FEATURE | WINTER ’21
IN THE ROOM WITH THE FUTURE
WORDS by PICASSO MOORE
PHOTOGRAPHS by AVION PEARCE
Nearly a year into a global pandemic, and six months after one of her most intense PTSD flare-ups in a decade, Anyanwu faces a mirror in a white tank top with the bullet wounds she has termed her “battle scars” on full display. She’s newly engaged, reinvigorated, and flashing a megawatt smile. Nimbly, she glides a barber’s clipper across her forehead. She shapes her own haircut and chimes “I’ve been feeling amazing this past week. My PTSD has been great!” While looking at herself in the mirror there is a distinct focus in her eye. It’s not the same focus she’ll later display while pontificating to the room about the apathy of her activist contemporaries, and it’s starkly different from the look she displays when leading groups of mixed and contentious company through a conversation about race and power. Her focus, in this moment, is not directed outward. It’s not intended to disarm or inform a room, but rather to preserve her hard-fought balance. She admires the sharply shaped-up woman in the mirror and generously gives herself the type of radical self-love people read books and meditate to try to muster. Her focus is striking and very clearly internal. She’s “feeling amazing” and her “PTSD has been great.”
Particularities of her condition aside, her sentiment is echoed by everyone in her apartment. We’re all feeling amazing, beaming to be in a room with, get this, actual people. Making art, conversation, and covid safe connections. Ironing out the logistics of a profile can always present challenges no matter the subject. Once hampered by rain, once by scheduling, and once by mental tissue left understandably tender after extreme trauma, now, it’s finally happening! Photographer Avion Pearce and I stand side by side documenting Anyanwu, as she exhibits dynamism typically possessed by characters in heightened and fast-paced television series. Like pistons firing, she’s off. First, about her plans for physical training that go beyond aesthetics and bolster emotional and cognitive strength, followed by a demonstration of intuitive mentalism that even the most hardened of skeptics would have to admit is more than a party trick, and then a stark shift to her disappointment—rage, even—at the community of American activists who, in her mind, have been apathetic in the face of the #EndSARS movement.
Anyanwu’s fiance Tishara, a dynamic woman in her own right who works as a ballet dancer and educator, is at this point unsurprised by her partner’s vigor and eloquence—but still charmingly inspired. Standing on Anyanwu’s right, she quickly takes out her phone and begins filming. Anyanwu, laid across her couch, stares directly down Avion’s lens speaking passionately about how the gruesome murder of George Floyd galvanized the entire world in a way she’d never seen; adding that even in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis people showed up in droves to let it be known that the world was watching and will not tolerate such evil. “Where is that mobilization for Nigeria?”, she asks and demands. Motivated partially by genuine ideology, partially by curiosity and desire to witness her extemporaneous rebuttal when challenged, I ask what steps people in America can actually take. Citing the geographical limitations, the stress and danger of the COVID epidemic, and that the rapidly rising unemployment rate has surely made munificence a challenge for most, I offer that perhaps what we’re witnessing isn’t apathy but helplessness.
What follows is an immediate shift in posture and position along with a surge in conviction. Tishara moves further back to the wall, making sure to capture every bit of Anyanwu’s relocation. Avion adjusts the lights and continues to snap away. Now, perched on the backboard of her couch, she counters me while simultaneously engaging every entity in the room. Aware yet affected by the fact that she is being photographed. She expands on her previous point, weaving data with anecdotes and folklore. With her head high and her gesticulation mighty, she forces us to engage, citing the work of our elders who did far greater with far less infrastructure and access. It’s the type of occurrence that shapes the mythology of our heroes. A moment of revelation…and then we’re on to discussions about documentaries on pop-political conspiracy theories. Did we really go to the moon?
In her own words, Ayanwu is “the possessor of a divine gift,” an “asshole when need be,” and “a beast.” I’ve learned that she is a gun violence survivor, a PTSD contender, a tireless activist, and an empath beyond adequate description. She is also the future. The events described in the above passages are both common and atypical. Common, because Anyanwu’s passion and unwavering insistence that the world around her exists within her and is pouring out of her, always. Atypical, because her audience is often more than her fiance, a photographer, and a journalist. Anyanwu is the founder, CEO, and Chief Equity Practitioner of The Human Root, a non-profit doing the vital work of confronting institutionalized racism and unconscious bias. That mission, vital as it may be, is galactic in size. Anyanwu and her team know this, and so they’ve implemented a particular economy of movement. You’ve no doubt sat through a tedious diversity and inclusion training led by an HR rep who speaks in abstractions in hopes that everyone “gets it,” and can tell where the line is from their purposeful eye contact and forceful inflection when saying certain words. This could not be further from Anyanwu’s work.
She and The Human Root don’t do cosmetic fixes. They don’t facilitate preformative workshops for the sake of garnering positive PR and soothing people’s sensibilities. Along with her team of Equity Practitioners, she enters schools, non-profits, universities, community centers, corporations, and anywhere else public; specifically, vulnerable populations. They tip the scales. They only work on contracts that span over several years to ensure that they’re given the time, space, resources, and prioritization needed to structurally change the ecosystems they’ve entered. Her work goes well beyond the now worn-out buzz words of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion.’
There is both alchemy and science to the way she examines the granular and deconstructs the gargantuan. Prior to lockdown, in what now seems like another world and lifetime, I had the chance to watch Anyanwu lead a workshop at a New York City Public School in the heart of a neighborhood contending with rapid gentrification and a newly integrated public school. A white woman, head chair of a local community art program whose child attends the school, painted a Halloween mural featuring children in various states of ‘playful’ gore. Some children decapitated, some children eating candy, and some children, rather one child…one Black child…hanging by their neck. The morning the mural was completed, parents walked down the block hand in hand with their children and saw a school-sanctioned ‘artwork’—painted by a white parent—which depicted a brown child in a school uniform hanging from a noose. Enter Anyanwu.
Black and Latinx parents on one side; White parents on the other. Eye contact is repeatedly broken, and then sheepishly reestablished, as white parents read aloud from papers on which they’ve written down their transgressions and subsequent reconsiderations. Booming voices and zealous gesticulation vault from Black mothers as they recount the stories of their children coming home in tears after encounters with teachers who speak thoughtlessly about facial features and hair textures. The white director of the art program stands with shaky hands in the center of the room as she answers for the bias she classifies as unconscious that gave way to a rage-inducing mural. A Black father insists that it was done on purpose and that she had no business coming to his family’s neighborhood—let alone his children’s school. Silence. Silence broken with glances, glances that grow to whispers, then whispers to murmurs, and murmurs to words. All those words from all those mouths merge and create a cacophony, but at once a voice cuts through it all, “Can someone get her some water. On a human level, she needs water.” Anyanwu breaks the discord to see to it that the director of the art program, the woman responsible for the uproar that has brought these parents and community members to arms, has a moment to collect herself.
With an action simple in its implementation, she completely recalibrates the feeling of the room. Gently signaling to the people on both sides of the red sea that the objective of the evening is resolution. Just after that, she seems to reignite the room by pairing the white people into small groups and challenging them to come up with examples of their arrogance and obtuse behavior; all while insisting that the Black people sit down and relax. It is in a moment like this that her self-description becomes decidedly less subjective. It is evident that she is indeed the possessor of a gift of some sort and an utterly unapologetic asshole when need be. She is a beast. On display at that moment is also a staggering capacity for empathy. A virtue often eclipsed in leaders, activists, and change-makers by righteous and understandable indignation. When we spoke about this quality she had of a person deeply committed to her work and entirely disinterested in praise she said,
“It’s only empathy because some academic in a program decided to put the word empathy on it…What I’m talking about [and what I do] is not empathy. The word empathy came after what I’m talking about. And if we consider that to be true, then maybe I wouldn’t be considered someone that has a staggering amount of empathy. Something has happened in our universe and in our world that has hurt us so badly…that we call what I’m doing “empathy.” The reason why something is called empathy is because it had to be named. The reason something has to be named and identified is that it has to be figured out, the reason it has to be figured out is that something is being impacted. If the word and the behavior is “empathy,” that means that there was pain and hurt somewhere, [that’s] why someone would think the behavior of love would be extraordinary. The behavior of love should be a standard and an expectation. So even saying that I have staggering empathy, you’re just saying that my ability to love is extraordinary, but I’m saying that love is the source. I’m just being normal! Everybody else is just figuring out how to get back to their normal.”
The Human Root is the culmination of a lifetime of activism and civic engagement. Anyanwu was supremely disinterested in the bureaucracy and politics of working as a mid-level pencil pusher for non-profits (that ultimately serve as tax evasion vessels and PR life jackets for wealthy white people). So, Anywanwu has carved out her own space by cultivating and exercising autonomy over the way she uses the gift she matter-of-factly speaks of. Her commitment to activism, her balance of pragmatism and idealism, and her fortitude are hard-wired. Call it nature or call it nurture, it is indelible. To say she dedicated her life to her work is an understatement. She has chosen it even when it was unclear what quality of life she would have, or if she would live at all. In Oakland, California, over a decade ago, Anyanwu was working on a grassroots project to push back against land developers who wanted to build condos out of housing for university students attending school on scholarship. While making her way home, she was the victim of a drive-by shooting. Her car flipped, her lung collapsed, and her life was nearly taken. The physical attack wasn’t the only one she was forced to endure. As is too common for black masculine-presenting queer women, she was misgendered by police and by EMT workers. Mere hours after being transferred to the hospital, an avalanche of disinformation had begun to cascade. Articles and televised news reports linked her to gang activity and insinuated that perhaps she was not the victim but an assailant herself.
In the months following her experience with gun violence, Anyanwu underwent physical therapy. Though her body healed at impressive rates, even to her doctors, her mental and emotional health suffered. PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, has stayed in Anyanwu’s body for much longer than the bullets ever did. Stimulation, language, and even positive anticipation can trigger an episode. Commuting using the New York City subway became such a challenge that she purchased a car and now uses it as her main mode of transport. Dealing with the ripple effects of that lawless night has been a decade-long journey, but a month after Coronavirus set all of New York City and the world into lockdown her symptoms grew unmanageable. Over the course of her first month in isolation, sleep became nearly impossible, and her ability to access the “source” that she so gleefully speaks of today was waning. In a thirty-day span, she shed over twenty pounds.
After a reintroduction to therapy and a meticulous inventory of her life, Anyanwu is in a much better place. She sees the irony in the pandemic forcing the entire world to stay inside and isolate themselves, something her PTSD has made a mainstay in her life, and recognizes that she is equipped with the tools and experience to make the best of this new normal. Today Anyanwu feels strong; strong enough to hold hands with the isolation that was once debilitating, strong enough to challenge the apathy of her activist contemporaries, and strong enough to face the unknown. When asked about her perspective on life and her hopes for the future, she offers a response that only comes from a lifetime of introspection and examination of the world.
“It’s important for me to respond to the circumstances that are happening right in front of me because I am not performing being a change maker. I am a change-maker! I am an activist! I activate what is happening here and now towards positivity and transformation. And not positivity in some kum ba yah type of way. I mean I might tell somebody ‘yo, sit your ass down homie! You’re out of your lane!’ Me talking that way isn’t kum ba yah, but if the circumstance calls for it, I know how to hold that in a healthy type of way and exchange with that human being effective[ly] without harming anyone. The Human Root [and I are] not committed to anything but humanity!”
As our day comes to a close, Anyanwu takes a moment to remind Tishara, Avion, and myself that we are indeed ‘the shit’ by saying, “You’re a beast too! We all are!” As the cameras come down and the lights get packed up, she turns to music as means of celebration while praising the next generation of Black queer artists. With a few clicks of the remote, a music video by queer Jamaican female rapper Koffee comes on. Anyanwu and Tishara throw their hands in the air and begin expressing how much they love her work. “She’s singing about taking a girl out on a date! In Jamacia! And these niggas fuck with it!” In the music video, Koffee can be seen riding through idyllic scenery in an opened-top car with her girlfriend. In the next scene, they’re in a church surrounded by loved ones. Following that, they meet a straight couple for a double date. Anyanwu steps closer to the screen as Tishara twirls next to her. Avion looks on at the television and grins. “I feel like I’m in the room with the future!”, Anyanwu exclaims. Glancing back as I head toward the door, I couldn’t agree more.
PICASSO MOORE is a writer, artist, filmmaker, and social creative exploring blackness, queerness, social performance, interior tension, apathy, ambition, hedonism, trauma, zeitgeist, gen z cunning, and the perpetual quest for autonomy. His written work has been published by The Tenth Magazine, Pin-Up Magazine, Gayletter Magazine, Medium, MOBI, and in the anthology book Our Light Through Darkness. His sculptural work has been exhibited at The MoMA as part of their In The Making showcase for emerging artists and “C E N T E R”, the short film he directed and co-wrote, screened at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. PICASSO lives in New York City, has an Instagram account that deserves more attention, is addicted to online shopping, can’t keep a man, and feels that this (among other things) is all Sarah Jessica Parker’s fault.
AVION PEARCE is a an interdisciplinary artist working primarily with the photographic image, based in Brooklyn, New York. A world of imagined historical anecdotes and folklore is the world in which Avion places her work.