[This pre­sen­ta­tion was post­ed in three pieces. Section mark­ers appear at the breaks as there were unfor­tu­nate­ly brief gaps between them.]

Makani Themba: Hey, what’s up? So I want us to play togeth­er… I’ve been think­ing a lot about the black future. One, because I want to have one. Personally, I would like a black future. Because I want a future. And then I was think­ing about just how many folks don’t actu­al­ly put black and the future togeth­er. And I’ve been think­ing a lot about the ways in which we talk, even those of us who are pro­gres­sive and polit­i­cal about the prospect of the future. I’m prob­a­bly one of the old­er peo­ple in the room, and one of the things that a lot of us each oth­er is the strug­gle con­tin­ues. As if it will be going on for ever and ever, and ever.

And so I decid­ed I want­ed to stop think­ing like that. So part of my med­i­ta­tion around the black future has been around who are the peo­ple who’ve been sort of play­ing with the idea of the black future as fun? As free? As liberated? 

So I start­ed with my man George Clinton from back in the day, because he def­i­nite­ly has been hav­ing fun and not lim­it­ed by the notion of black life and black strug­gle for­ev­er and ever. He def­i­nite­ly took the head­rag off and came out in a dif­fer­ent way. And there was a cou­ple oth­er people.

Who knows who that is? You all know who that is. That’s me, right? [Several audi­ence mem­bers: Storm.”] Right. And Storm is about a vision of a kind of a future, right? Who knows the sto­ry of Storm? She’s what? What is the neg­a­tive term they call a mutant? Someone with hyper skills that’s scary, and in many ways a metaphor for so much. And I love Storm, not only because before I cut my hair we had the same hair. And it’s inter­est­ing, and many of you guys who are X‑Men fans kin­da know the sort of para­ble that Stan Lee was draw­ing from, right? He had Professor X as Martin Luther King, right. He had Magneto as Malcolm X. And he was try­ing to tell this sto­ry about alien­ation and what the future can look like, and this whole struggle. 

And what I loved about X‑Men was that he did­n’t actu­al­ly— If you ignore the movies. The movies aren’t real­ly the com­ic books. The com­ic books are much bet­ter. People know, y’all know. Because y’all my peo­ple, you know about com­ic books. What I always thought was inter­est­ing about X‑Men grow­ing up was the idea that unlike the way you grew up learn­ing about the two strug­gles, they weren’t pit­ted against each oth­er. So here’s this white man who had kind of fig­ure it out. These are two sides of the same coin, and that’s about love. Mutant love, black love, black peo­ple as mutants, what­ev­er. Because there’s ways in which the way this soci­ety works, many of us feel like mutants. We feel dif­fer­ent, we feel special.

And in some ways we make our spe­cial­ness a super­pow­er and not the thing that drags us down. And I always think that this is also a pow­er­ful image for me, about the black future and the idea of us sort of over­com­ing and being there, and also run­ning stuff. Because the X‑Men movie they’ll nev­er make is the fact that actu­al­ly Storm became the leader of the X‑Men fair­ly ear­ly on. And that prob­a­bly won’t hap­pen, but maybe, maybe. Maybe some­body will make that movie. Maybe one of y’all.

So, you know who this is, right? Janelle Monáe. She also plays with this idea of a black future. The inter­est­ing thing, I think, about her aes­thet­ic and her work is that often­times peo­ple die. I don’t know if peo­ple are famil­iar with her videos, but it has a lot peo­ple just drop­ping dead as the black future, which I find is real­ly inter­est­ing. And in many ways it’s sort of like the sort of funk aes­thet­ic in terms of the look, but it’s very sad. And it says many ways about how peo­ple feel about hope. So the dif­fer­ence maybe about how folks felt in the 70s about the idea of the black future and maybe how peo­ple feel about it now. And I find that sort of an inter­est­ing piece.

Now where’s this from? Y’all remem­ber this, right? What movie is this?

Audience 1: That’s from The Matrix, isn’t it?

Themba: This is from The Matrix, that’s right. And despite the star, this movie was real­ly about the black future. And what was the black future like in The Matrix?

Audience 2: Underground. Rough.

Themba: Underground. Hunted. It was hard. [To audi­ence:] Say it again?

Audience 3: Lustful.

Themba: It was def­i­nite­ly lust­ful, that’s true. People were kin­da sweaty and get­tin’ at it on a fair­ly reg­u­lar basis. That’s true, I for­got about that. That’s true. [laughs] And it’s okay that you remem­ber that. We love you for that. You can’t have a black future with­out black lust and black love. That’s important.

But what’s inter­est­ing about this imagery, too, was that— Interestingly enough for me, it’s one of the few main­stream Hollywood box office movies that showed black peo­ple in love with each oth­er. Which is anoth­er sort of sense of the black future. And I’m not say­ing that every­body black has to be in love with some­body black. That’s not what I’m say­ing. But there’s ways in which in the imagery, and the way the future gets pre­sent­ed, there’s usu­al­ly just one black per­son who sur­vives, right? And that’s only when black peo­ple aren’t radioac­tive. Because black peo­ple togeth­er, it almost seems like there’s a law against that, right? And what’s inter­est­ing about The Matrix is that you had a num­ber of cou­ples, a num­ber of peo­ple who were real­ly engaged and deeply com­mit­ted to each oth­er as part of the future.

And the oth­er thing that’s inter­est­ing to me about the way black future is pre­sent­ed is that there’s always ele­ments of the past, right? That there’s ways in which it’s hard to imag­ine. So you have the moth­er­ship, right, which is a sto­ry about the black future. And that is peo­ple are wait­ing for the moth­er­ship to come back, all the orig­i­nal people…you know, we real­ly aren’t from this plan­et. All the [Silui?] Africans will be lev­i­tat­ed up into the moth­er­ship and go back to the beau­ti­ful place where we came from. That’s one sto­ry about the black future, which some peo­ple are—I know peo­ple wait­ing out­side, for the moth­er­ship. Some of them are in the room.

Audience 4: And that’s real.

Themba: Right? It’s real, right?

And there’s also a way in which this whole aes­thet­ic is kind of pim­pa­li­cious, right? It’s like kind of like pimp…spaceship com­bined. And I love that. Because it’s like the moth­er­ship is like a Cadillac that’s like extra… And this imagery is just like— I mean, I’m from Harlem. And you actu­al­ly saw people—you know, I grew up in the 70s—who actu­al­ly walked around dressed like this in real life, just at the gro­cery store get­ting their Zig Zags and stuff. So…the peo­ple who know what that is…

…inter­est­ing, too, is that part of what the vision of black future in some ways is about, and I think Sun Ra—who I think is next, yes—probably demon­strat­ed that more than any­body else is this idea that part of what the future is is a going back.

That there’s some­thing that we lost, there’s some­thing that we’re try­ing to regain. Some of that is about Africa, some of that is about more than that. Some of it’s about kind of a spir­it and kind of an ener­gy and kind of a joy that we need to regain. But I always find inter­est­ing about pic­ture of the black future is that they almost always have some kind of Egyptian thing hap­pen­ing. They almost always have some kind of West African imagery. Like even The Matrix thing. The Matrix imagery was real­ly African, right? The music, even the sweat­ing. It felt like all your imagery of what you’ve been brought up to think about what Africa is in the imag­i­na­tion. And there’s a way in which that stuff comes together.

So let me just get a lit­tle aca­d­e­m­ic for like two slides, and then I’m going to read you a chil­dren’s sto­ry. And then we’re going to talk.

So one of the things that we talk a lot about when we talk about com­mu­ni­ca­tions about race and com­mu­ni­ca­tions about black­ness, in many ways, which is caught up in this, is that a lot of times when peo­ple talk about the imagery they get caught at the lev­el of imagery. Like, okay this is this image; this image is racist, or this image is great. And we’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly look­ing at the his­to­ry and the con­text that roots the imagery. Because how we under­stand a thing has every­thing to do with how we’re social­ized and how we’re edu­cat­ed to believe what the thing means.

So in every idea, in every moment, there are lay­ers. So you have the thing that you’re look­ing at, you have the con­text in the way you’re look­ing at it. So that pic­ture from The Matrix would look one way to us now, and anoth­er way to us in the 50s. Because you had peo­ple who would just be like…who would have a fight with you if you called them black. That would be some­thing they would want to beat you up over. But that does­n’t hap­pen now. Hopefully. Maybe some­where, but not many places I know. So con­text changes things.

And then relat­ed to that, the next lay­er is what do we believe? What’s the his­to­ry? How do we under­stand it? What does it say about what we believe about who we are, what the aes­thet­ic is, what’s important? 

And all of that, at the foun­da­tions are the pow­er rela­tions. Who gets to deter­mine it? So we go to school. Then this takes me to the next slide.

So, we go to school and we learn these things. We learn things about…you know, that col­or is what race is. As if that’s what race is, right? Or that black­ness is all about pig­men­ta­tion, as opposed to it being social­ly con­struct­ed. I have two broth­ers who look white. When I say look white” I don’t mean light-skinned. I mean they look white. They have com­plete­ly straight hair. No melanin. And there’s no way you’d know unless they revealed them­selves. One of my broth­ers is always walk­ing about like that CB4 line, I’m black y’all. I’m black y’all.” 

And I have anoth­er broth­er who is actu­al­ly… My broth­er who is like with the sign, basi­cal­ly, is forty. I have a broth­er who’s in his twen­ties, who’s pass­ing. He’s pass­ing. Some peo­ple don’t even know what that means. It’s like I’m so old, right? Basically, he oper­ates as a white man in the world. And he’s in his twen­ties, and you’d think a per­son in his twen­ties would feel freer to con­struct him­self, maybe even between races. But he basi­cal­ly oper­ates as a white per­son, and we send him a com­mu­niqué across the lines. His wife knows that he has black fam­i­ly, but she’s nev­er met us. He has like escaped over the edge. And it’s so inter­est­ing to me. It’s an inter­est­ing thing. We have dif­fer­ent moth­ers, obvi­ous­ly, but the same father. 

And what’s so inter­est­ing to me about watch­ing my two broth­ers con­struct them­selves and how they oper­ate and how they live is that among oth­er things it says race is a social con­struc­tion. You can say it’s about blood. You can say it’s about this. So this idea of peo­ple being col­or­blind, it’s like what does that real­ly mean? 

And then they think well, if you shift it and if we move out of that frame­work, what we’re real­ly talk­ing about is… You know, the polit­i­cal notion for us is more about—it’s real­ly about being privilege-blind. Because there isn’t any­body who does­n’t notice who peo­ple are. Anyone who says to me, I don’t see race,” they are lying. They’re lying. They will be the first per­son to be like…well, who robbed the store? Well you know…the per­son was about 63”, he was black,” right?

But there are oth­er ways in which these things are con­struct­ed. We talk about his­tor­i­cal­ly black col­leges, uni­ver­si­ties, we nev­er say his­tor­i­cal­ly white.” You nev­er do, even though they are.

And if we did, how would that shift the sto­ry? If you said, I went to Harvard, a his­tor­i­cal­ly white uni­ver­si­ty,” how would that change it, and what would that mean about what Harvard would have to do to shift and change? To be a his­tor­i­cal­ly inclu­sive university.

But more impor­tant­ly about how these things are struc­tured and what gets embed­ded in our psy­che about the black future and about black life and about black pos­si­bil­i­ty has a lot to do with how we under­stand his­to­ry. And a big part of that is about the fact that we are taught that his­to­ry is essen­tial­ly a series of wars. And that the peo­ple who win are good peo­ple and the peo­ple who lose are bad peo­ple. No mat­ter what they do. Unless it’s the Holocaust. I think that’s prob­a­bly one of the few exam­ples of where peo­ple were vic­tim­ized where folks can step back and say, Okay, you know what? That was bad no mat­ter what.” 

But slav­ery, there’s still a debate on whether that was good or bad. Which is kin­da inter­est­ing, right? In fact, we don’t even refer to the peo­ple who were slaves…they’re not peo­ple. They’re just slaves. They’re not even human beings. We don’t talk about them as enslaved human beings, we talk them as just slaves. Which is dif­fer­ent, right?

And even the way we under­stand the way his­to­ry hap­pens in the US and the whole con­quer­ing of the indige­nous peo­ple is just— The fact that we learn his­to­ry from East to West instead of West to East has every­thing to do with that. So those frames become real­ly embed­ded. And so the idea of sort of imag­in­ing our­selves free is hard, because one, who’s wor­thy of being free? I mean you know, these peo­ple came and they had bet­ter guns… That’s the sto­ry, right? They had bet­ter guns and they were smarter. And so that’s how you know whether peo­ple are smart or not, because they can kill you, right? 

That’s not bar­bar­ic, that’s—which I would think would be bar­bar­ic and awful, right? That that’s how you would get your wealth, that you killed a whole bunch of peo­ple. But no, that’s con­sid­ered hero­ic. That’s how we learn it. Manifest des­tiny, all these oth­er real­ly strange ideas that are real­ly just inhu­man and vio­lent and awful. And so there’s only one way you can incor­po­rate and inter­nal­ize that in your life. If you accept that to be log­i­cal, then the only thing you can accept is that the peo­ple who it’s done to aren’t human. And so then that makes the idea of the black future hard to hold. Because who’s wor­thy or deserv­ing? They can’t be the peo­ple who just…let them­selves be enslaved. How could that be? 

And you don’t even learn about rebel­lion in school. Most of the stuff you learned about all that, some­body hand­ed you a book, or you went to some black his­to­ry thing, or some cool per­son in dreads steered you the right way. They’re just like your lit­tle guardian like, You know what? I’m going to wake you up, my broth­er, my sis­ter.” And you end up in the meet­ing and you’re like, Oh my God, I did­n’t know this!” Someone hands you that book.

John Steptoe, Birthday; image: Pitt Special Collections

But the thing that to me is real­ly inter­est­ing, and I put this up so you guys can see… How many of you have seen this chil­dren’s book before? Have you seen this before? Now, what’s inter­est­ing to me about this book is that the broth­er who wrote this book wrote a whole lot of chil­dren’s books, most of which are very famous. This is the only unfamous one out of the many—he wrote Willie’s Not The Hugging Kind, which is a very famous book on Reading Rainbow. This book is nev­er on Reading Rainbow.

…start­ed his career doing chil­dren’s books and he does the art as well. And one of the rea­sons why I fell in love with this book when I first saw it was because this is a chil­dren’s book about the black future. And I’m going to read some from it because I just love it so. And I can do this with­out my glass­es, that’s why I had to check to check to make sure. The print is big enough.

So this book, I said it’s called Birthday, and it’s about a young man who turns eight on this day. And so I’ll just say that and then I’ll read an excerpt and then I’ll show you a few pic­tures. And then I’m going to shut down so we can talk.

Today is going to be the best day of my life, and I’m going to have the most fun I’ve ever had. Today is spe­cial and I’m spe­cial, too, because I was the first-born in our new place. The first child of a whole thing. My name is Javaka and today is my eighth birthday.

We live right out­side the brand new town of Yoruba. My Daddy and his friends have farms around it. Yoruba is the name of a nation of peo­ple in Africa, and my Daddy and his friends decid­ed to name our place after it.

My Daddy always tells me about the times before we came here to live and the old America, where him and my Mamma used to live at. He says the peo­ple there did­n’t treat him like a man cause he was Black. That seemed stu­pid to me cause my Daddy is the strongest and smartest man alive.

Him and his friends could­n’t live there no more cause if he did­n’t fight to leave, his life would be no good. When I grow up, I’m going to be strong like my Daddy. I’m almost grown now, cause today I’m eight years old!
John Steptoe, Birthday

And so the whole idea of this book, and this is some of it, is that this is about a whole new nation that was found­ed. People came together—so this is post-strug­gle. This is after the strug­gle is done. Which is why it ain’t on Reading Rainbow, I guess.

And basi­cal­ly the sto­ry of this new nation is told through the eyes of this young man who’s so excit­ed. He’s the first child free child, I guess in the his­to­ry of the uni­verse. He’s the first black free child. So this is all about their town and the fact that they have this huge cel­e­bra­tion to cel­e­brate his birthday.

And one of the things I love about this and Sun Ra and oth­er imagery is that there’s so few glances that we have of the future. But what we know about the sci­ence of strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tions is that in order for peo­ple to under­stand and believe and engage in the work, they have to actu­al­ly believe that what you’re doing is possible.

And so the idea of cre­at­ing art, cre­at­ing imagery, cre­at­ing words, that help peo­ple imag­ine them­selves free is the most impor­tant thing that we can do to help [shape?] this work. And then a lot of times when we think about the work, we use the word strug­gle,” and we’re try­ing to engage peo­ple to strug­gle with us as opposed to be free. You know what I’m say­ing? And what I’m hop­ing we can begin to do is step back from that. 

I was at a meet­ing in Oakland at Marcus Books, which is a sort of hang­out around—it’s like a blackness-central spot in Oakland—on Martin Luther King. So you know it’s like a black book­store on Martin Luther King. That’s like, as black as you can get, right? And the con­ver­sa­tion was called Redefining Black Power”, so it was super black. And there was these young men, and they had berets on. So they were extra black. They had black t‑shirts, they were ready. And you know, they stood like this [stands at atten­tion with arms behind her back]. They were ready and they were all in their twen­ties and they were in the stance, because they had seen the movies with the Black Panthers and everything. 

And I loved them, and I loved the ener­gy, you know. And my part­ner’s some­one who’s a leader of the repa­ra­tions move­ment. So we were just in this extra black space, right. And one of the young men got up and he start­ed talk­ing, and he was like, You know what? What y’all need to under­stand is you have to be ready to die! You have to be ready to die for the strug­gle. If you ain’t ready to die, then we don’t have noth­ing to do with you.”

And I was think­ing you know, I remem­ber feel­ing like that. I do. But I do get to the point now where I feel like I’d like to have a moment where you know what, if some­one want­ed to bring me a pound cake…they could do that. They don’t have to die. If they want­ed to like, you know, put some chairs up, sign some peo­ple up, make a few phone calls, they could do that, too. And if they want­ed to ease up to dying, that’s fine. But you know, they don’t have to start off with that lev­el of com­mit­ment, right?

And so part of what I’m hop­ing we can start to think about when we think about black future is black future as fun. Black future as sexy, yeah. I’m all about that, you know? Black love is to be in black future, right. It should be about music, it should be about all of those won­der­ful things. And that we work and cre­ate and we think about our frames as some­thing that invites peo­ple to step into a future where we thrive and that we can help peo­ple actu­al­ly imag­ine black peo­ple thriv­ing, black peo­ple get­ting along, right? Just hav­ing fun.

So I want to open up for ques­tions, but before we do this, I just want­ed to play a song and let that be the last thing I say, if that’s okay. Just because it’s fun to do that, right, and see how that works out. This’ll be my East Coast con­tri­bu­tion, since I talked about Oakland.

Further Reference

A blog post about this pre­sen­ta­tion at the DS4SI site.