One of the greatest things to witness as a creative is the conversations between writers and artists at the top of their game. I’m thinking primarily here of the Soul interview between Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin. Of course, there have been many other great conversations between Black writers and creatives, but that one has a certain honesty and intensity that has stuck with me. In Black Futures, I get a taste of what watching that conversation was like. Black Futures is a collection of poems, essays, interviews, playlists, and art edited by Jenna Wortham and Kimberly Drew. It encompasses some of the many talented artists and creatives that have become prominent on the scene in the last ten or more years.
The title suggests that black people are a part of the world’s future; in fact, an integral part of it. Black people are the future, creating some of the most beautiful and challenging art we have seen, forging a way out of the past while being entirely cognizant of it. As the editors state in the introduction, time is not linear, we are always in conversation with the past, present, and future. Black Futures as a collection is keenly aware of this, making it a collection you can talk about with your partner, your friends, or your grandmother. Black Futures is a stunning triumph for everyone involved in it, and should be on the coffee table of many Black homes.
Dani Janai: Hello dear.
Shelli Nicole: Hi Hi!! I am so excited to talk about this book with you!
Dani Janae: Same! I’m very curious to hear your thoughts.
Shelli Nicole: We always seem to ask each other if we had any previous connection to the piece of work we discuss so, were you familiar with the editors Jenna Wortham or Kimberly Drew before reading Black Futures?
Dani Janae: I wasn’t very familiar with either of them. I knew of Jenna Wortham but had never heard of Kimberly Drew. When the buzz started around this project I looked more into Wortham. What about you?
Shelli Nicole: I was already familiar with Jenna Wortham and the podcast she does with the very dope Wesley Morris for The Times called Still Processing, I became a dedicated listener last year during the pandemic. I had heard about someone with the incredible ass handle, @museummammy, a while back but didn’t connect it to Kimberly Drew until some point last year as well.
I’ve always been intimidated by the art world, you know? I would constantly feel like it was so far out of my reach or that the stuff I liked wasn’t the “right” kind of art. So when I delved more into Drew via social media, that feeling started to lift. It was like, here is this very fly round the way Black girl who is making me feel less daunted by this medium I felt wasn’t meant for me.
Dani Janae: I love that! Art can be so intimidating and I think it takes those kinds of guides to open your world to it. My immediate thought after going through this book is “I have a lot of people I need to look up now” and I think that’s sort of how art functions for me too. This book feels like walking around my local museum listening to a curated playlist.
Shelli Nicole: Yoooo I feel that entirely so.
Before I got the book, I had the plan of being like “I’m gonna treat this like the piece of art it is. I’m gonna make it the centerpiece of my coffee table and treat it with so much care.” Then it arrived and that changed. It’s so unbelievable that I had to truly use it. To write in it, mark it up, bend pages to save my favorites, and actually interact with it. Art that I can interact with has always been my favorite type, I was always the kid trying to tiptoe the lines at the museums to touch stuff hahaha! And to your point about looking up stuff, the curators suggest having something with you while you go through it so you can look things up as you go and that seems like a small suggestion but I thought it was SO COOL!
Dani Janae: Lol I’m loving imagining little Shelli getting too close to a painting! I haven’t written in it yet but I have specific pages marked off with sticky notes. There’s so much to think about within these pages, I love that there were names I knew and ones I needed to be acquainted with. I tend to write all in my books though but there’s something about the pages in this one that are calling out to me. What was a piece that jumped out at you?
Shelli Nicole: Documenting The Nameplate (Isabel Flower, Marcel Rosa-Salas, Kyle Richardson) — I have always found it beautiful to have pieces of jewelry with my name on it — I have over ten pieces right now lol. I saw my mother wear hers, cousins wear theirs and when I got my first one as a high school graduation present I couldn’t have been happier. I’ve always seen it as wearable art, especially in the Black and brown communities. I see it being worn by white folks all over IG or Carrie from Sex and The City, and constantly hated that folks would reject the origins of its coolness and beauty. How it came from the Black girls in your hoods that just wanted to flex. So to see that project in something like this felt so validating.
And I am such a lover and fan of zines, I always have been and had my own years ago. So the Independent Subtexts feature from Devin N. Morris was extra special to me. What bits grabbed your attention?
Dani Janae: Well because I’m from Pittsburgh I was all about the There Are Black People In The Future bit. I was there when all of the controversies went down with the billboard and saw people’s in time reaction to it, and I’ve always been curious about what brought Alisha Wormsley to that phrase and how she felt seeing her work be both challenged and celebrated
I also really loved the essay/poem by Hanif Abdurraqib because I love just about anything he does. I was very intrigued by the interviews, specifically the one between Shawne Michaelain Holloway and Tiona Nekkia McClodden about the internet and art. That interview was so interesting to me because to be an “internet _____” is kind of a pejorative and used to dismiss artists and writers who use the internet as a medium.
Shelli Nicole: DANI! That interview was one of my favs. When I read it I was just so pulled in, it made me think about our talks. When Holloway said that McClodden replied “I’m trying to get free” in one of their first message exchanges hit me like a box of rocks because damn me too.
Dani Janae: Right?? Yes that conversation was so vulnerable.
Shelli Nicole: I wanted to say the poems that I read also made me think of you. Honestly, my journey through this archive made me think of and be grateful for the Black artists of so many mediums that are in my own circle. I love tangibility, right? This book fulfilled that love, having this solid item I can touch and use it to share the things within it that I can’t was beautiful. I want to experience it, I want to gift it, I want to talk about so many parts of it and specifically do all those things with Black people.
Dani Janae: It really is such a celebration of not only Black voices but Black innovation. Like the wide swath of creatives named here is just unmatched. Yes, I totally agree, this will definitely be a coffee table book for me and one I want to talk about with my black friends and colleagues.
Shelli Nicole: Can we talk about that immaculate introduction they give us?
Dani Janae: “Like us, this book is not linear. Like us, this book lives and breathes beyond a temporal western framework.”
That hit me in the gut, it’s a bold statement to make in a world where it will most likely be heavily consumed by Black Americans in the western world, but I think there is something freeing there. Like a small little key that’s unlocking something for me. What it means to be Black is far greater than what western ideals can categorize.
Shelli Nicole: For me, it was, “Black Futures is not designed to be a comprehensive document.” I know that this book will also be heavily consumed by non-Black people who are looking to understand or connect with Blackness on a very surface level. That sentence felt like it was telling them that this is not the piece of work to look to for that.
Dani Janae: That’s a good point. I can very easily see this being consumed by non-Black audiences looking to get their foot into Blackness so to speak so I think that disclaimer was a smart move on their part!
Shelli Nicole: — and I know it’s not an art book, the editors make that clear, but it still made me feel like I don’t have to be so overwhelmed by that world. I hope there are more volumes you know? Like in 4 years Black Futures: Volume 2 comes out, and so on. We as a people are constantly creating and I would love to have more tangible curated pieces to look back at, like an encyclopedia collection of Black Futures!
Dani Janae: Ooooooo I hadn’t even thought of that! I hope so too.
Shelli Nicole: My absolute fav part? That cute ass convo in the DM’s between Kimberly and Jenna. Just two Black babes who were like “Hi – um you’re very cool and I wanna be friends and also work with you.” and now you and I get to have this conversation AND this beautiful book is in the world. I’m so happy about it — makes my little queer Black heart flutter with joy.
Dani Janae: Oh absolutely. It makes me want to be brave and do the same with someone whose work I admire.
Shelli Nicole: I’m so glad you’re my friend Dani, I am so grateful to chat with you in these convos and also kick it outside of work. You’re wildly talented, so true to yourself, and also a fucking stunner. Also very happy that I will never be alone under thirst traps that get dropped by hot older dykes on Twitter.
Dani Janae: Shelli! I’m so glad you are my friend AND we get to work together! That’s so incredible to me. You are so driven and sharp and funny, I love your energy. I can’t wait to talk with you more and just know you’ll never be alone in thirsting 😭.