Steffani Jemison and Black Utopia

If we can understand the Great Migration at the turn of the 20th century as a radical spatial imaginary, through this lens, the Black city can be framed as an active collective imagining of utopia. The goal: a Black utopia in pursuit of black humanity, a presaged us-ness as full citizens of this America.

The Great Migration, like Reconstruction and contemporary post-racial politics, embodied the promise of America’s benevolence, staging the Black city to fall short of its deliverance of a Black utopia. Fostering a calamity of hope akin to the preacher man’s unholy repetition, “Just Hold On My Brothers and Sisters! A change is sure to come!” As Isabel Wilkerson explains, migration from the south, “… grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it, helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s.”1 And still, fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, America has sustained its legacy of racial dystopia, inciting another generation to proclaim their humanity in protest. Will the inconvenience and backlash of Black rage further stagnate the road towards truth and accountability for America and her future?

The concept of utopia can be employed to aid the process of imaging a future we would fight for. It demonstrates the plurality of time, fact and fiction. Artist Steffani Jemison describes utopia as “…a tool that historicizes the present moment; it is a band that connects the present to the future; it is a promise that incentivizes the activity of the present by reminding it of a range of possible futures.” The significance of engaging Black utopia within contemporary art, contradictions in tow, is its expansiveness as a self-determined imaginative occupation with the relationship between Black Americans and their country—a relationship best described by Ta-Nehisi Coates as plunderous.2

Within her commission for One-­Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works ​currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, Jemison utilizes utopia as a discourse of abstraction within Lawrence’s work and a century of imagining the Black city. Jemison states, “There is an obvious alliance between utopia and abstraction in art: abstraction symbolizes the absolute negation of the real.” She continues, “Like utopia, abstraction in art fails by definition—once realized, an abstract image is no longer abstract – it is concrete, and it can even be said to represent itself.”

Promise Machine is a multi-part research based project which parallels utopian phantasms of the past alongside contemporary interpretations through literature, dialogue and performance. The work is collaborative and reflective of the artist’s captivation with process, repetition and the ephemeral.

Jemison arrives at this project through biographical details of Lawrence’s informal art training, specifically his education ­at the Utopia Neighborhood House in Central Harlem. The Utopia House, a space for community and social services, was created by a social club of Black women committed to childcare for young children and working mothers within Harlem before blossoming into a fully operational site with a wide­ range of offerings in the mid­ 1920s. After school, Lawrence attended their day­care program where he began to study with artist Charles Henry Alston.

The ladies of the Utopia Neighborhood Club were one of multiple newly formed social, cultural, and philanthropic groups in Harlem during the early period of migration. These organized networks sprang up all across expanding Black urban enclaves and became a part of the fabric of Black survival and ascension in the city. Nearly a century later, Jemison locates Harlem and its contemporary art and youth organizations as the starting ground for Promise Machine. Identified as the research phase of the commission, workshops and conversations were held amongst teens and adults, artists and educators to further think through Harlem as a site of imagination for Black utopia and its creative and political historiographies.

With other writers, artists, curators and scholars, members from these organizations were able to extend their engagement around these themes as participants in the project’s accompanying reading group. Held at the MoMA library, Jemison facilitated dialogues around a curated selection of literary classics like Black Utopia​ by William Pease, George Schuyler’s Black Enterprise, a​nd Light Ahead for the Negro​ by Edward A. Johnson. The group discussed the emergence of Black utopias in relation to other American utopias and their varied structures and models, both imagined and propagated over time. Nicodemus, Kansas and Soul City, North Carolina were raised in the group’s search for examples of Black utopia that reached an existence outside of the theoretical.

The reading group mirrored a format established in past collaborations with artist Jamal Cyrus on the “Book Club” (2010) and “Alpha’s Bet Is Not Over Yet” (2011). The literary works were not disseminated prior to the meetings; the group received the materials together and read the texts out loud so they are encountered and discussed communally, initiating a space where collective dialogue is an intentional creative act in itself.

The content enveloped within this literary and conversation series unraveled the promise for a resilient Black American politic in all its abstraction and contradiction—a promise that continues to shake, at the very root, the binary dialectics of Black/American citizen; Jim Crow/America’s benevolent society ​that shape the spatial, political, and moral controls that afflict Black life.

In June, a series of performances will be staged throughout the galleries of the museum. Starting from the fifth floor and moving down to the third, the work is informed by the elements of movement and migration from Lawrence while tracing a continuous trajectory of the utopian impulse in 20th century art, the politics of abstraction, and the ways in which Lawrence can be understood alongside a set of artists he is not usually in conversation with. The performances will include two vocalists and two instrumentalists who will move throughout the MoMA galleries using a libretto written by Jemison, composed by Courtney Bryan, and arranged by Justin Hicks. The libretto draws upon the vocabulary and responses collected from the previous phases. Some of the material that will surface in the performance pieces are the respondents’ emphasis on color and purity in answering, ‘what does utopia look like’, their reliance on simile constructions, and their location of dystopia. The arrangement may feel familiar as R&B and Soul musical tropes in addition to concerns with the ego and intimacy are employed in the performance works.

Promise Machine is a sharp extension of the artist’s voice and democratic rendering of community engagement, collaboration, and the use of the archive. As in past works, this project also address questions of access to intellectual properties by bridging works across time, genre and audiences. The forthright inclusion of persons within and outside of the museum and of all ages is the ingenuity of this project and offers a perspective of an artist who has a comprehensive awareness, vision and clarity around the many intersections her practice can functions within and between.

A ­book featuring an exchange between Jemison, scholar Rizvana Bradley and Sutton E. Griggs’ novel, Imperium in Imperio will conclude the project and contribute to the landscape of commemorating of the Great Migration’s centennial within contemporary art. As America is still challenged with the question of Black humanity, there is urgency, now as ever, to imagine radical futures that are accountable to our past histories. Perhaps this future will be shaped by youth voices of our generation organized around resistance, rage and the promise of change. What will Black America imagine next?


  1. Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York: Vintage Books, 2010. Print.
  2.  Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic Jun 2014. Web.

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