In 2015, New York Times Magazine writer and cohost of the podcast Still Processing Jenna Wortham sent a direct message on Twitter to the author, curator, and then-stranger, Kimberly Drew. “It must be said that I love your Instagram and you are a DREAM QUEEN,” Wortham wrote. From there, the two women exchanged praise, and began to collaborate on a zine of Black art. Six years later, that project has been materialized in their coedited book, Black Futures, a stunning anthology of art, writing, photography, recipes, tweets, and Facebook posts. Though these women had never interacted before this messaging each other on Twitter, they seemed fated to collaborate: Both women’s experience collecting and curating Black art and culture on Tumblr and Twitter had uniquely prepared them to create a book that captured the vastness and nuance of modern Black life, placing screenshots of Black Twitter exchanges alongside nightly hair routines and family recipes for coconut bread. In Black Futures, the writers have created an anthology that not only chronicles the 21st century Black experience with grace and care, but also preserves decades of Black history and culture for generations to come.
MR: What were meetings like when you were putting the book together?
KD: Every meeting started with a heart-to-heart check in. Even this morning when we checked in, we started with, “How are you doing? Are you watching the snow too?” and then we launched from there. I think Jenna gets a thrill in my transitions into work mode every time.
JW: Every time.
MR: What did that look like?
KD: “Oh it’s so funny you mention that because it makes me think of this email we need to reply to…”
JW: We always get it done though.
MR: What was it like to work on this project for four and a half years? Did the answer to the question you all posed in your introduction—”What does it mean to be Black and alive right now?”—change at all during that time?
JW: Throughout the process, we were tapping into a historical urgency and a present desire to imagine the worlds we want. This is something that our friend and contributor Tourmaline always talks about. When we think about evoking freedom dreaming, we know what we don’t want, but what do we want? The book has always oscillated between those two guideposts in terms of commemorating and memorializing and remembering, but also finding space to envision and finding space to dream.
MR: Were you curating the book during the Black Lives Matter uprisings, and did that impact what pieces ended up in the book?
JW: We worked on the book well into June of last year, and we were adding edits up to the very last minute. Our publishers eventually just had to say “pencils down.” There was this moment during the uprisings when we said, “Do we need to add in something? Should we mention this?” and then there was another moment of recognizing that it’s already in the book. These struggles around Black liberation are not limited to this summer. The book starts out with the 2013 Facebook post by Alicia Garza, which started the movement that eventually became Black Lives Matter.
MR: Did that idea of nonlinear time, or Blackness and Black culture existing outside of time come up a lot when you were putting the book together and trying to envision a Black future?
JW: It definitely appears in our contribution from Rasheedah Phillips, who is part of this Philadelphia-based collective called Black Quantum Futurism. Rasheedah’s work was really fascinating, because she was trying to get at this idea of untethering ourselves from linear time. Our narrative in this county, those who are the descendants of enslaved Black folks, is really organized into this epistemology that starts with the Middle Passage, and there’s a lot of interest in letting go of that or reorganizing it. Our story does not start with the moment we arrive in this country, and so what does it mean to acknowledge that and think about the ways in which Black people have always existed outside of every infrastructure and institution from the jump? What does it mean to embrace that as a way of re-liberating ourselves?
KD: With contributors like Rasheedah or Nikole Hannah-Jones, we really wanted to give people space to create something that might not be the exact thing they are known for. Within this concept of linear time, we’re raising kids, we’re coming into ourselves, we’re raising families, we’re taking baths—we’re doing all of these things that are so mundane and so spectacular in their own ways, and I think that’s where the book really succeeds in its timelessness. We were trying really hard to create something that was relevant, and I know it was a big anxiety for both of us that it felt time appropriate. I think that that success was founded in those moments where we didn’t concede to what everyone is known for. We really tried to make sure these pieces could exist in and of itself in this unique space, which is not always something that is afforded to Black creatives.
MR: You include lots of screenshots from the Internet in the book. What was your process of capturing and preserving online Black spaces like Black Twitter?
JW: One of the things that felt really crucial when we were organizing ourselves around this project was the question: What does it mean to do some kind of memory work around the dialogical exchanges that we see happening on social media? We recognized that there are so many incredible interactions that are not being preserved, and we wanted to make sure that we were retaining these documents for ourselves.
It felt imperative to chronicle and remind people that we have the agency to save, and what that can look like. So those preservation moments were about recognizing that these online interactions are really meaningful, and they often happen in really spontaneous, ephemeral feeling ways that are worthy of preservation.
MR: The book contains so much fine art, which can often be inaccessible for Black people in America. How did you include so much curated art while still keeping the book readable and accessible for a wide audience?
KD: Historically museums and art spaces weren’t designed to be exclusionary. They were really designed to serve a public—and of course at that time, that public did not mean us. For those of us inheriting these legacies, it’s important to make sure that we’re really reaching expansively to really redefine what public and community mean. From the standpoint of being marginalized people, it’s really important for us to challenge the ways these architectures have been built to exclude us, explicitly or implicitly. In constructing the book, we wanted to, of course, give the contributors an opportunity to shine, but also give opportunity for everyone who encounters the book to feel on as equal footing as possible.
MR: What sort of audience did you make Black Futures for? Do you think all audiences will get the same thing out of the book?
JW: Every person will get something different from the book. Every time I open the book I get something different. In terms of who it was made for, I think in some ways that hasn’t been realized yet. We were both obsessed with preservation and providing a resource for constructing tools to preserve an archive. For us the book is really an exploration of those ideas. We also wanted to create a book that operated in the same canon and tradition as books like The Black Book, Fire!!, and other seminal texts that have not only been a blueprint but a piece of education about Black life respective to their time. We definitely made the book for Toni Morrison, and we definitely made the book to exist in both commercial spaces and domestic spaces. We made the book not just for the intellectual exercise of making it but really for future generations.
MR: The book has been out for about two months now. What has the reaction been like?
JW: Across the board it’s been really emotional, very joyful, and very illuminating. A lot of people have said that they have historically felt really excluded from art institutions, and how exciting and relieving it was to encounter a book that contained a lot of art but didn’t feel like a hierarchical approach to it. That was one of our goals from the jump, to really make this feel like a book for everybody, from babies to grannies. We wanted anybody to pick it up and find something for themselves in it. I remember seeing it once early on in an Instagram story in a beauty parlor and I was like, “Correct.” I want this book to be on a table with the Rihanna issue of Essence, with the images by Lorna Simpson, right alongside that. That is exactly my vision for the book.
MR: What’s the biggest thing you learned through the process of creating Black Futures?
KD: When I first sat across from Jenna at a diner all those years ago, I did not think I could make a book—and now we are authors together. So definitely what I’ve learned is that more is possible than you could ever imagine.