To create a new future, we need to imagine it. As we grow, this imagination will evolve and several futures may emerge that are increasingly radical, constantly seeking the edge of what is possible. We need to believe that a different time may exist, times we can imagine together and see as a departure from the present and the past. adrienne maree brown is an author, doula, women’s rights activist, and Black feminist who helps us engender those futures everyday. Through her writing and organizing, brown enables, inspires, and educates readers, colleagues, partners, and others to collaborate, see across differences, and find commonalities and a transcendent, shared sense of equity.
On November 19, 2020, we had the opportunity to converse with brown, expand upon her ideas, and feel her warmth. We talked about the present moment, a time in which cohabitation between those with opposing views seems fraught, and about how becoming “scholars of belonging” might offer ways forward. We discussed the past, in which our ancestors understood the innate value of circular conversations, how we are not solitary thinkers, and how we might give credit by offering generous citations. With her colleague Walidah Imarisha, brown proposed to use visionary fiction as a tool that can “decolonize the imagination,” lead to continual self-reflection, and develop new terms. Through this interview, we hope to further expand the conversation.
— Roxana Fabius, Patricia Margarita Hernández, Mindy Seu
SCALABILITY PROJECT: In Emergent Strategy, you write, “If we accept the scientific and science fictional premise that change is a constant condition in the universe, then it becomes important that we learn to be in the right relationship with change.” 8 The COVID-19 pandemic and the brutal murder of George Floyd raised collective awareness of systemic problems that were palpable to most yet neglected by many in the US. This year, it became apparent just how polarized we are in the US under the current Trump administration; there are no singular facts or truths, something particularly evident in conversations surrounding systemic racism and climate change. When ideas of change are so drastically different from one human to another or from one species to another, can we co-create a future with those who have opposing views on what the future should look like? What possibilities are there for change between species, as in interspecies collaboration?
BROWN: The interspecies part is great because I’m holding my little turtle right now and we’re learning about each other all the time. I think a lot about having this turtle, about living with plants and other living things around me, about the fact that I’m not the only thing I’m concerned with. Humans are not, and cannot, be the only thing we’re concerned with. When I talk about the “right relationship with change,” I absolutely mean the right relationship with all of the changes that are happening. What does it mean to be in a right relationship with a planet full of other species that we have assumed ourselves dominant over, but over which we are not necessarily dominant? More and more, I believe we are not dominant. Especially in relation to octopuses.
In terms of being in a right relationship with differences, we can begin by asking, How can we be in a right relationship with each other when we’re all different and changing along different trajectories towards different longings and needs? Octavia Butler, a science fiction writer who is like the prophet scientist that I follow, teaches us that humans have developed an attitude towards relationships that could be toxic for our species, one in which we pair our intellect with hierarchy. We have this incredible capacity to understand more, perhaps, than any other species has ever understood before on our planet, but so far we have continuously used it to dominate each other, over, over, over, over. So for me, one of the ways that I think about being in a right relationship with change is by asking how we can live on par with each other.
What does it mean to have equitable relationships? We are in a very big conundrum right now. A lot of us are aroused by intimacy, aroused by the idea of equality, aroused by getting to know each other and by being human together. But we are on a planet with limited resources and space, and with other people who are very committed to domination. Even if we ourselves are not committed to domination, we have been trained in it. It still shows up all the time in what feel like innocuous ways. We are still competing with each other constantly.
In movement work, we focus on how we learn to be in better relationships. How do we learn to be in principled struggle when we do have conflict? How do we learn that we are going to have conflict? One set of technologies I’m focused on right now is mediation and facilitation and intervention. How can we face each other across the realm of difference instead of trying to manipulate each other into all thinking the same thing?
Loretta Ross, one of the founding mothers of the reproductive justice movement, says, “A group of people moving in the same direction thinking the same thing is a cult. A group of people moving in the same direction but thinking many different things is a movement.” One of the things we have to always be learning is how we can maintain our biological ecodiversity and our ideological ecodiversity as we move together towards life. We need to be life moving towards life—which is in our nature, which we know how to do—and we need to do it together.
I have been relinquishing scale. In Emergent Strategy, I talk about “small as all.” I’ve been letting go of the idea that we all have to get on the same page. Instead I say, let’s get on many different pages, but let them be small, intimate, authentic pages, and then let’s make those pages compelling. I don’t want to confront a white supremacist; I want to create something so compelling about being post-supremacist that even someone who has been trained to be a neo-Nazi would look at that, be ashamed, and want to begin their own process of transformation. That feels more aligned with what I can do. So much of what people call their ideology is really based on who offered them belonging, a place where they felt welcomed—a place where “my worst self is welcome and my best self is welcome.” If you look deeply at white supremacist communities, patriarchal communities, ableist communities, cis-gender spaces, you see they hold on to that feeling of belonging. It is that sense of belonging that we will do anything for.
In the somatics lineage, we say that the three basic needs that all humans have are safety, dignity, and belonging. Once those are intact, we can start to feel satisfied and good in our lives. When they’re not there, we constantly seek them out. We need to be scholars of belonging. We need to really be learning. What does it look like to belong to each other? How do we give people something to belong to that is not predicated on someone else not belonging or someone else being lesser than? We don’t know how to do that yet, but that’s the grand experiment that we’re up to.
SCALABILITY PROJECT: Earlier you talked about Octavia Butler, someone you often cite in your writings, in relation to how we can create a compelling future. You also discussed technology as mediation or intervention. With your collaborator Walidah Imarisha, you created Octavia’s Brood 9, where you use visionary fiction to “decolonize the imagination” and science fiction for social justice. We connect this with Afrofuturism or Afro-now-ism. One of our artists, biaritzzz has a work called I AM NOT AN AFROFUTURIST because for her the Western term seems to reject the complexities of her indigenous heritage. Can you speak more about how this future imagination pairs with the now and how this is supported by the development of new terms?
BROWN: I get very excited by the idea of coming up with new language and new words. In my own life, many times I came across a word and felt like it actually represented or acknowledged me. The word would hold onto me for a few years or months, and then someone would deconstruct that language. In terms of my sexuality, when I was young, I didn’t see any model other than that of heterosexual relationships. I came across the term “gay” and I said, “gay, okay.” Then, “lesbian, okay.” But actually, “I’m queer. Queer suits me better because I also like more things. But then maybe the word is bisexual and then no, actually it’s pansexual. There’s nothing that I necessarily don’t want. And gender is not the determining factor.” And so it changed and changed and changed and it may change some more, right? To me, it’s exciting if we allow for that to happen. I’m not moving into a language to imprison myself inside that language; I’m moving through stages of development through that language.
With “Afrofuturism,” there was a period of time where that fit. And then it got interrogated. “Visionary fiction,” for me, opens the spectrum. A lot of what we were trying to speak to was the need for something that includes science fiction, speculative fiction, myth, Afrofuturism, African mythology, indigenous mythology, and things that we haven’t even imagined needing to be able to name yet. The thing that matters to us is wanting narrative ways of understanding the world that are imbued with our values. The first short story that I put forward for Octavia’s Brood, I felt, was an amazing story. I showed it to Walidah and she said, “This is pretty patriarchal.” I went back and reread it, and the lens of masculinity was really dominant and overpowering. I didn’t even see it. It was a visionary fiction moment. I needed someone to help me see what I, in my own limited view, could not see. I want more and more creativity like that, where we write and create and get called in. What would it look like to decolonize this even further?
I finished reading Binti, the trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor. 10 She’s taken us off world, but she’s still giving us a human character. She’s challenging patriarchy. She’s challenging the ways that people think a girl can do things, but she’s challenging them by taking us outside of the human context. That’s so delicious. And yet it still doesn’t liberate us from our conditions. I want fiction that can do both of these things.
SCALABILITY PROJECT: Converting those narratives into tools impacted the way we read your work, especially tools to create this future and to imagine other futures. In Pleasure Activism, 11 you begin with Audre Lorde’s essay Uses of the Erotic 12. Lorde’s well-known quote has become a rallying cry for these times: “We can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” We also connect this with Judy Wajcman’s TechnoFeminism, 13 in which the subversion of tools is so important. Are there any tools that are not part of the master’s arsenal?
BROWN: I believe that conversation is not a master’s tool. I believe that being in a circle, in a community, is not a master’s tool. If you look back, along almost every indigenous pathway that we can follow, conversation and circles have been used over and over by many, many people. The master’s tool comes into being when we start putting one person above the circle, or taking one person out of the conversation. I’ve had many great teachers: Audre Lorde, Grace Lee Boggs, Charity Hicks. If I look at the organizers that I deeply respect, and I look at the people who throughout history have given me guidance, the thing they have continued to return to is that people can and should be in conversation. How do we sit down with each other face to face, heart to heart, and actually feel our way through, to a place that we haven’t yet actually been to yet?
One master’s tool, however, is co-optation. The other day I got the blessing, blessing, blessing of being in conversation with Angela Davis. We were having a conversation related to this one, and she said she was not worried about co-optation. It was really helpful for me to be reminded of that. She said, “When co-optation of movement ideas is happening, it means our ideas have reached so far that they have become something that the mainstream wants to center. And when that happens, it means we have to find the edge again. We have to keep pushing out to be more radical.” This is one of the ways that we stay subversive. We’re going to create things, and co-optation will happen, but then we continue to move towards the radical. And the way we can always move towards the radical is to get ourselves into a circle, to get ourselves into an authentic conversation. Conversation is an art form. Deep listening is an art form. Actually being able to sit and be present with distance and difference is an art form.
I don’t think of myself as being a part of the academy. I went to college, but I didn’t finish my degree, and then I didn’t pursue any others. I also don’t teach at a college. I noticed that when I sit with people who are definitively inside the academy, sometimes it can feel like they’re using their references against me; they’re using their references to dominate. What I have learned is to relax myself inside of that and understand that, if that’s what they have to draw on, it’s not necessarily intentional ; that’s just where their knowledge comes from. My knowledge comes from someplace else. How can we both bring our knowledge?
If we can equally value all the different streams of knowledge and shaping and influence, then I think we begin to weave something that’s larger than the master’s tools can even touch. That’s of interest to me. And when I look back at my own ancestral lineage and the enslaved peoples among it, I remember that it was song and art that helped us to move around the master’s tools and to move and to be able to stay in contact with each other. So I have been leaning more and more into that as well. How do I find the drum that is available at this moment? How do I find the rhythm under the rhythm, the rhythm under the words, that is happening in any given interaction?
SCALABILITY PROJECT: Reading through your texts, we were inspired by how generously you use citations. What you describe above reminds me of your adoption of the Mervyn Marcano quote “Move at the speed of trust.” You also quote Farhad Ebrahimi: “An ecosystem is not just a list of living things … It’s the set of relationships between those living things.” 14 Could you expand more on this nonlinear process of relations, especially in connection to conversation?
BROWN: I love this question because that quote and the practice of citation are the same. I am not a solitary thinker, solitary learner, or solitary channel of these universal wisdoms and universal truths. I’m constantly learning from other people. And I weave. We all weave in different ways. What is the tapestry of lessons and wisdom that is unique for me? Each person ends up with a different tapestry, but you start to see patterns amongst them. And the pattern for me is something infinite. It’s something that we will not end. We want to continue. We want to keep having questions, and we want to stay curious. And that curiosity for me happens at the level of relationship. My friend Gopal Dayaneni from Movement Generation said, “The smallest unit is not the individual, but the relationship.” We are actually never outside of a relationship with something, either with the natural world or with the postperson or the grocery store clerk or with our best friends, our beloveds, our children.
We’re always in relationship. When I come into a room to facilitate, what I am attending to at the smallest scale are the relationships between the people in the circle. In the circle, what is possible because of the relationships that we hold? If the relationships are shoddy, if the relationships are fragile, there’s not much that we’re going to be able to hold. Even with strategic brains and outstanding analysis, if you have a bunch of people with shoddy relationships, you will not get far: everyone is going to battle to be the smartest, most analytical person in the room.
What is the quality of the relationships, and how can I increase the quality of relationships? How can we increase our strength? I think of a relationship like a spiderweb, something that can look very diaphanous and tender, but that’s actually extremely strong because of the material, because of the time, because of the energy that was put into it. I love the idea of webbing. It doesn’t have to be a solid thing that we’re creating with relationships. It has to be something that is just as thick as it needs to be to hold this particular group up. A web allows things to fall through, like a sieve. Some things are not meant to be caught. The things that are meant to be caught and held will nourish us. We may not get a hundred percent of the people in the room to align, but if we can get enough to nourish us to move forward and commit to taking the next step, then we’ve done our work. Then we’ve done a good job.
A lack of citation, a lack of people actually naming where the ideas come from, perpetuates weak relationships. If I see someone quoting something that actually was said by someone else as mine, I try as often as I can to jump in and say, “That’s actually Audre Lorde, that’s actually Mervyn Marcano, that’s actually this other person.” And, at the risk of being ridiculous, it feels important for me to name our relationship there. Not even that the person created the idea, because that’s not how I believe ideas work. I believe that the ideas themselves are rivers that are trying to flow through as many people as they can. We don’t own them. Mervyn doesn’t own that concept. Audre Lorde didn’t own her concepts. She had them, she thought them, she felt them, and I related to her when I heard it, and I want the relationship to always be transparent.
SCALABILITY PROJECT: It’s so luxurious to think about honoring lineages.
BROWN: Thank you. I think we needed some healing today.
Anna L. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 2015↩
Le Guin positions the container, rather than the spear, as the first human tool, following the writings of Elizabeth Fisher. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, 1986↩
In “On Non-Scalability,” Tsing establishes that a primary critique of scalable frameworks is of their inability to maintain diversity. Taking that intrinsic flaw into account, we aim to not promote the amplification of a singular feminist framework. Anna L. Tsing, “On Non-Scalability,” 2012↩
In an interview with Jorge Cotte, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun states, “Every form of communication is based on a fundamental leakiness.” These leaks can be seen as moments of possibility. Wendy Chun, “Reimagining Networks,” The New Inquiry, 2020↩
Anna L. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 2015; Anna L. Tsing, Roxana Fabius, Patricia M. Hernandez, Mindy Seu, “Big histories are always best told through insistent, if humble, details,” The Scalability Project, A.I.R. Gallery, 2020↩
In Glitch Feminism, Legacy Russell sees the glitch as a catalyst rather than an error, a “correction to the machine.” Legacy Russell, “Digital Dualism And The Glitch Feminism Manifesto,” Cyborgology, 2012↩
Here we are drawing from Judy Wajcman’s definition of interpretive flexibility. Wajcman describes technology’s malleable character, emphasizing that there is nothing inevitable about the way technologies evolve. Users have the power to radically alter technologies’ meanings and deployment. Judy Wajcman, TechnoFeminism p.37↩