In the days after the election, when I was wracked with fear and anxiety and avoiding social media that would add to that panic, I asked myself, Who do I need to hear from in this moment? The first name that came to mind was adrienne maree brown, the queer, multi-racial writer, doula and healer who co-edited “Octavia’s Brood,” an anthology of science and speculative fiction by social justice activists. The Detroiter’s work has long been a source of both wokeness and inspiration to me, particularly through her writing. I interviewed brown via phone to find out how she’s navigating this challenging political time. Here’s our discussion, edited for length and clarity.
It’s been a month since the election. How are you feeling today?
I have definitely been sort of swinging on the pendulum between my bravado and what I think of as a healthy dose of hopefulness and despair. It’s scary because I love a lot of people who are considered collateral damage by this President-Elect and by the people who voted for this President-Elect.
[I’m] trying not to stuff it down or deny it, but also not to be debilitated by it. So I’ve been more prolific in my writing, both what I’ve shared, but also I’ve been writing poetry and journals and love notes and really honest messages to my family about how I want to engage [them] more explicitly during this time. This is not a time for silence, this is a time for connecting with people.
What else has kept you grounded?
I’ve been really on top of my chores. The small things have been super helpful: Doing my meditation, taking out my compost and recycling. While I don’t think we should normalize the political moment, I think it’s really important that we normalize self-care, pleasure and joy. I want my body to have a daily expectation of feeling really good and being taken care of so I can tell if that’s being challenged and taken away from me.
The day after the election, you wrote, “while there is despair, i am not hopeless.” Can you say more about holding both despair and hope at the same time?
To speak about that I have to use the word “contradictions.” I do feel hopeful because I am embedded in movements of people who are actively working in a million ways to address the root causes of this current condition. And I feel despair because we’ve been working so long and I can sense our collective exhaustion.
On a personal level it almost feels like intergenerational exhaustion. As far back as I can look in my own lineage we’ve been trying to say this simple thing: “We are human.” For me, that “we” is as a Black person and a queer person and a person with different disabilities that come and go, and as a multi-racial person and a person with deep Southern roots. There is exhaustion and a despair that comes from that. I’m smart about who I surround myself with and what I allow into my world.
Who do you surround yourself with?
I try to keep close to me people who are honest about despair but are looking for solutions, for what action we can take, and who have a sense of agency. The framework is not, “Right or wrong.” The framework is, ”I survived, I’ve learned a lot, and now I have agency.”
What do you do when you’re stuck on the despair side of the pendulum?
My pleasure activism gets very visceral—I think everyone needs to be having an orgasm every day. I’m taking more baths and showers to allow the water to help cleanse me and shift me. I’m having more phone calls with people. I’m cooking more. I’m also reading more. It’s been really helpful to do a re-reading of the “Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents” by Octavia Butler.
I know Octavia Butler has had a big impact on you and your work. What does she have to offer in this particular moment?
So much of what Octavia teaches us [is relevant now]. We have to be in deeper relationship with each other, we have to build relationships with those who are really different than us, and we need to learn to be in relationship with the natural world rather than just living on top of it. This is an invitation to do things differently.
Also, there is something about [the fact that] Octavia Butler was able to see this coming. What did she do to center herself to project into the future? How can we similarly orient ourselves so that we can see into the future, so that we can see where we need to land?
For those of us who haven’t read her Parable books, why does it feel like she was able to see this moment coming?
The one big piece that I’ll tell you is that in this series, which is set in a near future California, the president ran with the slogan “Make America Great Again” and is a right wing fundamentalist Christian.
Wow. Do you think Donald Trump knows about her work?
I don’t think of him as a big reader. I hope he hasn’t read them because I want us to use these books as a playbook. When I went back and checked, Reagan ran on a similar slogan but not exactly. In the books, Butler creates a belief system called Earth Seed. It’s about getting in right relationship with change, how we can either deny it or be destroyed by it. Change doesn’t happen to us, it’s something we can shape. I love that. For a lot of people who are re-reading the books, [they] are saying this is the devastation we have to be prepared for it but this is what we can do within it.
You call yourself a “pleasure activist.” What does that mean, and how does it relate to this political moment?
We take on so much–never sleeping, always working, never feeling satisfied, taking no sick days, taking no vacation days, not actually using the things that our ancestors have secured for us to ensure that we could work. There is this deep guilt and shame underneath all of it, this sense of having to do the impossible in our lifetime. Part of the pleasure activism is trying to posit something that is radically different from that. It’s not just fighting the status quo that liberates us, but actually experiencing joy and happiness. Building family and love are radical acts of resistance. These are the very things that this system wants to stamp out of us.
You’ve written about being a “radical empath.” How does that work in this political time?
When I stopped crying the first time [after the election], I kind of checked in with it. I asked myself, “Why am I crying so much?” Because I am an empath. I can feel what is swirling underneath the surface. In moments like this it can be really overwhelming [but] I don’t want to turn off. The radical part of it is that I’m not just an empath, but my work makes me want to take something all the way to the emotional root system. I think the feeling is really important and I don’t want to numb that down.
What helps you keep perspective?
I can choose to see the world in a million different ways. Sometimes I can choose to see it all working together or all falling apart. We just don’t know; sometimes I find comfort in that. We just know that we have our values and we have to keep working with them and changing with this world.