Everything was white," Pierce Freelon says. He's talking about the original walls in Blackspace Durham, but he could also be describing why he founded the Afrofuturist youth center—first in Chapel Hill, now expanded into the American Underground start-up hub.
Tarish Pipkins, aka the visionary puppeteer Jeghetto, was a key player in the informal think tank that birthed Blackspace. When Freelon opened the AU location last year (and got busy with others things, like, you know, running for mayor of Durham), Pipkins became creative director in Chapel Hill. On Friday night at Blackspace Durham, their regular hip-hop cypher in CCB Plaza is about to start, but they're not sweating it—the kids can run it themselves. Three young men are already gathering beats downstairs, where formerly white walls are now covered by an Afrocentric cosmology of paintings and comic books and computers with nicknames like Octavia (as in Butler, the African-American science-fiction writer).
Blackspace offers a wide variety of free programs, which it calls "wokeshops." Mariah Monsanto runs a poetry program, while Josh Rowsey (disclosure: Rowsey is an INDY account executive) teaches freestyle and theater performance; this year, they took six young women to the Brave New Voices youth slam in San Francisco. Street gRIOT is a puppetry workshop, while Conscious Code and Digital Storytelling teach 3-D printing and video production. But, just as important, Blackspace is a safe place in which to incubate ideas or just hang out.
"You can work on beats, read a comic book, or just chill," Freelon says. "A lot of kids just like being in the space, with African art around and Jeghetto's portraits of Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix."
But if Blackspace is about giving kids shelter, that's not the same as sheltering them. Pipkins recently had his nine-year-old son, Tarin, operate the KKK puppets in a show about lynching, and he practices the same radical openness with his students.
"They're going to be aware of things I didn't learn till I was an adult," he says. "This is racism, this is how far it goes back."
"That's deeper than learning your history. You're performing your history," Freelon adds. "Some kids come in super woke because they have parents like Jeghetto. A lot of kids don't have that luxury, but they recognize things they don't have words for."
Focused equally on imparting skills and self-esteem, Blackspace shows young people of color not how to assimilate into white-dominated arts and tech worlds, but how to redefine them. As a true alternative to, rather than a workaround for, white supremacy, there's nothing else like it in the Triangle.
Its origins lie in Beat Making Lab, a hip-hop production course Freelon taught at UNC. Pipkins was among the artists involved in the conversation about black liberation and Afrofuturism that swirled through the space. Beat Making Lab eventually became a more overtly political entity called Artivism, which started evolving toward becoming Blackspace in the crucible of 2014. That summer, Artivism hosted its first Black Liberation Youth Cypher, a black-power summer camp. In its second week, Michael Brown was killed by a police officer.
"That really lit a fire in our building sessions, especially working with the kids and hearing their reflections," Freelon says. "Our whole curriculum shifted. The first week it was hip-hop, the second week it was revolution, freedom, liberation. The first week the kids were doing graffiti and designing sneakers, the second, they were making placards for our rally." That rally accelerated Artivism's evolution; the Blackspace brand, which puts Afrofuturism front and center, became official in early 2016, the day the police officers who killed Cleveland twelve-year-old Tamir Rice got off scot-free.
"[The rally] was a big shift," Freelon says. "In Durham there's always been an active, civically engaged black community, but it coalesced different groups into organized solidarity, especially millennial activists."
Outside of the poetry program, in which African-American writers need to be vulnerable in a way white participation would impede, all races are welcome at Blackspace.
"The space is black," Freelon explains. "The programming facilitators are black as often as possible, and the curriculum is black. If you're secure and unapologetic in that aspect, then anybody can come in and it's still going to be Blackspace."
The Blackspace Chapel Hill studio is owned by the town, which staffs it with two employees. One is program director Brentton Harrison, who says that at Blackspace, students can discover their true affinities.
"I see the youth realizing that older people are interested in what they do, and they start taking the initiative to work on their art," Harrison says. "We have conversations about school systems that don't teach critical thinking or challenge the status quo. People can get stuck on having the right or wrong answer to a question, but life is full of gray areas. You start to see a different swagger when they walk through the world."
The Durham space is owned by American Underground. Blackspace doesn't pay rent at either, which is crucial in running it with a mostly volunteer staff and virtually no operational expenses. But don't mistake this for charity.
"It's mutually beneficial," Freelon says. "We fill the space with equipment and dope programming at no charge to the town of Chapel Hill. In AU, we're training kids in the tech sector that they want minority participation in so badly. If diversity is important to them and getting free is important to us, there's some shared space in that Venn diagram. Technology can be and has been used to oppress us, so getting in on the front end of this stuff is a survival mechanism."
Blackspace recently launched a crowd-funding drive (patreon.com/fundafrofuturism) to further its mission of providing concepts, language, space, and solidarity to people who were Afrofuturists long before they ever heard the term.
"I was an Afrofuturist all my adult life and had no idea," Pipkins says.
"Alexis Pauline Gumbs talks about Harriet Tubman being an Afrofuturist because she envisioned a world that was science fiction for her time—black people being free," Freelon adds. "You are Marty McFlying the game right now!" He frequently talks about black liberation in terms of superheroes. To him, it's a short line between the X-Men versus the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants to Martin versus Malcolm, W.E.B. Du Bois versus Booker T. Washington, Biggie versus Tupac.
"Whether it's enslaved Africans or those brothers, when all the skill sets on those squads step up, that's a problem [for white supremacy]," Freelon says. "Black people have been exploited with the tactic of pitting black talent against each other. Our liberation depends on working through that."
At Blackspace, young people are encouraged not only to be proud of their powers, so often dismissed or feared by a white supremacist culture. They're encouraged to combine them in a way that can reshape, not just react to, the future.
"Very much in the tradition of Octavia Butler, we shape change," Freelon says. "Her whole thing is 'God is change,' and we manifest things. That, to me, is the true power of Blackspace."