We reflect on the role of art and cultural strategy in movement building, and how imagining creative processes outside the dominant narratives supports intersectional and vibrant social justice movements, which allow us to be free!
The absence of headlines in mainstream media about violence against trans people, as well as their lived experiences, has challenged both Micah Bazant and Kemi Alabi to follow in the footsteps of their trailblazing elders, who remind us of our transcendent power and brilliance as Black, Indigenous, Queer, trans + gender non-conforming people. They have learned how to integrate a model of collaborative and solidarity practice, which honors the lives of our trans and Queer family.
We will also learn about the Trans Day of Resilience, hosted by Forward Together, and how you can support the fight for LGBTQ+ liberation with two incredible artists working with folks on the ground.
Saludos and welcome to When We Fight, We Win! My name is Dey Hernández.
And I’m Greg Jobin-Leeds. This episode is really special, not just for the amazing people that we are interviewing, but also for my cohost Dey Hernández. This is her debut as our producer. She’s doing it with Osvaldo Budet, who’s in Australia and they’re co-producing this during the 2020 COVID pandemic. And so it’s being recorded across continent.
In today’s episode, Dey Hernández interviews Micah Bazant and Kemi Alabi. Micah is a trans visual artist who works with social justice movements to reimagine the world and create art inspired by struggles to decolonize ourselves from white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, and the gender binary. Kemi Alabi is a writer that believes in the world-shifting power of words and the radical imaginations of Black, Queer and Trans people. Micah and Kemi, both work with the organization Forward Together, building political power with cultural workers of color through programs like the Trans Day of Resilience Art Project.
This project brings together artists and organizers to celebrate and honor those in the fight for trans liberation. Trans Day of Resilience was founded with the Audre Lorde Project. There’s an annual cultural shift campaign to reimagine the transgender day of remembrance, memorializing people, primarily trans women of color, who are killed by violence in which they have been targeted.
In 2015, I directed and curated the art of When We Fight We Win! as a resident artist of AgitArte. In the creation of the book, I had the honor of getting deeper into the creative journeys of incredible artists across the US working in the fight to win. My intention was to both introduce the readership to visionary artists who are accountable to their community and to acknowledge the labor that goes into culture making. I specifically selected the artists committed to lifting up these counter narratives in their communities in ways that prove transformative. And that’s how I ended up highlighting Micah’s work.
On page seven of the first chapter of the book, “Reclaiming Wholeness: The LGBTQ Movement,” there’s this striking portrait of a beautiful black woman, adorned with a headdress of bright, multicolor flowers set against an azure blue background. It’s almost impossible not to get drawn into this charismatic and joyful portrait. The story behind it is one of pain, insistent struggle, and the fearless fight of a lifetime for queer love and trans liberation.
Chapter one: The Pain.
Marsha P. Johnson is remembered as an activist and free spirit, with flowers or Christmas lights in her hair and said to be one of the first rioters at Stonewall in 1969. Before the term transgender entered the lexicon, Marsha called herself a transvestite or a drag queen.
Marsha P. Johnson (archival)
When I became a drag queen, I started to live my life as a woman.
During her life, she and other trans activist struggled to be fully accepted in the gay community, which often excluded trans people. Marsha was often homeless, supporting herself through sex work and repeatedly arrested, but she attracted many friends to help her. Her fellow activist once saw Marsha asleep under a table of lilies at a flower shop. The employees welcomed her because they thought she was holy. She was well known in New York’s Greenwich Village, where she became an icon after the Stonewall riots.
Marsha P. Johnson (archival)
I was one of the first girls ever to come in drag to Stonewall. 1969 when the Stonewall riots started, that’s when I started my rioting.
As one story recounts, during the riots, Marsha threw a shot glass into a mirror at the bar after police entered, shouting, “I got my civil rights.” Marsha was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, and she formed STAR in 1970 with Sylvia Rivera, a transgender woman and activist. It was revolutionary in its direct support for the trans community.
Marsha died in 1992 at the age of 46. At the time, police said she’d taken her own life, a claim friends disputed.
Female voice (archival)
I mean, it’s hard for me to believe that she would commit suicide.
The case was reopened in 2012 as a possible homicide. Like Marsha, trans women continued to suffer from longstanding discrimination and violence. Her legacy reflects the ongoing struggle for transgender people to be safe and receive equal rights.
Marsha P. Johnson (archival)
People don’t realize that we’re all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race.
The animatic woman staring out of the blue, is a portrait of Marsha P. Johnson illustrated by Micah Bazant. The text scrawled on her blouse reads, “Marsha ‘Pay it No Mind’ Johnson,” who was the mother of the trans and queer liberation movement. She dedicated her life to helping trans youth, sex workers and poor and incarcerated Queers. We honor her legacy by supporting trans women of color to live and lead.
The words, “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us,” written by Micah, not only express their rage at the white supremacist corporate appropriation of Pride celebrations, but in fact are a testament that there would be no Pride if it weren’t for the efforts of Black trans LGBTQ movement activists.
Gender self-determination is a fundamental to dismantling colonialism and white supremacy. We had the honor of listening to the intertwined stories of two incredible souls, Micah and Kemi, who are continuing Marsha’s legacy of creating a shifted culture for trans and queer liberation. Here’s Micah sharing a bit about themselves.
So I am a child of people who survived and did not survive the Nazi Holocaust. My father was born in Warsaw in ’37 and grew up in hiding in Nazi-occupied Europe, and was a refugee kid to Australia when he was a teenager. And my mother’s family also came, you know, were refugees. There was so much cultural change within just one generation, um, of becoming white settlers. I think a lot about how much was traded in that transaction.
And I think that for a lot of people who go through war and to survive oppressive regimes, I think art is very scary. Anything that will make you stand out, um, will make you not conform will make you potentially a target of the government is, is very frightening. Almost all my extended family was killed in concentration camps. Um, and that is something that’s always with me, especially in these times.
Of course, my parents got me, [laughs] they got a little, um, Queer trans artist weirdo. Who’s just drawn to everything sparkly and monstrous. I think it’s amazing how human beings just, we just pop out the way we are. I mean, not just human beings, probably plants and animals and rocks too. We just pop out with all our crystals and strange leaves. And the way that our society often tries to beat us into not being that way.
A lot of the work I do is based in struggles around trans life and trans death. In Judaism, and in all of our spiritual traditions, there’s so much trans chronological, uh, learning and knowledge transmission through generations, through centuries, through millennia. And that’s how I feel about some of these, you know, folks that we find in our trans history, our trancestors.
Micah and Kemi work together, lifting up the art and poetry of trans and non-binary creators of color, celebrating original artwork, which reflects their reality and manifesting a radical future where they’re seen whole. Here’s a poem by Vita Cleveland titled, “A Dream Come True”.
Vita Cleveland: [00:10:19] We are the wildest dreams of our transcestors come to life. The beating of ancient drum, now transformed to the snap of fingers, clap of hand, spit of sickening syllables. The full weight of bodies, spinning magic into the air, appearing weightless on descent, landing fiercely without effort.
Vibrant hair, bald heads, boss braids, lit wigs, tits out, clit, click, and dick out-hedonistic liberation. Authenticity sourced from bloodlines of deities. Brown skin perpetually creating euphoria, trans truth, Afro-tenacity, revolt beating in pulse with the heartbeats of black trans elders, black trans futures learning and evolving the pace.
While we, the present, give and receive the lessons as we learn them. We are the wildest dreams of our trancestors come to life. Warriors who refuse to let silence or submission be our melody. We prove that shit with our feet, our canes, our wheels, our signs and our voices, taking the streets before ignorance finishes its evening commute.
Rattling the earth, cracking the sky in two. Streets know black trans rage, stronger than they know the red of our blood. Though the streets still know it well. Now, the world knows history books with our names actually in them, immortalized in Black ink, leaving the red behind.
Like, no more being error, more like Icon, more Marsha P. to Andy Warhol, Jennicet to Obama’s opportunism, Miss Major to the whole country, and your most recent Emmy winning Netflix search. We are the wildest dreams of our transcestors come to life. We love ourselves out loud, we love each other.
I’ve shaken the hand of a child, clad in melanin, love, truth of identity and expression, and “Black Trans Lives Matter” patched on their back. The smiles of who no longer search for love in words kept in shadow. Now the sunlight that makes shades of earth, stone, sand, and root grow, makes love pop like our skin, like our hearts. That love, more viral than any campaign against us.
Our agency over our minds and bodies as fluid as the waves inside us, sorcery beyond the range of closed minds, conjuring outside the realms of hate and death. We are the wildest dreams of our trancestors come to life. Once deemed more target than human, now clapping back at presidential proportions. Every election will know that “president” cannot exist without the T. Neither can ancestry, witchery, resistance, even culture itself owes us for the bite in its articulation.
We carry our ratchet with our black feminist theory and unmatched aesthetic, holding our trauma and our dreams as armor. Serpentine shade, hand in hand with steel spirit as we transform the world. They have been reminded of the ways we transcend, transporting between the human, and the divine. Living beyond the lies, into our power, into our magic. Anointed, immortal, eternal. We are the wildest dreams of our trancestors come to life and our dreams are wilder because of it.
Marsha P. Johnson, the self-proclaimed New York City’s ghetto street queen was at the vanguard of those who ignited the Stonewall riots in 1969. Stonewall riots changed LGBTQ politics forever. Marsha, Sylvia, and many others are honored and remembered as they lit the fire of our wildest dreams. Marsha’s portrait was illustrated by Michael Bazant. I asked them what drew them to this medium in the first place, and how it ended up being a preferred tool for trans and Queer liberation.
I actually did go to art school. I went to the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. I also went to an amazing public arts high school in New Haven, Connecticut called the Educational Center for the Arts. My family of origin was not excited about art. And so that program really saved my life. And that’s where I met other Queers, other artists, other, like young creatures who were more like me.
And then I went to art school and it was a lot of kids who had a lot of privilege and really focused on the art world, which I found totally alienating and revolting and not in a good way. I didn’t make art for a very long time, for about 15 years, while I tried to engage with struggles for social justice and other ways, and also dealt with a lot of mental health struggles.
And eventually, I came back to art through the movement and through connecting with other artists in the Bay Area, folks like Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barazza and Favianna Rodriguez and Emory Douglas, and just a whole network of people who had been doing movement art for a long time, who were my possibility models. And also organizers like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, and many other folks who just encouraged me to see that there was a purpose and a need for what I could do.
The term family of origin is used to describe the family into which a person is born. It also describes the relationship as well as the relationships with immediate and extended family members and how they’re informed by the coming out processes for LGBTQ individuals. Kemi found both solace and family, community in poetry, communion in language.
I also come from a family of origin that negated the arts as a serious sphere. I have a Black American mother, I have a Nigerian father who emigrated here in the 70s. And survival in this country is so dependent on anything else [laughs] but becoming an artist. So, in order to, uh, survive racial capitalism, I was really encouraged to move towards something a little more concrete.
I studied political science and philosophy. I’m still very interested in change-making, but that was the way that was posed to me through these very concrete means of engaging in politics. So in my study of political science and philosophy, and I was studying political philosophy specifically, I was engaging in all of these texts of old white men, constructing arguments for why the world should exist in the way that it currently does.
And it became so clear to me that through language, through these arguments that they’re constructing, they were shaping the common sense that still persists today. Through all of these political theory texts, they were laying the foundation for the entire world that we’re still engaging with.
At the same time, I was also of course, a poet on the side, uh, in a way that I wasn’t taking it seriously at the time. But I was coming up against how a, a language of a world builder language really does define the quality of our lives. It defines what we see as real. It defines the limits of our imagination. In college, that’s when I really started building a community with other writers.
Academic writing, even creative writing is still so grounded in white supremacy. And I learned that language was a radical thing. So outside of the academy in Boston found an amazing community of writers, Black and brown writers, Queer writers who were using language to define their reality. Again, language being a world builder, language being kind of the shared agreement we have with one another about what is real. It was so powerful to be engaged in this community of black queer folks who were using language to finally, finally, define their experiences.
And from there, I would facilitate writing workshops every week with students with other young folks who would write poems, we would create shows, we would do guerrilla poetry on the train on the streets, but we’d also hold big shows that would fill auditoriums. People were so hungry for, for this work, for this poetry. And so from, from there, I really realized that, um, especially when communities of artists, of writers, the culture workers, have an opportunity to gather outside of these academic lineages, outside of what is prescribed within our society as the kind of, um, uh, safe art spaces.
That’s when we really get into some deeply radical work. But of course that work is not necessarily supported monetarily. And so when I was engaging in political spaces that really ignored art and ignored writing, I knew that I couldn’t stay there. Then I had an opportunity to work with Echoing Ida, which is a program of Forward Together, that supports black women and non-binary writers. I knew I had to jump at a chance to be engaged in this language work with Black folks specifically in a way that actually resourced them to be able to do it for our movement.
The ways both Micah and Kemi experienced the world in their unique and genuine expressions, have shaped them in becoming artists and activists in the trans Queer liberation movement. They both create and facilitate art processes in safe spaces as a practice of love and solidarity with trans liberation and racial justice movements to build power, vision and leadership.
Women and LGBTQ individuals have been building safe spaces for decades in response to patriarchy’s pervasive violence. Safe spaces afford some sort of degree of escape from verbal, physical and emotional harm. Although true safety outside of these spaces remains more of an ideal rather than a reality. Safe spaces are also sites for exchanging ideas, as well as for organizing.
So much of our work is about nurturing artists, writers, and hopefully other cultural workers who are from our communities. How are we creating space for trans artists of color, trans writers of color, to be able to exercise their radical imagination in ways that honor their leadership, in ways that pay them to do this work, and in the way that connects them to our movement spaces?
I had an opportunity to work with poets who are paired with visual artists. I’m the cultural strategy director, because we really find ourselves in a time where our movement needs to be engaging cultural workers in a sustained way, honoring their leadership in a way that guides our vision for all of our work.
Kemi dove in to tell us how poetry became such a powerful rooted experience for them and what makes it a liberatory practice, which begins and their own body.
So I, I was supposed to move by poetry, by hearing poetry and not because of some mental puzzle of putting a poem together, but because of how I felt it in my body. That freedom I experienced by people, especially black writers, sketching experiences that I recognize, but didn’t see anywhere else, wasn’t reading anywhere else. So I think another benefit of all the language arts is the main, the possibilities that emerge when experiences that are formally shrouded in silence can be named, especially as Black people in America, where all of our, uh, the experiences of oppression are erased from our common texts.
We read textbooks but don’t have our history in it. Uh, we’re, uh, experiencing all types of media, whether it’s TV to, you know, that, art, actually narrating our experiences. The poets were kind of outside of this pop cultural realm. Um, there’s permission in it, to be able to merit an experience that isn’t merited elsewhere. And in that way, the mutual recognition of being seen and validated, and also the permission given to be able to imagine new possibilities for yourself, that feels like something that language can do so well.
Um, but a really visceral experience that includes a naming of a reality. And once a reality is named, it can be grappled with, for real, it can be reimagined, it can be stepped outside of. But silence around our realities can really trap us in confusion and isolation, and a lot of loneliness that prevents us from arriving in our full power and having agency around the situation.
It was around 2000, the year 2000. And, you know, excavating those first photographs and art made by trans people really saved my life. Like to just see an image of someone who I instinctively in my cells knew there was something about them that was like me. I didn’t even necessarily have language for what it was, but I knew that they were my kin. I’m seeing, finding their work and knowing that that was created to help us survive. And that’s what I see our work doing, is knowing that every single poem and image and, and crea-, trans creative person that we support with our projects that is helping someone live.
Marsha P. Johnson’s death was left unresolved. The transgender population has historically experienced, and still experiences, high instances of police harassment and overall violence. Most trans violence cases remain uncovered and unreported by mainstream media. Threats to safety are further amplified for transgender people of color and homeless, transgender people. This demonstrates what Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, labeled intersectionality, the compounding effect of interlocking identities and structures of power.
As people around the country protest the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other unarmed Black Americans killed by police, another case of alleged police brutality is emerging in Tallahassee, Florida. Tony McDade was a Black transgender man who was shot and killed by police in Florida, just two days after Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. And although details about McDade’s death are still developing, according to the police McDade was a suspect in a stabbing that took place earlier that day. Neighbors, however, dispute the police’s story, saying that officers gave no warning before firing on McDade.
But unlike other high profile police killings of Black Americans, the McDade case has yet to make national headlines, which some transgender activists say is an example of the lack of attention to the violence transgender people face in this country. Here to share their thoughts with us is Nala Simone Toussaint, a member of the National Black Justice Coalition, Black Trans Advisory Council. Nala, thanks for joining us.
Nala Simone Toussaint
Hello, thank you for having me.
Nala, from what you’ve seen in news reports and in the larger sort of societal response to McDade’s death, how does this fit into a pattern of violence against black trans people?
Nala Simone Toussaine
Well, oftentimes, uh, what, how this fits into just my lived experience, but particularly about what we notice around Black trans lives is that oftentimes is not honored. I mean, during our, uh, uh, our life on this earth and after, right? So like, for example, after the news of Tony McDade, we see Tony McDade being mis-gendered by news coverage, right? Our stories often go uncovered. Our lives often go un-honored.
And so when it, when we think about what’s currently going on, as we are talking about Black lives and really centering about our voices need to be heard, and that there needs to be justices, Black trans individuals oftentimes still do not feel connected enough to feel protected in the movement. So oftentimes what we find is while we’re marching with folks and fighting for all Black lives, Black trans individuals still feel like their lives are not valued or even protected. And so when we’re thinking about a movement and how we’re moving forward, Black trans folks want to know that they are protected and they’re safe, and that their lives are valued.
Chapter two: the fight.
Escalating the LGBTQ movement history and reading the absent headlines of mainstream media about trans violence reveals how Micah and Kemi follow the step of their trailblazing elders, and decided to model a collaborative and solidarity praxis, which honors the lives of our trans and Queer family. Their projects center the artwork made for, and by trans and Queer Black indigenous and POC artists to support in changing the narrative and celebrating the power of transgender, nonconforming, and non-binary communities of color.
As a starting point, they workshop with their community, a working Femifesto, which informs and drives their trans liberatory practices. It also serves in our understanding of trans liberation as part of a 500 plus year history of anti-racist and de-colonial struggle. The Femifesto for Trans Liberation beautifully insists on ending transmisogyny and dismantling the gender binary, both fundamental to our aspirations of decolonization and racial justice.
I’ll never forget the convening that we had in maybe 2015 of artists and organizers in Oakland to plan Trans Day of Resilience. We convened the artists and the organizers in 2015 to begin planning Trans Day of Resilience for that year. And it was my first time – I was newer to Forward Together, and it was two days, I think, we spent in Oakland trying to figure out what this project would be and naming that we wanted to create a Femifesto. Femifesto of trans liberation.
And it would be principally generated by the artists and organizers participating in the project for what trans liberation was, in a way that rejected the state solutions as freedom and ways that rejected trans rights as the goal, but really was wide open, broad, and imagining what real liberation looks like. And I, I was, I, I won’t forget that because it felt so radical because there were not spaces that perhaps gave that permission to dream beyond the systems that we currently have and the room of, uh, of people, um, of artists and organizers connecting and really pushing one another to dream beyond, um, was so personally transformative.
And in all of the [inaudible 00:33:17] spaces that we created, whether it was that in-person convening, whether it’s, uh, um, calls we create with the artists and writers that come together, as, as soon as we get to the point where we ask people to imagine liberation beyond, rights beyond whatever, um, like bullshit, whatever administration we currently have that hates us will, will give us, as soon as we give folks permissions they couldn’t get somewhere else, there is a personal transformation that’s experienced.
There’s permission given to dream that is, on its own, already so powerful. Because what happens is you give the artist permission to move past the, the narrative that might remain, of trans death, um, and which is for some folks, all they feel they have permission to create. Um, because it is important to, to, to name that to depicts that, um, but to give artists that permission to, um, imagine their liberation and celebrate resilience, does, does a couple of things that I’ll describe, um, how, how cultural shift began.
One, it allows artists to, um, really don’t have that opportunity to move into that imaginary space, to really unlock something radical and then, that, that we needed. I had the poets that I’ve worked with tell me that they didn’t know they could write about, um, uh, liberation. It was, it’s a hard journey for them, but as soon as they get there, as soon as they’re given that permission, they realize all of the ways that they are resilient and that their community is resilient, to the point where they’ve created a product that they didn’t imagine that they can use before.
For both Micah and Kemi, cultural organizing and art are inseparable from its context. It is inseparable from their life experiences, their bodies, and how they choose to position themselves in a world that insists on its erasure. It allows them to be free.
I trust artists and writers to be able to use their craft, to transmute whatever they need, to create, to survive. These are not extra curricular things on the side for a lot of us. We engage in this work because it is how we survive and it’s how we make the world livable, livable for ourselves and how we create an habitable place where we can be seen and valued and understood to ourselves and to other people, how we arrive at a place of mutual recognition.
And I, I, when I worked in with other writers, I don’t want to be too prescriptive about what that process is or what it looks like. I want writers to write towards their delight, to the full breadth of their imagination, because that’s what our movement need. They need, uh, our culture with it in their freest space expressing what freedom and survival means for them.
I, I don’t see that as that is untethered from, uh, our material conditions or kind of what our movements necessarily need in order to win. I think that so few people get an opportunity to really round in their delight and what makes them come alive and what, um, keeps them, keeps them alive. I think so many folks in our movements are in a defensive place, have to stay at a place really grounded and the reality that only exists right then and now.
And so I think that writers, artists, all cultural workers are the ones who need that full permission to not be overly prescriptive about the how and the why of what they’re creating. I think it’s so important to be engaging with black writers and other writers of color, to be engaging with queer and trans writers, especially getting engaged with folks who are directly impacted by our, our systems of oppression. Because from their struggle towards freedom and delight, from there will emerge the vision that we needed.
Well, that’s where the word [inaudible 00:37:49] comes from. I believe in the power of the creative process, I believe in the power of creating spacious containers for folks to imagine and craft wise, aesthetic wise, to be able to move towards what is most juicy and electrifying. When I’m working with a writer and they get to a place where they give themselves goose bumps, or they surprise themselves, where they can breathe and see [inaudible 00:38:15], that’s when I know they’ve created something that will be a deep, deep use to our movement.
Overthinking it, or getting too prescriptive can really limit the imagination of the, um, writers and culture workers that we engage with in our movements. And can also overly determine what winning is. There is something so surprising about the work that we can make. It’s okay to surprise ourselves and to not necessarily know the exact, uh, poem, we need the art piece we need, the, the music we need. I don’t think you can overly determine those things. But when we can create the conditions to work at our most freest as cultural workers, the magic happens and the visions are as stated.
I just [laughs] really want to protect the freedom that we can get for, um, our writers and artists, because also in that process, we model how we can best create freedom for ourselves in every other context. And, um, it’s a, it’s a freedom that is so generative. And there are so few opportunities to be so free in this world, um, that I never want, especially in our movements to overly determine what that process has to look like. Um, so we always will create something juicy, we create really lush, spacious containers to create for one another.
Micah Bazant: [00:39:45] And, and the way that I personally healed and came back to art, like I said, was through relationship, was through my mentors and friends and teachers. And I think that’s something Kenny and I really connect on is like, you cannot separate the art from the relationship. Like I think about how our society thinks about art and it’s so wrong on so many levels. And one of them is that a poem or a, or a painting or any work could be separate from its context, could be separate from its relationships. Like, that art exists because of a whole network of people and traditions and spirit.
Dey Hernandez: [00:40:34] An offering by S. A. Smythe.
S.A. Smythe: [00:40:38] Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, so that I can tell it again and savor it. I am here yet they think of me as a relic, not forgotten, but unglorified. A rough beast with a hashtags accent of defeat, a weak heart and a Bethlehem slouch. I often find myself both sought after and shunned, unable to speak my own name if I wanted. Eternally emptied, made to mourn the loss of any meaning I might yet make. Like a silence clap of thunder, technicolor turned to ashes.
It seems like so many I’ve loved have wanted me dead ground down into the ancestral mosaic of past and present gods earthly siblings, sweet apparitions. Can we sanctify ourselves into new life? I cannot warn the others of the coming storm alone, cannot take shelter from storms already here and look, just look. Everywhere, blood cleans to the leaves, soot gnaws at the lungs. There’s no water for miles and soon all you can say is, “Well, we should have listened for the thunder.”
Still, I was not the first to dream another world to crave the team in darkness of the ocean floor, stories I would never fully know. With this, I exalt myself, shapeshift into my harbinger skin. We have always been on the move. live and wild and dangerous, we grow new lungs, spread our palms across the dirt and tend to new leaves.
But I can never forget the body that came before. Acidic grief dries out along the cracks in this new flesh, phantom bruises from when them did hush up the clap, and thief the color. I divine myself as Ochumaré, a messenger with an offering, that you may call me rainbow serpent, sibling, lover, or freedom traveler.
That in case language doesn’t express desire, but hides it, you must remember to reach only for the neither thing. To be righteously unashamed of this grief until the otherwise comes. Until that time when we may name ourselves whole, if not holy, and stop eulogizing the project of living long enough to see that it has yet to come, and so can never die.
Greg Jobin-Leed…: [00:43:26] Chapter three, The Wind.
Dey Hernandez: [00:43:28] Micah and Kemi’s respective roles in Forward Together have changed throughout the years. Forward Together, is an organization which focuses on changing the ground on which we fight for the rights, recognition and resources for all families and people. And this is partially done by supporting visionary and innovative work, to build a strong and vibrant intersectional social justice movement.
Micah Bazant: [00:43:53] Um, I have worked with Ford together for over a decade. I sort of worked my way slowly back towards art through graphic design. And they were my first graphic design clients. I remember when they were called Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice and they had a little office in Chinatown in Oakland. And I went and I talked to Evelyn Shen the director about how they should pay me, I won’t say how much, a small amount to redesign their brochure from Microsoft word to a real brochure, and why this would help them. [laughs] And they, that was my first like official gig.
So, you know, it grew from there and I started doing illustration and, you know, some of those just early experiences that can seem so small, but really changed the course of our lives, where I just did a little illustration and, you know, a whole room full of people at an event recognized the artists. Like that is often pretty rare in the world and in our movements that people both credit and thank and honor the artists.
And that made me feel like, “Wow, this is actually worth something. This is not just a totally worthless waste of time, this, this activity.” So, um, you know, and, and those organizations who s- stay in relationship with you and support you to grow and see your strengths are what I’ve learned to move towards. And after working with them for many years, as an independent designer and illustrator, I started, um, having, you know, testing out these ideas of working with organizations as an artist and strategists.
And I brought, you know, one day after I’d had a lot of coffee, I brought the idea for the Trans Day of Resilience Project to Forward Together and they miraculously went for it. And this kind of thing has really transformed the organization to the point that now we are nationally known for our art and cultural work. Um, which just has been an incredible experience for me.
Kemi Alabi: [00:46:30] My role at Forward Together has changed over time. Uh, when I first started five years ago, I was squarely within the Echoing Ida program. Echoing Ida is a, uh, home for black women and non-binary writers for social change. It started really rooted in reproductive justice and building up, um, the skills of organizers to be able to make media interventions on behalf of specifically black folk, black women.
Since I am a, uh, writer myself and a creative writer at that, I found myself inching towards, uh, some of the work that Micah brought into Forward Together, uh, the Trans Day of Resilience Art Project. Beautiful project, imagining trans liberation and celebrating trans life and resilience.
Dey Hernandez: [00:47:20] One of their most beloved projects is Trans Life Liberation Art Series. The series creates collaborative portraits about, and with living trans people on the front lines of our liberation movements. It centers trans women and femmes of color, as well as incarcerated and disabled trans people of color. Participants work with a trans artist of their choice to create a portrait they love and all artists and participants are compensated.
Micah Bazant: [00:47:51] Okay, well, I’m going to take this opportunity to talk more about the Trans Day of Resilience Art Project, because that is a big project that Kemi and I work on annually, and it is so close to our hearts and it’s just been such an incredible success and place that we have grown over the years. So, it is an annual project that is a cultural intervention that started around trans day of remembrance, uh, which was the first annual event, uh, focused on transgender folks, um, that was also a memorial event.
And so every year, it would be a time that folks would read out all the names of the trans people who were killed that year and every single year, it’s about 99% black trans women and trans femmes. And, uh, many of the ways that this event were observed were problematic, including not centering the leadership of the most impacted people in this case, black trans women and black trans femmes.
And the only time folks paid attention to trans people and especially to black trans people, and it was a time where people were just focused on death. There was a very strong feeling of, we need to be reoriented. The narrative needs to be changed. Because of course, narratives about trans people of color in mainstream culture are so much about tragedy and death and despair.
So this project is aimed at refocusing on celebrating trans life, trans resilience, trans resistance. And through lifting up the art and poetry of trans and non-binary creators of color. There’s nothing like this project. It’s just such a pleasure to work on. We have gotten to see how it has changed the narrative over the years, um, in the ways that our communities observe and understand this annual event, in a way the media talks about it.
And it’s, it doesn’t feel like, “Oh, we’re the only ones who were leading this shift.” It feels like this is something that grew out of the leadership of many groups led by trans people of color, including Breakout in new Orleans and many other folks. And we are in sync. We are deeply, we feel like it’s deeply in sync with what, with their leadership.
Kemi Alabi: [00:50:58] And we’re also at a point where we’re realizing that we need to be engaging with where cultural power lives, uh, specifically in this country, as, uh, Forward Together, works in the United States. Power can be assumed to only live within the state houses, within these legislators and policy makers who are, um, deciding concretely, what are real conditions are.
But it’s also true that culture is power. Our communities know this. We’ve always engaged in the cultural spirit, but it’s true that in order to shift policy, that never happens unless you can shift the culture. Our culture decides what is possible and decides what our collective common sense is. And so Forward Together, we are taking some time to really build out what our cultural strategy can be, so we can be building up the cultural power of black communities.
But thinking long term, we really want to think about what it is to be able to push levers of this, of, of power in this country when it comes to not just creating art that reimagine the world, but really being able to shift how media and other institutions are shaped with cultural institutions that hold a lot of power in this country and defining what is true and what is real, how do we have a cultural strategy that makes sure that our communities are gaining power on those fronts?
So that’s how my role at Forward Together has changed. And I’m so, so thrilled to be able to work with someone as a visionary, as Micah, who is really the person who brought cultural strategy to Forward Together in the first place.
Dey Hernandez: [00:52:42] Speaking of cultural strategy, this leads us to the word of the day with our friend, editor and AgitArte co-funder, Jorge Diaz.
Jorge Diaz: [00:52:52] My name is Jorge Diaz and this is the word of the day. The word of the day is cultural hegemony. The term cultural hegemony refers to the ruling class’ ability to impose its worldview, morals, ideas, and concepts on the rest of the population to justify the status quo and normalize it as the only unnatural order of things. In our capitalist, imperialist system, hegemony and guarantees, the dominant class’ has control over the economy, politics and society as a whole.
As we are bombarded by oppressive narratives of capitalist, patriarchal, heteronormative, imperialist, and white supremacist hegemony, we are often left without the stories of those engaged in the struggles of our times. From personal challenges to the status quo, to mass organized actions for radical transformation with change, our stories are suppressed by the incredible power and resources of dominant institutions in our society.
The media, educational system, cultural and civic organizations, and the government all play a role in producing and reproducing this alienating cultural reality. The study of these complex, yet crucial ideas, was developed into the theory of cultural hegemony by Italian communist, Antonio Francesco Gramsci while in jail, under the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini. Professor Stephen Duncombe writes about Gramsci’s cultural hegemony theory, and the power dominant ideas and practices have in defining our consciousness.
And I quote, “The power of cultural hegemony, lies in it’s invisibility. Unlike like a soldier with a gun or a political system backed up by a written constitution, culture resides within us. It doesn’t seem political. It’s just what we like or what we think is beautiful or what feels comfortable. Wrapped in stories and images and figures of speech, culture is a politics and is therefore a lot harder to notice, much less to resist. When a culture becomes hegemonic, it becomes common sense for the majority of the population.”
The effects in our lives and communities of this common sense are deep and devastating. We faced an incredible challenge against capitalist hegemony in a struggle for our own humanity. As AgitArte co-founder, Herb Fox radically affirms, “Building a culture of faith in our species, our ability to write the wrongs of a capitalist corrupted culture, it’s ethics, concepts of human relations, falsification of what is our fundamental human nature, is our task. Lest, the human species will not survive. “
It is important that we develop and implement in our struggles, our cultural strategy, which engages popular movements in the production of forms and narratives, which challenge established normality and propose radical alternatives to resist and create a new culture of militancy and solidarity for our liberation. Because when we generate cultural production, which challenges this hegemony with ideas and experiences of our dreams and fights for our collective liberation, we win. This has been the word of the day.
Micah Bazant: [00:56:21] It is a challenge as an artist to try and figure out how to balance these things. I think, especially for me, at times I’m trying to work in solidarity with communities that I’m not a part of often. And so in that case, my main goal is to create something that is of use and will benefit the people I’m working with, will help them when and change their material conditions and that they love, that makes them feel beautiful and fabulous.
And in that case, those community considerations are more important than my stylistic considerations. And that is totally okay with me. And at the same time as an artist, I need to do work for myself that sometimes helps me grow in my style. And I think there’s a way that I’m often working with community organizers. As artists, we need to show people what’s possible. And if they haven’t seen it before, they don’t know what to ask for.
So I need to push myself to make new kinds of things that aren’t necessarily the same kind of poster, the same kind of social media graphic, the same kind of art that we’ve seen before. Artists are uniquely positioned to lead on because I think often we are the people who are not afraid to take risks, who aren’t afraid to, to speak the unspeakable, to imagine the unimaginable, to speak to what’s possible that we’re being told is impossible.
And often, I’m in a situation where similarly I’m trying to organize organizations and organizers to get behind the use and the leadership of an artistic project. I was thinking again about some of the principles that we were given at Standing Rock. I had the privilege of visiting Standing Rock very briefly. Everyone who came there was supposed to go to a training, and the indigenous leadership said, “Number one, respect, indigenous leadership, number two, be of use, whatever you learn here, bring it home to your community, build a new legacy and whatever you do, do it in prayer.”
And I think about those all the time. And when I went to Standing Rock, you know, they’d put out a call for folks to come in solidarity and, but it was just overrun. And there were, I was with a caravan of mostly community organizers of color from the West coast. Um, but there were a lot of white folks who seem to think they were going to Burning Man. It was really shameful.
And so I showed up, I went to the art tent and I said, “These are some things I know how to do. Can I be of use?” And they didn’t know me, they looked at me and they said, “Nope.” And, “What you can do is pick up trash.” And so what I did for two or three days was wander around the very cold camp and pick up trash. I love picking up trash. It’s so great. I can itemize for you all the most common trash at Standing Rock. And it was such a gift to be able to do that.
And I think, if you want to be in solidarity, it’s not about you. It’s not about us. My w- work is based in relationship. All of our lives, all of our art is based on relationship, just because I think that I want to draw a picture, that’s not what I come to. That’s not what I hope to come to you with. And I guess I say this all with humility, knowing that, of course I constantly make mistakes like everybody else. And I try to just learn and keep it moving.
But you must build that relationship of trust, which takes a long time and usually a lot of service to, um, be the basis of that transformative work you want to do together.
Dey Hernandez: [01:01:22] Do you remember the portrait of Marsha illustrated by Micah? The radiant smile emanating from the azure blue that I described in the beginning of the episode? During the interview and through our computer screens, Marsha seemed to be with us, not just leading and inspiring us with our legacy, but almost there, watching over us. And as she gazed out from the heartbreaking bloom, framed like a hole in the sky by the borders of the hanging illustration, I could not resist the temptation to engage in this auspicious meeting in the presence of the saint.
Micah Bazant: [01:02:04] I mean, what’s coming to mind, of course he can see on my wall behind me, um, Marsha P. Johnson, um, who is a patron saint for so many of us. And, you know, in her life, she was, she experienced so much violence and oppression from the New York Police Department from the medical industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, she just survived so much. And she was an unhoused black trans sex worker living in New York city.
And I think about her radical adornment. I think about the flowers and pearls and fabrics that she brought to her body and to her community. And to me, that sums up, in so many ways, the moment in history that we are in, we are in, especially right now at the beginning of this global pandemic, when we are being asked to sacrifice ourselves for the stock market, to sacrifice our loved ones.
We know that we have to fight with everything we’ve got, we have to fight with our cunning and our skill and our community and our beauty. And so that brings me back to Marsha. And if I can do my work in a way that I think she might approve of, then I feel like I’m living my life in the right way.
Dey Hernandez: [01:04:02] Layleen’s Bill [With Revisions] by Benji Hart.
Benji Hart: [01:04:06] For Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, Xtravaganza. The New York city council will pass a package of legislation, expanding services for transgender, gender nonconforming, non-binary and intersex inmates. Scratch that. Will turn out its pockets, never sign another ransom note. All officers with trans inmates in their custody will undergo a competency training. Scratch that. Will have their badge numbers etched off with diamond tipped acrylics, aquamarine.
New beds will be added to the transgender housing unit. Scratch that. Beds of wild flowers will erupt from lots that were never vacant, just holding their breath. Counselors will be made available to all trans inmates. Scratch that. We are each our sister’s counsel. The board of correction will convene a task force. Scratch that. Will be tasked with something useful like beekeeping or collecting rainwater.
Sex workers will have their cases diverted to human sex trafficking intervention court. Scratch that. Will spray paint the words, “We are the intervention,” on the court house rebel. The Riker’s Island compound will be replaced by a series of smaller borough based facilities. Scratch that. Will slip into the rising Atlantic, the ribs of our dead prepared to cage it. Trans elders will be held in solitary confinement for their own safety. Scratch that. Will have their charcoal locks re twisted in chosen hands.
This legislation will take effect in the summer of 2020. Scratch that. We have never asked permission to sing.
Dey Hernandez: [01:06:33] We deeply appreciate each poet’s offering to complete this story. Vita Cleveland, A Dream Come True, S. A. Smith, An Offering, and Benji Hart’s, Layleen’s Bill [With Revisions], were shared by Kemi Alabi. These poems were part of the Trans Day of Resilience, 2019.
Greg Jobin-Leed…: [01:06:55] This episode was produced by Dey Hernandez and Osvaldo Budet. Yori [Lesodo 01:07:00] is our managing producer. Our editor, Jorge Diaz, hosted and wrote the word of the day. Abino Mbiye, is our audio engineer. Reverend Sekou generously shared the music used in this episode. Thanks to Talia Carrol, Catch ‘Em Well, for the fantastic social media help. We would like to thank our friends at the New Press. The new press is the publisher of When We Fight, We Win, the book. It’s available on our website at wheneefightwewin.com or wherever books are sold.
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