In college, there was an art studio class called Art As Activism taught by a well-known African-American artist. We shall call her, L.. When I mentioned my interest in the course, I was told immediately by my peers that the professor was tough. No one explicitly said what was difficult about her. The rumors were taken at face value, though I felt that they were evident of a larger issue of discrimination. I couldn’t help but notice how often students referred to Black women professors as difficult. This lady, here — she makes you do work, they forewarned. I mean, of course she does. We’re in college. So I signed up.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Art As Activism shook me. Not because of the amount of classwork
or the nature of her exercises. The demands were reasonable and measured. Her teaching style was frank, enlightened, and humoring. She was kind. This class was challenging, because activism is challenging.
When her assignments demanded disruption, I was outright hesitant. I did want attention. I did not like attention. Even if I were in the midst of a demonstration with hundreds of people, I barely muttered the chants. I really did not want people staring at me, especially while I spoke about subjects I cared about. To this day, my voice cracks. Sometimes I cry. Back then, at the tender age of 21, bursting into tears in front of my peers was unacceptable. However, I was an overachiever and wanted to do well in L.’s course. For the very shallow purpose of maintaining my GPA, I ignored my physical discomfort and lowered my personal guard.
After a few tough feedback sessions with the professor, I decided to rise to the occasion. There was an assignment that required us to orchestrate a performance that addressed a cause. I chose to highlight the missing Black women and girls in the United States. If I remember correctly, at that time, there were around 64,000 missing Black women and girls. I was a Black girl living in America. Neglecting their stories would be like erasing my own. It was unfathomable. There were two aspects of my project. The first was writing THERE ARE 64,000 MISSING BLACK WOMEN IN AMERICA on the sidewalks and the walls. In a week’s time, the school ordered to have it washed away. The second part was gathering a group of students who were willing to count to 64,000 during lunch hour at the student center. The place would be packed. There were around 10 volunteers. The purpose of this, I reasoned, would be to feel the enormity of this number. To really register in our physicality how unattainable the number 64,000 is, to feel the weight of their absence.
So, we started to count. And slowly, others started to count too. They were on their laptops whispering numbers. They had sandwiches in their mouths, counting between bites. I walked around waving my arms to encourage them to be louder, fiercer and, soon, everyone in the student center was entranced. Synchronized chanting. An incantation. I assumed that very few people knew why they were counting and that made the moment even more beautiful. We possessed them; the women and girls possessed us.
Then, mouths got tired. Things died down. Only the volunteers were left. And soon after, we stopped too. I suppose that was the deeper, unintended message behind our small movement: the all too welcome return of the mundane. The volunteers gave me feedback. The feedback was very helpful. L. was pleased. I got a B+. Life continued on. I graduated.
College is a place of immense contradiction. A real, imaginary place. Pre-existing systems of oppression insidiously organize and educate a handpicked community. You are able to address actual affronts to humanity as a homework assignment. And sometimes you care more about the letter grade than you do the cause. Sometimes the cause is the letter grade. “Agh, everybody else is gonna pick climate change, so what’s left?” For this reason, I never called myself an activist. In spite of how good I felt bringing attention to the absences within our community, I identified as a performer. A poser. Activism to fulfill a college assignment is one thing. Dedicating my post-graduate life to the massive injustices wreaking havoc on our planet is another.
The stakes felt higher, and were higher, outside of the controlled campus environment. My financial well-being and personal comfort definitely outweighed my political stance. One could say that as soon as I officially settled into the job hunt, my interest in activism dissipated significantly and my values went to the wayside. I watched the women’s march trail down the street from my place of work instead of bounding out the front door to join, because well — I needed the hours. And with every job I took on — at one point I had three at once — the more tired I became, and the more my activism looked like boycotting morning television and leaving meat out of my diet.
I was overly concerned with two things: proving to myself I could be successful and proving to others that I was successful. That mentality of overachievement followed me right into the next phase of my life. Living in Washington, DC, I was surrounded by examples of successful Black women with their corporate jobs and shared apartments, and I craved not only the stability, but also the image. I couldn’t just leave college and become a hostess (which I did). I had to take an internship at a museum (which I did). I had to work for a start-up (did that, too). And I had to do it all while wearing a designer label. I had to secure the bag. Personal success and comfort overshadowed any political or social turmoil, because my grind dictated that it had to. If a sit-in happened to land on the time and date of a meeting, well I guess I’ll watch the footage on Facebook and send positive energy through the screen to the folks who made time. Interestingly, this method satisfied me for a while. It felt justifiable, unlike blissful ignorance.
So, yeah, I worked hard to stave off feelings of inadequacy and meet expectations. Real hard. I happened to land a few jobs in the process. Checks and panic attacks, too. Many tearful nights. And an updated resumé. Almost a year and a half out of college, I was shopping for rooms in shared basement apartments with bags under my eyes and doubts in my mind. My vision of success was actively being realized, and simultaneously fading. Was this vision mine or someone else’s? That was an easy question to answer. The real mystery was who I actually wanted to be, now that I finally understood who I was not. I was not the upper middle class Black women with a corner office and fifty unread emails. I was also not a prospective graduate student.
I find it difficult to put into words how I made my next decision. I suppose, I wanted to desire life again and for life to desire me. So, I saved 5,000 USD and left the country. I started in Paris, then went to Germany. Two years later and I’m still here.
There are a number of reasons why I decided to stay in Berlin. I could ramble on and on. The original deciding factors were: affordability, creativity, community, and safety. Within a few months, I was able to secure a Freelance Artist Visa and find odd jobs that strangely enough paid my rent, fed me, and entertained me. With my disposable income, I could reinvest in my interests as a creative. That was very pleasing. I also found a brilliant network of creative Black women who were more than willing to impart wisdom and lend a helping hand. When it came to deciphering Berlin culture and society, people who had gone through the expatriation and immigration processes made themselves available to a newcomer like myself. They sent legal contacts without hesitation and opened their homes to me during my 7-month bout of homelessness in the city. Don’t be shocked. Seven months is a normal, even gracious, time-frame.
However, one aspect of the city that truly appealed to me was the safety. I am not referring to how I feel walking home at night. I am talking about the comfortable and fluid exchange of ideas and culture. Exchange is an indicator of safety, because true conversation happens in a state of fearlessness. Exchange, free from fear, is mutually beneficial and inspires. Since moving to Berlin, I have had intimate in-depth conversations with people from all over the world. I have spoken — not “chatted up”, but literally opened my heart and mind — to individuals from: South Korea, Vietnam, Bavaria, London, Argentina, France, Portugal, Brazil, Mauritania, South Africa, Romania, Russia, Sudan, Pakistan, Algeria, Poland… That’s a short list. In almost every place I’ve visited in the United States, our supposed “melting-pot”, I had never experienced this level of organic exchange in which genuine connection form across ethnocultural and socioeconomic boundaries. By way of this heightened connectivity, I rediscovered my long-buried interest in activism.
Generally, people are afraid of one another. Afraid to be shot or robbed, which is a valid and unquestionable fear, but also afraid to connect. I don’t mean in public, or on television, or on the news. I mean the small revolutions that happen in private conversations, smiles, glances with someone very different from yourself. I mean apologies and sustained eye-contact. Non-flirty and sincere. Actively connecting in this way, I simply started to care deeply about other people again. And not only for other Black people, or other Black women, but everybody. Even those who I was taught to hate, I wanted to know and understand.
I remember a conversation I had with my boyfriend. We were on our way to Barcelona. We were tired from the erratic travel schedule, but somehow I had energy to ramble about social injustice. This is my Aquarian habit. On and on I went about East Turkestan and reverse engineering and “reeducation” and our complicity and how everything seemed to be made in China. How could we fight back if we’re actively contributing to their industrial revolution and neo-colonialist campaigns? I was frustrated. I was boiling. I was absolutely livid. My boyfriend suddenly turned to me and soberly declared something along the lines of: Why do you care about Uighurs when there are problems in the States you could be solving? He started to talk about public education in Washington D.C. as an example. “There are Black people in your very own country, in your hometown, who are suffering,” he concluded.
That’s when I realized what I stood for. In my country, everything feels so Black and white. The pre-meditated dichotomization of a very diverse nation, in which individuals collectively face complex and inextricably linked systems of oppression, is a capitalistic endeavor. Period. Everything simply is not Black/White. Man/Woman. Rich/Poor. Gay/Straight. Fat/Skinny. Us/Them. Yet, we celebrate and encourage loyalty to category even during our universal struggle for freedom. I am telling you like I told him: If it looks like injustice, I give a fuck. And I give a fuck, because we are all connected. Fighting against the unfair imprisonment of Uighurs is fighting against injustice everywhere. The spirit of change is boundless, borderless, nameless.
I know there’s a language and culture of allyship. I am not saying that I went through this entire journey just to realize that I could be a good ally. I’ve stood in protests as an ally for a cause I felt deeply about, and still had this feeling of remoteness and disconnection and awkwardness. My true concern is the way in which our identities preemptively limit who we decide to intimately connect with, listen to, learn from, and fight for. Instead of embracing plurality and cross-pollination, we blatantly erect borders and bar perspectives on our timelines and within our communities. And these borders just don’t break themselves down at a march. They cause our movements to become cold, mechanics of truth rather than a lived experience of unity. We go from holding hands in public to slandering each other in private. Our inner circles remain homogenous, especially in thought, while we scream for inclusivity on the frontlines.
I am an activist. As such, I meet duplicity with interconnectivity. I prefer a private conversation to a public demonstration. I am not going to play eeny-meeny-miney-moe with social justice issues to appease divisive, anti-earthling constructs. And being the introverted activist that I am and always have been, I will turn down a megaphone for the pen. 🌋
Edited by Kamala Puligandla