Walidah is a writer, organizer, educator and performance poet. She has also been a nerd since the womb. She is the co-editor of the upcoming anthology Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements. She currently teaches in Portland State University's Black Studies Department and Oregon State University's Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department.
It is such a privilege to be at this year’s Portland State University Multicultural Graduation — I look forward to this graduation every day, to celebrate the amazing accomplishments of our students of color. I am so honored to be the keynote speaker, and to have been chosen by the student leaders to do so. Yall know the Cultural Resource Center student leaders are phenomenal, so this is definitely an honor!
This is such an incredibly important time for each of us here — students obviously, but also parents, friends, family, faculty, and staff. It makes me so happy to see so many brilliant students I’ve had the opportunity to get to know graduating here today. This is a time to celebrate the immense amount of work and sacrifice and dedication that got each of you graduating here.
When I tell people I am a prison abolitionist and that I believe in ending all prisons, they often look at me like I rode in on a unicorn sliding down a rainbow. Even people engaged in social movements, people who concede that the current prison system is flawed, voice their critiques but always seem to add, “But it’s all we have.”
For all of our ability to analyze and critique, the left has become rooted in what is. We often forget to envision what could be. We forget to mine the past for solutions that show us how we can exist in other forms in the future.
That is why I believe our justice movements desperately need science fiction. Stay with me on this one. I am the co-editor, along with visionary movement strategist adrienne maree brown, of the anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, which comes out this spring from AK Press. Octavia’s Brood, named in honor of Black feminist sci-fi writer and MacArthur “Genius” grant winner Octavia Butler, is a collection of radical science fiction written by organizers, change makers, and visionaries.
We know it has been a while since you have received an update about the visionary sci-fi anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction From Social Justice Movements.
That is because we have been involved in a transition and re-evaluation phase. It’s the end of that phase, and we are so happy to be able to officially announce two incredible things: 1) the final list of contributors to the project, and 2) that AK Press (in conjunction with the Institute for Anarchist Studies) will publish Octavia’s Brood!
We are excited to announce we will be doing a Northwest Tour at the end of February! Though Octavia’s Brood won’t be out until the summer, my co-editor adrienne maree brown and I are excited to do a series of readings, writing workshops, organizing workshops, and presentations based on Octavia Butler, science fiction, social change, and the anthology.
In honor of the Nerds of Color Lit Week, I wanted to share a piece called “Supa Soul Sista.” I wrote and performed it with Turiya Autry and our poetry duo Good Sista/Bad Sista a few years ago.
We wrote it because we are both unabashed nerds. And we are also both Black feminist poets, professors and activist/organizers. As many folks reading this blog know, this mix can cause a bigger explosion than a warp core breach in the matter/anti-matter containment unit on the Starship Enterprise. Often there are no images of anyone who looks like us in comics or in sci-fi, and those folks who do are not authentic representations, but are often more ideas of what white male writers think Black women are.
During an interview in the 1980s, Black female science fiction writer Octavia Butler was asked her how it felt to be THE Black female science fiction writer. And Octavia replied she never wanted that title. She said she wanted to be one of hundreds of Black female sci-fi writers. She said she wanted thousands of folks writing sci-fi and writing themselves into the future.
I have only met Dominic Newsome through letters. This is because Dominic is incarcerated in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, in the same institution political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal called “a bright shining hell.”
We became acquainted when I lived in Philadelphia and was working with the Human Rights Coalition, an organization of prisoners’ families. We received dozens of letters each week from people, mostly Black men, behind prison walls. They asked for legal referrals, told us of atrocities being committed by guards, of legal railroading. Some just wanted to connect with people on the outside — ours were the only letters they received.
It was in this that I got to know Dominic. I met him through his letters, but I came to know Dominic through his art. The first drawing he sent of me was Harriet Tubman. I pulled it from the manila envelope with his clear writing that grew like vines on the front. I could not believe the detail, the intricacy, the emotion he accomplished with what looked to me to be a pen and a regular sheet of paper.
I learned later it was not actually a pen — it was the inside of a pen, which is the only writing instrument prisoners in restricted housing are allowed (Mumia Abu-Jamal used that to write several books). Supposedly it is because the round casing of the pen could be used as a weapon. Given that prisoners in restricted housing are locked down 23 out of 24 hours a day, that they have no physical contact with anyone but armed guards, and that visits are conducted through thick plexiglass that distorts the faces of loved ones, it seems more an attempt to suffocate the creative fire of these overwhelming Black and Brown folks.
My friends Noah, Ian, and I were sitting in Ian’s garage studio, trying to figure out what to do that evening. None of us were big partiers, but having been friends for more than a decade on both sides of the continent, we felt like we had to mark Noah’s visit to town with more than a movie marathon. Since both Noah and Ian had been involved in emceeing and DJ-ing respectively for years, we decided to make a hip hop track, just for fun.
While Ian happily dove into his seemingly endless stack of records, I sat with some trepidation. I had started my spoken word career as a slam poet, the loud-mouthed step-sibling to hip hop. And as much as slam poets want to say that emceeing and spoken word are pretty much the same thing; seriously, they’re not. Riding a beat may be like riding a bike in that once you learn you never forget, but it’s a hell of a lot harder. So as Ian began sampling records, I concentrated on how to make sure I don’t embarrass myself on this track.
But the second I heard Ian’s beat, all of that flew out of my head. The outer space pulsations were a galactic siren’s call, drawing me further out into the stars. When I got up to record my part, I wasn’t worried at all. Partially because Noah and Ian were super supportive and patient, and because it was Ian’s studio, there was no pressure about going over on recording time.
But it was also because I realized I was home. Immersed in the sci-fi geekiness I had known since I was in the womb, and getting to pair that with my political analysis. Watching Star Trek is my first memory. I begged my mother to send me to Klingon language camp when I was in middle school, and when she wouldn’t, I set up a weekly tutoring session with my best friend and fellow geek Yvonne who had gotten to go.