Black Utopia

Wandering in search of Wakanda

A critic seeks out black utopias in ‘Ain’t No Mo’,’ Beyoncé’s ‘Homecoming’ and David Byrne’s Broadway show

This summer, I was strolling the streets of Hell’s Kitchen with a friend and fellow Howard alumnus. We’d just left a performance of BLKS, the off-Broadway Aziza Barnes play that made me laugh so hard I had a coughing fit in the middle of the performance.

BLKS is about three young black women who live together in Brooklyn, New York, who are adults on paper, but still trying to get it together like real grown-ups. The play opens with a young woman named Octavia in a state of loud comical distress because she’s discovered a mole on her clitoris, which prompts several existential crises, all of which are addressed with copious amounts of brown liquor and weed.

During the curtain call, the sounds of Fast Life Yungstaz’s (F.L.Y.) “Swag Surfin’ ” blasted through the walls of the theater. The audience, mostly young black people in their 20s and 30s like my friend and me, began to sway, almost involuntarily. There was so much joyous black energy in the space, and I wanted to pocket as much of it as I could.

For a few, brief moments, Barnes and director Robert O’Hara had birthed a black utopia — not in the play itself, but in the room at large — where we could all recognize ourselves on the stage. We could guffaw until tears streamed down our cheeks, knowing that BLKS had been created with our gaze in mind, as opposed to one chiefly concerned with explaining black people to white audiences. We were transported, in the way that I have found myself transported by Alvin Ailey’s Revelations or Black Panther or Homecoming.

And then we were released back into the world, wandering in search of the next Wakanda.


Visions of utopia tend to sprout in times of peril as a way of envisioning a social perfection that seems light-years away. They’re a bit like quarks, those subatomic particles that can’t be directly observed but somehow we still believe they exist. Even when rendered on stage or screen, utopias are fragile, ethereal, momentary.

Three standout works from 2019 sought to create or interrogate utopias and what it takes to render them. The play Ain’t No Mo’, which ran at the Public Theater, was a shattering examination of the cost of creating a place like Wakanda. In Beyoncé’s Homecoming documentary, viewers witness how the artist created a black utopia for two performances at Coachella. And in Broadway’s American Utopia, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne calls upon the work of a woman who’s built a futuristic dystopia in song for some much-needed realism in a show that prods its audience to rethink what’s possible.

All three are additions to a vast tradition replete with the folklore of flying Africans, and the imagined worlds that sprouted from figures including W.E.B. Du Bois (The Comet), Parliament-Funkadelic, Martin Delany (Blake; or, The Huts of America), Octavia Butler (The Parable Series), Sun Ra and his Arkestra, Faith Ringgold (Flying Home: Harlem Heroes and Heroines), Solange, Lionel Hampton, Janelle Monáe, Nnedi Okorafor, and even Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key.

Black utopias exist as a coping mechanism for impatience and incrementalism. They foster dreams, hope, creativity, and idealism. They also keep us from punching our fellow humans in the mouth every time one of them mentions something about the moral arc of the universe being long, but bending toward justice, especially when the invocation of this phrase is employed in the wake of some wholly preventable instance of racial injustice.

As America has evolved, so have African American notions of utopia, which segue from visions like that of 16th-century English writer Sir Thomas More because they are fed by a healthy sense of skepticism about the world that produced them.

America, in many ways, is a black dystopia, but it’s one that provides a vision for betterment within its founding documents. Making the country less awful for black people, and for society at large, has been a long, frustrating, violent, multigenerational project since 1619, one that requires vision and imagination beyond the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights.

“There’s something to be learned from black utopian reflections that can energize our democracy,” said Alex Zamalin, the director of the African American Studies Program at the University of Detroit Mercy and the author of Black Utopia: The History of an Idea From Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism. “The main thrust of the tradition, both the utopian and anti-utopian tradition in black culture, is to try to think about and theorize how freedom can be achieved, specifically black freedom can be achieved in conditions of white supremacy and racism. … The argument is that there needs to be some way to transcend not only racism, but the injustices of capitalism, of a security state, of instrumental thinking, of dehumanized thinking … [Black utopias] offer really important resources for how to deal with injustice and domination and inequality in the present.”

Supernatural escape, like that which was popularized in the Virginia Hamilton children’s book, The People Could Fly, first published in 1985, is a common path in the African American folk tradition. In The Annotated African American Folk Tales, editors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar dedicate an entire subsection to variations on the stories of enslaved Africans, who, after enduring vicious treatment at the hands of white owners and overseers, simply spread their arms, ascended skyward, and flew home. Such tales called upon an African magic that had not yet been extinguished through the barbarism of chattel slavery. They were passed down through oral storytelling traditions and eventually recorded by organizations such as the Georgia Writers Project.

Were the Africans ascending heavenward or heading east? The stories are open to dual interpretations, but the end goal is always the same: to go someplace better, which is why Gates and Tatar include the spiritual “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” when discussing flying Africans.

Heaven isn’t just a Christian utopia. In the context of black liberation, it’s a place of rest, a place that’s free from violence. No one gets racially profiled or whipped or lynched or tortured or raped in heaven. No one is forced to clear forests and pick cotton and cook and breastfeed someone else’s baby while your own goes hungry. The idea of a place free from white supremacy became deeply intertwined with spirituality.

As America has evolved, so have African American notions of utopia, which segue from visions like that of 16th-century English writer Sir Thomas More because they are fed by a healthy sense of skepticism about the world that produced them.

“The kind of white, Western, European tradition of utopianism is so concerned with finding a land filled with milk and honey and a paradise on earth, that they’re not really thinking clearly about the way that identity and lived experience can really frustrate and prevent certain idealistic visions of becoming a reality,” Zamalin said.

Similarly, there’s a fault line between ideas of utopia that include egalitarianism from inception and ones that treat it as a side project. The former tend to be heavily influenced by womanism. Black Panther and Homecoming reinforce the notion that women can often be more focused on community uplift as a whole, rather than enormous success for a few. In the words of theologian Preston N. Williams: “The hope is always for an altered status of blacks as a group and not simply as single persons.”

Ain’t No Mo’, Homecoming, and American Utopia each provide different ways for examining the arguments, contradictions, and compromises in the black utopian tradition.

Ain’t No Mo’

Before the action begins in playwright Jordan E. Cooper’s Ain’t No Mo’, the audience is given pens and paper and asked to write down things that black people have contributed to America. After each person has written as many things as they like, the papers are deposited into a prop called “Miss Bag.”

The play is part meditation on an imagined mass black exodus from the United States and part homage to George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play, The Colored Museum. Cooper presents vignettes of black life, interspersed with the musings of Peaches, a flight attendant working Flight 1619, the very last flight reserved for black people leaving America to find their genetic homelands in Africa. It’s as if the Andre 3000 line from “International Players Anthem (I Choose You)” came to life onstage: “Spaceships don’t come equipped with rearview mirrors.”

In Ain’t No Mo, playwright and actor Jordan E. Cooper presents vignettes of black life, interspersed with the musings of Peaches, a flight attendant working Flight 1619, the very last flight reserved for black people leaving America to find their genetic homelands in Africa.

Joan Marcus

In one scene, Peaches, who is a drag queen, is on the phone trying to persuade a friend to get to the airport because there are no more flights to this black utopia.

“I don’t know what to tell you, ’cause if you stay here, you only got two choices for guaranteed housing and that’s either a cell or a coffin,” Peaches says. “After this flight, there will be no more black folk left in this country, and I know y’all don’t wanna be the only ones left behind because them m—–f—–s will try to put you in a museum or make you do watermelon shows at SeaWorld and s—. Hurry up, or I will give your seat to some of the Latinos on standby … ”

In this view of America, the idea that white people are unable and unwilling to remake America as an antiracist beacon of freedom and equality is a given. The only thing that can create a black utopia is to flee and subject the American experiment to the fate of an Etch A Sketch: Shake the picture until it’s blank, and start over.

This idea of abandoning America and starting over can be traced back to a debate among abolitionists in the 1830s, Zamalin said.

“The militant black abolitionists say, ‘Look, we don’t want to leave the United States. We don’t know what’s in Africa. We don’t have the resources to make a life there. We don’t want to make a life there. Why not fundamentally transform our condition in the United States and then that’ll broaden democracy for all?’ ” Zamalin said. “There’s this presumption that … somehow there would be a sacrifice, when black citizens leave, only for black citizens. But the truth is, what these abolitionists were saying was, black citizens, because they have experienced bondage and oppression, will be a crucial force to then align with poor white folks, with women, in order to struggle for a better democracy for everybody.

“That becomes a kind of theme of some utopian thought, especially at the end of the 19th century, which is that in order to have a successful and healthy, radical democracy, where folks are treated as ends in themselves, where they’re treated with basic human dignity, abolishing racism, ending slavery, later Jim Crow … too often there’s this presumption that the question is, are black people going to make certain sacrifices.

“But one thing that’s forgotten is what the utopian tradition stresses: If we fail to talk about racial liberation, we will also fail to talk about economic liberation, gender liberation. And black citizens are a crucial force in, and historically have been, in agitating for these things.”

Fedna Jacquet (left) and Ebony Marshall-Oliver (right) share a scene from playwright Jordan E. Cooper’s Ain’t No Mo.

Joan Marcus

In the last act of Ain’t No Mo’, Cooper addresses the cost of black absence to both America and to black people. To board Flight 1619, passengers must relinquish the contents of Miss Bag, and once in the jetway, they’re not allowed to look back.

When the last passenger has boarded, Peaches tries to pick up Miss Bag. She can’t do it. Miss Bag won’t budge.

Peaches tries to reason with several hundred years of thought, culture, art, and pain.

“Miss Bag, ain’t nobody got the time to be tryna pull you up out the dirt of the earth,” Peaches says. “Ain’t you got no sense of time? Ain’t you got no sense of direction? Ain’t you got enough sense to know that these n—-s gone be away in some far-off land looking lost and empty if you don’t find yourself up under they plane? All these n—-s blood gone be drained from they souls if they can’t find a yesterday to live in, Miss Bag. We can’t leave without you …”

Peaches’ begging becomes more desperate.

“Why yo roots gotta be so deep? You gotta let go and come with me, do you know what they get to keep if you stay here? You want them to have all the height and all the power? You just gonna let them have Billie’s flower? If they get that, then they get Ella’s scat, They get Pac’s rap, They get Oprah’s fat…. and I’ll be damned if I leave and they get to keep Whitney off crack!”

The door to the jetway closes, and the plane begins to taxi, without Peaches or Miss Bag aboard. Peaches collapses in anguish, while thunder claps and lightning strikes. When the weather clears, Peaches is alone, and a supernatural force, referred to in the script as “The Powers That Be” has taken Miss Bag and is raining cash from the sky in return.

Peaches cries out.

“GIVE IT BACK! GIVE IT BACK! GIVE IT BACK! GIVE IT BACK!”

The lights go dark. Perhaps what awaits the passengers of Flight 1619 isn’t a utopia at all, but simply the absence of memory.

Homecoming

Ain’t No Mo’ is chiefly concerned with the costs of leaving a flawed America in favor of an unfamiliar Valhalla. With Homecoming, Beyoncé created her own utopia.

When she performed at the Coachella Music Festival in 2018 as the first black woman to headline the event, Beyoncé cast herself as a breaker of chains, as Nefertiti, and as Malcolm X (“Bad m—–f—-/God complex/motivate your a–/call me Malcolm X,” she sings on “Don’t Hurt Yourself”). And she did so within a world where she was the chief creator and facilitator, and which she documented and distributed globally via Netflix.

Beyoncé makes her entrance at Coachella in Homecoming.

courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment

“As a black woman, I used to feel like the world wanted me to stay in my little box,” Beyoncé explained in Homecoming. “And black women often feel underestimated. I wanted us to be proud of not only the show, but the process, proud of the struggle, thankful for the beauty that comes with a painful history, and rejoice in the pain, rejoice in the imperfections and the wrongs that are so damn right. And I wanted everyone to feel grateful for their curves, their sass, their honesty. Thankful for their freedom.”

Coachella provided the opportunity to fashion a specific black utopia: Beytopia. Where there was nothing but sand, a pyramid made from stadium bleachers materialized. A temporary oasis was populated with the artifacts of historically black colleges: marching bands, Greek-letter steppers, J-setting majorettes, dancers, and the black national anthem.

For two performances, the world’s biggest pop star reigned over a world of her own making. It was a world that took its inspiration from Nina Simone, who is quoted in Homecoming declaring that “To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world; Black people.”

“I wanted every person who that has ever been dismissed to feel like they were on that stage, killing ’em. Killing ’em,” Beyoncé says in the Homecoming film.

The further you go back in the history of black utopias, the less concerned they tend to be with gender equality.

“One important theme throughout the tradition is the battle between are you simply creating an American society with the free market, with capitalism, with profit-making, with the security state and giving black people freedom within that. Or, in other words, is it basically American capitalism, national security, so on and so forth but without racism? Or are you articulating a kind of completely different bold vision, socialist? That’s definitely a tension because, especially in the 19th century, a lot of the major black utopians are pro-capitalist,” Zamalin said. “They’re not really thinking deeply about gender. The person I’m thinking about is Martin Delany. He’s the first black nationalist. Progressively, as the years go by, there’s much more concern with these questions, but it’s still always a question and it’s always a debate. Is this kind of new black community or utopian space actually going to be free of all the things in America that create inequality? Or are they going to be smuggled in?”

In a modern-day take, we can watch Key and Peele’s sketch “Negrotown,” a comedic broadside against systemic racism, in which the only specific mention of black women is a one-off joke about Negrotown being a place where white women aren’t present to steal black men away.

Beytopia was decidedly more egalitarian, with Beyoncé reorienting the world she’d created around one black woman (herself) as a stand-in for black women the world over. In Beytopia, women who have, in Beyoncé’s words, “had enough of the bulls—” can appropriate black fraternal step culture. Black women run the show. Black men get their time in the spotlight, but they don’t get to monopolize it.

Beyoncé deployed Malcolm X to spell out the reasoning that merited such a decision: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected woman in America is the black woman. The most neglected woman in America is the black woman.”

It might be true in America, but it wouldn’t be true in Beytopia. “We were able to create a free, safe space where none of us were marginalized.”

Homecoming is a diaspora-spanning work of cultural curation. Its breadth and variety illuminate a corner of the stakes of the departure Ain’t No Mo’ asks us to consider. Letting go of everything black people have given to America requires, among other things, cutting off everything that undergirds Homecoming. Why do we have to give it up? And why don’t we want to? Because we feel ownership of those things. Because they are American. And we, too, sing America.

American Utopia

The seeming outlier in these three works is Byrne’s American Utopia, a touring show that’s currently on Broadway until Feb. 16. Byrne’s show is not about a black utopia, but a collection of utopias united under the umbrella of America. I found it extraordinarily touching that Byrne recognized and admired something familiar in Monáe’s work. Through her albums, the singer birthed a fictional, Afrofuturist universe called Metropolis where her android alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather, is always on the run.

American Utopia, starring David Byrne (center) , wasn’t just a celebration of one man’s vision of an ideal state, but the presentation of many, without hierarchy.

Matthew Murphy

Given that Byrne opens American Utopia singing in a nasal monotone while stroking a model of a human brain, it’s fitting that one artist thoroughly enchanted with weirdness and rejecting authoritarianism would identify with Monáe. American Utopia is a celebration of Byrne’s hits, including “This Must Be The Place,” “Slippery People,” and “Burning Down the House.” The musicians and dancers who accompany him are a multiculti array of folks who seem to have discovered a wellspring of joy. I haven’t seen happier black people all year than the ones on stage with Byrne.

But rather than play one of Monáe’s many songs from the Metropolis universe, which chronicles the fight against a dystopian society, Byrne chose “Hell You Talmbout.” He’d heard her sing it, he said, at the Women’s March in Washington in 2017, and it touched him so much that he asked if he could include it in the American Utopia show.

“Hell You Talmbout” is a protest song, seemingly as endless as “John Brown’s Body,” because it relies on a repeated chorus cataloging the names of black people whose lives were ended by police violence. Earlier iterations included a call-and-response invoking Walter Scott, Michael Brown, and Sandra Bland. By the time the show played in October, Byrne and his band were encouraging their audience to say the names of Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson. Here we were, forcing ourselves not to forget the newly dead while recognizing the hopelessness incurred by their presence on this list. Some in the largely white audience participated in the call-and-response, but I could also see faces that were perplexed, even irritated.

I shouted until I was exhausted and tears ran down my face. At least we could acknowledge our own helplessness and scream about it in community. I was still shaking as the band moved on to “One Fine Day,” still shaking when, during the curtain call, Byrne reminded the audience that there were volunteers in the lobby of the theater registering Americans to vote.

Byrne, a Scottish immigrant who became a naturalized citizen because he believed in the American experiment, accomplished something I’d begun to think was impossible: He made me feel hopeful. American Utopia wasn’t just a celebration of one man’s vision of an ideal state, but the presentation of many, without hierarchy. The uniformity of the performers’ gray suits and their bare feet, across different types of bodies and races and expressions of gender identity, were an effort to erase hierarchy and a revelation.

Byrne is an evangelist for the betterment of the country, for staying and fighting, for dragging uncomfortable white people along in the project instead of capitulating to know-nothing, do-nothing intransigence. Maybe that’s why American Utopia carries the energy of a religious revival.

David Byrne’s American Utopia carries the energy of a religious revival.

Matthew Murphy

Nevertheless, I later found myself doubting my own feelings and wondered if I’d allowed myself to become a Pollyanna for a few hours because it felt good. I was haunted by something Zamalin said about the complexities of black utopias.

“What’s really striking about the black utopian tradition is that they’re really aware of how fragile any kind of revolutionary or idealistic exercise or adventure is, because at each historical moment of the writing, they’re so attuned to the inequality in white supremacy that their visions are viewed with a kind of sense of the tragic,” Zamalin said. “They know that they need to dream in order to come up with an alternative, but even those dreams are filled with much more skepticism and much more internal awareness and critique than white utopian thinkers, who believe that all that’s necessary is to just articulate a bold vision and people will get on board.”

I wanted to take the world I’d witnessed on stage and make it real instead of resigning myself to racialized anger and heartbreak, occasionally interrupted by short-lived bursts of black euphoria.

Isn’t that what we do with our home? We stay, we fight to make it more perfect. In the days that followed, I wondered if I was being selfish, if what I wanted was simply impossible. It’s what made this essay so difficult to write; the more I learned, the more I read, the less sure I was about anything.

But for a moment in October when I stepped onto 44th Street, space didn’t have to be the place. Instead, I could acknowledge that home is where I want to be. And furthermore, I’m already here.

Liner Notes

Further reading: 

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

Creating the Black Utopia of Buxton, Iowa by Rachelle Chase

Making a Way Out of No Way, A Womanist Theology by Monica A. Coleman

Blake; or, The Huts of America by Martin Robison Delany

The Condition Elevation Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States by Martin Robison Delany

Trouble on Triton by Samuel R. Delaney

The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton

Utopia/Dystopia edited by Peyton E. Richter

Women in Search of Utopia: Mavericks and Mythmakers by Ruby Rohrlich

The Annotated African American Folktales edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar

Black Utopia: The History of an Idea From Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism by Alex Zamalin

 

Further listening:

American Utopia

Dirty Computer

Homecoming

Space is the Place: Music for the Film

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.