Asha Bandele on #MeToo, #TimesUp, Motherhood, White Allies, #BLM + Her New Book with Patrisse Khan-Cullors + Angela Davis, When They Call You a Terrorist, A Black Lives Matter Memoir
Read her in-depth discussion with our EIC on #MeToo, #TimesUp, Motherhood, White Allies, the Black Community + Her New Book with Patrisse Khan-Cullors + Angela Davis,
When They Call You a Terrorist, A Black Lives Matter Memoir.
I met Asha briefly twenty years ago while reading poetry at the Brooklyn Moon Cafe in Park Slope Brooklyn. At the time, there was this renaissance of creativity and an influential community of black intellectuals which included the likes of Mos Def, Wood Harris, Erykah Badu and many others, blessing us with spoken word at spots like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Asha was most certainly an active part of that movement, as a celebrated author, poet, activist and social warrior. It was an honor to sit down with her and discuss some of the most pressing issues we face today, during such a tough political and social time. Read more on her insightful and very personal message on such essential topics as race, community, feminism, mass incarceration, the war on drugs and reclaiming our time.
NIKKI: You were an inspiration for young women as far back as 20 years ago with your powerful poetry and voice. What were some of your favorite memories during that period for you?
ASHA: You know. I think when I go back to that period when Fort Green and Clinton Hill was still populated by black artists before it was gentrified, I remember that time and that place as holy ground. You know we built a sense of community there. The Brooklyn Moon Cafe opened up and you might see me reading poetry, or you might hear Erykah Badu singing or words from MOS DEF. There were just so many brilliant artists that came out of that time. Jessica Care Moore who’s our poet laureate in the community these days. All the incredible voices and the commitment to art and blackness and to our freedom that thrived because we were in a community of people who loved it and celebrated one another.
It wasn’t so much just in Brooklyn. I can remember back in the 90’s the first time I heard Carl Hancock Rux. And I felt that my life changed just listening to the incredible genius he offered up to us as a gift. And then I remember a period where I worried. I worried that poetry had given way to capitalism that the talent had been diminished. It felt like that for a little while. And then one day I was in a store, and I looked up an anthology. They carried the work of Stacey Ann Chin. I said to myself after seeing that, no; they can’t kill us because her work is so brilliant. So there’s maybe not one memory, but the memory of a time when we could come together in community for love, for black people, for freedom and offer the very best of what we had and we were free to do that. So that’s probably it.
NIKKI: That’s kind of how I feel when I’ve heard your name over the years, that memory is just how you described it so well and you’re unquestionably a part of that. Can you tell us about The Prisoner’s Wife?
ASHA: A lot of people think it’s my first book, but it was my second book. My first book was a collection of poems published by an independent black press, Harlem River Press and then The Prisoner’s Wife.
When I first thought about doing it, about documenting the relationship with my husband who was incarcerated, I thought about telling it as a novel, and I just couldn’t get started. Every time I tried it failed.
I realized that I wanted to write that memoir to shift the narrative of who people were that were incarcerated and that they were people. I wanted our families to be seen. I knew with 2 million people in prison, something terrible was happening in America, and it was happening on our watch, and it was happening in our silence. Far too many people were silent. Not everyone of course.
And so I wanted to humanize, we who had been so dehumanized and made fun of on the various talk shows, women who were with men who are locked up.
You know we were always pathologized as we consistently saw them interviewing some woman who married someone who was maybe a serial murderer and she had never met him. He then becomes a celebrity because of how many people he’s killed. There were shows with that kind of woman when the woman that I knew was a mother, a worker, a caretaker, and she was trying to support her family entirely. Black women have always held our families together despite the barriers, the pain, and the forced separations. There were stories of people who at the end of slavery walk as much as a hundred miles sometimes barefoot, to try to find the people who had been taken from them and the women who I knew in the main were women like that, women trying to hold their people together. That story needed to be told. The story of love and commitment a story that made us human.
NIKKI: People of color are disproportionately incarcerated. How can our readers educate themselves and support the movement to end mass incarceration? Where does it start?
ASHA: I think that there’s an extraordinary amount of literature out there right now that talks about incarceration and the way that we knew it. The most recent piece to shift national conversation is, of course, Michelle Alexander’s masterwork, The New Jim Crow. There are many books to choose from that have been released since the 90’s. It talks about what was happening in our communities and how people were being swept away in communities decimated. I think that it is essential to read the substantial scholarship on precisely what happened because we tend to continue the idea or continue believing the notion that somebody in prison, is a problem of that individual. When you have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the prison population, we have to understand that we’re talking about policy decisions. We’ve decided who we could throw away; we chose who we could criminalize. We decided that for the very same reasons that we’ve always determined it, especially when it came to black people. Our only consistent relationship with America has been one of control, containment, and confinement andthat our bodies are used for the production of wealth for white people.
Prisons carry on that tradition. So whether we saw it with slavery whether we saw it with the use of the Black Codes or chain gangs, whether we saw it with how sharecroppers were forced to work in the Jim Crow laws that kept us out of civil society in so many ways. We see it here too. People are incarcerated, and then they lose every right upon their return to open society, and they’re still being incarcerated. Whether it’s the right to vote the right to serve on juries, the right to get a license the right to get a job, the right to live in public housing or access public funds that they may need to survive when they first come out. So I look at the modern day prison system as the continuation of the relationship that black people, in particular, have had with America.
So our job is to read the people who are doing the incredible research. One should know the work of Edward E. Baptist who wrote The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism and read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. It’s to read Assata: An Autobiography
by Assata Shakur and to read Dr. Carl Hart’s, High Price. That book not only unpacks how the drug war was used to criminalize a generation, now two generations of black people and that extended of course to Latinos as well. What was really going on in the removal of the social safety net is to begin to become a lot more critical, about what people are saying. The crack era should be referred to as the Reagan era because crack was bought and sold more in white communities than black communities. But white communities weren’t destroyed because people didn’t want them destroyed. People made sure they had employment assistance programs, treatment and all sorts of things. There were places like Wall Street, where crack was used, bought and sold at more significant levels than it ever was in black communities. So they decided we were the ones to throw away. I want us to learn how to be more critical about that and to disrupt the idea that criminalization is merely the problem of the individual. These numbers reflect a decision about how to control the population.
Nikki: What are your thoughts on the #MeToo movement, it’s recent viral success and its founder.
Asha: I have my concern about the ownership of that movement publicly being in the hands of white women. I don’t know that white women have ever led a movement that secured people outside of their own. They didn’t do it with the suffragette movement. The suffragette movement they said how are you going to let ni**ers get the vote before white women do. They didn’t do it with the women’s movement that didn’t take into consideration not only black and Latino women rights but also for women. So they didn’t do it there. A lot of women who fought for position in the women’s movement of the 1970’s go on to fill those seats that were opened up for affirmative action. Standing in the blood and bone of black people who gave their lives in the 1960’s and 70’s and then would go on to participate in the sentencing of black and brown people throughout the 80’s and 90’s.
There were a lot of white women judges that participated in ways to further harm us. And so I don’t trust any movement for freedom being led by people who have not formally figured out a way to divorce themselves from white supremacy. So you know full stop there. And I’m concerned that the #MeToo Movement as it’s being referenced in the current culture doesn’t center transformative justice.
I think as a survivor it’s monumentally important for people to have the right to voice what harm was done to them. But is that all that people are doing? We’re not figuring out how to create a society where people are not sexually harming other people. The way that is being articulated is in throwing people away and doing it in a way that has typically been done. You take the very worst horrible cases, and you run it on the news over and over again, Larry Nassar, the US gymnastics doctor who rapes 200 young girls, Bill Cosby’s case with at least 50 women, Harvey Weinstein. We take these most egregious cases, and you put them before the public imagination, and you never get the nuanced discussions about all of the things that are going on that either harm women or don’t, we don’t get to talk about the spectrum of harm.
So as in the case of Aziz Ansari, who goes on a date, has drinks with a woman, they fool around, they have sex, and she says later that she feels uncomfortable, but at no point in there does she say stop or no. Somehow he is in the same realm as Harvey Weinstein, and I don’t buy that. I think there’s a spectrum of harm. We should have a movement, as a survivor, I say this, where we’re transformed, where men know not to do certain things and where women who sexually harm people, know not to do things. I don’t think we get that by just throwing people away. That’s never happened, and I don’t think it’s going to happen here. The more and more we’re wedded to only punitive measures is the moment where we’re wedded to patriarchy. That’s what comes out of patriarchy. It comes out of white supremacy. It doesn’t come out of transformative justice. So I want to see that center so that the people who are harmed are restored to whole, and you’re not going to get restored to whole, just by saying your story. There’s a whole process that one needs to go through. I think it’s helpful to speak your truth. And then what else. Right? That’s not being nuanced or discussed at this moment.
And I also think about Tarana Burke who is the founder of #MeToo, not being given her proper space, in my opinion. She’s not put on the cover of Time magazine for the movement she founded; she’s put inside the pages. Not only that, they renamed the campaign, called it The Silence Breakers, then later, Time’s Up and Tarana Burke becomes one line, and it’s not fair. Tarana does think about how you restore the whole person who’s been harmed. How is she undergirded? She works with young women and girls mostly under-resourced herself, and she did this work. So I say let’s hear from Tarana more. I’ve known Tarana and worked with her for 20 years. The same people mentored us, and I want to listen to her.
NIKKI: What are your thoughts on the Women’s March? I know this overlaps the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement. Do you feel it’s important for women of color to show up despite these movements not always having our backs?
ASHA: I wasn’t involved with Women’s March. That was certainly the criticism when it was first launched, but then I did see a number of Black women, Palestinian women, and Latinas, really step up and ensure that our voices were well represented from what I could see from the outside. So I do believe you know in a world where we don’t have these barriers that are constructed around or their false social constructs. We actually don’t have to hate each other. We don’t have to diminish each other. We should be if we’re going to get free, a multi-cultural, beautiful intergenerational group of people who are pushing for human dignity for all and all of our children. In concept, I believe in it. I’m grateful that Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory are a part of it and many of the other women I know, like Monifa Bandele. These women have contributed to the breadth and depth of it, so I have hope. I’ll reserve any additional thoughts because my involvement hasn’t been anything other than a spectator.
NIKKI: You mentioned in The Prisoner’s Wife that you were a victim of sexual abuse, something that you had to work to overcome. What can you share to inspire others affected by the same issues? With the #MeToo movement we’ve seen the vast numbers of those affected by sexual abuse. Is there anything that you could share on how you deal with that history?
ASHA: I think that part of it is what we see in the #MeToo movement, naming, that which we often felt ashamed of our right felt like in some ways is our fault. We didn’t fight back. We went willingly to somebody’s home. All those things that are used to diminish what was happened to us or somehow say that we were responsible for the harm that was caused us, which has always been an odd thing to me.
We don’t say that for example if you put some beautiful jewelry in the story your window and somebody breaks the window and steals the jewelry. We don’t say well damn you shouldn’t put that jewelry up in a window. So somehow women are blamed for just being alive. So I do think that there is something about naming it. I am also a firm believer in therapy and having the right kind of counseling to help us work through the real-world pain and harm. If you broke your leg, you would know to go to a doctor. But when something happens, that snaps a piece of our soul and spirit; we somehow think that we don’t need professional intervention. I think we do. Finally, I would say that there is something deeply healing about being in community with other women who were survivors knowing that they had me and could hold me . That went a long way toward restoration. You know it’s weird Nikki, something happened to me that moved me in a way that I didn’t think would. There was maybe 15 years ago maybe a little longer. There was a movement by men in the church to stand before the church and say “sister I’m sorry and apologize on behalf of men for the harm that has been done to women.” When I first heard about it I thought it was the corniest to shit I’ve never heard of anyone apologize to me to be the person who harms me and nothing else will mean anything. But I went to a conference and unwittingly was sitting on a panel where brothers got up and started saying “sister I’m sorry.” They named all the things that have happened to black women right, not necessarily that they had done. That was extremely restorative to know that there was a group of men out there who thought to make amends even if they weren’t the ones who had harmed me.
So I don’t think it’s any one thing. I think that is pulling together all of these things, the sacred community where you can be who you are and your strength and in moments when you don’t feel strong. I believe in professional intervention with the right therapist and doing the right kind of research to get somebody who helps me walk through the steps. I believe in telling your story to someone and having it be heard. I think that’s powerful and I think it’s also powerful that people who have harmed, seek to make amends. Even if it’s not that man that harms you so many men sit in silence.
NIKKI: What advice can you give to people that feel that they have no voice or that may feel they need to compete for a louder voice than those that are oppressive?
ASHA: I think that number one we can determine whose voices we listen to. Trump says a lot of things that I’m not aware of because he’s not who I am laser-focused on listening to, I think he’s damaging. I can’t even listen to his voice. I just want to say that I don’t know that our voices always have to be louder. I think we need to speak with clarity and thoughtfulness. I know we’re in a moment where it’s a quick one, two, three route, microblogging on Twitter or Facebook and always quickly putting things out. I think it’s okay to take a minute and think about what we say so it’s something people can hold onto the way we hold onto the words of Audrey Lorde Jim Jordan or Toni Morrison. It’s okay to take a minute, and breathe and think about it. It’s important to consider what we do on a daily basis, the support, the leadership of the women in our midst. I’m always aware of the ways in which we act out the performance of support without the demonstration of it. I’m aware of workplace environments and other more personal settings, which voice seems to matter more. I’m saying among black women I may ask for something, and I may have to ask four times. A white person can ask for something, and they can get it immediately. So what are the ways that we are ourselves making choices about who is relevant?
I will give you a great example. When Jamele Hill was suspended from ESPN’s SportsCenter, and the network went to replace her quickly, her co-workers would not take her slot. They said you just shut this thing down, but we’re not going in her spot because they felt the way that the network treated her was wrong. That’s how you support people. You don’t have to be loud. You just have to be clear. You have to be consistent. And you have to be unafraid. And do we do that enough?
I can tell you as a black woman who’s worked in leadership that the people who have supported me most, have been black women a couple of men, and the people who have harmed me the most with their silence has also been black women and black men. The people who are with me say they love me and they say nothing when they witness harm. It has to be about our courage and the positions we take when it’s uncomfortable and not just on Twitter from a distance, but in the schools that our children attend. Right now we’re teaching our girls to show up for other black girls. In our workplace environments, how are we showing up? Are we interrogating ourselves and showing up for black women’s leadership. Can we even imagine it? Can we think about how to support it most of the time? I hear things like ‘Oh you know, you just have to take care of yourself,” without ever interrogating if there’s a structure there. Women who are working too hard, are still being dragged by the mules of the earth, with no structure that is ever set up for them to take time to restore and renew. So, I don’t know if it’s loud. I think it’s consistent and courageous support that we want.
NIKKI: There’s a group called White Nonsense Roundup. They’re an online group that assists people of color when they have become exhausted defending themselves from racially biased online attacks and having to repeat or educate people online that are not well read on race issues. They step in and use their privilege to defend check and educate their white peers, so we do not have to. They also respectfully stay out of conversations that involve black subject matter between black people. How can white people use their privilege to help marginalized people in today’s society? It’s a subject that comes up a lot. People ask, “Well what can I do. I’m not that well versed but I know what’s happening online today is wrong.”
ASHA: This is a question of caring enough to look to history as our teacher. Malcolm X told us, “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.” There are multiple examples of incredible white allies at the highest level. Whether you’re John Brown giving your life for the cause of ending slavery or any number of other women and men who went unnamed and unknown who supported the Underground Railroad or whether it’s more modern history, the number of allies and friends we had in our own movement for black liberation. Study who Marilyn Buck was. You can look it up. You can find out who she was. Marilyn Buck was accused of driving the getaway car that led Assata Shakur to freedom. Laura Whitehorn is out here as a political prisoner who gave many many years of her life to prison after she was captured doing anti-racist work. There are so many other examples are not that extreme. I think about the man who stood there who I thought worked for the Parks Department when Bree Newsome went up that flagpole, and we don’t know his name. We don’t know anything about him, and he knew that he could present as someone who could both protect her and distract because he looked like he worked there. I think about guys I worked with when I was at City University of New York. We were taking over buildings, and there were certain things that one guy, in particular, Robert Nisonoff, put himself in between black students and police because he was a traditional white man whose father was deeply entrenched in the Democratic Party. He knew he would be all right. And so there are all of these examples throughout history. If we care to figure it out, just like black people have to figure it out, you have to read, and you have to study. You have to know the world that you’re in and your environment.
Read Susan Rosenberg’s memoir; it’s out there. All these examples are incredible people who worked with the ANC and how they helped support that struggle and the push for freedom from apartheid.
NIKKI: Can you tell us about When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir? What do you want people to take away from this work?
ASHA: When They Call You a Terrorist is the story of Patrisse growing up in South Los Angeles and the epicenter of where the drug war was waged, where her community and homes were targeted by police. Her family was targeted by police between the war on drugs and the war on gangs, mass incarceration. So it looked to unpack and humanize all of these policy questions that we hear and explain to people what it took and what it was and informed her as she grew into becoming one of the most critical organizers and leaders of our time. Her work does not begin with the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer it started when she was 16 years old. I met Patrisse many years ago; she came to a meeting of organizers that I was a part of at the time. I was hosting, but I didn’t organize it. It was going pretty bad, and she intervened and said, “This is not what we’re here to do. We’re talking about the drug war.” She was right, and her intervention was correct even though some people may have felt offended. I thought it was beautiful. I changed the agenda to reflect what she brought to the table. We remained in touch and stayed friends. When it became clear that there were those who would erase those three black women who founded Black Lives Matter, I have a lot of connections in media; it was vital for me to do an intervention back then to ensure the story was told correctly. When Patrisse asked for help with this project it was important to help ensure that we created an intervention, again concerning the current narrative so that they see that they’re still killing us. There were almost a thousand police killings last year. We’re still living without clean water in Flint. All these things are still happening. Donald Trump may have us believing and talking about one thing, including the most ridiculous of his statements and shenanigans, but the truth is, that our lives are still on the line. This book is designed to remind us of not only of that but what policies we have to undo to help ensure our lives.
NIKKI: So as a mom, what are three things that you instilled in your daughter growing up?
ASHA: I tried to create and instill the idea that our home is our sanctuary and that we live a very peaceful life. All the things that people say about mother-daughter conflict and teenage issues, we truly have not dealt with any of that even in the most trying times. It doesn’t mean we’ve never had an argument it doesn’t mean any of that. It’s a pretty peaceful house. Part of the way that this house is peaceful is that from the beginning I wanted her to know that her voice matters. Her feelings mattered. Her thoughts matters. It was a way to grow up in a home that completely disrupted the narrative that children should be seen and not heard in this home. Children were centers, and I found that putting children at the center and making every decision on that basis was the most helpful way to go about it. I think that she knew growing up that you don’t survive without village without community. And so she’s had that very deeply. I’ve told her that being truthful and taught her that being truthful mattered, even when we are afraid. To always do our best to lean into truth and to lean into compassion. Finally, I instilled in her that there was nothing greater or more important than my love for her; no book, no man nor job was more important. There’s not one thing on this planet that is more important than her life and that she knows every day that I love her in a way that cannot be measured.
NIKKI: Since the turn of events in the political office and so many campaigns for equality coming forward, is there anything that you’ve said to your daughter, to kind of guide her into this next chapter of her life going forward into college?
ASHA: I wish I could tell you there was something I said that was amazing. (laughs) I’m sitting here trying to rack my brain. We were not together on election night. I was in California then, working on a campaign. It was the most bizarre thing to win one big victory and then watch the world feel like it had just fallen apart. From there, I had to go directly to Atlanta to a meeting. So we managed to get home. I don’t know if it’s always what I say but what we try to do. So I came back, and I just went to work. That was never disrupted. We went to work in writing, thinking about and talking about Patrisse’s book. I went to work ensuring that she had what she needed to get into the school of her choice for college. We did spiritual grounding work. We did leave for a time and go to Cuba as a way to do some spiritual renewal which comports with our spiritual tradition. We sat with our Babalawo.
I don’t know that there were any words. There was a way of living. That way of living asked us to lean even more deeply into our spirituality, to love each other and be ever more compassionate with one another, take time to restore and never to forget that bending the moral arc closer to justice is not something that happens overnight. Sometimes you bend that shit back, and it snaps right back. And you have to bend it again. This is multigenerational work. We’re the children of the people who refused to die. They made it so that we could be here. And if they made it, so will we.
NIKKI: Can you give any examples of books that you feel are essential reads?
ASHA: There are so many books. I love High Price I truly can’t recommend that enough. I don’t know that enough black people have read that book. It pulls apart the drug war, pulls apart what Reagan did, and it pulls apart a lot of the misconceptions and stigmas we believed about people who used crack and drugs and all the ways that we participated in helping to throw away our own people. There’s no book almost more important than Dr. Carl Hart’s interrogation of that time which includes a very courageous unpacking of his own life. Dr. Hart is the first black man to be tenured in the sciences at Columbia University and the courage that he takes in talking about his life as a regular brother from Miami. I don’t know if you know Carol City or Liberty City area of Miami where Moonlight was filmed. Coming up in that, it that wasn’t easy. It’s a monumentally important book because it speaks to the heart of black people and the things that we’ve believed and supported either through silence or every time we said someone was “just a crack ho” or every time we watched Jungle Fever and didn’t question Sam Jackson’s character, which doesn’t exist anywhere on the planet. I strongly recommend that work.
I think Roxane Gay’s work is essential. Brittney Cooper’s book which will be out any moment, Eloquent Rage, so important. Darnell Moore is a monumental thinker. People should read his book. I think we should take it back and look at Angela Davis’ original tiny little work, “Are Prisons Obsolete,” it’s worth looking at again and also if you haven’t read it before. I think that we also never go wrong by rereading the masters. You’re never going to go wrong, looking at the wisdom of Audre Lorde or June Jordan you’re never going to go wrong revisiting Toni Morrison’s work. Beloved for example, which my daughter mentioned to me when I showed her this question, its been 30 years since that book came out and in many ways that work of fiction, may be the most authentic slave narrative we have now. We know there are things that Frederick Douglass would never tell us what happened to him. We know that Harriet Jacobs wasn’t going to tell everything. We know that a lot of the narratives of enslaved Africans were transcribed by white people, so people weren’t telling everything. We go back to Beloved, and you get a sense of what it took from us and how much pain was passed down. It was taking place during that reconstruction period, just seeing the way it was passed down, and you have Sethe, losing her mind, and you have Denver almost rendered mute. But what brought her back, in the end, was a community of women. Even the women who talked about her. Seeing her back and laying on their hands, seeing her back into whole and Paul D.’s love. It’s a piece to go back to again.
NIKKI: Can you tell me a little bit about the book tour, what’s next and where people can find you?
ASHA: Sure and let me shout out to Patrisse, who’s done a whole lot of it, as I have a full-time job and single parenting. It’s been going on since January 12th.
I’ll be in Memphis at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. Patrisse, and I will be in Los Angeles together at the California Endowment. I will be in the Bay Area for several events, some of which we will do together and some on our own.
I think we’re going to take a minute and catch our breath. I can’t imagine how hard it been for Patrisse to be away from her young child. We are going to keep working to shift this narrative. We tried to give people a tool and a way to talk about us as who we are full human beings.
We’re putting the work before the community now to ask the community to be ambassadors to tell the world to get your organizations, your colleges, and your book clubs to buy the book. And to say that we want stories about our lives that tell the truth of our lives and don’t make a mockery of them. By the way that we see in so many shows that pretend to be reality shows where all you see is black women you know at each other’s throats and lying and cheating and only concerned about who’s left who’s man. It’s like it’s time to stop that. I mean watch if you want. But you know I’d rather it be at least as evenly populated with stories that are more tethered to the truth and wholeness of who we are. Other than that, Patrisse and I have a young adult version of the book to produce this year.
I’m working with Jason Hernandez who is the first Latino man to receive clemency from Barack Obama and really thinking about how we repair the harms of mass incarceration.
I’m taking a delegation of people to Portugal in my role as senior director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Portugal decriminalized all drugs from marijuana to heroin and had seen some extraordinary outcomes. Health wise, drug use wise and arrests for drugs have dropped precipitously.
All of that is surrounded by the fact that my baby’s going to college and we have a graduation. She’s turning 18; we have a lot of things going on! (laughing and smiling)