#blackhistorymonth “How long ’til Black Future Month?”* Celebrating Black narrative inspiration

For Black History Month, here are our top ten Black inspirations for framing & narrative for the future.

In no particular order, because #hierarchyispatriarchy:

adrienne maree brown

Pleasure activist, doula, science fiction writer, social justice facilitator, Octavia Butler scholar: if you aren’t already stuck into amb’s work, you have a world of joy and revelation ahead of you.

The piece I take most strongly from her on narrative work is around having a compelling vision. She describes social justice work as the work of science fiction and says “we are in an imagination battle” (Emergent Strategy, p.18-19). She quotes Toni Cade Bambara in insisting that we must make the revolution “irresistible”. In Pleasure Activism, she takes us on a deep dive into how we centre black healing, liberation and joy. And, in her exploration of fractals, she makes it clear that our vision must be threaded throughout our practice: “the health of the cell is the health of the species and the planet.” (Also check out my blog inspired by this idea.)

Ben Okri

A storytelling and lyrical giant, author of the beautiful and haunting The Famished Road among much, much more since. He not only tells beautiful, complex, humanising stories, he also speaks eloquently on the role of language and narrative in shaping our societies.

Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.”

In June, following the brutal murder of George Floyd, he asked if anything had ever better expressed the experience of racism as the narrative held within the words I can’t breathe.

Not even William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, James Baldwin or Toni Morrison at their most eloquent came out with anything as simple in the genius of its truth as: ‘I can’t breathe’… The truth is that ‘I can’t breathe’ hints at the apocalypse of human values.”

Octavia Butler

Legendary sci-fi writer extraordinaire. That Parable of the Sower landed in the NYT’s bestseller’s list, 27 years after it was first published and 14 years after Butler’s death, is not at all surprising to me. Me and a significant segment of my wider friendship group—independently and interconnectedly—all found ourselves drawn to it when the pandemic hit, and I’ve heard many desperate pleas of ‘Who’s got [the sequel] Talents?!’ in WhatsApp/Signal groups in the past few months. Essential apocalypse reading.

The Parables series is chockablock full of lessons for social justice movements but I’m just going to highlight one: being prepared for what’s ahead. “(With forethought and work / We shape God [change].”) Movement and framing work is so often reactive, fire-fighting, meeting each obstacle anew. Butler challenges us to learn from history and observation in order to stock up and be ready for the inevitable. For me, this means packing a narrative ‘go bag’: equipping ourselves with the right tools to be ready for whatever is round the corner.

NK Jemisin*

The author of our title* (taken from here and her collection of short stories of the same name), as well as the unbelievable Broken Earth series. What I love about her work is that she’s not just bringing more diverse / women of colour characters into the sci-fi / fantasy world, but radically shifting that world. In the Broken Earth series, motherhood and grief are central narrative pillars in the story’s arc, in ways that feel radical in that space.

Claudia Rankine

Poet, essayist and screenplay writer: her Citizen: An American Lyric is a poetic masterclass in narrative analysis. The section that dissects the experience of Serena Williams makes my whole body shrivel.

Black Lives Matter

One of the most powerful, narrative-shifting frames of the 21st century (in my opinion). Just as Occupy’s framing of the 1% threw the extreme inequalities of neoliberal capitalism into sharp relief, this movement-building frame exposes the cruelty of white supremacy every time it is spoken. I think these three words are a strategic narrative masterclass in and of themselves: they are meaningful (think about what it would mean for our society and institutions to truly believe this), polarising (think about what it means to disagree, or qualify this statement), and base-building (think about how it makes you feel as a black person).

People said we should call it All Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter Too, if we wanted to get more people involved.”—Alicia Garza

Jaw drop.

As organisers and activists, and part of the broader Movement for Black Lives, they have also been a masterclass in movement-building: decentralised, prepared and ready for action, centred on healing justice.

POSE

If the magnificent Laverne Cox lit the flame for QTPOC representation in mainstream television in her role in Orange is the New Black and her subsequent spokesperson status, the writers, producers and cast of POSE took that flame and burnt the whole house down. True proof-of-concept of investing in the storytelling expertise of those with lived experience. Race, class, gender and sexuality are all simultaneously central and backgrounded in the characters’ stories, just as is true to any of our identities. Humanising, beautiful, celebratory, heartbreaking. Etc! All the good things, basically. Big warm fuzzy queer joy. Plus the best of eighties fashion.

Layla Saad

Author of the soul-searching, ground-breaking workbook, Me and White Supremacy, and host of the Good Ancestor podcast, Layla Saad describes her work as being driven by “a powerful desire to be a good ancestor; to live and work in ways that leave a legacy of healing and liberation, especially for black girls and black women.” She grounds her work in the legacy of the greats she considers good ancestors themselves: Toni Cade Bambara, Audre Lorde, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Octavia Butler, to name but a few. Building on this foundation, she provides us with the tools to “recognise your privilege, combat racism and change the world”: crucial, critical, urgent work for any of us in civil society and social movements, and no less so for those of us working with narrative and framing. Don’t be like “I know all that Peggy-McIntosh-backpack stuff; I loved Get Out.” Just do the damn workbook.

Shanelle Matthews

Narrative and framing guru, Comms Director at Black Lives Matter, all-round total powerhouse shero. Founder of the Radical Communicators Network (RadComms), an invaluable resource and truly skill-sharing, collaborative hub, for anyone working in social-change comms. Developed Channel Black, an immersive training program that prepares progressive spokespeople to make critical, real-time interventions on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and power in the US through the media. She’s also a ReFrame Mentor: another active piece of shifting narratives by building the capacity of marginalised communities to be a part of this work.

Of the many things we’re compelled and encouraged to do first in the face of Trump’s attacks on our basic rights and humanity, dreaming isn’t necessarily one of them… But in the face of unimaginable assaults on our futures, we absolutely cannot cede our ability to imagine for ourselves.”—Shanelle Matthews

Janelle Monae

Janelle Monae was born in 2719, then cloned as an android named Cindi Mayweather, who travelled back to our time. (At least according to her breakout record “Metropolis: The Chase Suite”!) She uses sci-fi and Afro-futurism in her gorgeous, complex, snapshots of new worlds in her music videos: reflecting back to us the injustices of our past and present world but calling us to vast imaginative leaps into where we could go next.

Afrofuturism gives rise to a paradox: “can a community, whose past has been deliberately rubbed out…. imagine possible futures?” … Janelle Monáe provides an answer… However, she does not simply reiterate what her predecessors have done and instead offers a new direction to imagining a future. Challenging the hegemonic forces… she asserts that these communities can only imagine a future once they have reclaimed the past they lost.”—Vu Huy Chu-Le

Every video is a lesson in show-don’t-tell.

In [the video for Tightrope], the asylum patients are all black, though their specific skin colors range across the spectrum of the diaspora. The bad guys aren’t white; Monae isn’t interested in cliches. Instead, they have mirrors for faces. They are us. The whole thing culminates in a crowd dance scene that’s pure Congo Square, or any other place where historically the oppressed have found joy in defiance of their oppressors. I can’t listen to this song without dancing. I’m a terrible dancer but I don’t care. I lose myself in it because Monae’s magic is for everybody.”—NK Jemison

Fin.

Ok—that’s our list. There were many, many more who didn’t make the cut, for no real reason other than needing to stop somewhere. What omission is unforgivable, in your opinion? Who would be in your top ten? Would love to hear…

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