BREATHE: Black Womxn’s Radical Peace as Afrofuturism in Praxis
“the problematic core construct was that in order to be sane, which is to live in one body, which is to live one lifetime at one time, which is to disconnect from the black simultaneity of the universe, you could and must deny black femininity. and somehow breathe. the fundamental fallacy being (obvious now. obscure at the time.) that there is no separation from the black simultaneity of the universe also known as everything also known as the black feminist pragmatic intergenerational sphere. everything is everything.” M Archive: After the End of the World, Alexis Pauline Gumbs
“‘Spiritualized’ refers to the fact that womanism openly acknowledges a spiritual/transcendental realm with which human life, livingkind, and the material world are all intertwined. For womanists, this realm is actual and palpable, and the relationship between it and humans is neither abstract nor insignificant to politics.” Womanist Reader, Layli Phillips
"Above all else, our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else's but because of our need as human persons for autonomy...We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work." Combahee River Collective Statement
In May 2018 I completed my Masters degree in Public History. My Creative Thesis, entitled “Come On In The Room: Afrofuturism as a Path to Black Women’s Retroactive Healing,” explores how Afrofuturism might be used to address and heal epigenetic trauma in Black Womxn, Femmes and the broader Black Community. I contextualized the physical impacts white supremacist patriarchal capitalism has on the lives of Black women. I explored the realities of generational trauma, or epigenetics, and the ways this trauma hinders Black women’s intentional engagement with our ancestral and divine power. I then introduced Afrofuturism, and compared the theory to Africana and Indigenous ways of knowing, and spiritual practices. I suggest that historic and lived experiences of Indigenous and Africana people point to the praxis of Afrofuturism thousands of years before Mark Dery proposed the name. For the creative component of my thesis, I wrote three short stories, historical fiction with elements of folklore and Afrofuturism, about time travelling enslaved and free Gullah Geechee women between 1822-1980.
Since completing this graduate work, I have continued considering Afrofuturism as a liberatory tool — a form of technology we can access and engage at anytime. Furthermore, I believe research of, and attention to the voices of Africana and Indigenous peoples, and more specifically, the survival and resilience of queer Black and Brown people, illustrates Afrofuturism being employed as a path forward throughout human history.
There are countless definitions of Afrofuturism. One description that speaks to this idea is provided by Ytasha Womack in Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Womack writes, "Afrofuturism is a free space for women, a door ajar, arms wide open, a literal and figurative space for black women to be themselves. They can dig behind the societal reminders of blackness and womanhood to express a deeper identity and then use this discovery to define blackness, womanhood, or any other identifier in whatever form their imagination allows."
These words suggest that in addition to being a genre, literary device, or theoretical framework, Afrofuturism is both a figurative and physical space for Black womxn to dream, imagine, create, and BE themselves safely and fully. Afrofuturism allows us to dream up a world in the absence of, and undefined by the “Crooked Room” Melissa Harris-Perry writes about.
In her book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, Harris-Perry uses Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to illustrate Black women’s struggle to show up safely as our whole authentic selves in a distorted, destructive environment. She writes:
This struggle is interestingly mirrored in the post World War II cognitive psychology research on field dependence. Field dependence studies show how individuals locate the upright in a space. In one study, participants were placed in a crooked room and then asked to align themselves vertically...to the researchers’ surprise, some subjects could be tilted by as much as 35 degrees and report that they were perfectly straight, simply because they were aligned with images that were equally tilted.
When Black women confront racism, misogynoir, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, capitalism, etc., we are in a crooked room. This crooked room refers to the physical and mental impacts of these intersecting layers of oppression on Black women, and the ways we are socialized to try and align ourselves with them. This is further illustrated by an excerpt from the Combahee River Collective Statement. They write:
Black women’s extremely negative relationship to the American political system (a system of white male rule) has always been determined by our membership in two oppressed racial and sexual castes. As Angela Davis points out in ‘Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,’ Black women have always embodied, if only in their physical manifestation, an adversary stance to white male rule and have actively resisted its inroads upon them and their communities in both dramatic and subtle ways.
To put it another way, our mere existence is resistance in an environment constructed in opposition to us. And I say this because WE CAME FIRST. In M Archive: After the End of the World, Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes, “to put it in tweetable terms, they believed they had to hate black women in order to be themselves.” This is the system we find ourselves in.
Afrofuturism, however, is one example of those dramatic and subtle methods of resistance and affirmation. As Womack describes, it allows us to see ourselves in alignment with OUR truths. Afrofuturism flushes the past, present and future, revealing a reality where time isn’t linear and we can manifest whatever chain-less reality we imagine.
On the Netflix documentary InnSaei, Malidoma Some, West African Shaman, scholar, and author of Of Water in the Spirit, says that our intuition is the platform where our past, present, and future meet. This, to me, sounds a lot like Afrofuturism. Also described as innate, divine knowing, our intuition is a source of magic, ancestral wisdom and guidance that we all have access to at any time. At every time. And our intuition is strengthened by practicing presence.
Of his Dagara community, Some writes:
The world of the Dagara also does not distinguish between reality and imagination. To us, there is a close connection between thought and reality. To imagine something, to closely focus one's thoughts upon it, has the potential to bring that something into being... In the realm of the sacred, this concept is taken even further, for what is magic but the ability to focus thought and energy to get results on the human plane? The Dagara view of reality is large. If one can imagine something, then it has at least the potential to exist.
In Indigenous communities, there is no separation between the physical and the spiritual world. Believing in and engaging resources we can’t see, dreaming an idea into reality is nothing new for Africana people. We have always dreamed of and manifested worlds that deeply contrast the violent realities we’re living in. In an interview on an episode of How to Survive the End of the World Podcast, hosted by Autumn Brown and Adrienne Maree Brown, Dr. Gumbs talks about Great Mother Harriet Tubman affirming that her people were free in the middle of slavery. When everything in her life told her the exact opposite, Harriet imagined and affirmed that she and her people were free. And it was so. In Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, Charlene Carruthers speaks about the Black Radical Tradition, of which the Black Radical Imagination plays a huge role. She writes:
There are always forces, sometimes even within a social justice movement, that fight to kill the imagination of those actively engaged in the struggle (and for that matter to limit all thinking about radical possibilities). But oppressed people have always imagined that freedom is possible, and their imagination will not be vanquished. The Black radical tradition requires an ongoing and persistent cultivation of the Black radical imagination. It is within the spaces of imagination, the dream spaces, that liberatory practices are born and grow, leading to the space to act and to transform.
Of course there are multiple factors, including epigenetic trauma, learned shame, internalized self-loathing, and daily interactions at the intersections of countless dehumanizing –isms, that have historically, and continuously limited Black womxn’s intentional engagement with our divine power to create. As more research is developed on the reality and impacts of weathering on the health of Black women, and more specifically, Black maternal and infant death rates, there is now numerical data supporting the truth that Black women have been living with for centuries. Living under white supremacist capitalist patriarchy — or living in a constant state of trauma —actually weakens the immune system, making us more susceptible to any and everything. We may not be cracking on the outside – but trauma literally ages us. It decreases our ability to make sound decisions. It impacts how we see ourselves and engage with others. It decreases our ability to regulate fear. Additionally, epigenetic studies indicate that the descendants of those who’ve experienced trauma are able to detect lower levels, or more subtle triggers of that same trauma. Furthermore, “trauma can affect one’s beliefs about the future via loss of hope, limited expectations about life, fear that life will end abruptly or early, or anticipation that normal life events won’t occur.”
So if the State doesn’t kill us, and violence in our communities influenced by the State doesn’t kill us, the detrimental impacts of trauma and stress on our minds, bodies, and spirits CAN and WILL take us out. That is how this system is designed to function.
So how do we get to peace?
A phrase that generally comes to mind around peace is one my mother quotes regularly. “The opposite of war is not peace, it’s creation.” And this usually resonates deeply for me, but I was looking for something else. What if there is no will, desire, or energy to create? And then I found a book entitled Practicing Peace by Pema Chödrön. In it, peace is described as “softening what is rigid in our hearts.” And this definition actually caused me to unclench my jaw, and lower my shoulders away from my ears. Taking this a step further, I wanted to articulate “radical peace.” And considering Fannie Lou Hamers’ and Angela Davis’ definitions of “radical” as “getting to the root,” I wondered if Radical Peace was possibly what is left at the root of our hearts when all the rigid parts are softened.
I wonder if what’s left at the root of our hearts is creation.
One way of achieving this peace is practicing presence. On an episode of Queer WOC Podcast, in the section titled “Mental Moment with Money,” co-host and therapist Montinique McEarchern (Money) states that “mindfulness is the practice of consciously choosing to focus on a particular experience in the present moment.” Mindfulness is often framed as this elusive or exclusive practice that you need certain privileges, resources, or insight to access. However, this isn’t the case at all. Money and Nikeeta Slade on Queer WOC playfully renamed mindfulness the “Janet Jackson Effect” or “Anytime, Anyplace” because it is actually an omnipresent tool. We can literally practice mindfulness anywhere. For free.
Money goes on to say that there are 4 parts of Mindfulness: Being present, being aware, sitting with emotions, and not judging yourself.
Paths to mindfulness include meditation, and focusing on your breath. Dr. Gumbs’ “Black Feminist Breathing Chorus” is a great example. Others include eating something crunchy and focusing on the sound. Body scans. Being still and becoming aware of your body, the surfaces and materials coming in contact with your body. Yoga, dance, washing dishes, gardening, exercise, shelling peas, beading, basket-weaving, showering, drinking water, tea, coffee, etc. These are just a few examples of how we can intentionally practice engaging with the present moment. Be in the now.
Don Joseph Goewey writes:
The evidence from neuroscience suggests that the one change that changes everything for a human being is the mindful shift from a conditioned state of stress and anxiety to a dynamic state of inner peace. Sustaining this shift literally stimulates the brain connectivity which generates neural integration. Neural integration represents an exponential increase in brain function that delivers the level of intelligence and well-being that predicts a more successful, happier, and healthier life.
A study entitled “The Cultural Relevance of Mindfulness Meditation as a Health Intervention for African Americans” found that, “participants felt that mindfulness meditation helped them with enhanced stress management, direct health improvement, and enhanced self-awareness and purposefulness.”
Referring again to the 4 parts of Mindfulness that Money discussed: the piece about sitting with your emotions and not judging yourself is huge. Acknowledging the feelings as they come, and not trying to change them, or beat yourself up, or say all the things you could’ve said in the triggering conversation from before. Those are game-changers. My mom often says, “the feelings may be scary. But they won’t kill you.” Sitting with the hurt, the confusion, the fear, the sadness, the incredibly valid rage — that is how we truly begin softening the rigid parts inside. That is how we start getting to the root.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
Being in the present connects us with the answers, and maybe even broader questions. Being present brings us in the presence of our ancestors, and of those who will come after us. In the now moment, we can recognize the tools needed— which are likely already in our possession —to revel in our survival and transform our reality. When practicing mindfulness, we can truly gather our bearings and see that the crooked room doesn’t even exist. It is simply the collective figment of someone else’s imagination.
In the present moment, we have complete access to the past and the future. The present moment is the platform Some speaks about.
And when we practice presence — when we spend more and more time in the right now — not only are we decreasing our stress levels, greatly improving our health, and extending our actual lives. We are also nurturing, strengthening, and exercising our Black Radical Imagination. We are softening all that is rigid inside of our hearts. We are re-membering the “mystical legacy of Africana and Indigenous esoteric spiritual resources.” We are accessing our intuition, the platform where the past, present, and future meet.
And from here. In this moment. This right now: We are effectively engaging Afrofuturism as a liberatory practice, as so many of our Black and Queer ancestors and elders have been doing forever. We are seeing ourselves as free.
Suggested Listening for Manifestation Inspiration:
Listen to Black Womxn:
How to Survive the End of the World ep. 1 - God is Change
Healing Intergenerational Trauma:
*I have intentionally used "womxn" and "women" interchangeably throughout this essay in my attempt to be increasingly inclusive to all femme-identifying people. Some of the resources I previously wrote or cited in this piece, and on this site use the words "woman"/"women" exclusively. For more info about use of the word "womxn", look here.
 Ytasha L. Womack, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago, US: Chicago Review Press, 2013), 100.
 Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 28-29.
 Trudy, “Explanation of Misogynoir,” Gradient Lair, April 28, 2014, http://www.gradientlair.com/post/84107309247/define-misogynoir-anti-black-misogyny-moya-bailey-coined
 Alexis Pauline Gumbs, M Archive: After the End of the World, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 6.
 Kristín Ólafsdóttir, Innsaei: The Power of Intuition, Directed by Hrund Gunnsteinsdottir and Kristín Ólafsdóttir, Germany, Netflix, 2016.
 Malidoma Patrice Some, Of Water and the Spirit, (New York, New York: Penguin Group, 1994), 8.
 Autumn Brown and Adrienne Maree Brown, interview with Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, How to Survive the End of the World, podcast audio, December 19, 2017, https://soundcloud.com/endoftheworldshow/a-breathing-chorus-with-alexis-pauline-gumbs
 Charlene Carruthers, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2018), 25.
 Gene Demby, “Making the Case that Discrimination is Bad for Your Health,” Code Switch Podcast, January 14, 2018 https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2018/01/14/577664626/making-the-case-that-discrimination-is-bad-for-your-health
 bell hooks, “Cultural Criticism and Transformation” Media Education Transcript 1997, 7 https://docs.google.com/document/d/1fBMZtuvth0rkCFZA9gkkHYDZWRGVS6uuNwH_8UnI3XQ/edit
 University of Minnesota, “Impact of Fear and Anxiety” Taking Charge of your Health & Wellbeing (2006) accessed February 27, 2018 https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/enhance-your-wellbeing/security/facing-fear/impact-fear
 Quinn Eastman, “Mice can inherit learned sensitivity to a smell,” Emory News Center, December 2, 2013 http://news.emory.edu/stories/2013/12/smell_epigenetics_ressler/campus.html
 Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, “Understanding the Impact of Trauma” in Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services, (Treatment Improvement Protocol Series, No. 57, 2014) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
 Pema Chödrön, Practicing Peace, Boston & London: Shambala, 2014 http://shambhala.com/media/wysiwyg/ebook_samples/PracticingPeaceCh1and6.pdf?utm_source=bm23&utm_medium=email&utm_term=Download+e-book+chapters&utm_content=Enduring+Wisdom+for+Changing+Times+%2B+Our+Gift+to+You&utm_campaign=Feb+17+-+Enduring+Wisdom+for+Changing+Times
 Don Joseph Goewey, “Radical Peace: The Change that Changes Everything,” Huffington Post, August 14, 2017 https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/radical-peace-the-change-that-changes-everything_us_598b46cbe4b0f25bdfb32159
 Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombé and Susan A. Gaylord, “The Cultural Relevance of Mindfulness Meditation as a Health Intervention for African Americans: Implications for Reducing Stress-Related Health Disparities” Journal of holistic nursing : official journal of the American Holistic Nurses' Association vol. 32,3 (2014): 147-60 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4102670/
 Barbara A. Holmes, “Wonder Working Power: Reclaiming Mystical and Cosmological Aspects of Africana Spiritual Practices”, in Esotericism in African American Religious Experience: There is a Mystery... ed.By Stephen Finley, et. al (Brill, 2015), 336.