What Does It Mean to Be Black and Alive Right Now?

Black Futures, a new book by curator Kimberly Drew and New York Times Magazine staff writer Jenna Wortham, attempts to answer the question.

by Naomi Elias
Dec 4 2020, 1:45pm

In their new book, Black Futures, curator Kimberly Drew and New York Times Magazine staff writer Jenna Wortham attempt to answer one very big question: “What does it mean to be Black and alive right now?” The two co-edited the tome, which is a nearly 600-page compendium of Black creation online and off—memes, zines, recipes, poems (by Morgan Parker and Eve Ewing), conversations (Wortham x Ta-Nehisi Coates on the subject of resistance), lyrics (from Junglepussy and serpentwithfeet), hallmarks of Black visual culture (braids, nameplate jewelry), academic studies, and photography. “Blackness is infinite,” the editors remind us in the introduction. While its mixed-media nature gives it a sprawling scope, every aspect of the book-cum-archive feels meticulously thought-out. The Brooklyn-based design studio that helped devise the book, Morcos Key, even created a new font for it: “black Futura.” 

GARAGE spoke to Wortham and Drew about the book over Zoom in November. We discussed the Twitter meet-cute that launched their creative partnership, and why curation is an act of care.

Black Futures cover.jpg
Black Futures, Edited by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham

This project began when Jenna slid into your Twitter DMs, right Kimberly? Can you talk about how this book came to be? 
Kimberly Drew: I think all of us as internet citizens are trying to find the people that we want to read and engage with. Our story started with that. I had just kind of come into Jenna’s writing and I was like, “Oh, I like the way that this person’s brain is mapped.” And then I was on Twitter one day on the bus in Bed-Stuy and I got a DM from her and was like, “Oh my God, she wants to meet up.” At the time I was working in Chelsea at a gallery and we met up at Empire Diner and had our first conversation. Jenna had this brilliant idea to make a zine. And I was like, “I love zines, but I think it needs to be a book.” The rest is history.

Jenna Wortham: Yeah, I think that’s basically it. I had been a huge admirer of Kimberly’s; I was kind of also wanting to work on something a little more dynamic. I love working at the Times, but I’d been feeling an urge to do more on Blackness. I mean, this was in 2015. It was a very different time. Publications are a lot more interested now in talking about Black life and Black creativity. 

I thought zines would be lighter-weight and easier. And Kimberley being very prescient and super smart and also having a totally different background from me, was like “It should be a book” because books as technologies travel farther—a book can be in a library, a museum bookstore, a classroom. 

In the intro you say the book’s perspective is global and atemporal. Can you elaborate on that? 
KD: We really wanted to reach as many people as we could. We have contributors from the U.K., a Finnish contributor. There’s a strong presence from our friends in South Africa, and we’re trying to tackle issues within the African continent too, like in East Africa. In terms of the scope of the project, we tried to really hit all corners in the best way that we could in the interest of making sure that it’s not this very singular Global North kind of text. There’s definitely some ways that we fail and I think that’s a natural part of the process. 

JW: And then for the time element, one of the challenges when we started to make the book was, How are we bookending the period of time we're talking about? Are we starting in a particular year? Ending in a particular year? It just started to make sense to let go of that a little bit and allow the book to go where it wants to go. When working with Morcos Key, we were really invested in you being able to open the book and start anywhere. It's not chronological. There's not really a hierarchy in terms of how pieces are laid out. It's a book that you can work your way through backwards and forwards and any way that makes sense to you. A lot of the issues in the book are timeless and it's more about how we're grappling with this current iteration of things like grief, family, legacy.  

Both of you have engaged with archives for your work. What does it mean to you to create your own, especially one that’s part of a new wave of decolonial archival projects? 
JW: Archives are really complicated because, you know, your purview is your purview. It was interesting to greet that challenge over and over again. Is the book global enough? What would it look like to have pieces in the book that aren’t in English? There were so many challenges in how we were able to collect and to curate. I had more empathy for what it means to try to build an archive. They’re just inherently difficult. But it was a really fun muscle to exercise. I really appreciated the experience of thinking about the limitations and the possibilities of trying to collect things for people to look at. We talk in the book a lot about how you shouldn’t take this book as a definitive archive and also what it means to create your own [archive], and how we should all start thinking about collecting and preserving and recognizing the importance of all the materials around us. That’s where my energy ended up, rather than trying to think about this being an archival contribution, just what does it mean for us to feel empowered to try to build one? How does it feel to empower other people and remind them that they can do that too? We should be saving tweets, we should be saving posts. I mean, Vine is so integral to Black culture and yet it was outdated by the time we were working on the book. It's interesting to think about how quickly culture moves online. 

Aspects of the book, like the fact that it’s mixed-media, give it a Tumblr-esque vibe—which I bring up because Kimberly, you’re the creator behind the popular Black Contemporary Art Tumblr, which is a digital archive. Did your experience with Tumblr influence your curatorial sensibility at all?
KD: I think so, but not in the way I put things together. I think that working on a project on Tumblr for as long as I have put the fire underneath me to make something physical. Black Contemporary Art is going to be 10 next year and if Tumblr closes tomorrow, it’s gone. I can do everything in my power to archive it but it’s not going to exist in the same way, you can’t access it in the same way, and I will never get 2015-era Tumblr back because it was chef’s kiss. I love the way that Tumblr has created not necessarily an even playing field—I think we lie to ourselves when we use language like that—but the profound ways that people are accessing things. As the purveyor of it, it's really important to think about how to do the work of preserving and shepherding. At its base, that's what curation is—it's an act of care.

black futures
Kimberly Drew
Jenna Wortham