Poet-activist uses the power of words for change 00:00

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Frontiers of Enterprise The art of protest

Poet-activist uses the power of words for change

Poet, actor and performance artist Staceyann Chin uses words as her art form to speak out against injustices. She says her work is one small step in the larger journey toward making the world better.

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More than 2,000 public works of art have been created around the world after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Source: Urban Art Mapping George Floyd and Anti-Racist Street Art database

Carolina Kroon: Just a note – this story contains explicit language.

Staceyann Chin: I think more of the groups that were silenced are now deciding that they will not sit in silence, that they weren’t going to sit around and wait. In the famous words of Nina Simone, ‘too slow, too slow, too slow, Mississippi goddamn.’

Clip from Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”

Chin: I feel like more groups that are under the heel of the white supremacist patriarchy are now saying ‘no more, no more!’ The question is, will the patriarchy be able to hear? And will we be able to coalesce these different movements against a common enemy?

Kroon: Poet, actor, and performing artist Staceyann Chin is the author of two critically acclaimed books, her poetry collection, Crossfire, A Litany for Survival, and her memoir The Other Side of Paradise. I spoke to her about poetry and activism, privilege, and the imperative of Community Learning and unification across generations.

Chin: I left Jamaica when I was 24 years old because I was attacked by a dozen boys in a dormitory bathroom on campus, just because I had come out as a lesbian. And I couldn’t imagine being in Jamaica, and being the kind of lesbian I wanted to be. I read somewhere perhaps in James Baldwin’s work, that New York was the place where people who thought differently and did things differently, went and joined up with other people who were doing that. And I was able to make a living as an artist, as an activist for the two and a half decades that I’ve been at it. 

I certainly was a bellower, a rabble-rouser, speaking about the importance of foregrounding voices of color, immigrant voices, Black women’s voices. I think of myself more as one of the places where politics are amplified.

I want to be a part of something. I don’t want to be “the something.” So I’ve always wanted to just belong to a group of people who were being revolutionary in a kind of universal way, I’ve always wanted to be connected and be a part of something bigger than myself.

Clip of Staceyann Chin at a protest in New York City, August 2020

Chin: I’ve always wondered if any of us really have any single platform for power. I feel as if there’s always a concert of people, a large groundswell of humans who make change possible. And then you have one or two people who are most well-known for leading that movement or affecting that movement. 

Clip of Staceyann Chin live performance Brooklyn, New York, July 2020: 

(Crowd Cheering)

Chin: In the balance of human biology, all bodies are created equal. Everybody’s about 70% water, regardless of race, religion, gender, sex, or sexual orientation. We all die after about seven days without drink. But the idiots obsessed with category have decided that a double X chromosome designates me subordinate to those with an X and a Y, intersect those two Xs with the fact of my blackness, and my existence is now coded as dangerous, hostile, a direct threat to the endurance of the white patriarchy. And everybody knows that white men have spent centuries appropriating what they want. The gold they found in Africa wasn’t enough. So they packed human bodies head to toe, submerged in a swamp of our own urine and feces. They dragged us across violent waters, many of us drowned or young, rather than let them live at the mercy of white men and their sons and their grandsons and their grandsons’ sons just to keep breathing some of us became one dimensional in the public imagination in real life in books, we became one thing or the other spinster or mother, victim or virgin dams or whore we couldn’t be all of us. Some of us had to go underground. Some of us let go, slipping away into the sunken place, others revolted, took up arms, crawled through sewage, defied geography to build new lives in new cities. And that’s how I find myself in motherfucking Brooklyn.

(Crowd Cheering)

Chin: If I’ve created any change, if people have been affected by my work, I see myself as just one grain of sand in a wave that was moving at the same time. And that wave also carried me and inspired me and pushed me to imagine a different world from the one we were living in.

I came up in the late 90s in Brooklyn, just on the backside of people like Audre Lorde and June Jordan, Pamela Sneed, Pat Parker, Barbara Smith. Those Black lesbians, a lot of them Black queer voices, who were sort of trying to map a way forward on the backside of a movement that had been largely attending to white women, as a group of people to be cared for. So the women’s movement in the 70s, though it was deeply supported by Black activists, Black female activists, Black women activists, Black trans women activists — very few of the women who actually were doing the groundwork were mentioned. 

And so I think, the conversation about using your privilege to help promote the visibility and the voices of other movements that are perhaps less visible or their voices given less space than your voice or your group. Feminist spaces that are run by white women can make room for the voices of black women. Black women’s voices can make more space in the mainstream for Black trans women voices that have been marginalized for a long time.

I feel like there are lots, and lots and lots of ways in which power can be transferred. But if you ask yourself, how much privilege do I have? And if that privilege that you can name for yourself, outweighs the privilege of another group, it is your responsibility to reach across the aisle and to make space for that group to use, utilize, to tap into the resources of your own privilege. That’s how movements are made. That’s how new blood is brought in. That’s how coalitions are built. That’s how change is made.

Chin: I believe that revolutions — however long they take to happen, however, fractured they are in their movements, however, they begin as a squeak, and then a turn and then a roll and then a rumble and then a breaking of so much of what existed before — I believe that every revolution, from start to finish, needs almost every tool that is available to it in terms of being used. I believe the young come with a particular kind of tool, I believe the young are suited to breaking the system as it existed prior to their arrival. Most revolutions are fueled by the fire that you find in the belly of the young. I remember being young, and I remember wanting to break the whole system. I wanted the whole cards to come crashing down so we could build it better.

My own understanding of history has grown, in that the long arm of progress is indeed inclined to move more slowly than what we would desire. And I also know that even in smashing a thing in one moment, that even though it feels like such a big movement to one young person, I now can look back at 100 years, at 200 years, and I understand for myself that this is one small step in the larger journey that we have to go to make the world better because there are so many things in the world that need to change. 

I believe in the knowledge and the experience of those of us who have had some time in our feet. So I believe that what works best is a collaboration between the young and the old. We, as older folks, as somewhat veterans in the art of activism, we need to avail our resources to young people. We need to stay with them, be in conversation with them, we need to listen to them. We need to make room for them to lead. And I believe that sometimes our silence is necessary too — like our inclination to be reasonable, our inclination to wait. And I think a part of the intergenerational conversation between the fervor and the push and the impatience of the young, and also the knowledge and the smarts, the connection, the resources of people who were older. To figure it out together and to come to a way forward, together.

Chin: In Jamaica, we say “one hand can’t clap.” Sometimes when you need to make some music people need to get together, and two hands need to join, and this person needs to that person, and one person sings and the other one dances and before you know it, you have one big beautiful artsy movement where lots of hearts are being helped and held.

Clip from Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”

Carolina Kroon: For iPondr, I’m Carolina Kroon.

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Episode The art of protest