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Trauma Makes Weapons of Us All: an interview with adrienne maree brown

Creating healing-centered, non-punitive accountability systems must be a part of our response to the Kanye moment.

When I first spoke with writer, afrofuturist, visionary thinker and pleasure activist Adrienne Maree Brown, for our interview in Longreads last month, Kanye West was distant memory. If I’m being honest, I had forgotten about him, outside of the reference from Jay-Z in 4:44. But then, he came back to Twitter and to public life with a vengeance, making statements and choices that have made many of us ask ourselves whether or not we can claim him as one of our own. As I wrestled with these questions, I reached out to adrienne to follow up on our interview and to ask her about how the ideas she talked about in the interview around Emergent Strategy connected with the response to the behavior of Kanye West and whether it makes sense to “cancel people” when they make mistakes that seem like there’s no coming back from. We spoke via email. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Justin Scott Campbell: So my first question is in regards to how we are responding to [Kanye currently]. I couldn’t help but watch the responses to some of his tweets and comments and think of what you said in our interview in Longreads last month:

adrienne: [What] I see in practice is that people still default to punishing each other — as soon there is a break in communication, as soon as there is a misunderstanding, as soon as there is a difference in political opinion, there’s this attitude of, you know, we cancel this person, we’re throwing them away. And so I pay attention to people’s beliefs and their practices and I try to question people and call people into thinking about, what are you practicing?(emphasis added)

Is [punishing] what we’re doing to Kanye? Or is there something more nuanced at work in our responses to him?

adrienne maree brown: Kanye is fascinating to me, or our interactions with him are fascinating. He is clearly thinking all the time and seems prone to making his growth spurts and regressions public.

We love him and his art, call him a genius, and then he does something that reminds us that a) his mama died at a crucial moment in a traumatizing way and b) his mental health is in question. Or c) he’s a megalomaniac. And d) the same person who said “George Bush doesn’t like black people,” is now a Trump enthusiast.

Our responses are the exact opposite of what I think we need to do with someone who is truly having a breakdown: [We]engage seriously with the most outrageous words spoken, publicly ridicule him (brilliantly I might add, #ifslaverywasachoice on Twitter is an example of humor that heals) and even ‘kill’ him off (#ripkanye). We basically say he is of no use to us because he’s crazy. Or we say he’s just doing it all for attention, for controversy.

I only met Kanye once, when he was very young and hungry. I don’t know him now, but I think it’s a bit of all of the above. He’s not well. He makes choices to exacerbate his condition, part of his condition is rooted in mother grief, and, just like the president, his need for attention is greater than his longing for respect. And his mental state makes it impossible for him to hide how much he cares, and impossible for him to get what he seems to want — love, respect, to be seen as an evolved thinker.

The best interaction I’ve seen in this is with the young black man in the TMZ office who basically says, you hurt me, you hurt us with this foolishness. And Kanye moves towards him so intensely, with such passion, to apologize. It produced two reactions in me. First, why does it upset us? This farcical love between insane men [in Trump and Kanye] who do not know how to live with dignity. Why does it feel so personal? I think this shows our terror. We are terrified. And we need the Kanye who stands up to Presidents. And, like in a bad breakup with a mentally unstable abuser, we want to believe the ‘good’. We do not want to surrender woke Kanye for sunken place Kanye wherein the sunken place is a mental illness cocktail that includes internalized white supremacy. We definitely don’t want to consider that woke Kanye was just a play for attention from a ravenous black hole.

Which brings me to my other reaction — it’s like Ender’s Game, where the children believe they are playing a game. [What they] don’t know [is that] they are fighting a real war, taking real lives. Kanye is traipsing through a field of

Enders Game by Orson Scott Card

landmines asking us to chase him. In this way, he is just a public reflection of America at this time. We’re all going to die and we can’t seem to course correct because we can’t take it seriously enough to change our trajectory.

As you note, he’s sworn off perfectionism and being “on brand” in an attempt to live in what he believes to be an authentic way. The hard part is that his authenticity will obviously be informed by the fact that he lives in a gated community in Calabasas, and does lots of, what he calls “rich nigga shit” that the majority of his potential audience cannot relate too. It’s also why comparing this to Ender’s Game works so well; he thinks he’s at the casino-themed holiday work party playing with fake money, when really he’s in Vegas, asking us to bet all of our money on ideas that may end up bankrupting the movement.

We love him and his art, call him a genius, and then he does something that reminds us that a) his mama died at a crucial moment in a traumatizing way and b) his mental health is in question. Or c) he’s a megalomaniac. And d) the same person who said “George Bush doesn’t like black people,” is now a Trump enthusiast.

This was, for me, also part of the brilliance of what the young black man at TMZ pointed out. He talks about how “the rest of us” have to live in a world that is not Ye’s world, and that’s why we cannot be expected to resonate with his own notions of authenticity, since for many of us, accepting that, for example, slavery was a choice, could lead us to approach liberation from a historical foundation that’s faulty, therefore jeopardizing the entire liberation project in the process.

Take Beyonce. Admittedly, one of the differences is that Beyonce is so much more private than Ye is. We never saw her process and this kept her in our hearts as a beloved artist and then elevated her to Nina Simone status once she started to use her genius explicitly for the movement. That being said, it’s the idea of banishment and the effects of said banishment on our culture that really worries me. What do you think?

I agree on the point around banishment. And I completely understand that people need boundaries with Kanye. I think there’s ground between those two things and I think black people deserve the space to be public in our trauma and to navigate through it with good boundaries. So when people say they are done with Kanye that’s fair. But he’s not dead, he’s not gone, he might be learning something important, even if I don’t have much emotional room for it.

Again, just like in any situation where mental health is in question, each of us as individuals can’t necessarily be a witness to everything that comes in the process of another. Secondary trauma is real. We each have limits.

I wrestle with my own wellness. I am beginning to suspect that this is the cost, a cost, of being fully alive. To really ask why you are here, for what, are you good, what do you really want, how can you live that, why are humans so harmful…the scale of these questions! But we’re supposed to consider all of these things, and live lives that others perceive as normal. Kanye isn’t beyond this, he wants to be perceived by others. He speaks of love and empathy with his arms around those who kill with the weapon of greed-based economics, racist economics.

Beyoncé has grown up in front of us — she sang ‘Cater to You’! But she isn’t a great comparison here because she has the capacity [and ability] to decide how she wants to be perceived, and generally to wait until her desired perception is possible before she acts. She never gets pulled into anyone else’s story, she waits and shapes her own. Kanye has no capacity [or ability] to wait, to let the water get clear. The anxiety that shows between the lines, in the lines, on his face, it looks so heavy, so disorienting, he seems to have no control.

I think the strategy with Kanye is the same as with the president — and I don’t think we have the discipline to do it en masse. But I think attention feeds the fires in these men, more than vision, more than positive obsession or stupidity or genius or their wives or anything else. More even than legacy. They are addicted to the attention possible in a moment, it is the drug that creates their public personas. We give it to them.

So I’m really struck by you saying that you wrestle with your own wellness and that you suspect that this is the cost, a cost, of being fully alive. I think this is what for me, is at the heart of this whole thing.

The problem with what Kanye said, though, is that there is a HUGE cognitive dissonance, as you so accurately note, between Kanye saying that he wants to be grounded in love and empathy while at the same time dapping up with people who live lives grounded in the exact opposite. It’s that disconnect that upsets me the most because at the end of the day, it’s confusing and ends up distracting us from conversations about how we can actually live lives grounded in love and empathy in the real world.

I wish Kanye did have the ability to wait and process before opening his mouth to millions of people. But wanting that to be true and it being true are two totally separate realities and we can only operate from the reality we currently have, so I’m glad that we do have Beyonce to lead us forward in that way.

Outside of setting up boundaries, there’s not much we can do about Kanye; we can’t sit down and have a heart-to-heart or tell him to go fuck himself to his face. In light of that, what does this mean for the “rest of us”? We will most likely publicly stone Kanye, but after he’s “dead”, what then? I’m interested in what you think this moment can teach us about ourselves, if anything, and how we move forward from here, not necessarily in terms being of pro or anti- Kanye, but as a larger society in general. Or maybe more specifically in the movement.

I think the whole practice of canceling people is childish and regressive. When I see it in people, I think they are hiding from their own shame and flaws. Kanye is a public mess, politically fickle, on his own trip. But whether he’s well or unwell, it’s his right to live and learn how he wants to, and it’s on us to choose how to interact with that. Moral high horse doesn’t seem to do much for us as a species — if it did it might be more interesting to me. But it just gets us into reduction and discarding people that actually don’t go away, just get further isolated and more likely to cause harm to themselves and others.

I think attention feeds the fires in these men, more than vision, more than positive obsession or stupidity or genius or their wives or anything else. More even than legacy. They are addicted to the attention possible in a moment, it is the drug that creates their public personas. We give it to them.

I’m tender around this because I’m watching people now say they want to cancel Junot Diaz. Junot comes out as a rape survivor, and within two weeks the move is to cancel him for the harm he did wrestling with that trauma? What is the point of that?

Accountability is so important, but it happens in community. There’s no such thing as a community in which all harm has been exiled. I think we have much harder work to do than we want to do here. The easier move is us vs them, victims vs perpetrators, sane people vs Kanye, everyone vs men.

But it’s not true.

What’s true is [that] trauma makes weapons of us. And fools, and secret keepers, and collaborators in harm. What’s true is that trauma is both singular violent events and the ongoing constant socialization of ‘power over’ for those deemed superior because of skin or penis or ability or inheritance or something else they didn’t create or do. If we are going to grow, we must embrace truth telling. We must generate our compassion. We must learn to set and hold boundaries within community, on this planet we share. We must learn what is worth our attention, and how powerful our attention is. We must get more passionate about healing than we are about punishing.

That’s powerful. I was just talking about this with a mentor of mine and she pointed out that all of this is about healing ourselves; our current way of dealing with pain isn’t healthy and the medical stats around stress-related diseases in communities of color seem to bear that out. She also pointed out that we contribute to the dehumanizing of ourselves when we dehumanize and dismiss others. And that’s what for me is at the core of this; how I respond says more about me than it does about anyone else, for better or for worse.

We are so deeply socialized into punitive systems that it feels impossible to us to consider that when someone has caused harm, harming them might not be the move.

As I think about it, it may be that Kanye’s sickness might be severe individualism.

Would that be a ramped of version of selfishness? Or something more nuanced?

Something [more nuanced]. It’s not just here’s what I want, but like…who I am, even if it’s fickle, [is] more important than a community, even if it’s the community that loves me. That being said, canceling people still isn’t abolitionist, or transformative.

This means that calling someone into accountability as opposed to calling them out would be the more transformative or abolitionist modality. How do we do that, though with a public figure?

I also think that withdrawing financial support is huge. I support #muterkelly for that. I’m interested in the #timesup work moving alongside of #metoo, which is figuring this out. We are in an interesting moment — I believe in believing survivors. I’ve also met people who misuse that trust to attack others from revenge or other bitterness, I’ve seen how memory can get distorted by public pressure, I think finding good process is crucial. And not all harm is equal. I think we do a disservice to the species and to survivors when we try to make something simple when it is actually complex. There a lot of experiments happening right now in transformative justice — this moment shows us how far we still have to go.

And when you say all this I can’t help but think of Bankole [in Parable of the Sower] and how he is skeptical of what he see’s to be the earnestness and simplicity of the Earthseed religion; it’s as though he doesn’t believe Lauren’s new religion will really work. And yet Lauren maintains that even if Earthseed feels simple and earnest, there HAS to be a shift, a new way of doing life with each other; the current way is not sustainable. I think I feel like we don’t even realize how much we’ve been socialized to believe that punishment is the only way. Collectively, outside of these experimental spaces, we still resort to using the same systems that oppress us everyday. How do we bring what we’re learning in those spaces into these types of moments? Maybe we’re already doing that, and I think your work in Emergent Strategy and Kate Werning’s work with the Healing Justice Podcast are crucial in that they offer practices and ways to integrate non-punitive accountability into our lives and organizations. Also I just had a thought; is Emergent Strategy your Earthseed?!

[Laughs] Emergent Strategy is definitely Earthseed. And yes that’s it — we are so deeply socialized into punitive systems that it feels impossible to us to consider that when someone has caused harm, harming them might not be the move. I think we need accountability so badly, we know we deserve it, and we think we can make something right about the past. But we can’t. All of these harmful men can’t make it right. They can hopefully get themselves right and help break the cycle that created the monsters within.

Right; so it seems that the point isn’t to make the past right but to change the trajectory of the future. To create new ways of being that will end with our “taking root among the stars” as opposed to our current path which has a high chance of leading to species extinction.

Yes.

Well, adrienne, thanks for this follow-up. It’s great to see the practices you talked about being applied in real time.

Thanks for intriguing questions!


adrienne maree brown is author of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds and the co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements. adrienne also co-hosts the podcast How to Survive the End of the World with her sister Autumn. She is a writer, social justice facilitator, pleasure activist, healer and doula living in Detroit. Find out more about her work at adriennemareebrown.net

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