April 25, 2022

An Afrofuturist Journey Through History

Editor’s Note: Cheyney McKnight—founder and owner of Not Your Momma's History—is a 2021 African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Fellow. Her project, titled The Ancestor’s Future: An Afrofuturist Journey Through History, is both a piece of performance art and a conversation inspired by Afrofuturism, a genre of speculative fiction meant to build out possible futures for the African Diaspora. Read McKnight’s vision for her fellowship accompanied by images from the in-person event which took place March 17, 2022, at Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House, a National Trust Historic Site.

Detail view of two pairs of hands pinning a pattern on some cloth.

photo by: Kelly Paras

Cheyney McKnight (left) and Lawana Holland-Moore (right) pinning the pattern on reproduction cloth commonly used to make clothing for enslaved ancestors.

As a Black historical interpreter, my mere presence in historical clothing on sites of enslavement tells the story of American slavery. However, it is not enough for Black people to just be present on historical sites; rather, they must have a voice independent from those who have excluded and misrepresented the stories of Black ancestors for generations.

My body has been used by historic sites and organizations to create a fantasy world in which slavery only existed in the fields and down in the kitchen. You cannot tell the full story of American slavery if you only talk about it in certain spaces, or stop the story when slavery ended on the site.

The goal of this fellowship project is to claim the plantation as a site of truth, reparation, and reconciliation, by providing descendants of enslavement a seat to tell their stories, the stories of their ancestors, and where the African Diaspora is collectively going.

Two women in exquisite colorful clothing sitting behind a table sewing while there are some books spread before them along with a tea set.

photo by: Priya Chhaya

McKnight (left) and Holland-Moore (right) sitting before a table that holds a series of Afrofuturist texts and a fine tea set while sewing a reproduction garment.

An Inspired Conversation

I had a specific vision for my fellowship project, but with input from Black descendants of enslavement from around the Americas and West Indies, it evolved to include elements from across the African Diaspora.

The performance art piece was set in the parlor of the original home at Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House. Lawana Holland-Moore, a Mount Vernon descendant (and the program officer for the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund), and myself sat upon a sofa reupholstered by Nicole Crowder, a Black artist, while hand-sewing a garment of reproduction cloth commonly worn by enslaved ancestors while we were dressed finely in the fabric of the future of the African Diaspora.

A close up of the sewing materials.

photo by: Kelly Paras

Detail view of the pattern for the reproduction garment.

Close up of the tea set being used in the performance.

photo by: Kelly Paras

Detail view of the tea set for attaya.

The tea set is for attaya, a Senegalese tea of gunpowder green tea, sugar, and fresh mint which takes time to prepare perfectly, and encourages conversation. The attaya and open chairs signal to visitors that they are welcome to sit—and speak—with us about the African experience in America’s past, as well as listen to speculations about the far future of the Diaspora.

This was not the setting of a reimagined past, but an imagined future.

Plantation museums have long attempted to separate discussions of slavery from the site, and center the interpretive focus on anything but the original purpose of a plantation—a forced labor camp. In placing two Black descendants of enslavement in the center of the house, we are refocusing the narrative onto the ancestors who built and ran Woodlawn.

Understandably, when visitors walked in to see us in our finery and at leisure, there were many questions. “Who are you portraying?” “What does Afrofuturism have to do with a plantation?”

A large part of my project was spent speaking to Black descendants about how they envisioned the future of plantation museums through truth, reparation, and reconciliation. From these conversations emerged the design of this Afrofuturistic set. “Afrofuturism is a way of imagining possible futures through a Black cultural lens,” according to Afrofuturist Ingrid LaFleur.

This was not the setting of a reimagined past, but an imagined future.

Two women looking forward with the door of a historic building behind them. The one on the right is in pink and green, the one on the left is in yellow and blue.

photo by: Kelly Paras

Holland-Moore (left) and McKnight (right) standing at the front door of the main house of Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House.

A question: In 200 years who will be in these spaces, what will be their purpose, and what will historic preservation look like?

Visitors who have come to plantation museums in the past 100 years were not seeing a true window into the past, but rather a fictional set. As we bring more descendants of the enslaved into the conversation about the use and purposes of plantations, sites are going to start shifting from the models of preservation that came before to models that are informed by input and direct from these descendants.

Two women sitting on a couch with masks while visitors at the historic site ask questions.

photo by: Kelly Paras

Two visitors in conversation with Cheyney McKnight during the presentation.

I hold up this imagined future scene as an accurate depiction of my hopes for the future of Black descendants of enslavement, and historic preservation. If descendants of enslaved communities attain permanent and real power to direct the interpretation and use of plantations, in 200 years Black people would not view them with pain and resentment, but rather with new meanings.

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Cheyney McKnight

Cheyney McKnight is the founder and owner of Not Your Momma’s History. She acts as an interpreter advocate for interpreters of color at historical sites up and down the East Coast, providing them with much needed on-call support. She uses her clothing and primary sources to make connections between past and present events through performance art pieces. She is a 2021 African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Fellow.

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