I wanted to write something in honor of Samantha Jane Dorsett, but I didn’t want it just to be about her death. There is so much to say about the holding of collective grief and healing justice, the way we as movements, communities, individuals do and don’t do this. The ways that our grief and who/what we have lost has to be part of our liberation and our healing and our transformation. But then I re-read Samantha’s novella Troubled Sleep on the second anniversary of her death, this past June 20th, and was inspired all over again by how amazing, how revolutionary it is.
Samantha made beautiful art, mostly before I knew her. She drew hilarious and inspiring comics and wrote a genius novella and poems and so many other things. In addition to just how plain amazing her creations are, I think that Sam’s art, her drawing and her writing and her flyers and her organizing and her friendships and her soup, were a way she took care of her people.
There has been lots written about how art is a part of movement building in the more conventional sense. We have countless examples of artist-revolutionaries breaking silences, bearing witness, fighting against oppression and repression, inspiring grassroots explosions of struggle and freedom. Samantha was such an artist, and she was something else besides. It seems to me that the things she made, all of them art, were as much about caring for the people immediately around her, about survival and holding and comfort and tiny shreds of hope, as they were about contributing to large-scale movements for justice.
Her art is an incredible example of art as an act of love, therefore of care, support, and healing. When we think about love as an action, as bell hooks talks about, making can be just one more way we love each other and maybe even ourselves. And all of this can become a microcosm of what our larger movements look like, how we feel when we are participating in them, what the work is. Yashna Maya Padamsee wrote an amazing piece about how healing justice work is about moving beyond self-care to community care, to fostering organizations and movements and communities and networks and cultures that intrinsically value and support our well-being. She writes,
“Can we understand how creating another world will require, or rather, demand our well-being? From small-town collectives and national organizations to strategy and pop-ed sessions to shared meals and parties- it is our responsibility not as individuals, but as communities to create structures in which self-care changes to community care. In which we are cared-for and able to care for others.”
The practice of revolutionary art-making is often framed either as an act of individualized self-care, that one steps out of the “real” work of organizing to do, or as a tool for moving the hearts and minds and bodies of masses of people to collective action. It can be both of those things. And then there is this: art as a way we show love to those around us, as one of the ways we make it possible for all of us TOGETHER to move forward and fight, to heal and carry on, to grieve and hope. Perhaps our most liberating, transformative artists are the ones who were just writing to give their friends, families, and selves something that would help them make it to the end of one day, and then the next.
I have lots of questions about revolutionary art as an act of love, liberation, healing. About what access means in terms of art making and sharing. About when we break silences and when we keep our secrets safe. About what it means for me to share my writing as a white, able-bodied, cisgendered (not trans) person with class privilege, someone with so much in common with people whose stories and voices have been elevated at the expense of the silencing of others for centuries. About how to tell stories that will give hope, inspiration, glitter, and heart. About how the things we do to take care of ourselves can also help us take care of other people and about how the things we do to take care of other people can also help us take care of ourselves. Asking questions, challenging ourselves and each other, being humble, moving and making in a way that respects the dignity and self-determination of all people, all of this is building love, like developing a new muscle, like visioning and creating liberation—the slow work of threading together our bodies, our hearts, our words, and our creations.
Dorothy Allison—up there with Samantha as one of my revolutionary/loving artist role models—writes in “Muscles of the Mind” in her book of short stories, Trash:
The only magic we have is what we make in ourselves, the muscles we build up on the inside, the sense of belief we create from nothing. I used to watch my mama hold off terror with only the edges of her own eyes for a shield, and I still don’t know how she did it. But I am her daughter and have as much muscle in me as she ever did. It’s just that some days I am not strong enough. I stretch myself out a little, and then my own fear pulls me back in. The shaking starts inside. Then I have to stretch myself again. Waxing and waning through my life, maybe I’m building up layers of strength inside. Maybe.’”
The art that we create and share is part of building that muscle, part of building truly loving communities that can hold us all up even in the face of the most horrific violence and oppression and trauma. And the deep love we create and share is often all that we have. Someone told me today that what makes it possible to live through grief is the moments when you feel the presence of the person you have lost as a strong beam of pure love. That is stronger than death, stronger than oppression—it keeps us going even when there is no hope. And at the end of the day it is what we use to slip through the cracks, to rage and live and fight another day. Samantha wrote, in Troubled Sleep:
“In Franco’s Spain, it was illegal even to hold hands in public streets. Was there really something good, something inherently good about affection, another thing that brought people close? So much affection was channeled and controlled by pimps and husbands. But still there was something special about the way people gently touched and reached out to each other, some tenderness that can’t be controlled.”
Thank you, Samantha, for being a bunny princess beam of pure love, for the chance to know you, and for leaving behind your art that pulls us up and through and together.