Amina on collectivizing, rethinking roles, and balancing community accessibility with personal sustainability

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Photo by Eva Wô

What’s your name and how do you identify yourself in the world?

My name’s Amina. If I’m doing music or art or running my mouth about politics, I identify myself as Amina Shareef Ali. If I’m putting on a professional hat in my work as a therapist, I identify myself with a different name.

How are you doing?

Right in the moment, I feel good. In life in general, I’m good. I love my relationships, my kid, my clients, the people I get to share my music with, and the people I’m in community with. It’s that middle level that’s trickiest — between the right this second and the bigger picture. Depression has been wafting in and out over the last several weeks. It’s hard to get to the bottom of. Sometimes it helps to be a therapist to conceptualize your own mental stuff, and sometimes it really doesn’t. Sometimes I think depression can be productive, to use a loaded word — it’s doing something. I’m depressed because my psyche is working through something.

How are you moving through depression at the moment?

I try to keep a handle on different places where it could adversely impact things. I have not yet been in a space where I couldn’t fully show up for clients. I take that seriously. I’ve been heartened to discover that often if I’m struggling, doing therapy work with someone else often helps me. I can put myself aside and show up for them in a way that feels good. I can feel my strength. I want to be thankful for that and not exploit it by overbooking myself, and not let any structure exploit it. Extra reserves of energy should be honored as a gift from your deeper self.

I feel like that’s the feminized labor of one’s psyche. What do you make of that experience — that being in pain is where you find strength to show up for others?

I lived through my twenties as a boy and transitioned almost a year ago. Something I distinctly remember from before my transition was that women, femme, or AFAB (assigned female at birth) people in my life would be the ones expressing distress. I would move into this role of being the rock, the stabilizing force. I want to be able to describe this without judgement, because there were situations where that was valuable and appreciated. As a boy, there was a way of shoring up my feelings of self control and masculine composure. Now, I’m femme, I’m more emotionally competent than ever before in my life, and I also cry and break down more than I ever did in my life. How do we understand that? I think about this position where I’m vulnerable and have a lot of feelings I can’t control, and then I pull it together and hold space for someone else, a role that I previously would have conceptualized as masculine. I’m in both of these roles. This first one gets devalued and isn’t seen as work. But it is. It’s work that my psyche is doing. Maybe it makes the other one possible.

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Amina and her partner Claire. Photo by Eva Wô.

Dang, I’m not ready for this today… Thank you for sharing that. What do you see as your role and work in creating the world you want to live in?

I want to track some of my evolution as a radical. I got my first liberal arts college canned social justice framework in the early 2000s. It blew my mind at the time, but it didn’t dig deeper or ask, where did this come from, what was there before, and how is it made and re-made every day? How can we fight it and how can’t we? I became a radical around 2011 when Occupy popped off. In the Oakland radical scene there were lots of smashy anarchists. My dear friend Brian Belknap, my favorite songwriter in the Bay and an old Leninist, became my de facto mentor for a while. I felt pulled between those sides. You see the hammer and sickle on my arm. I feel somewhat aligned with a Marxist tradition and materialism; I also saw the intellectual and moral poverty of existing socialist groupings. It’s like, this is the theory I align with so these should be my people. But I look at how y’all act in response to difference, and I’m like, no, you’re not my team. I also felt critical of certain strains of anarchism that seemed self-satisfied to work on these projects that seemed really isolated. I didn’t feel like I could join a team and I really wanted to. Then three and a half years ago, my kid Hazel was born. I haven’t engaged in anything that would be recognized as political. I’m not going to no meetings; I’m not going to many actions in the streets. It’s caused me to rethink.

I read in one of your posts that many people have mentioned Emergent Strategy. My partner Hannah was captivated by it and motivated to put together a reading group. Hannah came into my life four months after Hazel was born, after I already had a full life of parenting, music, trying to do politics, and having another partner. Shortly after that I would go back to school to become a therapist. I felt instinctively it was important to be a part of this group, not because of the book itself but because what I and we need to be doing is building theoretical knowledge with people we’re already in relationship with — rather than having a canned theory and being like, that’s your team, go over there. How you’re in relationship and how you show up and how your lives are weaved together is what matters. The group has met a handful of times, and catalyzed a lot of churning around of my process.

I see the overall landscape as pretty fucking bleak. I see decades of the Left disintegrating and getting less organized and less rigorous. You have people scrambling trying to recruit and build big organizations quickly. But y’all have no history together. You don’t have any real bonds except for what you believe and some lil’ roster. It’s relatively easy to build an organization that has some espoused beliefs, is good at recruiting people, and in the end, is gonna tell people to hold their nose and vote for a Democrat. It’s harder to build something with versatility to be like yo, can we join this fight to stop this person from being evicted? Can we raise children together? Can we support this person in crisis? That flexibility has to happen on a small scale with the people you already have relationships and trust with.

There’s tension between, how do we apply our ideals around autonomy and collectivity, and see how they play out in relationship and in community; versus knowing that capitalism and all these other systems are always going to undermine us so we can’t actually build a utopia in a little bubble, and that there has to be a fight for revolution and abolition of all these structures. In my mind, the former is more anarchist-aligned and the latter is more communist or socialist aligned. And I’ve been guilty of undervaluing that first strategy; I felt it was important and participated in it, but I also undervalued it. The conception I have now is, it’s necessary but not sufficient. My internalized anarchist makes the error of knowing that it’s necessary, but forgetting it’s not sufficient; my internalized communist makes the error of knowing it’s not sufficient, but forgetting that it’s still necessary.

For one, I am giving myself permission to not feel guilty about not plugging in to overtly political work. There are good fights happening all the time that need support. I know that I don’t have capacity to bottomline something. I’m open to being called on to give to this person’s bail fund, or show up to swell the crowd, but I’m not trying to seek out something to give myself to. I think that’s really okay for where I am in life. My life is very full trying to keep my relationships strong, parent my child, do my therapy work, and have enough left to do things that bring me joy. I want to understand those things as being enough — I feel implicitly that they are.

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Amina and her partner Hannah. Photo by Eva Wô.

It’s so funny the way that we’re talking about certain kinds of labor being devalued and erased. In the course of this conversation I find myself in a dance between trying to not do that and then still doing it, for all those things i just described. Like, the labor of being a therapist is really valorized. Hannah checked me on this and I’m super grateful for that. I believe what I do is valuable, but there’s a way in which we find ourselves conceding to a more conservative logic if we’re not careful. Recently I was feeling devalued by someone and I responded like, ‘Fuck that, I’m doing good work as a therapist and I’m supporting a lot of queers who’ve been through a lot of trauma and I’m helping them heal and that’s valuable.’ Hannah has done paid work as a peer counselor and a direct care provider and now works in landscaping, and shows up for people whether they’re in crisis or just need a hand. They actively seeks out trainings to work on their shit and lend support, and they watch Hazel one day a week. And they told me, ‘I don’t do anything that is ever gonna be valorized as therapy is and I probably never will. But what I do isn’t less valuable.’ I realized they were right and I’d been tripping. I don’t want to devalue other people or myself in that way.  

My therapy work and parenting are both held up and valorized in a particular way.  But there’s also just showing up in my relationships. A couple years ago I thought I was pretty good at being in relationships but these last years have really turned my head around. I’ve learned about really nurturing them. Creating chosen family isn’t as simple as just flipping a switch. There’s a material base for nuclear formations and for people to revert back to that. How do we materially try to undo that without getting assimilated into heteropatriarchy? How do webecome more collective? Our family structure has been a chain of five or six partners over the past few years, with no one along the way dating each other. We’re all bound together one-to-one-to-one, so making decisions like who lives with who, how we spend time, who’s responsible for finding childcare, etcetera reverts to couples. How do we collectivize and facilitate everyone being able to talk to everyone else, not just through their partners? Our lives are linked together already, but if we don’t want to just disintegrate into individual couples, that’s something that needs to happen.

Why is it important to collectivize and materialize ideals that aren’t the heteropatriarchy?

Our heritage as humans is collectivity. What ties our family together is we’re all involved in Hazel’s life to some extent. We’re all seeing and spending time with Hazel at least once a week. Parenting can be really isolating, even if you’re on a more upwardly mobile professional track. One of the ways in which people are recouped into bourgeois and heteropatriarchal structures is by professionalizing as much as possible so you can buy back the community support that doesn’t exist because of historical development. I’m not trying to get relief from parenting by paying someone else to replace me in that role. I’m not trying to perform a more valuable kind of labor and pay someone for their less valuable labor. Collectivity is the way to get relief that doesn’t involve assimilating in that way.

What is the world you want to live in?

I’ve done a lot of thinking about utopia — like what will life look like after the rev. After people don’t have to live in urban centers — where all the jobs are concentrated in places the workers can’t afford the rents — what will it look like when 10 years or 50 years or 100 years after? Without highways and sprawl? When there are cars built over 100 years ago are still being maintained but you don’t need very many of them, and these roads are just gardens or homes or wild space. What will gender look like? What will our families and relationships look like? I can fantasize that far-off, dream thing. There’s value in that.

But I’ve abandoned any strategy of how to get there. Like I said, the picture in the immediate term is pretty fucking bleak. I’m positioned where me and at least one of my partners are entering the petty bourgeoisie and will have professionalized careers where we’ll have hopefully some stability. I’ve chosen a path that banks on that. The question for me is: how do I want to live right now that can give myself, my loved ones, and my homies the best chances for joy, prosperity, and thriving — even in the hellscape — while not letting myself be assimilated? The pressure to be “respectable” is going to be really intense for the rest of my life. As a therapist I believe in providing free or low-cost mental health care to poor queers and queers of color. The LGBTQ counseling center where I work is jacking up their fees — our minimum fee is now 45 fuckin’ dollars. As if that’s not enough, it comes with a shit ton of ideological justification, like — this is why this is okay, this is why actually people can afford it. I’m expected to swallow that. If I call bullshit too loudly I put myself in danger. How do I speak up when it’s right, keep my head down when there’s not much to be gained, and not fucking drink the Kool Aid? I entered the field for a number of reasons, but one of them was certainly wanting to be more stable than being a broke musician kid. But when I enter private practice and it’s up to me to set the fees, what am I gonna charge? What do I hope to make?  What do I see as being my purpose of doing this work? How am I gonna square those? The sliding scale will always be at odds with my own individual prosperity. Most people just say fuck it. I’m gonna have to resist that my whole career if I want to actually still be able to help the people who wouldn’t be able to access it any other way.

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Claire, Amina, Hazel, and Hannah. Photo by Eva Wô

What are the barriers and the supports in making the work that you’re doing sustainable?

I don’t know if there’s another field besides therapy that has more of a gulf between its self-concept as a progressive force and the actuality of it. I’m an outsider in the professional psychology environments I’ve been in, but there are some homies, and I need to link up with them. We need to hold each other in community, support each other, and hold each other accountable. That’s one of the biggest projects of what I want to take on in this field. That will be both work and a support for me once I can get it going — once we can get it going. The alternatives are either assimilate or be completely fucking isolated and burned out.

Your vision of collectivizing in relationship to your therapy work feels connected to what we were talking about in your personal relationships — creating microcosms of the world you want to live in. Are there people, books, or works of art you want to shout out as things that guide your heart and mind on your path?

Not really. I feel like for any given radical person who may read this, you’ve got a sense of what your values are. You probably feel like, here are some things I know and feel good about, and here are some people who are babies and don’t know as much as me, and here are some people who’ve been at it way longer and know way more than me. Even if that’s true and there’s different quantities of knowledge and experience, we can hold that without judgement. Of course there are people who have been here longer than you because you’ve been around exactly how long you’ve been around. Wherever you’re hoping to go, you don’t need to go experience the things that the people you feel know more than you have experienced or read the things that they’ve read. It doesn’t really matter what you read. You should find something you’re interested in that people around you are interested in and go in on it together. If there’s difference, find a way to share it. The process of doing that is going to be the most valuable thing.

It’s less about the what and more about the how.

Yeah, because these are people you already have relationships with. You already eat meals together, work on a project together, work in the same workplace, share a household. It’s like okay, so we have some sense of how to work together and we’re linked up on a material level. So let’s build our knowledge together from that. And build relationships that’s based on building that together, and bring other people in.

Amina Shareef Ali is, in any order, a folksinger jerk, a therapist in training, a partner and parent, an enemy of capital and the state, and a flagrant mixed race queer transgirl. She hails from St. Louis and lives in Oakland. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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Kemi on healing intergenerational trauma, culture shift work, and how creativity makes them come alive

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Photo by Ally Almore

What’s your name and how do you identify yourself in the world?

My name is Kemi Alabi. I am a Black, queer, non-binary femme. Child of immigrants — an immigrant father and a mother with lineage in the south. Leo sun, Capricorn rising, Scorpio moon.

How are you doing?

I just saw Black Panther twice within the last twelve hours. Engaging with cultural products that have a rigorous imagination around Black communities thriving is incredibly refreshing. As someone with a Nigerian father and Black American mother, it’s invigorating to engage with something looking at the continent from outside of the colonial gaze — not that that hasn’t had its influence on the film or how it was made. It’s radical to imagine that future and to have it so widely distributed. It’s been an exciting weekend to engage with other Black folks around this imaginative opportunity for us. I’m buzzing from that. The theater was full of Black people who were just living — all dressed up, and the way we’re engaged with these powerful moments felt liberatory. I’m excited for what we can imagine next — healthy, thriving Black communities that exist without centering whiteness or the anti-Black narratives that have been the through line that gets created and distributed in this county.

That’s so good. I first met you seeing you perform your poetry in college. Do you still spend time on poetry?

Yeah, that’s still a huge part of my life. I value cultural space as a place where communities build narrative power for themselves. Culture and politics are so inextricably linked. I’ve been writing beyond college and that’s been really gratifying. I also work for Forward Together. We hold cultural and movement building strategies, and grassroots power-building strategies. Recently I got to work with poets for our Trans Day of Resilience project where we paired poets with a visual artist and together they imagined a future where trans folks of color could thrive. To cultivate imagination is already a radical act, but to be able to have the resources to be able to distribute it as a cultural process that other people are engaging with is something I’m really grateful to be involved with.

I also manage Echoing Ida, a program for Black women and non-binary writers which engages us in the narrative power of journalism like op-eds, reported features, and interviews. Narrative and culture shift is interwoven in my everyday, whether it’s facilitating it through my professional work or doing it myself as a writer.

I’d love to hear you talk more about why that’s where you’ve chosen to put your energy. What is powerful about culture shift work for you and for a broader ‘us’?

We live in a world with material consequences and material inequality. When I was coming up, I thought that to engage with that work was purely about building a very particular type of power to move institutional levers. But especially as someone socialized as a Black girl growing up in Wisconsin with an immigrant father, there’s also a truth to what it means to unlearn these hegemonic ideals that actually create our political space. There’s a clear interplay between our political systems and our cultural ideas. I studied political science and philosophy, and one of the main things I learned is — basically a bunch of white dudes got to write whole worlds into being. They created arguments that justified them and planted seeds of ideas that were taken as truths and built empires. I really believe in the power of ideas. Race, gender, and nation-states are upheld by ideas that are like the air we breathe. So what does it mean to try to re-program what people think is common sense? Where I grew up, trying to untangle what is common sense is not a matter of voter registration and winning an election, it’s a matter of changing the cultural products people are engaging with in the day-to-day. What type of narratives are taught in our schools, what type of narratives are in popular culture? That’s where we get these formative ideas.

There’s this quote at [our alma mater] Boston University’s Howard Thurman Center: “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I’m not an organizer. I have always loved words and writing. I come alive when I’m interacting with narratives, stories, and creative space. Culture shift work is where I get the juice. It’s perhaps less valued as a site for justice work to happen, and seen as less tangible than our political institutions. But once we name what the dominant narratives are, we can then do the work of changing them.

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Photo by Ally Almore

What do you see as your role and work in this political moment?

I ask this question of myself a lot, because who knows. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have the skills I need to make change. I consider myself in the role of student and listener, and trying to figure out what it means to be in community and engage in cultural work. I am in a reflective place with my writing. My role is someone who’s trying to imagine freedom, and use my tools and facilitation skills to get other people to think about and answer that question. I find myself in community with other Black queer artists and writers grappling with the question of what it means to heal ourselves and our communities, and thinking about how to engage with that in our work and create space for one another.

People always talk about self-care and healing as if it’s a side project from the real work. What’s your perspective on how healing fits into movement work?

When I first tried to engage in organizing spaces, I was coming with so much trauma. We’re all working through our traumas. Doing so in interdependent community requires that we show up in a different way. The healing work that I’ve begun I’ve learned from other Black women and femmes I’ve been in movement spaces with. As I was trying to engage with this political work that’s deeply personal, there was no other option. It was like, engage with the hard-as-fuck work of healing… or collapse, and don’t do the work at all.

We as Black queer and trans folks are carrying intergenerational trauma in our bodies and within our families. The work of imagining something else is deeply challenging. I see healing as the gateway. I see it as a facilitative process to be able to engage with our deeply fucked political system in a sustainable way without burning out, giving up, and re-traumatizing one another. To be able to be in right relationship with one another well enough to move forward together requires that we handle our shit.

I’d love to hear about some components of your healing process.

I was raised Baptist christian, in a church that was not affirming, grounding, or engaging in the political world with integrity. I left in righteous anger, but in a way that also estranged me from my own spirit, intuition, and relationship with myself. I’ve been encountering Black folks who engage with more ancestral practices — practices that are less connected with colonization, white supremacy, capitalism, and the enlightenment rational-thought-over-everything-mindset. They’ve introduced me to some altar and ancestor practices that have connected me deeply with my intuition. I have a beautiful hella Black, hella queer tarot deck I pull from — Shrine of the Black Medusa by Casey Rocheteau, a Black queer poet out of Detroit. Whether or not I’m practicing the nuts and bolts of Orishas, Yoruba, and other African spiritual practices, these practices reconnect me with my intuition, my body, and the idea that our emotions are information to be valued and listened to. That has been deeply healing. Spiritual practices that allow me to trust and listen to myself again allow me to better be in community with other people. My practice involves my altar setup, with photos of my family, some artwork, crystals that I engage with, candles, and the deck I mentioned. Because I’m a queerdo, I think about chosen ancestors. As opposed to a blood lineage, I think about lineages of purpose. Whose purposes am I continuing here on this earth and how am I in communication with those folks? I’m a depressed and anxious person. It’s way easier for me to live in this life if I think I’m not figuring this out from scratch, there are so many people who came before me. I’m a continuation of a lineage and a purpose and that’s why I’m here. Every day I ask for an invitation by pulling a card and let it invite a question I can interrogate. Something to guide me through. Meditation has been huge for me. As someone who’s really estranged from my body, the practice of meditating and thinking about my chakras has been wild. In Oakland I started going to East Bay Meditation Center which is a deeply politicized spiritual space. I can’t explain what that space did for me as far as what it healed between my mind and my body and my spirit to be able to engage in a meditation practice.

I noticed you said ‘reconnecting,’ instead of just connecting. What is that in reference to?

It’s in reference to capitalism. We live within a system that relies on estranging our bodies from our minds. Our labor is divorced from ourself because it belongs to someone else. My mom and brothers are still working themselves to death in jobs that aren’t aligned with purpose just to grab some coin and get out of debt. Black folks have no wealth. Blackness was created to exploit the labor of stolen people. The premise of capitalism is estrangement from the self, for the purposes of giving our labor to amass wealth for white people. That estrangement exists in every level of our lives. It exists within the self, within our body, in our minds and spirits. It exists in our relationships with each other and with the earth, because capitalism has informed how we are in relationships of extraction. We’re born into systems that rely on and cultivate that estrangement. I find it necessary to transform those relationships into something that’s more balanced, harmonious, and connected. When I say reconnect, I mean that I believe we’re not creating a brand new future. I think about indigenous peoples and pre-colonized societies. There’s knowledge we have lost rather than knowledge that we’ve never had. These systems are interruptive. The healing we do is a way to return to right relationship as opposed to getting them for the first time. But as someone born into these systems and of my particular background, I cannot exactly know a time when I was connected with my body, intuition, neighbors, or family.

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Photo by Hewan Aberra

What is the world you want to live in?

I think it’s Movement Generation that says the foundation of society is not the individual but the relationship. I think about right relationship a lot. What it really means to be able to name our needs for one another and to meet those needs in community, to really be interdependent with one another. Not extracting from one another but figuring out what that sustainable relationship is with one another and ourselves, what it means to live and thrive on this earth. People have different answers but I think it’s a matter of developing all the resources that we need to manifest these lives of dignity and purpose. What does it mean to reimagine a city, or any community where what is produced is shared with all its community members? The first step is cultivating imagination and trust. You can’t just dismantle capitalism and expect everyone to know where to go. We’re estranged from what we actually want and need from life and from one another.

I can’t name what the world should look like. But I know that it takes building completely different types of relationships with one another and being able to meet each others’ needs without these hierarchal goal systems that extract whatever skills and labor we have and move it somewhere else. If we had already imagined a system that vibed with everyone, there’d be a train there by now, but that’s part of the problem, right? We’re waging these wars where the opposition already has a very clear image of what they want the world to look like, because it’s what the world looks like now. One of the huge barriers to victory for any type of movement for justice is not being able to present a shared vision of what another world looks like. Right now, people are in deeply imagining spaces so that folks can invite more people in to movement work by presenting real valuable alternatives. It’s in process. I’m excited to see what those are and what they can be.

Our imaginations are battlegrounds. We cede so much imagination to those who keep power from us. If you look at literature of people who have lived under fascism and study how language and certain cultural products are disseminated under particular types of governments, it’s always been very much in the interest of power to control ideas of people. That shit really works. If you can’t imagine it, you can’t fight for it, and you can’t build it. Our imaginations have always been under siege in a very particular way.

I’d love to hear what you see in your life as the supports and resources for you being in this work, and what are the things that feel like barriers or limitations for you to be in this work in a sustainable way?

It’s hard to say everything I’m saying about radical imagination when folks don’t have money. I have a family with debt and histories of incarceration and addiction. I’m in a relative position of access to capital and resources and sometimes think I just gotta hustle to provide for my folks and to be a stabilizing force — you know, participate in capitalism, hoard resources, and be on my Black capitalist tip. There are immediate material needs to be met. The reality, stress, confusion, and deeply depressing parts of that feel like the biggest limiting factor.

Engaging with all of the horrors of this world is really overwhelming. I don’t necessarily have the constitution. I just moved to Chicago, where I’m not really in community with folks in the way I imagine as liberatory. It’s community that I’m working on building and I’m excited to plug in. But to be without a sense of place and interdependence means the work I want to engage with is largely theoretical at this point. But all of the amazing Black writers and artists who I’ve connected with here are engaging with invaluable ideas and narrative shifts. Everyone has been bringing up the idea of darkness. I just met up with a new writer friend of mine, R.L. Watson, who does visual art and writes fiction, poetry, and plays. She’s thinking about the reframe of darkness — away from the binary opposition to white and to light, which serves a clear purpose within our society. So many people are on a similar wavelength creatively. We’re all feeling this juju. Thinking about the visibility of Black poetry and Black art in general over the last few years, I don’t want to jinx it by calling it a renaissance, but we’re in a cultural moment that feels significant. Connecting with people who are exploring similar ideas of Black liberation in their work feels sustaining to me. To be riding similar wavelengths with other Black artists locally and figuring out ways that we can work together and build work off of one another as opposed to working separately feels really sustaining to me. Then through Forward Together to be able to combine culture shift projects with movement building, and bring this narrative and culture shift work to organizations around the country feels powerful. The barriers are trying to hold on to how much I value culture shift work, and being bombarded with the immediate material needs of myself, my family, and the people around me.

I don’t know if you listened to the episode of [adrienne maree brown and Autumn Brown’s podcast] “How to Survive the End of the World,” when one of the sisters describes something as her darkest moment and corrects herself to instead call it her palest moment.

No, I didn’t, that’s amazing!

It’s such a simple reframe, but also very powerful.

The artist I was talking with this morning is R.L. Watson. She’s getting her phD in literature and engaging with the history of lynching and the white imagination of Black people. She’s engaging with old racist texts for her research, and was struck by how horrifically simple the idea of anti-Black racism is. White identity formation is based on the othering and imagined evil of people with dark skin. Distinct European folks created a shared identity that gave them the numbers to have power, which has persisted and is integrated into all of our culture. She was struck. She was like, this is a stupid text, the prose was awful, but it’s a very simple, powerful idea. The systems that are oppressing us are built on these simple but powerful ideas. It can be dumbfounding to figure out how to meaningfully engage in the realm of ideas, but when you get down to it, they’re powerful, small, stupid, simple ideas we’re waging a battle against. I’m excited that some seeds of it, like this idea of darkness, are being turned over. I’m excited to see what other levers can be simultaneously pushed by writers, artists, and cultural makers as we untangle white supremacy together. White supremacy is such a simple, terrible idea.

It’s so interesting to think about something being simultaneously so fragile and simple, and also so insidious and empowered by its proliferation.

Absolutely. I was really empowered by Toni Morrison, who’s a great writer and thinker, published an essay called Mourning for Whiteness. It did a very simple thing for me, but it was huge. It took power away from whiteness by not framing our current political moment as a moment of white empowerment, but as the last throes of empire. More specifically, she was mourning the humanity of white people — seeing this political moment as a clear sign of humanity lost and estranged from an entire people. That idea was to relocate power elsewhere and not in necessarily who is owning and exercising power through political systems, but who is in right relationship with their humanity. This lightning-shocked me. Narrative shifts that resonate with people are important for being able to locate power in oneself and one’s community. Everyone should read that essay.

That perspective is so true, but it takes so much compassion to acknowledge that what’s really under all the violence and oppression of white supremacy is the disconnection and loss of humanity. Of course compassion is not in contradiction to righteous anger, but ultimately it’s gonna be more sustainable, right?

Right, and that’s what I think about — what is sustainable? What is an empowering narrative? I’m all about some righteous anger. But also it’s really important to relocate power in other ways.

Who are the other artists, writers, and works who are inspiring and guiding you right now?

I mentioned my chosen ancestors. I’m also trying to discover who my poetic elders are. I’m in community with so many Black writers and poets; I’m getting so much from so many people. Whether it’s the greats like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin or contemporary poets like Danez Smith, whose latest connection was Don’t Call Us Dead, which was about the idea that the death of murdered Black boys is not a spiritual death — that there is more freedom in death, a life and joy beyond. So transformative. Black artists have engaged with this idea for a long time, even in popular culture. In Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar’s “Never Catch Me”  music video directed by Hiro Murai, we see a funeral for two children. As soon as the song kicks up, the children rise from their caskets and start dancing. No one in the pews notices — they still see dead children — but we as the audience see them dance out of the pews with this ridiculous amount of joy. They leave the funeral parlor, jump into the back of a hearse, and drive the hearse down the street with all of these kids running after it.

For Black Futures Month, Black Lives Matter paired artists with writers to imagine liberated Black futures. We’re in a cultural moment where we’re imagining Black joy and freedom throughout a lot of different disciplines. It’s not new. Black artists have always been doing that interrogation and that reaching beyond. I’m only engaging with work by Black artists because I’m trying to be in that particular space of imagination. I’m very excited to then engage with other writers of color and indigenous writers who are doing that work. But I’m finding it really important for me to locate that within Black folks first.

Is anything else coming up for you in the course of this conversation?

I’m just a person who’s trying to live with integrity and a sense of freedom in a deeply unfree place. I’m so in process, and I’ve been in a space of trying to be deeply compassionate with myself as I figure out how to show up in movement and organizing spaces. Especially as someone who’s just moved to a new city, I find myself in a point of deep transition. I’m like, what work am I doing, what is actually happening? I am just a person who is asking a lot of questions and figuring out how I can best be in service of people around me and of the communities I come from. That service might look different a few months or a year or decades from now, and hopefully it does. As I keep gaining skills and knowledge, and engaging with different people in different communities, I’ll find that I have the skills to fill the different needs that arise. But who knows what I’m doing now. Just trying to figure out how to thrive.

Kemi Alabi is a writer, editor and teaching artist from Wisconsin. Their poetry and essays live in The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic, The Guardian, TEDx, Catapult, Apogee Journal, Winter Tangerine, BOAAT, Nat. Brut and elsewhere. As editorial manager of Forward Together, they hold down Echoing Ida, a home for Black women and nonbinary writers. They’re also a poetry reader for Muzzle Magazine. Kemi lives in Chicago and believes in Black queer futures. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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Photo by Mika Munoz

Adrienne on trans superheroes, creating a rock opera, & the power of community

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Photo by Baruch Porras-Hernandez

What’s your name and how do you identify yourself in the world?

My name is Adrienne Price. I identify myself as a trans woman artist-activist.

How are you doing?

In this moment, I feel a sense of relaxation and joy, which is in a sea of anxiety, fear, and worry that a lot of us are dealing with right now.

What do you mean when you say a lot of us are dealing with that right now?

We’re living through a time that feels more unpredictable than a lot of us have experienced in our lifetimes, which is related to the current administration but is more complex than that. Because of technology and media we are so aware of so much going on in the world. That can lead to a sense of desire to change things but also a feeling of helplessness that we could never fix all the things that need to be fixed. That leads to this anxiety, this perpetual state of worry about the world and how we’re going to survive it.

That’s well put. Because I know you and you’re my friend, I know you do a lot of creative and interesting pursuits, even when you’re dealing with anxiety and fear. Can you share about what you’re doing right now in response to some of those feelings?

The big project I’m working on right now is The Red Shades, a rock opera about trans superheroes. It comes from a deep part of me — a need for healing and for connection to histories of resistance. It’s set in the sixties and draws on histories of resistance in trans communities in New York and San Francisco. It shows the ways our ancestors resisted and pushed back against transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny in moments where that felt almost impossible. The odds were stacked against them, yet they managed not only to survive but to prevail and create social change that ripples out to the present day. I’m so inspired by getting to learn about those stories. It takes very little exaggeration to turns trans history into a superhero story.

Red Shades Black Revised.jpgThat sounds like an amazing project. How did you choose that format and what was your process for getting started?

It came about accidentally. I started unwittingly working on it when I had to commute a lot for a job I didn’t particularly like. I passed the time by writing songs and recording them on my phone. At some point they started to take on a narrative. I started to realize I was trying to tell a story and then I started to shape it.

At first I was trying to tell stories inspired by my experiences. What grew was a desire to project outward and to imagine different possibilities for rebellion and justice. The first act is a fictionalized connection to my own experiences, coming from a place of reckoning with my past. The second and third act are based on the history of resistance and communities that came together. That’s a dream for me — how I wish things could be and in some ways how they are since I’ve come out and claimed my identity. The Red Shades is a long process that’s still coming together. The seeds of it are looking at my personal story, connecting it to history, and then imagining a triumphant movement or triumphant building of power.

Thats a lot to encompass. Where are you in the process now?

I’ve written the first act and I’m working on the second. I’ve written 14 or 15 songs and am getting a band together. Instead of having a traditional reading like a play often has, we’re gonna have a concert so people can hear the music and give feedback. That’s the next step. I’m applying to a residency this summer to develop the project more and stage it out and see what happens. There’s a lot of pieces up in the air but it feels good that there’s a lot of excitement generated around it.

Could you share something you’ve learned about queer and trans histories of resistance that stands out to you as particularly important?

Miss Major Griffin Lacy is a person who is endlessly inspiring and incredible. She is a Black transwoman who participated in the Stonewall Riots, then was imprisoned essentially for being trans. She served time at Attica State Prison, where she was radicalized and was part of the Attica State uprising. Then she did activism during the AIDS era of the late 80’s and 90’s. Miss Major continues to be an activist and outspoken advocate for the community. I saw the documentary about her, Major!, that came out a year ago or so. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her speak a couple times and once I got to perform stand up comedy in front of her at a queer open mic which was one of the greatest nights of my life, no exaggeration.

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Adrienne & Miss Major

Was she laughing?

She was laughing, she liked it! I went up to her after the show and got a picture and thanked her for everything that she’s done. It was so incredible to get that connection to a living legend. I was drawn to learning about those histories even before I knew I was writing about them. To learn her story and then to meet her and see she’s a real person who’s lived the most incredible life, a life where just to have survived everything that she’s survived is extraordinary, let alone to be a leader and change what we think of as trans rights or trans liberation movement, would never have existed without her. I’m endlessly amazed by Miss Major.

It’s so wonderful you were able to meet someone who is not just a hero to you and so many in your community, and that it helped to inspire your work. Once the rock opera comes to fruition, what do you hope people get from it?

The primary audience is trans folks and queer folks, and queer and trans folks of color. What I hope that they get out of it is a sense of what is possible through the power of community. Not in a corny way but in the reality that change occurs because of people coming together and getting fed up and saying hell no, we aren’t gonna keep living like this. If you get enough people together, there’s so much that you can do. That story seems really important right now in a time where people are feeling really stuck and demoralized — to be reminded that there have been times in our history where people have felt stuck and demoralized and that’s when the most change has happened.

What do you think is the possibility of the power of community today?

There’s so much potential for people to come together and say, hell no, we’re not gonna live like this, and we can do better than this. Capitalism has been able to sustain itself partly because it controls people’s imaginations of what’s possible. People think this is the best we can do, so we might as well make do with what we have. But once you cut that cord and allow yourself to imagine what could be better than this… so many things could be better than this! You can start to talk to other people who feel that way and dream up new possibilities for every aspect of our existence. From the food we eat to the way we communicate to the way that we resolve conflict to the way that we create our environment. Every single aspect of our world can be changed and be made better. We’ve just gotta pick something and find other people who care about that. I believe that’s when the change can come.

What do you see as your role or work in helping be a part of that change?

I see myself doing a lot of the imagination work, to help people realize what change is possible. That’s one thing that art can do particularly well. I think I’m also humble in the sense that there’s so many things that I want to change and so many things I want to be involved with, but I’m still learning and growing and figuring out the best ways for me to plug in. I keep thinking about this activist group of queer artists in the 90’s called Gran FuryTheir motto was “art is not enough.” I want to balance the importance of the imagination work and artwork with recognizing I have to push in other ways for justice. I’m figuring out what those ways are.

What in your life supports the work that you’re doing and where does it feel like your needs aren’t getting met in terms of support?

Thinking about the rock opera in particular, there’s a lot of people who want to help out and want to see it come to fruition. Part of the growing pains for me is learning how to coordinate and harness people’s’ energy in a way that’s productive. I’m really grateful that people care about the work I’m doing. But I want to make sure that I’m getting help organizing things in a way that allow the process to be truly collaborative and not just plugging people in in a way that just replicates capitalism.

21687433_614856168684640_2274018330630126536_nWhat about on a personal level? You mentioned being in a space of some fear and anxiety. How does that play into what you are or aren’t able to take on in a given moment?

I am always in a constant state of flux. In my emotional world, I have moments of high energy, excitement, creativity, and production, followed by periods of static, withdrawal, stepping back, and taking care of myself. It’s a constant balancing act. It’s why I’m drawn to doing as much work as possible on my own so that I can allow myself to go through those natural rhythms rather than having someone hovering over me expecting me to produce a certain amount and follow a timetable that doesn’t make sense for me.

One of the biggest things for me right now is learning to be gentle with myself — take breaks when I need to, focus on healing when I need to. Make decisions based on what’s best for me rather than on some sense of obligation. That’s what I try to do as much as possible. My friends are important to me. Being surrounded by queer and trans community is important to me which is why I live in Oakland. I have therapy which is supportive. Meditation and spirituality can be supportive.

What does spirituality look like for you?

Spirituality is something that weaves through my life in a way that is not really possible to separate it out from anything I do. Mindfulness and meditation have been important ways of trying to connect with the present moment and connect with what’s going on personally with me. Spiritual community can be valuable. I have been a part of the East Bay Meditation Center since I moved to Oakland a couple of years ago. I’m also involved in Jewish community with the Kehillah synagogue. I’m still trying to put together the pieces of my whole belief system but mostly it revolves around how I make sense of the world and how I survive day to day — the spiritual forces I can call upon to help me.

Since you see yourself as part of the imagination of building a better world, I’d love to hear a picture of what you imagine for the world you want to live in.

One of the things that breaks my heart most about capitalism and neoliberalism is our alienation and estrangement from one another. It makes me sad moving through the world feeling like I’m surrounded by people I have no connection to. I want to live in a world where I care and know about the people I live with and around, and that we have relationships where we can support each other and work together to build community. I would like for us to live in harmony with the natural environment and see ourselves as a part of it rather than as a distinct outlier that rules over everything. I imagine a world full of joy and laughter and fun, the pleasure of being present and being together, where people can truly heal from oppression. I want the elimination of social class hierarchies, just seeing that we’re all just people. It’s corny but there’s no need for hierarchies when we care about the people around us. It’s heartbreaking the way our world creates false divisions and pits us against each other.

In this dreamy world where we’ve ended oppression and we are connected, what do you imagine could be your role in community?

I would want to be doing a lot of the same things I’m doing now in terms of using art as a form of healing. I imagine there’ll be a lot of different work to be done. I’m open to learning about how I can best fulfill the needs of the community.

What are the other forms of art you do?

I am a stand up comic, I play music, I have just started puppetry. I’ve written screenplays and have worked on films before — a lot of theater, storytelling, and work in the music genre.

Why do you think storytelling and these different forms of art are important?

Because people tell me that they are. I’ve definitely done plenty of projects that didn’t move people, so I tried to move away from those kinds of works. Different art works in different ways. Comedy is a funny slippery creature. It can be healing for people to let themselves revel in the absurdity of the world we live in and find the frictions and false realities that we all inhabit. What I do with comedy make a mockery of what seems to be solid, objective truth, but which is really just a bunch of bullshit.

Do you have any favorite jokes you’re telling recently?

When I moved to the Bay Area I discovered this phenomenon of white women apologizing for doing yoga. It’s usually cis white women who feel conflicted about being appropriative by doing yoga or doing something very bourgeois, but feeling a need to integrate it into their self care. Part of comedy is getting people to chill out about things which seem very weighted and intense but really are kind of ridiculous. To not take anything so seriously, both the big scary things, and oneself.

What art inspires you? What are you into these days in that realm?

There’s this amazing thing through SF Moma where you can text a word or a phrase and they’ll text you back an image from their collection that captures what you’re talking about. One day I texted ‘queer rage’ to that number and they texted back work by Jerome Caja, an early 90’s queercore performance and visual artist, a fuckin’ badass who dealt a lot with the hypocrisy of religion and how their Catholic upbringing had been oppressive and absurd. It was exciting to learn more about that artist.

As I’m researching more about rock operas I’ve come across some exciting gems. There’s a concept album considered a rock opera called “SF Sorrow” by The Pretty Things, which predated and helped pave the way for Tommy. There’s a hip hop opera concept album called “Tricks of the Shade” by the band the Goats, which is brilliant, politically insightful and super sharp. Those have both been sources of inspiration even though they are lesser known works that didn’t get their due.

I’m always trying to keep my eyes open to local shows and theater. I recently saw a series of short plays at Z Space Theater. One of them took place in the bathroom of the theater; we were all in there together. It was about a gay meeting in a Russian public toilet and interweaved the histories of homophobic state oppression in Russia. It made me realize how much can be done in small confined spaces with few resources. I just happened to be there the one day it was performed. There’s little exciting things happening all over the place.

Are there other things in having this conversation you feel like sharing?

I am at such a fluid stage in my life. I’m still exploring and so whatever we have talked about today may be completely different from the way I feel in a week from now. Not completely but I might have different priorities or things I care about. I guess that’s part of being human.

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Adrienne invites you to attend the first musical showcase for The Red Shades, her trans superhero rock opera on December 6th at El Rio in San Francisco. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in