We are grateful to Aurielle Marie for helping our organization be more accountable to the values we espouse, and we hope their insight sparks robust conversation in more literary communities around belonging, activating personal responsibility, applying lessons, and change as a practice. As a nonprofit, we offer the caveat that this essay series reflects the author’s opinions and lived experience as an organizer and literary citizen.
This is the fifth letter in a series of 10 dedicated to engaging The Offing’s literary network in social justice and a value shift toward equity within our respective organizations. The letter was originally sent on February 28, 2021.
As a child, I remember Black History Month like a second Christmas, with an electric current running through my hometown of Atlanta. It felt almost palpable each February. My family did our best to “give back”— even as a working-class family, even as we struggled with houselessness, my mother made sure to drag us out of bed early on the late winter weekends to volunteer. My earliest understanding of what it meant to be a part of Black history was in the food line at Hosea Feed The Hungry, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, and in community clean-ups in the Historic West End. There was a sense of duty in these traditions. We participated, maybe, because my parents had themselves benefitted from these programs and felt indebted to contribute to a communal safety net in some tangible way. Or perhaps we participated as a way of communing with Black folks across an ever-widening wage gap, one that has since grown to be the largest in the nation.
Even then, I clocked the dissonance between Black History and those Saturday morning activities. While volunteering to support community programs can be instrumental in building strong interdependent neighborhoods, these practices are often detached from historical context, siloed into a single month, and never truly rooted in the ongoing struggle for equity and Black liberation. Black History must, for us, be more than brief vignettes of fragmented storytelling of bus boycotts and voter rights. This month is a reminder that we are the bridge between where we’ve been and where we’re going. February is as much about Black Futures as it is about Black History, and this month offers us a place to move from the imaginative into an actualized liberatory practice.
Audre Lorde writes to us from our post about history’s role in crafting possibility in her heralded essay, Poetry is Not a Luxury:
These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling. The place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep.
While January is a month for imagination and new beginnings, Black Futures Month is a time to ground ourselves in the old practice of world-building. For us, it may look like community teach-ins, mutual aid campaigns, joining a new political organization, or reading books by Black activists, artists and scholars. Honoring the legacy of Black History and the possibility of Black Futures both require that we move deeper into a political discipline in our day-to-day life. I like to think that while Black history requires our studiousness, Black Futures requires our action. I say that I celebrate “Black Futures” month because I believe in the principle of sankofa. Sankofa, meaning it is not taboo to reach back and obtain the knowledge we have lost. Sankofa, meaning Black history, is as much a map forward as it is a rearview mirror. I honor Black Futures month because it is only by the intricate technologies of Black resistance, Black joy, and Black creative legacy that I’m able to write to you, that I am able to both imagine and execute more radical ways of embodying a freedom praxis. This rhetorical shift takes its cues from Afrofuturist and Black writers, scholars, and artists who have continually located new modalities for Black resistance. The writings of Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Octavia Butler are not only reflections on history or musings from their former contemporary, but doorways from an old way of being into a new. Following these artistic musings, Black Futures month is a time to alchemize our dreams of the world into practice. As author N.K. Jemisin reminds us, “creators are the engineers of possibility.” So, imagine a world without violence and then create it. Dream your neighborhood in an abundance of food and resources. That is Black History. And, that is Black Future.
I understand that it is easier to treat Black History Month as a holiday than an invitation into the future. Reflection is a non-verb. It is a passive, docile, dormant thing. If you are an observer of history and its slope into the future, you don’t need to be a bridge. It isn’t required that you change, or grow, or assess your culpability or responsibility. But Black futures are being carved from the granite of inequity now. Black history is on this page, is in your classrooms, and is crawling up your front porch and looming in the doorway. We are the living bridge, and as such, have a responsibility to build ever forward in possibility. For non-Black people, that means that Black History/Black Futures extend beyond the shortest month of the year (I couldn’t help myself, reader). For me, that means teaching and memorizing the work of living Black poets and writers alongside our heroic elders, each of us continuing our sacred tradition of audacious imagining. What does it mean for you?
Inspired by Audre and by the Black Futures anthology curated by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham, I’m thinking of possibility this month as a kinetic thing, the inversion of inertia, an avalanche. Possibility as in potential energy, too; a forward-thrusting momentum. Afrofuturism’s footprint is a creative and political site, one that allows us to connect all this heady “resistance” talk from this series to each of our lives. Imagine Black futures as a fractal, expanding to include the radical praxes that shift our world, the living and emerging writers who bloom among us now, the creatives, the innovative Twitter users, even. Imagine that this structure can hold the causes we champion, the support, the communities they are accountable to, and future generations who depend upon the survival of our work. Access to afrofuturist literature, which is to say access to Black writers, is vital. Solidarity work, race-traitor work, anti-racist literal, physical work in the communities that house Black writers, that hold Black futures, is vital. I’m thinking of writer N.K. Jemisin’s practice of Sankofa in their work, how the literary becomes praxis when she reminds her peers that “the dreams of the marginalized matter, and all of us have futures.”
Futuristically Inclined, Historically Grounded
Watch living Black writer, scholar, and sociologist Eve Ewing interview the curators of the Black Futures anthology and pick up a copy of Black Futures for your reading this month.
“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything, and there were no walls to hem you in, and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.” – Spend some time with the miracle work of Octavia Butler via The Indypendent
In an interview with Time, N.K. Jemisin said, “…publishers have got to do some soul-searching. They keep hiring the same kinds of people. They keep promoting the same kinds of people. I understand that corporations are naturally risk-averse, but you can’t be risk-averse with art… The readership is America, and the industry needs to also reflect America.”
- Editors, agents, publishers, publicists, and other folks in the literary industry: how is your organization limiting Black futures? What does it look like to create space (or move aside, so that space may create itself) for Black living writers to thrive in your workspace?
- Teachers, scholars, and writers: Choose four books by living Black writers to fold into your next few curriculums, essays, book projects, presentations, and other literary/scholastic endeavors. Allow me to suggest: Cortney Lamar Charleston’s Dopplegangbanger, Dashaun L. Harrison’s From the Belly of the Beast, Aricka Foreman’s Salt Body Shimmer, This Bridge Called My Back, and Dionne Brand’s Map to the Door of No Return.
Anti-racist praxis don’t stop just cause you’re reading! Grab an accountability buddy to go through this anti-racist action map. Ready for the next step in anti-racism? Check out the anti-racist toolkit for deeper learning and more rooted frameworks.
May we each be the collective bridge that transports our world to a Black future in which we all thrive, fam. Happy Black Futures/History Month!