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Printing truth to power

February 20, 2024 Fall 2023

This post is a bit of a stream of writing//stream of thoughts…because that’s what feels possible in this moment.

I want to answer this question from our class:

How do we use our own cultural and community containers to make zines?

This is a collage. On the left side, an image of a newspaper ad by Madame Stephanie St. Clair. On the right side, an image of Claudia Jones holding a newspaper in her hand. The two images are a bright pink color and are connected by the words “Printing truth to power” as well as a hand and curved line with flowers. These images are on a soft pink background.

And when I look at this question again, weeks later, there’s another question that comes up for me.

What is a history of zine or print  making that starts from our own cultural and community containers? What if those containers are the beginning of a history?  And how do we fit community and personal histories into a timeline of zine making? How do we use materials to activate our own sense of belonging or communal connection?

And when I say “zine or print making” I’m defining this as materials—whether newsletters, pamphlets, mini magazines, newspapers— created within and alongside the communities they are intended to be about and for.  I’m talking about speaking truth to power and naming what is what and activating community.

From September to November, I had the honor of witnessing students come to their own zine making realizations and discoveries— activating belonging and connection.

Mamou making a zine during class, they’re using scissors. The zine is brown with a cutout of a black sea shape pasted over the bottom half and a yellow cutup figure of a person over one of the waves. Photo by Minu Han

Through learning about the early histories of zines and printed materials—whether about Ida B. Wells to the Harlem Renaissance to Margaret T.G. Burroughs to Notting Hill Press to Third World Women’s Alliance to Ramdasha Bikceem and beyond—each student uncovered how to weave, remix, and collage words.

In their final projects—from meditations and writings on rage, solidarity, food, love, Black love,  interconnection of our freedoms, housing, to searching for grounding amidst separation from origins, or  reflections  mathematics used to build violence—students engaged with collapsing and expanding, interrogating history. They, each in their own way, weaved, remixed, and collaged through print, tapping in to the earlier question — how do we use materials to activate our own sense of belonging or communal connection?

Zine by Ender Minyard called Infinite Growth: group healing practices for organizers. It has a quote by bell hooks: “Rarely, if ever, are any of us ever healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion”

After the class I reflected more on my own cultural containers — Black woman, queer, Caribbean. And my first introductions to zine making — well before this class or 7 years ago — that I didn’t realize were zine making.

I want to write about/rant about/speak about Black and Caribbean Diasporic people and printed material for a little bit. And I’ll bring us back to some questions at the end. I want to talk about all the ways that Black and Caribbean Diasporic people have been doing this/engaging with a practice of self-publishing/zine making that wasn’t named as such and in that the power in activating belonging and communal connection. In this moment, I think we owe ourselves that.

This is a collage. On the left side of the image, there’s a cut out of a student’s arms and some paper that they’re using. They are making a zine. On the right side of the image, there’s another cut out. It’s of a zine by student Danialie Fertile. These images are on a white background.

I think my first glimpse of this zine/other print making was as a child in the late 90s and early 2000s in Harlem. Booksellers across 125th street - when the MART was open. Tables were covered with pamphlets, booklets, and books about identity and histories of Black people globally. Or self published materials about the power of Black women. Or maybe my first glimpse of the role of printed material working in community was seeing relatives pick up copies of Watch ‘em Jump from a newsstand, hair salons, or a bodega — with the pink papers tucked away in a ruffled ziploc bag in a purse. Or watching my grandmother, with her burgundy red nail polish, turn the pages of her Daily Word book for the daily prayer/affirmation. Perhaps these are all ways of activating communal belonging.

Or when I return to the history of Madame Stephanie St. Clair, number running queen in Harlem (by way of Guadeloupe, Martinique or born to French Caribbean parents in France). What is it to speak truth to power, in the face of the violence - whether capitalism or white supremacy? St. Clair used newspaper ads to inform Black residents in New York of their legal rights - like refusing police searches without a warrant. And she also put ads in the papers, naming men or police officers, or both — “enemies”—and affirmed “I have no fear of anybody.” So with these newspaper ads—this use of printmaking—intertwined with the economies of the numbers system in Harlem, to expand on what LaShawn Harris writes in “Playing the Numbers: Madame Stephanie St. Clair and African American Policy Culture in Harlem,” St. Clair continued to nourish a space to address “race politics…a creative response and form of resistance against poverty, unemployment,” and other forms of structural violence intended to remove sovereignty from Black people and Black communities. How can we activate truth through printmaking? How is this being done now?

Photo of participants working on their zines around a table. There’s colored paper paper and materials on top of the table.

Or more recently, I was sitting with some words from Claudia Jones - Trinidad and Tobago born activist, journalist, and community organizer. Through her founding of the West Indian Gazette and the Notting Hill Carnival, her own cultural containers, she used printed media and the activation of public space to interrogate anti-black systems of structural violence while offering portals of recovery and refuge for Black and Caribbean people in England.

This is a collage. On the left side of the images, there’s a cut out of an arm with a line reaching towards another cut out. The other cut out is an image of a zine by student Maya Wagoner. These images are on a white background

Here are a few last questions:

So what are the lessons that we can retrieve from the spaces held and nurtured by St. Clair and Jones, the booksellers or 125, students remixing, investigating, and activating? What are your rituals of engaging with print to remain connected to yourself, to yourself, or to your power? How can we open up and interrogate how we understand and think about zine-making, about printed media? How can the materials that we print reach the people they are about and not only sit in a glass case?

How can you practice interrogating zine making?

How can you use zine making to activate individual and collective histories outside of the confines of the art book fair. What does it take to really activate community and histories and speak truth to power in your print practices?

May we see power in the memories of those who came before us and speak truth with and in our own power.

Photo of zines stacked on top of each other. By Minu Han