707: We Are in the Future
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Hey, everybody. Ira Glass here. So here at our program, during these weeks of protests and sorrow in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, we thought that today, we would offer a different way of thinking about where we are and where we might be going, and we would rerun our show about Afrofuturism, which is a way of looking at the harsh realities of the present that at least has a little hope built in.
We first ran the show right after a very different kind of violence and very different protesters than we're seeing today. This is back in the summer of 2017, just one week after white nationalists with torches marched in Charlottesville and a white supremacist deliberately rammed his car into a crowd, killing a woman named Heather Heyer. This is in all of our heads as we made the episode you're about to hear, all of us wanting to feel some shred of hope. So here is that original show from 2017. It's This American Life from WBEZ Chicago.
OK, give me a level.
This is me, about how much-- how loud I talk.
Not long ago, one of my co-workers here at the radio show, Neil Drumming and I took a field trip to Philadelphia.
We're going to Amalgam Comics and Coffee.
It's a comic shop.
It's a comic book store, yeah, and also like a coffee shop.
No, no, I got that from the name.
[CHUCKLES] Yes, but it's I think the first comic book store owned by a black woman on the East Coast.
On the East Coast, we have to add that?
I think we do.
We're here because recently Neil's gotten really interested in Afrofuturism, and there's this whole intersection between Afrofuturism and comic books. The founder of something called the Afrofuturism Network is speaking at this comic store on this particular day. And what exactly is Afrofuturism? Neil's been prepping for this question.
I don't know. There's, like, a long-winded academic Wikipedia explanation which I've never even been able to internalize or remember, honestly, if we're being honest. What I like about Afrofuturism, it just seems very-- it's this way of talking about black people in a way that's really hopeful.
It's this idea that we would be engaged in the same kinds of things that science fiction writers have always talked about. That we would be engaged with technology, that we would have a future in space, that we would master time travel, that we would have a future in utopian or dystopian landscapes. It's like--
So probably, this is about science fiction. That's really just the tip of the iceberg. And the science fiction part is meaningful because, while there've been black characters in sci-fi for a while now, they're almost never the protagonists. They're never the ones driving the action. And for so long, in so many imaginings of the future, in so much science fiction, there were no black people at all.
Which, as Neil points out, makes no sense. He says you can tell black people are going to make it into the future because they've survived so much already over the centuries.
One of the things that's really specific about Afrofuturism that I like is that it takes in account the past, in a lot of ways. It imagines that black people forms of survival, through the slave trade, through persecution, that that's almost a technology in itself, the ways in which we've come through those things.
Oh, I see. The survival skills.
Yeah. And that everything that's been a part of our culture has made it possible for us to pave the way for the future. That's the thing that I like about it, I think. The feeling like, despite whatever trials or travails you've come through, that you will exist in the future. That just kind of makes me-- it makes me love being black. It makes me feel, like, what I love about being black. Like, oh, yeah. You know, we can get through this.
Things we've known about forever, Neil says are now called Afrofuturism. Old school stuff, like Parliament Funkadelic's pimped-out, trippy rides to outer space, which predates the term by 20 years.
[MUSIC - "MOTHERSHIP CONNECTION" BY PARLIAMENT FUNKADELICS]
Starchild, citizens of the universe, recording angels, we have returned to claim the pyramids. Party on the mothership. I am the mothership connection.
Lately, you see lots of famous black people excited about Afrofuturism. Rihanna and Solange appear in black space age fashion. The director of Selma and 13th, Ava DuVernay, is making a TV series based on a novel by the woman who's kind of a godmother to the movement, sci-fi writer Octavia Butler. That's after DuVernay finishes the science fiction classic A Wrinkle in Time with black actors in some of the leads.
And then there's Marvel making Black Panther into a big mainstream movie. Then we'll go over to the Childish Gambino album that was a tribute to Parliament Funkadelic. And Janelle Monae's tour a couple years ago was a whole sci-fi stage show with men in lab coats, a story about androids. She sings about spaceships.
[MUSIC - "ELECTRIC LADY" BY JANELLE MONAE]
Ooh, I'll re-program your mind. Come on, get in. My spaceship leaves at 10. Oh!
And comics. Neil and I were in Philadelphia for comics, after all. The thing that Neil was most excited to see in the comic book store was the new Iron Man, where-- I don't know if you heard this-- in the comics, Tony Stark is in a coma, replaced by a black teenage girl genius.
And she invents a suit that's comparable to Tony Stark's Iron Man suit, which is, like, my favorite piece of fictional technology, anyway.
As he points out, replacing Tony Stark with a black teenage girl, that pierces right into the arc reactor heart of the techno superhero sci-fi pantheon.
I mean, think about who Tony Stark, the original Iron Man is. He's a wealthy white man. He's like, a millionaire white guy. He's the unattainable. It's great to have, like, a robot suit and save the world, but how do most people imagine themselves in that context? Whereas this girl, her education takes her to this place that a billionaire once was at. I mean, that's inspiring. It's moving.
I don't know, maybe I'm being-- I was thinking about it a lot, and why has my interest been sparked so much recently? I've always loved science fiction, but the idea of black people in science fiction appeals to me now because of that notion of telling your own story, because the way black people are talked about, it's often a bleak future and--
And a bleak present.
Yeah, yeah. A bleak present and maybe no future at all, you know what I mean? And so think about-- if you're-- I don't know. Maybe not everyone feels this, but I've been watching-- there's just a lot of videos of terrible things happening to black people. It's literally like almost a genre. And there's gotta be a parallel narrative, you know what I mean? There's gotta be a parallel narrative. And I think for me, the parallel narrative is Afrofuturism.
And so-- I don't know. It's a way of feeling like-- it's so hard for me to say this without laughing at myself, but it is genuinely hopeful. It's a way of feeling hope.
We sit on a curb way too long talking about this and finally head inside the comic book store. It's bright and spacious and smells great, like fresh coffee. Decked out in posters for Wonder Woman, and Spidey, and X-Men, and Moon Girl.
The store was busy because Afrofuturism enthusiast and author William Jones was there to give a lecture on the history of black people in comic books. He popped a slide of a comic book cover from the '60s onto a screen.
This is 1966. Now we have the introduction of the Black Panther, not affiliated with the political organization. And the reason why I say that is because Marvel Comics recognize that maybe people are going to think we support the Black Panther Party, so they briefly changed his name to the Black Leopard. It didn't last, and folks were not buying it.
Most of the crowd is black, and nearly every adult Neil and I talked to was familiar with the basic ideas and iconic figures of Afrofuturism, including the owner, Ariell Johnson, a super energetic 34. She and Neil talked about the subject for a while, and it became clear that for Neil, Afrofuturism's really about the future, but for Ariell, it's about the present. It's something she sees every day.
Black people today, black people who are alive and walking around, it's like, we are Afrofuturism. There's a quote that says, I am my ancestor's wildest dreams. And I think that's true. It's like, when we think about our history in this country, from when we were first brought here, and the condition that they were in, the freedoms that we have now, the things that we are working to accomplish and achieve, those are only things that they could have dreamed about in their wildest dreams.
They could not have imagined-- it's like, I own this store, you know what I mean? And so I am Afrofuturism. You are Afrofuturism. The fact that we're walking around, we're defying and challenging stereotypes and negative images.
It's been a hard week for stereotypes and negative images, and it's been a brutal week for the past returning into the present and feeling like progress never comes. It's been a week where lots of us have wondered about the future in this country, where things are going. Against that, today, we pose another way to see the world.
Another way to look at the future and the past that puts it in some context, and helps make sense of things, maybe gives a little hope. I'm joined in the studio right now by my colleague, Neil. Hello.
Hey. OK, so my thinking is-- well, our thinking is, since I know really very little about this, about Afrofuturism, and you know--
I think I know a little bit more. Quite a bit more.
OK. So our plan is that I'm going to go away, at least till halfway through the show, and you will stick around?
Yeah, no, I've been writing pieces and talking to people all over the country about this, so I feel like I have a little bit of a grasp on it.
OK. All right. So I'll see you halfway through. Till then, I'm going to throw some sci-fi here. You have the com.
I appreciate that. All right. Stay with us.
Act One: Metropolis Now
Act One, Metropolis Now. I started really puzzling over Afrofuturism a couple of years ago when I went to an Afrofuturism conference in New York. Up until that day, I'd mostly heard the term used to refer to musicians like Sun Ra or to science fiction by Samuel Delany or Colson Whitehead. But at this conference, they were Afrofuturist artists, designers, programmers, filmmakers, fashionistas, healers, yoginis. There was even a woman selling homemade hot pepper sauce in the lobby.
I began to realize that Afrofuturism wasn't an art movement in the way that I thought of, like, Cubism or Impressionism. It wasn't static or rigidly defined. The people at this conference who were so liberally applying the word were doing so because they thought it made their work seem somehow more active and vital, but I didn't understand exactly how.
As the term became more ubiquitous and The New York Times used Afrofuturism to talk about Beyoncé's wardrobe changes, I was still trying to figure out the essence of the thing. Like, what makes something Afrofuturist?
I called the woman who'd given the keynote address back at that conference in 2015, activist and writer Adrienne Maree Brown. Adrienne told me that if I wanted to see Afrofuturism that I should visit her hometown, Detroit, Michigan, a post-apocalyptic city, she'd said. The auto industry is nearly gone. The city's infrastructure is crumbling. Many people can't afford basic resources like water and light. It's like the setting for some dystopian sci-fi story.
As soon as I started reading up on the place, I came across this headline in the Detroit Metro Times, "Inside Ingrid LaFleur's Afrofuturist Mayoral Campaign." Wow. There was a woman running for mayor of Detroit, and the basis of her platform wasn't socialism or libertarianism. It was Afrofuturism. So I flew out there to hang out with her. I got to hear her do some fundraising, give a speech, talk to some potential voters, and we drove around.
And see all the different types of architecture here.
Ingrid is striking, impeccably styled and glamorous, yet still very bohemian, with a shock of gray in her perfectly coiffed hair. She pointed out her favorite landmarks. We visited a compact urban farm where they make something edible called Afro-Jam. We rode past a spot in Detroit's North End, where George Clinton's band Parliament-Funkadelic played one of his most iconic albums.
George Clinton did create the Mothership Connection in Detroit, and he performed it here on Oakland Avenue, which is the street that we're on right now.
Taking a reporter around and bragging about your hometown is what you'd expect from anyone running for mayor, but it wasn't long before Ingrid the Afrofuturist showed up as well.
The mothership is this wonderful symbol of our future space. And for me, it's this reminder of this empowering future space that can-- the possibilities of that and how it's always present.
We were talking about stuff I knew. I grew up listening to Parliament records too and reading the comics on the album covers. I always thought it was cool, groundbreaking stuff. But when Ingrid talked about it, she scaled it up to something more grand and spiritual, and a little esoteric.
To be honest, I found her a bit difficult to follow on this and other topics. But with her enthusiasm, she was just fun to listen to. And anyway, I came to Detroit to find out about Afrofuturism, and here she was, someone super eager and ready to talk about it, whether or not what she said made sense to me.
But my orientation, even within Afrofuturism, has always been cosmic. I'm a cosmic person.
Here she is discussing time.
Time can be defined in 20 million different ways. It can go diagonally up. It can go diagonally down, below our feet, just like in the universe, right?
And here she is on the subject of lunch.
Pleasure has to resonate all through the future, through your movement, into your world. A pleasurable experience for me eating-wise would be eating a great green salad.
I'm going to time travel a little myself here and let you know that Ingrid LaFleur did not win the primary. She never even got on the ballot officially. When I was there with the election rapidly approaching, she was still sorting out her policy points. She talked to me vaguely about reviving Detroit's creative economy to rival the glory days of Motown and about the city's litter problem.
Two days before the primary, she published a more thorough plan that called for, among other things, a universal basic income for Detroiters paid partly in digital currency. I guess that's pretty futuristic. But at the heart of Ingrid's campaign was an idea that I found far more compelling than any specific policy she put forth.
In her plan for Detroit, she writes, "In order to manifest true revitalization, we must consider the histories and oppressions of the Black American population. The foundation of every institution, government, police, education, the museum was built to silence, disallow, displace, and render powerless Black Americans. These institutions were never created for Black Americans to truly prosper. It's time for a new plan."
That's not something you hear from many politicians, but it makes sense here because Detroit is 80% Black. Fixing the city means fixing it for Black people. Ingrid sees Black Americans as the protagonist in the story of Detroit, its future and its past.
When I was growing up, people loved to say it was like 110% Black. It was super Black. It was just Black.
This is the other thing about Ingrid. Maybe she's idealizing. I wouldn't know. But she carries a shining vision of Detroit's past with her everywhere she goes.
We drove past vacant houses and empty lots. So much of Detroit is falling apart, neglected or abandoned. But underneath it all, she still sees a vibrant city populated with a thriving Black middle class.
I grew up walking through this park at dusk. There would be people riding bikes, jogging, playing squash at dusk. Like, it's getting dark. And my mother and I, we felt completely comfortable and safe walking through these woods.
In the car, we talked about Afrofuturism. At one point, I told her about the conference that I'd been to and how by now I'd heard the word "Afrofuturism" used to describe everything from comic books to condiments. But it wasn't coming into focus for me. I was starting to wonder if it was just a term for putting a positive spin on anything a Black person has ever done or will ever do.
Like, I was moved by the optimism that seems inherent in Afrofuturism.
But I was also like, if it's everything, then what is the point of it?
But that is the point, imagining a more healthier present and future, and kind of recontextualizing the past so that it's empowering instead of victimizing. It's our way of not only surviving, but it's also a way of healing in the moment because there's constant traumas that we're dealing with, historical and present day. So it's a way of allowing ourselves to shapeshift, to accommodate whatever comes our way.
Ingrid eventually dropped me back at my hotel. Earlier, she'd given me a greasy brown bag containing a cookie, which I now finally got around to eating. It turned out to be the most delicious gluten-free cookie I'd ever tasted, but I was still feeling hungry and a bit confused by our conversation. Whatever bigger point she had been making about Afrofuturism, I was afraid that it had been lost on me.
I went looking for a burger and a stiff drink to mull it over. At a bar, over bourbon, I met a guy that I'm going to call Sam, with dark skin and hints of gray in his sideburns that portrayed his boyish face. He was dressed for a night on the town-- light blazer, Burberry shirt, patterned silk scarf. I asked him and another patron, both Detroit residents, if they'd heard of Ingrid LaFleur for mayor. They hadn't.
When Sam got up to pay his check after we'd only been talking for a few minutes, he surprised me by asking if I wanted to go with him to check out some of the other spots around town. I wasn't dressed for it, and I'd left my recording equipment in my room, but what the hell? Sam said it was OK for me to describe what happened next.
Sam had a nice car, a Mercedes. It never cost him more than $10 to park it in a lot. He loved that about Detroit. Parking was so cheap.
He'd moved here from New York some time in the late '90s and fallen hard for the city. As we drove, he talked up the real estate. He talked about his job and the IT business he ran out of his home. Things seemed to be going well.
We met up with Sam's friend, Rick, a bald, bearded, alpha male type in a reddish leather jacket, and followed him in his new BMW to a place called The Griot. It was the type of establishment what's commonly referred to as grown and sexy. Rick ordered another round of bourbon and some wings, and flirted with the bartender.
By now it was clear that these guys were looking to meet women. And that was weird because of this thing that Sam had told me earlier while we were in the car together. He'd said that not too long ago, his wife had gotten sick, and he'd taken care of her for a year. And then she died, leaving Sam and their teenage son with only each other.
Sam didn't actually want to be doing what we were doing tonight. This was, like, only his second time out as a single man. He didn't feel ready to meet women, to date, but he also felt like it was time. He couldn't wait forever. So he was doing what he felt like he had to do to move forward.
Sam and Rick took me to a few different spots that night, but the one that I remember the most was a place called Floods. From the outside, it looked like a common family restaurant. I thought it was closed until we rounded the corner and saw the cluster of people leaving their cars with the valet.
Inside, Floods was huge. Sam said it was probably about 2,500 square feet. A massive bar separated two rooms. At one point, there was both a band and a DJ playing simultaneously.
And wall to wall, there were well-dressed, grown-up Black folks dancing and singing along to classic soul, funk, and R&B. It reminded me of how Ingrid had described the Detroit she grew up in and its thriving Black middle class. 110% Black, she'd said-- super Black, just Black. I'd been drinking all night, so yeah, I was already a little in my feelings. But I swear, I teared up at the sight of it all.
Sam hadn't wanted to come to Floods at first because he thought too many people would recognize him. I think he didn't want to be judged for being out on the town after his wife's death. And when we walked in, he seemed a little uncomfortable. We split up for a while, and later he found me standing in a corner at the edge of the dance floor, mesmerized. He pulled out his phone and showed me the number he'd just gotten of a beautiful woman who'd walked in earlier and drawn quite a bit of attention.
Earlier in the day, Ingrid had said a bunch of Afrofuturist stuff to me about Detroit, shapeshifting, and reckoning with its past, and healing. I felt like I was seeing some smaller version of that now with Sam. Most days, he was probably just a guy in some pain, struggling to survive this very traumatic thing that happened. But tonight, in spite of that, Sam was imagining a better future and doing something about it.
He smiled, shouted some words of encouragement at me over the music, and waded back into the crowd. His spirits were up. His evening wasn't over.
Act Two: Past Imperfect
Act Two, Past and Perfect. So there's this idea that occurs over and over in Afrofuturism that, summed up, basically says the past is always with us. It affects us. It has the power to make us stronger if we learn how to use it properly. Some West African cultures represent this idea with the image of what's called the Sankofa bird. It's a bird walking forward, but with its head looking backward, meaning no matter what, we carry the past with us into the future.
In one of the most well-known Afrofuturist novels, Kindred by Octavia Butler, the main character finds herself traveling back and forth between her normal, contemporary life in the present, and the world of her ancestors in the Antebellum South, where she's treated like a slave. And the two time periods start to merge. That's fiction. Our next story is told by a woman who went through a version of that in real life.
When I graduated from NYU with a BA in drama and a mostly unplanned double major in anthropology, my mother asked me, what are you going to do with that, act in a museum? This seemed especially rude coming from a sociologist, but she had a point. For the first few years of my adult life, that's exactly what I did.
During those years, Azie Dungey was living in her hometown, a suburb of Washington DC, working as an actor at night in plays for which she was paid almost nothing. And to make some extra cash for Christmas, she took a gig, time traveling to the least desirable job of the 18th century. She was a slave, or she played one anyway, performing for tourists at George Washington's estate, Mount Vernon, for weekend events called Mount Vernon by Candlelight.
The halls of the mansion were decked for Christmas. Visitors would walk through, stopping in each room to meet a character and hear their monologue about the season. There was Mrs. Washington, beloved wife, Dr. James Craik, Washington's physician and best bud, Nellie Custis, sweet-natured granddaughter, and me, Caroline Branham, slave. I had a script that I used to talk about Caroline's life. It was short. Besides the odd "I'm a slave at Christmas too, a slave to my husband and kids" joke from 40-year-old white women, people were interested and respectful.
After Christmas, I decided to stay on the job. It started out fine. The winter weather meant the visitors were mostly local and relatively few. I enjoyed my daily walks on the tree-lined lanes, soft snow falling on my hooded mulberry-colored cape as I looked out at the stunning view of the Potomac River. And when it was too cold, I would stay in the library and read through musty old books and primary source letters and notations that helped me understand this distant world I inhabited and the woman I portrayed.
I was Caroline Branham, a real woman who had been housemaid to Mrs. Washington. I studied Caroline's life and times for months. And every day when I put on a beautiful crimson dress with tiny yellow and green flowers, I became her. With each eyelet I laced on my corset, I felt myself get closer to her posture, how her body related to the world.
With my hair pulled back in two large French braids under a bonnet, I sat on a bench and set my fingers to the work Caroline did-- rows of stitches on shirts and brightly colored embroidery. I could picture her laying down her head at night next to her husband, Peter, and their six children-- Wilson, Rachel, Jemima, Leanthe, Polly, and little Peter. I imagined how she hoped that one day they would wake up in a world better than the one she'd been given.
Then spring came, and tourists from around the country started pouring into Mount Vernon. My job was to simply be available to the visitors, to talk to them and answer their questions as Caroline. This time, there was no script. And I realized pretty quickly that just being there, existing as a Black woman in that place, was a threat to the fantasy of a noble America. I was the stain on George Washington's white house.
And I watched them grapple with this right in front of me. Me, the least confrontational human being you'll ever meet. I mean, it took me till I was 25 years old to tell my mom I did not like her baked tofu smothered in Kraft barbecue sauce. Some people were so uncomfortable with me that they bumbled through the first random thing that came to their mind. You're a slave? Oh, OK. So are the vegetables in the garden real? Fake vegetables. This is an outdoor garden. They are literally coming out of the ground, and there is a man standing there watering them.
Or they immediately asked questions with obvious answers that they just hadn't thought through. Why don't you go up to Massachusetts and go to school instead of being a slave, one person asked. Right, as soon as I can get rid of this very obvious brown skin, steal a horse and a map that I can't read, I will be on my way.
Or they'd go into immediate denial mode, like the old woman who out of nowhere yelled at me, George Washington had no slaves. I said, yes, he did. She responded, no, he didn't. And this went on back and forth until her son got embarrassed and pulled her away.
Or they offered another offense as some sort of defense. But the Irish were slaves too. OK, that's not really true. And what the hell does that have to do with me?
And of course, there were those who would take the opportunity to teach me instead. You know, slavery was a good, industrious life where you got room and board for your work. Mm-hm, a one-room cabin they built themselves with eight people sleeping on a dirt floor and a bag of cornmeal every week-- room and board.
It was just a bizarre situation to be in, playing Caroline. I'd be sitting next to Miss Nellie in the midst of her roleplay, who'd be going on and on about the lovely letters that her dear grand-papa, George Washington, had written her, or all the fancy soirées that she attended. We'd be in the greenhouse with a gorgeous garden outside on an estate that overlooked the Potomac.
I'd literally hear white visitors sigh, listening to Miss Nellie read from her letters, full of nostalgia for this time long gone. They'd talk about how much simpler things were back then, how touching George Washington's letters were, what a fine man, and how lucky Miss Nellie was to live such a charming life. It was charming. I was charmed by it.
Then it'd be my turn. Here's what I talked about-- how my husband is rented from Mrs. Washington's relative and how he could be sent back at any time, how I go home to my cabin at night hoping that none of my children have been sold, that once my friend was whipped so bad her fingers were torn and she couldn't sew for three weeks-- all real stuff from Caroline Branham's life. One time, an old lady just walked up to me while I was talking, hugged me, whispered, "I'm sorry," and walked away. Another time, a man handed me a $20 bill. So I guess that was reparations.
In Caroline's day, there were typically no more than 10 white people who lived in the Washington household at any given time. Meanwhile, there were 316 slaves. And who was there to tell their story? Me. I was the only Black actor. So I felt like it was up to me to be all 316 people, to research them too, so I could talk about my friend the blacksmith or Delphi the wool spinner.
I learned so much about being a slave that to this day, there is space in my brain devoted to this information. Like, I can tell you how to shine silver with horse urine, which herbs to use to make your owner sick, but not kill her, how beating a slave and then dousing them with saltwater to disinfect the wounds was called pickling. Pickling-- I hate that I know that.
As my time at Mount Vernon went on, I began to notice there was something that would happen in particular with white men. It was like, almost despite themselves, they would act out the power dynamic from 1797. I can remember at least five times when a white man of a certain age sat on a bench way too close to me and said something like, I used to be into a black girl, back when I was young. Then he would pause, presumably waiting for my response. What am I supposed to say to that, exactly? Thank you?
Once, a man got physical. I was walking down the lane on a particularly hot and busy day when a tall, burly, white man grabbed my arm, pulled me towards him, and said, show me where you're branded. I was startled and could only get out the words, sir, I haven't been branded. And then he and his wife began laughing heartily. Well, you got it good up here. We're from South Carolina, and they branded them down there. Girl, you got it good.
And then one time, one of the guys I work with, also in costume, wearing a tricorn hat, he and I were walking from the farm back to the mansion, and we decided to take the forest trail. We were having a nice, normal conversation when out of the blue he says, hey, let's re-enact a slave rape. You tear up your clothes a little bit and go running out of the forest screaming, and I'll follow behind you, pulling up my pants.
He laughed. I didn't say anything. I just sort of tittered. I [BLEEP] tittered. That's an old timey, fancy way of saying I laughed with the bastard. I laughed because I didn't know what else to do, because I felt completely and utterly powerless.
I started calling in sick a lot because I was sick a lot. My stomach would twist and turn. I would sometimes get a choking feeling and cough as if to vomit, but nothing was there. I had terrible headaches, and I couldn't do anything but sleep. And one day, it occurred to me that Caroline felt this way too, this exact way.
The farm manager who oversaw slaves on the mansion house farm noted that Caroline, quote, "complained of a pain in her head and side," and had, quote, "a very dry bad cough." George Washington's friend, Dr. Craik, is recorded as having treated her for such bad stomach pains that he had to bleed her, give her stomach drops, and prescribed 20 pills for bowel obstruction. My job was to inhabit Caroline's life, but she started inhabiting mine.
I had this weird sensation that I was living in multiple time periods at once, like the Sankofa bird. I started seeing Mount Vernon everywhere in the modern world. An evolutionary psychologist wrote a blog post for Psychology Today, where he claimed that he'd objectively proved that Black women are the least attractive of all races of women with science. This happened in the year of our Lord 2011.
I saw this only a few days after reading Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia for work. Apparently Jefferson-- who, by the way, was known to have slaves with the lightest skin possible-- had come to the same conclusion about my race and gender over 200 years ago. He said that black men prefer white women, and black women are preferred by orangutans. Oh, so that's why I'm single.
Then, Trayvon Martin. I was watching the news one evening about a black boy harassed and pursued by a white Latino man who was convinced that he didn't belong in his neighborhood. And because of this compulsion, the innocent black boy ended up dead. My heart was in my gut.
The first thought that came into my head, he didn't have his pass. Pass? I shook it off. No, that can't be right.
When a slave left their plantation, they had to carry a pass from their master or overseer saying where they were going and when they were expected to return. Not having your pass, or your free papers if you were free, was dangerous. At any time, any white person could stop you and demand to see your pass. If you didn't produce it, you were thrown in jail. Having black skin alone was enough to make you suspicious, and a white stranger could be the judge and jury of your fate. Trayvon Martin didn't have his pass.
There's a thing white people say to black people all the time. I've had it said to me. Why don't you just get over it-- "it" being slavery and all historical oppression. Why don't you just get over it, they say. It's in the past.
What I would say to white people in response is that you're not over the past. Every year, you flock from all over the country to Mount Vernon and other places like it-- to monuments, and museums, and reenactments. There's President's Day and the fireworks that blast over George Washington's house every 4th of July. There are the Confederate flags and statues of Robert E. Lee that you don't want taken down. No, I can't get over it, and neither can you. None of us can.
Azie Dungey. These days, she's co-executive producer on a new comedy from Lena Waithe called Twenties, and writing a book of essays about her experiences at Mount Vernon, called How I Survived the 18th Century.
Coming up, we warp from the past back to the future, to Daveed Diggs and an underwater world of tomorrow. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, we are in the future, which we first broadcast in 2017, a show inspired by Afrofuturism, which my co-worker Neil Drumming became interested in back then as a lens to view the future, the past, and the present.
When we made this episode a few years ago, we named it after an album by the experimental jazz artist Sun Ra, We Are in the Future. And now here we are in the future, three years later. It does not look good here, and it feels even worse. In terrifying ways, it resembles the futures of so many dystopian sci-fi novels that I was once happy to think of as merely fiction. Still, even though this episode was created from hopefulness, pain, confusion, rage, they were all baked into it because that is the reality of being Black in America.
Afrofuturism doesn't say that Black people won't still be fighting for rights, dignity, breath, even as private corporations are building rockets to send tourists into space. Afrofuturism just asserts that we will still be here then and that fight will still be in us. Here's a song by Sun Ra, a little bit of call and response. It's called "The Space Age Is Here to Stay."
(SINGING) It's going to be like your ancestors said, even though they're cold and dead. The space age is here to stay. Space age is around to stay. Yeah, the space age is here to stay. Space age is here to stay.
Which brings us to Act Three.
Act Three: The Black Sea
Act Three, The Black Sea.
So this one I know about. There's this hip hop group called CLPPNG. It's Bill Hutson, Jonathan Snipes, and Daveed Diggs, who, listeners might know-- Daveed Diggs is on the soundtrack to Hamilton. He plays Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson.
And we commissioned CLPPNG to write a sci-fi story for us, a song. And what they made was a tribute to a Detroit band from the '90s called Drexciya. And Drexciya had created this whole mythology in their band. And the mythology was based on the idea that pregnant African women on slave ships were sometimes thrown overboard. And Drexciya imagined that the babies survived and learned to live and thrive underwater, and that the babies founded a Black Atlantis under the sea.
And so in this song that CLPPNG wrote for us, the civilization under sea was living peacefully for centuries, unaware that humans were above on land until those of us who live on the surface, we intruded on their underwater civilization by firing seismic air cannons into their world, looking for oil. And then they kind of slowly over the course of the song, you'll hear they slowly rise to the surface, psyching up for a war. So you'll hear the air cannons. You'll hear them come to the surface. Anyway, you'll hear it all. Here's the song.
[MUSIC - "THE DEEP" BY CLPPNG]
Y'all remember how deep it go. Started from the bottom. Y'all remember how deep it go, for y'all had to come back. Deep.
Y'all remember when it used to be deep, so deep, so, so deep. Hey. When y'all swam up out your mama while your mama was asleep. So deep, so, so deep. Hey.
And y'all remember when y'all had the dance floor lit. Dark. No two step. Deep. Y'all don't even sweat. Deep.
As deep as it gets. Dreaming dead, sleeping, keeping time. Y'all heart beat. Deep. Y'all heart beat. Deep.
And all the fishes had they eyes bugged out because y'all dancing underwater, and y'all don't get wet. And the dark smelled sweet. And y'all tails touched reef. Y'all feed off the bottom, but now y'all remember. Y'all remember. Y'all remember.
Pressure outside the vehicle, 832.2 bars.
Y'all remember when the deep got hot, when y'all moved on up, how y'all used to argue about the water getting warmer. Still, y'all loved a little bit of light up in the deep. So deep, so, so deep. Hey.
Y'all remember saying how it couldn't be them two legs because y'all came from two-legs. And y'all mamas would have loved y'all if they could've breathed, but they wasn't ready for the deep. So deep, so, so deep. Hey.
Y'all remember when the first blast came. And the beat fell off. And the dreams got woke. And the light bent bad. And the fishes belly up. And them coral castles crumbled because they wasn't quite enough. And conversation used to break like the floor quake, like the bleached bones.
And the finned friends fled from they home, but the blast wouldn't stop because they wanted black gold. And them no gills had to feel it because they couldn't be told. Y'all remember. Y'all remember.
Ocean salinity, 35 PSU. Water pH, 7.91.
Y'all remember when the regime change, that no please, no calm seas. Let the water rise-- so deep, so, so deep. Oil slick upon the sleeper was an awful thing to realize. If the two-legs want to wake the dead, they gon' have to bring more fire. Y'all is closer to the earth. So deep.
And y'all was talking how to get up in their heads and got to being real inspired. Circumstances of the birth has got you feeling like an army, better yet a navy. And they gone gave y'all the blessing. Now y'all going crazy. They live with green upon the surface, but they ain't deep.
That pistol shrimp will knock a two-leg off his feet. Y'all perfecting the steam void to rip up they ships. They using sonar as second language. Y'all fluent with it.
And all the dreamers is woke now, but nightmares swim. But everybody hear that "bloop" know y'all coming for them. Y'all remember. Y'all remember.
Surface water temperature, 308 Kelvin.
Y'all remember when the call went out. Hey. No deep, no more deep. Sunshine. Y'all remember when the call went out. Hey. No deep, no more deep. Sunshine.
Y'all remember feeling wind upon your skin. No deep, no more deep. Sunshine. Y'all remember how it burned in the beginning. No deep. Ride on 'em. Ride on 'em. Ride on 'em.
Y'all remember seeing sun across the surface on the day that y'all first came up out the water. So, so deep. How the breaking of the surface showed the sky without a border, and the air is so much hotter. So, so deep.
How the woke dreamer screamed and it rose tides. And the waves stretched up like a mountain high. And the no gills gasped, and they closed eyes. And they prayed to their gods, and they ask why.
And then y'all cry too 'cause y'all recognize mama in the faces of the ones that y'all were terrorized. They were sisters and brothers. They were the babies born up out the water, not connected to each other, not in knowledge of the one drop. But they had to learn today.
Y'all had one shot. Let the sun burn today. Let them feel the dark even deeper today. Make a two-leg a believer today. Let them know that they done woke a sleeper from a sleep. So deep.
That y'all been dancing without any feet. So, so deep. Here's the nerve that they struck with a blast that they broke with a drill that they burnt with the gas.
Y'all remember. So deep. Sunshine. Ride on 'em. Y'all remember. So deep. Sunshine. Ride on 'em. Y'all remember. So deep. Sunshine. Ride on 'em. Y'all remember when y'all had to let 'em breathe. Ride on 'em. Hey.
Initiating tidal wave sequence-- uniform, Romeo, 030.
Daveed Diggs with Bill Hutson and Jonathan Snipes are CLPPNG. This song, commissioned by our program when we first broadcast today's show, ended up on their album The Deep, which you can find with their other music at their website. Their website is their band's name, which is the word "clipping" without the vowels. clppng.com.
Act Four: Childhood’s End
Act Four, Childhood's End. Looking into Afrofuturism over the past few months, I found myself thinking about time and space a lot. Time, because so many of these stories involve people thinking about the past or the future, or seeing the past and the future in the here and now, and space because all of that time travel is cued by very specific places-- Detroit, or Mount Vernon, or Philadelphia, or wherever.
During those same months, I also became sort of obsessed with these two videos that I saw on YouTube. I couldn't help connecting them in my mind, because for me they were both about a particularly precious intersection of time and space. The time is that period when children have left school for the day, but haven't yet made it home. And the space is that distance, however many blocks, however many miles it takes those kids to walk from one to the other. In other words, these two videos are about those moments when kids are out in the world on their own and the adults they bump into.
You may have seen the first video. It takes place in Atlantic City. Two black teenagers in sweatpants and sneakers are fighting in the middle of a residential street on their way home from school when a slightly older black Man, Ibn Ali Miller, emerges from camera right and puts an end to the fight with a stern but passionate talking to.
The clip went viral. Miller was honored by the city. Steve Harvey had him on his couch. I saw it for the first time on my Facebook feed this past winter, and I viewed it on YouTube many times since. It does not disappoint. It gets better every time I watch it.
[KIDS TAUNTING, LAUGHING]
When it begins, the two boys grapple and flail at each other sloppily-- one tall, one chubby, both defiant. Other kids crowd around, recording with their cell phones, egging them on.
Square up. Go ahead, [BLEEP] off him. [BLEEP].
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Miller bops into frame, his hands in his pockets, wearing work boots and a knit cap. He immediately starts to call out the kids who are recording.
Ibn Ali Miller
Everybody on your phones though. Oh, y'all, y'all the real cowards. Record that, too. Everybody on a phone, record that. Everybody record on the phone real cowards.
Cowards, Miller calls them. Then he turns his attention to the two boys in the center.
Ibn Ali Miller
Listen, they all laughing, little brother. But you really upset. And you really upset. You more mad than he is. I can see it in your face. So you fighting for a reason. He only fighting you because you want to fight him.
No, he came to me. He touched me. I wasn't [BLEEP]. I don't even know.
Ibn Ali Miller
So you're defending yourself?
Miller listens. And then he tells the boys something they probably hadn't considered, that they were most likely tricked into fighting by someone who thought it would be entertaining. And now all of their so-called friends are recording them go at it.
Ibn Ali Miller
Look around. Who ill-advised you? You told you wrong? Who told you wrong? You want to answer that? I'm saying, who told you wrong, little bro?
And the only reason I'm saying this to all y'all, yo, because you're almost men. All of y'all, yo. You're almost men. Y'all ain't kids no more. Y'all girls ain't little girls no more. Look, yo. Y'all men, yo. Y'all men, yo. 14, 15, 16-- y'all men. Start acting like it, yo. We ain't gonna get nowhere like this, yo.
We ain't going to get nowhere like this, he says. Here, what Miller does that I love is steer the conversation away from personal grievances towards something bigger. He tries to tell these kids that they are part of a community. He tells them that their actions have consequences and that those consequences only get more serious as they get older. Without condescending to them, Miller talks to them about their futures.
Ibn Ali Miller
You think it's a game out here? Ain't no game out here. It's real out here, little bro. Word up. Don't make your parents look like this, yo. If y'all live around here, y'all live somewhere good. Don't mess that up.
He's no longer just trying to get them to save face or avoid humiliation. He's warning the boys that as they become men, young black men, the world will become even more dangerous for them. Miller won't leave until the two shake hands. They don't want to at first. Only the chubby kid extends his hand.
Ibn Ali Miller
Y'all don't shake hands or I'm not leaving, bro. I'm not leaving, bro. Shake hands, bro.
Just shake his hand, bro.
The other kid doesn't. The chubby kid pulls his hand back.
Ibn Ali Miller
Put your hand back out, bro. He gonna shake it this time, I promise you. Put your hand back out, bro. He gonna shake it, bro.
It's actually difficult for me to express how moved I was by this video. The beauty of it is that even while Miller is insisting that these teenagers become responsible for themselves, his actions demonstrate that they're not necessarily alone, that there is compassion, and wisdom, and guidance available to them.
It was like a window into a world where people who don't know each other still give a damn, a window that I could rewind, and re-watch, and forward to my friends to click Like. It was at once exhilarating and comforting. I rode that high for a week, maybe two.
Then another video popped up in my Facebook feed. This one is shakier and from a low angle, obviously recorded surreptitiously. The view is of the intersection of Bedford Avenue and Campus Road, Midwood High School on one side of the street. Brooklyn College is on the other. I recognized it immediately because I used to live 10 minutes away. There's still snow on the ground, and the cell phone is buffeted about by wind.
Its camera wobbles up behind two uniformed police officers walking slowly down Campus Road. The one on the left has both hands in his pockets. The one on the right has his baton already drawn. A handful of black teenagers walk obstinately before them, headed away toward Flatbush Avenue.
There's no way to know for sure what happened before the video started rolling. There were, most likely, the beginnings of a snowball fight, but it's unclear who was unhappy about that. The police were not called. They were already on site.
In the footage, one of the cops says, come on, let's go, though the kids are already going. The cop on the right reaches out. It looks like he shoves a boy in a pink hoodie. The boy flinches, snapping his head around.
Stop touching me, he says. The cop responds with, what are you going to do about it, which is obnoxious and a stupid question. But that doesn't stop him from asking it at least five more times, like a kid taunting another kid.
What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it?
At one point, one of the teenagers fires back, that's why we out. It sounds bad ass. But if you think about it, the kid is saying, we're walking away because we can't do anything about it. And we all know that. Another kid in the procession kneels down to pick up some snow. With his left hand, the cop on the right pulls his taser out of his holster and barks--
Pick that [BLEEP] up again. Pick that [BLEEP] up again.
Pick that [BLEEP] up again. Rock, paper, scissors, snowball, taser. The kids keep walking away. The cop yells, pick that [BLEEP] up again one more time, and follows with--
Do you want to ride the lightning?
Do you want to ride the lightning? The video ends as the kids cross the street to safety, and the cops stop on the corner. I know. I know it seems like you can see worse, more unjust things happen to black people on YouTube just about any day of the week. Here, fortunately, no one was hurt.
But this video was still hard to watch, especially having seen how Ibn Ali Miller talked those kids down in Atlantic City. Whereas Miller was trying to get the teenagers to think a little bit more like adults, the cop in this video sounded like a teenager himself, bullying and provoking. What's worse, he almost seemed to be enjoying it. It's hard to imagine he cared anything at all about what happened to those kids after they deserted that corner.
I told my friends about this video too. I sent the link around. It wasn't as popular a clip as the one with Miller. I read everything I could about it. I found out that the kids most likely went to Midwood High School.
And a few weeks later, I went to Midwood High School and stood on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Campus Road. I wanted to find someone who had witnessed the incident. I was angry on behalf of those young men, and I wanted to know how they felt. I found one of them immediately, and then the others found me.
Wait, which one were you?
Me? I was the Black kid.
Well, they were all Black kids.
I was the blackest one, the tallest one.
They're in tapered gray sweats and colorful knapsacks. They told me they came to this spot almost every day, bought chicken, and fries, and rice, slap boxed with each other, kicked it with girls, and waited for the rest of their crew to go play basketball down the block. They wanted to know what my microphone was for and if they could get money and girls from being on the radio, and if I could buy them lunch.
I asked them what they were doing on the day that the video was recorded. One of them said he was cutting class. Others said they weren't. I asked them why they think the cops came, since their high school has its own security. One of them said that some other kids across the street were throwing snow and the cops thought it was us. One of the boys said it was them, but still, it was only snowballs.
We were just being kids.
Yeah, we was being kids, chilling.
Yeah, and they were just wilding out.
We was just having snowballs-- we was having a snowball fight.
Yeah, we were doing what we was doing. And we were just having fun.
I asked if they were scared when it happened. A couple of 16-year-olds cooler than I'd ever been at that age said, no, not really. A 14-year-old said emphatically, of course. He was 6'2, my height.
I was surprised at how tall some of the boys were, none of them older than 16. I was also surprised at how not angry they seemed. I grew up about 45 minutes from here in a similar neighborhood in Queens, not so long ago, I thought. But when I asked them why they thought this had happened to them at all, one of the older boys talked to me like he was explaining why humans need food. The cop was white.
You know, they don't like Black people. And I thought-- I was like, oh, we about to-- [IMITATES TASER]
Yeah, we about to get tased.
Maybe this is just me, but I look back on walks home from school as my first real flirtations with independence, a sacred time and space between my teachers' rules and my parents' restrictions. The kids in that video, this was their school. This was their neighborhood.
Most of the ones I talked to live only four or five blocks away. As far as they were concerned, this was their corner. I can't imagine what it would feel like to be firmly in your time and space and run up against a cop with a taser, threatening to electrocute you if you don't put down that snowball.
What's crazier to me is that I've walked through this intersection at Bedford Avenue and Campus Road, past the high school, and through the Brooklyn College campus many times in the last few years. Beneath its landmark gilded clock tower, Brooklyn College could be a campus quad from a corny 1950s film, except teeming with students from cultures all over New York. Something about it practically screams welcome, things only get better from here.
The young Black men in that video came out of their high school that day and stood at the edge of that promise. What could be the next great space and time in their lives was a college literally across the street, but they were shooed away, told they didn't belong. As far as metaphors go, this one couldn't be less ambiguous.
But none of this seemed to bother the boys, or at least not that they let on. This was not the first time that they had been made to feel unwelcome so close to home and school, yet they weren't festering with resentment. They weren't seeing the tragedy in it that I was seeing.
After I finished talking to them, I went across the street to find the Brooklyn College professor who'd recorded the incident. Alex Vitale teaches sociology, and also happens to run the school's policing and social justice project. Leaving work that day, he'd seen the two cops descend on Bedford Avenue and Campus Road, followed them. And it was his recording that ended up on YouTube, as well as a few local news websites.
We talked briefly about how repeated incidents like this could affect the boys' psyches. He agreed that no matter how cool they seem now, over time their hopes for their own futures could possibly darken. But then Alex asked me how old I was. When I told him 43, he said that I had missed the height of the stop and frisk era. I was not a teenager or even a young man in New York City when unprompted police harassment was at its worst.
So the taser incident outraged me, but what these kids had seen their older brothers, sisters, and in some cases parents go through had conditioned them to be a bit more stoic. It stung a little bit to have this white academic tell me that I couldn't quite relate to a young black man's experience.
I guess when I first approached those boys, a part of me hoped that, like Ibn Ali Miller in the Atlantic City video, I would just roll up out of nowhere and know everything about their world that they know, plus some more. Instead, I was just another adult, taking their time and invading their space.
Our program was produced today by Neil Drumming and Stephanie Foo. Our staff includes Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Dina Chivvis, Sean Cole, Whitney Dangerfield, Kimberly Henderson, Chana Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Seth Lind, BA Parker, Robyn Semien, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our senior producer for today's show is Brian Reed. Additional help for this rerun from Noor Gill and Stowe Nelson.
Special thanks today to Frank Nieto, Nalo Hopkinson, Detroit Robinson, Shani Hilton, Nailah Middleton, Steve Kaplan, Stephen Henderson, Lee DeVito, Solange Franklin, Evan Narcisse, Bryce Detroit, Xiomara, and Denmark Vessey. Our website, with this music video to go with the CLPPNG underwater sci-fi song you heard earlier-- also the artist Paul Davey did a piece of original art for today's show-- that's thisamericanlife.org.
This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who had the most disappointing latte of his entire life this week. He asked for extra foam, extra cream, but it did not come that way.
It was, like, 110% black. It was super black. It was just black.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.