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Rasheedah Phillips on afrofuturism, parenting,
and giving back / by Katy Otto

Rasheedah is the brilliant creator of The Afrofuturist Affair, member of futurist sci-fi collective Metropolarity, novelist, and multimedia artist. She recently traveled to Europe to curate and perform in an international festival celebrating afrofuturism. Rasheedah is, simply put, unstoppable.

Please tell us about both your creative life/practice and your experience with parenting.

My creative practice is writing, definitely. I have written since I was a wee little one - since the age of three or four, writing science fiction, plays and fantasy. That is my main form of expression at this time in my life but I also do other multimedia stuff. I do some digital art, but I don't really put it out there. I make fliers and zines - printmaking, publishing, doing layout. It's really fun to me.

As far as my experience with parenting - I have a sixteen-year-old child who identifies as trans, as gender nonconforming, who goes by the name Alex. I had them when I was fourteen years old. I have raised my child as a single parent for these sixteen years, though their dad helps out when he can.

What were some of the fears you had (if any) about how becoming a parent would impact your creative life? Would you say now, in retrospect, that they were well founded?

I didn't think about it like that. I had my child at the age of fourteen, and at that time I didn't have a sense of myself as a creative person or an artist. I was young, so my fears were more about losing my freedom. I was creative, but I was just doing it. I also didn't think about parenting in those terms; I don't think I was mature enough to think about parenting and its impact on my creativity. However, it certainly had an impact, in retrospect. After I had my child, I stopped writing stories for years and didn't write creatively again until I was out of law school and had transitioned into my career.

It is such an interesting journey, to think of how I came to think of myself as a writer or an artist. It is something that is fairly recent for me. I really put aside my creative work when I found out I was pregnant. I never thought I would be an artist. I think part of where and how I grew up played a role in that. Part of that is cultural. Black children are not always told we have these possibilities. I was never really told I could be an artist, or that being an artist was a career, or that being a writer was something I could do to make money as an adult. Those didn't seem like possibilities to me as a kid. Most of the authors I read as a kid were white, and so it seemed like a special privilege to be able to make a career out of it.

When I found out I was pregnant at fourteen, I had to grow up right then. I didn't have the leisure to write stories anymore. I had to be focused on my child and on getting a job eventually. This was the case for the beginning of my child's life.

In law school, being a creative was not an option. It was very much a system of indoctrination and shifting of consciousness to write a certain way and engage in a particular way with the world. Creative writing was out of the question in those times. Law school was extremely intense, and being a single mother made it more so. There was no time, space, or mental room for anything else. This became an issue for me. I wanted to drop out a lot. I was extremely unhappy. My creativity eventually came out in other ways during this time, though. I learned how to reconcile creative practice and make it work for legal writing, in a way that felt right to me. I have been successful with that, but it has been a long road.

I definitely got a lot of weird comments in law school from professors. They knew I was different even if they didn't know I was a creative writer. Part of that could be that I came to law school with turquoise hair, five piercings in my face and a shitload of tattoos. After I had written a paper for one professor's class, she said to me, "I didn't know you could write, being a nontraditional student." Some things were taken for granted about me, perhaps because of how I looked, perhaps because I was young, or because they knew I had been a teen mother.

The fact that I went into public interest law and work at a legal services organization gave me more of an ability to be myself in my practice as an attorney. Although I have done some tax law, too - which definitely isn't creative!

What does your creative life look like currently? How is it different from before you were a parent?

Currently my creative life looks a lot like a job. Part of that is because I am a lawyer and I bring my organizational skills naturally to my creative activities. Forming the organization The Afrofuturist Affair was a creative act, even though I am not the main focus of it. Other people are - it is about promoting other people's work and giving them a platform. But building it required creativity. I was also able to create a safe space that I could then utilize for myself and for my work.

The initial vision behind The Afrofuturist Affair was to provide a platform. Part of this came from my own experiences being a huge nerd and a sci-fi lover but not finding a comfortable space for myself and feeling marginalized in that community. I found myself and my people absent from these worlds and these notions of the future.

I created The Afrofuturist Affair to engage in conversations about the future and what it could look like, to showcase art, writing and other aspects of culture that connects to the notion of people like me being a part of the future. I also wanted to highlight Black people's rich past of thinking about the future, traditions in African culture of thinking about space and time that looks a lot like physics and the modern world that we often take for granted. I wanted a space to discuss this with people engaging in conversations through their own work. I wanted to connect with like-minded people and really think about how we could shift the narrative of us not making it into the future through our art and writing. That was the idea behind it.

I had the first Afrofuturist Affair Ball in 2011. It was really supposed to be a one-off event. I didn't think at the time that it would evolve into what it has. I started a blog as a way to promote that one event but it got so much support and interest that it has very organically grown into more - me doing workshops, me traveling, giving lectures... going to Amsterdam in October to do a festival. Afrofuturism was a good topic, with a language and culture built-in, to have these conversations. I wanted to talk about the future of our humanity, our role in politics and society in this country as marginalized people. It was a potent way to have these discussions - within the framework of futurism and science fiction.

My practice is informed by how I organize things. It made sense to me to use The Afrofuturist Affair to publish my own work, so now it also functions as a publishing house. If you look back over time, the word "afrofuturism" is a new term or concept, but the phenomenon that compromises afrofuturism is something we have been doing or thinking about for a long time. Every culture has some way of engaging the notions of time, space and the future.

When I came across the term afrofuturism, I became interested in how it manifests itself in practice and in cultural activities. I wanted to engage with the actual art, the actual people creating afrofuturistic work. I also wanted to relate the concept to people who are the marginalized of the marginalized - poor Black people who might not be aware of these concepts. I was really interested in how this could be applied to the type of work I do as an attorney. It wasn't really a thing here in Philadelphia. I knew maybe only one or two people who knew or used the term afrofuturism specifically, but I saw it as a theme running through a lot of my friends' work. They weren't calling it that, but it looked a lot like that. I had artist friends who were engaging in sci-fi themes or speculative or futurist themes, but weren't calling it afrofuturism. It was very much an underground culture. There wasn't any real way of organizing everybody around this, so that is what I set out to do. So I went around to my friends, and said, "hey, you look like you might be interested in this concept - come perform at my thing for free and I will donate the money to an organization that I think relates to the notion of afrofuturism."

For the first Ball, I donated the proceeds to Need Indeed. I used to volunteer for them. They are an organization that does service-learning projects with elementary school students around different topics of concern to their particular communities. They choose the topics - they range from things like alcoholism to teen parenting to HIV - those sorts of things. They do a year-long project around the topic and then they have to present it to their entire school. I was a volunteer for them for many years right after I got out of high school. If one of the groups chooses teen parenting as a topic, I have gone in to talk to them, give advice, and let them ask me questions. I donated to them because I felt like their work was futurist. They served their community, they chose topics of relevance to the community, they were kids getting to choose what mattered to them - they do amazing outreach and it provides incredible education.

My story is kind of skewed because I was a teen parent and didn't come into a consciousness of myself as an artist until after I had started my career as an attorney.

How do you carve out time and space for your creative practice as a parent?

It is at random. I cannot say that I consciously carve out space. I am super lucky to work at job with standard hours of nine-to-five Monday through Friday for the most part. I have my weekends free and that is when I tend to engage in my creative work. I also do some stuff at night after work. There is no "carving out" - just more when it strikes me.

Someone once told me my creative practice is living. It's part of my everyday life, and if I have to separate parts of my life out and say I wear this hat at this time and this hat at these times I can, but in general my life is holistic. It all feeds into each other - my work, my creativity, how I parent my childÉThat is reflected in my child's artistic interests and in how they engage with the world. They are an activist and do art activism. Everything feeds into each other, which is why I am able to juggle it. There were times I couldn't be creative because of law school, but now everything is a part of each other.

What kinds of adjustments did you make to your creative practices when you became a parent?

This question is a little hard to answer because I was a teen when I became a parent. I would write stories but I didn't have a creative practice then per se. I would read plays though. My grandmother was a teacher and she would give me plays to read. I would write stories that were modeled after things I was reading. I remember one play with a hen - something about the sky falling? Chicken Little! When I turned six or seven, I started reading R. L. Stein. And Christopher Pike! Do you know him?

Yes! I love him! I loved his adult novel, Sati, too - about Christ coming to earth in the form of a beautiful, young woman. That was intense.

I still have all these books! They are close to my heart. That's really where my love of sci-fi started. R.L. Stein had the whole Goosebumps series. So I had my child at fourteen, and my main concern at this point was getting out of high school.

The Internet was also getting really popular at this time so if I wasn't working, doing school work, or taking care of my child, I was on an AOL message board or doing a survey. I wasn't really thinking about art. Finishing school was very challenging. I had depression and I almost dropped out, but then I got back on track. There was a cycle of teen parenting in my family. My mother was a teen mom and had me at fourteen as well. My grandmother was also a teen mom. The emphasis and pressure was on me to shift that cycle for my child - making it out of high school, being the first person in my family to go to college.

What do you tell your children, if anything, about the role of creativity in your life?

My child has naturally picked up on all of these things. I don't know that I have ever given them any specific lessons except to know that they can do and be whatever they want to be - they don't have to have the same limitations I had. I wanted to give those messages to them because those were not messages I received as a child. As I told you earlier, I didn't know I could grow up to be a writer or grow up to be in theater, be an actressÉI knew these things were possible but not for someone like me, not for someone who came from where I came from. It was rare that people made it out of there successfully.

I made a very conscious effort to shift those messages for my child so as not to repeat the cycle of teen parenting. I wanted them to have options. That is evident in how my child lives their life now - they are a theater major at CAPA, a performing arts high school. They do acting on the weekends, they volunteer, they are an activist - this summer they were an intern at The Attic LGBT Youth Center. The theme for this summer was Black Lives Matter. They did different events - in Dilworth Plaza, in Love Park, in Rittenhouse Park - doing demonstrations that had acting as a part of it. For one of them, kids ran around playing tag. Someone was holding a red scarf and then that child dropped dead to the ground when a loud sound was made, and then the other children drew a chalk outline around their body. They then talked about how 684 people killed by police this year, and how every eight hours another Black person is killed by the cops. It is basically using acting and creativity to demonstrate how black lives matter.

The messages I have given to my child are very different from what was given to me, and I think I have done a good job of shifting the narrative for them. Their notion of their options is much broader, they aren't a teen parent, I don't think they are going to be a teen parent - and also they are very comfortable expressing themselves and their identity. For instance, coming out to me as transgender, as gender non-conforming, being able to be an activist around those issues and feeling strong enough and supported in this by their friends and family. They got transgender bathrooms in their school even!

I think these things show the impact of some of the philosophies I raised them with - to be open, to know that they have options, to not have to fear the expression of those options, to feel comfortable with who they are and expressing both their identity and their artistic expression. I have tried to give my kid autonomy to figure things out for themselves. I try not to hit them over the head too much with any one message, but they totally pick it up for themselves. My kid is a total feminist, womanist, talks about intersectionality - I've never said the word "intersectionality" to my child in my life, but I write about it for my work all the time. It is interesting to know that they picked up on these things on their own. I didn't turn my kid into a Black Panther, but I did instill pride in their culture and identity. Part of this is that juggling school and all these things meant that I didn't always have a chance to guide my child through their culture. So they had to pick it up from their environment. It is great to see that there is a secure foundation there, that I don't need to check in with them every day on these issues. They have developed a presence of mind, a sense of autonomy and morality to be able to be on the path that I want them to be on without me having forced them on it.

I was in Atlanta visiting my mom three weeks ago. We are learning more about one another, and she told me that she volunteers for a domestic violence hotline. I realized in that moment that my mom has always done stuff like that. She has always volunteered. She has always opened her home to people who were down and out, given them food - she's just always been a community oriented person. And I realized, holy shit, this totally influenced me. This is a big part of why I am working around domestic violence issues today. My mom and I have a lot of the same concerns even if we didn't explicitly talk about it. It is interesting what you pick up from your parents, both negative and positive.

And domestic violence prevention does have elements of futurism in it - envisioning a new future for oneself. That is only just now occurring to me - how hard it can be to envision a different kind of future when you find yourself in that situation, and how it could be a very creative act.

Yes! Exactly.

Do you talk to them (if age appropriate) about the role of creativity in their lives?

Yeah. Every single day, because they go to a performing arts high school. We talk actively about developing themselves or their career in the future. They want to be a teacher and teach performing arts to students. They are sixteen so it is a different conversation than it might have been ten years ago. They are super focused at this point in their life. We talk about art and creativity a lot. They like to write plays and poems, and on occasion they will bring me something and ask me to read it.

In what ways do you think being an active artist/writer/musician/creator helps make your parenting stronger?

I want to say yes. Like I said, they all inform each other in some way. I can't see me compartmentalizing the influence these things have on each other. They are all a part of my everyday life. Living is a creative act, especially if you are marginalized in some way.

In what ways do you think being a parent has made your artistic practice stronger?

That actually I can definitely say yes to. In general, life experiences have made my artistic practice stronger. My experiences are the topic of a lot of my writing - things I see in the real world - whether it is poverty, or the foster care system - I am very influenced by real life experiences.

My first book, Recurrence Plot, is dedicated to my child and my mother and all mothers because without mothers we wouldn't be here. My writing is informed by my outlook on the world, and everything I do revolves in some sense around caring for my child. I am inspired by parenting, I am inspired by having to provide for this other life who did not choose to be here but who will be by my side for the rest of my life. I am inspired by what that means in terms of time and space and how I engage with those things.

Are there other people who inspired you in the ways they approached creative work as a parent?

I have a few friends who have kids. One person, Charlyn, works for a space called Sanctuary Wholistic Arts and she is an artist. She travels the world and I don't know how she does it because she has three young kids but she makes it work. She is from Philly. She has a yoga practice and all these things that she does. A lot of it is because she brings her kids to everything and incorporates them into everything - she makes a space kid-friendly. In some cases, you have to do that. If you can't take your kids somewhere, you also can't be part of it. And why shouldn't we in some cases? We are supposed to be building on our communities, right? The work we are doing often affects their lives too, and the world they are going to live in.

She has inspired me to work towards spaces that are more inclusive of parents and kids. I am guilty of it myself, having events that aren't inclusive, for which I haven't arranged childcare... A huge group of artists who just happen to have kids might not be able to participate. It was a struggle for me when my child was younger. Things happen late at night, art shows, etc. There is no easy answer but we can work to be more thoughtful around these issues.

Another artist and parent that really really inspires me is writer and artist Joy KMT from Pittsburgh. She wrote an essay for my book Black Quantum Futurism. She has four or five kids, I am not sure. She finds a way to do thing. She has also forced me to be more mindful about how we as an artistic community create space for children. If we are trying to build community, why aren't kids included? Of course some things aren't appropriate for children, but where it is - do it!

This prompted me in how I organized an event with Camae as part of my residency in West Philly. We had an event called Black Women's Lives: A State of Emergency around the concept of increased state violence against Black women. For that particular event, I arranged childcare and it is something I want to do for events in the future. From conversations with Joy and Charlyn, I am more mindful of these issues. I mean, I had to deal with this myself when my child was younger but I forget sometimes now because they are a teenager and it is much easier now.

What does your child think of your creative work?

I think they think it is cool! Their friends think it is cool. They have not read my book, I don't think. I want them to, but only if they want. They aren't super interested in sci-fi, and the other book is one of essays - they aren't super into that, but I know they are proud of me, and that their friends are interested. I'm the cool mom according to their friends. Sometimes I think even my kid thinks I am the cool mom!

I am actually trying to get them more interested in the afrofuturism work, because that is my afrofuturist child. I think they do afrofuturist work, but they just don't call it that. I would like to connect more with their school and places they volunteer or do activities at, if they want. I talk to kids all the time about this stuff, and I know their friends are interested.

Do you think creative communities are friendly to children and parents and encourage their presence? Are there any ways these communities could improve? Feel free to be specific if you would like to.

I spoke to this, and I don't think things are necessarily accessible or inclusive to parents. In some spaces there is an actual aversion. There may be a lot of people who say, "I don't like kids," and I don't know. I guess that is okay. But we as an artistic community can do a better job with that sometimes. Offering childcare, making things take place at an earlier hour. It's not always appropriate for a space to be accommodating to children, but sometimes it is. Sometimes it's worth making space for more members of the community. What community doesn't have parents in it? Punk rock community has parents. Sci-fi community has parents. We are everywhere. Why not try to make things inclusive when you can?

How did becoming a parent affect your creative partnerships with other people?

At this point it doesn't, and I didn't really even gain an artistic practice until three or four years ago - maybe even this year. In terms of my collaborations it hasn't been an issue, but maybe in previous years. When I got out of law school, my kid was maybe eight or nine, and it was hard for me to be part of things. I had to arrange childcare, I couldn't go to events as much as I might want to - and that is a lot of how you connect with others. I had to make concessions.

Fortunately, their dad is supportive and helps me out, and helped me out back then. But a lot of stuff was put on hold. The Afrofuturist Affair started when it did because my child was older. I had been preparing for it. I was starting to go out more, to poetry eventsÉIt wasn't easy to do things and I couldn't always take part. When my child got older and I got more settled into my career I could do more stuff.

Right after I got out of law school in 2008, I took some creative writing classes at community college. I gained knowledge about my craft and my practice there. I was part of a writing group for a while. At this point, it's way easier for me to be able to collaborate.

Do you think that some of the challenges parenting presents for creative practice are impacted by your gender? Please share any thoughts you have about this.

Possibly. I don't know if I have a perspective on that. For me specifically, gender hasn't had the biggest impact. I could think through ways it could. I guess if you are a guy people take you more seriously. If you are a white male or a white woman, you have more access to things. Honestly, if you are a mixed woman, you have more access to things, so in that sense - yes. I find myself as an artist not having the same network, the same access to institutions, galleries... Some of my practice involves visual work which is why I mention galleries.

It is difficult to say that, because I have had some access through The Afrofuturist Affair.

But in that case, you created the access for yourself.

Yes, that is true. In my case, I would say I've been affected less by gender and more by race when it comes to my ability to do things. The fact that I am a single mom, even with my child's father in their life - as a primary caretaker, it has had a greater effect on me but I've never thought about it too much because it is just a part of the circumstances.

For at least three years in a row, I and other people, which I know for a fact, have nominated The Afrofuturist Affair for the Philly Geek Award. There is no reason I should not be considered based on the organizations and groups that have won this in the past. I submitted in about five categories - Social Media, Events - I didn't get chosen for any of them, but one person who did get chosen was a white guy who was part of my residency. They also chose the Philadelphia Police Department for their Twitter account - but what does that really mean? I did feel overlooked. They have a category called IRL. I have a blog with 7,000 plus followers, I have work in most of the categories. But year after year I am not considered.

Maggie Eighteen tweeted at them and said, "Guys, can you please consider Rasheedah sometime? We have been nominating her for the past three years?" They favorited the tweet and retweeted it, and then asked for me to DM them so they could explain the nomination process to me. I found this confusing, because I obviously understood it and had already applied. To add insult to injury. What more needs to be broken down? I fit the criteria. There is nothing else to explain. And my direct contact info was readily available on my website and Twitter page, so I am not sure why they asked for that. It was ridiculous.

Has your creative community been supportive of you as a parent?

Yes. They have. But I think that is mostly because my child is older and doesn't pose much of an issue. If they were younger, I don't know if the artistic community would be as supportive for all the reasons I mentioned. Childcare, time - earlier on, I certainly would not have been able to oversee an organization, hold down a job and raise a child all at once. When my child was younger I didn't necessarily receive the same support that I do now.

Do you have any more thoughts to share with other prospective or current parents about preserving and nurturing one's own creative efforts while raising children?

I guess what I would say is the most basic, super cheesy thing - let your child be themselves. I very consciously try not to project my wants and desires onto my child. There are definitely standards, but if you raise your child from the start to be open-minded and have a parenting philosophy that you can carry out through the child's life, that will grow and develop as they do, that can make parenting easier. My philosophy has been that I want to raise my child in a way that would break some of the negative cycles I have been in. Be consistent. Be open-minded. Be responsive to your child and what you see them doing. I try to give my child autonomy as appropriate.

This relates to my creative life because it opens up more time and space for my creative life. Knowing that my child is good and that we have a strong rapport means I don't have to worry as much. My way of looking at time and the future has informed a lot of my parenting. My notion of an expansive sense of the future, of open possibility informs me. The trajectory my life has taken works backwards too - the things that I experience now work backwards to shape my entire life. Everything I do today is very much connected to things I experienced as a child - what I do for work, the people I help - it's all a circle. I try to give back, as someone who was a teen parent herself. That is my philosophy. I try to give back. I try to not set up expectations for my child that are purely personal, that are not just about things I didn't get to do. But by letting go, my child actually has been able to fulfill some of these things without me pushing them. I just tried to break patterns to afford them opportunities and options.

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