‘Black Women Need to Unlearn the Pattern of Martyrdom’
Activist Adrienne Maree Brown discusses how to make revolution irresistible and what Black liberation looks like for Black women
Adrienne Maree Brown moves in many spaces. That’s because the writer, activist, social justice facilitator, doula, and singer is deeply invested in transforming communities and worlds. Brown, the author of two groundbreaking books, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds and Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, is using her robust gifts to support and center people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and Black liberation.
Based in Detroit, Brown is also the co-host of the How to Survive the End of the World podcast and an Octavia Butler scholar. She touts the acclaimed Parable of the Sower author as a guiding light in her work, and in this period of time we find ourselves in. “I’m really grateful that Octavia Butler left us the offering of ‘God is change,’ and the instruction to get in the right relationship to change, because that teaching resonates so much for this moment,” she says.
In a recent conversation with ZORA, Brown discusses finding and protecting pleasure, making revolution irresistible, and what Black liberation looks like for Black women.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ZORA: Many people know you from your emergent strategy work. In the past, you’ve said your description of emergent strategy has shifted over time. How do you describe it, right now?
Adrienne Maree Brown: It’s a strategy for building patterns and systems of change. That’s how I define it in the book. It’s about understanding that change is the fundamental operating principle of the universe. And that every single thing that is alive, every single thing that we can look around and see, is impermanent, came from somewhere, [and is] going to somewhere. I learned from Octavia Butler that we can either resist change completely or we can acknowledge that it is constant. In that acknowledgement, begin to partner with it. That’s when I start to get excited. It’s like, what does it look like for a bunch of humans to stop trying to control change? What does it look like for us to, instead, face change, acknowledge it, and then start to get into the right relationship with it?
You identify as a pleasure activist. How can we find pleasure at a time when we’re at the intersection of a pandemic, uprisings, and the pursuit of Black liberation?
Emergent strategy and pleasure activism really go together. Folks see all the ways that we normally experience and find pleasure and connection are not happening because of the pandemic. We are also being called into action, both online and in the streets. Being able to tune in and take action together is actually giving us a deep sense of connection, of being a part of something larger than ourselves. When you see people standing in their dignity it feels like a good touch, right? I want to keep feeling that. That feels and looks irresistible.
I love that you brought up the word irresistible. It reminds me of Toni Cade Bambara, when she said, “The purpose of a writer is to make revolution irresistible.”
She’s one of our many saints. I see her right now in so many of these actions. We’re in the streets, we’re together, we’re fighting, and we’re dancing. We’re making these incredible spectacles that people want to keep their eyes on. I think we’re learning how to make it irresistible — to be in the right relationship to each other to transform the world.
We’re in a moment of heightened learning. I also find, in this time, an opportunity to unlearn some things. What do Black women need to unlearn to move closer to healing and pleasure?
Two things leap to my heart. I think Black women need to unlearn the pattern of martyrdom. The pattern that says we must always overwork ourselves to consider ourselves even showing up appropriately. I see this all the time in movement work. I will go to a meeting and it’s the same five Black women who are signed up on every single list to do every single task. I’m like, I know y’all are brilliant and I know you can do all of it. But how do we start to make a movement culture in which the workload is truly shared? To me, one of the deepest wounds of colonization and chattel slavery is this sense that there’s constant work that we need to be doing to earn our right to exist in any way. So that feels like one piece.
The second piece is we have to unlearn the idea that we have to earn pleasure. That we have to earn the right to rest. That we have to earn the right to be desired, to be loved, to be seen. That someone else has to give us permission to feel good.
What would you say to Black women who have a hard time taking a break?
Even when people urge us to rest, there’s still resistance or fear, right? That’s scarcity. That sense of, “If I step away, maybe I’ll get replaced or forgotten. Maybe my place and movement is not going to be held for me.” That’s one of the ways that capitalism gets into our hearts. The feeling of, “I don’t deserve to rest. I have to keep working until someone else says you get two weeks now.” We have to unlearn that.
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Capitalism has conditioned us to overwork ourselves. What are some ways you incorporate pleasure and celebration while doing the work to avoid burnout?
I do a somatic practice each day where I really ask myself, “What do I want? What do I long for? And how do I center my life around that?” I check in to see how I’m feeling and make sure that my day is being guided by things that I feel in deep alignment with, and that I say yes to my rest, yes to my orgasms, yes to my body.
Recently, you wrote, “Capitalism makes it hard to see your own direction.” How are you breaking your relationship with capitalism to make sure it does not claim your work and your time?
One way is I don’t take sponsorships for my work. I don’t want anyone else to pay me for certain things that I do. I’m attentive to what I charge for and don’t charge for when I do my work. You can pay me for a book because the book is fully written, and I have a publisher who allows me to publish on my own terms. But I make it a point that almost everything I put out — I do podcasts and I do my blog — that if you like it, you can support it. But you can’t advertise on it. I am never thinking of my work like, “Here’s a brand that I’m going to build of myself.” I’m also really attentive to where I purchase things, where I bank.
For years, my focus has been facilitation. I could get a lot more money if I answered some of these other calls. But I know that I would be further away from the people that I’m meant to serve. And I don’t think that’s what I’m here to do. I want to offer that because I think a lot of times capitalism puts us in this mindset of we never know when we have enough. So we’re always in hustle mode. We just have to get more. We have to take whatever job is offering the most money. We have to get the highest benefits. For me, I have enough. And we should ask ourselves: Do we know what enough is inside of our lives? Once I know that, it’s much harder for capitalism to catch me, right? Because I’m not susceptible to this constant sale of myself or my soul to any other force.
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What are you finding pleasure in these days?
My mom has a wreath on her door and we watched the whole process of a sparrow come and build a nest there and lay her eggs. The eggs hatched. Now multiple times a day, out of nowhere, you’ll hear the bird babies. I watch the momma bird feed them. It’s really beautiful. Reading gives me pleasure. Right now, I’m reading Matter and Desire. It’s giving me a lot of life. Before that, I read Braiding Sweetgrass and Segu, which I highly recommend for all Black people. It feels like it unleashed some big things in me. I enjoy playing Tetris and watching Hamilton — with all the controversy intact to me. I’m really loving baths, and giving myself the hotel experience in my home. And watching everything that our movements are doing right now. That gives me immense pleasure.
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When I think of pleasure, I also think of freedom. What does Black liberation for Black women look like to you?
I think it looks like a ton of laughter and being able to trust each other. Trusting that there’s an abundance of resources and we don’t have to fight amongst each other for them. Trusting each other to have each other’s backs when harm happens. Trusting that we can recover from harm together. Trusting that we don’t have to build our lives around anger or bitterness. And this one feels particularly important to me because, I feel like right now, there’s a way that we often have to claim our right to even be angry. But, that’s not what I want to fight for. I don’t want the right to be angry. I want to be on the other side of these things that are making me so angry. Black liberation also looks and feels like we are valued and able to be our whole selves.
Your full self includes singing at weddings. What’s your favorite wedding song to sing?
“All Is Full of Love” by Björk. It says what I believe: that love is a perspective. If you choose it, if you trust love, you will find yourself surrounded by it.