By Zuleka Woods
Photos by Awol Erizku
Stories have a way of connecting people across space, time, culture, and beliefs. Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter is a transcendent storyteller. Her work spans more than 60 television and film projects and includes myriad generation-defining and culturally influencing work such as “Do the Right Thing” (1989), “Malcolm X” (1993), “Amistad” (1997), the television reboot of “Roots” (2016), “Selma” (2014), and “Black Panther” (2018), the film for which Carter received the 2019 Academy Award for Costume Design.
Carter will visit Virginia Tech to attend “A Conversation with Ruth E. Carter” on Jan. 19, as part of a weeklong series celebrating Martin Luther King. The event is free and open to the public. Tickets, and the opportunity to submit a question for discussion, can be found on the MLK Jr. events website.
Carter has described her work as “an expression of Afrofuturism, using imagination and technology to create costumes that tell stories about our culture.” She defines Afrofuturism as applying “technology and intertwining it with imagination, self-expression, and an entrepreneurial spirit, promoting a philosophy for Black Americans, Africans, and Indigenous people to believe and create without the limiting construct of slavery and colonialism.”
Carter’s work brings this philosophy to life by weaving culture, history, politics, race, technology, and education together in her costume pieces.
As the first African American to win in the costume design category, Carter’s work has moved audiences all over the world. Reflecting on this impact, Tyechia Thompson, event moderator and assistant professor in the Department of English, spoke about the influence of Carter’s work on their personal journey and Black culture.
“She has really used stories to share our history, the Black college experience and aesthetic, Black royalty, many aspects of our culture all while educating audiences across time periods,” Thompson said.
Carter’s use of vibrant color and textured, nuanced, and unique statement pieces give audiences the opportunity to reflect on the complexity of identity as they continue to learn and grow with changing times. Her work is influential in that it upholds and tells stories that bring together people of diverse backgrounds.
Martin Luther King Jr. used his voice in ways that not only united people, but continue to bring them together in a commitment to a better and more inclusive world. Most importantly, King dedicated his life to the service of others through advocating for desegregation, the right to vote, labor rights, and freedom for Black Americans. In the often referenced “I Have a Dream” speech, he shares his vision for America beyond discrimination and the narrow confines of racism.
Similarly, the futuristic designs of Carter’s work go beyond the narrow confines of both slavery and colonialism as she dares to give future generations an opportunity to see far beyond the often crippling and stereotypical representations of historically marginalized people and cultures.
King spoke about faith as the motivation to move ahead even if the possibilities of what lies ahead are out of sight. To reimagine the future is brave and courageous and to do so with Black and Indigenous peoples in mind is an act of service. To serve is to be fearless. This is what Carter’s work is about.