Introduction by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
Interview by Ayana Young
photographs by li Hui
For The Wild founder Ayana Young speaks with the poet, teacher, and public intellectual about the generative powers of stillness and fugitivity.
To slow down in times of crisis—times that in so many ways require action on all fronts—can seem counterintuitive. We are constantly met with pressures to achieve more, act faster and be better.
Dr. Bayo Akomolafe disagrees. Urgent times, he urges, call for quiet; for rest and respite. Instead of ramping up, we must surrender, and wait to witness the transformative potential of stillness. Dr. Akomolafe is a writer, poet, teacher, and public intellectual, whose groundbreaking philosophies draw on his roots with the Yoruba people to look beyond perceived certainties and obfuscate binary thinking. The first step toward emancipatory wholeness is finding comfort in the unknowable, and embracing bewilderment and wonder.
“In pursuing justice, we’re reinforcing the system we’re trying to escape. In trying to climb out of the pits that we’ve dug for ourselves, the pits become resilient. In trying to escape the prison, the prison gains its form. So, in a very critical sense, we are in a crisis of form,” said Dr. Akomolafe. “We need trickster approaches, we need ways of dancing away, or dancing to, fugitive spaces; dancing to sanctuaries where we can shape-shift. Grieving, mourning, even allowing ourselves to partake in pleasurable activities in the face of the storm.”
Below, Dr. Akomolafe is in conversation with For The Wild Founder and Executive Director Ayana Young about reimagining justice, reclaiming activism, and the generative powers of stillness and fugitivity.
For The Wild has partnered with Bayo Akomolafe and co-conspirators to bring forth the course—SLOW STUDY: We Will Dance With Mountains: Into the Cracks! It’s a downloadable learning journey of inquiry and prompting to explore from home at your own pace.
To begin, I’d like to offer you the opportunity to honor the people or places that you wish to carry into this conversation. I wonder how the religious lineages of your childhood—or cultural traditions of your family—have served as important touchstones, or change agents along the path that has brought you here today?
Dr. Bayo Akomolafe
To acknowledge my presence and my grounds, I’m sitting here in Chennai, India, where we spend six months in a year. The other half we spend in the United States. I’m here because my wife Ijeoma and our kids Alethea and Kyah made it possible—their yes is my liberation, my emancipation.
To go back further, I was born in Lagos, probably the most populous city in Nigeria. I grew up in a very Christianized world, a world of binaries, a world with few gray areas, one that was split into Black territories and white territories. In that world I learned to see the universe as this contract between good and evil. But, growing up a Christian, I met many crossroads, many places where I was challenged to rethink my faith, and many places where I fell, but worked hard to get up again. But, one solemn day, I fell and I couldn’t get up again. I now think of that as the gift of the planet and the gift of my ancestors. I started to see through the colonial imperial interruptions of my received faith. Today, I am on a decolonial journey, a decolonial path that is bringing me to deeper crossroads, bringing me to deeper, new materialist, feminist, Yoruba mythologies about the planet, and about the times we’re in.
Much of your writing circles around the many existential urgencies and processes of change that are rising up in this moment of planetary transformation. In your essay, “What Climate Collapse Asks of Us,” you speak of a number of historical and contemporary articulations of climate change—from the early terminology of global warming, to the tragedy of the commons, to the Green New Deal. Despite the abundance of new models and vocabularies to deal with the climate collapse, however, you note that, “The current frameworks stretch and yawn, gasp, pant, choke, and ache to name and localize phenomena that resist our taming.”
I wonder if you could help orient us within this all-too-small container we’ve imagined will hold the overflowing complexity of this time? And could you lead us into some of the philosophical inquiries that you’re exploring at the heart of our unwieldy ecological crisis? What does it mean for climate change to be unthinkable or incalculable?
So one of the most persistent and sticky habits of perception that has possessed those of us gestated in modern civilizations is: we tend to see things as separate from each other; we see things as bounded and atomized. I see the strategy of separation as an attempt to create safety, permanence, fixity, for once and for all, to name things in a final way. That’s the modern impulse. But you run into trouble when things like what’s happening today start to crop up. We are slowly coming to terms with a world that is more entangling, more relational, and more processual than our modern habits of seeing can allow us to notice or appreciate. We are not so different from our technologies as modernity would have us believe we are. In shaping computers, we are shaped by computers. In participating in networks, we are conducting and performing emotional labor and shaping ourselves.
What does this mean for climate change? It means that we think, act, behave, see, want, yearn, practice, perform, and do things with the world and with others. The presumption that we act as individuals is already being haunted by the idea of an entangled world. When you, Ayana, think about building a house, that is ancestral: it is something ecological, it is the lives, and breaths, and hopes of the manifold that are mostly invisible. We are always intergenerational. That also means our failures are shared by communities that are not always noticeable or perceptible. So, this idea that we are in community also has its risks.
My work in thinking about climate change through the prism of Indigenous realities, poetry, and entanglement, is basically to note that we need to find the places of power with which we might respond to something that is beyond us. We are responding in the machine, and the machine is tired and exhausted.
“Are there other ways we can be generative and productive without taking on the singular definitions of a Capitalist, neoliberal structure?”
In contrast with this culture of frenetic production, you’ve invited us to consider a slowness and practice deep listening. This idea of, “Coming to a place of an elderly silence so compelling that one yields old oneself to its operations, longing to be defeated. A place of creative surrender—the end of thought.” I’d love it if you could share a bit more on the teachings of slowness, defeat, surrender, and what is activated when we are finally still?
Slowing down has been interpreted by many communities as doing what we’re doing but at a slower speed—that is, literally slowing down the pace of who we are. I had a German brother write to me and say that “Slowing down in vocation isn’t working because my bosses are still on my neck.” I responded by saying, “Slowing down is not a function of speed. It is a function of awareness, and I don’t want to make awareness a mental construct. It’s a function of presence.” So, when I invite slowing down, I invite us to research and to perform research into the ancestral tentacularities that precede us. I’m asking us to touch our bodies, and touch our colonial bubbles. I’m asking us to listen, to witness, to ‘with-ness’; to be with land, and community, and ancestor, and progeny, and children in a way that isn’t instrumental. Activism is increasingly instrumental, meaning it’s a form of power that is tied to the logic and algorithm of the status quo. This makes activism, even in the search for justice, a creature of the status quo, which renders hope and justice, as ironic as that sounds, a creature of the things we’re trying to leave behind. To slow down is to hack the machine, like we’re taking on other forms of body that allow us to penetrate into different kinds of realities—other worlds.
I’ve been meditating on the real challenge—and the friction—of slowing down. Tricia Hersey of the Nap Ministry describes rest as a radical threat to the system that feeds on the grind of urgency, writing: “We are living and participating in violence via a machine level pace of functioning. Anyone who goes against this pace is living as an outlier and a risk-taker. It is warrior-style resistance to push back and disrupt this reality.” In the context of the so-called modern capitalist life, I find that rest can only be non-threatening insofar as it’s carved out of the shadow of work. How can we reorder this kind of dualistic thinking around work vs. rest, progress vs. stagnation, and embody the power of a slow, humble pace?
I will take that word, rest, and stretch it further. How about we take that word, rest, and think of marronage? Marronage is the process of extricating oneself from slavery. Rest as fugitivity, it moves us away from sites of productivity. Are there other ways we can be generative and productive without taking on the singular definitions of a Capitalist, neoliberal structure? Are there other ways that we can define the stentorian voice of progress? If we’re not progressing, if we’re not producing, then there’s something wrong with us as a community, as individuals. What if rest is, as I’ve said before, listening to one’s Elders? What if rest is dreaming? What if working is playing? The university structure is one example of a colonial imposition that sees study and learning as only one thing; university tells you that if you’re not studying in some disciplinary manner, then you’re not studying. But what if having a conversation with a friend is a form of study?
Rest is decolonial in its relational entanglements with a capitalist structure. Like you said, I don’t want to see it as a binary thing: rest vs. non-rest. I want to move outside that binary altogether, and create fugitive communities where rest takes on new meanings altogether. I don’t know what that is—only in the performance of it can we speak about it, and that’s just fine.
I’m also thinking about quietness as an elemental ingredient of relationships, and an enactment of reciprocity. How is cultivating a humble quietness imperative to creating alliances and collaborations with our beyond human relatives, and for our collective Earthly survival? I want to make a personal note on this: since I’ve been living out in the forest, I have realized that it isn’t until I get quiet, that I’m able to listen and connect with the more-than-human world. I realize that if I’m too busy or too crowded with the distractions of modernity, then then voices from the more-than-human world won’t enter me. I can’t hear them. My relationship with the forest, and with the more-than-human world, has come from me quieting down, and offering a lot of patience and trust in this connection that comes when I’m able to leave modernity at the door and walk away from it for a while.
I’m happy for you, sister—not many people have the privilege or the opportunity to go to the forest, build a cabin, and to live. It’s entirely unimaginable to do that in a place like Chennai, for instance, where there’s hardly any green life—it’s almost entirely asphalt, steel, buildings, and parking lots. I envy you and, at the same time, your question inspires me to think about quietude not as an event or space, but as an internal moment in one’s mind.
I want to think of quietude as an assemblage of bodies and, if I were to do that, I’ll notice that it can happen here. This space of slowing down, this place of achieving rest, this place of critiquing or diffracting modernity [can happen] right in the city; enchantment is never in short supply. Most of us are caught in the habit of thinking of escape as a way towards the sacred. If only we could leave the mundane behind, then we would find the sacred. But I think the sacred is more pervasive, more fugitive, than just something that is exterior to the conditions we want to leave behind. The Great Dismal Swamp is one example: in the 17th century towards the beginning of slavery, it was this fugitive space between Virginia and North Carolina where African-Americans built new, fugitive communities in the swamps in the heart of the slavery enterprise. Quietude, rest, fugitivity are spaces of reckoning with the banal; spaces of teasing out the sacred from the mundane; spaces of noticing that being at one’s computer can be a time of quietude, a time of ancestral connections. Our imagination of what the sacred looks like often gets in the way of our transformation. But we can be enlisted to slow down in ways that are surprising and unexpected. It’s not our work to do that, it’s not even our work to come up with a final answer to do that. It’s our work to know how to be ready when it calls us.
In preparation for this interview, I was listening to a lecture you gave last year in Victoria, British Columbia. I was really profoundly affected by the response you shared with an audience member to their question about allyship. You said: “Even our failure matters. A failed star shines brighter than a coherent one because a failed star has burst its guts into the universe, and become stardust—come into our skin, and made us human. It doesn’t end with you, it doesn’t end with me.” What are we hospicing out of our movement cultures when we hold space for failure beyond the paradigm of good allyship? How does accountability and agency take shape in the shared process you call “making sanctuary”?
It’s always a good moment to be thankful to the allyship of our white brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers. It’s from reading, struggling, and wrestling that it is possible to notice that everything in the world—not just white allyship—is three-dimensional, and therefore also fraught with tensions. In response to what you notice about white allyship: it’s a struggle and a yearning to be present for suffering, to stay with suffering, to notice the ways that some bodies are privileged in a power structure to the detriment of other bodies. I’ve been so blessed in my work: the people that come out to hear me speak and put me in the homes when I travel show a form of allyship, which we rarely talk about.
At the same time, sister, in centralizing the body and the experiences of Black women, white allyship ironically creates a savior narrative for white people and for whiteness. As a Yoruba person, and as someone dwelling without cosmologies, identity is not a stable thing for me, so I hesitate to label people white or Black. I’m not colorblind, either. But yes, white allyship is still tethered to that same place of power that makes possible the savior narrative, which is problematic. It incarcerates Black bodies into positions of eternal victimhood. As this is your identity, we’re going to predispose you to behaving in this way, you’re going to antagonize, you’re going to be angry all the time, you’re going to demand your own say, you’re going to seek a seat at the table—this is how you should be as a Black body.
Leftist politics has embraced this stratagem, this way of seeking and asking for space. But a space in the pyramid or space in a prison cell isn’t exactly an abundant space. It’s still incarceration. It’s still a loveless economy of bodies. It’s still a loveless structure. We don’t know what a wiser economy or wiser politics might look like, but maybe we can gesture towards it. This is why I speak about failure: white allyship comes with a righteousness model on morality, an ethical code, that is just as binding and incarcerating as the politics it wants to liberate Black bodies. It states that if you’re not a good white ally, then there’s something wrong with you. To be a good white ally, you need to do your work—and all of that is important. At the same time, you’re trapped in an ethical code that doesn’t allow you to spill; it doesn’t allow your body to move; it doesn’t allow us to notice the intergenerational dance of bodies that we sometimes glibly call failure or success.
I wonder if there aren’t other ethical spaces where we can spill into each other without constituting a spiritual bypass; that doesn’t dismiss identity politics as the rantings of the left, and also doesn’t dismiss the concerns of conservatism as those MAGA hat-wearing Trumptards as the Twitterati would call them. So yes, my sister, I’ve been learning about failure from the likes of Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, a book that shook me and exploded my world. I learned how even a failed star shines brighter than a coherent one, and when I learned about Indian mythology I came across Akhilandeshvari, the Goddess who is never not broken. This idea of brokenness is missing in our conversations because we’re looking for wholeness, righteousness—we want to get it right, and we want to stick by the script. In doing so we’re becoming brittle bodies: you can’t even have a conversation about mistakes anymore as a result of the operations performed on us by social networks. I’m leaning into failure, I’m wondering about the promises of monsters, I’m wondering about how brokenness can redeem us from the incarceration of wholeness, I’m wondering about other spaces of power that can help us perform spillages, a runaway of fugitives from ethical codes of righteousness.
“I’m wondering about how brokenness can redeem us from the incarceration of wholeness, I’m wondering about other spaces of power that can help us perform spillages.”
There’s no way for us not to make mistakes, there’s no way for us to not fail, the pressure of being a “perfect human” feels fake. It completely severs our ability to connect with each other when we’re put on these pedestals of moral perfection. It also makes us feel separate because of the pressure that we put on ourselves and others to not fail. It is a type of prison that doesn’t allow for growth. What social media has done to us, especially with call-out culture, is insanity. I have so many people coming to me too afraid to be involved because they’re afraid they’re going to make a mistake and then be ousted from the community forever. But our movement is already so small, we can’t afford to lose people who are willing to give their hearts, souls, bodies, resources—whatever it is that they’re offering. We don’t have the luxury of sending people away.
There is a theme that comes up again and again in your work that moves me: “Treat our children as Elders.” You’ve also said: “Children now come out of the Earth, dragging the textures of wisdoms gone before, and bringing it up with them. They’re not tabula rasa, they’re not empty slates, they’re alive in the wisdom of ancestors that are still folded in the thick present. Pay homage to the multiple that is lingering within them.” Speaking from your experience as a father and a teacher, how can we follow young people as ethnographic guides into the divine realm of imagination? And what is important about this space of wonder, bewilderment, and vital curiosity?
That’s a beautiful question. I wish I could say, “good night,” to go and sit and dream with that question. Good questions transcend the answers we give them. They should be taken in their own right, and just received and embraced, so thank you for that question.
One very impoverished way I would respond to that beautiful invocation, sister, is I don’t know that our present educational systems at large are able to hold or appreciate children. Children are considered resources to be fashioned into proper citizenry, good citizens, and that is deeply problematic. In doing so, we’re creating the spares for the machine; a spare boat, a spare knot, a spare nail here and there. My wife and I, before we got married, decided that we’re going to experiment with this. I have to admit that we had romantic notions of what homeschooling is, and it didn’t quite pan out that way. Our kids, who are six and two, don’t go to school. Alethea has never been to school, she’s heard about school, she has ideas about school, some of them imprinted by our own conversations, but, by-and-large, she’s a being in her own self. The things she can do and say, the places she’s already probing, shocks even us, her parents. Maybe a general argument could be made that even schooled kids do that, but there’s a difference here with what’s happening with Alethea—I wonder if that isn’t a sacred dance with wonder.
There’s something deeply political about why we are doing this. It’s not divorced from climate change, or Trump, or Bolsonaro, or Modi here in India, or the rise of ethno-nationalist fascism. We’re trying to thwart the productivity of the status quo. We’re trying to relearn how to play. It’s not that we believe that this is a fix-all, that homeschooling is some kind of self-sufficient paradigm, and that if you keep your child away from school, that is tantamount to some kind of sacred activism. There is no single brushstroke here. But at the same time, there’s something really powerful about noticing children as beyond good-citizens-in-the-making. That plot twist allows us to say to our children that: “You don’t have to grow up to be an artist, you can do that right now, right here.” It allows my daughter to say, “What if 2 + 2 isn’t 4?” That kind of poetic liberty seems like what will happen in fugitive spaces. In many senses, we are fugitives, my wife and I, and in many other senses, all of us are fugitives because the Anthropocene is rendering us homeless. It’s removing the hieroglyphics on the wall that made home and stability possible. In response to it, we need to listen to our children and to perform research with our children as if they were philosophers of the wise already—not in the making. We need to listen to them as if they are entangled with the world; as if they can teach us something. I think that’s what the Anthropocene makes space for: our children to be powerful.
What you’re offering us isn’t a linear, outlined understanding of the world. It’s really interesting to be in this place where I’m trying to expand my capacity to understand things that I will never understand. It’s stretching me to sit in this place that is about taking what you’re saying in, but not trying to categorize it, but I think part of it is also about being comfortable with these types of questions and responses. That acceptance of not trying to figure it out is actually very healing from this Western prison of reductionist thinking. I feel moved, and I thought that I could finish by reading a short poem by Ursula K. Le Guin called The Marrow—
“There was a word inside a stone.
I tried to pry it clear,
mallet and chisel pick, and gad,
until the stone was dropping blood,
but I still could not hear
the word of the stone had said.
I threw it down beside the road
among a thousand stones,
and as I turned away it cried
the word aloud within my ear
and the marrow of my bones
heard, and replied.”
So, that’s a little something to leave us with.
On that final note: there is a biblical passage I’ve been returning to where the old is never not new—it keeps coming back. This story in the Christian is about a figure called Job, who is a good man, who has suffered and gained wealth, and one day his wealth is taken away from him by the devil. He loses his gold and his children in one day. It [grapples with] this deep philosophical conversation about the nature of suffering and pain because Job’s friends basically say, “Curse God! Curse God and Die!” And Job is angry, but he’s like, “I’m not going to do that, and yet I need answers to my question: Why would a good person suffer like this? Why would I keep all the commandments, and be a good white ally if you will, and still experience the world this way?” In the book, God appears to Job, and answers, “Have you seen a deer? Do you know the strengths and the glory of Leviathan? Do you know the beauty of a volcano eruption?” In a sense, God doesn’t answer the question. And I’ve always wondered about that passage: Why would you belittle the suffering of a person in deep pain?
But I notice a wisdom now, because my head is in a different place now, as is my heart. Sometimes the best answer to a pressing question is bewilderment. It’s not the correct answer. It’s the gift of straying away from the algorithms of easy arrival. My Elders always taught me that in some form, whether through television or through their greetings or through their ancestral wisdoms diffracting through Christian ethics and morality, the answers are not always going to be available. I know that you notice that, sister, and so I wanted to say thank you for holding the space for queer questions, and uneasy arrivals; for tending to the tense fields where new kinds of beings and becomings can thrive and grow. This work is really important, and I use my presence here to bless it, and bless you. Thank you.
Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in the For The Wild Podcast. It has been edited for purposes of length and clarity. Listen to the full conversation here.