is just channelling something that other people gifted me,” Emezi told TIME this year. “My job in the revolution is as a storyteller, to take those possibilities and shape them into stories [that] disseminate.”
“We don’t have enough images of Black bodies experiencing joy. The media feeds us so many images of Black people in moments of suffering, and it affects you because you see yourself reflected in that,” 29-year-old Gio Swaby told Artnet in June. “I wanted to create a space where we could see ourselves reflected in a moment of joy, celebrated without expectations, without connected stereotypes.”
In a time when systems of oppression continue to threaten our existence, Swaby’s work arrives as a timely reprieve. The Toronto-based Bahamian artist has built a shining reputation off her compelling, life-sized representations of Blackness and women. Created through the masterful manipulation of thread and textiles, Swaby’s art is in high demand by some of the most prestigious museums in the U.S. after the success of her first solo show, “Gio Swaby: Both Sides of the Sun,” at Harlem’s Claire Oliver Gallery this year. Swaby may have only been in her first year of grad school at the time of the show, but the work speaks for itself; some of her pieces are selling to galleries for as much as $25,000.
“There’s over 100 people on the waiting list,” Claire Oliver told Artnet. “It’s in the gallery’s mission statement to find the correct custodians of the work, who will care for it. That includes a lot of museums that will put this work on view for the greater public.”
Other fans and collectors include author Roxane Gay and actor Hill Harper. “I didn’t have these kinds of expectations,” Swaby shared. “It’s a lot to take in, but I’m feeling more excited than anything else.” We’re just as excited for her.
Noname is perhaps one of the most prolific emcees of our time. And like many of the influential wordsmiths before her, she is also a steadfast advocate for the advancement of Black people, especially within the literary space. This year, she opened The Radical Hood Library, the headquarters of Noname Book Club, an online group she’s organized since 2019 to create space to discuss Black radical texts. The club was launched after Noname organized a mass library card registration movement to counteract corporate efforts to privatize access to books.
"We're trying to incentivize people to shop locally,” she shared with Trevor Noah in 2019. “Yes, you can participate in the book club online, but we really encourage our readers to shop at these POC-owned bookstores that we have in our directory. It's a little bit of a f**k you to Amazon and kind of a f**k you to the FBI ... COINTELPRO and what they did to destroy Black bookstores."
In 2020, Noname also launched the Prison Program, an effort to have books by Black, Indigenous and POC writers sent to incarcerated people nationwide. Through this program, people behind bars are offered the opportunity to educate themselves on social issues. “The cost of calls, letters, commissary, and packages add up really fast,” Noname Book Club writes on their site. “Which is one of the reasons we are working with community members like you to connect folks inside with radical books.”
Access to Black books means Black liberation, and many important Black texts are hard to find in state libraries. “Their books are curated to service the largest demographic in the US... whites,” Noname noted on Twitter. The next revolution starts here.