Due to COVID-related restrictions, this photoshoot happened entirely via FaceTime.
I moved to Detroit on purpose over a decade ago. I always say that I moved here on purpose because I think a lot of people make the migration the other way, from Detroit to New York, or from Detroit to the Bay Area, both places I lived and worked in before coming here.
I was first brought here to help a group called Detroit Summer to facilitate change work, and was immediately struck by the way movement was building here. It felt so woven into the community, and there was really brilliant post-apocalyptic thinking. By the time that I came, Detroit had already been through economic downfall. Half the city was a place that people would visit to take pictures of ruins. The population had dropped significantly. Capitalism had abandoned the city for a period of time.
I got to meet and learn from incredible organizers including Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American activist whose life’s work was with the Black Power Movement and Black Labor Workers here in Detroit. She was 91 or 92 when we met. She lived to be 100 years old. I slowly got to know her and call her a friend and mentor those last eight years of her life. She taught me that we must transform ourselves to transform the world, and that this unfolding journey that’s happening in Detroit is what the rest of the country has to look forward to.
People call Detroit “Up South” because it has so many similarities with Southern communities. Anytime you have a majority Black city that’s happening outside of the South in the U.S., it means that it was a point of migration. A place that our ancestors thought would be safer than where they were in the South. Almost everyone you talk to in Detroit has their roots in the Carolinas, in Mississippi, in Georgia, in Alabama, in Louisiana. There are so many places that you walk into where it really feels like you’ve been transported south. That feels like home for me.
There’s just this sensibility in my family that a lot of our hardest experiences and our most beautiful experiences are rooted in the South.
I was born in Texas. My parents fell in love as an interracial couple in South Carolina. I lived for a period of time in Texas, in Georgia, in Germany. I grew up in a military family where we traveled all the time, but my family’s roots are in the Carolinas. There’s just this sensibility in my family that a lot of our hardest experiences and our most beautiful experiences are rooted in the South.
My writing is about the ways that social justice movements can learn from nature, the ways we can connect with each other, and the ways we can find and reclaim joy and pleasure in the face of oppression and apocalypse. We’ve been through many apocalypses. Many, many communities that are on earth—probably all of us if you look back in the lineage far enough—have some ancestral experience of having reached forward and found life beyond what they were told were the constraints of their current conditions. We’re in one of those periods now where a lot of us recognize that the way that we are living is so deeply out of alignment with the Earth and so deeply out of alignment with being able to live with each other. It’s time to reveal all of those systems that are no longer serving us, and to commit ourselves to developing something else.
I find a great pleasure in the freedom of this and the idea that we could co-create something that actually works for the majority of us. It means an apocalypse of the current unfair conditions, but it is also an invitation to co-create conditions that would be just, fair, and lucrative. This shouldn’t be such a remarkable idea.
Octavia Butler is one of the central inspirations for all of my work and a lot of my thinking. I started reading her work when I was in college and was really moved by the way she thought and wrote about community. She put young Black women as her protagonists, and told stories where change was a character. Change wasn’t something that we were a victim of, it was something that we could shape and an undeniable force that was going to shape us.
Octavia’s work was apocalyptic. She wrote that we have this incredible, beautiful, miraculous intelligence, but we mostly use it to enact these hierarchies over each other. She was really concerned with whether we would be able to unlearn that practice in time to actually stay here and get to be a part of life on earth. That question drives my work as well. We’ve been given this miraculous world specially designed for us, but will we actually commit ourselves to living with each other? What does it mean to pay attention to the conditions that we are in and that we are creating, so that we can understand the future we’re inviting towards us? Her work feels prophetic, but really she was just paying attention.
You should never smoke a dollar bill for any reason. I’m probably still recovering.
The first time I attempted to smoke cannabis, a friend of mine gave me a little nugget of weed and assumed that my other friend and I knew what we were doing with it. We sat in my room and we rolled that nugget up in a dollar bill and tried to smoke it. We were mixing up everything we had seen in movies. If you are rolling up a dollar bill, it’s not for weed. You should never smoke a dollar bill for any reason. I’m probably still recovering.
When I first started to smoke, I was living in New York and it was distinctly illegal. There was this delicious edge to the process of going about getting cannabis. You couldn’t say it out loud, you had to whisper it, you had to have a contact. There was a lot of criminalization happening. I saw people who I knew and bought from get arrested.
In my thirties, I shifted to vaping, edibles, and salves, which is mostly what I do now. I often laugh that I would much rather be around people who are high than people who are drunk. I’m less interested in weed as something that impacts my mind, and more interested in it as something that impacts my body. My friend makes a cannabis salve that has THC, lalibela, goldenrod, and all these things that really feel good on the body and in the body. There’s a Black-owned brand called Foy that has a CBD lotion with menthol which is really cooling for my arthritis in my knees, hands and hips. I find that cannabis salves are one of the most effective ways to actually manage the pain that I experience from arthritis.
This legalization trend has taken off, which I think in the long run is a really beautiful and necessary thing. It’s an acknowledgement that cannabis is a substance that can be navigated and can be very helpful for people. I’m a big fan of what is possible with cannabis, and of more people being educated about it.
On the personal side, it has been wonderful. There has been a huge expansion of the ways in which I can go and buy the kind of medicine I need in the form that works for me. I don’t have to try to figure out how to use a double boiling method at home to make some butter. But on a political level, it’s been upsetting to see how the legalization process has not been paired with a decriminalization process that allows for the release of those who are currently serving time for selling weed.
Many of us believe the institution of slavery didn’t actually end, it transformed into the prison industrial complex.
In a lot of states, we have this massive and violent contradiction where there are people still behind bars, often Black and Latinx people, for selling something that is now legal in that state and currently sold by people who are white. A lot of those people behind bars could be out now and making good money doing what they do well and have done for years. I think all of that needs to be named and understood as a pattern we need to disrupt and abolish.
Abolition is this idea that we must end systems of oppression. For many of us, the first abolitionists we knew of were those fighting to end the institution of slavery. Many of us believe the institution of slavery didn’t actually end, it transformed into the prison industrial complex. We want to end that institution of prisons and policing.
My book, We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams Of Transformative Justice, is a booklet that emerged in the summer of 2020. I was away on sabbatical, which was supposed to be six months of rest and relaxation, but it got hijacked by the pandemic like everyone’s lives did. I had been off of social media and away from work. When I came back I saw that there was this pattern of people calling each other out in ways that felt unprincipled, in ways that weren’t aligned with a vision for abolition. Why does it feel like we are policing each other and being punitive with each other in the spirit of accountability? You could really see that we spent the last four years living under the domain of a bully and a troll. Social media has created a toxic environment for dialogue and for difference, but then it got ratcheted way up, so much so that it’s really moved all the way into the movement community spaces.
One of the biggest things I’ve been sitting with is this line that Assata Shakur offered us, which is “we must love each other and support each other.” What does that actually look like in practice, and how do we love each other out loud and in public? How do we protect each other when we are still relatively small compared to what we’re up against? When it’s so easy to get swayed to move against each other, how do we remember to protect each other?
I started exploring these ideas in an essay called “Unthinkable Thoughts,” which led to the book. If we’re treating each other this way, does it mean we feel hopeless? Does it actually serve survivors? Does it actually serve those who are being harmed? Does it serve any of us? Can we bring more discernment to the ways that we call for accountability?
Call-outs have a long history that’s rooted in Black and brown communities, and that’s because it was a way to get attention across a massive gap in power. We’ve now been applying that strategy to people who are parallel to us, who are peers of ours, who sometimes have less power than we do.
When it’s so easy to get swayed to move against each other, how do we remember to protect each other?
There was a lot of response to the initial essay, both positive and negative. I learned a lot from all of it. I learned that it wasn’t just me seeing this pattern, but that this really was prevalent. I had so many people reach out and say, “This is happening in our field, in our area, in our part of the world.” Both within movement and beyond movement.
I also heard from people who are like, “We need to really make clear that it’s not the job of survivors to protect those who cause them harm.” If they need to call someone out because that person has caused them harm, we need to really be able to hold the nuance of that. We need to make sure that we speak about this in ways that don’t increase the harm. For me, that meant I had to shift some of the metaphors I had originally used and really grow in my own understanding and my own way of speaking about these things. We Will Not Cancel Us includes an updated version of the essay to reflect these learnings.
A lot of people are using my little book to help intervene in instances of policing within their movement spaces and spark conversation. There’s a little list of resources in the back that points people toward the books Fumbling Towards Repair by Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan, and Beyond Survival by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. A new work has come out since called, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, which is from Mariame Kaba. Patrisse Cullors is about to release a book called An Abolitionist’s Handbook. There’s just so much good material that helps guide us in this work.
As my visibility has grown, I have felt so protected by my community. My community will be in touch with me to let me know that they see me, that I’m not alone, and that my worth was still intact. Sometimes saying, “Even if you did mess up, we’re still here. We’re here for your learning.” I’m really committed to learning in public. Part of the reason I can do that is because I have such a solid community off the internet. I have people, in real life, who’ve known me for such a long time and hold me accountable, and help me grow because they love me not because they want to see me destroyed.
That helps immensely in being able to soften into the lessons that all of us need to learn. I say all the time: we’re not free yet. So we must also have something left to learn. The more we can do that in public, I think the more we can learn, and the faster we can learn.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. adrienne maree rown photographed by Meghan Marin via FaceTime. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies. Subscribe to our newsletter here.