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.

Building Accountable Communities (speech on strategies for ending and recovering from harm)

Harm is an external wound to your wholeness. More than a bump, an accident.

Harm is what convinces us that in this abundant world, we only deserve to survive. Convinces us that material and emotional scarcity is our lot.

My work is very much about returning people to the truth of miraculous abundance. I’m bleeding as I write this – a reminder that miracles are messy, that I am alive and not in charge. Life is a bloody, magical, messy, beautiful gift.

I play with scale – instead of impossibly wide, go satisfyingly deep. Instead of focusing on the whole, getting stagnant in your insignificance, get close in, get dirty. Operate at your OWN scale. and MAYBE grow. If everyone was practicing transformative justice in their own lives, we’d have enough.

The natural world gives us some clues: abundance is healthy. It’s normal to have plenty. But! And! Plenty is relative!

Each species is programmed for the precise amount of sunlight it needs, and how to swallow light. How do we balance between the rich fertility and terror of darkness, the abundant life and dangerous fire of light?

Balance.

Divergence and balance.

And emergence. The complex systems and patterns we long for – the justice and accountability that allows for our whole humanity – it all comes from, is built from, relatively simple interactions.

Calling Black liberation workers into support. Sitting at a kitchen table. Drinking tea. That’s where I invite people into accountability. Not to be friends, not to share joy, not even to be comrades necessarily – but accountable. Accountable to something larger than ourselves.

And nature says: enjoy this. We’ve been given bodies so brilliant that some of us have even reclaimed the pleasure of the whip! in just a few generations. We long to feel satisfied and content. Belonging and dignity.

We are born into another’s hands, we are a species meant to hold and be held. We live on an orgasmic planet, fecund and perfect.

But! can we see ourselves home again after all this harm?

My work is to remind us to imagine, to remind us that we are responsible for shaping the future. And to point us down and all around at our teacher-parent-planet. And to remind us not to sleep through the sensational experience of being alive, the heaven here on earth, the blessing of having a body – an individual and collective body – that can recover, can learn, can remember to love.

Visionary fiction.
Emergent strategy.
Pleasure activism.

Transformative breakups.
Kitchen table mediation.
Boundaries are better than disposal.

Abundant justice.
Liberation.

That is all the miracle I know.

national network of abortion funds 2016 keynote

tonight i had the honor of giving the keynote speech for the national network of abortion funds 2016 summit. i spoke after they gave each other awards and there were lots of tears and just so much recognition and celebration of their incredible and radical work. here are my notes from my talk, what i planned to say and what i think i added in. <3

I would like to open with centering words from octavia estelle butler, the black science fiction writer and, I would argue, prophet-philosopher.

first, let’s take a moment to center, come into this moment:
let yourself be heavy with gravity
and light with stardust
and look around your table, connect with the people around you
and connect to this moment

now, octavia says:
all that you touch you change
all that you change changes you
the only lasting truth is change
god is change

i always evoke her into these spaces because she taught me to be visionary.

wow. so here we are in texas, this massive great state that gave us beyoncé.

now, i was also born in texas, not to imply that all first-born singing virgos from texas are at the same level, or that you should expect a beyoncé level performance from my speech tonight. i only aim for perfection.

but seriously – i heard that there are only 6 abortion clinics left in this state. as we sit here knowing how hard we are working to make moves forward, as we make our Best effort to create changes within and beyond the system, as we raise the money to create our own systems of care, we are still only meeting about 1/3 of the need.

and we are traversing an election season that for some of us is ‘so historic’, for some of us is ‘so depressing and/or terrifying’, for some of us is ‘totally irrelevant in terms of tangible impacts in our communities’, and for some of us all of the above.

this fight of ours is both a local fight, and a supreme court fight. it is a fight that can sometimes feel rigid – as if all the territory has been mapped out already. as if every victory is fragile, and every position must be defensive.

and yet we must win, right? we must not only end hyde, but go beyond, beyond smashing our opponent (which can absolutely satisfying, i know). we need to evolve the conversation beyond the realm of opposition – we must create such a change around abortion that no one can deny it.

everyone in this room is part of an effort to create change. and yet sometimes we forget how change actually works. we think of change as an external impact – we will do something, and the other person will change. and we will stay the same, and we will be happy.

we do this at a personal level – how many of us have fallen in love with someone’s potential? with our story of how we were going to liberate another person’s best self?

or educate a family member?

we do this at a collective or organizational level. how many of us have gone to work at institutions that were deeply unsustainable, or patriarchal, or had severe conflict aversion or other really big clear red flags that we imagined we could transform on the strength of our own (naive) brilliance?

(i won’t ask if anyone here is still in that situation. we are all feeling the love – and i know it’s complicated.)

and of course we do this at a political level. we can see so clearly how the other, our opposition, needs to change. and we set forth to change them. we rage against them on facebook and twitter, go head to head in policy wars, or give them the evil eye at holidays. (cuz you know all this political opposition is in the family, right?)

and of course they are doing the same thing.

our lovers are imagining that we will begin to put the toilet paper roll on correctly, and stop interrupting them with important details when they tell a story to our mutual friends.

our organizations hope that with time we will get so passionate about the mission that we will overlook the regressive structural issues and work the extra unpaid hours to close the gap between the needs of our communities and never-quite-enough resources we can generate to meet those needs.

and politically, our opponents hope, and probably pray, that one day we will cave. that we will say fine. you all should make the decisions about what we can do with our bodies. you win – what were we thinking?

now, within this battle of wills, no one actually wins.

we all get amazing at fortifying our positions, at polarizing the entire world in a binary system that has no room for complexity, for changing positions, for life experience. we create hierarchies of ourselves and others.

octavia teaches us that we use our intelligence to construct hierarchy, over and over. and then we revel in it. i am guilty of this. i feel superior in every way to any man who seeks to legislate my body.

i can’t help it!

it is so easy to see the change that is needed in others, or needed in large scale systems. it is so much harder to create those changes within ourselves, to live up to our values, to live into the unknown, the theoretical – what we FEEL is right, even what we have proven is right at a small scale.

it is particularly frightening to see socialization rooted inside ourselves, and to pull it up. and yet that is what we have to keep doing, and what we need to inspire the rest of this country to do.

most of you are in this room because you have done this work to unlearn the shame and stigma so many of us still get taught to associate with abortion, and to step to the front line to make sure that anyone who needs an abortion can get one.

your work here, all of you, has been so crucial in this respect – you are putting your time, life and resources on the line to help us change how we access abortion care from the local to the national level. you are supporting low-income women, women of color, young women.

i commend you all. i am grateful beyond words. (part of why i wrote this down was because of how emotional i was just preparing for this)

i am grateful as a full spectrum doula.
i am grateful as a survivor of ectopic pregnancy.
i am grateful as an auntie to babies who will have more choices because of your work.
i am grateful as an ever evolving pan-queer-sexual human (who knows what the future holds?)

i thank you.

so now i want to explore what the next edge of growth is for us. what will be healing to everyone we touch?

all that you touch you change. but it also changes you. change is a multidirectional activity.

one of my biggest areas of question to offer tonight is – how do we expand our network of change? i mean, not just who we will change, but who we will let change us, in order to reach far enough to change everything.

to even consider letting others change us, we have to have a solid sense of self. a movement sense of self. we can create change around abortion, we are growing reproductive justice. we are creating a new world here. that you all have raised the money you have raised in spite of the cyber and ideological attacks, the vitriol and socialization of this country is a tangible measurement of that change.

but as we succeed, our opposition changes.
as we get bigger, they get frightened of losing power, and become more dangerous.
as they become more dangerous, their strategies and policies become more outrageous.
and then we become more fearful.
and we can get very narrow, trying to just protect ourselves, to hold the line for the tiny sliver of dignity and liberation and basic rights we cannot live without. our vision, tucked tightly in a safe place.

but often what we think we are protecting is already gone. vision is the collateral damage of a reactionary movement. the ‘vision’ begins sounding like “not this! repeal that! stop that! can we just get a little of this? a tiny bit of justice?” (i speak from experience)

remember the personal relationship scenario? you ever find yourself in a fight like – “wait how did we get here? i don’t even care about the toilet paper – i started this conversation because i want our home to feel like a retreat center of love and equity! you got stuck on bathroom habits, and what the heck? are we breaking up right now?”

it can be funny – even if its not funny at the moment we can usually laugh in retrospect, depending on how the breakup goes.

but this happens in our political work all the time. its less funny there.

this has absolutely happened with our work for reproductive justice, we keep finding ourselves in external and internal debates over differences that distract us from our vision – which is that every person has agency over her, his or their own body. it isn’t about one choice – its about a multitude of choices all rooted in love and equity.

humans tend to change in a cycle.

people say history repeats itself, and in some ways it does. but each time, the group of humans is different, the world is different, and even if it looks the same from the outside, within each cycle are evolutions, micro shifts that create different outcomes.

this slow but determined cycle of change is why so many of our movements are evolving beyond silo’d issue struggles and embracing intersectional identities.

it is how this movement is coming to understand that any discussion about abortion is a discussion about race, about poverty, about borders, about prisons, about control, about collective liberation.

that took so much work. your work and so many others. it is imperative to celebrate that work.

in order to realize our vision for a world in which we have safety and agency for all humans in all bodies, we have to understand this iterative cycle of change, and aim not just for surface shifts that advance or regress from administration to administration.

we have to get very intentional about how we “transform ourselves in order to transform the world”. those are the words of grace lee boggs, my late mentor. we have to create an ideological majority and stability around abortion access and reproductive justice, one that can normalize inside an ever changing world.

i know we can do this.

grace also said “we must assume our power, not our powerlessness”.

octavia called this shaping change. understanding that change is inevitable and constant, but if we are awake we are not simply victims of change, or reacting to change. we can be a force that shapes change.

we can shape change around abortions and reproductive justice.

it is time to get visionary about abortion.

(visionary. what do i mean? not idealistic. not never never land. (vision is kind of my fetish – one of my fetishes))

last year a book that i co-edited with walidah imarisha came out, it’s called Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements. we asked organizers to write science fiction, because we realized that our work as social justice visionaries and organizers is to bring about a world we have never seen. a world without poverty, without patriarchy. a world where every human has the right to make their own difficult choices for their health and lives, towards abundance, towards liberation.

we haven’t experienced this world yet – we are cocreating it. so organizing is reaching forward and pulling the future into our present. all organizing is science fiction. (we are all badass super heroes!)

and what we found in our organizers was that many went above and beyond our call. we don’t lack vision, we lack permission.

we called it sci fi to reach the place people are familiar with, but it is more precisely called visionary fiction. walidah created that term to speak of art we create with intention.

art is never neutral – it either upholds or upends the status quo. so Octavia’s Brood gathered stories of the future that show change as a process, as a bottom up, collective process, centering marginalized communities. neither utopian nor dystopian, because as we know those actually tend to go hand in hand. the 1% depends on the 99%. first class has to be in front of coach. even heaven requires hell.

we invited stories that took us beyond binaries, that took us to the edge of what these organizers could see.

because gloria anzaldua taught us: “nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.”

this is our work. we must dream the impossible, dream it together, out loud, until it becomes practice and pathway. we must collaborate on our ideas, subverting the capitalist practice of competing like gladiators to have the best idea. we must build collective vision, deep intentions that allow radical adaptations in the unknown future.

(now, i say this next part as someone with deep southern evangelical anti-abortion family members)

a lot of the people who are counted in our opposition have been negatively impacted by the execution of their own espoused values – unable to get the abortions they needed; born to people who did not want to, or were not ready to, parent but felt they had no choice; people shamed for their pregnancies; then shamed for their abortions.

our imagination needs to include these women, our story needs to be big enough to invite them in.

i have been talking about imagination a lot lately. who gets the right to imagine? who gets to realize their imaginations in the real world? we are, in fact, in an imagination battle. i borrow this line of thinking from claudine rankine and terry marshall – right now we are living inside the imagination of other people. people who think women and black people and people from other countries and people with different abilities or desires are dangerous and inferior. can be shot down in the street. mike brown, renisha mcbride and so many others lost their lives to that imagination. we can be regulated around the choice to bring life into this world, we can be controlled through the violence people take based on their waking dreams.

those imaginings have created the conditions of oppression that bring us into this room. the results of this delirium are that women, especially women of color and poor women, are not to be trusted with our bodies. it’s not sane, but it has been institutionalized. and as we grow our resources and our ranks, it is imperative that we burst out of the box that the conservative imagination designates for us. this means moving out of a defensive stance.

i am creating work at a particular intersection. octavia is there, grace is there, and gloria. and a few other ancestors who bear naming.

toni cade bambara charged us with “making the revolution irresistible”. i think of this often when i find myself turning to fear or shame as a motivating force for my people (i never mean to do this but it comes out under pressure, fear and shame are contagious).

how do i make a future of justice an irresistible option? how do we paint in the loudest colors a picture of a world in which families are intentional, joyful, resourced with love and longing. that’s what’s on the other side of abortion access.

audre lorde is also at this intersection – she taught us of pleasure – that it is the experience of the erotic, of being fully sensationally alive in real time, that makes suffering unbearable. she said, when i am “in touch with the erotic, i become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.”

so i have been reflecting on how the fear of an unwanted pregnancy seriously impacts pleasure and power. in part because of the process of abortion. but, i think, in much larger part because of the narratives around abortion, the trauma of stigmatization, and the lack of emotional support for those who make this choice.

in terms our opposition might understand, they “deny themselves heaven” in this regard, because i suspect a next level of sexual freedom and erotic evolution is also on the other side of abortion access and human-centered reproductive justice.

the final piece i want to add here brings us back to where i started. one of the ways we change ourselves is to change our stories, yes – and my invitation is to bring creativity, joy, love, longing and pleasure into the next stories told about abortion.

but the other way we change ourselves is to put down our armor, or at least move the shield to the side so we can see who we are fighting with. this is ESPECIALLY important for our internal differences. how much of our time and energy do we spend trying to change each other, instead of working to align with each other?

this is a lesson from nature, which i have been studying in a deep way for my next book, which is on emergent strategies, focusing on the way complex systems and patterns emerge out of relatively simple interactions.

in nature the big creatures, those who are the same species but battle each other for territory – the lions, tigers, bears (oh my) – they are on the extinction lists. the creatures which work together with clear distinctions and roles and a shared sense of survival, those are the ones that are proliferating. ants, birds, roaches. octopi and squid. slime mold. these organisms move at the speed of relationship.

the black lives matter movement has been articulating this practice as moving at the speed of trust – that’s as fast as we can go. and our impact can be as big and powerful as our trust is.

our internal movement armor comes in the form of political positions and think pieces and call-outs. we must practice putting down our armor with each other, spend more time getting into a room together and not just drinking (which i enjoy but am abstaining from sugar so…) but working on our alignment. if we are already clear on where the differences are, how do we turn our collective attention to those places where we align and grow that?

what we pay attention to grows. so let’s practice with an affirmation pledge. turn to the person next to you and really take in this divine specimen of warrior. now repeat after me:

i am not you
oh but I need you
thank you for your work
let’s get this. let’s get free
.

thank you so much for paying attention to me these last twenty minutes.

thank you so much for paying attention to our rights and our bodies as your life’s work.

thank you yamani, tiffany and everyone at the national network of abortion funds for having me.

(after this was an incredible karaoke night that was, as yamani sang in her first ever karaoke performance, ‘more than words’)

Beyonce’s Visionary Fiction: Formation

Like many of you, yesterday I was sitting in my house minding my own Black History/Futures Month business when Beyonce did this:

This video.

My first reaction:

“Wow. Thanks to musette Tunde Olaniran for letting me know Beybe gave us something new. There is so much going on here and a lot of it gave me feels (tears…Blue Ivy opening and then that baby boy vs the riot squad??).”

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“Overall it reads as Bey slaying (sp) no to govt/popo killing us with no impunity, and I’m absolutely here for it.”

Then I came back to say: “this video keeps on giving. Each viewing there are so many gifts and blessings. Each line is conversational, it is constructed to be used in pieces or as a whole to transform a situation. Spell casting place-based brilliance.”

And this Sunday morning I have watched it several more times, and realized that above and beyond the level of excellence I expect from Beyonce, she is serving visionary fiction here.

But before I even get to the visionary fiction aspects of this work: the references made throughout this video are so satisfying, so uplifting – New Orleans is in the pace, in the lighting, in that black southern mythical witch Marie Laveau finger lickin life and death Sunday church realness. Beyonce rocking her long blond hair preference but meeting haters with braids. Every single outfit, every move, all three perfect seconds of the conqueror Blue Ivy, all of it. Stanned out.

Like, I love that only a chorus separates the middle-fingers-up promise of how she will respond to good sex from the black-bodies-dancing Sunday church spirit catching. Pleasure activism. This is real life.

And then…so visionary fiction, a concept Walidah Imarisha taught me, which we have been popularizing with Octavia’s Brood, centers traditionally marginalized communities, posits change as something that is bottom up and collective, neither utopian nor dystopian. Visionary fiction understands that there is no neutral ground, that art is either advancing or regressing justice.

I think parts of this video (a video which also has non-radical elements, I know, I’m open to that conversation) are as radical a seeding of visionary futures as the lunch counter sit-ins. Stay with me – after the country saw black and white people sitting together at that counter they couldn’t unsee it – it was an option, it was a possibility. It was an aspiration.

In this video, at a point where Beyonce has already taken us from the adorable to the raunchy to the ecstatic, and instructed us to get in formation!!!!, we get to see a riot squad surrender to the body brilliance of a black boy in a hoodie, dancing in the middle of the street.

One day after Trayvon Martin’s birthday. And, as my friend YK Hong points out, one day before Sandra Bland’s birthday.

Then we pan over graffiti which says, in case you are in any way confused: Stop Shooting Us.

Then, a police. car. sinks. into. the. NOLA. waters.

With the Queen Bey as a human sacrifice to keep it down!

I/We cannot unsee these things, they speak so completely to the longing to drown the impulse of white supremacy, of violence against my/our people.

And then, finally, one of the central lyrics is basically a visionary fiction mantra:

I dream it
I work hard
I grind til
I own it

We create from what we can imagine. We are living right now inside the imaginings of people whose mental illness makes them believe they are superior to other human beings. This video is part of the resistance, the new imaginings that we use to pull ourselves towards liberation.

I feel so proud of Beyonce, so moved by director Melina Matsoukas’ vision in action, and just want to say thank you everyone who shaped this incredibly timely work. We needed this, and we need more artists to deliver this kind of flawless politicized work. Art is our public sphere, our culture shaping cauldron. This is a precious black love offering.

Now. Go slay.

things i think i said at eso won books

the other night i got to do an artist talk at eso won books, in leimert park los angeles. super grateful to cultural shapeshifter lynnee denise from international locals who organized the event, which included an artist talk with the sci fi writer nature grrrrl homey lisa bolekaja, and a book signing. it felt like a portal opened up, and i said some things. below are those things. afterwards i got to sign their big book of famous signatures where octavia butler’s signature from 2005 was on the first page! then i was told that one of my future wives, queen latifah, had just purchased octavia’s brood the night before.

!!!

so here are some thoughts:

as you do anything, as you write new stories, you are either moving towards justice or away. there is not a neutral space actually, you’re either perpetuating the existing paradigm of power, or you are disrupting it. that’s why visionary fiction is important, fiction that intentionally disrupts existing paradigms of oppression.

writing sci fi, writing futures we want, is a mindfulness practice. we need mindfulness practices to intentionally grow a future up through our collective and familiar cycles of trauma.

time is non-linear – octavia butler’s stories or nina simone’s music are good proof of this, as relevant now as when they were writing and singing it.

(in response to a question around what and how we create in a world that doesn’t want to acknowledge and celebrate our work…referencing hugos, world fantasy, oscars, etc, i stood up and turned around and said:) look at me. look at my body. i don’t have a body that is seen and affirmed in the mainstream space. i see some reference to it now in people like nicki minaj, but still nothing quite like all of this. so learning to love my body has been choice after choice after practice. it has included self documentation, self pornography, not engaging lovers who want my body to change, learning how i like to look and feel, learning what health is for me. my mind is as divergent from the mainstream as my body is. all of our minds are. which means we can’t look to mainstream systems for affirmation and approval – that’s why we created octavia’s brood. that’s why there are anthologies, and malkia cyril’s work and center for media justice are fighting to keep the web accessible to all, so we have room to create our own spaces and celebrate ourselves. our self love and full realization are dangerous to the mainstream.

capitalism has skewed what we think is enough. everything doesn’t have to be huge bestseller on mainstream markets for everyone. figure out who you want to reach and measure success against that.

we have rituals for collective trauma – we spread the word, and our outrage, on social media where you have to be careful, the trauma is on auto play. we create a hashtag and seek justice and take action and then when justice is often not send we have a next round of grief. we listen to music and sing and numb ourselves. we have less ritual for collective healing. black zen teacher angel kyodo williams pointed that out to me, how technology is connecting our pain so fast, but we have to develop the individual and collective capacity not just to respond, but to evolve together beyond this paradigm.

(in response to a question of the difference between black sci fi and afrofuturism). i see black sci fi as a literal thing, black people doing sci fi – it includes anything, can be the regular old tropes, action narratives, can be conservative, heteronormative, misogynist, etc. whereas afrofuturism to me implies a worldview beyond the western paradigm, being explicitly distinct, born from a different perspective from the mainstream white male American sci fi stuff.

create create create. find people to read your work and get feedback and let people see and hear and engage the part of the future you hold.

packing my octavia butler bag (reflections on the field innovation team boot camp)

i am returning from a gathering that felt like a redirection, or next thrilling iteration, of my life resources.

a few months ago, my friend renna reached out to me because she knew some people who were getting together to design innovative responses in real time to the challenges of disasters.

i have very little background in disaster response, but i do live in detroit, and am as obsessed with apocalypse as the next sci-fi head, and i regularly work with communities who have been devastated by a combination of slow economic disasters and faster natural or manmade ones. so i agreed to go.

and i am so glad i did.

the room was one of the most experientially diverse i have been in in a long time. there were first responders and people who had worked in the disaster response field for years and have published books on it. and then there were veterans, an astronaut, robotics experts, artists, nonprofit leaders, government employees, theater arts facilitators, scientists, writers, designers, makers, hackers, teachers, futurists, technologists with communications tools that made me salivate, gamers.

and me.

we are all volunteers, and most of us have never been part of a disaster response effort. and that is the exactly the point. a few years ago, some people who had been involved in disasters we’ve all watched at a distance or survived – 9/11, katrina, fukushima to name a few – reached out to a team of designers, convinced that there must be more innovative ways to approach the conventional response to disasters. with the design team, they (at the time housed within fema) cultivated a survivor oriented response framework during hurricane sandy. they asked how do we fundamentally transform the experience of survivors? not seeing people as numbers, but as stories, people with futures, sensitive traumatized individuals and communities at a major precipice.

what grew out of this was a project called the field innovation team (FIT). it has spun off from fema to be it’s own project.

it includes a lot of characters and really brilliant people. i met an elder astronaut/pilot with a dry wit that kept me cracking up the whole meeting. i met a man using sci-fi to prototype plans with communities. i met a woman who makes robots that can swim underwater during a tsunami and tell rescue teams where people are, where danger is. i met other people creating robots that can carry supplies and resources to people where there are no/dysfunctional roads, and eventually might be able to lift people out of places where vehicles and helicopters can’t safely reach them. i met technologists envisioning a world where the detritus of natural disasters can be processed through 3D printers to rebuild. i met two facilitators using theater, masterfully, to deepen the relationships of the room, and it felt good to be in their hands. i met techies who are creating communication tools that keep people connected where there is no wi-fi.

i met a safety trainer who told us all to pack our ‘go’ bags – not just for doing this work, but generally to make sure we were ready for the world that exists now, with rapidly changing climate and manmade conditions. what he described putting in that bag made me think of lauren olamina, octavia butler’s perhaps most famous protagonist, packing her bag to survive an unknown future. the whole training placed me firmly in my ongoing question about how we grow in the escalating tension of our times – living on a planet we have abused so thoroughly that she must respond.

i won’t lie – it was a politically complex setting for me. i am used to being in spaces where people generally agree on a set of core values, or at least assume that agreement. in this circle, i could feel the best part of each person there, but knew that many had journeyed corporate, military or government paths on their way to landing in the place of doing survivor-centered disaster innovations. the language was largely foreign to me, i had to ask a lot of basic questions to make sure i understood what was going on, and i was left with so many more questions yet to get answered.

but i felt good that they were excited about my world view. and as i shared what mattered to me, i found that the common thread in the room was not just saving lives, but a passion for community voices being at the center of any response, communities being at the heart of envisioning futures that move us beyond the long-term crisis of inequality as well as the urgency of disaster. i learned a lot more about the resource and legal challenges to handling crises with community direction.

most of the people i talked to agreed that disaster strikes in ways that unveil the social inequalities in a place, in ways that open people up to different pathways than they may have thought possible – it is an opportunity to do what octavia spoke of in the parables: shape change.

i feel like my belief that ‘there are a thousand paths towards justice and liberation’ is alive in this work. from our unchosen starting places, we reached this room, and we were able to hold each other as living intersectional entities between lots of different worlds that need to be not just in coherent conversation, but in flow, if we choose to survive and evolve together on this planet.

over the course of the training, it became clear to me why i, particularly, was there. all the diverse, seemingly random skills i have been developing can be of use for FIT. from my doula training to my somatics training to my sci-fi scholarship to my facilitation and process design work to my auntie skills to my coaching work to my ruckus/allied media conference/detroit learnings. perhaps more than anything else, i can imagine calling on my network of incredible people around the country, dedicated to the local brilliance of their communities.

my vision for my impact as a part of the team is to connect communities i love to resources that enhance local reach in the midst of a crisis. i feel like in most cities in the u.s., i either know (or am one step removed from) a body of local experts – people who love their city, understand it’s dynamics and reactions, understand why people stay there and what could catalyze them to save their own lives, and most importantly, have a long-term vision of justice and growth that can shape the innovations that will work immediately and sustain the right kinds of change over time.

one of the things i have learned in detroit is to seek out opportunity in crisis, and i have come to see this as a foundational emergent strategy. the idea of FIT in and of itself feels deeply aligned with emergent strategy – responding to disaster – unexpected change – in ways that contribute to community resilience long-term.

it is just a beginning, and i have a lot to learn. but i am thinking very, very big again, and it feels magnificent. i am excited to find out who in my network will be amongst the local leaders, healers, doulas, sci fi writers and strategists who will transform the way we as humans respond to crisis.

it feels like sci-fi in practice. and it feels like an invitation you say yes to. i’ll keep reporting back on the experience and lessons. and i hope to hear from those of you either interested in getting involved, or with ideas and feedback on all of it.

now – off to pack my go bag.