Author: shah noor hussein

Language and Personal Narrative in Revolutionary Poetry

Book Review: I Am Still Your Negro by Valerie Mason-John I Am Still Your Negro: An Homage to James Baldwin by Valerie Mason-John University of Alberta Press, 2020 Dr. Valerie Mason-John, also known as Vimalasara in Buddhist Dharma communities and Queenie in slam poetry and theatre circles, is a world-renowned playwright, author, and beloved Buddhist teacher who co-founded the Eight Step Recovery Program. In their recently published collection of poetry, I Am Still Your Negro, Mason-John pays homage to James Baldwin through seven sections of poetic vignettes spanning nearly 100 pages. The topics range from slavery and colonization to global politics and historical realities, addressing the racialized and gendered intersections of African identity, diaspora, and ancestry. Mason-John’s opening section sets the stage, outlining the author’s intellectual history and accomplishments while simultaneously discarding the story of self we are expected to cultivate. As they explain in the introduction to this poetry collection, “all of that is the bypassing story. It’s what kept me alive.” In their Dharma teachings, Mason-John often draws a distinction between the stories …

Artwork by Rae Minji Lee, with photography by Carolina Marinati (CC0)

Spirituality and Survival: Imaginative Freedoms for Abolition Futures

In this collection on “Spirituality and Survival: Imaginative Freedoms for Abolition Futures,” authors engage key questions of Black survival in this moment: How are Black communities activating our ancestral knowledge to cultivate a future we are willing to fight for and worlds in which we want to survive? We invited authors to consider the following questions in their writing: How are you showing up right now to take care of yourself and to care for others? How are you showing up in mindful solidarity with the movements confronting police violence and demanding abolition? What contemplative insights, spiritual wisdoms, or dharmic teachings are you finding most relevant for society or for you, personally, in this time? How have Black histories of protest, riots, and revolutions related to spirituality? How have our ancestors, both familial lineages and intellectual inspirations, responded to past turmoils with insight and vision across the diaspora? How can the changes we need, including the abolition of prisons and police, be spiritually guided, mindfully motivated, and creatively conjured now and tomorrow? How can these …

We Need More Fugitives

radical Black feminist thoughtfeelings (& propaganda) “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.” —Minnie Ransom And so begins Toni Cade Bambara’s 1980 novel, The Salt Eaters: Its protagonist Velma Henry, resistantly coming undone in the hands of Minnie Ransom, a trusted healer intimately acquainted with the voices of her ancestral guides. This novel is unsettling for many reasons. Structurally, the many voices and perspectives Bambara uses to tell the story disregard narrative conventions. Deeper still, Velma Henry, a black woman activist hospitalized and seeking healing after a sucide attempt,  stands as a haunting embodiment of the ways embattled resistance can literally tear apart the bodymind. I’ve written out parts of that opening line and posted it on my walls and doors in nearly every place I’ve lived over the past five years. Currently it sparkles in golden glitter ink on a white piece of paper next to my bed. …

Con*cep*tion

Prologue We all strive for understanding and meaning. Yet too often, we arrive at understanding by a consensus of the few. Our definitions, numbered and lettered, give us form from which we build beliefs and systems.  One of the skillful means I appreciate about Chogyäm Trungpa, an influential Tibetan Buddhist monk who brought Buddhism to the West, was his ability to play with words to reveal the potential of any word to hold wisdom. Each piece below engages in a narrative that invites you to reconsider the normative definition of a word or phrase and what is true in your experience.  Each may give you an opportunity to create and experience and witness one. Although all pieces below reflect some aspect of Black birth and mothering, they simultaneously engage with how we relate to our world. Con*cep*tion We are all capable of conceiving. Some make worlds, others systems, still others ideology. All of this contributes to our (personal) Now and This Now (cultural) of the last 400+ years, which has deteriorated our humanity. Yet, co-arising …

Photograph by shah noor hussein

Meant to Survive: Creativity as a Path to Abolition

Over 40 years ago, Audre Lorde evocatively reminded us that “we were never meant to survive” as Black people of the diaspora living under colonial empires with capitalist agendas.1 In 2012, Alexis Pauline Gumbs revisited this pivotal poem, “A Litany for Survival,” in her article “The Shape of My Impact,” stating that survival has “never meant, bare minimum,” but rather “references our living in the context of what we have overcome”.2 Speaking to each other across decades, Lorde and Gumbs emphasize the exceptional power of surviving under systems of oppression, imperialism, and colonialism. To live through these experiences while finding ways to express ourselves, honor our creativity, and nourish our spirits is no small act. We have overcome tremendous traumas, and this is a great strength. As Octavia Butler proclaims, “God is Change,” and if God is a Black womxn, we are her children.3 Black folks have adapted to many things—colonization, imperialism, and climate change, to name a few—shifting our ways of being in conjunction with spiritual and ancestral teachings. While we must be weary …

Land-Based Ethics and Settler Solidarity in a Time of Corona and Revolution

Settler colonialism has been defined as a structure, not an event, meaning that settler societies like the U.S., Canada, and Australia endure over time through racist laws and ideologies that naturalize the dispossession of Indigenous populations.1 One of the most effective strategies that settler states rely on to eliminate Indigenous peoples and their power is the idea that their knowledges are primitive and superstitious, examples of failed epistemology.2 This view is rooted in an Enlightenment-born materialism that asserts that legitimate knowledge can only be produced through narrow empirical methods, relegating the negotiations of immaterial life to the social margins.3 As the colonial project progresses, legitimate knowledge production is simultaneously tethered to race and power (reserved to the white and landed), resulting in what we have come to know as modernity.4 Settler colonialism seeks to eliminate Indigenous populations in order to monopolize resources for the sake of capital. It operates through laws and racist ideologies, but also through conceptualizations of the natural world as white men’s for the human taking. Settler colonialism operates from its own …

From Sheltering in Place to Dancing on Shifting Ground

For days a robin has been flying into the glass doors of my studio, bouncing off and then standing nonplused on the deck, looking back at the glass with, what I take to be utter consternation. Then she goes at it again, hurling herself against the glass, bouncing off and then standing four feet away confused, I suppose gathering resolve for the next, duty-bound attempt. At first, I thought she might be a pregnant female looking for a good nesting site. Worried, I did a bit of robin-nesting research online and built a small bird-house along the lines of what I’d seen on birding sites. I mounted the little house on the exterior wall of the studio, where the robin could see it. I even collected some nesting materials—grasses, sticks, and mud. But the robin took no interest and continued bashing herself against every glass window and door. Alarmed, I sent off emails to various birding sites asking if anyone had seen something similar. In just a few hours I had received a half dozen …

Three Meditations on the Apocalypse

I. ORIGINS 3.23.2020 On the first day I look for origins1: Corona (n): [1] a crown, a garland of laurel bestowed for serving in wartime, in a lifetime; so may we make for each other garlands of tenderest gratitude, coronas of lotus and laurel. [2] a luminous circle left behind dark moon during total eclipse; this darkness remarkable only because of the knowledge of light that exists beyond it. II. GENERATION 3.27.2020 On the fifth day I boil bones to make a stock. My grandmother’s recipe, something passed invisibly from women’s hands— tender, strong, the shape of holding— into my hands, into my bones: a knowing how to hold on. The steam billows out from the stove and clouds the windows. If I had a child, I imagine her hands drawing flowers upon them, play affirming life, a crack in the fog of this uncanny war, through which we could look out on our neighbors and they could look in on us: the humanity of it— a small child and a grown one making something …

Grief in the Time of COVID: Sharing in Compassion and Resilience

When my father went into the hospital on May 6th, there were 76,000 deaths in the US from COVID-19. By the time he passed away eleven days later, there were 90,000. It’s strange when something as deeply and personally felt as the death of a loved one becomes part of a national statistic. Yet it also points to the collective nature of grief related to the pandemic and the systemic injustices that it has revealed and intensified. We are in a time of collective grief. Some of us have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Others have lost jobs or been furloughed due to the lockdown of cities and towns across the country. On top of all that, since the killing of George Floyd on May 25, the streets have been filled with renewed anguish and calls for racial justice and the end of police brutality. The enormity of the crisis affects us all, directly or indirectly. How can we handle the emotional intensity and grief while supporting each other in the process and working for …

Survival Will Always Be Insufficient, but It’s a Good Place to Start

Rereading Emily St. John Mandel’s speculative fiction novel Station Eleven at the start of the pandemic was strangely reassuring. The book toggles between the onset of a future global flu pandemic and the lives of people living twenty years later. I often find post-apocalyptic fiction helpful for affirming the possibility of going on past disaster. Station Eleven is explicitly organized around the proposition that “survival is insufficient.” This phrase—tattooed on a character’s arm and written on the side of the traveling theatre and musical troupe’s vehicle in the twenty-years-from-pandemic plotline—comes from a Star Trek episode. In the book, the phrase, “survival is insufficient,” asserts that people deserve art, and music, and other seemingly useless things that are apparently secondary to basic biological survival. To reprise the 1912 labor slogan, we need not only bread but also roses: Beauty is integral to surviving and thriving. What does it mean for us to fight for roses—for more than survival—when so many people are not even surviving? Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production …