The Sweetness of Our Badass Selves: Learning Abolition from Moka Dawkins
The time of abolition is both yet to come and it is already here.
(Eric A. Stanley, from his introduction to Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, p. 8)
I would sit in that tiny room behind the guard’s desk looking at the mural on the wall,
a few words scribbled hurriedly, “a new future is possible”.
The irony of these words painted on a wall of a high maximum-security jail slaps you in the face that same way the doors slam behind those who cannot leave.
Those whose future is suspended, waiting.
It wasn’t until I met Moka Dawkins that these words started to actually come to life, and in every hour we spent shooting the shit and cracking jokes, they became not just the future that could be possible, but a future which we were creating in that moment.
Over the time of knowing her, it was that joy which she embodied that showed me, that if we hold on to it, if we embody it, if we be it, the walls will slowly shatter here in the present.
I first met Moka during my time of working with The Forgiveness Project, an organization using arts within and outside of carceral institutions. As someone who has always been an abolitionist in some way or another, I was immediately drawn to her perseverance in standing up not just for herself, but for all others who are being harmed by the system. I knew then that one day we would have to do something together. It wasn’t until I joined in one of her singing lessons with Tara Muldoon, Founder of The Forgiveness Project, that the idea of having her come to York University to share her advocacy work was mutually dreamed up. I felt in my body that her voice needed to be heard throughout the virtual halls of York and that all of us, whether we identify as activists, scholars, or both, needed to learn, as Donahue (2011) describes, to effectively take “leadership from the people most affected by the PIC” (p. 268).
I could have never imagined such a beautiful container for her voice to be heard as was created by the classroom community members of the New Social Movements, Activism and Social Change class. Space which was held in deep tenderness and the honouring of our mutual responsibility, held jointly by the professor, Jin Haritaworn, and all of those who were on the planning student committee. Every part of the planning, from our WhatsApp conversations, emails and texts, to the final event itself, was rooted in what Adrienne Maree Brown, who was on our course syllabus alongside Moka Dawkins (2018) and Miss Major (Donahue 2011), calls ‘pleasure activism.’ A pleasure which allowed Moka, and all of us present, to show up as our full badass selves (as fellow classmate Jaye Garcia put it in our joint community agreements), and to sense in our bodies what abolition in action looks like and feels like. The creation of this space allowed for us to explore the power of joy and pleasure in imagining and creating a space of abolition (Brown 2019). As Eve Tuck (2009), another author on our reading list, asks: What happens when we build from desire?
I want to pose another question: what if we didn’t have to imagine?
What if the space we walked in daily smelled, felt, sounded, tasted, and vibrated of our full badass selves?
The “fuck the patriarchy” badass selves (and its centuries of harm on the bodies and minds, that made us believe in its greatest and most dangerous product, the separation of our beautiful selves into two categories of male and female).
The “demolish the prison industrial complex in our minds, bodies and communities” badass selves.
What if we used our radical imagination (Brown, 2019) to not only ask the question of what can a world built on abolition look like, but instead ask,
what does a world in which we are fully safe to be our full, whole, beautiful and badass selves, free of oppression, of white supremacy, of racial and colonial capitalism look like?
What if we realized that this revolution has already started and been led by queer and trans people of colour every day? What if we really listened when Miss Major said:
“I don’t need their permission to exist, I exist in spite of them” (Drucker, 2011)?
What if here in the now we built communities of care instead of cages? (Oparah, 2009)
What if we learned from people like Moka and placed queer trans Black women of colour front and center, knowing that justice for them is truly justice for all?
What if we rooted in love and loved ourselves and each other into being?
What if we moved from death to life?
What if we sat in joy so deep, so exquisite, so delicious that we felt it in every part of our badass selves, extending outward into our collective bodies, ultimately loving ourselves into liberation? (Brown, 2019)
What if we rooted in what Cara Page (2005) so tenderly called our kindred healing, and made this revolution into something that is utterly irresistible, in the words of Toni Cade Bambara (Brown, 2019), remembering all that we are, all that we desire, all that we imagine, all that we can be?
What if we truly practiced pleasure activism, as Adrienne Maree Brown (2019) defines it?
“Pleasure activism is the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions, and limitation of oppression and/or supremacy. It asserts that we all need and deserve pleasure and that our social structure must reflect this. In this moment, we must prioritize the pleasure of those most impacted by oppression.” (p. 13)
Words which were alive and present during the event with Moka, and which I believe are embodied by her through all she does.
Donahue, J. (2011), ‘Making it happen, mama: A conversation with Miss Major,’ in E. Stanley and N. Smith (eds.), Captive genders: Trans embodiment and the prison industrial complex, Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Stanley, E. A. (2011), ‘Fugitive flesh: Gender self-determination, queer abolition, and trans resistance,’ Captive genders: Trans embodiment and the prison industrial complex, Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Brown, A.M. (ed.) (2019), Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. Chico, CA: AK Press.
Dawkins, M. (2018), “I fight for me, I fight for us,” in Cell Count 87, PASAN. Available online: https://www.scribd.com/document/420954541/87-updated-and-final-pdf (Accessed 1 May 2021).
Drucker, Z. (2011), ‘Trans Icon Miss Major: “We’ve Got to Reclaim Who the Fuck We Are”,’ VICE (18 November). Available online: https://www.vice.com/en/article/j5z58d/miss-major-griffin-gracy-transgender-survival-guide (accessed on May 17, 2021).
Tuck, Eve (2009), “Suspending damage: A letter to communities,” Harvard Educational Review 79(3): 409-428.
Oparah, C. (fka Julia Sudbury) (2009), “Building a movement to abolish prisons: Lessons from the U.S.,” Journal of Prisoners on Prisons 18(1-2).
Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective (n.d). Home page. Available online: http://kindredsouthernhjcollective.org/ (accessed 23 August 2021).