Today on The Laura Flanders Show, writer and
activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha discusses poetry, capitalism, and the difference
between disability rights and disability justice. All that and a few words from me on roads
less traveled. Welcome to the program. Hi, I’m Laura Flanders. Safety. Every law
enforcement officer and every politician will tell you that they’re for it. And yet for
many police aren’t the answer, they’re a problem in the community and today’s policy makers
are only making things worse. If what we’re doing isn’t making many of us safer, what
might? Our next guest has gone on a search. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes
herself as a queer, disabled, writer, performer, poet, healer and teacher. Inspired by poets,
June Jordan, Suheir Hammad, and what she calls the whole women of color pantheon. She is
the author of several books of poetry including Consensual Genocide and the Lambda Award winning,
Love Cake. She has a new book of poetry, Body Map, and a memoir, Dirty River, out this year.
She also performs with the group Mangos With Chili. She’s an editor, too, of the book The
Revolution Starts as Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities, a book that
grapples with the difficult ideas of addressing violence without police. We also discovered
that we shared a meal together a few years ago in Toronto. Many years ago. I’m happy
to see you again, Leah. Thanks for coming in. Let’s talk a little bit about this notion
of safety and we’ll come back to other things. Let’s.
What does it mean to you? I think that there are a million survivors
of violence out there. I think that most people have survived some form of abuse or violence.
I think that as feminists, we’ve been talking about that at least since the ’70s and beyond.
And I think that in the criminal legal system, which I don’t call the criminal justice system,
because it doesn’t bring it, no one ever asks survivors of violence what they need to have
safety, justice, and healing in their lives. We’re told as survivors of violence that,
“Yay! Second wave white liberal feminism works,” so we get to call the cops and send our abusers
to prison. I don’t know a single survivor who’s ever called the police to get justice.
And of the ones that I’ve read about I don’t know a single one who said, “Yeah my experience
in the criminal legal system was great and I got what I needed.” We’re basically being
used to create more prisons and to build mass incarceration.
Explain what you mean by that. I think that like a lot of feminists of color,
I understand why a lot of feminists in the ’70s and ’80s pushed for things like the criminalization
of domestic violence and child and sexual abuse. But what black and brown feminists
know is that bringing more police into our communities never keeps us safe. My good friend
Ejeris Dixon, who worked for many years at Audre Lorde Project, talks about how what
we’re calling transformative justice is nothing new. She’s like, “My father is a black man
from Louisiana. Growing up, the police were the Klan and still are,” and he’s like, “That’s
not who we called when there was intimate partner abuse in our communities.” That hasn’t
changed. Is that where the artist and poet and imagination
comes in of what else might we do? What else have other communities done?
Mm-hmm. One thing that I’m really grateful for … so I’m about to be 40 which means
I came up as an activist and an organizer in the ’90s and, back then I would run into,
you know, in whatever movement spaces we were a part of, a little bit of ‘ oh cultural
works, this very feminized unimportant thing’. I still remember trying to organize a Free
Mumia rally in 1996 and there was some old white Bolshevik guy – We were young people
of color, and we were like, “We want to have MC’s and hip-hop artists and poets,” and he
was like, “That’s not how you do a proper rally. You sell the paper,” and we were like,
you’re racist and irrelevant. I think that cultural works still is minimized
but I think that it goes beyond just being the entertainment at the rally. Diane di Prima
once said that, “The only war that matters is the war of the imagination.” And I think
that it’s very easy when we are surviving and not surviving multiple forms of violence
all of the time to focus on the power that we don’t have. One thing that the Allied Media
Conference, which is a grassroots media conference I work with, stresses in how we organize is
that we focus on where we’re powerful not where we’re powerless. I think the imagination
is one place that we’re powerful and I think that we don’t have the state, we don’t have
the prisons, we don’t have the cops, thank God. What we do have is the wild, queer, feminists
of color, decolonial imagination. And what difference does your disability make
and the disability rights movement make? I heard you begin to talk about it, but I think
it’s important. Right. We actually use the term disability
justice because the disability rights movement, while it’s incredibly important and I’m grateful
for the work those organizers did, has been predominately a white-dominated, single-issue
movement. Disability justice as a term was coined by people of color with disability
who were revolutionaries, especially Patricia Berne and Leroy Moore of Sins Invalid who
got really sick of being marginalized as disabled revolutionary people of color within both
white disability rights and non-disabled people of color movements, and I would just say everything.
Cara Page, who is a beloved, beloved person, who is the Executive Director of Audre Lorde
Project right now, she was part of a group called Kindred, which still exists, which
is black and brown queer southern healers, and they came together because she was like,
“Organizers are literally dying in the South because of chronic illness and ableism and
the relentless pace of our movements that is ableist.” So I would say that the first
thing that’s true for our movements is that sustainability is a huge issue for us.
There’s so much that non-disabled activists can learn from disabled people and that’s
kind of one of the beginning places. I think a lot of non-disabled activists, or people
who don’t identify as disabled yet, are used to thinking of disability only in terms of,
“Oh we need to get a ramp.” And that’s really important but it’s a really huge cognitive
leap for non-disabled folks to become aware that disabled folks have our histories and
cultures of resistance. We have crip science. We have incredible organizing skills that
non-disabled people need to learn from. I can organize from bed. I can organize on the
internet. I can organize on crip time. I can do a lot of miraculous things that are not
on a 16 meeting a week relentless schedule. I can do that on no money and I am not alone.
I am one of millions of disabled folks who are resisting and I would say a whole lot
of other things about eugenics and the value of our bodies and how it’s immensely the struggle
around those issue are immensely connected with anti-prison organizing.
And I would just add one other thing. It has to do with fun.
Oh, yeah, right? I had a disability justice activist talk the
other day about aging and said to her not disabled, they didn’t think, colleagues, “You
want to learn how to work your body as it ages, as if you’re lucky it will acquire disabilities,
learn from us.” Oh I need to say this. My friend Naima Lowe
said recently, she’s like you know, “The thing that non-disabled folks have to learn from
us is that we’ve already survived some of the worst things that can happen and I don’t
just mean what ableism sees as the individual tragedy of our bodies, I mean surviving ableism
and capitalism and we know how to do it. And we are thriving and we are surviving and we’re
not always surviving but we are.” So yeah, exactly. When that, you know, break-neck speed
burn-out able-bodied activist gets cancer or diabetes or, you know, gets an amputation
and is like, “Oh my God, my life is over,” we are there to be like it actually really
isn’t. But you need to change the way your life is and the way movements are so we can
actually be part of that radical imagination. And we can have fun.
And we can have fun. Talk about fun.
What do you want to know? What you’re into.
(laughs) I’m watching you and I’m thinking you’re talking
about some of the most intense, hardcore stuff and yet you’re clearly relishing it. I’m not dead. I was like many survivors who make it to 40.
I was not supposed to … I’m going to quote somebody who’s going to make you cry.
Go for it. I mean June Jordan, right? The revolutionary
queer black poet. Cancer survivor and cancer not-survivor said right after 9/11, “Some
of us did not die. I guess it was our fate to live, so what are we going to do about
I was talking with one of my chosen family members who is also a hardcore survivor who’s
42 who painted this cane and they were like, “We made it.” Now what do we do with it?
We survived and we have all that knowledge. I’m thankful every day and not in some weird
bougie Christian way. I’m just like, I get to be alive. I get to have made it through
some of the roughest stuff and that’s not to say that there’s not going to be disasters
that keep coming. I have a poem in the book called The Worst Thing in the World, which
is the truth is, it will keep happening. You know, we’re about to run out of water in California
in a year. Octavia Butler was right. What one thing that we also have power over is
our capacity for joy and pleasure and that’s something that queer and trans folks have
always held onto, is we don’t have to be homonormative. We actually don’t have to. We have so much
that’s about sex and joy and pleasure and the powers of decadence, on no money.
You have great examples of how people do confront violence without recourse to the police in
your book. Thank you.
The group UBUNTU stands out in my mind. The word meaning born to belonging.
I am because we are. I am because we are. Talk about how they work
and why you thought it was important to put them in the book.
UBUNTU! is one of the most amazing groups that I’ve ever run into … Alexis Pauline
Gumbs, who is a queer black feminist troublemaker genius …
Who’s been on this program. Good. I feel blessed every time I’m in Alexis’s
presence. I ran into UBUNTU’s work when I was stealing time from my day job at the eviction
hotline. They came together after the Duke University rape, I hesitate to call it a trial,
but where several white male Duke University Lacrosse players sexually assaulted black
female sex workers who they’d hired to dance for them at a party. I always talk about that
story when I’m asked to talk about transformative justice because that is an example where,
you know, I mean, just the forces of anti-black racism, whorephobia, you know it’s a perfect
storm of everything awful. It would be really easy to feel like there’s nothing we can do
and UBUNTU! came together and they said, “We can’t control the courts but we can do a national
day of truth telling march past the house where the assault happened holding signs saying,
“Someone I love is a sex worker,” and, “I believe survivors,” and do a dance routine
to Audre Lorde’s A Litany for Survival in front of the house where the assault happened.
They just grew to do incredible anti-violence work in Durham, North Carolina and beyond.
Just speaking to that, this example that is in the interview that we did with Alexis that
pops out at me is that, you know they had multiple examples of just, they were like,
“Yeah, we were just walking down the street one day and we ran into this young woman who’d
just been assaulted by her partner and we just said, hey, what do you need? Come with
us. We took her into our home. We made her tea. We talked about her experiences. We called
her family and her faith leader.” When I asked Alexis, “So that’s something a lot of feminist
wish they could do but when something like that happens, we freeze, so what made that
possible?” Cycling back to what you said about relationships, she was like, “90% of our work
doesn’t look like traditional activist work. It’s doing childcare. It’s hanging out. It’s
building with each other so we’re not a clique, we’re an actual community and we know that
we can call on each other during the times of deepest crisis and we can respond.” That’s
why I think we need to do relationship work and that’s work that’s looked down on because
it’s feminized and it’s not seen as like big, beating the chest, I’m leading the rally,
work. It’s just what women and feminized people have always done.
I always say we have a big fight around the shredding of the social safety net but what
we don’t talk often enough about is not the net but the fabric. We need to restitch the
social fabric. Which I think is what you’re talking about when somebody opens their doors.
So much to talk about. Mentors. I’d love to hear about more of your mentors. What you’ve
learned from different people. Then this word transformative justice. This idea that you’re
in a transformative justice moment. What do you mean?
(laughs) You want me to start with that? Yeah.
I mean we’ve been in a transformative justice moment all our lives. I think that right now
it was really intense being at the Color of Violence for a Conference, which happened
this past weekend, and feeling, really feeling, how I feel like I’ve been in movement with
the folks who were there. The black and brown women who were there for 15 years and for
so many of us we started, going back to that the early incite documents of like, so the
police don’t work for us as black and brown folks. When they’re called, they arrest us,
they beat us, the deport us. It’s never safe to be a black sex worker who calls the cops
when your partner is beating you up. It’s never safe. It’s never going to add to that.
What do we do instead? And to go on these, what [Alyssa Vera 00:16:18]
calls, “marvelous journeys and stories that are still being written.” I think that we’re
in an incredible moment right now with Black Lives Matter as a black feminist-led movement
and created movement. It is incredible for me to look at Rolling Stone Magazine, to look
at that article that says that, “Policing is a dirty job and it turns out no one has
to do it. Here’s 10 alternatives.” To feel that all over North America, people are saying,
“Actually calling the cops always ends up with someone getting killed, so what are we
actually do instead? Because our lives are on the line all the time.” I felt complicated
about transformative justice and I’m someone who’s helped organize it.
Revolution Starts at Home came out in 2011 and I was very optimistic and I thought, “Oh
and you know we just had the US Social Forum and in 3 years we’ll just abolish the police.
It’ll be great.” And it turns out that this project of replacing the state with community-based
alternatives is thrilling, maddening, exhausting. You don’t know what’s going to happen around
the corner. It’s the most triggering work you can do – to speak to especially people
in our communities who we love who cause harm a nd to be able to be in the place where we
say, “I love you. I do not want you to be locked up for the next 40 years. What you
did is absolutely not all right and we’re not going to let you keep doing it.” We have
not been trained to do this and it takes developing a lot of emotional muscles to do it. I believe
that we are doing it and it’s also not a straight shot.
Your life is so not the straight shot. You are performing. You are organizing. You have
2 books coming out this year. You’ve written a memoir already.
Yes. A. How do you find the time? And B. Is it
a little early for a memoir? No. (laughs) I know. I mean, my niece Luna
Merbruja, formerly known as Askari González, is an incredible 22 year-old transgender Latina
organizer who co-organized the first trans-women of color national gathering ever last year.
Her memoir Trauma Queen came out 2 years ago, she’s 23.
She beat you to it. I think she did. She did. Dirty River took
13 years to write and it makes me think a lot about the stakes for feminist of color
writing. Alexis, as you probably know, she was one of the first people to get access
to June [Jordan]’s archives. June wrote, what 27 books over her lifetime? Alexis has spoken
a lot about, “Yeah, I read the correspondence where June was like, ‘I couldn’t pay my phone
bill that month.’ Or where she was fighting so hard with the publishers of Poetry For
the People, wanted her to delete the subtitle “a Revolutionary Blueprint.” I feel immensely
lucky to be a queer, disabled feminist of color writing and, no one dinged me on the
head with a star. It’s not automatic. It’s taken a lot of collective labor. It doesn’t
happen if our presses and media movements don’t keep going. Like a lot of queer working-class,
feminists of color, disabled folks – fill in the blank – we’ve really led real lives.
My memoir is about me running away from America when I was 21 to set a national boundary between
me and my parents and their love and their abuse and their internalized racism. And walking
straight into a movement moment in Toronto in the late 90’s that was filled with queer
feminists of color. And Desh Pardesh which was a revolutionary cross-class south Asian
queer organizing center and the biggest global diasporic Sri Lankan community in the world.
You know, nothing like being in love with a queerbound crazy boy who you’re reading
Frantz Fanon with, and who also hits you when he’s triggered too. And that’s where my feminism
and my organizing comes from. We need those road maps. I partly wrote that book because,
I mean I’m a book nerd and I have an incredible collection of small press literature that’s
currently in a storage unit in Berkley. The incest survivor and survivor narrative throughout
there are often very white, very from second-wave feminism, very single-issue and I wanted to
document all of our true life adventure stories of actually how we survive, in a very complicated
way. Now there’s never a moment on this program
where I don’t use the word queer and someone doesn’t email me and say, “How can you be
insulting people. What are you going to use the ‘N’ word next?” What does queer mean to
you? Queer means everything that’s not straight
that’s in the practice of moving always towards freedom.
So Leah you’ve agreed generously to read something to us, what are you going to read?
I’m going to read a poem called Wrong is Not Yours after June Jordan and it’s from
my new book, BodyMap. One day you are a 22 year-old with dread-locked
half Desi hair you decided to lock when you did double dip mescaline on New Year’s Eve
after staring at pictures of sadhus from south India. Years before Carol’s Daughter in Target
or Palmer Coconut Hair Milk or kinky curly and you have no idea what to do with all that
curly, curly hair. And you decide you want to change your name from Albrecht, no more
Albrecht. You want your great grandmothers’. You are a 22 year-old on a straight diet of
nothing but Frantz Fanon, Marlon Riggs, and Cristos. You are a Sri Lankan daughter of
the Dutch East India company. You want no more Albrecht. No more rape in your pelvis.
No more, “Where’d you get that name?” No more, “Are you adopted?” No more. Even though your
grandmothers whisper, “Keep a white name for the passport.” In fact, keep as many passports
as possible. You never know what boat you’re going to have to get on. Who you’ll have to
bullshit in an immigration office. You’ll never know where we’ll have to run to. Make
home on. Sip your tea. Cook your rice. Wait for death. Looking at an ocean almost like
your own. But you, you want your great grandmothers’ name. Who meets hot pepper. Who walked out
of Galicia with 13 children. Your other great grandmother whose name is a foot-note in a
Lankan history books cross-reference index, you find researching your senior thesis on
mixed race women in Sri Lanka. Teachers, union organizers, and sluts, every one of us. And
you get something infinitely Google-able. And infinitely unpronounceable, except for
Ukrainians and Lankans and Dravidians. And even when Dennis Kucinich runs for president
and puts and Mp3 file on his website saying how to say his name and you think it might
be a good idea, too. Your name is not wrong. Wrong is not your name. It is your own. Your
own. Your own. Your own. Your. Own. Beautiful.
Thank you. Listening to you read Leah, I hear references
to home. You have the word tattooed on your chest.
I do. June Jordan also wrote a collection Moving
Towards Home. And what does home mean to you? Oh, you sucker punched me. I think that, for
those of us who are diasporic, home is always a question. I think that part of the reason
why I got “home” tattooed there is that this body is the only thing that I’ll ever own
and it’s on loan. And I think that for those of us who have been forced from our homeland
through, you know, the top 5 of colonialism: rape, genocide, war, imperialism, et cetera,
We carry home in our bodies’ memories. In our cells. In our bones. We make home wherever
we are. Whether it’s a prison cell. Whether it’s Brooklyn. Whether it’s wherever we go
when we’re gentrified out of Brooklyn. We make it in the imagination. We also get to
envision where home’s going to be that hasn’t It doesn’t just have to be loss, it doesn’t have to be the thing that we’re imagining. It doesn’t just have to be loss, it doesn’t have to be the thing that we’re trying to get back to. When Palestine is free, it’s going to be a different place than it was in ’48. You can find out more about our guest, Leah, and June, the Poetry for the People founder, and professor at UCB Berkely at our website. This is Airport Ode #1 from BodyMap. The truth is I ask for the opt-out. I ask for it every single time. I would rather be patted down by a 60ish white working class
woman who looks like my mom who I will studiously ma’am and ask about her day, than to sit sweating waiting for it to happen. Than to have that beam of atoms shot through my body and still get barked aside, patted down, tarot cards, cock and coconut oil wanded. Once on my way to a redeye from a performance in a cocktail dress you were young and brown and queer and you said damn, it’ll be easy to search you, you’re hardly wearing anything at all You complemented my mukkuthi and because I am a frequent queerartbrownlady flyer
you remembered me from a week or two ago This is where we are in 2012 I chat friendly and deliberate with the sister who searches me legs spread one in front of the other, back of the hand on sensitive
areas your zipper line, your bra casual spread-eagle in public as everyone hops on shoes, puts laptops back Not too long ago, every airport line a panic attack, every airport four hours sweating armpit rank, every bus crossing the small room and barking guards who don’t ever pretend to be polite who go through all your things and take you to the glass toilet Every time they chirp or bark, “I’m going to pat your hair” I go deep inside and all the way out. Once, my girlfriend picked me up at the airport with a little tupperware of dinner and fucked me in long-term parking bent over the hood of her car
I was too nervous to come but I loved how she wanted to feed me, how she wanted to fuck me back in the middle of all these concrete cameras wands scanners fingerprints nexxus red blinking eye this place
that hates us That was a poem from Leah’s new book Bodymap about which you can get more information and find out how to get a copy for yourself, at our website. It’s hard to imagine an American poet more celebrated than four-time Pulitzer prize winner Robert Frost. Who’s most famous poem concludes: “Two roads diverged in a wood and I —I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” When the most celebrated poet’s most well-known lines praise difference why is it that we’re so scared of it? Maybe we need more poets. That’s what John F Kennedy said just weeks before his death, at the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College. . It was soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War was raging on, ten million Americans needed jobs, America needed strength, said Kennedy, but strength he said, “takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant.” His words.
The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, he President continued, “but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable… for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.” Music and poetry and the arts push us, said Kennedy. “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence.” That was half a century ago. Today we have entire months supposedly dedicated to “diversity”, including this one, June, LGBTQI Pride Month. Except mostly, we don’t celebrate diversity, we celebrate sameness. We honor all the progress that we lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans Americans have made, becoming “accepted” as, well, just like everybody else. ow I’m all for everyone enjoying the same rights in these United States. I support that – on-going – project. But I’d like to celebrate something else too: roads less travelled. Especially the roads less travelled that LGBTQI people take daily, The same old roads will take us to the same old destinations. It’s divergence, as the straight, white poet once wrote, that makes all the difference. Tell me what you think. [email protected] And thanks for listening.