ActivismBrooklynSolution Sessions

solution sessions live: history & reclamation

August 25, 2019

Saturday’s AFROPUNK Brooklyn 2019 Solution Sessions live program had an undeniable headliner. Journalist and editor Nikole Hannah Jones’ discussion of how she helmed the New York Times recent, historic “1619 Project” had the afternoon crowd at Roulette Brooklyn riveted as only an important and successful piece of creative work could. Yet it was the panels around Jones’ appearance — the ones about the prevalence of Street Harassment, the problem with Cancel Culture, and the need to tell our stories through activist media and art work — that tied together the day’s program, and showcased the beauty of what the live Solution Sessions are all about.

Jones’ 1619 Project, which commemorated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans to North America, is that very rare thing: a mass newspaper publishing hit. The August 16th issue of the New York Times Magazine has now been reprinted, bootlegged and instantly added to Black studies departments. (In what was among Jones’s best one-liners, she said that using her own money to print extra copies and hand them out in her neighborhood made her feel like “the Master P of journalism.”)  This a project that engaged a topic America never seemed to want to deal with — the importance of Blackness to country’s founding and history — a fact that did not escape Jones, who said she had been fascinated by the date ever since learning about it in high school. “I’ve been waiting all my life to do this,” she told the audience, giving props to the paper of record and her editors for instantly getting behind the idea when she first presented it in Winter 2019. She said the project made her patriotic in a way she had never been before. “We give lie to the ideal of America, a reminder to the hypocrisy of its founding,” she said. But “we could also make [the words of the Constitution] true, to make those ideals true.”          

The early afternoon program opened With a conversation about Street Harassment (sponsored by AARP Sisters). Led by Solution Sessions podcast hosts Yves Jeffcoat and Bridget Todd, it featured #MeToo movement founder Taran Burke, the artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh whose street-art “speaks for women in their environment,” and the singer/criminal justice activist Indigo Mateo. It is a problem that all women agreed was so prevalent that too many people in the community don’t think of it as an issue. But it was Mateo who put forward that it is a problem that needs to find a “non-carceral way” to be ended, whether through education of men or of young women. “Adults in children’s lives need to ask questions, to check in to re-socialize young people,” said Burke, discussing how older generations who’ve previously considered harassment of young women as “just the way it is.” And, Burke added, men need to do the work, which she is willing to help — to a degree: “This is a predator issue. Men need to close ranks. But I’m only willing to work with you as much as you’re willing to.” No one was co-signing a full cancel culture — unless you’re R. Kelly.

The problems with cancel culture were also brought forth on the panel devoted to the subject. Criminal reform activist Richie Reseda, law professor Wendy Green, the Black Lives Matter-affiliated social justice activist and storyteller Janaya ‘Future’ Khan, and Working Families Party’s Maurice Mitchell all approached the topic from many different directions. Future pointed out that modern Internet cancel culture has come together on social media around sexual violence and violent genders — but warned that this was a slippery slope, and did not account for a spectrum where victims and predators do not always take familiar form. Especially when in a post-binary world we are all trying to build in the place of the white patriarchy. It was a conversation that went into a few fascinating spaces, including the conversation about cancellation versus boycott (Reseda: “Boycott has a purpose, changing the systems; cancelling is a fuck you and individualistic”); and about social justice versus money (Future:”you can’t become a billionaire without exploiting someone, and now people are commodifying a value system”). Both of which echoed the previous night’s talk by former Black Panther Party chairperson, Elaine Brown. And when the question was raised of whether there’s a line to be drawn, Mitchell was pretty clear: “fascism.” So, the fascists and predators…yes, cancel the fuck out of them.

The session closed with a conversation about how to tell our own activist stories through art and media (sponsored by Al-Jazeera). Writers Mychal Denzel Smith, Joel L. Daniels and Charise Frazier, joined artist Gianni Lee and educator/activist Jamira Burley to discuss representation of the complexity of African-American identities and how an activist take on storytelling in various mediums can move forward. What are the new ways of sharing Black truths? As a Black woman journalist, Frazier echoed the words Nikole Hannah-Jones saying that the objectivity taught in journalism schools is impossible, as, in this environment, it is a white construct. And all the panelists agreed that the notions of community needed to be central storytelling. But even there, not all communities are absolute. Mychal Denzel Smith was realistic for this community’s standards, which can be simultaneously personal and shared: “None of us are doing right, but there’s a role for everyone to play. No one is not absolved, but if you are community-based, there are ways to critique everyone, and everyone contributes in their own way.”