The co-founder of Black Lives Matter sits down with the 'Billions' actor to discuss the responsibilities of artistry and the present-day struggle over language.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors wants you to know one thing: black lives matter. The artist and organizer whose hashtag resonated across the globe in 2013, following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the murder of Trayvon Martin, has been fighting against systemic oppression and racism since she was a teenager. Originally from Los Angeles, Khan-Cullors grew up in extreme poverty and bore witness to her brother’s subjection to police brutality and repeated incarcerations, scenes that continue to inform and ignite her practice.
Her list of achievements only continues to grow—an NAACP History Maker award, the Justice Award from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, named Civil Rights Leader for the 21st Century by the Los Angeles Times, to name a few—but perhaps her biggest achievement to date was the release of her memoir in early 2018. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir exemplifies just how personal the professional is for Khan-Cullors, and it’s poised to amplify one of the most important messages of our time.
A native of Ithaca, New York, the actor, writer, and director Asia Kate Dillon has set themselves upon the task of changing stale contemporary gender conventions. Their recent portrayal of Taylor on the Showtime series Billions—the first nonbinary role on an American television series—has helped educate millions of viewers in acknowledging and understanding nonbinary gender identity and, at the very least, the importance of personal pronouns. The show is currently in its third season, keeping Dillon busy with its shooting schedule in New York City. The youngest student ever admitted to the Meisner training program at the Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca, their career as an actor began on the stage, having featured in The Mysteries at New York City’s Flea Theater and in The Tempest at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. In addition to their pursuits as a performer, Dillon cofounded Mirror/Fire productions as a vehicle for live performance that supports the historically marginalized and historically disenfranchised, through which they curated and directed US. Using original and sourced text, and incorporating audio and video footage, US centers on the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s message, a cause that Dillon is a vocal ally of.
On a particularly sunny morning in New York City, Khan-Cullors and Dillon came together with Document’s Megan Wray Schertler to discuss, well, lots of things. But, most importantly, to hear each other’s experiences.
Megan Wray Schertler—I know you’re both incredibly busy—Patrisse, with your new book steadily climbing The New York Times bestseller list, and Asia, with filming having started on the next season of Billions—so I can’t thank you enough for spending this Sunday morning with me. I’d love to start by discussing your identity as artistic practitioners. What was the first moment that you recognized you were creative?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors—The first time I realized I was creative, I’m not sure I called myself an artist necessarily, but it was definitely as a child. Putting my mom’s sheet around my head, making a wig, and spending lots of time creating scenes. My sister and I would create runways, trying on all the clothes in our closet. Performance was always a big thing for me, even as a young girl.
Asia Kate Dillon—My earliest memories of art affecting me was when I was very young, around age two. I remember being affected by River Phoenix’s performance in the film Stand by Me. And Michael Jackson! I remember watching him perform at the 1998 Grammy Awards when he did The Way You Make Me Feel and Man in the Mirror. Man in the Mirror is one of the, if not the, greatest songs. I was so young, but I remember understanding that art could open up your heart and create a space for empathy. I didn’t have the language to describe it at that age, certainly, but I always felt like that was what I was here to do; being an artist, a storyteller, actor, and performer.
“I try not to be so aware of my audience because then I’m just creating for somebody else and not for myself. My art has so much to do with my own personal experience.”
Megan—In different ways, the way you both articulate that first understanding relates to wanting a connection and the importance of building a relationship with an audience. Where does that connection begin? Do artists have a responsibility to understand the emotional language of their audience?
Patrisse—This is an important question, and it’s age old. What comes first: your creative process or your responsibility to how it impacts others? I think a lot about Kara Walker’s work. I’m one of the people who thinks it’s important that a black person can decide how they put out their work. Even if the material is really difficult, and it’s about slavery and the terrible shit that went down during it. We get to decide how we put that out. I think every situation is about having a dialogue around why we’re doing it and where it’s coming from. As an artist, I try not to be so aware of my audience because then I’m just creating for somebody else and not for myself. My art has so much to do with my own personal experience. Once it’s out and I’m developing it, then I’m like, ‘Okay, what’s the impact? What do I need to be aware of?’
Asia—As an artist you have to be willing to have the conversation around your work because that’s what art is. It’s the beginning of a conversation. You can do what you want, but you have to be willing to take responsibility for it and talk about it.
Patrisse—That’s a good point.
Asia—The question is: What is an artist’s responsibility? I always come back to something that Nina Simone said, that an artist’s duty is to reflect the times. I think art is one of the greatest ways for people to find compassion within themselves, for not only themselves but for humanity. Art, particularly film and television, has the ability to reach places where there aren’t people of color, or there aren’t any queer people, or if there are then they’re not coming out because it’s not safe. It is a tool to be used with great care and responsibility. That doesn’t mean that art can’t be entertaining. But it needs to be entertaining in a way that is also uplifting and supportive of historically marginalized and disenfranchised people. I do think deeply about the way my work is going to be received.
Megan—Now that there is the opportunity to be so present and so vocal on social media, does that present any challenges to your work? Anyone can say anything in response to you on social media. Negative voices can be amplified. How has that impacted you emotionally?
Patrisse—Oh, yes definitely. It’s an interesting moment to gain visibility. I’ve been an activist half my life, since I was 16. I’m 34 now. Black Lives Matter was just one iteration of my organizing and activism, but it’s the thing that became global, which I’m honored and privileged to have helped usher in. With that type of visibility comes a lot of backlash. I had no idea. I had heard about racists going after people at a Black Panther party during the Civil Rights Movement, but you don’t think that it’s going to happen to you, at least I didn’t. Once it did, and I started receiving death threats and the trolling, there’s not much you can do to prepare yourself for those moments. Just be in it and grow tougher skin. These last eight months I’ve thought, ‘This is my new life, this is my new normal.’ I’m probably on some lists and I will get death threats and trolling for we’ll see how long. Every public event I go to, I am always thinking, ‘Is this going to be safe, will I be in danger?’ So many of us black folks say, ‘We might die at the hand of the police.’ Maternal mortality rates for black women are the highest. I might die giving birth. I can’t think about it too much. Otherwise, I’d stay inside my house all the damn time. [Laughs] I said this when Eric Garner passed away, I don’t believe in murders. I don’t think we should be martyrs for this movement. What I do believe in is a deep and profound love for black people and our freedom, and knowing that when we get free everyone else gets free. Yes, the emotional impact is real. I’m a deep believer in therapy. Go see a therapist! My therapist is on speed dial. It’s a very scary time to be alive—whether you’re in this movement or not, to be honest with you. If you’re any marginalized person under this administration, they’re going after you. There’s something that happens when you know that your time is up. It makes you work harder and fight harder.
Asia—To be frank, my answer is going to so clearly illustrate the huge difference between what happens to people of color. I mean, the amount of support and love that I get is extraordinary—it is 95 percent of what I get. The hate and vitriol is 5 percent, and it’s not death threats. It’s bullies on the playground. It slides right off my back. I was bullied when I was younger, so I’ve grown up having to have a thick skin. For example, today I needed help with figuring out which train I was going to take to get here, and so I went up to a police officer to ask for directions. I’m inherently afraid of the police, because this is also the work that I do, but I walked right up to the police asking for help, knowing as I’m doing this that if I were a person of color I definitely would not do this. Because I could end up dead. As a trans person, I am also a marginalized person, but I still personally benefit from the invention of whiteness everywhere that I go. All the more reason for me to help other people understand that whiteness is an invention. Because I am not dealing with the trauma of fearing for my life every time I step outside of my house, in the same way you just described.
Megan—How has your training as a performer helped you in using your physicality as an activist? In what ways do you think having a creative or artistic disposition has helped you deal with those situations?
Patrisse—My work is very experimental and improvisational. For me, Black Lives Matter is one big creative experiment. Creativity is the through line in all my work, it just is. I don’t know how not to do that. I would be a very bored person if I was solely doing policy or legislative work. I’m very inspired by folks like Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, and James Baldwin. There’s a huge legacy in the Black Arts Movement. You can’t have blackness without creativity. To survive this place for 500 years, that’s the embodiment of creativity! [Laughs] It has also personally helped me to survive. It helped me see the possibility of something else. My mom used to put us to bed early because she worked. Our bedtime was 7.30pm because she wanted some semblance of control in our house, but I would not fall asleep at 7.30. It took me hours to fall asleep because I would just lay in my bed and imagine what our world could look like, my family’s world. What else we could be doing. It was a really important coping mechanism for me.
“To me, Black Lives Matter is a call to action and a call to conversation. If you take into consideration the most marginalized groups and the problems that are affecting them, those are really the problems that affect everybody.”
Asia—I would echo that. From a very young age, it was very much a coping mechanism for me. I think that we are all creative and I feel incredibly lucky to have grown up with a mother who is an artist and a writer. Everything she does is art, from the way the dinner plate is arranged when it arrives at the table to the way things are arranged, so I feel very lucky to have grown up in an environment where being an artist is just as important as being a doctor or a lawyer. In fact we need artists. Societies wither and die without the arts. So it always felt like a very noble practice and calling. I think everyone is creative. There are a lot of people who feel separated from their creative nature. I think that’s one of the ways culture and society separates us from our compassion for ourselves and our ability to connect with others. Whether it’s through a performance or just through a conversation like this one, it’s always about connecting. I’m predominantly interested now in performance as a dialogue. Let’s just have a moment where we all talk about the thing that happened. Like you said, the creative experiment. I love the idea of that.
Megan—In what way does language feed into that idea of creativity?
Patrisse—It’s such a wild moment with language. I think it’s why Black Lives Matter resonated with people, and not just black people but also with our allies. It just spread across the globe like wildfire because finally there was an articulation of, “We are humans, we have dignity, and we deserve it.” It was so simple. It’s even different than the phrase we had thirty years ago. Then it was Black Power, right? Yes, now we’re talking about Black Power, and I love Black Power, but we’re talking about something even simpler. We’re talking about the fact that we belong here. We are supposed to exist here. Our existence matters. I think we need to fight for language. We need to be able to decipher and we need to not get caught up in the frustration. That said, if your literal existence is to obliterate mine, then why are we giving you that space? We should feel it’s okay to say, ‘No, I don’t want this person on my television show. I don’t think this person should have airtime.’ We’ve allowed for the Right, I’m not even going to say conservative, to take over our language, to co-opt it. I think that’s a very dangerous place to be. I think it’s really good to have conviction about what you believe in, and to be open to being educated. But also to say, ‘No, that shit’s not right!’ And to hold the line around it.
Asia—Ultimately, you get to decide who you want to work with, who you want to spend your time with, and what kind of message you put out in the world. And why you’re here, frankly. What are we all doing here? I believe we are here to take care of each other. To me, Black Lives Matter is a call to action and a call to conversation. If you take into consideration the most marginalized groups and the problems that are affecting them, those are really the problems that affect everybody.
Asia—As you said, language has become all the more sacred because the Right is trying to teach us that it doesn’t mean anything. Which is just another way of trying to disempower us. I think labels can be really harmful and damaging, but when we have the autonomy to label ourselves it can be really freeing. I think that giving people the opportunity to engage with their own intelligence is part of an artist’s responsibility. It’s an invitation to say, ‘I believe in your ability to see what I see, and it’s my job to give you an opportunity.’ Because if I never give you the opportunity then I can’t actually judge you for being willfully ignorant. There’s a big difference between ignorance and willful ignorance.