BSU Interview with Funmilola Fagbamila, Playwright and Co-Founder of First BLM Chapter
Edited by Andrew Benoit
On Nov 9, playwright, professor and artist Funmilola Fagbamila – who was an original co-founder of the first BLM chapter – gave a talk called “Freedom Dreams: A Formula for Justice” in the Rotunda. The Trail is honored to publish an excerpt from an interview Kerrigan Franklin, BSU President, conducted with Fagbamila prior to her lecture. The full interview may be found on The Trail’s website.
Kerrigan: I’ve noticed that the scope of your work is vastly encompassing and it addresses a multitude of issues. Could you explain the basis of that and why intersectionality is vital to effective activism?
Fagbamila: Yes, it addresses a wide range of issues because the way that my mind processes what needs to be addressed in this world is not very niche, right? Like it is, in many ways, what could be perceived as broad when it comes to the human capacity to engage with difference in an effective way to be able to create space for nuance, while also demanding that people walk in a principled way. And so it’s this thing where it feels broad but it applies to every aspect of our lives and what we see in the world that causes the most devastation, conflict and contention is oftentimes our inability to engage with difference. With that and oftentimes, those who have been historically in positions of power have been unwilling to engage with difference in an honest and principled way, for the sake of maintaining their privileges, or for the sake of greed. When we talk about people not engaging difference in an effective way, systemically, historically, these things that one of the most egregious examples of this historically, was chattel slavery. Which was to say, “These people are different from us,” and instead of acknowledging the reality that we understand that they are just humans that are different that come from a different place, different cultures, different aesthetic, different physicality, different way of being, we’re going to utilize this as a framework to create a an excuse for – rather a justification for – enslaving them. That is the most egregious example in many ways. Nazi Germany is an egregious example of “these people are different. So let us use this as an example to execute what it is that we actually intend to execute.”
In contemporary times, our unwillingness to engage with that which is different shows up in so many other ways. The ways that we continue to reject folks that do not fit neatly into the frameworks of masculinity and femininity that we have adopted and continued to adopt and continue to promote via popular culture, etc. And so it shows up in the ways that we deny, and disrespect and disregard and dismiss folks whose bodies we have been trained to believe are desirable enough. I say all this to say that the reason that I engage with such a broad frame work in my work and a broad range of themes, while also kind of doing it via the discussion about Black political identity is because observing the different identities that exist the Black political sphere is almost a way of having an example of the ways that these contentions exist overall with all other groups in the world as well not just within the Black left or within Black activist circles or within Black community organizing. I just use Black community organizing as an example to show the contentions that exist throughout all communities, which is to say, how do people that disagree find a way to work together for our greatest good, and then how do we come to a point where we can agree about what the greatest good is? That’s why I deal with such a broad range of work.
K: What do you consider to be the catalyst and overarching perspective for activism and social justice movements at this time?
F: You know, because there are so many different movements while related have very different objectives. It’s almost hard to say, “Well, what was the actual catalyst?” And I think that if I had to frame it, one might say justice, because justice is this all encompassing thing. When we’re talking about environmental justice, gender justice, racial justice, but even that, when we say that you know, folks just want justice in whatever realm that they’re working in, it’s like, well, what do we mean by that? Some people will say, “Well, you know, restorative justice means that we’re acknowledging, we’re trying to move towards systems that are not about punishment, but rather systems of accountability and healing.”
And so some people might say “All of these movements have one thing in common, which is justice, but what does justice mean in a healthier world?” Cornel West would say that it looks like “love out loud” in many ways, like loving action is justice, that we’re loving each other better, that when something goes wrong we’re seeking to figure out what happened and why it went wrong and not just immediately to punish. This becomes complicated when we look at the offender of the wrongdoing, and if there has been a history of wrongdoing, so that we can actually acknowledge the complexity and there have been times when we want to look deeper into why a person did what they did, as opposed to acknowledging a person that is engaging in a wrongdoing or system that is engaging in a wrongdoing and it’s not an accident, and that it has been a historical thing and that it’s been a pattern of abuse and manipulation. And so restorative justice begins to kick in to look at the nuances of what we mean when we say a healthier world. And so, to answer your question, what I think they all have in common is greater egalitarianism in this world, because a fully egalitarian society may be outside of our hands forever, but a greater egalitarianism and a healthier way of interacting with each other.
K: That kind of answers my follow up question of if you believe that it is the desolateness of an issue or the unwavering hope for its resolve that are part of the catalysts for social movements. When you speak of egalitarianism, does that kind of suggest that you would think that it’s the hope for its resolve or the resolve of an issue that is kind of the backbone and push for social movements?
F: That’s an interesting way to frame it. It reminds me of something that I heard in a Black Power documentary. This person speaking in the documentary was addressing what took place at the start of the Black Power era, that transition from civil rights into Black power. And basically what they were getting at is that black communities in the United States observed that the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of change. So it’s like, we would rather go forth with the discomfort and the pain and the loss and the vulnerability and like all of the things that come along with saying “we’re standing up for ourselves in a system that was never made to serve us.” All of the scary and potentially harmful things that could happen to people when they stick up for themselves in such a system. That they’re prepared to address that rather than deal with what they’ve been dealing with. So, in essence, what is the catalyst? I think it’s, it’s, it’s the observation of “what else are we supposed to do? Are we to leave this as it is for a future generation and future generations?” And I just heard someone say, it’s like they said something about loving people in a future time, basically saying that we love the people that we don’t even know yet – a future generation – to know that this is not an earth and a legacy and a system that we would desire to leave for them. But also without romanticizing future generations of like, “Oh, we’re just doing this for the children,” right. What does it mean to say that with this struggle, we know based on historical records, we more than likely will not see the fruits of our efforts when it comes to these freedom movements. With all of the efforts that are striven toward in our generation, that the fruits of that labor, namely, the majority of the fruits that really transform culture and institutions and systems and education, that the fruits of that labor, we may not see. Right, like meaning those of us that are alive today, the greatest fruits of that labor – but maybe in 50 years. I’m thinking of the timeline of freedom movements, and I’m thinking of the ways that the work that was done in Civil Rights, how that created room for there to be Black Power. And how the work that was done in Black Power, created room for there to be a movement for Black lives and for Black Lives Matter to exist.
I think that the, the, the big incentive behind all the push is, is this a sentiment of “We can’t just leave it as it is.” I would love to say that it’s just because of a love of people. I think it is a bit more complex than just the love of people. I also think that we are in a moment where social media as a new thing for humanity has deeply informed our discussion around empathy, and how to show up for each other in a meaningful way. And of course, performance of activism via social media and these types of things. It’s hard because we are overwhelmed and overburdened, overloaded daily with information that past generations would never have had the ability to know. And people are beginning, from my observation, to experience an empathy fatigue in a particular type of way where it’s like, “I can’t look anymore because it’s all too much” when past generations didn’t even necessarily have the option to look. So that’s something to consider.
K: So what were the actions and experiences that led you to becoming a founder in the Black Lives Matter organization?
F: I was 18 when I found out about the term social construction, that something could be socially constructed. Once I found out that something could be not, in fact, real, but society has told us that it is real that changed my perception of the world to say, is this real, in fact, or have I been told that this thing is real? The way that we are told that race is real? The way that we’re told so many things as if it’s just a matter of fact. I wonder how many of these things are real, in fact, meaning that it has existed for centuries and centuries and has made sense for human wellbeing? Versus that has just been told is what we’re supposed to do? So I began to look at everything with a critical eye. I’m in college at this point and I began to learn more about race, about the history of race, about Blackness, about freedom movements of the past, about understanding economic systems and the fact that there are other options than what exactly we’ve seen. And then throughout college, I began to organize events on campus with the pan-African student collective, myself and a few of my friends and then like a few new people that I didn’t know we started organizing events. Eventually, the pan-African student collective became really close with some of the faculty who are invested in doing this work not only in academia but in doing work on the streets, in the community, at the grassroots level. One of those professors was Melina Abdullah. Abdullah was my professor of pan-African studies when I was actually a teacher back when I was an undergrad. She was my professor, and now is a colleague, but in essence, Melina was one of the founding members, and one of the co-founders of BLM. We all organized under the banner of justice for Trayvon Martin Los Angeles, when George Zimmerman was acquitted. What now is known to be the first ever Black Lives Matter march and rally and this took place June 17 2013. And from there, this is when BLM started to grow. Black Lives Matter Los Angeles started to grow and more chapters were created. Then Mike Brown was murdered and the whole world, not rather the whole world, I’ll say, the United States rather, and we hashtaged Black Lives Matter. And it was presented to the world as a movement to address police violence and anti-black state violence. And then with each particularly egregious incident, that had a very widespread reaction from the public. The public began to understand a bit more of the BLM’s existence as an organization and not just as a hashtag. So now there’s a much greater perception of BLM as an organization as a network as a movement as the hashtag as all of these different things.
We didn’t know what we were doing in standing up after George Zimmerman was acquitted, we didn’t know that would become what is now Black Lives Matter. We just knew that we had been doing this organizing work for years. We had been made fun of. We had been called all of the names before activism was popular and cool and trendy. So when acknowledging injustice became part of the popular American imagination and literally part of culture it was almost this weird experience to go from being ostracized and told “I understand that you want to be Martin Luther King Jr! But please don’t be too loud or cause too much trouble for yourself.” Going from that to you know, “we’ve always been on the same page with y’all.” It’s like, “No, you were making fun of us one year ago!” But that’s part of the culture shift, and it was a positive shift..
K: Prior to that cultural shift as a founder, like what were some of those technical and logistical difficulties that you and your other co founders faced when founding the organization?
F: Endless! How to make sense of chapters, when folks are wanting to do this work and join into the efforts that have already been started. And it’s like, okay, well, let’s make a structure like chapters existing in different cities. And then chapters came up under the banner of “oh, we’re a Black Lives Matter chapter,” but never actually ever communicating or collaborating with any of us and then moving through their organizing with completely different principles than what originally BLM was principally. So having to navigate that where it’s like, “oh, well, we saw these BLM organizers and they were saying this type of stuff,” and we’re like “we’ve never met them before! What are you talking about right?” And so this is, these are things that happened, and that’s just scratching the surface.
K: From the initial LA chapter, the initial grassroots organization of BLM, what was the original vision that formed BLM? And do you see that same vision in the present day? And additionally, do you see it remaining the same in the future or changing course?
F: I do. The original vision, we’re still very much in pursuit of it. When we talk about addressing the criminal justice system overall. When we talk about addressing the institution of for profit prisons. When we talk about anti-blackness and other aspects of culture. Anti-blackness in academia. Anti-blackness when it comes to the job market, and all of these different aspects where this shows up. This is still an ever present pursuit. But I will say that one of the primary objectives that has been reached already is to make it normal to discuss these things in broad daylight. That was not normal in 2011 Sure, we had our special groups and spaces and student organizations and grassroots spaces to talk about these things, but it wasn’t normal, everyday conversation, to address race and blackness in a very frank way where you’re not beating around the bush. And even now, though, it still can be perceived as improper to address these things in polite company, but less so. Right now it’s more there’s more of a willingness to call it being a thing than there was 12 years ago.
K: Your lecture, “Freedom Dreams: a Formula for Justice” envisions freedom as a reality not just as a dream. How can we as a collective work towards this reality, and what are the actions as well as the behavioral and characteristic expectations that we have to exhibit in order for us to manifest this within our society?
F: Yeah, consistency and allowing our daily walk to reflect our principles. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that every day you do your activist deed for the day, but it means that if we’re looking to create a world where we hold people accountable, and we communicate, and we create room for that which we are unfamiliar with and may be somewhat intimidated by. We want to be inquisitive, rather than ostracizing people from being that which we don’t quite understand. So we can begin to in our own ways, create many communities, micro cultures, micro environments, where everybody is committed to this principle of truth, to this principle that will lend itself to a healthier way of being with each other. It will affect the institutions by default, when we as a people begin to embody these principles, and we change culture. Because the question becomes, well, “we’re not powerful enough. Institutions make these decisions. Policy makers make these decisions, people in positions of political and economic power make these decisions that inform culture.” The truth is the people inform culture. We are affected by the institutions that govern so much of our lives, but we still have power to inform culture and inform the ways that we interact with each other. Because institutions that have historically caused harm will never commit themselves to making the necessary changes so that everybody has equal access to opportunity and justice in this country and in the world. They don’t have to because it’s not profitable. We would have to be the ones to make the necessary decision to say how can I, in my everyday walk, reflect the values that I want to see in the world? So this was not a moment for, you know, a kumbaya, Gandhi, be the change that you want to see in the world moment in a kind of sanitized way, but to genuinely be a reflection in your everyday walking, talking attitude to the best of your ability of what you would like to see more of in the world. It’s a consistency. It’s not just an outrage when something bad happens. It’s a consistency that you walk through the world with.
K: That just reminds me of what you were saying earlier about empathy fatigue, and how that directly is counteractive to consistency. It seems to come in Sparks and jolts for people. Whereas if we want to see an actual shift in the consciousness of people day to day, it has to be consistent. It can’t just be empathy for a moment and it needs to transcend all of the events and that’s how a collective shifts..
F: Yes! And consistency doesn’t mean that you’re in a perpetual state of resistance. The conversation about resistance gets a little bit complex because we’re now in a discussion about rest and joy also being resistance, which I understand exactly where that comes from. Because if you’re under cultures and systems and environments that have historically caused you harm that you just being well is a form of resistance. But the truth is, if we’re talking about resistance, how historically we really are what that word means and is actively with your body or with your mind or with your pen, resist the things that are happening. That it’s that the consistency of behavior of care, doesn’t necessarily have to mean that every day you’re posting about what’s happening in Gaza. But that yes, we can use the tools that we have effectively without necessarily feeling like to be consistent means that every day we are showing up in the ways that typically we view activism. This is one thing that I address a lot because how many people started off with us and how many people completely abandoned any discussion about justice work? Because they were like, “I can’t possibly be in this work, and also be happy and healthy and joyful in my life at the same time.” And that’s because it’s empathy fatigue that they experience. And this feeling that in order for me to be a good person and care about people, I always have to mourn for them. I always have to mourn with them when bad things are happening to people and they’re getting evicted and they don’t have enough money because they lost their jobs after the pandemic and the Palestinians are being killed. It’s not necessarily that you can be empathetic and that you can walk through the world with kindness and interact with people in a healthier way without having to be in a perpetual state of mourning.
K:Just going back to your work as a playwright, and how your positionality and your experiences have informed your work as a playwright, and how that once again, ties back into your activism.
F: Absolutely. The reason I wrote the play with four different popular widespread perspectives that exist content contemporarily and have existed for quite some time in Black America and Black political identity, that these four characters are representative of people that we know, for some of us, they’re representative of people that we are. I wrote it because I existed in all of the four spaces and environments that each of those characters represents. One of the characters is a radical black feminist, academic. I know her very well, because I am her in many ways. And my home girls and my homeboys and my home folks are that person as well. And that person I know specifically because of my work in academia. Another one of the characters is a cultural nationalist, an Afrocentric cultural nationalist. In LA that person will be considered part of the Afrocentric movement, the LA Leimert Park scene. And what that scene is a black people that are committed to African identity, and resisting and rejecting any form of Eurocentrism that shows up in our way of being. But they oftentimes are misinformed, by widespread information that assumes that our critiques of patriarchy and of essentially gender rigidness – that all of those critiques are just because we’re brainwashed by the White man. And so and then my critique of the character that I mentioned to you, that even though this person creates space to acknowledge the experiences of most vulnerable people in our society of the times, this person because they are an academic, they assume that they’re right all the time, and it’s simply not true. You can be well-learned. You could be well studied. You could have read all the books and still be wrong. But the reason I bring that up is because I think in all of these spaces, almost like a chameleon, because I’m in multiple different black spaces and I hear the ways that we talk about other black people that are not part of our section of blackness, for lack of a better term. And so I wrote about my experience, my experiences because I am in academia, but because I also have worked with grassroots activism for over a decade. But also I am somebody who understands the importance of joy and health and fun and well being and not always being in a space where it feels like you’re betraying Blackness if you’re not portraying a perpetual state of protest. And I understand the widespreadness of it all. And so I wrote about it. And it all ties into my activism, because I wouldn’t have been able to write about it.
When I wrote these four chapters, I thought people would be upset with me and the opposite happened. The reason I thought that people were going to be upset with me was because I was telling all of the things that we don’t always talk about out loud. We kind of talk about them silently. And then the opposite happened, you know, everybody reached out, people reached out to me and said, “Thank you for saying this, Thank you for doing this.” And, in essence, I learned that there is such a desire and need and a craving for frankness, when it comes to addressing some of the hard discussions about it. That we feel like we don’t want to say out loud, for fear of a conflict. We need to be able to move through this effectively, not avoid conflict as a key. So that’s how it all ties in together. I love all things creative. I love poetry. I love writing. I love rhyming. And the whole play is in rhyme because I’m a rapper in the depths of my heart, that’s what I am. I’m just a rapper that happens to also be committed to black people having equal access to justice and equal access to opportunity in the world.