A love letter to Afrofuturism, acknowledgments of the past, and visions of the future.
By Chris Brown
Some glad morning,
When this life is over,
I’ll fly away
An old hymn runs through my mind as I amble through the Met. In the museum’s heart, is a massive 17th-century iron gate from a Spanish cathedral that nearly every visitor crosses at least once. Nearby, the museum’s American Wing features some of the country’s most famous pieces, like Leutze’s “Washington Crosses the Delaware.” But it was in the small hallway connecting these two cultural behemoths that I stumbled upon an exhibit with a particularly personal resonance.
Displaying the interior of a house, complete with a living room and kitchen, Before Yesterday We Could Fly is, technically, a period room. Period rooms are a museum staple: Typically depictions of high society during a specific moment in time, they feature a combination of architecture, furniture, and art. But while Before Yesterday is, in one way, a portal to a certain period, the idea it represents is, in many ways, antithetical to the past.
My first exposure to Afrofuturism was its most prominent contemporary representation: Ryan Coogler’s 2019 film turned cultural icon, Black Panther (though anyone who watched the Teen Titans cartoon may cite Cyborg as an earlier example). A movement rooted in both aesthetics and culture, it is defined by the meeting of science fiction and the Black diaspora. The curator for Before Yesterday, Hannah Beachler, was the film’s production designer. For her, the power of the movement stems from its “speculation and collapsing of time,” a hard left turn from the traditional purpose of a period room.
Atemporality is the key word for the exhibition. Its title recalls a powerful but indeterminate past where freedom was not a question to be debated but a fact of life. The collapsing of time, the exhibition’s defining ethos, is achieved with a mélange of past, present, and future.
For Beachler and the curators, the past is Seneca Village—a Black community near the Met, seized and leveled by the city to build Central Park. It was largely forgotten until it was brought back to the urban consciousness in the early ’90s. Excavations soon followed, many of them Columbia led. The oldest items in Before Yesterday are proof of life for the inhabitants of the Village: perfumes, medicine bottles, hair picks from the ruins. Now, they are preserved as artifacts, no longer lost beneath one of the city’s main attractions.
Flight is another central theme of the exhibit. Its title comes from the myth of the Flying Africans, told and retold in the diaspora as the story of people who escaped their captivity by flight. This myth also inspired Virginia Hamilton’s children’s novel The People Could Fly, a creative source for the exhibit and an item of personal nostalgia. I remember checking the book out myself on one of my biweekly trips to the library with my grandmother.
Flight takes many forms throughout the exhibit. In Henry Taylor’s painting “Andrea Motley Crabtree,” the first Black deep sea diver is depicted on a massive scale in retro diving gear that doubles as a space suit. Space travel, a radical extension of flight, the journey into the abstract, has been a staple of Afrofuturist thought since its inception. With the recent addition of Trayvon Martin’s flight suit to the Smithsonian, flight has been used to commemorate Black subjects in pride and in grief.
Seated in the living room is my favorite piece, “Summer Azure” by Tourmaline, CC ’06. A Black figure clad in all white and a space helmet floats upwards on a bright blue sky. The vibrancy of the blue, the obscuring of the subject’s face, exudes hope, a reimagining of the self. The painting is now my phone’s home screen. Ever since I first laid eyes on it, I imagined myself, my sister, my grandparents, any number of future descendants or past ancestors ascending into its sky. Positioned behind the room’s central TV/“time machine” and next to many older objects, it combines for me the hope of the past, the present, and the future in one image.
The Met is an undoubtable fixture of the Columbia experience. It is difficult to imagine any student who doesn’t make an expedition there. Columbia’s curriculum has been guided by some abstracted sense of canonicity, the careful yet erasing practice of representing an aspect of culture. As one of the greatest sites for determining canonicity, deciding what is “treasured” and worth preserving, the museum offers a different historical memory with its display of Afrofuturism. In this iteration, there is space for a past far removed and a promise for a hopeful future. As I walk out of the exhibit, the hymn plays again in my mind, echoing a plea to dream for this future long for what is promised:
To a land where,
Joys will never end,
I’ll fly away