Happy Black Future Month! Talking about Blackness (Blackness, Afro-Americanness, Afrikanness, my people) is always an invitation to travel and movement in time, to madness and invention. This is especially true in our literary traditions. From griots to Afrofuturism and beyond, black literature – in its resplendent diversity – offers inspiration, respite and strategy.
In my latest book deja vu, I explore my own relationship to time and imagination as a black feminist performance artist, poet and writer. Invoking Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the inimitable Wanda Coleman, I cross my creative black feminist lineage and generations. By incorporating original performance texts and meditations, I also chart the trajectory of my embodied dreams: some that have come true, some that have not, and some that may one day come true.
This intertwining of dark dreams and dark times is the key to many books that I love. To celebrate this season (and challenge the slowness of the pandemic), here are some reading recommendations. (A longer program appears inside deja vu. ) For now, wallow in black memory, experience and desire. Sankofa. Go back to find him. Black futures are eternal. We will win one day.
Dark Quantum Futurism, Black Women’s Time Portal Guide
(Dark Quantum Futurism)
Any investigation of black time should begin with the visionary and groundbreaking work of Rasheedah Phillips and Camae Ayewa/Moor Mother, aka Black Quantum Futurism. With essays, rituals, resources, and links, this brief book is a “timescape/tapestry/timemap/non-linear toolbox preparing us for black women, quantum future(s)”. Are you ready for cultural recovery and liberation? Be ready. Stay ready.
*This book can help you. Breaking down the fundamentals of BQF, the book includes a “Time Inventory and Memory Survey of Black Women” to help you map your own time and chart your own dreams.
Cicely Tyson, Just as I am
In these wise memoirs, a legendary African-American actress recounts nearly a century of her life. Before his iconic roles in Sounder, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman, and How to get away with murder (as the mother of Viola Davis), Tyson was a hardworking mother who craved something more. Here, we watch her rise and achieve, tackle stage and screen, rub shoulders with stars, and embark on an epic relationship with Miles Davis. As I listen to this book about walks, I hear Mrs. Cecily’s voice and think of my elders. I feel both impressed and amazed.
Brontez Purnell and illustrations by Elise R. Peterson, Jacuzzi Gaskett nightlife
At the other end of the spectrum dwells black childhood. This lively picture book tells the story of an 11-year-old boy who takes care of his little brother while his mother goes out on the town. Against the stereotypes of the irresponsible single black mother or delinquent black youth, this book showcases Jacuzzi’s love for her baby brother and their special time together. Like Purnell’s (very) recent adult book 100 boyfriends, this book is funny, intelligent, surprising and irreverent. And Jacuzzi himself too. Peterson’s extraordinary photo collages also bring jazzy magic to every page.
Aïcha Sabatini Sloan, Borealis
In this book-length essay, a queer biracial black woman in Homer, Alaska contemplates the whiteness of the landscape and the urgency of the black figure. Poetic, incisive and often quite funny, Sabatini Sloan ruminates on former girlfriends, incarceration, boredom, the symbols of Jean Toomer Cane, and especially the icy work of Lorna Simpson. I read almost all of this book while traveling to and from an art opening in Pasadena, vibrant with its combination of seclusion and public space. Complete with pesky glaciers and bald eagles, this is a perfect book for winter dreaming.
Jerald Walker, How to Make a Slave and Other Trials
(Mad Creek Books)
On that same trip to Pasadena, I purchased this lean and explosive collection of essays. With a keen intellect, a biting wit, and startling pathos, Walker observes life in the 21st century as a black man in America. In the stunning title essay, he reconstructs and deconstructs black history with “pencils, popsicle sticks and glue” and, of course, “cotton balls” for Frederick Douglass’ White Afro . Walker then incorporates MLK’s FBI sex tape, bong hits, an old classmate they all called Congo, and his youngest son’s first experience of racism. Walker’s ability to remix the sustainable everyday becomes a marvel to behold.
Mimi Storm, Monumental memories
Printed in purple ink, this bold poetry debut arrives in a beautiful risographed edition. On the cover, we encounter a modified diagram of Saartje Baartman (aka the Hottentot Venus) with the superimposed words “Cut Here”, “Here” “And Here” and “CARPSE / ON DISPLAY”. This announces the central concern of the book: the ubiquitous dismemberment/recall of the body of black women. Tempestt re/marks on the trauma in his line/age/s then dreams of something better: “Here’s where: / I’m not beaten I’m not silenced / […] now is where we begin.
Emmelie Prophet (translated by Tina Kover), Blue
(Crossing the Amazon)
This Haitian impressionist novel also evokes matrilineage. Sailing through Miami airport en route to Port-au-Prince, the protagonist recalls the silences of the women in her family. She also ruminates on travels – migration, dislocation, exile: “I am ashamed of my escapes, of my escape… of the smell of blood that I have received; and these voices… these cries that echo in my head. Originally published in French in 2007 under the title The testament of lonelinessthis book now appears in English for the first time thanks to Kover’s translation.
Anais Duplan, I need music
Another child of Haiti is the extraordinary Anaïs Duplan, whose latest book offers poetry as ekphrasis. It sounds a lot heavier than it is because in reality he’s having a block party of evil black artists where the first line is “Wow, where did his crotch go?” Here the body separates or sometimes just comes in pleasure or by conjuration or art or in a new creative reflection of a myriad of black mirrors. Duplan creates and is interested in future blacks and homosexuals: “To see, to remember and to hold. »
Prince, The pretty
One of the greatest blessings in my life is being able to live with Prince. His death remains a devastation. Luckily for all of us, his music lives on, and so does this book. Not a full autobiography (Prince had just started writing it when he died), it contains notes on the projected book as well as amazing photographs, lyric sheets and handwritten pages. (The photos of her parents are particularly striking.) As I walk through this time capsule, I am reminded of the fragility of life, the buoyancy, and how much we need art to survive.
Toni Cade Bambara, The salt eaters
“Are you sure my darling, that you want to be well?” The opening question of this classic 1980 novel resonates deeply right now. In the age of Covid, what is black healing? After George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Amir Locke (and . . .), what is black resistance? What is our spirituality? How does the collective converge? Full of vivid characters and dreamscapes, this book raises and answers these questions. It becomes a medicine and a filler. If you haven’t read it, read it. If you’ve read it, read it again. (And consider ordering your copy from here.)
Gabrielle Civil’s book deja vu is forthcoming from Coffee House Press in February 2022.