Black culture is flourishing. Jenna Wortham and Kimberly Drew want to preserve it. Here’s what that means.
Seeing Black Futures
This essay and the portfolio below are adapted from “Black Futures,” to be published in December by One World, an imprint of Random House.
In a piece titled “LTS I,” the Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola paints her brother in repose, with midnight-colored skin, gold jewelry and piercing eyes, unconcerned by who might be looking at him. The painting is part of “Like the Sea,” a series of portraits of her two younger brothers rendered in her signature style, which emphasizes the depths of Black skin by applying layers of color, in this case, black pastels. Ojih Odutola said she gave her subjects the range to “just be” and exist “as they are,” rather than forcing them into backdrops that might have felt more recognizable, or informed by historical representations of Black people.
Ojih Odutola named her series for a passage in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in which the main character, Janie Mae Crawford, reflects that “love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.” Crawford comes to realize that love is as vast as it is mysterious — like Ojih Odutola’s practice, which insists on the beauty in seeing ourselves as we are.
What Ojih Odutola presciently conveys through her work is that Black representation is almost always limited if we allow ourselves to be crunched into other people’s fantasies. In authoring our own images, Black people achieve some sovereignty beyond the reach of colonialist ideas and racist mythologies. Today you can see brilliant examples of this throughout our culture, whether in the plays of Jackie Sibblies Drury, or in the painter Amy Sherald’s portraits of Michelle Obama and Breonna Taylor, or in the comedian Jaboukie Young-White’s sly wit on Twitter, or even in the satirical takes on politics and public policy from young cultural producers on TikTok.
Online and off, we are witnessing a flourishing of Black creativity and art. Our Instagram posts, likes and quoted tweets are creating an unparalleled sense of dynamism and interconnectivity, and what is noticed feels more expansive than it has before. It is now possible, for instance, to witness our everyday thoughts and reactions and experiences — a staggering feat considering how little has been historically logged about the lives of Black people, unmediated and from our own perspectives.
In an essay collected in “Picturing Us: African-American Identity in Photography,” Bell Hooks writes about how photography — particularly snapshots of Black people — form “pictorial genealogies” that “could ensure against the losses of the past.” Hooks describes altars, hallways, credenzas and dressers as the commemorative homes for hallowed Black photos; today those collective memories are aggregated on social platforms. The daily diaries of our experience and the documentation of key moments in modern Black history — including the uprisings in Ferguson, Mo., the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace deal and feminist discussions about the impact of patriarchal violence on rapper Megan Thee Stallion — flow through Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. Our generation’s James Browns release their new music not through Republic Records but on Bandcamp.
And yet, it is very likely that none of this is being preserved carefully or comprehensively for later review. Social media companies prioritize and monetize Black content, but make no effort to protect it. Ownership for Black people has long been constrained (just think of discriminatory redlining or the dismal number of Fortune 500 companies helmed by Black entrepreneurs), and online it is no different. These platforms encourage quantity over quality and make it increasingly difficult to access past posts. Already some of the most important reservoirs of modern Black culture, including Vine, a short-form video site that predated TikTok, or BlackPlanet, a social-networking site built specifically for Black people, have shuttered or faded from popular use. In some cases, the blogs, photos and clips created and exchanged on social platforms have disappeared from view. A recent update to Myspace, a social site that many Black musicians relied on, lost a trove of data some estimated to be as large as 53 million songs.
Online, there exists an inherent tension between remembering and forgetting that is particularly tormented, given how little agency we have over how information and memories are stored. Right now it is possible to download archives from Facebook, Instagram or Twitter for future reference, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone is doing so with regularity. With social platforms, there is newly shared culture, and in effect, shared history, but it is one that is vulnerable to a loss as arbitrary as a server migration or company sale. Scholars like Meredith Clark at the University of Virginia and projects like Documenting the Now study how Black people use social media, but those efforts alone are not enough to capture the monumental flow of content.
Ten years ago, the Library of Congress announced plans to archive every single public tweet. The institution describes Twitter as “one of this generation’s most significant legacies” for capturing “this rich period in our history, the information flows and social and political forces that help define the current generation.” But in 2017, librarians were forced to abandon their efforts. The sheer volume of tweets — numbering in the high billions — and the multitude of formats shared on the platform (photos, videos, GIFs) made it impossible to archive and organize the catalog of data in a legible way. The Library of Congress has said it will continue to selectively save tweets around major events, like elections, and subjects, like public policy, but its challenges only highlight the urgency for more nuanced and creative approaches to archives.
In 2015, we set out to create our own analog archive of contemporary Black life by Black people and for Black people. This project eventually became the book “Black Futures,” from which this portfolio is drawn. The ephemerality of social media terrified us, and as such, inspired us. We also wanted to acknowledge and assemble the multifaceted tiers of dialogues happening among activists, artists, academics, performers and athletes about Black life today. Generations before us had collections like Toni Morrison’s “The Black Book” (1974); Akasha Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith’s “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave” (1982); and countless other texts, and similarly, we wanted to create a book that could serve as a guide to this unprecedented moment of connectivity and production to ensure that it would not be lost in the annals of history.
We set out on this project with a keen awareness that all archives are incomplete because they rely on the priorities and preferences of the authors and collectors. We called on the wisdom of Saidiya Hartman, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, who writes in her preliminary note to “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments” that “every historian of the multitude, the dispossessed, the subaltern and the enslaved is forced to grapple with the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known, whose perspective matters and who is endowed with the gravity and authority of historical actor.” One solution, embedded within “Black Futures,” is encouraging our readers to see the book as an invitation to document our present as they see fit, too.
Right now, many of us are actively engaged with dismantling the history of the past, exposing it as wrong, perverted. This summer, we watched as people toppled racist monuments into rivers, renamed streets, unearthed pasts that we were told did not matter. The familiar is being made strange and shown to be ripe for revision. You can see this in the work of Amanda Williams, for example. Williams repaints empty houses on the South Side of Chicago using a palette based on products historically marketed to Black people. They include Crown Royal bag purple, Luster’s Pink Oil Moisturizer pink, Ultra Sheen blue. Williams’s houses transform an otherwise bleak landscape into something rich and brilliant, and simultaneously raise an eyebrow at how colors are tethered to notions of race and class. Sarah Lewis, who teaches art history, architecture and African and African-American studies at Harvard, uses her “Vision & Justice Project,” which includes a multifaceted curriculum and print publication, to decenter whiteness in academia and scholarship. In describing the project, Lewis urges “speaking faith over the future” to sharpen our visual literacy as we do the work of looking back to better understand where we are headed.
The cultural landscape is a metaphorical sundown town — welcoming us conditionally and refusing us methodically, violently and consistently. In June 2015, in an article for The New Yorker, Edwidge Danticat wrote about Black people that “we have always traveled from place to place looking for better opportunities, where they exist. We are not always welcomed, especially if we are viewed as different and dangerous. … Will we ever have a home in this place, or will we always be set adrift from the home we knew? Or the home we have never known.” “Black Futures” is meant to be a dwelling place for our most precious cultural exports in a moment in which so much of our work is still subject to erasure. It wasn’t enough to define ourselves by our examples of productivity; we also wanted to go further and invite each contributor to delve into what it meant to be alive.
The book is not an answer, but a series of prompts and questions, including what it would mean for everyone to create their own “Black Futures” project. We know that one book can’t begin to capture everything about Black life, but we also know that too much has already been lost. Our effort goes beyond whom or what we should remember, but how we might begin the work of resisting being forgotten.