"To speak up and assert yourself requires that you are 100% aligned with what you're feeling, what you're experiencing and be able to process it at a quick rate, which most people are not able to do...Capitalism requires that we be out of our bodies just to cope."
Reading Jamara Wakefield’s writing, I can feel her methodical attendance to Black culture and life. She takes a scrupulous pen to the works of Black women creators whose art has changed this world, creators like ntozake shange and Lynn Nottage, but also her grandmothers, aunties, and nieces. Jamara is decolonizing the ways we value creation, where all that comes from us — whether labeled as our process or set on the stage for all to see — gets honored solely because it was labored over.
This time around Jamara and I labor over assertiveness and how Dr. Seuss gets it wrong, writing with vulnerability, and the importance of sharing your debt stories.
DM: Did you have a relationship with the phrase “talking back” growing up and was it ever something you got in trouble for?
JW: I grew up with a strong extended family. So there were always people around by 10 in the morning. There would be dozens of people in my house, stopping by to say hello, coming for breakfast. There were so many people and in that larger community the idea of talking back and kids being seen and not heard was very prevalent.
Also, the number of adults outnumbered the number of children always, so I think they just had a very strong say and presence. I know people don't like to say things like this, but there were a lot of alcoholics, so there were many ways adults in my life took up a lot of space when I was growing up. Children really served as observers to all the action. I remember all the fights, all the times' people popped off, all the times' people were crying, but that's because we were just watching it all from some corner or on the stairwell or something like that.
My parents, however, were very, very laid back. They were Black hippies, with a little bit of nationalism mixed in and so there wasn’t a strong emphasis on the “Don't talk back”. But I also was a really shy, quiet kid so I probably would not have talked back. Now my siblings are not as shy and not as quiet and there are plenty of times where they did talk back and I mean it was pretty normal to get popped to get smacked.
I think early on you're like, “Oh, I'll become a writer so I have a voice.” But then there's a point, even if you're a writer, you're going to be like, “Wait, I actually need to use my voice.” Writing is the space to reflect on using your voice or not using it, but you actually have to use your actual voice in regular life. That’s something I hadn't learned until maybe the last five or six years. I think that’s why Internet culture, trolling and people being passive aggressive online is so big. It's because it's so much easier to go home and reflect on it.
I went to go see Adrian Piper’s exhibit at the MoMA, and it was so hard when people were getting in front of me and I had to loudly say, “Excuse me!” I felt myself in my head say “Damn, MOVE!” But then I felt my mouth pull back because I didn't want to speak up and say “Actually white people, move! I get it, you're here to see this space, but this is my space right now. It's meant for me.”
DM: There's no mindfulness for the intended audience in the museum, nor does the museum cultivate that mindfulness.
JW: Yeah. I think part of the reason it's difficult for us to really talk back is because of all the ways we're trained to be outside of our bodies. To speak up and assert yourself requires that you are 100 percent aligned with what you're feeling, what you're experiencing and be able to process it at a quick rate, which most people are not able to do. That's also assuming everything is flowing, chakras are aligned, all your medications are working. I think most people are not aligned to process quickly because we're always out of our bodies anyway. I think capitalism requires that we be out of our bodies just to cope.
DM: I completely agree. What’s one of your earliest memories of seeing someone talking back?
I think for me like early talking back looked like fighting. I think that’s another reason it's so hard for me. I saw adults fighting all the time. I remember my parents arguing and I don't know why they never told us to go in another room. We would just be there. It was never hidden from us.
I've seen some really great examples of people speaking up and talking back in the classroom and some terrible examples. But I don't know if I've seen any in the way that I fantasize what assertiveness looks like.
DM: What do you fantasize assertiveness looks like?
JW: It looks like someone saying “This is what I need and this is what I feel and this is what it is right now.” And then the other person recognizing, “Oh, this person is being assertive and like there's nothing I can do to change that.” Instead what happens is you say this is what I feel and this is what I need, and then the other person goes into this whole thing about why you should not feel that way.
DM: Yeah. It's honoring their truth in that moment. But I think it's really interesting that you bring in the other person, you know, like what you're saying is assertiveness also means the other person receives what is being communicated.
JW: Or recognizes that what was shared cannot be reconciled. I have to think of examples because it is very painful to think about times where you've been assertive and it’s been disregarded. I have to go to milder examples, like the book Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham. The whole book is this character telling Sam try it and Sam is like I don't want it. And then the moral of the story is well eventually Sam likes it. We should let Sam find out if he likes it on his own, but let's not spend 20 pages trying to tell someone what they should like.
DM: I think that’s why it’s really interesting to think about voice through our childhoods, thinking about how we learn to be passive aggressive or non-assertive at such young ages. We learn assertiveness won't help you because someone will always be trying to convince you out of it.
JW: Right. That book should have ended when he said, I don't like it, the other character should have been like “Okay!” The end. But it doesn't work like that. It ends up being these pleading cases where, especially women and femme people, think maybe I wasn't clear. You were clear and you have to spend your whole life second guessing yourself but no you were clear. You said I don't want it, or this is what I want, or this is not what I want.
I did see lots of women, grandmothers and aunts, talking back. It did look like arguing and fighting. Sometimes it was in public spaces bus drivers, random white guy. I never saw talking back in a way that made me think, “Oh, I should do that.”
DM: Oh, because you saw the other side, like you saw the consequences of talking back? It's not a pleasant exchange.
JW: Right. And they were always angry or mad after even if they got what they needed.
DM: Yeah, it's a bit painful, especially witnessing black women because you see how much people just don't listen and don't care to. I'm thinking about the relationship of assertiveness now because I've always related to assertiveness as the individual act and the individual can be assertive whether or not it's received. I see you as someone who is assertive and I remember the first time I witnessed you in the classroom being very clear about what you needed in that space. So my question is how do you see yourself being assertive in your writing?
JW: I believe there's a unique creativity that each one of us has. But you have to start wherever you're at with whatever experiences you have and believe those experiences are uniquely yours. It is your burden to share that uniqueness, whether it's writing or making cakes. Your job is to be you, that is your first job. So I think because I believe that, I'm able to look at my life across the landscape and see common themes that come up over and over again. I'm able to look at the course of a day and think about how I'm showing up in all these spaces and even if I make a mess of it, I think something in me decided that I'm going to show up. If I'm invited to the meeting, I'm going to speak at it. If I am invited anywhere, then I'm going to come and show myself there and be vulnerable in that space.
It comes from some sort of choice. It comes from seeing your life as in danger, if you do not. I think of my life that way; something dies if I don't show up and that seems dramatic, but it's the truth and that something is me...sometimes. And so when I think about my writing, to answer the rest of the question, I think vulnerability has to be at the center of my writing. If I'm not taking a risk, if I'm not showing the things that I try to hide, then I'm not doing a good job. I've spent enough time as a poet and a performer to know that I can get up and entertain people. Being an entertainer is nothing short of being a sorcerer or being a witch, you are conjuring space. So if I have the power to conjure the space, then I want to conjure it with vulnerability.
That's my choice. That's what I've decided and I haven't always been that way. When I performed prior, I performed with the idea I want to make work that people like, that was the center of my performance pieces. But I'm less concerned with people liking me, because that’s not enough. That's too shallow. And the truth is we're all going home and thinking about our bodies and our money and all the things that really scare us. So if we could do that together, I think it's more powerful.
When you are vulnerable in you're writing and you're vulnerable in a room it actually frees you, it gives you a signal boost every time to the point where you don't think about being assertive anymore because you just assume that when you show up in a room that your voice is going to be heard. And that's a place of power because some many of us are showing up in rooms and assuming we're not going to be heard there because we haven't been and because we're not.
Biblically, people would probably think of the idea that you have to die to something to live. And if you can give up a little bit of yourself, you can get free that way.
DM: That's really beautiful to think about. I’ve been thinking a lot about the death that the earth creates. I was in this very idealistic space of seeing the earth but recently have moved to understand the earth as violent, that it dies but also creates death but for more life. It's cyclical. So now I’m thinking about the necessary deaths. How did we get to this super capitalist space?
I'm reading adrienne maree brown’s, Emergent Strategy, and one of the core principles is small is all and anything larger is just a reflection of the small. And so I've been thinking about what capitalism is a reflection of? What do we want from this? And trying to think about what deaths are happening now? But I love this idea of vulnerability being attached to a death. Interesting. It's like a release, but also like your ego is dying.
DM: Fascinating...I am also interested in the work you’re doing around debt. Why do you think it’s important that we turn our attention to the idea of debt?
JW: The money part of it is really important. Money is such a difficult thing for people to talk about. And debt is incredibly difficult for people to talk about because of our culture and it's also a thing that is silently choking so many people because so many people are really overwhelmed about their finances and those were not overwhelmed are completely disillusioned that they are safer than they would like to imagine that they are not. And so it seems really important to me to make space for it.
There's a lot of people in leftist or liberal circles who are organizing around and thinking about debt. They're also predominantly white and they are not thinking about money or debt or credit or cash flow with the needs of people of color in mind, which spans from the present moment to the ways our grandparents had access to capital or did not. And so it seems important to me to be in those circles to, to hit the pause button and be like, okay, that's cool, but you're not thinking about black people right now, or you're operating under very anti-Black assumptions about people of color and their money.
DM: Yeah, it begs the question — do you really have an understanding of debt if you don't have a racial lens?
Exactly. An article just came out this week written by a man of color and he talks about how the reason black people don't have anything is because we buy too much fake jewelry. It really minimizes the disparities in generational wealth building. So with such strong conservative voices, it's clear to me that there need to be other voices in the conversation.
I'm also thinking about debt as these voids between people. I count broken relationships as debt. I count the relationship that Palestinians have with Israelis as debt. I count queer people who can't go home as debt. I think of it broadly starting with money, but all of these other things are directly connected to our money, our ability to have cash or wealth. So yeah, I have some clinics and some workshops that are going to happen on the topic of debt. There's a whole series that just got funded coming to Brooklyn in the Fall.
DM: Congratulations! I’m really excited to have more critical conversations around money, it’s needed in our communities.
Jamara is a performance artist and culture writer with bylines at Bitch Mag, Shondaland, Playboy, and Broadway World.