Columbia University: The Creation of ‘Black Futures’

School of the Arts Professor Margo Jefferson hosted a conversation with Black Futures editors, Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham. The online event, which was co-presented by the school’s writing program and its Office of Public Programs and Engagement, focused on the new book’s creation and reception.

Drew and Wortham’s compilation of images, photos, essays, memes, dialogues, recipes, tweets, poetry, and more explores what it means to be Black and alive right now. Black Futures presents a succession of different pieces of content that generate a particular rhythm: Readers will go from conversations with activists and academics to social media posts, from writing to paintings and insightful infographics.

In her introductory remarks, Jefferson described Black Futures as “a geography, an archive, a series of maps. It pulsates and syncopates between these pages of a book.”

‘Galaxy Brained’ People

Drew said that she and Wortham are both “galaxy brained” people, covering as many as 15 topics during an hour-long phone call. The first piece that really synthesized their initial conversations about the book was Jazmin Johnson’s essay “Optimistic Challenge,” which was written in response to a prompt crafted by Drew and Wortham.

“It was about the internet,” Drew said. “It was about ecstatic dance traditions and the scholarship of dance, but it wasn’t overly scholarly. It was fun and sexy.”

Wortham mentioned that the title for the book came early on, and that it was useful in talking about their vision for the project. “I remember one of our contributors, Jason Parham, sent an email including the Alisha Wormsley image, There Are Black People in the Future, and I’d never seen that before. It was one of the first images Drew suggested we put in the book.”

The pair were very intentional about the book’s design, and dedicated to making it an art object. While the book is written in English, Drew and Wortham were also intent on including a range of dialects to avoid an imperialist bent. In addition, the pages are color-coded to help readers navigate the book’s ample, diverse contents.

A Space for Respite

Drew and Wortham are grateful for Black Futures’ overwhelmingly positive reception. “It’s been a series of resounding yes’s,” Wortham said, “and a series of affirmations of our minds, our ideas, our audience. It feels amazing to make something that people want, and want more of. It’s a record of our time—thinking about what it means to be going through so many upheavals simultaneously: economic, ecological, sociopolitical.”

“People are returning to the book as a landing spot, a safe space and a safe harbor,” Wortham added. “We want to consume. We want to revisit our history. We want to support Black actors and writers, and creators.”

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