On July 13, the Center for Afrofuturist Studies’ artist-in-residence, Antoine Williams, held an event entitled “Antoine Williams in Conversation with LaTanya Autry and Tiffany Holland.” This conversation brought together the dynamic and influential voices of a historian, cultural organizer, and artist, who explored a range of topics that emerged from Williams’ digital project — Black Fusionist Society (BFS). At this talk, Williams posed the question: How can we use history, politics, and arts to understand Black identity and humanity in both our past, present, imaginative future? Arguably, Williams’ project offers the needed answers to this reflective question.
BFS represents a digital Black folklore project based on the 1898 Wilmington massacre in North Carolina. At the time Wilmington, a mixed-race city in North Carolina, consisted of a majority Black population who worked as entrepreneurs, politicians, and skilled workers. On November 10, the convergence of party politics, sexual politics, and white supremacy culminated in racial terrorism. In response to an editorial by Alexander Manly, the editor of the Daily Record, Wilmington’s Black newspaper, acknowledging white women’s consensual relations with Black men, and Blacks’ emerging political power as seen in the 1894 elections, Wilmington’s white citizens mobilized a campaign against its Black residents.
White supremacist meetings, racist editorials and cartoons, and street marches to intimidate Black voters before the November 8 election, advanced into indiscriminate racial murders and savagery on November 10, two days after the election. Approximately 2000 armed white insurgents that included Red Shirts, a white supremacist terrorist group, Wilmington’s Light Infantry, prominent middle-class men, burnt down the Daily Record, shot and assaulted Black men, women, and children, and forced Black and white officials to resign from their politically appointed offices. This riot resulted in twenty-two reported Black deaths and zero white casualties. Terrorized Black families who fled to nearby forests, surviving for days without food, clothes, or sufficient shelter, returned to see the loss of their homes or businesses. Wilmington’s white supremacist controlled government would later banish prominent Black leaders and business people, while other Black families left voluntarily.
Through historical fiction storytelling, Williams’ chronicles the experiences of a group of five Black domestic female workers who gathered eleven children and fled to a nearby cemetery during the massacre. After emerging from hiding, these women, along with the children, launched a new secret society, BFS. The women, known as “the founding mothers,” based their society on ten core beliefs, “Vibes.” Within each of these “Vibes” existed entities, or “Mythic Beings,” that represented different conditions, structures, or ideals in society and expressed either benevolence, malevolence, or indifference.
Early Black writers, such as Charles W. Chesnutt re-created Wilmington’s impact on its Black residents by using a literary lens that accounted for the complex social and political forces that led to the insurrection. Williams, a mixed-media artist, employs an artistic and afrofuturist lens to uncover how Black working-class women realized freedom for themselves and future generations after the riot. In 2019, the HBO series, ‘Watchmen,’ also offered an afrofuturist lens to another massacre in American history, the 1921 Tulsa Riot. So, what does it mean for an afrofuturist lens to be applied to moments in American history that underscore white supremacy’s sweeping assault on Blacks’ political, economic, and social advancement? In the case of Williams’ project, an afrofuturist application to Wilmington 1898 reveals an imaginative future where a Black society, founded by Black women who survived the massacre, persists in challenging white supremacy through a formulated preservation of their identities and humanity.
Like ‘Watchmen,’ BFS depicts a Black future where white supremacy continues to invade Black lives. The BFS manifesto asserts that “white supremacy is a malevolent force — an entity, a pathology that infects every tangible and intangible space.” To achieve Black liberation, and offer future descendants the chance to exist in a world with new structures, devoid of white supremacy, misogynoir and anti-Blackness in all its forms, BFS aspires towards interdimensional travel. Though aspirational, Blacks’ migration to a new world, or ‘the Crossover,’ through their technological innovation, is viewed as the ultimate chance of survival and preservation of Black humanity.
In 2020, America grapples with the confluences of forces that shaped the Wilmington Massacre in 1898 — white racial violence, voter suppression, and systemic discrimination. Acknowledging Wilmington’s events and the deep-rooted ideologies that led to the loss of Black lives and livelihood should not be optional, but mandatory. Williams’ meticulous afro-futurist framing of Wilmington offers its reader a chance to reckon, recollect, and re-imagine what occurred on the night of November 10, 1898, and how it shaped Black futures. We cannot ignore that Black history is political. In 2006, one hundred and seven years after the massacre, the state of North Carolina produced a report by the state-appointed 1898 Wilmington Riot Commission, which officially investigated the historical legacy of this white insurrection. Moreover, it was just last week that Republican Senator Tom Cotton introduced legislation that prohibited federal funds for public schools that taught ‘The 1619 Project,’ an initiative from The New York Times Magazine that educated Americans about the history of enslaved people in the country. These responses to the public recognition of Black history, either aggressive erasure or slow-acknowledgement, both have consequences on Black identity and humanity that should not be ignored. By using the power of art and afrofuturism to understand the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, Williams not only forces America to confront its racial terrorism, but he also underscores the vital connections between politics, art, and history in Blacks’ experiences.