Jenna Wortham and Kimberly Drew Are Building Black Futures

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey, y’all…it’s Brittany. So Nelson Mandela had a saying, he said: “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” That has been a hard one to stand by this year. I mean, there have been some straight up losses. I’m not going to lie to y’all. And somedays it feels like there have been way more lessons to be learned than wins to have, but when things get really hard, I do come back to his perspective, the idea that lessons are a victory, especially if you’re listening right now.

Because it means you and me—we’re alive for another day to learn those lessons. So honestly, I’m holding onto the fact that there is a future and we get to design it. Even in the darkest times this year, that’s precisely what we did: I mean, the historic protests against police violence…


No justice, no peace!

…the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement has always been global, but it’s more connected than ever before… 


Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter

…the march in Brooklyn for Black trans lives…


Today is the very last day that transphobia will ruin the lives, loves, and joys of Black people. 

…y’all we even elected the first South Asian and Black woman vice president…

Kamala Harris And there is progress because we the people have the power to build a better future. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham We stepped forward into the light at the ballot box. And that’s what Georgia is once again doing in historic numbers during early voting for this Senate runoff election. This year has been hard and frustrating and sad and INFURIATING, but it’s been ours.

And so is the future. We are undistracted.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham On the show today…Jenna Wortham and Kimberly Drew. 

I’ll be talking to the editors of the new book “Black Futures” about archiving Black culture and what it means to be Black and alive right now and in the future. 

Jenna Wortham It’s important for us to remember that we might just trust ourselves. Therefore, we might just surprise ourselves. Therefore we might serve a purpose that is so much greater than we could ever imagine. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up. But first, some life lessons from 2020.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham 2020 has been a doozy—wild, ridiculous—I don’t know. There’s like not one perfect all-encompassing word for this year, but it has been brutal—if not deadly—for so, so many people. There also have been powerful moments of hope and really we’ve gained a lot of insight. I’m so thankful to be part of a collective of really smart feminist journalists and thinkers here at The Meteor.

So we reached out to members to get a sense of what lessons THEY are taking away from this past year. I’m starting with a woman I admire so much, the woman who actually organized that massive 25,000-person March for Black Trans Lives last spring. 

Raquel Willis Hi, my name is Raquel Willis. I am a writer and an activist. And one of the things that I think I learned and many others learned this year is that we have to figure out how to hold the things that are hard and the things that are helpful. So even when things are the most difficult that they’ve ever been, we can always find ways to continue to see our power and see helping tomorrow. 

Treasure Brooks My name is Treasure Brooks and I’m a Harvard student and a filmmaker. This year, I learned that community is a PROJECT. The summer protests specifically taught me that individualism spawned from white supremacy and patriarchy were our way into these problems, but they won’t be our way out. When we come together, we see that the issue is not scarcity at all and we have more than enough for everyone to not only survive but flourish.

Liz Plank Hi, this is Liz Plank, and I have really realized that it’s important to just spend time doing things that you like doing. It’s important to spend time seeing people that you like seeing. And it’s important to not waste your time, trying to read books that you feel like you should read or you aspire to read and just read books that you love.

Rebecca Carroll Rebecca Carroll—writer and cultural critic. I think my most salient reflection on 2020 is the gratitude I feel for having been able to watch my 15-year-old son grow in a way I haven’t since he was a child: to watch his body lengthen and his brain broaden; watch as he learns about himself in the world and know his place in my heart.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Listen to that wisdom—such wise perspectives. That was activist Raquel Willis, Harvard student Treasure Brooks, journalists Liz Plank, and cultural critic Rebecca Carroll. 

Coming up…I’ll be talking to the editors Jenna Wortham and Kimberly Drew about their new book “Black Futures” and the importance of archiving present-day Black culture.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham So what does it mean to be Black and alive right now? That is the question The New York Times journalist Jenna Wortham and curator Kimberly Drew are wanting to explore with their new book “Black Futures.” It is a cross-disciplinary collection and a gorgeous archive of contemporary Black culture. Really it’s a celebration of Black identity told through an array of photos and interviews, recipes, social media posts, playlists…It’s 500 pages and you will have the most fun getting lost in it. Contributors include artists, activists, athletes, writers, everyone from Sam Irby to Colin Kaepernick, to Nikole Hannah Jones, and Solange Knowles…

I found this book to be nourishing and inspiring. And as this hellish year comes to an end, I thought Jenna and Kimberly would be the perfect guests to talk to about where we are and where we’re going. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Jenna, Kimberly, thank you so much for being with us. I’m so, so excited to talk to you and to hear your voices during this wild year we have had.

Kimberly Drew What a time, truly.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Okay. So “Black Futures” to my understanding was born out of a series of DMs between you two, is that right? 

Jenna Wortham It’s true. I slid into Kimberly’s DMs. I was like, I am an admirer and I kind of wanted just a reason to talk to Kimberly also and a reason to take her lunch and just kind of sit in the same space and, you know, just kind of see what could emerge from it. And I’m so lucky, because Kimberly said “yes” we ended up meeting. This is the part where Kimberly always fills in the detail about where we were at and what we had. 

Kimberly Drew We were in Chelsea—setting the scene—Chelsea neighborhood, sat at an old-school style diner across a tiny table, which feels like a thing of the past now. But on my lunch break, Jenna Wortham arrived. 

Jenna Wortham Yes. And I, you know, it’s funny, because I at the time had been mostly working as a technology journalist in the newsroom at The Times and had been feeling, you know, like I wanted to branch out, I didn’t want to only write about social media and I also felt like the types of stories I was writing weren’t allowing me to capture fully what I was seeing on social media, which was this explosion of this kind of flourishing of Black culture that I felt like I was just really in awe of and amazed by and thought like, maybe there’s a way to talk about it or get our arms around it to record and acknowledge this excitement and just reached out to Kimberly. I mean, my initial idea was like, “oh, this will be a one-off quick thing. We can pull it together. Maybe it’s like a zine or a quick pamphlet or just an essay, a blog post.” I don’t know. And I’ve been a huge admirer of Kimberly’s Tumblr “Black Contemporary Art and Thought” maybe it could look similar with a little more context. And Kimberly—in the most Kimberly way—just like fixed to me with this steely gaze—those who know Kimberly know very well, like you’re just about to be lectured in the most fulfilling way. And Kimberly was like, this is a book, you know? And that was like the birth of it all. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I love that and I love that you’re really working to capture a moment that I believe is more than a Renaissance, right? I think people are used to talking about Black Renaissance and it almost feels reductive. So I’m really interested to get into what “Black Futures” is. Kimberly, how would you describe this to someone just putting their hands on it?

Kimberly Drew Yeah, I mean, I think Renaissance is such a tricky term because I think in many ways, one of the things I like the most about what we were able to create is that, of course it’s a book that’s interested in wrapping its arms around the production and productivity of this moment, but it is also so much bigger than a moment.

I feel like for us, we’re also trying to consistently break down these limitations of time and the windows in which we’re thinking about Blackness, because I think oftentimes it’s like, Oh, you know, people say like the Black Lives Matter moment, and it’s like, no, babes, it’s a shift in the way of thinking. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Jenna, archiving contemporary Black work, why does that feel so urgent to you right now? 

Jenna Wortham Yeah, absolutely. I think to underscore the point Kimberly made to that—we didn’t want to allow anyone else to define this time for us and even to say it was bracketed, right. We wanted to try to connect this into a longer through line to sort of contextualize our own experiences. And we were both observing as observers of the world and critics. And then also to recognize the scarcity that I think we both feel really strongly around social media and just how ephemeral it is. And there’s always this kind of panic. I know it drives my usage of social media, where I’m just afraid I’m going to miss something or I’m not going to see the thing. And I think that really speaks to this feeling of there’s more than we can take in. And I think a natural response to that is okay, well then, so what should we be preserving? Because these companies are not preserving it and these platforms are not prioritizing our lives and our creativity. I mean, they love to monetize it. They love to profit off of it, but are they caring for it? And so what does it mean to not even expect them to, and which is something I think we’re getting more versed in, right? Like people understand the importance of telling their own stories and that’s why we see the boom in podcasting, right. And like even just Instagram Live and those kinds of things, but what does it mean to start shepherding our own histories too, and start thinking about our own archives as well.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And this is…It’s wide-ranging. Right? So if you are picking up this book, thinking that you are going to get just one thing, you will be pleasantly surprised. It is an archive that includes poems and conversations, essays, artwork, memes, a recipe for coconut bread that I plan on trying. And in the introduction you write, “in developing ‘Black Futures,’ we sought to answer the question—what does it mean to be Black and alive right now? Kimberly, I’d love to know from you first, what is your answer to that question? 

Kimberly Drew I mean, I think for me, it is a very literal thing when it comes down to what does it mean to be Black and alive right now. It’s always something that’s consistently changing, but I think at a face it’s, I mean, today it’s really gratitude, feeling an immense amount of gratitude to be in community with the vibrant voices that are in the text.

But I think it’s an ever-shifting question and, and it’s intentionally very open in that way, because we wanted to, especially as Black femme editors, just open up the gate for the answer as wide as possible. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. I mean, when I opened the book and realized just all of the incredible people you have here, it felt like I felt like the family reunion we can’t have in 2020, you know, Donovan Ramsey and De’Ara Balenger. And you know, I’m looking at Naomi Wadler’s picture right now and Eve L. Ewing. I mean, it was just like this…Indya Moore…right. This cavalcade of names that I felt were embracing me in this moment is that as I started to turn each page. In the introduction to the book, you actually both wrote, “We have never been more empowered and yet in many ways are still so disenfranchised.” I feel like I know what you mean by that, but break it down. What exactly were you trying to say there? Jenna? 

Jenna Wortham Yeah, like we, oh my goodness. I mean, we have all these avenues available to us, right. We have all these tools available to us, and yet there are so many things right now from just even thinking about, you know, this most recent election and how we were on the cusp of becoming scapegoats for an undesired outcome.

And like that is so old that these narratives around what Black people need to do for this country and don’t do for this country are just so ingrained in these media archetypes and stereotypes that we’re still pushing back against. And so I think even though we have the ability to make so much in our own image, we have the ability to represent ourselves in all of these ways on, I guess, social media, you know, we still are battling these century-old archetypes about who we are as Black people. And that’s not even getting into all the other ways in which, you know, we are marginalized and oppressed from even having access to clean water. There’s several essays in the book about that, you know, having access to adequate housing, food insecurity—all the way down to state violence and microaggressions in our daily lives. I mean, it’s really confounding when you think about it. And I think sometimes that’s why when we look around, we have a really hard time, at least I do—I’ll speak for myself—I have a really hard time making peace with the calendar year. Like the calendar year tells me I’m in the future, but I feel like it doesn’t feel like where I’m supposed to be, right, like it doesn’t feel like whatever 2020 is supposed to meet. Like, it sounds like a sci-fi number, but like, it still feels like we’re so far from where we should be, you know? And so I think we’ll try to reflect a little bit of that duality in the book, but I’d be curious to hear what Kimberly has to say about that as well. 

Kimberly Drew I love everything you say! This is what happens when you make a book with one of your favorite humans. The only thing I would add is just to echo that, like we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our ancestors, we owe it to those who come after us to really reckon with the fact that no matter how fantastic we are and how majestic we are and how many innovations we may come up with from science to the dance floor, and we will still find ourselves being disenfranchised in these ways that are just like, so like as American as American pie, as people say, even though it’s like a global kind of system of anti-Blackness like this consistent metronome of oppression that just keeps rearing its ugly head on every shore.

And so it’s, I think it’s really important to hold that truth and also hold the abundance. You can’t have one without the other. And I think sometimes we can fall into the trap of [MOCKING] “this is what progress is.” And it’s like, oh, it is not. But through all of that, we still prevail. That’s what we’re trying to hint at in the book, you know, thinking about grief in the same way of thinking about joy, we have to as I think as Black practitioners, Black historians, appreciators of our own Black asses and our own Black lives, really, yeah, just hold all those truths to be valid and worth: worth reckoning with, worth sitting with, and worth challenging. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham This duality is REAL. In order to survive, right, Black people have always kind of turned our pain into our purpose. So is the ideal Black future one in which we don’t have to do that anymore? Is that even possible? Is that what we’re working toward? 

Kimberly Drew Ooh, that’s a good question. I don’t know that we’ve gained anything from running from the truth. And maybe that’s not the question, but I always am like, no, I really want to deal with these truths because they make the success, the triumph, all the more juicy and delicious.

Like I think that’s what, when I think about my own identity, culturally, you know, on a broader scale, I’m just like, we did all these things, all the surviving, all the, like, all this amazingness—and I don’t ever want to separate them. I also don’t want to continue to have to survive through them, which I think is more the question that you’re asking, but I don’t shy away from the grit, I don’t shy away from the overcoming because I’d rather completely eradicate it than to skirt by it. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah, I hear that. Any thoughts, Jenna? 

Jenna Wortham Maybe one of the hopes is that we start dreaming of the futures we want instead of pushing back against the past that was foisted upon us. Like that’s the thing I’m waiting for. And I think it’s happening simultaneously. Like I do think that’s happening. I think the resistance work is happening. The freedom dreaming working is happening. You know, it’s all happening in tandem. I just think that it’s more urgent or maybe it’s taking up more of the narrative or the dialogue to look at all the resistance work, which is so valid and so important, but I’m really excited for the time when we just get to sleep, right, and we get to rest, and then we get to dream, and then get to build. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And when everybody gets to do that, right, and not just kind of folks in the academy or folks who have the access or folks who have the means to take the time to dream. 

Kimberly Drew Yes, yes. Yes. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham In the book, you include Alisha Wormsley’s “There Are Black People in the Future,” her multimedia project. And when it came out back in 2018, the text was actually displayed on a billboard in Pittsburgh, “There Are Black People in the Future” and it kind of ridiculously sparked controversy. Kimberly, why do you think people are afraid of those words? Those seven very simple clear words. 

Kimberly Drew Ciao. I don’t know. 


I mean, I think for me, I was just like any of us were watching this happen and anyone who has the pleasure of knowing Alisha is like, who would dare, stare and stand in the way of this incredible artist who moves with such beautiful intention and such thoughtfulness. But I think that there’s a way—in the same way that people are like calling BLM a terrorist organization—there are multiple reads on these kind of momentums let’s call it. Whether that’s a phrase like “There Are Black People in the Future” or the profoundly beautiful idea of Black Lives Matter, there’s a way that we all are entitled to our own response to them as well, but I think for us, even if, you know, the project was limited and censored in many ways, there are so many other more opportunities in the broader kind of idea lives beyond this physical manifestation; lives beyond this, you know, unique kind of art space within this neighborhood. And it’s just as important that it exists there, but it was really beautiful to be able to, you know, inject it into this more permanent volume because it is such a beautiful project. And, you know, there ARE so many ways in which people just don’t want to see us survive and thrive and make beautiful things. And that’s okay. They’re prerogative, but we are, we are here to step up and step in to uphold and be like that firm foundation for the idea that Alisha put forward. And so I’m really thankful that we were able to include it in the book. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I love that. And one of the things Alisha wrote, or she quoted rather, the writer, Florence Okoye saying: “AfroFuturism dares to suggest that not only will Black people exist in the future, but that we will be the makers and the shapers of it too.” What are you hoping people make and shape from a book like this? 

Jenna Wortham I mean, what comes to mind? You’re such a good interviewer. These are such good questions. They’re making my brain so happy. What’s coming up for me is, you know, giving ourselves permission to be our own sources of joy. One thing that has been so apparent as this book has started to make its way out in the world is that it is delighting people and it is surprising people and it is bringing them pleasure in untold ways. And I think it’s such a profound reminder that we can offer that. Like, we can be our own sources of joy and we can find joy in books and in these realms and, you know, in these ways that right now it’s just in short supply and there’s…this has been a, you know, a year that’s been harder than most, but it’s just been a lifetime that has just been hard too…Black experience just has been hard. And so I think just remembering that we can take those pauses and we can find refuge in our stories and each other is the best reminder. It really is. Then, yeah, it’s making me take a deeper breath than any other part of this process. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I love that. Kimberly?

Kimberly Drew I hope that now people understand like those ideas that are percolating, those things that are like starting to make form in our dreams and our imaginations. There’s a time for it. Because I think when Jenna and I started this book, we could have never in a million years wished nor imagined that this would be the landscape that would be receiving it, but I feel so proud and so thankful to have it already right now, because I know I need this book, which is such a weird sensation. But to understand that the things that you might be making could serve a need that you can’t anticipate just yet. Because I think in general so many of us were marginalized in a myriad of ways. We convince ourselves that our work isn’t worthy or doesn’t need to be made, or isn’t as good as X, Y, or Z. But I think that it’s important for us to remember that we might just trust ourselves. Therefore, we might just surprise ourselves. Therefore we might serve a purpose that is so much greater than we could ever imagine, because I just really like from that first meeting in that diner in Chelsea would have never imagined that I’d be sitting next to this beautiful thing that we made. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham It is beautiful. And dare I say, I personally believe that it wouldn’t have been as beautiful if it hadn’t have been Black women, Black femmes, Black queer folks who were central in the writing of this history, the capturing of this archive, the determining of the future. What role do you think the folks who are Black and on additional margins have in determining that future?

Kimberly Drew I mean, I think in general, it’s like that beautiful phrase that comes from disability activists—I think in South Africa—that’s like “Nothing About Us Without Us,” and so there’s no way of imagining the future without thinking about all of the people who might be involved in it. And I will say like, you know, on a completely separate note, this is like the queerest Black book I think that has existed thus far. And I love that. I’m thinking that every day. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I love that. On a personal note, 2020 has been wild to say the least, that’s probably the safest word to use, but as we exit 2020, whatever time means, and we head into a new year, whatever that means, how are you viewing the future? Do you have any visions for it, Jenna?

Jenna Wortham Oh my gosh. It’s so day by day, it really is day by day. And I think My gosh, there’s this really great quote, Alexis De Veaux just incredible author, thinker, dreamer, the most Black Futurist person ever, you know, there’s this quote that’s making rounds that just says your next breath is the future. And I’m really living in that space right now. Like I’m just trying not to get too far ahead of myself because it’s overwhelming. And so I’m just for today. That can be the future of investing in, which is not the most expansive answer, but it is the realest one I can give right now. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And the gift of breath, because everybody is not able. What about you, Kimberly? You feeling optimistic, determined, ready? 

Kimberly Drew Oh, man. I don’t know if I’m feeling any of those things, but I appreciate the opportunity just, you know, as that’s kind of echoed and Alexis’s words, the opportunity to self-determine how I feel, because I think what is more frustrating than anything else about 2020 is the presumptions about how we all feel about it, because I’m just like, I don’t know, like we all have such individual experiences.

Like one of my close friends is working ER, and like, there’s just all these different, like myriad experiences that we’re all having in this cacophonous ass moment. And I’m really looking forward to more opportunity for us to maybe reflect on that. I think, especially after an election season, I just get tired of words like “we” and “us” I’m like, well—who the hell is “we?”


But I think, yeah, I think for the next, you know, for this next year, that’s coming up, I’m really open. I’m open. And I’m curious and I’m feeling really feisty more than anything else.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Feisty and ready to go. Jenna, Kimberly, thank you so much. 

Kimberly Drew Thank you, dear one. 

Jenna Wortham Thank you.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham Jenna Wortham and Kimberly Drew are co-editors of the new book “Black Futures.”

Your next breath is the future. Oh, there are 315,000 people and counting in this country alone, who don’t get to say that. What we owe each of them is to never, ever forget THAT truth. The millions of us who care about injustice want to fix absolutely everything right now. I get it, but that’s not how change happens.

So we don’t have to get too far ahead of ourselves. I don’t have to get too far ahead of myself, just like you all. I am looking forward to taking the time to rest and to dream. And then to build, I pray that this holiday season is full of rest and restoration for each of us. And my hope for 2021—the future I’m fighting for. It’s one where we can remember, we are only as strong as the community around us. And the community is only ever strong as we each make it. Speaking of the future, we were interested to know what you’re most looking forward to in 2021. What future are you fighting for? What future are you dreaming of? Here are just a few of your responses.

Anna from Baltimore said this:

Anna from Baltimore The future that I’m fighting for is a future that centers Black people, and more specifically Black women. As the co-founder of The Sadie Collective, which is an organization that seeks to increase the representation of Black women, I hope to see more Black women at the nexus of power and quantitative analysis.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Colleen said this in a voice memo:

Colleen I’m fighting for a future where all children are taught how to read. As a teacher, I know how much work it will take to overhaul our education system to make this expectation a reality. But I also know it is something we can, and absolutely must do.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Quinn from San Diego said this:

Quinn from San Diego The future that I’m fighting for is one in which high quality healthcare is free for every single person, whether you’re 95 years old, or you are a newborn—because healthcare should be a fundamental human right. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And my dear friends, George and Jovian had this to say all the way from Los Angeles:

George We are the proud parents and one-year-old Georgie, a Black child with a unique path to chart and purpose to honor. Our fierce fight is grounded in our fierce love. And so we fight for the Georges of the world. We fight for them to be free. 

Jovian Yeah, we fight for them to create, attempt, fail, travel, love. We want Black girls to experience the kind of carefree joy that comes from an easily accessed faith and a reality that regularly affirms that their existence and all that comes with it is seen, heard, and valued. We fight for Georgie. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Thanks to everyone who sent in messages. We always love to hear from you. You can reach us anytime at [email protected].


Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s it for today…but never ever for tomorrow.


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our Lead Producer is Rachel Matlow.

Our Associate Producer is Taylor Hosking. 

Thanks always to Treasure Brooks, Grace Chen, Hannis Brown

Our Executive Producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself. 

And our Executive Producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media, and our team @TheMeteor.

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED—and rate and review us!—on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you check out your favorite podcasts. 

It’s been such a beautiful start with you all. Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. Thanks for doing. Have a safe, and I hope joyous, holiday season! We’ll catch you all in 2021. Until then, happy New Year and take good care. 

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.