Between a pandemic and police killings, both of which disproportionately affect black people, grief and trauma have been relentless of late. We asked artist Amika Cooper, also known as blackpowerbarbie, to communicate her thoughts and feelings for five days through illustrations. See her drawings, captions about what inspired them, and a short Q&A, below.
Saturday, June 13
I watched the Dave Chappelle special, “8:46.” I wonder what the audience expected from him before it began. Did they expect Dave to entertain them? In the midst of all this pain, did America still expect black people to put on a show? I’m glad that he didn’t. There are no other words to describe the anguish he shared other than the ones he used. I’ve had my own struggle with knowing what to say. Suddenly all these mics are being passed to me, and I want to scream, but only slow, apprehensive whimpers come out. Granted, I get louder every day, but that’s not without the work of unlearning a lifetime of trying not to sound angry, because the feelings of white people felt more important than my own. Later, I ran into an acquaintance, a successful black woman who spoke a mile a minute. She told me about the racism she experienced at an executive level. Everything she recounted was painful; none of it surprised me. She could be honest with me about her experiences at work because I could not and would not endanger her well-being, fire her or whittle down her spirit.
Sunday, June 14
Today, I went to the rally and march for black trans lives held at the Brooklyn Museum. Usually I don’t go to demonstrations; I used to, though. I marched for Trayvon Martin in New York and it completely broke me down. The experience of being black in the summer of 2012 broke my spirit. I’ve done a lot of reflecting over the years and sharing of my feelings with the black community. Since then, I’ve come to steadfastly believe that it is not the job of every black person to put their bodies on the front lines, to put themselves in an even more precarious position. That’s the work of allies. I went to this gathering because I am a cis woman. As a member of the queer community, I still present as heteronormative, and as much as I am oppressed, the fact that I am cis acts as a privilege. In the black community, it is important that we realize there are people who share in our blackness who experience violence at even more intersections of their identities. It breaks my heart when I think about Ahmaud Arbery being hunted by those white men, but I expected that from the people who killed him. It eviscerates me to think about the people within the black community and outside it who inflict that same shameless, inhumane violence upon my trans brothers and sisters. The march was 15,000 strong. I heard and saw the power and beauty of the black trans community. Their message was the key to everything we’re fighting for: My power matters, your power matters, our power matters, black trans power matters.
Monday, June 15
Today I had a conversation with an old employer. They had posted a black square for #BlackOutTuesday and I shared my experience working there in the comments. I didn’t get a response, but two black employees sent me a message saying that my comment resonated with their own experiences. Out of the three of us, none of us worked for the company at the same time or saw another black person there. Fast forward to today and a colleague gave me a call. Apparently my comment spurred hours and hours of meetings. I felt a mix of emotions: proud that my words had an effect but also confused that this was the first I’d heard of it. I thought my comment either went unseen or ignored. It’s so hard to unlearn a lifetime of prioritizing the feelings and egos of people in power, even when you’re trying to advocate for yourself and stand in your own power. I feel a lack of trust from being gaslit for so long — it’s hard to believe sincere ears are listening. The awakening to anti-black racism everyone else is having right now has a profoundly complicated emotional effect on black folks. The status quo has required us to burrow so much trauma below the surface so we could survive at the hands of those who hurt us. It’s nice to be listened to, but right now, sometimes it just feels harder to share. How could everyone else not know about the reality of post-colonial black life? How come no one noticed how few of us were your colleagues, bosses or immediate peers? If you did notice, how come you didn’t care enough before?
Tuesday, June 16
I don’t have much to say today. I am tired of people asking me how I’m doing because the question makes me feel so useless — I don’t even know how to answer it anymore. I feel like I’m in the twilight zone. For weeks, I have learned of and mourned the death of black person after black person: men hanging from trees, trans women being brutally maimed and murdered, 18-year-old black girls being shot at traffic lights. In the midst of it all, every day all I do is work on things for other people and take care of other people, never myself. Tonight my friends Mouna and Keesha gathered a group of black women over a private Zoom call to convene and discuss a video they had made about blackness three years ago. It was heartbreaking to see how little we’ve progressed in three years; the poor treatment of black women continues to be culturally pervasive. However, in addition to the beauty of the video itself, I was so humbled by how good it felt to be seen and heard by other black women in a truly safe space. We didn’t have to hold back from each other; the tenderness and emotional safety was invaluable.
Wednesday, June 16
Today I said “brb” to the whole day. I gave myself permission to create time and space for myself and set boundaries with others. I washed my hair and drew outside. I ordered lots of sushi. I also met with a friend, Leeor. She’s the first white person I’ve spoken too this much or spent time with since all this “unrest” began. We grabbed refreshments and spent socially distanced time together in the park. I was so happy to be in her calm and welcoming energy. What I like about her, and why I had no anxiety about our meeting, is that she is not the kind of person or ally who needs to perform guilt or compassion that really in effect burdens the recipient with the effort of making emotional space for them. She didn’t need any guarantees or affirmations about who she was from me. We’re friends because she takes the time to see me as a whole person. We can meet and talk about moving, covid-19 anxieties, careers, our feelings and eventually race. Most importantly, I trust her to do the work, as she’s done in the past and will continue to do, without asking for my emotional labor, book list or absolution.
Q: How are you coping right now, between a pandemic and protests about the police killings of black people?
A: Every day is a struggle. I find myself having to dissociate ever so slightly just to read through the articles, see the footage and tackle my to-do list. It’s hard to live in a body that feels under attack — that’s always been under attack. Creating the space to truly acknowledge and honor that is difficult when you need to get up and work every day.
Q: How do you engage with or think about race through your artwork?
A: My work engages with race through representation. I rarely saw depictions of black women that truly resonated with me. Who was going to speak about our vulnerability, beauty, full range of emotions? I was tired of seeing sassy, strong black women — I never let people describe me that way. For me, the best way to engage with race is to offer a narrative and gaze that’s true to myself and those in my community.
Q: Is there any art, visual or otherwise, that you’ve found yourself thinking about or turning to for comfort or inspiration lately?
A: This may be cliche, but I always turn to written works in acutely political moments. I find myself needing the words and wisdom of the folks who helped shape my politics and articulate my perspective. James Baldwin is one of those authors. I also have returned to Audre Lorde. Other than that my inspiration continues to be the same: I seek out happiness, beauty and blackness to help restore my energy.
Q: Who are some of your favorite visual artists? Why are you drawn to them?
A: Some of my favorite visual artists are Gyimah Gariba, Curtis Talwst Santiago, Rajni Perera, Jasminfire, Lauren Pirie, Curtia Wright and Josef Adamu among many others! All of these artists create with intention and a deep reverence for their subject which manifests itself as beauty in their work. I either learn a little bit more about them or myself in their work.
Q: What’s one thing that’s bringing you joy?
A: Honestly, food! I look forward to every meal.