Issue: Art You Engaged

A Future Anthropology by Autumn Brown

Art You Engaged. / Are you engaged? is an emergency issue of The James Franco Review. Writers, editors, and artists around the country explored what it means for them to be politically or consciously engaged in their work and to also examine literature’s relationship to safety. 

A Future Anthropology

“My responsibility as a poet, as an artist, is to not look away. ” Nikki Finney

 I was a writer, but not a fiction writer. The story found me anyway. In 2010, I had just moved with my partner, my two year old, and my two month old infant to rural Minnesota from Brooklyn, NY. It was an intentional move and a welcome change, but nonetheless destabilizing as moving always is. Here I was, unmoored from my east coast community of radical artists and activists, living in my own private wild. Maybe my mind was looking for a way to process the change. Regardless the story hit me like a careening automobile, dragging me by the undercarriage until I cried mercy and started writing.

I had a beginning and an ending, a character about to be permanently separated from her infant son, and from the underground community where she had lived all of her life, for a shocking and mysterious crime. She was about to discover (as was I), the nature of the world on the surface of the planet, a place no one among her people in a thousand years had seen and lived to tell the tale.

The first chapter of the work-in-progress was recently published in Octavia’s Brood: Science Fictions Stories from Social Justice Movements. After reading my story, people often ask me if I see the nature of my characters’ problems as deeply related to our own in the here and now. The answer is a resounding yes. And in fact I see my story, like so much of visionary fiction, as a future anthropology. I am concerned about what happens if we continue on this path – economically, environmentally, politically – but I am also concerned about how our future selves will understand what has happened. We will be ancestors someday, and some of us are becoming ancestors at a faster rate than others. How our children’s children’s children view their history has to do with what information they will have access to, and who controls that information, just as today we are seeing a revolution in response to the issue of police violence and structural racism because of an extraordinary shift in who has the power to document and tell these stories. I wanted to think about how a community, mired by circumstances created by their ancestors, understood their ancestors. Do they understand us as a reflection of them? Do they distance themselves from the past or try to draw it closer?

We have so much judgment of our ancestors, especially those of us who benefit from the fights they fought, and lost, and won. We tend to think we would have made different choices, stood by for less oppression, or sacrificed more, or created a different world sooner had it been our time to do so. But if I have learned anything – as a parent, an artist, a worker, a “change agent” – it is that we are rarely making choices freely. We may believe we are making a choice from unlimited options, but in reality we are making choices based on severely limited options available to us based on our class, our upbringing, and our community of support. We are, if we’re lucky, doing the best we can. That’s all we are.

Right now there is a fascinating (in a voyeuristic, driving slowly past an accident sort of way) debate among armchair activists about the tactics of the black lives matter movement. It has always been thus: those who experience the safety of relative privilege pass judgement on the “choices” of those who are living in warzones. For those whose America is a meritocracy, whose parents worked hard and sacrificed so that their children might have a college education and a job at Google, whose primary complaint in life is the omnipresence of technology and social media, and whose $60-90,000 annual salaries feel like a form of poverty, the motivation for confrontation with the police is mysterious at best. They think that the right to be treated like a human being can be fought for, and won, in court. I sympathize with these people in the same way that I sympathize with the protagonist of my novel. She, too, has been cut off from her true history. She, too, has no idea what is happening on the surface.

Conversely, the people in our country who are being born, living, and dying in war zones – mothers whose 12 year old sons and 7 year old daughters can be shot dead by police with impunity – these people are making choices from an even more limited set of options: freeze, fight, flee, appease. At some point, when appeasing and fleeing and freezing have the same results, fighting is the only option.

And so, a future anthropology must assume this, at least, continues to be true across space and time. The feeling of limitlessness within very real and often tragic limits, for those who are never tested against the limits. The feeling of only walls, for those who never knew a life without them, and the boundless imagination required to first survive, and then to fight, and then to win. So then, where does this leave my protagonist, who must break with tradition, test her body and her assumptions if she will survive? What will be her choice, and what are her options? Perhaps, without access to history’s limiting beliefs, she cannot go wrong. My question for her is the same question for myself: in absence of history, what guides us? Without history, what breaks us?

Autumn Brown

Autumn Brown is a mother, community organizer, theologian, artist, and facilitator. She is the Interim Executive Director of RECLAIM! and serves on the board of directors of the Common Fire Foundation. She has facilitated organizational and strategic development with community-based and movement organizations and trained hundreds of community organizers in consensus process, facilitation, and resisting racism. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she has also completed specialized study in theology at Oxford University and the General Theological Seminary of New York. She is a recipient of the 2009 New Leaders Fellowship through the Center for Whole Communities and the 2010 Creative Community Leadership Institute Fellowship through Intermedia Arts. She currently lives in Avon, Minnesota, with her partner, children, dog, and wildlife. Visit her website