Meant to Survive: Creativity as a Path to Abolition

Photograph by shah noor hussein

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 of bypassing or reducing histories of trauma-bearing to traits of strength and resilience, we should also be careful not to stay with and respond to our suffering with anguish alone. As Lucille Clifton insists in her poem addressing future generations of Black youth, “We have always loved each other,”4 and this means we must come together and celebrate “that everyday something has tried to kill [us] and has failed”.5 In other words, we must hold the truth of our suffering while honoring our survival, knowing that living is a beautiful act.

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

Amidst the ongoing pandemic, the growing awareness of carceral violence, and the wave of demands for abolition, it is important to remember that we trained under the hands of our ancestors who passed on that divinity through their teachings and contemplative wisdom. While the accelerated pace of disaster and crisis of these times can often make it feel as if we must react quickly to the pressing needs of our time, a well-developed spiritual practice urges practitioners not only to think about how to respond in a timely manner, but also how to move with intention and wholeness.

In the spirit of this wisdom, we have asked our contributors and authors to respond to the resurgent and emergent calls for prison and police abolition with timely and thoughtful ruminations on community care, radical imagination, and mindful revolution. We asked our writers to consider the voices currently being heard and what voices should be further elevated? What needs to be said that hasn’t been said? What needs to be said louder? Repeated? More deeply engaged and uplifted? We invited them to consider what statements, assumptions, or perspectives needed to be corrected, amended, or expanded? In response, these selected authors shared essays, commentaries, and poetry as well as hybrid explorations featuring elements of prose, embodiment, and performance.

A young dark-skinned girl stands in front of a large Sudanese flag held by two other Sudanese teens. The little girl’s sign reads “Justice” and “Freedom” in both Arabic and English. Photo by shah noor hussein.

They represent diverse lineages and spiritual traditions, from mediums to masters students, urban shamans to urban educators, scholars to practitioners. The contributors, all based in North America, represent a unique coalescence of Black, diasporic identity. Our writers are queer, straight, gender non-conforming, cisgendered, femme, and male-identified. They represent an age group that begins before the boomers and spans beyond Generation Y. They live in Vancouver, San Francisco, New Orleans, Seattle, Oakland, and New York, while carrying messages from Sierra Leone, Trinidad, Sudan, Haiti, Liberia, Jamaica and other unnamed, fugitive spaces.

Their writings tackle complex issues through personal narrative, embodied practice, and scholarly praxis. They describe their spiritual tools for survival and abolition: tarot, performance, art creation, holding space, divination, conversation, storytelling, daydreaming, place-making, meditation, ancestor veneration, protesting, praying, imagining and so much more.

We begin with an essay by Ra Malika Imhotep offering Black fugitivity as both an act of social care and creative play, paired with a piece of creative fiction exploring conception as a future building process, by Dr. Claudelle Glasgow. We follow with essays from Jarrel Philips and Mason Dana, who share their practices of holding conversation and pulling tarot, respectively, as sources of spiritual balance during trying times. We will also share poetry, including excerpts from Dr. Valerie (Vimalasara) Mason-John’s newly published poetry collection, I Am Still Your Negro, as well as poetic verse in both Philips’ and Dana’s essays. We close with an interview from two life-long artists living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Malik Seneferu and William Rhodes, who merge their East and West Coast energy into a dynamic friendship and an art practice grounded in ancestor veneration and wisdom.

Three Sudanese teens hold up protest gear, including a megaphone and sign, with flags draped over their shoulders. The sign reads, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Photo by shah noor hussein.

Should readers feel so inspired or impassioned, they will leave with some invitations, prompts, and calls to action within these pieces. May you spread these writings and their teachings forward, benefiting as many beings as possible, without exception. May we all remember, we have the power to imagine our futures, and with each vision the revolution grows stronger while our liberation becomes clearer.

shah noor hussein is a writer, visual artist, and scholar focusing on black feminism, art, and teaching. shah is a doctoral student and Cota-Robles Fellow at UC Santa Cruz in the fields of Anthropology, Critical Race Theory & Ethnic Studies. From 2016 – 2017, they were a Writing Fellow at the California Institute of Integral Studies and currently works as an adjunct professor, a freelance writer, and a multimedia artist in Oakland. Their previous experience as an editor includes work for arts organizations, journals, magazines, start-ups, and book publishing companies including Umber Journal and Nothing But The Truth Publishing. shah serves as an Event and Program Coordinator at their spiritual spiritual home, the East Bay Meditation Center located in Okaland, California, which offers radically inclusive dharma practices through Buddhist, multicultural, and secular approaches that focus on social justice.

Return to table of contents for Spirituality and Survival: Imaginative Freedoms for Abolition Futures.

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

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  1. Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival,” in The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000).
  2. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “The Shape of My Impact,” The Feminist Wire, October 29, 2012,
  3. Octavia E Butler, Parable of the Sower (New York, NY: Warner Books, 1995).
  4. Lucille Clifton, “Listen Children,” in Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 (BOA Editions Limited, 2014).
  5. Lucille Clifton, “Won’t You Celebrate With Me,” in The Book of Light (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1993).