Josie Pickens is a writer, social activist, and teacher. I’ve long appreciated her thoughtful, incisive essays on race, gender and class, on sexuality and sensuality, on justice, love, and being a person in the world. Her work has been featured in Ebony Magazine (she has a regular column at Ebony.com), the Guardian, Clutch, XOJane and here at The Rumpus.
Pickens’s thoughtful essays, which range from personal narrative to cultural critique, are most striking to me in their quiet power. Pickens is unafraid to call out injustice, but is also equally committed to the value of introspection, and the importance of storytelling. I had the immense pleasure to speak with Josie about her thoughts on intersectional feminism, womanism, social activism, teaching, and motherhood for this week’s Saturday Rumpus Interview.
In a world where social activism is often flattened by the media into single hashtags, Pickens reminds her readers that social media’s successes come not just from the ability to forge a revolution, but also the potential to fully open our hearts, both for each other and for ourselves.
The Rumpus: I always look forward to reading your essays, since I think your views on gender and race are incredibly insightful and important. How did you first begin writing? Were these topics always important to you?
Josie Pickens: I’ve always loved to write, but my writing, until recently, has been academically centered or creative. Honesty, I wrote my way through a broken heart and through a divorce. I became painfully aware of my black woman-ness after marrying and becoming a mother. Although I had always read feminist theory, it was from an academic perspective. The lived black feminist experience is what made me start my blog. I needed to feel less alone. I found a community of smart, brave, beautiful people on social media that supported my musings (which focused mostly on love, but also on issues affecting community work I was involved in). And here I am, still writing, years later.
Pickens: I was severely depressed when I began my blog. I often wonder if I would have been able to climb out of that dark place if it wasn’t for social media.
Rumpus: What about blogging uplifted you?
Pickens: I built relationships that lead to writing professionally; moving across country, take part in all kinds of talks and opportunities to share my work. At first it was cathartic, a release, an opportunity to be vulnerable in ways that I had never been and never seen. I grew up around women with hard edges—not from want, but from experience, from life. I wanted to change that narrative for my daughter’s sake. I wanted to be naked in the world. And it led so many people to also choose vulnerability, to choose to also be naked with themselves and the world. Black women particularly are allowed few spaces to be vulnerable and naked.
Rumpus: Why do you think American culture often doesn’t allow black women the space to speak their truth and be vulnerable? And do you think online spaces are changing these expectations?
Pickens: Well I think we first have to remember that black people speaking their truth was not only against the law but was absolutely met with ferocious violence. In many ways being vulnerable for black women also meant inviting violence. To show emotion, to express any feeling at all, meant those feelings could be used against them. Show love for a man or child, they might be sold away as punishment or in an effort to control. There are too many reasons to mention here, but the result is many generations of people who are still not comfortable with expressing feeling. And then there is also the question of who will care. Who will care about my sadness, my anger? How will that sadness or anger or hopelessness be diminished or dismissed?
Rumpus: I think about how the media is presenting student protests at Mizzou and Yale. That the expression of feeling is automatically met with distrust or seen as suspicious…
Pickens: Or even at Spring Valley High where a black girl was absolutely brutalized because she was sad or angry or having a bad day. Just dragged across the floor because she wasn’t allowed a safe space to feel whatever she was feeling.
Rumpus: I know sharing personal stories is an important aspect of both your individual experience, as well as your work as a social activist. Do you feel that the personal is always political?
Pickens: Oh absolutely. There is no separation. I believe I remember Angela Davis writing in an essay on women and political action that politics always insinuate themselves into our daily lives—especially as women, especially as people of color. And if those politics don’t affect me personally, they affect someone I know personally. When conversations happen around defunding Planned Parenthood, for instance, I can say that I don’t see myself as a woman who might have an abortion at this age, or I can say that I have private insurance to take care of my breast and well women’s exams, but I teach nineteen-year-old black girls who may need abortions or who have no other place to go for family planning or STD testing. I have to care about them as much as myself.
Rumpus: When I think about sharing our stories, I also think about cultivating that sense of empathy—that sharing our individual experiences is a way to connect us to one another more deeply. Do you think storytelling always functions in this way? Or is it more complicated than that?
Pickens: Yes. When I teach my students about rhetoric and rhetorical analysis, I remind them that logic—that facts and statistics—can prove an argument presented to the mind, but those emotional appeals—particularly through storytelling—is how we connect to people’s hearts. Both are important, but it’s the emotional connection that comes through telling our stories that moves people to our side.
And it’s a scary thing. I have written about depression and suicidal ideation and other stories that are so personal, I fear how they are received and how they affect how I am perceived. But I know that those stories have possibly saved lives, have been a hand to hold for someone who is suffering. And that helps me release the fear of telling them.
Our stories are how we remind the world that we are here; storytelling combats erasure, when done publicly. It provides a record of a life, an experience. It can serve as evidence that might combat a lie later.
What encouraged me most was reading writers/thinkers like Audre Lorde, who wrote a lot about silence and fear. She once asked, “What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” I felt like my body was on fire when I read that. It changed my life. She said, “your silence will not protect you.”
Rumpus: Wow—that is an amazing statement.
Pickens: She wrote that essay when she was dying of cancer, looking back over her life.
Rumpus: So much of your writing gives voice to the black female experience. Do you identify as a feminist?
Pickens: I struggle with titles. In my heart I would like to identify as a human writer. I write about human experiences, after all. But my race and gender color my human experience; they are filters through which I present this film of a life. I am actually struggling most of all, and most recently, with the title of “feminist.”
I often feel that mainstream feminism mistreats me, and I am swearing off of things that mistreat me. My Master’s thesis focused on womanism. Womanism feels like a much better lover to me; the relationship feels less abusive. But practically, I understand that when I say that I am a feminist, I have far less to explain, so I suppose I allow the title for that reason. I’d rather take the time to explain my ideas than a label I’ll use to explain my ideas.
Rumpus: What about mainstream feminism today strikes you as problematic? Is part of that emphasis on labels?
Pickens: I think society as a whole is obsessed with labels, with compartments. We need to place people somewhere. And I think social media makes space for that kind of segmenting and boxing, in good and bad ways.
We need to know what box people belong in so we can decide if they are worthy of our time, our ear, our investment.
The issues I have with mainstream feminism are literally decades, if not centuries, old. It is not intersectional; it is not inclusive. Amy Poehler can talk about her passion for young girls (which many might see as a feminist cause) but allow jokes to be made on her show about R. Kelly urinating on an “eighteen-year-old” Blue Ivy. Her feminism doesn’t include the community of black girls R. Kelly (allegedly, I guess I have to say allegedly) stalked and raped in Chicago. She doesn’t consider how that joke might make black women who support her feel.
Rumpus: Do you think it is possible for feminism to be truly intersectional? Or do you think it’s a problem implicit in the movement itself? I’m thinking of the film Suffragette, for example, which still positions feminism as a movement created by and for white women.
Pickens: When black women stand up against Meryl Streep’s insensitive “slave” t-shirt, it’s seen as “backlash” as opposed to a valid critique. I think feminism absolutely can change, but the change has to happen with authentic advocacy from white feminists. The issue of intersectionality in feminism is their problem to fix, much in the same way that racism is the white community’s problem to fix. If black women (or women of color) could fix feminism by offering critique, or protesting for change, it would have changed already.
No black feminist wants to take time to call out Amy Poehler for R. Kelly jokes in 2015 (when there are so many other issues to disucss), or wants to explain to Meryl Streep (or those who support her) that “slave t-shirts” are not a good idea. Especially when we consider how black/African women were treated while enslaved.
Black feminists don’t want to have these conversations because they are repetitive and exhausting.
Rumpus: There are so many powerful, influential black women who speak on issues related to gender equity. It seems to me you have to be willfully ignoring aspects of the conversation to not be hearing the stories of women of color. Do you feel like there is dialogue? Or that women of color are just excluded from or ignored by mainstream feminist discussions?
Pickens: I think there is certainly dialogue. But I believe that privilege can indeed lead to obliviousness. I don’t think most issues that are addressed in these conversations on inclusions are intentional, not most of them. But privilege clouds our thinking.
For instance, the other day in a conversation I was celebrating the fact that Gabby Sibide had a sex scene in the television show Empire. Someone remarked, “Great, now can we get some scenes where someone who isn’t able-bodied can get some lovin’?”
The other day I was reading about how Asian men are presented, essentially, as asexual in television and film. We’re still wincing, as a society, when men kiss.
So although I can see very clearly why a dark-skinned, black, plus-size woman having a sex scene on network television is an important moment, my able-bodied privilege and cisgender privilege make me oblivious to these other kinds of erasures.
Rumpus: Do you think greater representation will help to cultivate this greater sense of empathy?
Pickens: We all operate in a space of privilege. I think the issues we discussed become frustrating for those operating outside of those privileged spaces, when they provide their experiences and tell their stories, and those experiences are dismissed.
Again, this is why telling stories is important as a mechanism or even a weapon to combat erasure. But there has to be a willingness to bear witness, to hear and see those stories, in order for real change to happen.
Rumpus: Do you think you have to personally experience something in order to be open to listening to other experiences? Or is that something that can be taught and learned?
Pickens: Of course nothing changes you like an experience. I didn’t begin to really identify as a womanist/feminist until I became a wife and a mother, before I had a daughter. That’s when the political became personal and when I decided I needed to act on those theories. When we don’t have those experiences to draw from we have to be intentional. We have to want to do the work to educate ourselves, and confront our biases, and be ready to act.
I grew up in a community and space that was not friendly to queer people or queer issues. I have just recently realized that I cannot claim to be an activist fighting to prove that Black Lives Matter, if that activism doesn’t include black queer people. I have to talk about black trans lives. I have to acknowledge and respect that black queer women named and started this movement.
I always think about that quote from Simone de Beauvoir who wrote that she wished every human life might experience transparent freedom. You have to want freedom for every single person who is not free, or you are not a true believer in freedom.
Rumpus: One thing I truly admire about your writing is the sense of exploration and discovery, and how you are constantly posing challenging questions for your readers in a way that opens a discussion rather than leaving out other perspectives. Do you feel that you write for a specific audience?
Pickens: Although I am intentional about writing for black women, I hope that my conversations contain a certain universality, that it connects to the human experience. I also hope that my writing proves that we are much more the same and far less different than we would ever imagine.
I just want people to talk about things they normally don’t talk about. I grew up with certain expectations of silence, and I had so many damn questions! I want to eradicate silence.
Rumpus: I know you talk about how being a teacher shapes your identity as a writer and activist. Do you feel that being a mom does too?
Pickens: Oh absolutely. Everything I write is an effort to create a conversation that will make the world better for my daughter. I want her to experience a kid of freedom from isms that I did not, that I had to fight to experience. So when I write about gender and race, it’s about imagining a different world for Nailah.
All photos provided by author.