The Allied Media Conference gets more and more geektastic every year. Probably the place that kicked off this (black and brown queer feminist) revolutionary nerdom was Adrienne Maree Brown's Octavia Butler Symposium and Strategic Reader Build (http://adriennemareebrown.net/blog/2010/06/20/the-octavia-symposium-aka-not-faster-caterpillar-butterfly/) at the 2010 AMC. Adrienne talked passionately and insightfully about Octavia's impact on her life and on movements she was part of, and shared the idea that all social justice organizers are science fiction writers, because we are imagining a future that doesn't exist yet. I was also impressed by the way she used a "fishbowl" (http://adriennemareebrown.net/blog/2013/05/24/dear-adrienne-how-to-do-a-fishbowl-conversation/) as a way of having an intimate conversation in a large group. The Octavia Sympoisum became a Strategic Reader, which inspired me, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Jenna Peters-Golden and AMB to craft a Transformative Justice Sci Fi Reader. Adrienne Maree started travelling around kicking off Octavia Butler reading groups. The ripples go outward.
This year, when the 2013 AMC created a science track for the conference, I jumped out on a limb and proposed doing a similar strategic reader build about Born in Flames, the 1983 underground Black queer feminist science fiction film that has been a deep inspiration to me and many other feminists of color I know. I was nervous, but the session, on the very last workshop slot of the whole AMC, was a huge success!
Below are the notes I spoke aloud to the group, and the raw notes (captured by myself and by the amazing Jack Aponte). I wanted to capture them while they are still fresh. We are planning on crafting a strategic reader/instant blog, but this is what we;ve got now. And above is the entirety of Born in Flames, posted on Youtube. It had captions if you turn on CC.
Here are my introductory notes about the film:
Thank you so much for joining me for Stay Ready, the Born in Flames geekout. As a queer feminist of color, I am so happy to be discussing the ass kicking revolutionary ideas and images and lessons in this groundbreaking work of Black feminist science fiction.
Born in Flames was made in 1983- 30 years ago. But as people continue to watch it obsessively on Netflix, have benefits where we show it, and there is a forthcoming academic collection of work about its impact. All of this proves that its resonance and vision hasn't ended. I believe that science fiction is a form of organizing, and these myths and tropes we come up with help us shape our movements.
To recap, for people who have not seen it:
Born in Flames is a 1983 documentary-style film by director Lizzie Borden. Lizzie Borden is an underground, experimental New York based feminist film maker. Interestingly for the AMC, she has Detroit roots- she was born in Detroit in 1950. She also made Working Girls, a feature film that was highly controversial in the 1980s because it depicted the lives of sex workers in a way that fucked with the happy hooker/ pitiful victim stereotypes and instead depicted sex work as work. Since then, she's faded from the public eye- the internet shows her shooting what look like random films and series for money.
The premise of Born in Flames is that it's 1983 in New York, and a so called socialist revolution has happened, but it's left out women, queers and people of color. Basically, socialist manarchists have won. Women may be working construction but their jobs disappear when they complain. Sexual assault, domestic violence and childcare are still huge issues. Adelaide Norris, the main character, is a fine as hell Black queer woman who goes to Lehman College in the Bronx at night and is working construction days. With the help of her mentor, Zena Wiley, played by iconoclastic Black feminist lawyer Florence Kennedy, she helps found the Women's Army, a non violent, direct action organization that confronts rape, job discrimination and all forms of oppression from a super grassroots stance. When the Army gets on the FBI's radar, especially after Norris travels to a Francophone African country to get guns from an armed African women's organization in the Western Sahara, she's murdered in prison. Repression rises, but women are seen resisting through protest, through creating underground radio stations that operate inside rented U Haul trucks, through hacking into the mainstream media, and finally, (spoiler alert) through blowing up the goddamn World Trade Center. Yeah, that's right! In this movie, queer Black feminists blow up the WTC!
There's a lot of very important things that happen in this film that resonate with me, that I want to lift up:
There are constant shots of Black and women of color getting together to organize, talk to each other, have sex. Scenes consist of political conversations that happen between Zena, Honey and Adelaide in a video game arcade, on a sofa, watching tv and rolling eyes at the white guy newscaster. Organizing meetings happen at kitchen tables.
Much of the film alternates between shots of the women organizing and living on their own terms, and of the FBI surveilling and discussing them. It's kind of amazingly meta that the film is so about representation- about the women representing themselves, and about the feds, the cops, and the mainstream media re-interpreting them- as terrorists, as a "girl gang", as crackpots. So much of those moments are eerily close to, say, the mainstream media calling the New Jersey 7 a "lesbian gang", rewriting their story of being 7 Black Lesbians fighiting back against a man who was trying to assault them
Adelaide has a mentor in Florence Kennedy/ Zena Wiley. It is so rare to see images of Black women, especially queer femiinists, hanging out mentoring each other, in any film anywhere. There's an incredible moment where Florence is wearing a red kaffiyeh and she says "We have a right to violence. All oppressed people have the right to violence! And i'm gonna tell you something- it's like the right to pee! you have to have the right place, right time, and you have to have the appropriate situation, and i am convinced this is the appropriate situation!"
There are many scenes of direct action- of women of color getting together without funding and standing up to rape and abuse.
In one scene, a woman is getting harrassed on the subway and Adelaide and another member of the women's army get in the guys face and ask him "WHy don't you leave the lady alone?" Wihtout using violence, but while being firm as hell, they make him get up and leave. In another, a woman is harassed and attacked on the street. She is about to be raped and we hear the sound of whistles. All of a sudden, there a shot of Adelaide and a bunch of other women of color on bicycles blowing whistles. They surround the rapists blowing the whistles until they are so freaked out that they leave. They comfort the woman and take her to safety. We also see women wheatpasting posters that say THIS MAN IS A RAPIST. None of these things happen through funded nonprofit organizing, and in fact, the funded, official "socialist women's groups" are depicted at being at odds with this organizing.
There are race and class splits. There are two underground radio stations run by women- one, run by iconic Black lesbian with shaved head Honey, one by what (to these eyes) today look like a bunch of white masculine of center genderqueers ;) who may talk a lot on the mic about "We are reforming a guerilla army" but don't seem to be doing a whole lot.
The film captures what New York looked like in the 1980s. There is killer fashion that is everyday. And there is an everydayness to the people in the film. They seem like everyday women coming together to talk, argue, make art, organize.
Born in Flames has had a lasting impact. Thirty years old this year, shot on film, it just will not fade. In the mid 2000s when I lived in the Bay, there were more benefits for INCITE that consisted of showings of Born in Flames in someone's backyard with some sangria then I could count. Queers of color I know talked about the bicycle scene as a model for how we could directly intervene into violence constantly. Artist and INCITE member Ines Ixierda made patches consisting of a high heeled shoe held in a fist that said STAY READY which were sold at NJ 4 benefits. I still have one pinned above my bed. Invincible, Jean Grae and Tamar Kali names their 2011 tour Born in Flames.
Then we showed a series of clips from the film- the bicycle scene, the scene where the intervene in the sexual harassment on the subway, the scene where the FBI is discussing Adelaide Norris.
We then moved into the fishbowl and then small group discussion. I am so thankful to Jack Aponte for taking such detailed ones! Here they are; they're also up at https://etherpad.alliedmedia.org/p/12076#AMC2013_Stay_Ready:_
BORN IN FLAMES GEEKOUT SESSION
Is there a lesson for organizing that you've drawn? Or a moment that's really inspirational? Challenging? Or a question that has arisen for your own organizing work
BIG GROUP SHARING
You are the dream your ancestors envisioned, and then bent reality to create."
Watch this space for more geekery!
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This work by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.