“When we at KPI started this multi-month journey of protesting in place, we were in pandemic lockdown. Our primary thoughts connected social-distancing/physical isolation with remaining active and engaged in our families, community and world. With the spread of contagion surrounding us, constricting our movements, we had to think differently to care for ourselves and others as the virus continues to rage. Just as the virus has not become safer despite vaccines to it being developed, neither has our body politic become safer post-2020 elections. What does “activism” mean in this new context?
One of the noteworthy elements of this transitional period has been the funhouse mirror effect of what it means to be active today. As terrorist white supremacists endanger our democracy physically, they also endanger our perspectival moral core through the appropriation of the language of liberation.
It was ever thus. Our commitment to freedom of speech allows for dissenting even horrifying opinions that frighten. The particular sense of entitlement of white supremacist behavior in word and deed also means the acquisition and appropriation of people, places, landmarks, and ideas that are meaningful to those of us who believe in liberty and justice for all. Just recently the anti-government extremists have attempted to appropriate a Black woman rallying cry: #SayHerName. This hashtag and assertion was inspired by the racist murder of Sandra Bland and other Black women, including trans women, who did not initially receive the same attention as our fallen brothers. There are many examples of the contorted use of language and meaning by the oppressors that have stolen the articulated sentiments of the oppressed.
A variant of this “double-speak” is the immature “I know you are but what am I?” approach to being called out on dangerous hateful principles. Another dystopian approach is to say “I thought you wanted to appeal to our better angels? To unite? To heal?” as if our expression of what is actually occurring, what is dangerous, is the problem that is holding us all back. Identifying someone as racist/white supremacist/sexist/transphobic/hateful/treacherous leads to violent insurrections and then hearing the same exact words back by those causing mahem. How does one grapple with these twists of words and phrases, remaining actively engaged?
As lovers of language we humbly suggest a couple of approaches: Firstly we present our connections to those who believe and actively live their lives for freedom. On this website, we have asked ourselves throughout our presentations of our sisters in action: whom do we owe? What is our activist lineage? How do these women make the world a better place? How have we picked up their baton as they continue to hold it, and us, up? We are specific in whom we are naming, particular with what they have done so there’s no equivocation about what movement we are a part of, what activism we adhere to, whom we love and who loves us.
For those who regurgitate our, admittedly great, anthems, ideas and phrases we must simply assert our agency among ourselves. It can be a timeline, a direct connection, an affirmation. We give credit where credit is due. We are specific in how we are inspired and reference people, movements, places in particular. One thing we cannot continue to do is mollycoddle those who hate our assertion of freedom. We don’t need to keep “understanding” the enemies of democracy. They have made their positions, hatred and violent actions abundantly clear.
We work with those of goodwill, whether they agree with us all the time or not, to make a better world as best we can. A world of lovingkindness, care and dignity for those who believe in, and act upon, these principles.
In the first few days of this month we’ve looked with sorrow at the vulnerability of our democratic republic. The harm that has come to the brave. There are many of us who have, for years, raised alarm bells about these same forces being out of control when they attacked the most vulnerable of us. In discussions we have wondered what to do with our anger and bitter disappointment. We’re activists at something at a loss during the stunning events on January 6th. We know that toughness with joy and hope moves us forward. Where do we find it after so many horrors including the deaths because of COVID and how it has upended life as we know it? It’s perfectly reasonable to feel anger and even betrayal. Pandora’s box has been opened and everything is on full display. Persephone-Kore, in the guise of Lady Liberty, now *knows* what hell is like.
What we’ve considered is this: We will continue to be active, kind, caring, serious and determined. We will continue to make work in, of, and for ourselves and the world we want to see. We will leave it to the good and earnest professionals whose job it is deal with real and imminent danger to their work now that every level of the threat is laid bare. When it is appropriate, we will rely on our friends and neighbors to disassociate with, and identify, those who would destroy this world. We will continue to look out for each other.
Being based in Arizona we can say, this isn’t our first time at the rodeo even though these particular struggles are unique to these times. Black women know aspects of, even the roots of many societal, economic and political disappointments well. We, inspired by people like the brilliant Stacey Abrams, our new VP Kamala Harris and many, many unnamed activists both inside and outside of conventional structures, will say and do what we mean. Artists generate the sense and feeling of a time, through artistry that is at once timeless and of the moment. We will continue to present examples of this, and our brash, hopeful, compassionate, unmitigated power through these pages and posts.”
—Tracie Morris, January 2021
In this excerpt from a 2018 interview with Aisha Sabatini Sloan at KXCI Community Radio in Tucson, Tisa Bryant talks about her pedagogical process and focus. She describes her perspective, how to encourage students to discover their voices as writers as they seek to “stir things up.” She tries to encourage this by connecting them to a diversity of traditions without limiting or canonizing only certain work of the “avant-garde,”
“. . . [Aisha Sabatini Sloan] You talk about how when you work as a teacher you hope to create “radical little monsters.” You also quote Michele Cliff talking about the idea that people of color have more access to their dream lives and this idea of being untrained, so I’m just wondering how it is you approach pedagogy with this idea of “untraining” and “little monsters”.
[Tisa Bryant] I should credit Ophelia Cuevas. I stole that from her. I just loved when she said that was part of — that was her job, you know, as a professor: to make radical little monsters and to kind of have people go out into the world and do some shit. Politically, aesthetically, culturally, spiritually, you know, make some trouble. Make some change. And what Michelle Cliff says about people of color having access, more access to a dream life, I like the conceit of that. But then, you know, the dream trope is also one that kind of sticks in the African diaspora that there is this, you know, yearning and desire and longing to be free. Totally free. Like completely totally and utterly free. Unfettered. So in the classroom, I am very cautious not to position these lineages of experimentation and the avant-garde as the only foundation. Like, I’m not interested in replicating canonization for experimental writing, which is already happening. So I’m very keen to get students to find ways to, one, allow themselves to do what is intuitive for them, to do with language and to allow their content to let them find new forms of writing or to let the writing take shape however it’s going to take shape and to try to name the processes if they can, which is really hard to do. That they should understand and know all of these strategies that other writers have used, that they’re making space for themselves as well. To be in conversation and not just replication. So that’s where to begin. Yeah.”
In this excerpt Octavia Butler’s protagonist gets information about her family and the world, through a post-humous letter. In it, she prioritizes sensed, observable experience over cogitation, as if to say, “live it” don’t just think about it. It is in the experiencing of life that one creates it. She seems to say to the character Sib, and to us, “being is built on a ladder of little truths.”
“For over a century, what I’ve written has, within certain, specific limits, come true.
I’m not a seer. I don’t foresee the future. I create the future.”
“If you are reading this, then I must have been careless enough to let myself (to)
get killed (sic).”
“I’ve left this letter to you to help you understand what you will inherit from me.
What Miss Barbara gave me, I give to you….I said she wrote truth and she taught
me to write truth. ‘Taught’ wasn’t quite the right word. In that big, crooked, left-handed
writing of hers, she wrote that whatever I wrote would be true. […]
“That’s what she said. That’s what I say too. It’s not always what I did, but it’s
always the right thing to do. At least, start small. Feel your way.
“What you write will be true Sib. It won’t just show up in a puff of smoke like on
some of those television shows about magic.”
“Think. Never write without thinking. First think about what you want to
happen, and about how it might happen. Then think about what else might happen.
Something else will always happen. That’s why you should only do small things. You
can keep control better, writing a long ladder of little truths.”
—from “Mortal Words” by Octavia Butler
This is an excerpt from Octavia Butler’s previously unpublished work in Erica Hunt’s Prologue to Letters to the Future, page 13. (“Mortal Words.” Fragment. MSS. OEB 1496. (2000) The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA. This excerpt is from an unfinished novel, comprised of twelve fragments and fifty-one pages. Written in epistolary form, the story concerns an inheritance, the power to write truth, to write reality into being, which is passed down, over hundreds of years through a line of Black women.).
Excerpt from Erica Hunt’s Prologue:
“In one of those incidents we label “serendipity,” where current event is prefigured by past imagination, we were fortunate to encounter Octavia Butler’s “Mortal Words,” cited above.
Retrieved by Tisa Bryant for this anthology from the Octavia Butler archive at the Huntington Library, the excerpt opens with a first-person narrator, Sibyl, who tells how she received the “gift” of writing the “future.” Her name, Sibyl, is a fitting reference to the group of women (always, women, it seems) with the gift of prophecy, and collected their writings—warnings, solutions, riddles—about the future into books.
In one account of the legend, a Sibyl of Cumaea had nine books relating events to come that she offered to sell to King Tarquin of Rome. He thinks the price too high, so Sibyl burns three of the books, offers the remaining volumes, and is refused again, so she burns another three, until he consents to buy the remaining prophetic volumes.
In Butler’s “Mortal Words,” Sibyl is the only child of a Black woman who runs a boarding house, and Francine Cooper is their mysterious boarder. Cooper dies seemingly penniless, and alone, leaving only a final letter bequeathing Sibyl the gift of writing and prophecy.
In this unfinished story, Butler demonstrates the extraordinary unboundedness of her imagination that suggests writing into the lived future tense might involve writing a “ladder of small truths,” from which we hazard a claim to the future, and against foreclosure into a single trope of being.
Butler is one of the most significant writers of speculative fiction in the 20th century precisely because she deploys the story telling mode with an unfettered license to cross borders of time and space to critically consider issues of “difference:” race, gender, power and history, even species. Her bold prognostications have given rise to a generation of writers, theorists, visual artists and activists, who see in her ”what ifs” a Black future tense, and generative ground for their own writing and politics. Feminist god-parent to a host of Black science fiction writers, Tannarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, and other, Black Lives Matters activists, visual and digital artists, Butler’s writing inspires many paths to “visionary literature” to “unstick the imagination.”2
For this collection, Butler’s “Mortal Words” invokes the inherent agency of writing, to render and frame what we know now, a present truth, and make it a palpable, plausible plenum, legible to readers now and in the future, the waiting sibyls, who we have not yet met until we write her in.”
In this excerpt from The Putterer’s Notebook, Akilah Oliver conflates activism and performance. Here the activist performer is aware, accepting that she is seeing and is being seen.
“Then I command the stage again, as embodied activism this time a gone time from a before then if so therefore without pretense nothing or used, this phrase, this constituent, this color lily I’ve ever seen before, a calculated blue
I as navigator fail her petrochemical beauty on both sides of the threshold a light, a city, an artifice in relation to other species failing always as if waiting were choice or desire, a badge to wear, to dress up in, to spit out again I, a result of my own resistance
As in, what happens to a community, when centers of culture dissipate? Penny Lane is in my head. J is in India, I’m dreaming next to S. S is dreaming inside water, F is on an airplane, T is figuring it out today, how to blow this town’s curse, V’s getting nervous, I’m telling you stories Stories more lush than when I was undead. [the best way to leave] to drive out without goodbye
copyright © Akilah Oliver estate.
In this excerpt, Khadijah Queen tries to negotiate the “double consciousness” of being an artist and the bone-weariness of experiencing in life and virtually, the ongoing murders of unarmed young Black men by police.
“So at first I wanted to make another video and I thought I could do it on the weekend or after work but motherhood and overtime and then I got to image-hunting and name-searching and each name led to another name and another name and another another another and I wept Again then I got angry Again and I got my fancy microphone to read June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights” and played with filters in Garage Band and thought about going for a walk in the almost dark and having my teenager film me in a flowered dress and sun hat walking barefoot by the creek and grazing summer sunflowers with my fingertips like in a wistful movie intro or tampon commercial but then I get up and I hurt everywhere my body aches I feel heavy and as the sun goes down I realize I don’t have time to make the kind of video I want to make because I have to get up at 5:30am to start work and I want to not feel this pain everywhere and I want to not be so tired I can’t move but fibromyalgia exists and even though it reminds me of grief what does any of this whining have to do with Michael Brown when my beautiful brown boy is laughing in the room down the hall eating caramel gelato and not cleaning his room and I want to not think about my dead brother every time the police kill another of us and then get to pose in front of flags and lie to the cameras like the truth don’t keep in blood and keep their guns and keep their public salaries and keep killing the people we love and when I think that I cry Again because I want to not cry because I actually hate crying because none of my tears can offer resurrection none of my poems can offer resurrection none of my image searches can offer resurrection and I want us to stay alive”
copyright © Khadijah Queen.
In this list poem, framed as a questionnaire, Shockley shows us that there are no “right” answers to how one reacts and interacts in a racist society, even if one is a just small young girl. Evie Shockley
“What’s Not to Liken?
the 14-year-old girl was treated like:
(a) a grown woman.
(b) a grown man.
the bikini-clad girl was handled by the cop like:
(a) a prostitute.
(b) a prostitute by her pimp.
the girl was slung to the ground like:
(a) a sack of garbage into a dumpster.
(b) somebody had something to prove.
the girl’s braids flew around her head like:
(a) helicopter blades.
(b) she’d been slapped.
the black girl was pinned to the ground like:
(a) an amateur wrestler in a professional fight.
(b) swimming in a private pool is a threat to national security.
the girl’s cries sounded like:
(a) the shrieks of children on a playground.
(b) the shrieks of children being torn from their mothers.
the protesting girl was shackled like:
(a) a criminal.
(b) a runaway slave.
liken it or not
—mckinney, texas, june 2015″
copyright © Evie Shockley.
ACTIVISM is part of KPI’s small experiments of radical intent series: Postcards to the Future: Protest in Place that began during the BLM protests while on pandemic lock down in summer 2020. The series runs through August 2021 and focuses on the voices in Letters to the Future: Black Women / Radical Writing, with the intent to uplift and celebrate Black women’s voices. You can navigate through the series by following the tag Postcards, at left, and by clicking on the icons below for each unit.