This keynote speech was delivered at the Portland State University Multicultural Graduation Speech,
June 12, 2015 in Portland, Oregon.
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.
As a former Portland State student and graduate, I have literally sat where at least one of you is sitting right now. I’ve known the unbounded joy of having made it through, of getting not only the tassel but the cloth stole with the Adinkra symbols on them.
I was lucky enough that after a number of years (y’all don’t need to know how many), I returned to Portland State as faculty, to teach in the Black Studies Department. I have gotten to see first hand, from the other side of the classroom, the struggles students — especially first generation college students, students from oppressed and marginalized communities — go through to get these degrees.
This multicultural graduation is a time for us to intone the words of Black feminist poet Audre Lorde, in her poem “A Litany for Survival:”
For all of us
this instant and this triumph.
We were never meant
Celebrate your resilience, your determination, your strength, your bright shining heart, which has carried you here.
This multicultural graduation is also a time for us to remind ourselves that survival is only the first step. It’s absolutely an important one — we must survive if we are to achieve anything else. But to just survive is to be stagnant. Everything that is living must grow. If something does not grow, it is dead.
Luckily, life is tenacious. It takes root under the most adverse of conditions. Flourishes against all odds. Like Tupac Shakur’s rose that grew through concrete, I have been privileged to watch so many students blossom under adversity and hardship. I have watched students live out the defiant wisdom emblazoned on a student protestor’s banner in Mexico:
This graduation signifies an end, the culmination of all that you have accomplished, all you have grown, in this phase of your academic career, your life. And it is a moment of marvel, of wonder…
I just have to warn y’all right now, the rest of this speech is going to get a little nerdy. All right, a lot nerdy. I’m a huge science fiction fan. Not just because I like the idea of alien planets and light speed travel. Science fiction is the only literary genre that not only allows us to discard everything we think we know, but demands it of us. Science fiction challenges us to use our imaginations, to question everything that is “real,” to envision the impossible. It tells us we have the right to dream.
And that is what I hope each of you claim here today. The right to dream. Because yes, we are at an end, AND we know that every end is a beginning.
This moment, this multicultural graduation, is an incredibly unique moment. It is really a science fiction moment. One that highlights so clearly how the past, present, and future exist as one. We are actually, right now, defying the traditional notions of time. We are time traveling at this very moment!
Stay with me on this.
There is a West African Adinkra symbol called Sankofa. It has different variations, but one of them is a symbol of a bird whose face is turned behind it but its body is moving forward. It means, “Return and get it.”
The idea Sankofa embodies is that the past is what carries us forward. The past is not dead and gone but walks with us as we move through life. Y’all, this is what quantum physicists are just beginning to tell us now — that our notions of time as an absolute, a linear straight line, are wrong. Communities of color have always grasped what science is now saying — the past is never really past. What those who came before survived, what they protected, what they grew in hostile soil — that is as present as the air we are all breathing. All moments of time live as one. Right now, your past sits next to you, the present is holding your hand, while the future opens the door for you to walk through.
And you are the culmination of so many dreams. Each and every single one of you. Not just one generation of dreams. Multitudes, stretching back decades, centuries, millennia. Each of us that come from communities with historic institutional oppression, we are walking science fiction.
Someone was told the world that would create you was impossible, was just a fantasy. That world was science fiction. And that someone, many someones, defied that idea. They dreamed you up, and then bent reality, re-envisioned all of existence, to create you. I’ve edited an anthology of radical visionary science fiction called Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, and my co-editor adrienne maree brown and I are both Black women. We think of our Black ancestors in chains, who had no reason to think that an end to chattel slavery was possible. Who were, in fact, told by everything in society that it was a complete impossibility, utterly unrealistic. Nothing but a dream.
And those enslaved Black folks closed their eyes and unshackled their imaginations. They dreamed a forbidden world, and then they rewrote the whole of history to bring us into existence. They knew the truth those in power worked so hard to keep from them: that once our imaginations are unshackled, liberation is limitless.
All of our ancestors, our elders from oppressed communities, sculpted the future for us, out of us. Sculpted us as the future. They did not do this in isolation. They used culture, communal knowledge and history, ways of being and knowing. They planted the seeds of resilience in soil meant to be graves. We are, each of us, a living changing embodiment of cultures of resistance made flesh.
Our ancestors did this communally, coming together to breathe life into the future. Each of their roles was a vital, irreplaceable piece of a collective whole. Just as your graduation now came about from a community of effort reaching from the present, from the people sitting right next to you, and back into the past. Reaching through you and your own incredible efforts that have brought you to this moment.
On an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (yes, I just went there), Captain Benjamin Sisko was told, “You are the dreamer and the dream.”
Being the culmination of your ancestors’, your family’s, your community’s dreams — that is not a passive thing. They struggled and fought, they bled and died for the right to even believe each of you could exist. They carved out for you the right, the responsibility, and the immense privilege to continue this unbroken lineage of imagining new more just worlds. They claimed for you the space to do the hard difficult and inspiring work of pulling those new worlds out of dreams and into reality.
You are their dream. And you are the dreamer of new incredible dreams they could not have even imagined.
So as you move forward in your life, I encourage each and every one of you to take dreaming incredibly seriously. To conceive your futures thoughtfully, with purpose. To ask yourselves what do you want to add to this lineage of freedom visions you are inextricably a part of.
And I ask of you; don’t limit yourself. Dream as many dreams as you can. And please don’t start with the question, “What is realistic?” If our ancestors had started with that question, none of us would exist. Because every real substantive social change that has ever occurred was considered to be utterly unrealistic at that time it happened.
So don’t start with what you are being told by others is realistic or possible. Start with the questions, “What is the world I want to live in? And who do I want to be in that world?” Then put in the glorious work to give those dreams voice and legs.
Poet Mark Gonzales wrote:
“Look up. See that shining brilliance defying gravity? Take note of how they float free. For those are not only stars. They are our relatives.”
That isn’t just beautiful poetics; physics has proven it to be true. (I told y’all it was going to get real nerdy). We are, you and me and everyone, stardust. We are made of the same material as the lights humans have seen sparkling in the night sky for eons.
The stars have always meant so much for humanity. They are how we understood our lives. How we knew when to plant, when to harvest, when to seek warmer environs. And for many, in my case specifically for enslaved Black folks, they shone literally as beacons of freedom.
The North Star led countless runaway escaped Black folks to the north, to freedom. Through untold horrors and physical hardships, the North Star was companion, confidant, and guide to liberation.
Scientists believe that before the big bang, we were all part of one infinitely dense mass. I don’t just mean all of us in this room, or even on this planet. I mean everything. Everything in the universe was once one, until that massive explosion. That means we are connected to each other, to everything on this planet, to those stars, to this infinite ever-expanding universe.
That means we carry all the positive elements, all the beauty, all the potential of every comet we have seen streak across the night sky, every star we have ever wished on, every sun that has warmed our skin.
My hope for each of you as you reach this end that is not just an end but also a beginning, is that you will be limitless like the universe, life-sustaining like this earth we call ours. That you will be visionary like your ancestors before you.
I hope you will each be courageous enough to follow your own North Star to freedom, and shine just as brightly. That you can illuminate the path for those not even born yet, who will be the culmination of your dreams. Live brightly, and light the way for your own walking science fiction.
This is it, yall - the cover for Angels with Dirty Faces:
Three Stories of Crime, Prisons and Redemption,
my new nonfiction book on prisons,
coming out on AK Press in conjunction
with Institute for Anarchist Studies in early 2016!
By Walidah Imarisha
I’ve recently had folks contacting me from across the country, even all around the world, about the upcoming documentary Whitelandia: Black Oregon/White Homeland (a play on the popular show Portlandia), which purports to explore the history of racism and white supremacy in Oregon. It currently is in the production stage, having publicly put out a trailer and launching a successful kickstarter program to fund it.
People having reached out to me about this film for several reasons. One is that I present a public program called “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon: A Hidden History,” which features an interactive timeline I developed looking at the history of race, identity and power in Oregon.
But people also reached out to me because up until just a few weeks ago, the Whitelandia trailer featured clips of me speaking on this topic. Folks assume the footage of me means I have signed off and given my support for this project. It’s a good assumption to make - unfortunately in this case it’s dead wrong.
The truth is, Whitelandia’s producers (who are both white) used the footage of me without my knowledge or permission. They took it from a program of mine that is available for viewing on youtube. I also learned recently I am not the only one who has had this unfortunate experience. At least two local organizations th have said Whitelandia used footage from their projects without consent, credit, or notification. In addition, the Whitelandia creators told several media sources I was involved in the project, telling one I was an advisor to their project, before I had ever met with them.
More than just really bad filmmaking practices, these incidents speak to deeper issues of white privilege, appropriation and domination.
click at right for the rest of the story! http://walidah.com/node/369
Walidah has 3 more publications featuring her work!
Joe Strummer: Punk Rock Warlord, in which I have an essay about Strummer and hip hop.
Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, has an interview with Walidah about
Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements and visionary fiction as strategy.
Lastly, Walidah has an ebook version of Near Kin, a collection of art and writing
inspired by Octavia Butler, which features a poem by Walidah!
Two Poems by Walidah Imarisha
Coffee and No Cigarettes
For Sundiata Acoli
by Walidah Imarisha
You wake up at 5:30 in the morning
sky sucked clean of stars.
You drag your body into clothes,
get into a borrowed car,
and drive two and a half hours until
You near White Deer, PA
sipping on your gas station
french vanilla cappucino
squirted out from a machine
at 6:45 am at the Hickory Run Plaza rest stop.
You turn off of 1-80 W onto 15 N
at the exit that says
Snake Reptile House.
Left at the wood carved sign that says
United States Penitentiary Allenwood.
The speed limit is posted at 35 mph,
but you drive 20.
You walk into the sterilized antiseptic
sign into the book
Write who you are visiting:
Clark Squire .
Slave names only.
It does not matter how many decades someone has been called
only slave names permitted here.
The visiting room is like a storage freezer.
Voices echo hollowlyCoffee and No Cigarettes
if you speak
above a low murmur.
There are white plastic chairs
to sit at
as if you were at a picnic.
There are vending machines
and from these
you will drink countless cups
of french vanilla capuccino
(which tastes exactly like the coffee
at the gas station)
to stay warm
to stay awake
to keep your belly from rumbling.
See, you are a vegan
and can not eat anything else in the vending machines.
Somehow drinking coffee laden with milk
does not offend your veganness
but a snickers bar would.
These are the asinine lines you draw
for yourself ,
the compromises you make
on things that are utterly meaningless
in this place
where you have no control
over things that are utterly imperative.
You watch the families around you,
You watch the sun rise in an instant
as their loved one enters.
Hugs and long stolen kisses are given
under the watchful eyes of guardsCoffee and No Cigarettes
who must count in their head
“One one thousand two one thousand three one thousand--
All right, break it up.”
Finally the door opens
and Sundiata walks out,
all 5’7 of him
(which he believes to be 5’9).
His face is stern
his eyes drink in the room
in a second,
seeing who is there,
noticing their locations,
checking out the guards --
every day survival.
His eyes fall on you
and his face cracks open
like an egg releases a new born chick
with his wide welcome home smile.
It splits his face,
a watermelon chopped open
on a hot summer day.
His brilliant mind
and no nonsense attitude
can be brusque,
as you have learned.
But you have always appreciated
who speak truth
who speak love
In between conversations,
men who are coming out for visits
come up to your table
and say hello to Sundiata.
Older brothas with kufis
and grey flecks in their beards
Bald tattooed stone-faced
young bucks will say
and they will mean this
as a sign
One time a prisoner
was out on a visit
with his wife/girlfriend/baby’s mama.
He was tall and rough hewn
with arms of granite and ghetto.
This brotha came over
held out a chocolate peanut butter tasky kake
“My girl got one of these for me
and I know you kinda feel them.”
Smiled and ambled back to his assigned table.
Sundiata asks for report backs
You bring him back
anything you touched
You tell him about the beaches of Puerto Rico
and the grave of Albizu Campos.
You tell second hand tales
of the jungles of Chiapas
and the struggles for land and dignity,
second hand tales of the dusty roads of Palestine
lined with bulldozers
and the struggle for land and dignity
to his tales
of life in poor black Texas
life in the Panther party
life in the 60s.
He does not tell so many tales
of life in prison.
He tries to keep these visits
away from guard towers and work crews.
Brutal beatings and cold midnight cell bunks.
normally a steel trap,
begins to pull in different directions
as the tobacco withdrawal
grabs ahold of him.
He says, “Aw shit,
the nicotine’s got me again”
when he loses the train of his thoughts
for the third time in an hour.
He can not go out to grab a couple of puffs
because that is not allowed
and the visit
will be terminated.
He wants to quit,
but he has been smoking
for half a century
and prison is no place
to quit smoking.
He’ll tell you
you’re getting too skinny
He will tell you you need to make sure you are eating
He will tell you to take care of yourself
You know that he will call you later that evening
just to make sure you got home safe
He will remind you of a father
every single visit.
A visit can feel like an entire universe
crushed and compressed until it fits
into a plastic chair.
Even the universe must end.
It is a time of hurried goodbyes
of cleaning up the trash
so you have something
to do with your hands,
duplicated and multiplied
through the visiting room
as the collective unraveling
Sundiata flashes you his sun smileCoffee and No Cigarettes
and a raised black first.
And then the door slides open to swallow him whole.
All that is left to do:
return the locker key
get your id back
get in the car.
At the stop sign right before you clear
the prison grounds,
you look up
and see four deer
two of them newborn fawns
still shaky in the legs.
They are so close
you can see the sheen
of their coats,
and the moisture
on their noses.
They stare at you
with eyes limpid and trusting
twenty feet away from the outer prison wall
Inside, one of the guards
they had to pull a deer
off of the barbed wire
two days before.
It had gotten caught in it
until it flayed itself open.
The guard shook his head
They’re too stupid to know
they don’t belong
By Walidah Imarisha
“When I die
I wear nothing but the tats on my back”
- Kakamia Jahad Imarisha, “The Last Stand”
Writing his name on the sun his skin
Roadmap of ink and flesh
Raised keloid scars
That can be read like Braille
My adopted brother
Kakamia Jahad Imarisha
I named him when I was 17
He was reborn under my breath
And you know what the elders say
If you name it,
It is yours
mouth full of broken angel wings
and arm full of India ink
Rage seeped in with that ink
Injected by a prison gun
Deposited just beneath the exterior
In bold styles
No one could ignore
Creeped up his neck like ivy
Encased him in an armor of his own design
the cynicism of
“fuck the world”
spans his back
in bold old English letters
intersecting his hope
Shield and spear in hand
Rises like the sphinx from the small of his back
Shadowed by a one foot anarchy symbol
Thug scholar to ruffneck revolutionary
And a fucked up picture of Da Brat from when he was 15
And no box can hold him
the doctors told him to lay off the toxins
when they cut out the cancer
that was located directly under his right nipple
there is a two inch scar
camaflouged by the afrikan symbol for
he paints his scars brightly
in defiance of death
mocks the grim reaper
by taking his name
and painted a bulls eye in the middle
of his chest
with the edict “no warning shots”
His whole life has been a carcinogen
My brother is a living memorial
A walking Vietnam wall
A place people go
To remember atrocities
To mourn lost loved ones
To pray for forgiveneness
A litany of those
Who slipped through fingers
Outstretched through bars
All on his body
They walk with him
He walks with the weight
Of exquisite corpses
His footsteps thump
And echo tenfold
For the multitudes
Under his skin
He carries a picture of me embedded over his heart
We breath as one
His name soaked into my wrist
Pulsing with my pulse
We inject our familial bonds
Needle connecting us like an umbilical cord
Blood clots slightly around
We are joined by more than blood and ink
We chose family
A historian at heart, reporter by (w)right, rebel by reason, Walidah Imarisha is an educator, writer, organizer and spoken word artist.
Walidah is currently co-editing the visionary fiction anthology Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements with adrienne maree brown.
Walidah teaches in Portland State University's Black Studies Department, Oregon State University's Women's Studies Department and Southern New Hampshire University's English Department. She has also facilitated poetry and journalism workshops third grade to twelfth, in community centers, youth detention facilities, and women’s prisons.
Walidah has toured the country several times performing, lecturing and challenging. She has shared the stage with folks as different as Angela Davis, Cornel West, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Kenny Muhammad of the Roots, Chuck D, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Umar bin Hassan from The Last Poets, Boots Riley, Saul Williams, Ani DiFranco, John Irving, dead prez and Yuri Kochiyama.
Walidah is one half of the poetry duo Good Sista/Bad Sista, and has appeared on Puerto Punx band Ricanstruction’s second album Love and Revolution and toured nationally and internationally with them.
Walidah was one of the editors for the first anthology to be released about Sept. 11 and the aftermath, Another World is Possible, and has had her words featured in Total Chaos: The Art And Aesthetics of Hip Hop, Letters From Young Activists, Daddy, Can I Tell You Something, Word Warriors, and The Quotable Rebel, as well as the soon-to-be-released anthologies Joe Strummer: Punk Rock Warlord and Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency.
One of the founders and first editor of the political hip hop publication AWOL Magazine, Walidah served on the editorial board for the national Left Turn Magazine. She is also the director and co-producer of the Katrina documentary Finding Common Ground in New Orleans.
Walidah spent six years on the board of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, and helped to found the the Human Rights Coalition, a group of prisoners’ families and former prisoners with three chapters in Pennsylvania.
Buy Walidah's new book from Powells
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