build as we fight: remarks from the 2019 American Studies Association Annual Meeting

my friend and comrade Scott Kurashige is the president of the American Studies Association, and this year he very kindly invited me to be the artist-in-residence, which meant that I got to do lots of sessions and offers for folks who I am amazed might be interested in my work. my offers here have so far included an emergent strategy workshop, a pleasure activism workshop, singing the Black national anthem to open Scott’s presidential address, and a panel with three of my life teachers, Angela Davis, Robin Kelly and Shea Howell. today I get to do one more panel with some of my favorite speculative fiction thinkers and creators.

the workshops went well, I got to test out new forms for offering the content and got great feedback.

here is the song:

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and here are the notes for my remarks at the panel “build as we fight”, most of which I said roughly like this (I’ll italicize things I wrote but don’t think I spoke aloud):

hi. my name is adrienne maree brown and I’m nervous. it’s delightful to feel this nervous, this alive.

after two days of making academics get in small groups and feel feelings and cry and discuss nakedness, I caught on to the ASA way and I have written up some thoughts to read to you.

I want to tell you about a few ahas, ways I am moving towards the future, and about what building as we fight looks like in my life, thru my lens as a facilitator of Black liberation movements for justice.

my lens is shaped by the Anishanaabe land I fell in love with over a decade ago, also known as Detroit, the post motor city, where it feels like a modern Black Renaissance is unfolding as an artist-led insurgence against gentrification.

I’m shaped by Grace Lee Boggs, who I initially resisted, cause everyone loved and worshipped her, and I mostly recoil at heroes, celebrities and worship. But then we spoke, and I kept coming back. Grace taught me to ‘transform myself to transform the world’, and to keep working a question as long as it took, because some questions are longer than one lifetime.

I’m shaped by her beloved Jimmy, who was gone by the time I got to Detroit, but also present in everything, was everywhere. He reminds me often that I’m nothing outside of relationship, never to let the celebrity so available in capitalism keep me from being in authentic and accountable relationship to real people, to use any platform I have to advance ideas generated and tested by collective formations.

I’m shaped by Scott Kurashige and Emily Lawson, by Shea Howell – who taught me to foment revolution on the detroit river. And Malik Yakini and Feed’em Freedom Growers and the Peace Circles and Detroit Summer.

and by Octavia Butler, the no nonsense prophet who used science fiction to deliver her visions. And Toni Morrison, Samuel Delaney and Nalo Hopkinson, Walter Mosley, and Tananarive Due, all the black speculative fiction writers who bent and bend the world into fractals of truth and justice to help us see ourselves.

and by Margaret Wheatley and Janine Benyus, women studying complexity science. We are also complex science, we are also nature.

I’m shaped by Harriet Tubman, who was willing to go and make a space for those hungry for freedom, those not quite ready to make a run for it without invitation, leadership, path and proof.

I’m shaped by the Tao the ching, which says to let the mud settle into the way is clear. to trust the people. and that mastery is when the collective can feel it’s own power.

and by Audre Lorde, who validated my black queer poetic and erotic aliveness as a measure of political power. And bell hooks with love and rigor, and Toni Cade Bambara with irresistibility and Barbara Ransby showing me that facilitation was radical through Ella bakers legacy.

and of course, of course Angela Davis who has pushed me to understand freedom and justice beyond the carceral state, and Robin DG Kelly, who has widened the lens with which I understand our moment in black history.

and there are so many more. so if it sounds familiar, or like worship, it is.

my first big aha was visionary fiction, offered in a collection of science fiction from social justice movements coedited by myself and Walidah Imarisha called Octavia’s Brood. When I told Grace about this work, she casually dropped that she had tried visionary fiction in the 1970s, and pointed me to the shelf where I could find a copy of it. she thought ‘it could be interesting’.

we who believe in freedom must build our muscle of imagination. because we are living in, and only sometimes surviving, an imagination battle –

who imagined this world?
this absence of right relationship to earth?
this violent addiction to dominating each other?
these myths of superiority of those with pale skin or external sex organs or bodies without kinks in the bones, or born on this side of manmade, and cruelly held, borders?
who imagined that these prison bars on jails and schools would generate safety?
who imagined a generation or more would tolerate this black and brown hunger? and this allowance that some will hunger while others feast, not oblivious, but willfully, and structurally, ignorant?

in the face of this world, this moment, where self definition outside of oppression can feel impossible, we must strengthen our capacity to live and create and affirm and vision outside the white male straight able-bodied citizen gaze, to structure our visions beyond their limited, often self-worshipping imaginations.

or the educated imagination.

any emotion-less, arrogant, vengeful imagination.

we need our own oceanic visions.

socialization of the dominance of white imagination and fantasy creates what toni morrison called “interior pain”.

we must counteract by creating an abundance of interior freedom, and weaving collective freedom dreams, dreams that include all of us, dreams we can speak to each other plainly, or poetically (or as y’all speak to each other, which I’m trying to comprehend).

Dreams as complex as a black owned food cooperative in right relationship with indigenous land lineage, or the community land trust, two projects seeding in Detroit after twenty plus years of experimenting with solutions. We are living science fiction – all organizing is science fiction.

my next big aha was, is, emergent strategy.

emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of relatively simple interactions. emergent strategies are informed by complexity, by learning from nature how to be in right relationship with each other and the earth.

Grace exposed me to Margaret Wheatley and complex science theory as a movement direction. I went fast into learning and I’m still going.

as we fight we must also harness each lesson to learn how to get in right relationship with change.

we must build dialectically, committed to learning with each other more than stagnating in a point of view.

as we fight we must build our fractal capacity, meaning solutions that we practice at a small scale, that will work at any scale (as opposed to solutions we demand at a large scale but no one, or very few people, practice, ever – democracy, abolition).

we need solutions that work for a small band of survivors in an apocalypse bunker if that’s what humanity will be up to for a while, a more and more likely scenario each day. we need to be raising up and becoming humans who have the communications skills, imagination muscle and loving care to make a life worth living at a small, hyper-local scale.

or the scale of municipality, if we can breathe above ground but we can’t fly or drive to each other every other day.

or the scale of instantaneous transporter travel and sky highways and alien technology if that happens first. or the octopuses start talking to us. it’s all equally possible.

one of these fractal skills is what cabral spoke of as revolutionary democracy – trusting the people to learn self governance. many of us are terrified to govern, much more comfortable with critiquing what is than with creating and practicing what will be.

start small. democratize your home, your relationship with your neighbor, with your lover, with your family. if we can’t budget together, we can’t be mad that our government struggles to.

movement generation, also a great teacher of mine, defines economy as the management of home. how do we manage collective home together? how do we contribute to a collective home that is resilient in constantly changing conditions?

at each level, our natural world teaches us that we build the resilience by building relationships, proliferating aligned differences. we need critical connections not just between those who think the same thing, but between different skill sets, worldviews, cultures and, yes, politics.

Loretta Ross teaches us that “a group of people thinking the same thing and moving in the same direction is a cult. a group of people thinking many different things and moving in the same direction is a movement.”

we need to harness the most successful strategies of the natural world – the symbiotic biodiversity, the interdependent fecundity, the abundance mindset of mushrooms and dandelions, the shapeshifting adaptation of multisexed frogs, the collaborative pheremonal effort of ants, the iterative beauty of ferns and deltas and galaxies.

if attended to, and learned from in an ongoing way, these critical connections to each other and to our nature are what make critical mass solid enough not just to demand change, but to become change.

we must go beyond calling for abolition, and build our tolerance for, and practice of, transformative justice.

at an intimate level, I do kitchen table mediation, bringing movement leaders going through a breakup or break down to sit together and remember what is larger than us.

at a collective level I facilitate principled struggle – a Marxist conflict framework by way of N’Tanya Lee at LeftRoots – helping people to have integrity to movement even in personal beef, to struggle for the sake of deeper understanding (not just to be right), to be responsible for our own feelings and actions, to find the right container for our gifts and longings and to release containers that cannot hold us, to seek deeper understanding before writing the critical commentary or instigating the debate or tweeting the complaint. to gossip and vent, yes, we are human – but keep returning with integrity to the work we can and must do together.

in this moment, we can spend a lot of time tracking every crack in the shell, or we can be the chaos that tremors those cracks open, or we can be the wild creature learning to breathe inside that shell, preparing to burst thru, expanding beyond the boundary of what most people think is reality. it’s all construct.

what we can be and do depends on the rigor of our collective attention. are we obsessing over what we cannot change, or nourishing what we can touch and grow – or as Octavia taught us, shape, partner with?

my final offer to build while we fight is pleasure activism.

we must build a felt sense in ourselves of authentic satisfaction. and remember that pleasure is not a frivolous spoil of luxury, but a measure of aliveness, the life force that has been whittled away, stolen away, by oppression and colonization and capitalism. we must break with the assumption of misery that does not serve us.

we are responsible for building movements that feel good to enter and good to stay in. in my work facilitating the movement for black lives, I have continuously asked these current and future shapers of history to turn towards each other (when it felt like there was no time for it), care about each other, sing 90s r&b together, and risk loving each other.

to organize this way means we must remember how to feel. we are not minds alone, strategies and speeches alone. we have multiple kinds of intelligence to draw on. we must learn to tolerate feeling both discomfort and delight, sadness and celebration, more than just fear and submission.

and to love. to be loyal to love, as grace was to jimmy for their life together and for the years after she left. to love the way she did, for us to look at each other the way grace looked at jimmy’s face on that little video of jimmy she played every day.

ultimately we need to feel and heal and grow and love ourselves into movements that birth not just rock stars or temporary victory based campaigns or cultural pendulum swings, but new worlds. movements that can see our future dissolution (rather than permanent institutionalization) not because we outsmarted each other, but because we forget how to lose. and we win by surrendering to our collective purpose, to being life moving towards life, surviving and thriving together. we win only by getting in right relationship, before we go extinct.