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Kinship, Solidarity, and Working Towards Everyone’s Survival

Samora Pinderhughes, Storme Webber, and Mary Amanda McNeil consider the ways that kinship and solidarity across broader collectives can coexist and mutually enrich one another through intentional practice; as they parse these connections, they identify the ways that solidarity, kinship, and restoring the past are intertwined in their lived experiences and work. Samora Pinderhughes is a musician, multidisciplinary artist, abolitionist, and the creator of The Healing Project. An enrolled member pf the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, Mary Amanda McNeil is an assistant professor in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora at Tufts University. Storme Webber is a two-spirit Sugpiaq/Black poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work incorporates text, performance, altar, and altar installation— among other genres and media— to engage with liminal identities, survivance, and decolonization. This conversation is a contribution to the Black and Indigenous Futures series, which reflects on Black and Indigenous shared leadership, solidarity, kinship, identity, and artistic practice.

Mary Amanda McNeil: My name is Mary Amanda McNeil. I'm a Mellon Assistant Professor at Tufts University in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora. I'm African American and Mashpee Wampanoag, and my work broadly thinks about Black Power and Red Power and the relationships between the two social movements–particularly in Massachusetts.

I write about Massachusetts because it's where half of my family is from. My father is a Southern African American man, and our ancestors made homes and lives for themselves in South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Texas. And my mom was born in Boston to Mashpee Wampanoag parents and raised on Martha's Vineyard in an African American and Aquinnah Wampanoag household. So a lot of my work roots back to my own family story–what enabled us to remain in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the ways that Black and Indigenous survival/survivance depended on creating kinship with each other.

Storme Webber: My mother was an Alaska Native lesbian who came out in the 1950s, and my grandmother was taken from Alaska in the late 1920s, or around 1930, by her father, who was a Norwegian fisherman. She was taken away from her village. My maternal line is Sugpiaq. We're also called Alutiiq, but our name for ourselves is Sugpiaq, and we've been in Alaska for over twenty thousand years.

I grew up in pre-Stonewall gay culture in Seattle. The main project I have right now was manifested in 2017 at the Frye Art Museum. It's called Casino: A Palimpsest. I was looking to tell the story of the palimpsest of my experiences. My father was the Black and, according to my grandmother, Choctaw bisexual man who came out in the fifties, but I didn't grow up with him very much.

I left home when I was eleven by my own choice. I went into the foster care system, and I've been in the world for fifty-four years now. I've lived and worked internationally. I'm an interdisciplinary artist. I work in visual art, audio installation, altar installation, archival work. I've lived in the Bay Area. I've lived in New York and in London. I've spent time in Berlin, in Amsterdam, traveled to Brazil. So yeah, so that's my story. I've been thankful to work with a lot of different communities.

A blurred black and white portrait of a man in a suit smoking a pipe.

Blues Divine, a portrait of Storme Webber by Jim Gupta-Carlson. Courtesy of Storme Webber.

Samora Pinderhughes: I'm Samora. I'm of very complex descent. My father is African American and of Choctaw descent as well, and my mother's family is Sephardic from Azerbaijan. I grew up in the Bay Area, and I'm a musician, composer, multidisciplinary artist. My main project is called The Healing Project, which is an interview-based project on trauma and healing from structural violence in the United States, and it has a bunch of different facets. We do a lot of artistic work with people who are currently and formerly incarcerated, abolitionist work, and direct action campaigns that use narrative work to try to free people from prison. So, a lot of my work is around the carceral state, but also connecting the dots between that and the rest of the institutions that make up the United States.

Mary: You know, growing up, I always had a language for Afro-Native families from my own family. That was always how we discussed and understood ourselves. But it seems like a broader worldly understanding of the fact that Afro-Native people are here and have been here has only begun to become more mainstream in the last decade-and-a-half. So it’s lovely to be having this conversation with the two of you.

Maybe it would benefit us to begin this conversation by defining kinship for ourselves. How do you all use the term? Who is included in this term?

Storme: I agree with you. It’s incredible to witness that our existence is seen now because it wasn’t always like this. I was just thinking of my experience growing up. I always had a lot of judgment. Ancestors know who we are, so I don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks of me. There’s an idealistic feeling around that kinship because my particular family has been so traumatized, so it’s quite challenging to handle that.

But I think that being in these marginalized positions can actually afford us a certain freedom that other people might not understand, a certain vastness of where we are, seeing where we are in the world in relation to everyone.

I think that being in these marginalized positions can actually afford us a certain freedom that other people might not understand, a certain vastness of where we are, seeing where we are in the world in relation to everyone.

Mary: Totally. Now that I’m in my thirties, it has made me really start to ask myself, “What are my broader responsibilities now?” And I’ve found that a lot of those answers can be found in the lessons that my family and broader kinship networks have taught me across the years.

For example, I’ve lived in Boston for about thirteen years, which has been beautiful but also difficult because it’s so expensive. Without a doubt, I wouldn’t have been able to make it here if I hadn’t had people taking care of me—from friends in college helping me to get a job at their places of employment to my aunties sending me back to the city with bags full of food every time I came home to the island. So I think of kinship very broadly. It is all of the people and communities that have taken care of us in ways big and small and have made sure that we had what we needed in order to be well and to do what it is that we’re meant to do in the world.

Samora: For me, kinship is just a practice. It’s a practice, and it’s action. When I think about kinship, I think, who are the people that are sustaining me on a daily basis, and how am I sustaining other people on a daily basis? That can look like emotional support, physical support, practical support, as well as just being present. And that’s what I think of when I think of community of kinship.

Solidarity is more of intercommunal support. As we’re grounding into the things that our communities need, how are we also able to be there for other communities, to be present for their struggles and to find shared common struggles?

Especially in the Boston context, I think a lot about the Combahee River Collective. They’re the best examples of kinship and solidarity together, as people who built a community together, who were present for each other in that kinship way. They were present for each other’s lives as they became mothers, as they became partners, as they became artists, created press together; but they also spoke about the project of what they wanted to fight for, the things they believed in, and how they worked within multiple intersecting identities and make that a political project. I think no one does it better.

Mary: Totally. One of the many invaluable things about “The Combahee River Collective Statement” is that it articulates the need for the collective’s founders to create a safe space for themselves as Black lesbian women while also advocating for forming coalitions with groups in the Black community that did not necessarily share all of their identities. And it also names the terms that such coalitions needed to operate on, which is so crucial because good coalitions require forms of accountability and mutual respect.

For me, kinship is just a practice. It’s a practice, and it’s action.

Samora: That's an interesting question from that perspective. You speak of the collective almost as a place of sanctuary, like the coalition or the collective space is a safe space where people can be present and know they will be supported. At the same time, from a solidarity perspective, from the perspective of a political or organizing project—where we are going to shift things like policy or institutional practice, where we'll need greater power to exert force to change things—you might have to connect and work with people and spaces that you feel fully yourself or fully safe in.

You have, in essence, a kinship space or a collective space where you know people are there for you, where you have that community that's true community; and at the same time, you also know that, "Okay, there are certain things we are working on to shift. Sometimes we're going to have to connect with people who are not necessarily that for us, but for whom the goals are the same." That can be the difficult work of coalition building. Knowing that difference can be important because you also need to know who has your back.

Mary: Yeah, and it goes back to what you were saying, Samora, that kinship is a practice. Developing any practice is like building a muscle, which is difficult and sometimes painful, right?

In my classes, I teach about Black and Indigenous political organizing, and we've spent a lot of time talking about what solidarity and coalition look like. We talk about how notions of kinship and solidarity are often idealized, but building these relations across difference is often quite hard in practice. So we look at documents and we think about clear moments of coalition or solidarity being built between Black and Indigenous groups, but we also think about moments when the archival record thins a bit and why that might be the case.

Storme: We have to interrogate the archives in a critical manner. There's one book about Native Seattle, which is called Native Seattle, by a white gay man named Coll Thrush. So, there's a statue of Chief Seattle in the city, and it says, "Chief Seattle, a firm friend of the whites." Yeah. For real, they're justifying what they're doing. Then, his daughter—her name was Kikisoblu, but they changed her name to Princess Angeline—on her gravestone, it also says something like “a firm friend of the whites.” So, I was conversing with Coll, and he says, "Oh yes, they're all over Seattle. I left them out of the book. " Because it made him uncomfortable, is my interpretation. But that's our history.

So these are the things that we have to look to when we go to the archives. We have to translate; we have to look for what's missing. My work is particularly involved with resurrecting untold ancestral stories.

Mary: Definitely. So many of my students are coming out of the pandemic and this prolonged period of grief and harm which has been their coming-of-age. Last fall, I opened my class on Black Power and Red Power by asking my students, "What brought you to this class?" And many students responded, "We want to learn about what solidarity is.” So it seems like my students steadfastly believe that no one's going to survive unless we work towards everyone’s survival.

To Storme’s point, many of my students would become frustrated about the limitations of the archive—that records of coalition and solidarity can be scant for all of the reasons outlined above. So we had to address that in the class. We also discussed what happens when the political claims of two groups might butt up against each other and make coalitional work difficult or impossible. For example, we examined Black Power and Red Power conceptualizations of land and sovereignty. We read a bit of Kyle Mays’ work and Zoé Samudzi and William C. Anderson’s work in order to think about moments when two different groups, whose politics on paper seem to be very aligned, are making claims to the same thing.

We also have a lot to learn from the language that contemporary folks have developed that theorize Black and Indigenous futures as interdependent. Earlier, Storme mentioned Melanin Mvskoke; I also think about Indigenous and Black organizing collectives like the Red Nation and Black Lives Matter. To return to Samora’s language of the practice, these folks seem to be deeply invested in asking the difficult questions: What are the actions that need to be taken to work towards this vision of interdependent futures? And in doing so, how do we deal with difference—not by flattening it, but by contending with it, and making that contending a central part of our practice?

We also must recognize that many of the tools and practices needed to realize that dream have already been developed by our kin and ancestors.

Storme: One of my favorite definitions for artists, which is from the 1980s, is, “one who consents to dream of the actual world.” So, this society is so ill, and it's so brainwashing, and it's so easy for people to look at all the shiny things. How do we clarify our visions? Especially at this moment, I think that's our challenge: how do we clarify our visions for a better world?

Mary: Storme, I love that definition of the artist that you just gave us because it’s exactly what current conditions require. Our liberated futures can’t look like a settler or an anti-Black vision of freedom; it can’t look like capitalist accumulation or enclosure. It requires, as you said, Storme, dreaming of an actual world that is completely different from that which we currently live in. And as you said earlier, Storme, we also must recognize that many of the tools and practices needed to realize that dream have already been developed by our kin and ancestors. So even in “consenting to dream of the actual world,” we’re never fully starting from scratch.

Samora: Yeah, that was actually the genesis of The Healing Project. If you're dealing with these structural issues, why is it that the people that get asked last or never asked about what is needed to heal from these things are the people that go through it and by necessity have to discover those ways?

We live in a culture in which everything must be legible and everything must be celebrated; and if it's not celebrated and everybody doesn't see it, it's not important. So many of the things that have been important in my life are things that nobody will ever know about. And I'm not interested in them knowing about them either.

A man in a hat stands next to a portrait of a woman hanging on the wall behind him.

Storme Webber with I Cover the Waterfront at Sealaska Heritage Gallery. Photo courtesy of Storme Webber.

Storme: That is so important. There's a need for the humble.

I'm doing a project, a rummage sale. I'm like, "I'm so happy to be doing this little humble community project." Do you know you can organize a rummage sale? Do you know what I mean? You might get the best organization by doing what the Black Panthers and American Indian Movement (AIM) did: serve the people.

When Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was put into place in the seventies, they had to make a settlement with the Alaska Natives because they wanted the oil. To embed us in the capitalist system, rather than give us reservations, as is common, they gave us corporations. So we are shareholders. It's very violent. And the villages have tribes. My ancestors are from the Seldovia Village Tribe. They will not allow me to enroll. There are currently 670 tribal members in the United States.

But God bless the Tlingits and the Haidas because this year they have a Native women's art exhibition going on in Juneau, and my grandmother has returned to Alaska for the first time in a century, after she passed. She's in spirit now, but I have a triptych there that is of her most beautiful, glamorous portrait blown up with three different tints. The title of the work is “I Cover the Waterfront.” That was one of her favorite songs. She was a singer, and she was an artist, and she was my first teacher. So, I've managed to return her to Alaska. That has been an incredibly beautiful experience. She's still there until 1 December. If you happen to go to Juneau, go to see Alaska Heritage and tell her I said I love her.

I've been feeling like I'm working in restorative justice for the ancestors. Because that's part of the dream. I'm trying to weave something back together. I'm trying to make sense of it because my family was so traumatized by what was done. If you look at that village, in the census, 90 percent of the women or 95 percent of the women married European men who came up to Alaska, who were fishermen. I'm sure some of it was love, but if they did that, they received land rights, fishing rights…

After the tribe refused to let me enroll, on Facebook I found two of my ancestors in Alaska State Archives pictures. We still look so much like them because my great-great-grandmother gave her spirit to my grandmother, and when I saw her in that picture, that sweet smile was my grandmother. Her face was my grandmother. And then her daughter is sitting in a segregated Native class in this little village of Seldovia, and both of them are looking dead into the camera, almost like “I am waiting for you to come and find me, and I'm going to find you because you're listening for me.” That's what I'm working on. I work with that. These ancestors who came back and found me. It’s quite a blessing.

Samora: That reminds me of that Baldwin quote, “Find me in the wreckage.”

Mary: I love that. To return to Samora's notion of “kinship as practice,” often, we think about this as caring for future generations or who we're with right now. Ruha Benjamin writes about cultivating “kinfulness” as a practice that also attends to our loved ones that are no longer fleshly here. Caring for our ancestors, that’s a critical kinship practice too

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