The first thing you need to know about Black Futures is that it’s not a comprehensive document. At over 500 pages of essays, photographs, memes, tweets, poems, and more, the text may certainly seem exhaustive, but its editors, Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham, want to assure you: “A single book cannot attempt to contain the multitudes and the multiverse” of Blackness and Black culture.
Black Futures is a dynamic archival project that looks to the possible multiple futures that may unfold for Black people across the globe. It seeks to answer the question, “What does it mean to be Black and alive right now?” and provide a framework for thinking that is not chained to any kind of binaries. Work from contributors ranging from playwright Jeremy O. Harris and comedian Ziwe Fumudoh to musicians like Junglepussy and Solange Knowles fill the book, guiding readers toward an understanding of what Black creatives have conjured up this century, amidst a period of social and cultural transformation. Of course, the innovative nature of Black fashion is all over these pages, too.
There are some segments of the book where the works of Black trailblazers in fashion are specifically highlighted. For example, the fall 2018 campaign from Pyer Moss, which included Cowgirls of Color and Compton Cowboys as models (and furthered the “yeehaw agenda”), is featured 416 pages into the book. No Sesso, the genderless brand helmed by Pierre Davis (the first trans woman to present on the official New York Fashion Week calendar) gets some shine, as does cult favorite designer Martine Rose.
And those who have been following them on social media for years already know this, but it only takes a cursory glance at their respective Instagram accounts to discover that both Wortham and Drew have their own unique and personal relationships to style.
Black Futures is best read slowly, with a device nearby for research (for example, once you see Kerby Jean-Raymond’s past Pyer Moss campaigns in the book, you might want to open up a tab to watch his stirring spring 2020 fashion show held at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre last fall). It also functions as a good gift to give to yourself or a friend. And whether you’re in the middle of reading the book, just finished it (lucky you) or had not heard of it until now, this conversation between Wortham and Drew (recorded via Zoom, of course) offers insight into the collaborative process of making Black Futures, the duo’s favorite fashion pop culture moments, and the perks of taking style notes from your friends.
How did working on this book with each other, and also with other creators who contributed, change the way you think about collaboration?
Jenna Wortham: For me, it really illuminated the power of collaboration and the importance of it. I think so often in our culture, it feels like maybe we’re socialized or convinced that maybe we should try to do things ourselves and claim all the glory for ourselves, or maybe it’s a fearfulness around what it means to ask for help. It is true that there is a vulnerability and a trust fall and an intimacy that is required of a close collaboration that does make it feel fearful, but coming through on the other side of it, to me, the greatest success of the book is that our friendship is intact and we are in love with each other even more. I’ve just learned so much about trusting myself and trusting other people through that process, and it’s really been incredible.
Kimberly Drew: I love everything that Jenna said. The only thing that I would add—and Jenna has heard me say this a million times—but I think in a moment where there is this insistence upon self-care rhetoric or this expectation that you as an individual need to do the best to take care of yourself to succeed or survive within capitalist structures, it’s really nice to understand the deep power—and the power specifically being vulnerability—in collaboration. I can’t imagine doing something without a committee. Every project I’ve had that’s been even relatively successful has been done with other people. We’re both really big proponents of group work, so I appreciate that question very much.
You started working on this project before everyone went into lockdown. But I have to imagine you were both still very aware of the conditions under which a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities could flourish and spread. What’s the timeline of when you started the conversation to work on this project together, when you filed the text, and if earlier this year there were any thoughts on trying to respond to or incorporate this current moment into the conversation surrounding the book?
Kimberly: The introduction tells the origin story, but the latter part of your question is quite interesting in terms of thinking of linear time and how to respond to these moments. I think 2020 especially felt like this reckoning moment for so many—some folks were coming into the incredible injustices and potential for violence in the world for the first time, or maybe in a new way, and for so many they were just like, okay this is more of the same old stuff. We wanted to create a text that felt really alive and really relevant, something that we hope would age really well and thoughtfully. So, how do you tackle conversations around justice in a way that feels fruitful and generative and informative, conversations around grief in the same tone as conversations around joy? Working over time, we wanted to make sure we were pulling materials that felt like they could be really relevant, especially because Black progress on a global scale is so circular, unfortunately. We’re finding ourselves in another moment where we have to, again, say “Black Lives Matter.” So how can we make a cultural product that speaks to that, but also says, through all of this there is resilience and joy, and here are some ways to imbue your own life with these tender, delicious, good things.
In the introduction to Black Futures, you state that this is not designed to be a comprehensive document because you see Blackness as infinite. Do you have plans to collaborate on more projects like this over time together?
Jenna: It is an open-ended question. If you asked us six months ago, when we were really in it with the edits and the admin and all the difficult parts, it would have been a pretty strong no. But I think we learned a lot in this process and there is so much we didn’t get to do in round one—even though we did get to do so much in over 500 pages. I think it’s become very clear that this is such an open-ended prompt and we’re open to seeing where it goes. The first leg of the book tour is over, but we’re still planning events into the New Year. It’s not winding down any time soon.
You also encourage people to read the book alongside a device, which feels like the opposite of what you’re often told in school. I like that you opened things up for a prismatic experience of learning through this text, but also simultaneously using a device to find terms or people or watch videos that are referenced and cited. From the beginning, did you always know you wanted something that would necessitate dividing your attention onto a device alongside the book?
Kimberly: We say it wasn’t comprehensive because we wanted people to know that this is not an exacting document. We want people to have these incredible research journeys and adventures. If you read one page and end up in a deep spiral on some website or listening to someone’s playlist—Jenna and I were just working on a project and sharing links—that kind of exchange can be so delightful. And that’s what we wanted to imbue in the book. I had a similar education that was like, you have to read this page then this page. I think that limits the opportunity for a profound experience. We wanted people to have a “choose your own adventure” kind of journey.
It’s clear throughout the text that there are elders and influential texts that inspired you to create this work. I’m wondering about your personal relationships to style and self presentation—do you have a person, group, or period that is influential to you, like a style icon?
Kimberly: I feel like I’m in a period of being extremely self-referential, which is not super fun, but I keep uncovering these photos of myself as a child, and I’m just trying to get on that level. [Laughs.] Somehow I managed to put on 15 colors and it worked and I don’t know if it was me or my parents, but I really dig the energy. I only say that to pause, I’m going to think some more.
Jenna: I learn a lot from Kimberly about the power of fashion. Fashion overwhelms me and I don’t know where to start or how to figure it out, and it’s fun to just be playful. I think I’ve learned to experiment and be fun and play with color. I would love nothing more than to spend all of my days in a matching top and bottom organic linen set. Like, all white or natural colors. That’s it for me. When I watched the Erykah Badu and Jill Scott Verzuz battle, those two have always informed aesthetic choices, lifestyle choices, and even spirituality choices. Seeing them enter into a different phase of their lives and careers, and watching both of them do that Verzuz, I was like, yes I am constantly oscillating between these two energies. That’s the best way I can describe what I think of as a fashionable influence. These women make sense to me in terms of guideposts or North Stars. I felt at home watching the two of them and I knew my rightful place was in between.
Kimberly: I’ve been thinking a lot about Lorraine Hansberry in terms of style icons. I don’t necessarily have a desire to dress the way that Lorraine Hansberry did, but I feel like there’s this way that both Lorraine Hansberry and Pauli Murray dressed themselves as writers that had a profound influence on both of us. I just love the chicness and the tailoring. I love the idea of bespoke things because, especially now, we’re seeing so much fashion that’s like, I have to fit myself into this thing. Instead, I’m really enamored with the idea of something that fits just so—whether that’s because they made it themselves or a friend made it for them. I’m intrigued by the way their bodies held their garments, the way they were self-positioned and the way they were photographed over the course of their lives.
Kimberly, you mentioned what your style as a child was like a minute ago, but Jenna, I’m curious to know what your style was like when you were younger?
Jenna: I was a little Black vegan hippie in college. [Laughs.] I went through a period of making my own clothes, but I never learned how to sew. When I was really small, I preferred gender-neutral clothing. I was really into thrifting, fabrics, patterns. I was self-styling in this Bohemian, Badu way. I guess I never changed. I always imagined myself in this Afro-centric, Boho, kind of Cali-girl vibe.
You’re both very well-connected in the fashion world. Is there a friend or designer whose style you admire right now?
Kimberly: Gabriella Karefa-Johnson is my contemporary friend style icon. I can’t wait to be able to work together on something, but I feel like Gabriella and I have this aesthetic friendship that goes beyond the words that we say to each other. She’s a stylist who’s worked so hard and not gotten boring in the process.
Describe your personal style in three words.
Jenna: Shimmering, luminescent, glow. I love anything that catches the light. You can always find me in a sequined body net. I want to have my first child in that, I want to be buried in that, I want to be married in that—that look is so me. I always want to look like either a glittering orb or a freshly glazed donut. [Laughs.] It’s true. Oh, I guess also Diana Ross! Vintage Diana Ross, too. I love that high glam. Diana Ross meets…well, Kimberly will have to think of who that other bookend is because I like the glam, but I also need something more masculine.
Kimberly: It’s definitely a Diana Ross and Tracee Ellis Ross vibe, but I know that’s not what you mean. I feel like Tracee in a lax look is very your energy. She’ll have on a Moncler, very chill moment. I have a vision of what you mean. Three words for me are festive, chaotic—which is what I’ve gotten from friends who love me—and personal. A lot of the stuff I have is actually gifted from friends. My favorite things are gifted.
Do you have a favorite fashion moment from pop culture that you love to think about all the time?
Jenna: I do, one hundred percent. I think about Rihanna, was it the CFDA awards? The Swarovski and the durag and the mink? I mean, that is, to me, chef’s kiss perfection. That’s what my brain looks like all the time. [Laughs.] And everything Blue Ivy wears on a red carpet! I love that baby.
Kimberly: One of the things I’m genuinely sad about on a daily basis is that I don’t own any Hood By Air. But to this day, there’s nothing that compares, in terms of personal impact. People say “cultural reset” but I think they really actually did it in a truly profound way. I think of those runways if I close my eyes and dream about pop culture, if I’m not thinking about Björk in a swan dress. [Laughs.]
Have you ever received any good fashion advice?
Jenna: The best fashion advice I’ve ever gotten is from Kimberly, which is that you should feel good in what you wear. It’s not necessarily about feeling attracted to something that’s trending or a name brand, but how you feel when you put on this garment—whether that’s sexy or vibrant. You shouldn’t feel uncomfortable, because then it shows in the clothing. I’ve taken that to heart.
Kimberly: I got the advice to be thoughtful about patterns because they date you, but I feel like I did the exact opposite of that. I love betraying that rule. And I’m happy to know it to betray it.
What are both of you wearing today, and why did you decide to wear it?
Jenna: I’m wearing a mauve, parachute, waffle-weave thermal set. It’s a long-sleeve top, thermal booties, gold glitter socks, and my Adidas chanclas, which are just house slides that my partner bought me. I’m wearing these pearl earrings that I haven’t been able to stop wearing, and a Heron Preston padlock gold chain necklace. The padlock has significance for me personally, but just the weight of it on my neck is really reassuring, and I grab onto it when I’m thinking.
Kimberly: I’m wearing a Collina Strada hoodie, which is pretty much what I always wear. Underneath that, I’m wearing a Bephies Beauty Supply t-shirt. And I’m not wearing pants, which is why my camera is off. [Laughs.]