this interview is part of the world we want to live in series
What’s your name and how do you identify yourself in the world?
My name is Kemi Alabi. I am a Black, queer, non-binary femme. Child of immigrants — an immigrant father and a mother with lineage in the south. Leo sun, Capricorn rising, Scorpio moon.
How are you doing?
I just saw Black Panther twice within the last twelve hours. Engaging with cultural products that have a rigorous imagination around Black communities thriving is incredibly refreshing. As someone with a Nigerian father and Black American mother, it’s invigorating to engage with something looking at the continent from outside of the colonial gaze — not that that hasn’t had its influence on the film or how it was made. It’s radical to imagine that future and to have it so widely distributed. It’s been an exciting weekend to engage with other Black folks around this imaginative opportunity for us. I’m buzzing from that. The theater was full of Black people who were just living — all dressed up, and the way we’re engaged with these powerful moments felt liberatory. I’m excited for what we can imagine next — healthy, thriving Black communities that exist without centering whiteness or the anti-Black narratives that have been the through line that gets created and distributed in this county.
That’s so good. I first met you seeing you perform your poetry in college. Do you still spend time on poetry?
Yeah, that’s still a huge part of my life. I value cultural space as a place where communities build narrative power for themselves. Culture and politics are so inextricably linked. I’ve been writing beyond college and that’s been really gratifying. I also work for Forward Together. We hold cultural and movement building strategies, and grassroots power-building strategies. Recently I got to work with poets for our Trans Day of Resilience project where we paired poets with a visual artist and together they imagined a future where trans folks of color could thrive. To cultivate imagination is already a radical act, but to be able to have the resources to be able to distribute it as a cultural process that other people are engaging with is something I’m really grateful to be involved with.
I also manage Echoing Ida, a program for Black women and non-binary writers which engages us in the narrative power of journalism like op-eds, reported features, and interviews. Narrative and culture shift is interwoven in my everyday, whether it’s facilitating it through my professional work or doing it myself as a writer.
I’d love to hear you talk more about why that’s where you’ve chosen to put your energy. What is powerful about culture shift work for you and for a broader ‘us’?
We live in a world with material consequences and material inequality. When I was coming up, I thought that to engage with that work was purely about building a very particular type of power to move institutional levers. But especially as someone socialized as a Black girl growing up in Wisconsin with an immigrant father, there’s also a truth to what it means to unlearn these hegemonic ideals that actually create our political space. There’s a clear interplay between our political systems and our cultural ideas. I studied political science and philosophy, and one of the main things I learned is — basically a bunch of white dudes got to write whole worlds into being. They created arguments that justified them and planted seeds of ideas that were taken as truths and built empires. I really believe in the power of ideas. Race, gender, and nation-states are upheld by ideas that are like the air we breathe.So what does it mean to try to re-program what people think is common sense? Where I grew up, trying to untangle what is common sense is not a matter of voter registration and winning an election, it’s a matter of changing the cultural products people are engaging with in the day-to-day. What type of narratives are taught in our schools, what type of narratives are in popular culture? That’s where we get these formative ideas.
There’s this quote at [our alma mater] Boston University’s Howard Thurman Center: “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I’m not an organizer. I have always loved words and writing. I come alive when I’m interacting with narratives, stories, and creative space. Culture shift work is where I get the juice. It’s perhaps less valued as a site for justice work to happen, and seen as less tangible than our political institutions. But once we name what the dominant narratives are, we can then do the work of changing them.
What do you see as your role and work in this political moment?
I ask this question of myself a lot, because who knows. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have the skills I need to make change. I consider myself in the role of student and listener, and trying to figure out what it means to be in community and engage in cultural work. I am in a reflective place with my writing. My role is someone who’s trying to imagine freedom, and use my tools and facilitation skills to get other people to think about and answer that question. I find myself in community with other Black queer artists and writers grappling with the question of what it means to heal ourselves and our communities, and thinking about how to engage with that in our work and create space for one another.
People always talk about self-care and healing as if it’s a side project from the real work. What’s your perspective on how healing fits into movement work?
When I first tried to engage in organizing spaces, I was coming with so much trauma. We’re all working through our traumas. Doing so in interdependent community requires that we show up in a different way. The healing work that I’ve begun I’ve learned from other Black women and femmes I’ve been in movement spaces with. As I was trying to engage with this political work that’s deeply personal, there was no other option. It was like, engage with the hard-as-fuck work of healing… or collapse, and don’t do the work at all.
We as Black queer and trans folks are carrying intergenerational trauma in our bodies and within our families. The work of imagining something else is deeply challenging. I see healing as the gateway. I see it as a facilitative process to be able to engage with our deeply fucked political system in a sustainable way without burning out, giving up, and re-traumatizing one another. To be able to be in right relationship with one another well enough to move forward together requires that we handle our shit.
I’d love to hear about some components of your healing process.
I was raised Baptist christian, in a church that was not affirming, grounding, or engaging in the political world with integrity. I left in righteous anger, but in a way that also estranged me from my own spirit, intuition, and relationship with myself. I’ve been encountering Black folks who engage with more ancestral practices — practices that are less connected with colonization, white supremacy, capitalism, and the enlightenment rational-thought-over-everything-mindset. They’ve introduced me to some altar and ancestor practices that have connected me deeply with my intuition. I have a beautiful hella Black, hella queer tarot deck I pull from — Shrine of the Black Medusa by Casey Rocheteau, a Black queer poet out of Detroit. Whether or not I’m practicing the nuts and bolts of Orishas, Yoruba, and other African spiritual practices, these practices reconnect me with my intuition, my body, and the idea that our emotions are information to be valued and listened to. That has been deeply healing. Spiritual practices that allow me to trust and listen to myself again allow me to better be in community with other people. My practice involves my altar setup, with photos of my family, some artwork, crystals that I engage with, candles, and the deck I mentioned. Because I’m a queerdo, I think about chosen ancestors. As opposed to a blood lineage, I think about lineages of purpose. Whose purposes am I continuing here on this earth and how am I in communication with those folks? I’m a depressed and anxious person. It’s way easier for me to live in this life if I think I’m not figuring this out from scratch, there are so many people who came before me. I’m a continuation of a lineage and a purpose and that’s why I’m here. Every day I ask for an invitation by pulling a card and let it invite a question I can interrogate. Something to guide me through. Meditation has been huge for me. As someone who’s really estranged from my body, the practice of meditating and thinking about my chakras has been wild. In Oakland I started going to East Bay Meditation Center which is a deeply politicized spiritual space. I can’t explain what that space did for me as far as what it healed between my mind and my body and my spirit to be able to engage in a meditation practice.
I noticed you said ‘reconnecting,’ instead of just connecting. What is that in reference to?
It’s in reference to capitalism. We live within a system that relies on estranging our bodies from our minds. Our labor is divorced from ourself because it belongs to someone else. My mom and brothers are still working themselves to death in jobs that aren’t aligned with purpose just to grab some coin and get out of debt. Black folks have no wealth. Blackness was created to exploit the labor of stolen people. The premise of capitalism is estrangement from the self, for the purposes of giving our labor to amass wealth for white people. That estrangement exists in every level of our lives. It exists within the self, within our body, in our minds and spirits. It exists in our relationships with each other and with the earth, because capitalism has informed how we are in relationships of extraction. We’re born into systems that rely on and cultivate that estrangement. I find it necessary to transform those relationships into something that’s more balanced, harmonious, and connected. When I say reconnect, I mean that I believe we’re not creating a brand new future. I think about indigenous peoples and pre-colonized societies. There’s knowledge we have lost rather than knowledge that we’ve never had. These systems are interruptive. The healing we do is a way to return to right relationship as opposed to getting them for the first time. But as someone born into these systems and of my particular background, I cannot exactly know a time when I was connected with my body, intuition, neighbors, or family.
What is the world you want to live in?
I think it’s Movement Generation that says the foundation of society is not the individual but the relationship. I think about right relationship a lot. What it really means to be able to name our needs for one another and to meet those needs in community, to really be interdependent with one another. Not extracting from one another but figuring out what that sustainable relationship is with one another and ourselves, what it means to live and thrive on this earth. People have different answers but I think it’s a matter of developing all the resources that we need to manifest these lives of dignity and purpose. What does it mean to reimagine a city, or any community where what is produced is shared with all its community members? The first step is cultivating imagination and trust. You can’t just dismantle capitalism and expect everyone to know where to go. We’re estranged from what we actually want and need from life and from one another.
I can’t name what the world should look like. But I know that it takes building completely different types of relationships with one another and being able to meet each others’ needs without these hierarchal goal systems that extract whatever skills and labor we have and move it somewhere else. If we had already imagined a system that vibed with everyone, there’d be a train there by now, but that’s part of the problem, right? We’re waging these wars where the opposition already has a very clear image of what they want the world to look like, because it’s what the world looks like now. One of the huge barriers to victory for any type of movement for justice is not being able to present a shared vision of what another world looks like. Right now, people are in deeply imagining spaces so that folks can invite more people in to movement work by presenting real valuable alternatives. It’s in process. I’m excited to see what those are and what they can be.
Our imaginations are battlegrounds. We cede so much imagination to those who keep power from us. If you look at literature of people who have lived under fascism and study how language and certain cultural products are disseminated under particular types of governments, it’s always been very much in the interest of power to control ideas of people. That shit really works. If you can’t imagine it, you can’t fight for it, and you can’t build it. Our imaginations have always been under siege in a very particular way.
I’d love to hear what you see in your life as the supports and resources for you being in this work, and what are the things that feel like barriers or limitations for you to be in this work in a sustainable way?
It’s hard to say everything I’m saying about radical imagination when folks don’t have money. I have a family with debt and histories of incarceration and addiction. I’m in a relative position of access to capital and resources and sometimes think I just gotta hustle to provide for my folks and to be a stabilizing force — you know, participate in capitalism, hoard resources, and be on my Black capitalist tip. There are immediate material needs to be met. The reality, stress, confusion, and deeply depressing parts of that feel like the biggest limiting factor.
Engaging with all of the horrors of this world is really overwhelming. I don’t necessarily have the constitution. I just moved to Chicago, where I’m not really in community with folks in the way I imagine as liberatory. It’s community that I’m working on building and I’m excited to plug in. But to be without a sense of place and interdependence means the work I want to engage with is largely theoretical at this point. But all of the amazing Black writers and artists who I’ve connected with here are engaging with invaluable ideas and narrative shifts. Everyone has been bringing up the idea of darkness. I just met up with a new writer friend of mine, R.L. Watson, who does visual art and writes fiction, poetry, and plays. She’s thinking about the reframe of darkness — away from the binary opposition to white and to light, which serves a clear purpose within our society. So many people are on a similar wavelength creatively. We’re all feeling this juju. Thinking about the visibility of Black poetry and Black art in general over the last few years, I don’t want to jinx it by calling it a renaissance, but we’re in a cultural moment that feels significant. Connecting with people who are exploring similar ideas of Black liberation in their work feels sustaining to me. To be riding similar wavelengths with other Black artists locally and figuring out ways that we can work together and build work off of one another as opposed to working separately feels really sustaining to me. Then through Forward Together to be able to combine culture shift projects with movement building, and bring this narrative and culture shift work to organizations around the country feels powerful. The barriers are trying to hold on to how much I value culture shift work, and being bombarded with the immediate material needs of myself, my family, and the people around me.
I don’t know if you listened to the episode of [adrienne maree brown and Autumn Brown’s podcast] “How to Survive the End of the World,” when one of the sisters describes something as her darkest moment and corrects herself to instead call it her palest moment.
No, I didn’t, that’s amazing!
It’s such a simple reframe, but also very powerful.
The artist I was talking with this morning is R.L. Watson. She’s getting her phD in literature and engaging with the history of lynching and the white imagination of Black people. She’s engaging with old racist texts for her research, and was struck by how horrifically simple the idea of anti-Black racism is. White identity formation is based on the othering and imagined evil of people with dark skin. Distinct European folks created a shared identity that gave them the numbers to have power, which has persisted and is integrated into all of our culture. She was struck. She was like, this is a stupid text, the prose was awful, but it’s a very simple, powerful idea. The systems that are oppressing us are built on these simple but powerful ideas. It can be dumbfounding to figure out how to meaningfully engage in the realm of ideas, but when you get down to it, they’re powerful, small, stupid, simple ideas we’re waging a battle against. I’m excited that some seeds of it, like this idea of darkness, are being turned over. I’m excited to see what other levers can be simultaneously pushed by writers, artists, and cultural makers as we untangle white supremacy together. White supremacy is such a simple, terrible idea.
It’s so interesting to think about something being simultaneously so fragile and simple, and also so insidious and empowered by its proliferation.
Absolutely. I was really empowered by Toni Morrison, who’s a great writer and thinker, published an essay called Mourning for Whiteness. It did a very simple thing for me, but it was huge. It took power away from whiteness by not framing our current political moment as a moment of white empowerment, but as the last throes of empire. More specifically, she was mourning the humanity of white people — seeing this political moment as a clear sign of humanity lost and estranged from an entire people. That idea was to relocate power elsewhere and not in necessarily who is owning and exercising power through political systems, but who is in right relationship with their humanity. This lightning-shocked me. Narrative shifts that resonate with people are important for being able to locate power in oneself and one’s community. Everyone should read that essay.
That perspective is so true, but it takes so much compassion to acknowledge that what’s really under all the violence and oppression of white supremacy is the disconnection and loss of humanity. Of course compassion is not in contradiction to righteous anger, but ultimately it’s gonna be more sustainable, right?
Right, and that’s what I think about — what is sustainable? What is an empowering narrative? I’m all about some righteous anger. But also it’s really important to relocate power in other ways.
Who are the other artists, writers, and works who are inspiring and guiding you right now?
I mentioned my chosen ancestors. I’m also trying to discover who my poetic elders are. I’m in community with so many Black writers and poets; I’m getting so much from so many people. Whether it’s the greats like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin or contemporary poets like Danez Smith, whose latest connection was Don’t Call Us Dead, which was about the idea that the death of murdered Black boys is not a spiritual death — that there is more freedom in death, a life and joy beyond. So transformative. Black artists have engaged with this idea for a long time, even in popular culture. In Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar’s “Never Catch Me” music video directed by Hiro Murai, we see a funeral for two children. As soon as the song kicks up, the children rise from their caskets and start dancing. No one in the pews notices — they still see dead children — but we as the audience see them dance out of the pews with this ridiculous amount of joy. They leave the funeral parlor, jump into the back of a hearse, and drive the hearse down the street with all of these kids running after it.
For Black Futures Month, Black Lives Matter paired artists with writers to imagine liberated Black futures. We’re in a cultural moment where we’re imagining Black joy and freedom throughout a lot of different disciplines. It’s not new. Black artists have always been doing that interrogation and that reaching beyond. I’m only engaging with work by Black artists because I’m trying to be in that particular space of imagination. I’m very excited to then engage with other writers of color and indigenous writers who are doing that work. But I’m finding it really important for me to locate that within Black folks first.
Is anything else coming up for you in the course of this conversation?
I’m just a person who’s trying to live with integrity and a sense of freedom in a deeply unfree place. I’m so in process, and I’ve been in a space of trying to be deeply compassionate with myself as I figure out how to show up in movement and organizing spaces. Especially as someone who’s just moved to a new city, I find myself in a point of deep transition. I’m like, what work am I doing, what is actually happening? I am just a person who is asking a lot of questions and figuring out how I can best be in service of people around me and of the communities I come from. That service might look different a few months or a year or decades from now, and hopefully it does. As I keep gaining skills and knowledge, and engaging with different people in different communities, I’ll find that I have the skills to fill the different needs that arise. But who knows what I’m doing now. Just trying to figure out how to thrive.
Kemi Alabi is a writer, editor and teaching artist from Wisconsin. Their poetry and essays live in The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic, The Guardian, TEDx, Catapult, Apogee Journal, Winter Tangerine, BOAAT, Nat. Brut and elsewhere. As editorial manager of Forward Together, they hold down Echoing Ida, a home for Black women and nonbinary writers. They’re also a poetry reader for Muzzle Magazine. Kemi lives in Chicago and believes in Black queer futures.