Black History Month Has Ended. Here’s What Experts Think the Black Future Will Look Like
It’s 2072—a year that, like so many others that ultimately mattered, began in its own inconsequential way.
We find ourselves just four years shy of the United States’ third centennial. Wealth has been made available in ways that are linked to race and ethnicity, even though it was promised universal freedom and built upon stolen land and labor. Half of Black households were at $0 by 2053. In 2073, 50% of Latino households would be at the same level.
It is a reality rooted in rollbacks of social-inclusion measures and voting-rights protections—changes that took place even though, more than a decade ago, people of color became America’s supermajority, comprising nearly 60% of the entire population. While White America is getting older, its population has declined in size and number, other rapidly-growing groups have not been served by the economy and are excluded from American representative democracy. A substantial portion of the nation’s diverse workforce is poised to be replaced by robots. The small and nearly all-white billionaire class has the resources for joy rides beyond earth’s atmosphere, but hasn’t resolved a litany of major terrestrial social, civil, physical, and economic challenges.
While sea levels have increased nearly 2 feet in Southeast Florida, from their level in 2019, the average white American is still more likely to own a home and receive government and insurance assistance when there are disasters. One silver lining to all these disparities is that there are fewer economic or social ties left when rising waters force a move. And, by 2072 they are already migrating—inward and upward. In the United States, it’s Denver; Santa Fe, N.M.; and Cody, Wyo.; cities at altitudes above 4,200 ft. that are filling with the people of color who are America’s first climate refugees. Others will soon follow their lead.
That’s the way it is. Unless. If we do not, then there is a new future.
This You cannot use this site unlessThis was my most frequent and repeated warning when I, in celebration of Black History Month asked experts to share their views on the Black future.
They are also called futurists. Futurism is a multidisciplinary field whose practitioners use data and observation—as well as their imaginations and some might say hopes—to analyze what’s to come. Their predictions may be grounded in facts and numbers, while others can only be described as science-fiction and philosophy. It’s a field to which government and corporate America has turned to set priorities, identify opportunities, and predict consumer interests.
“There is some stuff that I’m pessimistic about,” says Reynaldo Anderson, an influential Black futurist and Associate Professor of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University, “but I want to be wrong.”
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A brief summary of that stuff: white, minority rule of an allegedly democratic society; “that my people [are] going to drown and starve and be dislocated again and again by climate change”; widening inequality and segregation. “Change is happening faster than people’s ability to adapt to it,” he says. Anderson was the co-editor of this book. Afrofuturism 2.0 among others, says, we haven’t even tried. Our laws and ethics are decades behind the technology that makes them possible.
There were a variety of forecasts that I heard from 10 futurists. Those ran from deep concerns about the future of work and even the tax system that supports what we now consider civil society, to theories about the rising economic and cultural influence of China and portions of Africa where, by 2050, 25% of the world’s entire population is expected to live. Others expressed hope and faith in the ability of art to unlock human ingenuity; some were absolutely certain that people—particularly people of African descent—will soon reject systems that do not serve them, slipping the shackles of the oppressive concepts that today seem inescapable.
This reset actually happens.It could be that you are already starting.
“You have the Great Resignation happening,” Ingrid LaFleur, a curator in Detroit, one-time mayoral candidate, and futurist says about the estimated 47.4 million people in the United States Department of Labor data indicates have resigned from their jobs since January 2021. “There are so many of us—meaning oppressed peoples—who have been given so many examples and have been encouraged to say Please enter noThis is what you can’t take from me. and I’m excited to see what that means over time.”
In the not-so-distant future it will be normal for Black workers in the United States—the group that, contrary to stereotypes, federal labor data shows is the most likely to hold multiple jobs—to prioritize and elect joy, internal peace and rest, LaFleur thinks. It’s only logical, she says, that workers not well served by the current normal will be more receptive to different ways of working and living.
Camae Ayewa (also known as Moor Mother) is another person who believes there are more possibilities for Black people. Hers is one of the first names you’ll encounter if you start looking into ideas associated with the Black Future, such as Afrofuturism and the Black Speculative Arts Movement. These ideas combine science, politics, technology, arts and politics. She makes deep, poetry-driven music that’s haunting and rife with references to social conditions, quantum physics, philosophy, history, family, spirituality and health. When we speak by phone, she’s a few days into a three day artists’ residency in Padua, Italy. Soon she’ll leave for Paris for a similar gig. Moor Mother was born in America, where she is now based. She also founded the Black Quantum Futures Collective (a Philadelphia-based collective of activists, artists and other people).
“Our main theme of our work is time and temporality,” she explains. “The future is relative. So it’s about having agency in reclaiming that. You know, ‘reclaiming our time’ was a type of meme that went around a couple of years ago, and we really speak to this [idea], not just in the present.”
The collective’s work insists there is a place for Black people in the future. Participants in low-income neighborhoods are introduced to quantum physics concepts by the group. A workshop examines superhero films and invites participants to reflect on how many characters of color die early or go missing. Another project documents and photographs the tales of towns once prosperous for all Blacks that are now gone, often as a result racist mob violence. The goal is to help people imagine—and then create—a different kind of future.
“African people, Indigenous people have always thought about the future,” Moor Mother explains. “They looked to the stars. You know, it’s like a tradition that we have been cut off [from].”
Moor Mother’s predictions for the future include the possibility that Black people in the United States and around the world will reconnect with those ideas, exploring the work of African philosophers like the Kenyan scholar John Mbiti and novelists like Octavia Butler. In the future that exists in her mind’s eye, Black people will embrace the idea that time travel happens constantly in subtle ways. Moor Mother says that slaves who owned very little managed to leave tiny time capsules which were found under their cabins. When we grasp bits of our ancestors’ lives, we benefit from the wisdom they worked out. The Afropick is an example of this: it was created over 5,000 years ago by Black people. It has become a symbol for self-acceptance and acceptance in our present. We will also leave messages in our work for others.
Some of these messages could be delivered in future languages which are just starting to emerge. Anne Kyoya is a Black futureist from Nairobi who has joined the U.S.-based Association of Professional Futurists as an emerging fellow. She says that she chose to become a futurist so the continent can focus on creating the future they want. One of her more interesting predictions involves what’s known as “Sheng”: a hybrid of English and Swahili that has emerged among young people who need a common tongue after coming to Nairobi from rural areas where dozens of unofficial languages and dialects are spoken. Sheng, once only a slang language, is now the language for survival, street commerce, friendly exchanges, and cool people, Kyoya says to me as we chat over Zoom from their home in the capital. Kyoya says that Sheng will become what many people consider their first or second language, as well as a standard in the workplace and in organizations in 20 years.
And it’s not just language that Africa’s young population will influence. She says that more and more people are studying or living abroad and are returning some of their knowledge to their countries. Some of Africa’s most powerful people don’t live there at all. This includes Patrick Ngowi, a Tanzanian billionaire and environmentalist, as well as Trevor Noah, a South African comedian. Now the government structures just have to catch up—for example, reshaping tax codes to better accommodate the informal and gig work that supports many young people.
“What we are seeing is …what we call a global mindset,” she says. “Someone with a global mindset or a global entrepreneur is one who identifies problems that impact on society and then identifies the right partnerships to be able to attack that problem, irrespective of where they are stepping [live].”
When I ask Kyoya if it seems that the kind of economic and social trends she’s observing will, over the next 50 years, bring more frequent or deeper connections between people of the African diaspora scattered around the world, she laughs. In a certain way technology makes it obvious. Kyoya immediately points out that we have not met face-to-face, but instead speak via Zoom. We smile at each other and try to learn as much about ourselves as possible.
Gerade now, as the pandemic has displaced many people from their workplaces, Kyoya & LeFleur foresee a future in which these realities, and those cultural connections, will position many Black people of different origins to participate in many joint economic and social projects. “We can not walk backwards to our future,” Kyoya says.
But even among futurists who disagree about the details, there’s a commonly held belief that if conditions do not change, the Black future, and thus the American future, may well have a bit of a dystopian movie feel. With one big change: while sci-fi has had a tendency to display a future world in which Black people either don’t exist or race itself ceases to have meaning, there are, to be very clear, Black people in the future.
Though, racial classifications in the United States have and are expected to evolve, the Black population in the United States—native and foreign-born—is expected to grow from about 49 million people, or 13.3% of the population in 2030, to 60.6 million people, or 15% of the population by 2060. And overseas, as much of the population in the West and China ages, Africa will be brimming with young people, and will see much of the world’s net population growth. In 2100, anywhere from 33% to 40% of the world’s entire population will be African—including an already burgeoning Afro-Chinese population that Yul Anderson, president of the African American Future Society, believes will help bring Chinese wealth to African nations.
But, Anderson says, anyone who reads that and assumes that a more multi-racial, less white, world will mean that racial inequality or discrimination will somehow cease to exist isn’t paying attention to the past, or for that matter, the present.
A major international consultancy firm projects that automation by 2030 will be more severe for Black and Latino Americans than the rest of society, due to their low-wage work. And thus far, the only “solutions” Anderson has heard many people talking about for the estimated 40% of Black workers expected to be displaced —that someone has to do the manual labor of maintaining all those robots, for example—do not sound serious or at all fresh, he says.
“If you are marginalized now, the potential is you are going to be marginalized in the future,” he says.
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This month, Anderson, who is Black and based in Atlanta—and whose claim to fame in the world of futurists includes a February 2020 prediction that conditions were ripe for mass social unrest in the United States—helped to organize The Future Black America conference for The International Monetary Fund and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known as the IMF and UNESCO. He’s also working with Reynaldo Anderson, no relation, to help explore the possibility of creating a futurist certificate that schools could offer as an add-on to other degrees..
“If you don’t have a diverse group of people participating in the future direction of the planet then it just self-prophecies white supremacy,” says Yul Anderson. “Those in power predict and manipulate futures that keep them in power. So if you don’t get out there and say, ‘yo, hey, you got to make sure I’m in the future,’ then you are not going to be involved.”
The thing that gives Anderson some hope is the growing amount of power—to highlight injustices, to share ideas with people worldwide, to foment protest—that technology puts in the hands of many Black individuals. The events of recent years, following what Anderson calls the “Black Spring” of 2020, have both bolstered that idea and laid bare some of conditions that are necessary to see a better future come to fruition.
“I only hope that we can pivot as a people fast enough to change the trajectory of the negative reporting [forecasts],” he says. “It’s very difficult to talk about the future when you have a knee on your neck. The only thing you are thinking about is immediate relief.”
Anderson is less than optimistic elected officials—including the Black ones—are focused on the right fights to deliver a better future. At the UNESCO conference however, the work started to establish a 200-300-member Commission on the Study of the Future of Black America. This commission will produce reports to forecast Black Futures and provide information on alternatives. It is hoped that these ideas will find their way to elected officials and other groups that could help them become a reality.
Blacks around the globe, given their struggles in the present, have a particular need to develop and “flex” their foresight muscles, Anne Kyoya told me when we spoke. That’s an idea very much on my mind when I walk into Carnegie Hall in late February for a Sun Ra Arkestra concert, part of an Afrofuturism festival. Reynaldo, the Temple Professor, was a member the Curatorial Council which helped to plan the event.
I’m here because the late Herman Blount, better known as Sun Ra, a mystical, avant-garde Black American musician and poet who made racial metaphor of extraterrestrial origin stories, remains a guidestar in this realm, even nearly 30 years after his death. His group’s art is a core part of the soundtrack preferred by many who work at, enjoy or try to think hard about the Black Future.
The audience inside is less than half Black. There are a surprising number of black men with gray hair wearing black berets. Marshall Allen, the band leader, is 97 and plays solo on the saxophone as if he had the lungs to match a third of his age. Behind him is the nearly 30-piece Arkestra—dressed in sequin-covered capes, baseball caps, Breton hats, Fez, and Kufi—and two singers with voices that make this fact-focused reporter feel, in a word, transported.
Jazzy and improvisational, the songs have a jazzy feel. But the lyrics, the sounds, the on-stage caped dancer, evoke a kind of feeling of time travel—backwards and forwards. One white woman stands in front of the stage and pulls out a tambourine. Then, Moor Mother comes to the front of the stage and speaks a poem over the Arkestra’s sounds.
“I was never here,” she says slowly, speaking of the past, the present and the Black Future. “Just a continual echo in a strange land. I was a quantum event on this planet, desolate and dangerous…..From 1619…whose timeline? Whose life is this?”