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Perspectives Identity

Remixing the Future

The author and illustrator John Jennings discusses Seneca Village, Afrofuturism, and writing The Met's first graphic novella.

Feb 18, 2022

Illustration of a diver in a black suit appearing from a splash of red and aquamarine paint

Before the founding of The Met or the construction of Central Park, Seneca Village—a bustling neighborhood of predominantly Black landowners—stood just west of the Museum’s current Fifth Avenue building. Approximately 225 residents inhabited an area of around five acres, between 82nd and 89th Streets near the Upper West Side. Our latest Bulletin, Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room, celebrates the opening of the Museum’s newest period room installation and honors the legacy of a vibrant community that was fragmented by the city’s use of eminent domain in 1857.

With texts from curators Ian Alteveer, Hannah Beachler, Sarah Lawrence, and Michelle Commander, the Bulletin provides further context for this period room built upon the speculative philosophy of Afrofuturism and imagined histories from the eighteenth century through the present. The publication also features a graphic novella by New York Times–bestselling author and illustrator John Jennings, the first of its kind in the history of The Met’s publishing program. I had the opportunity to speak with Jennings about his work and passion for science fiction as well as his thoughts on Black identity and the role museums play in surfacing and preserving Black stories.

Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room is available at The Met Store and MetPublications.

Sean Zhang: In recent popular culture, Afrofuturism seems well represented through comics and their related properties—for example, Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Why do you think comics are so accessible and effective when framing Black stories? And more specifically, what perspective do you think your graphic novella, “Protocol and Response,” lends to the focus of the period room and its accompanying Bulletin?

John Jennings: In the first article about Afrofuturism, “Black to the Future,” published in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (1994) by Mark Dery (who is credited with coining the term), four out of the five images used to illustrate the article are comics. Two of those images are from Milestone Media—which produces comics published and distributed by DC Comics—and feature the superheroes Icon and Rocket and Hardware, respectively. All three of these figures are Black comic-book characters that have experienced a resurgence and relaunch very recently. The other two images are from Why I Hate Saturn, a nineties satire-romance comic by Kyle Baker. What I’m getting at is that comics have always been at the center of conversations about Afrofuturism since the beginning—before Dery coined the term—with comics done by Pedro Bell and Overton Loyd in the late 1970s for the music collective Parliament-Funkadelic. Also, we have to look at the Black Age of Comics started in 1993 by independent comics publisher and cultural activist Turtel Onli out of Chicago.

Afrofuturism is not being generated out of an ivory-tower mentality. It’s coming from the streets. It was a fringe culture coming out of the culmination of interests in social justice and civil rights, but also from Black geeks who were into new electronic music forms and sampling. When Dery was thinking about Afrofuturism, he was thinking about it as a techno-vernacular culture, especially with the democratization of information beginning to happen in the nascent period of the World Wide Web.

“Afrofuturism is not being generated out of an ivory-tower mentality. It’s coming from the streets.”

–John Jennings

Dery started to notice these different ideas surrounding Black speculative culture and techno-culture. Comics have always been part of conversations around space exploration, cyborgs, robots, and other questions about science and technology, but not necessarily from an Afrocentric standpoint. So, what I’ve been trying to do with my work is reclaim that connection between Afrofuturism and comics. It is important to remember that comics are a medium, not a genre, and they deal with storytelling in very particular ways. Their stories may be dominated by superheroes in our country, but comics are still a medium.

In addition to edifying comics in a certain way, I’m also shouting out a lot of Afrofuturist history in “Protocol and Response.” For example, Dr. Zora Nova, who’s the main character in the comic, is referred to as “the last angel.” That’s coming from John Akomfrah’s work The Last Angel of History (1996), a short documentary about Black digital and techno music and how they relate to Black speculative works. I think those are some of the culminating goals in my work: trying to recapture those images and the connections between comics and Afrofuturism.

Zhang: You also seem to be shouting out a lot of science-fiction history. NISI’s description of the “people who never were” as “tears in rain” makes me think of Roy Batty’s monologue in Blade Runner (1982).

Jennings: Even Zora Nova wondering, “Doc...tor? Doctor...who?” calls back to my favorite time-travel and sci-fi show, Doctor Who. I have a lot of little nuggets in there!

Excerpt from “Protocol and Response”

Zhang: There are a lot of references to a specifically Black kind of sci-fi too. Some that I noticed were Astro Black (1973) by Sun Ra, “Funkentelechy” (1973) by Parliament, and the megascopic goggles from “The Princess Steel” (ca. 1908) by W.E.B. Du Bois. Could you discuss your own interests in sci-fi and what you think makes it an appealing lens to explore Black history?

Jennings: Science fiction was always about possibility and moving forward through technological advancement. But the truth of the matter is that in old sci-fi, from the fifties, you wouldn’t see any people of color. In fact, you wouldn’t really see anyone who wasn’t white, cisgender, hetero, and male. It wasn’t until Star Trek, which came out in 1966—the same year that Babel-17 by Samuel Delany was published, Black Panther was created, and the Black Panther Party was founded—that we started to see the possibilities of an inclusive future. Nichelle Nichols then becomes a touchpoint for what we have come to know as Afrofuturism. It was still tokenized, I have to say, but nonetheless it was a huge step to see the possibility of different people from such different standpoints living together.

When I talk about Afrofuturism, I always like to say that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an Afrofuturist. His favorite show was Star Trek, and he encouraged Nichelle Nichols to not quit the show because he was like, Sister, you represent us in the future! The thing is, when Dr. King talks about that mountaintop, where people from all different backgrounds come together and hold hands, that hasn’t happened yet. That mountaintop isn’t on any GPS on our planet because it isn’t a real thing. He used a critical, radical Black imagination to imagine a space of freedom for everyone.

As for my own interests, my mom was a huge science fiction and horror fan, and I became a massive consumer of sci-fi, horror, and comics through her. To me, they seemed like an unbridled imagination through technology. But what Afrofuturism does, specifically, is dial into the idea of Blackness and race as a type of technology and uses that particular lens to move into the future or reimagine the past. My colleague, Lisa Yaszek, says that Afrofuturism is a reclamation of the history of the future. In the future that we’ve often seen, we don’t see people of color well represented. So, there is work to be done in fixing that particular past in order to move into a more positive future. That is the aspect of science fiction that gets me really excited.

Zhang: You’ve talked a bit about imagery and comics as a medium. Since “Protocol and Response” is the first comic contribution to be featured in a Met publication, I would be remiss if I did not ask you about the illustrations themselves. Could you talk about how art and design history help you craft characters and a narrative?

Jennings: I got Dr. Zora Nova’s name from Zora Neale Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance luminary and author of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and Samuel Delany’s sci-fi novel Nova (1968). But I also wanted to think of her as a time-traveling data thief, like the character from The Last Angel of History, who is collecting history as a way into the future. In my novella, Dr. Nova is going back and getting these artifacts to put in the period room, which is itself designed as a vessel, a spaceship. The idea behind that was that the period room was landing at The Met temporarily, just for a little bit, before taking off again to collect more artifacts from these alternative universes. Even NISI, the AI, was inspired by Nisi Shawl, the wonderful Black speculative author and poet.

Illustration of Dr. Zora Nova

For Zora Nova’s clothing design, I wanted to create a contrast from the really white, clean, and pristine spacesuits associated with NASA, which is why she wears a very black spacesuit. The suit is also androgynous to a certain degree, disguising her as a woman at first. But it was also important to me to reveal her gender early on because Black women are so often the leaders of Afrofuturism as a movement and make up its primary thrust. There are a lot of talented Black women writing and making art within that space, so Zora Nova was a kind of salute to them.

Her design is actually based off my friend Nicole Williams, who is a model. I asked another friend of ours, Tarji Stewart, to take the reference photos for the comic, and I was able to describe to Nicole how I wanted her to pose in the scenes. Tarji then shot photos of Nicole in those poses, which I sampled.

As for the festive colors of Zora Nova underneath her spacesuit, they’re almost like scales, which is a reference to the idea of the aquatic in Afrofuturism. You can see this embodied by water spirits in the Dogon religion called the Nommo or by Drexciya, a techno musical duo from Detroit with a nautical origin myth, both of which deify the aquatic. And of course, the red, black, and green on her arm references an Afrocentric standpoint.

Another interesting reference comes from a former student of mine, named Rob Mach, who visited Nigeria a while ago. He sent me photos of these gorgeous wall textures from the region. Because I work digitally, I could actually sample these photos and put them into the texturing of the walls of the period room in my comic. There are pieces of Africa within these panels.

Zhang: Looking at the artifacts that Dr. Zora Nova collects, what is the significance of the specific items she gathers and that you chose to depict in your comic? They seem to have a rehabilitative effect on her memory and consciousness.

Hair comb, ca. 1851. Manufactured by India Rubber Comb Company. Vulcanite (India rubber and sulfur), 4 ¼ x 4 ½ in. (10.8 x 11.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Susan and Jon Rotenstreich Gift, 2000 (2000.561)

Jennings: That’s right. With the vulcanized rubber comb, for instance, there are a lot of narratives around Black women’s hair. Even though Zora Nova’s hair is covered, I knew that the comb was important to the curators as an artifact and I wanted to highlight it. I was also very into the different vessels, which were not only interesting to draw, but also felt like a good metaphor for holding memory and hope and being utilitarian in that sense. And of course, William Henry Johnson was always one of my favorite artists. As I recall, he was a rather tragic figure of the Harlem Renaissance, having ended up dying in a psychiatric hospital. I wanted to uplift his legacy in a certain way and I loved that his work was included in the exhibition.

I thought that all the pieces I chose would have resonance, but it is the nkisi figure that ends up being the one that lets Zora Nova break through because it embodies mystical powers and healing. In fact, medicine men or shamans from particular tribes would utilize the nkisi to help remember the healing practices used on different members of their communities. Some of the pieces I chose because I thought they were beautiful art, but each artifact does have a story behind it and is talking directly to her, as if there were an ancestral spirit inside each one of them. You could think of each work of art as a different type of technology.

Power Figure: Male (Nkisi), 19th–20th century. Kongo peoples. Wood, glass, metal, cloth, organic matter, H. 7 ¾ x W. 2 ½ x D. 2 ½ in. (19.7 x 6.4 x 6.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968 (1978.412.574)

Zhang: The artifacts heal Zora Nova, but she experiences a converse effect at the beginning of the comic when she grapples with time distortion and dilation, losing her memory and consciousness in the process. What does this convey about the effects of time on how we remember Black histories?

Jennings: That’s a great question, and prompting that kind of thinking is exactly why I included that detail. First of all, Black history and American history: same thing. Yet we’re always trying to fight to pull together the remnants of a particular history. Sometimes history is distorted by different types of tumult, which is part of the conversation the period room encourages. Other times, history and memories are intentionally disrupted and erased. The tension she feels from time travel is symbolically representing that latter type of trauma and her efforts to re-remember. “Rememory,” that’s Toni Morrison’s word for it.

Zora Nova is falling through different spaces and dimensions to try and save these artifacts for future generations, but in doing so, she’s damaging her own psyche. It also speaks to the sacrifice of Black women as placeholders or sacristans who protect information for future generations, whether it’s through quilting, storytelling, or raising children and sharing their knowledge. Information and knowledge is also why I made her a doctor. After all, she has a PhD and is a learned woman who created this system of retrieval.

Zhang: What role do museums play in this system of retrieval? How do they preserve and restore these cultural narratives that can be under threat?

Jennings: I think they are certainly vital. The root of “museum” is “muse,” which speaks to the fact that they are about inspiration and inspiring people to come to these spaces and interact with the art. Some people have issues with museums being territorial or one-sided, but I think that spaces like this Afrofuturist period room—which are very active and invite you inside to imagine what its inhabitants would be like—speak to the power of art and archiving. It’s about saving things and making sure people remember and understand the context around when and why these pieces were created. I think that’s very powerful, and museums are at the forefront of that and always have been.

Excerpt from “Protocol and Response”

My issue with museums throughout history is that sometimes they don’t save everything or they categorize things differently than they would if they were by a white artist. But I think we are making strides in the right direction, and museums, galleries, and archives are important in that regard.

Zhang: This Met exhibition is rooted in the real history of Seneca Village, a mid-nineteenth-century neighborhood predominantly populated by African Americans, many of whom were landowners. Could you talk about the significance of Zora Nova identifying herself as a “never-child of Seneca Village”? She also seems to be surprised that her final destination in the period room is actually The Met.

Jennings: It’s like she’s going back home! The notion is that she’s coming from a dimension where Seneca Village was never displaced to begin with, but she is a “never-child” because that actually never happened. Seneca Village was displaced and Zora Nova doesn’t really exist, even though she should have.

I also like the idea of the period room being a vessel and a space for travel and thinking. To me, a museum is a crossroad: it’s an empty box, or a series of empty boxes that’s always shifting depending on what the curator envisions for that space. Let’s be real about it: curation is also an art form. It’s a form of creation that can be thought of using hip-hop culture—which is definitely connected to Afrofuturism—as a parallel. Anything could be in those spaces at any given time, so it’s up to the curators to utilize those spaces very much like a DJ. You’re sampling, remixing, and using the period room and museum space as a nexus for understanding and possibility. That also reflects what we do as people. We sample things and use artifacts and culture to build who we are and communicate who we want to be.

Marquee: Cover of  “Protocol and Response” by John Jennings