CTRLALT

A few days after the election I was part of a massive and amazing event in New York that has stuck with me.

The event was called #CTRLALT, organized by The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and it was Asian, Black and Brown artists offering vision, alternative, ways to the future. I was scheduled to offer two workshops in the realm of sci fi and social justice, but it was three days after trumpocalypse and the energy and flow of the event was subdued, tender. As was I.

There were incredible pieces and installations. The Chinatown Art Brigade set up an immersive piece on gentrification in Chinatown, particularly poignant because we were located in what was the Pearl River Market until the owners got priced out. Sheldon Scott offered a piece on blackness which involved him standing on rocks speaking truth to us in a destroyed suit. Charles Jean-Pierre constructed a black (w)hole for us to enter full of light, mirrors and doors.

Genevieve Erin O’Brien worked at the intersection of food and justice, creating a space under a staircase that whipped up blood orange cotton candy and was covered in radical commitments. Nia Keturah created a “woke machine” where participants could transfer some of their experience of racial oppression to people who had never experienced it. Christine Sun Kim had an installation exploring the art and influence of sign language – I met her at Art Dubai and was absolutely blown away by how she speaks of the body’s articulation of possible futures.

Nerds of Color created a reading nook which, I was excited to see, included Octavia’s Brood along with tons of other work I love and a stack of Eshu posters from John Jennings that I wanted to confiscate. Across from this, Chad Shomura and Yuki Sakugawa structured a corner of heart-to-hearts where there was a collective cape people could share, a tiny safe space. Down the hall Saya Woolfalk sat in a room of stunning borderless textiled gowns and walls which I want to live in, the artist greeting guests with a child in her lap.

I was housed in the Museum of Impact’s interactive installation, surrounded by black women’s ode to activism.

As people slipped past me in the space I could feel the shock and the tremble in some of them, especially brown queer people. I pulled two chairs together and sat down, and soon someone sat across from me and began to cry. We spoke briefly and honestly to each other, as strangers, about fear. We then found the fear in our bodies, and then found the resilience – the part of ourselves that knows how to recover. We ended in laughter, not over the fear, but with the fear and grief, with each other.

Across from us was a muted boxing match produced by Samson Young – the audience was silent, heightening the impact of sounds as two black men pummeled each other. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the sounds as another person, then another, sat before me. It felt honest, the impact on black skin – this is how it feels to live here.

Mostly my guests and I were quiet, or whispered to each other. I felt like Sadness in Inside Out, sitting with people and finding beauty in the truth, in the depth between us.

On the second day of the event, I held a micro-workshop with a group of middle schoolers, mostly Asian, already wrestling with the impact of white supremacy, teasing each other in asides and whispers. There was a bully amongst the kids who led the way, making the kids laugh at each other. He was doughy and smart, and I felt heartache for whatever had shaped him even as I led the other kids to vision by circling around his distractions until the ideas were compelling enough to turn his attention.

I brought my tarot deck that day and set the cards up as a way to channel the emotions in the room. As I read people, I again noticed that moving from mass engagement to very deep personal interactions was so relieving to my system.

The event has stuck with me and here’s why:

– We need depth. Right now everyone is looking to large scale urgent moves, and I understand. But what feels clearest to me is that we need to dig deeper, into ourselves and with each other, into our resolve and our vision. People need to feel and believe there is a reason to keep transforming at their deepest core level in order to withstand what is being uncovered as the truth within these manmade borders. And we need depth across experiences of oppression – not isolating ourselves in panic, but understanding that these systems want to control and devour everything that isn’t white, male and wealthy.

– We need play. While some of the pieces took themselves quite seriously and brought me to tears, I was also deeply moved by the playful offerings. Next to my chair was an installation that made art of people’s heartbeats. Watching people contort and dance to the music DJ Rekha was offering up shook something down in me – everyone wanted to gather there. Times are hard but we must be an invitation to co-create, rather than a rigid set of gates to pass through.

– We need love. After people shared their fears with me, the next words were always about love. Telling me who they loved, wondering what love could create and do in fearful times, asking the tarot for guidance around love. The tarot was clear: be more honest. We need more spaces where love begets honesty, where we can set aside our masks and projections and be kissed on our scars.

– We need adaptation. I could have proceeded with a workshop structure and had fun. But what emerged from my own need and the need of the people who came with me returned me to a place where I could even look at the future. If we can’t adapt, even our best ideas become outdated, irrelevant.

During that weekend I also got to attend Underground Railroad Game, a play cocreated by my dear friend Jen Kidwell, who also stars in it as a teacher/slave era dominatrix. It was delightfully controversial and moved me – exposing the way we try to be coy and humorous about unspeakable things.

It is of utmost importance not to normalize anything at this time – white supremacy, climate catastrophe and misogyny in office and policy are not new for any of us, but this moment allows us to see it more clearly. And it is of equal importance to be visionary about how we engage this moment, and each other. Go for intimacy, depth, creativity and relationship.

Make more art, and let it be honest.

afrofuturism and #blackspring (new school, #afroturismtns)

welcome to #blackspring!

today as we speak there are actions happening across the country, and here in new york, a massive round of future claiming.

we tend to think and speak of afrofuturism as the far off future, something beyond our current comprehension and planet. but now is the only moment. AND we hope things will be different in the next now. AND I must admit, i am excited about the near future.

what are we about to do after this winter of discontent?

we have been escalating tactics in the face of flagrant injustice.
escalating tactics because we charge genocide,
we charge homicide,
we say no more killing us,
we say no more reckless obstinate impunity,
We say no more white supremacy in governance,

because, we say, black lives matter!

an afrofuturist assertion.

because we see something other than the normative truths of this place…we see something that is NOT here…

we see the future, cast over this devastating present moment.

we see,
and we believe.
we know,
and we bend the world to assert and embody that black lives matter.

that, to me, is the heart of afrofuturism, as i choose to understand it. labels don’t excite me so much, but concepts turn me on. the concept of seeing and creating the future from a perspective that has the lineage of an african seed, of something older and other than western, feels healing to me.

we, of that displaced diasporic seed, who involuntarily reach back to the motherland in our dreams, have been scattered so far from each other.

and in spite of all the odds, we have been resilient.

i cannot speak emotionally about the journeys of the other seed clusters, though i am seeking stories all the time, reading nnedi okorafor and ben okri and credo mutwa and wanting to know more.

but i can speak of the grief stricken journey of the kidnapped african…

and the abused, raped, enslaved, lynched, uprising negro, or in the language of white supremacy, the ‘nigra, or nigger’;

the beaten, vilified, billyclubbed, legally unlovable, disobedient and organizing afro-american, or again ‘nigger’;

the tokenized, mistrusted, mistaken, misguided, self-loathing, entrepreneurial, hoodwinked and bamboozled, boot strapped, assimilating african american, or ‘nigger’;

and the divergent, underpaid, unemployed, sugar soothed, imprisoned, resistant, resilient, awakened, politicized black. Or ‘thug. or nigger’.

so this is a shout out to the uppity nigger beyond all space and time. all along this journey, those who some saw and see as particularly ‘uppity niggers’, i call afrofuturists.

they, we, have cast our lot forward.

lately I’ve been obsessing over the afrofuturism and justice orientation of slave era blacks, because our situation today feels so terrifying, and exhausting and sometimes hopeless, and there’s so much trauma and grief to bear, and yet we survived THAT.

not individually, but collectively.

not all of those black people were afrofuturists, but to focus on afrofuturists in the black social justice tradition, i would note that:

africans leaping off of slaver ships were afrofuturists.
slave era parents teaching their babies a foreign alphabet in the candlelit dirt were afrofuturists.
black women dissociating themselves through to tomorrow while being raped into motherhood were afrofuturists.
those who raised the children of violence and those who chose not to, all were predicting the future and articulating their choices.
slaves who ran to freedom, and slaves who ran to their deaths, were afrofuturists.

it is the emphasis on a tomorrow that centers the dignity of that seed, particularly in the face of extinction, that marks, for me, the afrofuturist.

and of course there are the big ones, whose names have made it through the erasers of history books, into our mouths – harriet, sojourner, frederick, john, malcolm, james, ella, martin, nina, june, toni.

octavia.

now it is our work, and the exciting thing about this time is that we are learning to name ourselves, our distinctions and solidarities. our afrofuturisms and black springs. developing enough of a common dream language that we can be that much more explicit about the real futures we are shaping into existence.

we are touching the future, reaching out across boundaries and post apocalyptic conditions to touch each other, to call each other out as family, as beloveds.

‘all that you touch, you change. all that you change, changes you.’

we are making ourselves vulnerable enough to be changed, which will of course change what black existence means.

octavia butler, who gave us that philosophical spirit poem of earthseed that I just quoted, is a bridge for many of us, between this world, and the narratives that pull us through to the next realm, or the parallel universe, or the future in which we are the protagonists.

this is the essence of octavia’s brood, the anthology of original science fiction from social justice movements which walidah imarisha and i had the honor of co-editing. walidah couldn’t be with us today because she is visiting the political prisoner sundiata acoli, but she sends her love.

what we are all up to, this changing the world willfully, is science fictional behavior.

because all organizing is science fiction.

we are creating a world we have never seen. we are whispering it to each other cuddled in the dark, and we are screaming it at people who are so scared of it that they dress themselves in war regalia to turn and face us.

because of our ancestors, because of us and because of the children we are raising, there will be a future without police and prisons.

yes.

there will be a future without rape.

without harrassment, and constant fear, and childhood sexual assault.

a future without war, hunger, violence.

with abundance.

where gender is a joyful spectrum.
where my nephew would not be bullied for his brilliant differentness.

where each of our bodies is treated like sacred ground, whether we have insurance or not…that one is very real for me right now as i am coming off of a surprise major surgery a couple weeks ago, and that, in addition to the urgency of our movements right now for black lives, and for the planet, all has me in a much closer consideration of the future.

octavia’s brood is 2 essays and 20 pieces of original and beautiful visionary fiction from largely hesitant and skeptical organizers, with breathtaking appearances from some folks who have been creating this kind of work long term – tananarive due, levar burton, mumia abu-jamal, and others.

visionary fiction, (a term which walidah coined, this was what made me start following her all over the internet til she said yes to this anthology) visionary fiction includes sci fi, speculative fiction, fantasy, magical realism, myth, all of it. in addition to this intentional genrecide, visionary fiction intentionally explores:

how change happens from the bottom up,
how change works in collective ways, disrupting the single white male hero narrative,
centering marginalized communities…meaning we are the center of the story, as opposed to the sexy and unbelievably stylish sidekick.
and visionary fiction is hard, and realistic, and hopeful.

it’s neither utopian nor dystopian, its more like life.

in real life, we may make it to a future full of gardens and bicycles, but we may not get to choose who is there with us, and we may never get to leave it.
we may get rid of gentrification but not without violence.
we may get to travel to parallel universes, but only by feeling completely insane in this one.
we may learn to use dissociation and other responses to trauma as a way to teleport and heal, but not without losing our families.
we may create the key to a liberated technofuture, but have to live a life on the run to keep it from being weaponized.
our black skin may become special and valued, but then we have to fight to keep it from those who realize melanin is better for surviving increased sunlight.
there might be angels, but what if the good ones get kicked out of heaven for trying to help us.

all of this and much more is explored in the book. these are writers who mostly didn’t identify as artists, as writers…and yet, we argued, their lives are acts of futurism and creation. when they returned to us on our deadline, and instead of the ten pages we begged for, there were 40-50 pages of new novels and character visitations.

the stories are beautiful. we went through 6-7 edits for each one, loving them up. sheree renee thomas, the editor of the dark matter collections, advised us and let us know they were great. john jennings crafted the cover for us – and created a glyph system, a glyph for each story which is incorporated into the cosmic space of octavia on the cover. i don’t have copies here but if you order online at ak press, use the code octaviafs and you will get free shipping through the end of may. octaviafs.

so…imagination is one of the spoils of colonization, which in many ways is claiming who gets to imagine the future for a given geography. losing our imagination is a symptom of trauma. reclaiming the right to dream the future, strengthening the muscle to imagine together as black people, is a revolutionary decolonizing activity.

when we were in the editing process, these narratives felt important and interconnected – now as i reread the book obsessively, the whole thing feels so audacious. it is massive, the visions of these organizers are in no way small.

and in that way we hope we honor octavia butler’s legacy. she never wrote us a small problem, or a small vision. she offered us nothing stagnant. to speak of her protagonists, i use the term emergent strategy – strategies that create and move complex systems and patterns through relatively simple interactions. if you have noticed a flock of starlings move through the air in a pluralistic dance, or seen geese share leadership moving south, you have seen my movement vision, and what i believe octavia offers one case study after another for:

leading that centers relationship,

decentralization and interdependence,

adaptation…or being in right relationship to change,

resilience, the capacity to accommodate and integrate change,

transformative justice – going to the root of the problem and transforming the conditions instead of just getting punitive and righteous about symptoms,

fractal (or the idea that patterns repeat across scale – the spiral on your finger echoes the spiral of the galaxy, how do we become the small,scale version of the large scale changes we seek?)

and finally creating more possibilities, as opposed to current strategies which seek to narrow options down to one path forward…

some of the key practices that show up in octavia butler’s work, and in octavia’s brood, are collaboration, compassion, curiosity, romantic and sensual and non-possessive love, play, mediation, and the patience that comes from seeing ourselves in a much longer arc of time than we are encouraged to see in the instantaneous culture of the modern world.

so along with touring the book and reading stories to people, we are offering workshops that blend visionary fiction and social justice, in ways we hope are elegant.

one is a training in science fiction and direction action, which we’ll be offering a taste of here. in this we plan actions in some of our favorite sci fi worlds and apply the lessons to our current work.

two is a collective sci fi writing workshop, where we use collaborative ideation to build a world that is a living solution or testing ground to work through a current local issue.

third, i have been offering trainings in emergent strategy, and emergent strategy facilitation. and on one level i am talking about adaptation and resilience and mushrooms and schools of fish and spirals and stardust and stuff.

but what i am really asking, what we are all really asking, what octavia was asking, is how do we who know the world needs to change begin to practice BEING different?

how do WE have to BE for justice to truly be transformative? not them, that massive amorphous them
that is also us,
in our heads and hearts,
or loves us,
or is tired of this shit but is family to us…not them, because maybe they don’t recognize yet that these changes are the key to human survival.

but us, us who are awake and awakening? how do we need to BE for black lives to matter? what do we need to HEAL in ourselves in order to offer a future of any real peace?

or to become the protagonists of this human story – and earn the flip of the page of all the sentient life in the universe?

to claim the future as a compelling place for our miracles?

this is everything.

science fiction is not fluffy stuff. afrofuturism is not just the coolest look that ever existed. the future is not an escapist place to occupy. all of it is the inevitable result of what we do today, and the more we take it in our hands, imagine it as a place of justice and pleasure, the more the future knows we want it, and that we aren’t letting go.

so. start this black spring, start with black lives matter. its the afrofuturist activity of this moment. embody the concept that black lives matter. no matter what your background is, no matter what your struggles are, let black lives matter fill you up, believe it, practice it being true.

all along the journey, all of the afrofuturists i named from movements before this time, all they have been is unapologetically black, uncompromising in their right to take up space. will you promise to do that?

i love you.
black love.

reflections on the octavia e. butler celebration at spelman

i am still glowing and full from last week’s octavia e. butler celebration at spelman. the event was the second one hosted by the humble and brilliant patternmaster tananarive due, the horror/sci-fi writer who held the cosby chair at the college these past two years (and who i am thrilled to call my writing coach this year).

last march, tananarive invited friends and colleagues of octavia’s together to reflect, share work, converse and celebrate octavia’s life and impact. writers and thinkers like samuel r. delany, nalo hopkinson, nisi shawl, steven barnes, lynnee denise, jewelle gomez and sheree thomas sat together and honored their friend and ancestor. i wasn’t able to make it, but watched hungrily from afar.

tananarive focused this year’s event on arts and activism, rooted in her own background as the daughter of civil rights activists. when she invited me i couldn’t fully believe it. i said yes much the way i once said yes to going on the space mountain ride at disney world – OF COURSE I WANT TO DO THAT!!, not thinking until later what that might actually be like as an experience.

over the months between the invitation and the event, tananarive told me she was also inviting nnedi okorafor. then dream hampton and bree newsome. then junot diaz. then john jennings. other than bree, i had buried myself in each person’s work. dream is a close detroit comrade. they are all masters in their respective crafts.

i got very very nervous.

knowing i would be near nnedi and junot particularly made me feel like i was about to be upside down in the dark of an unknown depth. i entered a comfortable denial mode wherein i just didn’t think about it.

then a little over a month ago i was at astroblackness in l.a. and nnedi was there, as well as nalo, john, tananarive and steven. they were all quite normal nerdy cool fresh people. i observed nnedi’s presence, knowing we’d share panel space soon, and with the luxury of being unknown to her. she is a striking and direct speaker – perhaps a little uncomfortable with the attention her brilliance brings, but also wanting to be as precise in her talks as she is on her pages. my nervousness around her became excitement. i wanted more time around her present-moment mind.

now i was only in denial about junot. and the live streaming – did i mention that? the whole thing was sent out to the world and the galaxy in real time. no wardrobe glitches or tripped over words allowed.

my honey lynnee denise was in town, in an alignment of magic she spoke at spelman a few days earlier at the toni cade bambara scholars/writers/activists program at the women’s research center. she kept me in my body and feeling cared for throughout the week, for which i am deeply grateful.

In terms of the event, everything was awesome.

it started off with a black sci fi film festival with piece after piece that inspired and moved me. dream’s video for theesatifaction’s ‘queen’ showed, a gorgeous expression of radical black queer beauty and fashion. there was a short film critiquing spelman’s founders’ day through a magical realism lens. there was a sci fi interactive movie/game about the work of depersonalizing and battling ‘dark forces’ that get inside us, which was funky and spoke to so much of what i have been working through in my own life. bree’s short film ‘wake’ showed, totally creepy and beautiful – it was exciting to experience her work before we met and shared the panel space. then tananarive and steven’s ‘danger word’, a short take on a zombie film, had me in tears – excellent efficient storytelling. the festival closed with pumzi, a short film out of kenya which i have seen a few times and find stunning and challenging. the way the lead character loves her planet always opens me up.

after a short break, tananarive and nnedi gave a reading in the museum, which was full of renee stout’s stunning ‘house of the conjure woman’ exhibit. it was the perfect backdrop for their words. tananarive read from the good house, which i just finished this morning. she read in the voice of the book’s magic ancestor, a part of the book i hadn’t gotten to yet. i am learning so much from her about research, place, description, story arc, and how important the characters are, outside of the horror, science and technology.

nnedi read from her new adult novel lagoon, and as she read she took us into this vibrant world she has created. i downloaded the book immediately and am excited to get into it.

at the end of the event, tananarive said that junot had slipped in the back. i didn’t turn around, but my denial ended abruptly. he was here! so was bree, and the gifted artist john jennings, who is doing the cover of octavia’s brood. so were dream, nnedi and her daughter, tananarive and her father, lynnee, soraya and sage from the NOLA wildseeds coven, a group connected to the octavia butler and emergent strategy work. so was my old friend samirah from college, who is now a textile/fabric artist living in atlanta, who reminded me i had basically been like this since school. and bill campbell, an internet friend for years who i had never met in person. and so was shamika, a new facebook friend who had flown down from NY to connect with all of us. people were texting and tweeting as they prepared to watch from afar.

the pattern was gathering.

shortly before we went up, as i finally frantically gathered my thoughts, tananarive reminded me that she wanted me to do one of the grounding exercises i’d told her about, instead of just a talking intro. all of the sudden emergent strategy flooded my system and i lost my nervousness. i only had to do what i loved and be myself.

junot diaz came over and became just junot, a human with a wicked smile, bad back, and brilliant mouth that talks in essays and curses. dream was there, covered in sparkles. we were all there because of our shared love of octavia.

exhale, be here. i landed in the moment of it, in my body.

a group of spelman and morehouse students opened us with a reading of earthseed verses. then the speakers took the stage. i went first, and had folks stand and do a meditation and sharing around the Octavia’s earthseed concept ‘all that you touch, you change.’ i asked them to share what they are in this world to change, and to manifest it with one other person in the room. i referenced octavia’s brood and emergent strategy to ground the work.

the other panelists introduced themselves with a variety of love stories about octavia and her impact on them. junot and dream both shared what it was like to read her work as it was coming out. john spoke about coming to her work as a visual artist, and how he is in the process of doing a comic book adaptation of kindred. nnedi spoke about her friendship with octavia, and how they corresponded about world events, including 9/11, and octavia’s disdain for bush. bree spoke about the impact of octavia on her creative and activist work.

the q&a that followed had us speaking on the new intelligence of social media and how to use it as a way to connect people for social justice, the blackness of outer space, sci-fi and theology, how to make sci-fi work and ideas more accessible – including changing who is seen as a creator, and using image and film to tell stories. we were asked whether we wanted to write about a world beyond race (most of us said a resounding no…for me identity is one of the most interesting ways we evolve and layer), what themes emerge in our work (i said pleasure!), and how to deal with the fear of changing the world with our writing. the audience was lovely, alert, leaning forward.

i notice that spaces created around octavia feel sacred to me, always.

the next day i got to hold a circle around octavia and emergent strategy. it was an intimate group of about twelve people – students, professors, cultural strategists, artists. tananarive’s father john stephens due was there, which was awesome. elders bring such value, and he has been doing social justice work for over fifty years. he jumped in and played with the ideas of emergence and sci fi.

i introduced emergent strategy and had people personalize it for their lives. it was beautiful to hear what came out as folks talked about being more intentional, interdependent, transformative, adaptive, decentralized, fractal and creating more possibilities in their lives and work.

i deeply believe in the work i am getting to do these days. i think it is a path that will liberate many paths, and i think i am merely a conduit, a gathering place for the ideas to marinate and continue.

i am being shaped, i am shaping.