The exhibition begins before you enter the Oakland Museum of California. You’re given an affirmation in stark white capitals over a solid black background, impossible to miss. “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE”: a simple, declarative sentence that reads like an incantation, at once obvious and yet curiously charged with melancholy.
What kind of world requires us to be reminded that “There are Black people in the future”? Evidently, the same one that requires us to be reminded that “Black lives matter.”
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The artist Alisha B. Wormsley may have considered a similar line of thinking when she emblazoned this phrase on a billboard in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in March 2018. The seven words grew into “a mantra” for her, an optimistic memento vivere she cherished.
Some neighbors, however, took her billboard’s innocent message of uplift as a provocation. In response to their “objections to the content,” it was removed before a month passed. The effacement “deeply saddened” Wormsley, but her mantra took on a life of its own in certain corners of the internet — the phrase registers about 635,000 hits on Google — where its forward-oriented message inspired Black netizens, artists and writers alike to imagine beyond the “white rage” that seethes in America.
“Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism” devotes considerable floor space to precisely this point: that, in the face of anti-Black racism and daunting obstacles to their success, Black communities across the globe have persisted in part by imagining new and brighter futures. Such imagining has historically functioned as both psychic armor against racist violence and a blueprint for what Black Americans would do when the time came. (Formerly enslaved people, for instance, developed the model for what would later become the United States’ free public school system.)
In this vein, “Mothership” treats Afrofuturism not as an end (something to learn), but as a means (something that teaches). This is different, say, than if curators had simply compiled a laundry list of accomplishments or victories led by Black Americans. Instead, they’ve marshaled an active experience — as museum-goers are tasked with making connections among and unraveling the context behind the works themselves.
The exhibition showcases a wealth of artistic contributions of Black folks across media and specializations: from literature, music and visual art to tech, film and academic scholarship. In this balancing act, Blackness, in all its vibrant complexity, is treated with a loving hand.
The potential for genuine social justice threads the varied pieces in “Mothership,” too. There is artistic excellency and wrenching beauty on display, but what stands out, above all else, is the resiliency of the Black community. Painful wounds, wounds that still pour with blood, are acknowledged yet not dwelt on.
You shake your head, for instance, for Henrietta Lacks, whose eponymous “HeLa” cells were harvested without her consent at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and used to study countless ailments from AIDS to leukemia to COVID-19, but “Mothership” doesn’t ask for your tears or pity. Instead, it asks that Lacks’ legacy, along with that of so many others like her, be honored and that these figures be given their due.
With its orientation toward the future, it should come as little surprise that the famed Black speculative fiction writer Octavia E. Butler makes an appearance early in “Mothership.” Speculative fiction, like its more famous cousin, science fiction, envisions realities beyond our own and peddles those narratives to audiences. Authors in these genres spend their days projecting selfhood into an unknowable future, but in that process, they take concerns about technology, politics and, in Butler’s case, racism with them.
As such, the genres tend to serve as a barometer for the social anxieties and collective dread that defined the year — or even decade — a book was published in. (Think of Butler’s “Lilith’s Brood” trilogy, published 1987-1989, preoccupied as it was with the possible fallout from a life-annihilating nuclear war.) Sometimes, these novels read like prophecy.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, many bookworms turned to Butler’s apocalyptic fiction for a sense of clarity and hope. Her 1993 novel “Parable of the Sower” shot to the New York Times’ bestseller list in early September 2020, a first for its author. Butler herself was quick to emphasize during her life, however, that the eerie clairvoyance of her novels is mostly happenstance.
She didn’t “predict” the future any more than, say, George Orwell “predicted”a post-truth world in his 1949 novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” or Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” “predicted” a turn toward imperious control of women’s bodies in recent decades. Rather, Butler numbers among the formidable fiction writers who inspect the present, pick it apart and construct a future that to readers decades later appears as if it came to her in a crystal ball.
And yet, as “Mothership” demonstrates, her fiction finds intimate parallels to real life with alarming accuracy, to say the least. Butler’s 1998 novel “Parable of the Talents” narrates the rise of a zealot to the White House, campaigning on a promise to “make America great again.”
Clairvoyant or not, Butler serves as a reminder that Black artists and academics become privy to prevailing cultural and political trends long before they become common knowledge — in other words, before they are publicized by white journalists, scholars or commentators. In a decades-long pattern, accolades are attributed to white folks, while the heartache and hard work belong to Black folks.
Disregard of this magnitude of course does not become institutionalized without years of practiced impunity. Despite their critical importance to American art history (think: blues, jazz, R&B, the Black Arts Movement), Black artists don’t typically receive acclaim commensurate with their contributions.
Either that or their influence is siloed away in subgenre. Butler, for instance, while commonly acknowledged as “the mother of Afrofuturism,” isn’t so often cited as a leading figure in science fiction, notwithstanding multiple Hugo and Nebula awards as well as a prestigious MacArthur “Genius Grant” to her name. “Mothership” pays careful attention to this story and, in its own way, attempts to right some of these wrongs.
Nearby, fittingly, is a corner dedicated to William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. Finding the Harvard-trained sociologist here surprised me — I wrongheadedly assumed “Mothership” would focus only on “fine art” — though his spot is certainly well-deserved. W.E.B. Du Bois was a forerunner in the fields of data visualization, which, as I learned from the collection of his visualizations, require much the same eye for color and composition as any painting.
They’re remarkable. With the images blown up large, Du Bois’ careful hand is easy to discern. Clearly, he took great pains to neatly trace the trajectories of his spiraling “City and Rural Population, 1890” and to slice up his pie charts: “Occupations of Negroes and Whites in Georgia” and “Assessed Valuation of All Taxable Property Owned by Georgia Negroes.” Infographics transform jumbles of numbers into easily digestible and effective communication devices.
While such visualizations are commonplace today, the choice to render data in this manner reflected a novel pedagogical strategy that Du Bois used to emphasize the inequalities Black Americans faced in employment and property holdings. His intended audience, these figures make clear, included the general public — not merely professorial types in their respective ivory towers. The infographics debuted at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris along with warm black-and-white photographs of Black Americans at work and at leisure.
His genius notwithstanding, Du Bois is often sidelined as an actor in the development of sociology and history as modern academic disciplines. (Aldon Morris, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, labeled Du Bois “the scholar denied.”) It is instead a white scholar, Robert E. Park of the University of Chicago, who is often credited with forging the field of modern sociology in the United States. Regardless, Du Bois’ influence in academia and on intellectuals remains undeniable — if often unacknowledged.
Come to think of it, “Mothership” as a whole adopts a Du Boisian sensibility, particularly in terms of what the scholar labeled “double consciousness.” In his pathbreaking “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903), Du Bois defined this “peculiar sensation” as the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” and “measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
American racism, as Du Bois had it, distorted the perception Black people held of themselves. White supremacy encouraged — in fact, required — debasing Blackness, which for centuries meant creating the precise conditions that would all but ensure Black folks remained a lower class in the United States. Predictably, ideologues looked at the effects of this planned impoverishment and ran with it, gleefully citing it all as evidence of inferiority. For Du Bois, these realities sediment by generation and eventually infect Black Americans, whose self-image is tarnished by white supremacist myths about Blackness. Yet, external denigration never fully supplants positive self-perception; Du Bois credits the “dogged strength” of the Black community for not “being torn asunder” in such a hostile environment.
The filmmaker Kahlil Joseph’s 47-minute “BLKNWS®” reel epitomizes a facet of this “double-consciousness.” Without a doubt the most popular of the exhibits both times I visited “Mothership,” Joseph’s exercise in what he calls “conceptual journalism” highlights, on one hand, the pain of Black families witnessing racist violence on cable news and, on the other, the yearning for alternatives to this model.
“BLKNWS®” bombards you with images in rapid-fire succession: the cargo hold of a slave ship, Ku Klux Klan hoods and the mugshot of the neo-Nazi who tried to incite a “race war” during his murderous rampage on a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, on the evening of June 17, 2015. The montage gives the sensation of an onslaught, which I imagine was the artist’s intention: demonstrate the deluge of tragedy that greets Black Americans each day on their television sets.
Rather than give in to this impulse, letting habituation get the best of him, Joseph formulates an alternative. Black ingenuity is celebrated (“You made this … and that,” a voice croons over a fast-track montage of creations credited to Black inventors) while white inventions (anti-Black racism, appropriation, slavery) are called out (“Not this! Not this!”, it cheekily repeats). Tender moments feature prominently in the reel: Herbie Hancock explaining his adoration of trumpeter Miles Davis and a father vocalizing to his son on FaceTime.
Joseph elects not to spell out a central conceit of “BLKNWS®,” so I will: Moments of Black joy, from the mundane to the sublime, belong on broadcast. And in a museum.
All things considered, museums have come a long way. The first-ever exhibition of Black art in the United States flopped in spectacular fashion. “Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968,” the exhibition in question, premiered at the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969, and from its opening, the show was plagued with scandal. Not only did the Met exclude Black artists and Harlem residents from showing at an exhibition allegedly organized on their behalf, but also the catalog featured an essay replete with anti-Semitism that masqueraded as objective “sociology.”
Things didn’t improve inside the exhibition space. For one, Black New Yorkers took issue with the anthropological tone of the show, their main grievance. Many felt the curation treated Harlemers like specimens for scientific inspection, suspended inside vacuum-sealed bell jars. It didn’t help that the thrust of the exhibition, according to the curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, focused on the “sights and sounds of Harlem from the 1900s to 1968.” In artspeak, “sights and sounds” meant photographs, which comprised the majority of the exhibited artworks. Not a word on the place of Black art in the American tradition, much less the titular “cultural capital” of Black folks. Adding insult to injury, the curators were all white.
“Harlem on My Mind” was about Harlem residents, sure, but it certainly wasn’t for them. No, a project dedicated to, designed for and curated by Black people would come seven years later when David Driskell, an artist and professor at Fisk University, concocted a response to The Met’s failures.
Driskell’s “Two Centuries of Black American Art” opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, exhibiting works that dated from 1750 to 1950. Everything from painting and sculpture to crafts and decorative arts received the due care and attention it deserved as objects in the development of Black art into a vibrant, multifaceted field. In 1977, the exhibition showed in Dallas, Atlanta and Brooklyn.
Driskell reminded the art world that, in terms of cultural production, Black Americans and the Black community writ large are the movers, shakers and cultural tastemakers of much of what’s considered “American culture”: gastronomy, music, slang. As in 1976, so too today. If there is such a thing as a discrete “American culture,” much is owed to Black Americans for defining its parameters.
Novel technologies and gadgets aside — “Mothership” is an exhibition about Black futurists and their creations, after all — it’s important to remember that the racism that pervades American life does not stop short of Silicon Valley or its creations. I’m thinking in particular of the work of Black scholars like Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru sounding the alarm about the racist outcomes of artificial intelligence. Indeed, instances of algorithms and machine learning churning out disturbing outcomes are legion.
Facial-recognition software has been shown to misinterpret — or poorly interpret — any faces that do not belong to white men. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s artificial intelligence bot, Tay.AI, regurgitated Nazi ideology after being fed a diet of hate-filled vitriol on Twitter. A similar, though more lighthearted, situation arose in China in 2017 when the tech giant Tencent was forced shut down two chatbots, Baby Q and Little Bing, after they criticized the Chinese Communist Party as “corrupt” and “incapable.”
Technology, it would appear, has a strange knack for magnifying our worst behaviors and anxieties only to render them even more phantasmagoric. Yes, white supremacy reigns the darkest corners of the internet, but many were still shocked by the speed at which these impartial chatbots were poisoned and radicalized by racist ideologies. (If it happens to robots, surely it happens to humans, too, we theorized.) For better or worse, technology is fashioned in the image of its creators.
Which returns me to “Mothership.” Though “Afrofuturism” refers to a cultural movement, aesthetic and imagination fiddling with the intricacies of a new future, its adherents recognize that any future is necessarily built from the present. Afrofuturism itself grew out of painful lack (shallow caricatures of Black life, a lack of representation in media, a dearth of heartening optimism) and into a movement that replenished hope for those fighting for equity.
The contents of “Mothership” attest as much: There’s the poet June Jordan’s work with Buckminster Fuller on equitable housing and redevelopment in Harlem. Then there’s W.E.B. Du Bois’ belief that the abolition of slavery would require a total reconfiguration of American democracy (what he called “abolition democracy”). Jordan and Du Bois, in their own ways, understood that social advances, no matter how drastic, inevitably run into technological, political and budgeting constraints if public opinion doesn’t make similar advances.
While American history offers object lessons on our past failures, artists and thinkers like Butler, Du Bois and Jordan, mine the archive for inspiration for a more equitable future. Some look like discarded blueprints (as in the urban design work of Jordan and Fuller), some like fever dreams (the musician Sun Ra’s fantasy of terraforming a new planet) but the most remarkable look like the ordinary work of daily life (i.e. the father cooing at his son over FaceTime). “Mothership” seems to be getting at a similar point, though the exhibition never spells it out so explicitly.
None of this is going away. Technologies march ever onward, much as we may protest. So, rather than fight it, it becomes ever more apparent that the concerns of Black folks, especially Black women, ought to be taken seriously. It is precisely the work of Black artists, musicians and thinkers at “Mothership” that offer us new visions to build for the future. Now more than ever.
“Mothership: Voyage into Afrofuturism” will be showing at the Oakland Museum of California through Feb. 27. The museum at 1000 Oak St. in Oakland is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, and admission for the “Mothership” exhibition is $21. For tickets and information, visit museumca.org.