calling ourselves into freedom: Black art and decolonial aesthetics – The Feminist Wire

calling ourselves into freedom: Black art and decolonial aesthetics

By luam kidane [1]

as Black women who won’t accept the world as white supremacy gives it to us there is a jarring, a dissonance as you try to reconcile your spirit with the things you are told to believe and the people you are told should hold you and love you.
so you make and remake a world big enough to spread your wings in.
and after a while, you soar.
and sometimes you crash and it takes a while before you soar again.
but through all of that you keep making, building, and believing.

you name yourself. your village names you. the ancestors name you.
collectively we call ourselves into freedom.

it was a grey day which made the greens of the trees and the colours of the flowers that much brighter. the air felt as though it was a small child running with a full glass of water, not yet spilled but on the verge with each step.

i’m walking to work.

the energy was calm. inviting me to walk slow.
on my way i have a nice interaction with this beautiful elder that i see maybe every three or four months. she told me her soul name the first time we met on a hot summer evening. during an interaction months after our first meeting i found out that she had a different name for when she cusses the police. i know this because at one of our meetings she was vexed that a police officer told her to leave the curb she was resting on. she swiftly told him that he has no power over her and refused to move. he eventually gave up and left.

that morning, on my way to work, she was selling some of her beads that she makes on the corner. i am wearing an orange shirt and she commented that she had a dress that colour in the 70s that she wore to a talk in Grenada.

i got us both coffees and sat with her for a short time.
we talked a little but spent most of it just being still,
observing the feeling of a cup about to spill.

after some time had passed, i say goodbye to the woman who subtly taught me about the Black magic of a soul name and go on my way. i eventually arrive at the office. as the morning was dissolving i got an email message from a woman who reminds me that through all of the complications of trying to reorder a world bent on silencing us that there are joys to still take in. who reminds me of the importance of laughter, of love and the transformative capabilities of touch. in the message she asks me about my people, about who i am in relation to the people that brought me up. and so i wrote her….

letetensae, zion, fanus, tsegereda, lucia, rezan
my grandmother, my mother, my aunts
my teachers, my protectors, and my guides
resurrection, a holy place, light, rose, guiding light, consistent loyalty

the women of my family spit fire from a bloodline of dragons

they are magnificent, hurt, creative, soft,
compassionate, sad, wise, loving
balms for the soul

i was named by my grandmother
born in a time of chaos she wanted to set an intention that i would be surrounded by


or aday as i call her, was a woman who never ceased to marvel at the world around her.
she took the contradictions of life and saw the beauty in paradoxical results.

aday was not the stuff of movies, not the word protesters chants out in unison. my grandmother will not be found in the Black sections of bookstores. she did not speak english or have streets named after her, to be commemorated in death.

aday was the stuff of jazz songs, improvised to perfect pitch. in an article about a love supreme it was written that john coltrane would repeat basic themes in all keys because “he [was] consciously exhausting every path…” in a “…musical recitation of prayer by horn.”[2]

letetensae was a love supreme and an artist at work, creating dangerously so her daughters could walk softly. she, an alchemist by birth, saw sites of survival as more than sites of fracture.

fierce protection and integrity steeped in vision and love is what she fed her daughters with.

zion, fanus, tsegereda, lucia, rezan.

they grew up in war, matured in struggle, and are aging with the complications that sit with visions not yet realized.

the daughters of aday are scattered throughout the globe
but are unified in their commitment
to freedom, to struggle, and to each other

zion – my mother –
taught me that every stone i throw is also carried by me
her journey continues to show me the importance of reflective purpose
warriors walk with intention

fanus, tsegereda, lucia, rezan
my mother’s sisters.
these women were rolling deep before the notion ever showed up in a rap song.
while infusing radical love into my bones they’ve reminded me from a young age that there will be times that i’d have to start in the middle of the sentence and go in both directions at the same time
they are my reserves of strength for when the journey feels long

letetensae, zion, fanus, tsegereda, lucia, rezan
they smell like cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom
they feel like the warmth of a sun dipped in Black
they sound like a curtis mayfield track
they are Black in form, art and content.

my earliest memories sit with the women who first named me through love, hardship, experience and struggle.

their calls to freedom continue to reverberate around me, guiding my journeys as i weave the threads of resistance they gave me because village we are in an all out battle, a protracted struggle for freedom. assaults on self-determination are coming from all sides, it is relentless, and through a war of attrition the state and its institutions of white supremacy will hold nothing back in its attempts at destroying anything that acts against its narratives of domination. the criminalization of dissent and resistance is only increasing in intensity and it is our responsibility to wage struggle collectively, with militancy, and with vision.

ramona africa of MOVE reminds us to not get it twisted, if we don’t fight, we die
anyway. so we fight and we resist to disrupt genocidal, colonial, and imperialists
trajectories of suppression. but how are we fighting? how are we organizing ourselves within our movements? how do the ways that we speak of and imagine resistance, tactics, and strategies affect the ways in which we build the infrastructures of our movements?

a few months ago I read a transcript of a talk that toni morrison had given titled the site of memory. in one section of it she says:

you know, they straightened out the mississippi river in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. occasionally the river floods these places. “floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. remembering where it used to be. all water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. it is emotional memory – what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. and a rush of imagination is our “flooding.”

this imagination that toni morrison is referring to is central to our survival. we need to be able to imagine freedom. we need to be able to imagine alternatives to the prison industrial complex. we need to imagine creative solutions to addressing gender based violence in our communities. we need to be able to imagine movements, activist spaces, and community gatherings in which accountability is common practice.

freedom – mine, yours, ours – is not possible without imagination.

i’m reminded of what amiri baraka said:

“imagination (Image) is all possibility, because from the image, the initial circumscribed energy, any use (idea) is possible…[p]ossibility is what moves us.”

amiri baraka, sonia sanchez, nina simone, kamau daaood – among many others in the Black Arts Movement –  provided the Black Power Movement the artistic equivalents of handgrenades.

from nina simone singing to us:

are you ready to call the wrath of Black gods?

are you ready to build Black things?

are you ready to love Black, always loving Black?

to kamau daaood capturing the spaces between pain and healing through his words:

at the crossroads
a vision is shaped by a woman
who labored as a maid
and gave her wages to her village
here where children play double-dutch
with dreadlocked ropes
and believers was the streets
with a mother’s tears under kente sky
vomit up your television set
take a deep breath and exhale your fears
scrub the tombstones of those who died young
until they become mirrors
in which to see yourself
take long stares at your hands
until true love returns to your touch
then touch
stand right in a garment of light

to sonia sanchez reminding us of the importance of celebrating Blackness always when she reflects after seeing margaret walker speak at a conference:

…there is an echo about her. of black people rhyming. of a woman celebrating herself and a people. words ripen on her mouth like pomegranates. this pecan/color/woman. short limbed with lightning. and i swallow her whole as she pulls herself up from youth, shaking off those early chicago years where she and wright and others turned a chicago desert into a wellspring of words.

eyes, brilliant/southern eyes torpedoing the room with sun. eyes/dressed like a woman. seeing thru riddles. offering asylum from ghosts.

she stands over centuries as she talks. hands on waist. a feminine memory washed up from another shore. she opens her coat. a light colored blouse dances against her dark breasts. her words carved from ancestral windows rains children and the room contracts with color.

her voice turns the afternoon brown. this black woman poet. removing false veils, baptizes us with syllables. woman words.

they, these Black artists igniting movements through their works, understood that in a political and cultural landscape where artistic expressions that follow predetermined patterns without disruption are celebrated, art that compels us to connect creativity to political processes of agitation becomes urgent. art is a tool for dialogue that can be  formed to give voice or strengthened as a silencer. but what separates aesthetic production devoid of contentious creativity from a decolonial aesthetic grounded in self-determination?

Black art, when it is concerned with a decolonial aesthetic, nourishes and builds our collective imaginations. Black art documents our struggles, provides space to write/paint/photograph/sing/film our visions for liberation, and acts as a site of experimentation for articulations of self-determination.

Black art infused with curiosity allows us to cut the umbilicus of white supremacy from the space through which our stories of resistance are told. exposing us, naked and blinking, to the sensations of an imagination that is our own. curious politically contentious creative processes bring into being movement art that breaks space and interjects imagination in the nodes.  this breakage widens the in-between spaces enough to step in, to look where it ain’t. it is in these spaces that we find stories of ancestral spirits – stories of resistance -unfiltered through the white gaze.

so how do we synthesize organization and desire with imagination?

contentious Black art maps the currents of power in order to highlight the dots connecting the effects of difference in relationship to inequality. this is not for the narcissism of writing neglect, containment or disaster but to better understand how politics of place affect spatial relations. Black art informed by decolonial aesthetics builds narratives that reach across disrupted borders and connects itself to other locations – helping to construct a Pan-African vision for freedom.

amilcar cabral, a Black revolutionary who understood the importance of the role of cultural programming in building freedom movements, makes an important intervention that we must be able to hear as communities concerned with the current state of our people. he says:

keep always in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. they are fighting…for material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children. national liberation, war on colonialism, building of peace and progress – independence – all that will remain meaningless for the people unless it brings a real improvement in the conditions of life.

Black art concerned with a decolonial aesthetic does not strip context without addressing the confrontations of our realities.

i like john coltrane for many reasons but in particular because coltrane’s music was different in more than just sound but also in the way it was created. his pieces were not just composed and then performed, coltrane’s performances were enactments of composition. what he would try to do is change a piece of music so that you would have to begin questioning its boundaries and coherence.  check when you get home what he did to ‘my favourite things’ – the song most of you probably know from the sound of music. coltrane’s version of this track is all about the confrontation of transformation and the spaces for building that these confrontations can expose.

what everyday choices would we make if we were accountable to these spaces of confrontation – to keeping our contradictions afloat enough to actually transform them?

if there was ever a time to reflect on these questions it is now.

it is now as homophobic laws are being legislated, passed and implemented around us.

it is now as more people are entering the work force in canada on exploitative temporary work programs than with access to permanent residency. these policies of exploitation create living conditions in which people are without proper access to healthcare, education, childcare, housing, shelter, justice or dignity.

it is now as land grabs on the African continent are being masked in terms like “social development”,  and “financial growth” instead of being named for what they actually are – extensions of imperialist and capitalist projects.

it is now when every 28 hours an African person in the united states is killed by someone who is employed or protected by the united states government.

we are facing some key challenges and if we don’t revisit and improve our strategies and tactics these operational challenges are doomed to repeat.

we must stop being complicit in the occupation of indigenous territories.

we must work to dismantle the violence of the state—particularly the multiple layers of the racist and exclusionary immigration and border policies.

we must work to build a society that neither needs nor relies upon state violence as a solution to social, economic or political problems.

we must work to re-charge the passion for liberation in our communities that is so significant and necessary for any freedom movement.  it is through community that we can and we will shift our political, social and economic conditions.

we have much to learn from our histories of resistance. in an interview given in 1971 george jackson reflects on the cyclical nature of movements because he wants to caution us against conflating moments of re-strategizing with inaction. the point here is that the ebbs and flows that constitute our struggles exist with equal potential for instruction if we pay close enough attention and don’t underestimate the importance of reflection. toni cade bambara picks up on this theme when she pushes us to remember that “not all speed is movement.”

we need to be motivated to do this work with urgency and with creativity because we must and can imagine the possibilities of what could be through a collective and united struggle against exploitation despite the conditions that we struggle with on a daily basis.

ase kuwasi balagoon for saying “freedom is a habit” because it is a worthy reminder.

whatever we build must be flexible, responsive, compulsively changeable. whatever we build must riff on the themes already playing, enhancing without copying. whatever we build must be willingly dismantled; to imagine unchanging monuments is to imagine ego.

the struggle is long village but we’ve got our collective strength and communal histories of resistance to sustain us as we look to each other for protection, guidance, and liberation.

ancestors, ase
freedom fighters, ase
storytellers, ase

free the land, free the people, may the borders erase


Luam Kidane

luam kidane is a queer African inter-disciplinary educator, facilitator, and writer. luam’s research, writing and work examines contemporary African movement building at the intersections of decolonial aesthetics, Indigenous governance models, art, articulations of self-determination, and media. she is also the co-founder of NSOROMMA, a Black arts organization that creates, develops and maintains creative arts infrastructure that supports Black artists and Black communities.  Follow @NsorommaGlobal

[1] This an edited version of a keynote talk given by luam kidane on March 29, 2014 for SpeakSudan’s Warriors and Storytellers Magazine Launch

[2] John Coltrane’s Handwritten Outline for His Masterpiece A Love Supreme