Making the Revolution Irresistible: An Interview with Aishah Shahidah Simmons

Editor’s note: In honor of LGBTQ History Month, this week we’re revisiting pieces published on Black queer history, thought, and/or culture. Today we turn to Keelyn Bradley’s interview with Aishah Shahida-Simmons from our forum commemorating the 30th anniversary of Marlon Riggs’s groundbreaking film, Tongues Untied.

Aishah Simmons (Photo: Julie Yarbrough)

Keelyn Bradley: Your first video, Silence…Broken (1993), was developed in a script writing workshop taught by Toni Cade Bambara at Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia, PA and was greatly influenced by the work of Audre Lorde and Marlon Riggs. That’s a tremendous combination of forces charging a single production. Many people are still not aware of the full range of Bambara’s contributions as a visionary artist and organic intellectual in the development of a Black feminist praxis. Her influence and legacy can be seen in your work as well as that of Nikky Finney, Cara Page, M.K. Asante, Dionne Brand, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Darnell L. Moore, just to name a few. Would you talk about what you learned from Bambara about writing and filmmaking, and writing for film/video? Also, I know that Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1989) was particularly influential. Would you talk about its philosophical and aesthetic significance to Silence…Broken?

Aishah Shahidah Simmons: The profundity of Toni Cade Bambara’s presence in my life was from when I was 20 years old in 1989 until 1995, when she joined the ancestral realm. Toni’s spirit is still present in my life and the lives of so many others contemporarily. Toni taught me and many others that the role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible. She also explained that cultural work should be accountable to the communities that we come from, and not to non-profit or corporate structures whose interests are not in support of our communities. Learning how to create work with this understanding and commitment impacts what I create and why and how I create it.

In early 1990, Toni told me to come to sit in on one of her scriptwriting workshops at a place called Scribe Video Center, which was founded and continuously executive directed since the late 1980s by award-winning filmmaker and media activist Louis Massiah. When I told Toni I didn’t have funds, she reiterated that she told me to come to Scribe and didn’t ask me if I had any money. That invitation and loving command forever changed the trajectory of my 21-year-old life. It was at Scribe, under Toni’s tutelage, that I both learned and later developed my own organic Black feminist lesbian theory and practice of accountable filmmaking. It’s entirely feasible that were it not for Toni, and also Louis, that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to experience Marlon Riggs in person in an intimate setting. From what I can remember (and this was 29-years ago), Louis/Scribe partnered with Houston A. Baker and Manthia Diawara at the University of Pennsylvania to host a groundbreaking and historic film series, which featured weekly screenings and discussions of diasporic Black independent cinema with either the directors of the films or experts on the actual movies. I was among the small group of invited people who participated in this phenomenal historical series that featured Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama, and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust before it was theatrically released, to name several of the films featured.

It was during this series that I first saw Tongues Untied and heard both Marlon Riggs and Essex Hemphill talk about their work. The film radically expanded my vision of filmmaking. I was a self-defined “baby dyke” who had recently come out of the closet with an unapologetic fire in response to external and internalized homophobia that resulted in sexual trauma I experienced in my sophomore year in college. I was introduced to and devoured Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. This Sufi-Muslim-raised young woman was baptized in the sanctuary of our Lorde. While Riggs’s directorial lens was, without question, speaking unapologetically and directly to Black gay men, I saw many parallels between what he brilliantly articulated on film and what Lorde brilliantly articulated in print. I felt called to create an experimental short video that centered around an excerpt from Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” essay in Sister Outsider. Simultaneously I used some of the techniques that Riggs used in Tongues Untied. I developed my vision in a Bambara scriptwriting workshop. I worked with a community of predominantly Black filmmakers who were also studying at Scribe, and my brother Tyree Cinque Simmons, who was 14 years old at that time. They helped me make Silence…Broken, which is an 8-minute short video about a Black lesbian’s refusal to be silent about racism, sexism, and homophobia. Poet Jourdan Keith’s performance of her poem “Which Stipe Am I?” was juxtaposed against literal and metaphorical images and the use of looped spoken words; “No One Is Free While Others Are Oppressed . . . Break the Silence” was the soundtrack. Silence…Broken has become my homage to Lorde, Riggs, and Bambara.

Bradley: You filmed Essex Hemphill in 1995 for NO! The Rape Documentary (2006), which you produced and directed. Hemphill’s poetry and performances appear in Tongues and Black Is…Black Ain’t (1995). He died from complications related to AIDS five months after the filming of his scene. Would you talk about how you came to work with him on that film? What was Hemphill like to work with; what was his performative process?

Simmons: I didn’t spend a lot of time engaging with Marlon or Essex when I first met them. I made it my business to learn everything that I could about them and try to see them whenever they were presenting at events I could attend. This was the early 1990s, when there wasn’t the world wide web—no social media or email, etc. There wasn’t a quick Google search to find out the information above.

During his final years, Essex lived in Philly, my hometown. We lived in the same neighborhood and would occasionally run into each other, but we didn’t really know each other. I read and heard audio recordings of Essex performing his powerful poem “To Some Supposed Brothers” both alone and also with Wayson Jones. It is a righteous, take-no-prisoners poetic call for Black men to stop committing violence against Black women. I knew I wanted Essex to perform “To Some Supposed Brothers” in NO!, my feature-length documentary about intra-racial sexual violence, accountability, and healing in Black communities. When I approached Essex about performing in what was called “The Rape Video Project” at the time, he was immediately receptive to my request. I knew time was of the essence to film him because Essex was living with AIDS and not well. In an interview with CASSIUS, I shared that on the day we filmed Essex, he was very, if not gravely ill. Despite this, Essex pushed through with the filming during a long, hot, and emotionally intense June day in 1995. We took several breaks throughout the process so that Essex could lay down and rest. However, each time we filmed him between his rest periods, Essex would give an incredible performance until an extended coughing spell would overcome him. He joined the ancestors five months later.

I get emotional thinking about this as a 50-year-older woman in hindsight. I was a 26-year-old, unknown, and emerging filmmaker who had a vision for a feature-length documentary about rape and healing in Black communities. This vision did not (wo)manifest until 2006, which was eleven years after he joined the ancestral realm. Essex could’ve easily said, “this is too much for me,” but he did not. It was a testament to his will to live, his commitment to breaking silences about intra-racial sexual violence in Black communities, and his support of a young adult, Black feminist lesbian filmmaker’s vision. It was a gift that he gave all of us with the unspoken knowledge that he wouldn’t see the finished product. Every time, I read the poem or watch Essex perform it in NO!, the last stanza always sends chills throughout my body.

“But we so called men. 

we so called brothers 

wonder why it’s so hard 

to love our women 

when we’re about loving them 

the way america 

loves us.”

Bradley: Although groundbreaking for its depictions of Black gay men and to a lesser extent transgender and gender non-conforming queers, Black lesbians are absent from the film. One could argue that Black women as a whole—but Black queer women in particular—have been, ironically, silenced, even as much of the film’s use of intersectional analysis and multi-vocal aesthetic is indebted to the work of Black feminism greatly influenced by Black queer feminist epistemologies and philosophies of becoming. What do you think is the film’s relationship to Black queer feminist art and thought? What does the film represent or have to offer young Black women today?

Simmons: I’m okay with Black lesbians being absent from Tongues Untied. I’m always interested in both/and, not either/or. I believe Tongues Untied, especially in the late 1980s when Black gay men were dying from AIDS at astronomical rates, was an essential call to action and validation. I didn’t feel silenced when I first saw the film 29 years ago, and I don’t feel silenced in its 30th-anniversary year. I believe the film is a form of Black queer feminist art and thought. It creatively centers marginalized voices, perspectives, and experiences. I believe it is influenced by Black queer women writers whose work precede Tongues Untied, including but not limited to Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Cheryl Clarke, and Barbara Smith. I’ve taught the film several times. Upon reflection, I would say that the film resonated with most of the young Black queer and straight women students. The film is captivating and groundbreaking—then and now. It gives viewers opportunities to think about and interrogate Black masculinity that isn’t grounded in heterosexuality.  I believe this is a gift for young Black women (and also men), regardless of their sexual orientation. It creates opportunities for them even to interrogate Black womanhood that isn’t grounded in heterosexuality.

Bradley: Your film work has created a social activist network very much like Riggs’s mixed-media and intersectional filmic approach to art-activism, to engage with Black communities and society at-large about highly contested issues like race, gender, sexuality, heteropatriarchy, and HIV/AIDS. In many ways, Riggs’s approach to building transformative social/political networks has been a blueprint for current media, even as technologies have changed and evolved. I’m thinking of the evolution of video, which was the primary medium he utilized throughout much of his filmmaking. Do you believe that the internet and digital technologies have increased the amount of media activism by Blacks and other film and media makers from marginalized communities? Why or why not?

Simmons: Yes, the internet and other digital technologies have increased the amount of media activism by Blacks and others from marginalized communities. Media activism is exponentially less expensive and more accessible than it was during Riggs’s era of filmmaking. Contemporarily, thanks to almost instantaneous media activism, we’re more visually and aurally aware of so many injustices that are happening in Black and marginalized communities in the U.S., and also globally. People can use their smartphones and other mediums as instant recording devices and immediately upload them onto the internet. These are galvanizing tools.

In closing and tangentially related to your question about media activism, I am grateful for this forum in honor of the 30th anniversary of Tongues Untied by visionary Marlon Riggs. Too often, especially in our fast-paced digital age, we can easily forget the trailblazers. I believe this forum is virtual kinfolk and will be in conversation with The Feminist Wire’s global forum that I curated and co-edited, commemorating Audre Lorde’s 80th Birthday Anniversary in 2014, and the forum I co-curated and co-edited, with Heidi R. Lewis, in celebration of Toni Cade Bambara’s 75th Birthday Anniversary also in 2014.

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Keelyn Bradley

Keelyn Bradley is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy, Art and Critical Thought Division at The European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland. He is currently writing his dissertation, “Suffering Neoliberalism: Searching for the Meaning of ‘the right to equal protection’ in an Era of HIV/AIDS and Terrorism.” This study intends to research Frantz Fanon and Hannah Arendt’s theories of violence and embodiment, and their dual relation to Karl Jaspers’ existentialism while addressing the social and historical developments between the aesthetic dimensions of disease, disability, race, and heteronormativity. His first collection of poetry, 'hunger,' is forthcoming. Follow him on Twitter @koal2k.

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