A Peek at the Variety, Wonder and Trauma of Black Life, Then and Now

By Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham

The best way to read “Black Futures” is, frankly, as slowly as possible. At over 500 pages, it’s heavy, literally and figuratively. Every page of this oversize illustrated book is dense, even when it’s just a few lines of white print on black background, or a sepia portrait of Representative Ilhan Omar. The book’s curators, Kimberly Drew (the former social media manager at the Metropolitan Museum) and the New York Times Magazine culture writer Jenna Wortham, advise that “like us, this book is not linear,” nor is it meant to be read as such; you can enter and exit the project on whatever pages you choose. This freedom creates a literary experience unlike any I’ve had in recent memory — once you start reading “Black Futures,” you are somehow endlessly reading it, even long after you’ve devoured every page. An offshoot of the Black Futures Project, which “started a few years ago as a direct message exchange on Twitter and has evolved into a shared desire to archive a moment,” the book is filled with essays, interviews, art, photography, poems, tweets, memes and screenshots, all celebrating the infinite expansiveness of Blackness. With contributions from Black creators like Kiese Laymon and Solange Knowles, Samantha Irby and Hanif Abdurraqib, “Black Futures” succeeds in answering the incredibly heady question it poses for itself: What does it mean to be a Black person around the world, then, now or in the future?

I am not Black, and I imagine it’s a fundamentally different experience to read this book if you are. But still I read it with a powerful sense of urgency; its messages can and should speak to anyone. Drew and Wortham recommend reading the book “alongside a device so you can search out names and terms that intrigue you. See where they lead.” That’s where so much of the pleasure of “Black Futures” lives: in getting lost down rabbit holes, learning more about, say, Black trans visibility or Black farming or Black hair. The brief chapters reach in seemingly infinite directions, each one a portal into what could be an entire book on its own.

Black art is so often relegated to stories about the past — or, rather, stories we think are from the past, as if the Voting Rights Act weren’t still deeply relevant today — or stories of trauma, death and pain. “Black Futures” does indeed include stories of grief and tragedy, with odes to Sandra Bland and a museum display of jars filled with soil from lynching sites. I didn’t expect to be so touched by a chapter about how Black people are affected by ocean justice, and yet I read those seven pages over and over. “Now you know what I know,” the marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson writes. “Perhaps now you will see this is your fight too.” It’s a question any non-Black person inevitably comes back to again and again throughout the book: If you know the fight, will you join it?

But “Black Futures” goes beyond the public sphere to offer a more prismatic and private view of Black life as well, in recipes for “fried pig ears, for snackin’” and coconut sweetbread, rituals for self-compassion, photo essays of Black folks at dance parties, memes written for and by Black people. It feels like a blessing to be let in on these moments of joyous intimacy. You feel thankful for being offered entry.

“Black Futures” doesn’t try to encapsulate the whole past and present of Blackness around the world, but instead, to give us an impressive start, a blueprint for this moment and the next, for where Black folks have been and where they might be going. It’s a document that could flex and change with time, that could have endless editions attached to it as Black life moves apace. For now it serves as a living and breathing memorandum, and a pressing reminder that anyone anywhere can — must — join the fight.

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