In this powerful keynote address from the 2021 Collective Impact Action Summit, author, entrepreneur, poet, and activist Sonya Renee Taylor shares from her book The Body is Not an Apology, and discusses key questions about how we view ourselves and each other, how we judge who is worthy of acceptance and justice, and how we can break out of systems that tell us that the only way to survive is to devalue others.
Preceding this talk, poet Tara Hardy shares her poem Buses Stop.
Video and transcript below. For a podcast version, please visit our podcast page for this session, and you can listen on your preferred podcast platform.
Jennifer Splansky Juster: As with Troy Osaki and Azura Tyabji on the first two days of our event, we’re so glad that we’re able to incorporate a little bit of the arts into our summit. Tara Hardy from Seattle will help us do that this morning. Tara is a poet, memoirist, and teacher in Seattle. She is a working-class queer, femme, chronically ill founder of Bent, a writing institute for LGBTIQ writers. She grew up under the great big sky of Michigan but now writes at the majestic hem of Mount Rainier in Seattle. Her most recent poetry collection titled My, My, My, My, My, won the 2017 Washington State Book Award and with that I am just honored to hand it over.
Tara Hardy: Hello, and thank you so much for having me with you today. Thank you, Tracy Timmons-Gray for asking me to do this. I’m absolutely thrilled to be here on the day that Sonya Renee Taylor is going to speak. Sonya is such a critical visionary and phenomenal poet. I’m so grateful to be here on her day.
Before I read what I’m about to read I want to say a couple of things. I definitely do not have the answers. I always want feedback. I don’t need congratulations or thank you for writing this. I wrote it as much as a call-out for me as anyone else at a time when those of us who benefit from White supremacy on a daily basis are being called upon to act.
This is called “Buses Stop” and it starts with an epigraph.
One could argue that White women are the most protected demographic in America as they benefit from White patriarchy in a unique manner. Dr. T. Hasan Johnson.
Buses stop for me.
At the airport without asking I am prechecked through security.
I’ve never been warned or questioned about the risk of addiction when prescribed painkillers.
Cops turn their backs to me. Landlords accept my bad credit.
No one jumps when I get out of my car on my own street in front of my apartment or anywhere else.
I am late frequently without worry. Hair products know my name. No one asks me to empty the trash.
People are surprised that I’ve been a maid, that my brother is in prison. No one is surprised that my parents are still married or that I’ve been to Europe.
My recovery from addiction is a triumph not a clucked tongue.
If I say I saw it, I saw it. If I say I saw it, I saw it.
Elevators are held. Wait staff react. Doors open. Arms help me with bags, change my oil, give me cookies and trophies and discounts and microphones and health care and preventative health care and diplomas and the word pretty and the word lovely and the word delicate and the pedestal.
I am innocent. I am innocent.
Everywhere I go I get admission, admission, admission, admission, admission.
But if that woman of color gets more stage time than me, it’s unfair, isn’t it?
People take my number and remember my name, know how to spell it and it prespeaks me on a résumé.
At the hospital I am given care and free medicine even when I don’t have insurance. So I take it. Take, take, take, take, take, take, take, accept, accept, accept, accept, accept, accept an ocean’s worth, a middle passage’s worth of unearned privilege with my great, great bones and my pink, pink smile.
Those yarn hats, they reflect me as does every mirror I pass in which I recognize myself.
I’m so friendly. I can afford to be. I seem happy. Unencumbered. I seem accessible. I don’t need to be on guard.
No one is surprised that I’ve been to college. No one says “I didn’t mean it like that” or “you make everything about one issue” or “just ignore my friends, they don’t really mean it.”
Pantyhose and Band-Aids and lipstick and base and ace bandages and magazines and movies and Hallmark cards and cake toppers and billboards and history match me. So do catcalls. Yes, even catcalls for what they’re missing.
To my kind invisible is my access and the unearned mountain of acquisitions I stand atop unless you are standing at the bottom of the mountain looking up at the enviable texture of my hair as it blows in the updraft of the expectations of me.
Who cares if the escalator is rising? I walked on it, didn’t I? I mean, I didn’t just stand there. So it’s okay if I feel a little—what’s the word? Entitled to timely service.
It’s okay if when the flight is late, like really late, like miss the holiday late, that I become irate. Why did the plane leave without me?
Why didn’t you carry my shampoo? Aren’t there any tables left? Where’s my order? You don’t have soy milk? I called an hour ago. You forgot my soda? It’s so annoying to sit in my air-conditioned car in traffic. Shit. I got a parking ticket. Oh, my brake light’s out. Thank you, officer. I was? Fuck. A speeding ticket.
My children can jaywalk without being shot. My children can steal candy without being shot. My children can own phones and be children. My children can climb trees and refuse to come down. Can wield knives and even guns and steal cars and go berserk and go crazy and rob people in stores on the planet. My children can speed and walk and sleep and dream and ride the bus and hang out on sidewalks and loiter and browse the aisles and order Starbucks and make out in cars and be fat on airlines and be weird and wear rags and badass coats and low hats.
I can see it. I mean, I know what you’re talking about so why do I have to go to the racial equity training? I mean, I’ve read White Fragility. I know it’s hard but what do you want me to do?
I mean, just tell me (again) because I hate what you have to go through but with all that’s going on I feel so—what’s the word?
Because speaking is never enough, I want to draw our attention to a resource on Medium called 103 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice. Right now I’m going to drop the link in the chat. Thank you again so much for having me. I’m really grateful that this conference is happening.
Sheri Brady: Thank you so much Tara. I know you said you didn’t need it, but thank you. That was fire. I’m like, OK, now I have to speak. Wait. I don’t want to follow her anymore but thank you for that and please drop it in the chat. It was great to meet you and it was a great pleasure to have you speak to us.
I didn’t introduce myself but those of you who have been here I’m Sheri Brady from the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, one of your co-hosts for these past few days.
But it’s now my distinct pleasure and honor to introduce our closing keynote speaker, Sonya Renee Taylor. As you know, Sonya’s presence and wisdom have been with us since our opening session on Tuesday. Her words served as our call to action to not return to our pre-COVID existence but instead to reconstruct our systems in ways that better serve our members of our community particularly those whom have been marginalized or ignored in the past.
Please read her full bio on EventMobi but here are some highlights. Ms. Taylor is the founder and radical executive officer of The Body is Not an Apology, a digital media and education company with content reaching half a million people each month. Her work as an award-winning performance poet, activist, and transformational leader continues to have global reach. She was named one of the 12 women who paved the way for body positivity by Bustle Magazine and in September 2015 she was honored as YBCA 100, an annual compilation of creation minds, makers, and pioneers who are asking the questions and making a provocations that will shape the future of American culture. We are delighted and honored to have her join us at the Collective Impact Forum. Welcome Sonya.
Sonya Renee Taylor: Hello everyone. Thank you so much for having me. Tara, I swear I had hair before you read that poem and you blew it off. The reason I come to you all today is because Tara snatched all my edges with that poem. It touches on so many aspects that I want to be in conversation with you all today about.
First, I just want to presence myself. I am in Aotearoa New Zealand. The indigenous stewards of this land are Māori. The indigenous Iwi of this land that I am on today are the Ngāti Hauā, and I am a grateful, grateful, grateful resident of this land and of their stewardship for many, many years despite the colonial violence that has been met in their lives. So I just want to presence that and thank that.
I also want to name that I am a new puppy mom of an 18-week-old puppy who is currently napping. I think he’ll stay napped. His name is Baldwin James Taylor, and I think he’ll stay napped during our talk but should you hear a little whining, that’s what’s happening. The fun thing about Zoom is that all of a sudden, we get to be inside of each other’s real lives, like you get to be in my house with my puppy, and there’s stuff about that that I love as well.
Oh, yeah. There’s some people representing Tāmaki Makaurau right now which makes me very happy. Welcome.
I invite you to be a part of this conversation in the chat, to presence yourself, all of these wonderful things. I am both going to talk to you but I can keep my eye a little bit on that while we’re talking.
So I ask a little bit about where you all have been in this journey of this conference, and really what I hear is so much that this time has been about imagining a new way, like what is the possibility that we get to live into today, and how does that possibility create the world it is we say we really want.
I think it’s really important that if we are talking about the world, we say we really want, we got to get honest about the world we’re in right now, and then we have to get honest about what we’re willing to give up in the world we’re in right now to get the world we say we want.
In order to shape that a little bit, I want to first talk about my life’s work and what I think my life’s work means right now in this moment, and where access exists in it. And then I want to talk a little bit about what is the system we’re in, like what is that system we’re in? What is the thing that move us out? And then I want to share with you an ideology that I’ve been playing around with, a thing that I think could have some relevance for how we get forward.
One of the things that was so powerful about Tara’s poem is that it really illustrates this conversation that I’ve been having a lot about what I called the ladder of bodily hierarchy. Just to give some folks some context because I’m just assuming y’all know me and you might not know me from a can of paint and Adam and Eve. So I am an author. I’m an activist. I’m an artist. I was a poet for—I am a poet, I guess that doesn’t leave but I spent 10 years making my career as a poet. Tara Hardy and I have toured the entire country together in a small van for 30 days sharing poems.
And then that work sort of began to morph into this work around radical self-love, and what does radical self-love offer us in creating a more just, equitable, and compassionate world. How does radical self-love create the pathway for us to create liberation? How do we get there and how do we get there in a way that is not outside of us but is inside of us? That’s the work that I’ve been doing for the last decade at this point which is wild when I think about it as a decade.
So that’s where I am and that’s the work that I’ve been doing, and inside of that work I’ve been having this conversation about the ladder of bodily hierarchy. I think this is important because I feel like it contextualizes where we are in society right now. If we’re having a conversation about not going back to normal, then we have to have a conversation about what normal was, otherwise we’ll end up back where we were, right? We’ll be in this circular loop that keeps taking us back to the point where we started.
We’ve got to actually name and identify where it is we’ve been, and one of the places where we have been is in a world where there are bodies that we value and bodies that we do not value. Inside of that system of bodies that we value and bodies that we do not value is a constant efforting on our parts to figure out how to ascend to a higher level which is all about figuring out how it is that we gather resource, gather opportunity, gather connection, gather belonging, gather all the things it is that we actually need to survive as humans in this world. How do we gather that, right?
And unfortunately inside of a system of White supremacist delusion, capitalism, and patriarchy, the ways in which we gather that have been externalized. We live in a world that says you’ll be good enough when, you’ll be good enough if, you know? Even when you reach the when or the if, it is an ever-constantly-moving lie, right?
One of the things that I think is important for us to remember is that on this ladder of bodily hierarchy, there’s no top rung. There are people who are closer to what looks like the top but the top is an illusion because if there were actually a top rung, then there would be people who were happy once they were at the top, right? They would be good, like, I’m good, I won, right? It’s very clear there’s no top rung.
The way that I know there’s no top rung is because there is a Jeff Bezos and an Elon Musk. That’s how I know there’s no top rung because both of those men live in the bodies that presumably are at the top of that ladder, right? They’re White, they’re able-bodied, they’re cis, they’re heterosexual, they’re relatively young, and they’re wildly wealthy, like have enough money to singularly solve most of the social issues that exist in our society and still have money left over for generations. Both of them have the resources to do that, and every day they wake up and they say how can I get more.
And the how can I get more is how you know there’s no top rung because it’s an endless hole. It is a thing that you cannot actually ever attain. You can’t ever attain enough inside of the ladder of bodily hierarchy. It’s not possible to attain enough inside of the ladder of bodily hierarchy. The only thing you can do is try to get more, and that’s because more is constantly trying to fill what is actually a “soul hole,” what is actually the negative space where our true self-worth resides.
So on this ladder of bodily hierarchy, everyone is constantly trying to ascend, how do I get higher? How do I get higher? How do I get higher? And the people at the top, we call that language—the we is The Body is Not an Apology, talk about that as the “default body.” The default body is the body that we value, the body that we assume as when we use the word human, it’s the body we assess.
t’s when the media gives you, you know, “a woman today, whatever, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot,” and doesn’t give you any other descriptors, it’s because their assumption is that you will fill in the default body because when it’s not the default body, they give you all kinds of descriptors. A Black woman today, an Asian woman today, right? When there’s no descriptor, that’s the default body, and so the default body is in this social context, in the western social context, the default body is White, it is cis, it is heterosexual, it is able-bodied, it is thin, it is young, right? That’s the default body in this system, and then all of us are, like I said, ascending or trying to assess who we are on this ladder.
There are elements that we think we can control that allow us to try to manipulate getting higher up the ladder, and that’s again why I think Tara’s poem is so important. It’s about this ladder, and it’s about the positionality as a White woman that she holds in this ladder where she is not the top, but she is close and constantly ascending, and constantly being given opportunities, and constantly being reaffirmed in the world as a body that is more valuable.
The only way to get outside of the ladder of bodily hierarchy, the only way to dismantle the ladder of bodily hierarchy is to stop trying to climb it.
That’s the only way to interrupt the dynamic of the ladder of bodily hierarchy is to stop trying to climb it, and that I think just scrambles peoples’ brains sometimes. What do you mean stop trying to climb it, Sonya? I can’t not be a default body, right? But what I would offer to you is that, right, you can’t stop being a default body but you can stop valuing being a default body. You can start noticing the bodies below low on the ladder. You can start raising the bodies below you on the ladder above you. You can begin to center that which has been marginalized. You can begin to invite that which has been uninvited.
But the only way to successfully do that is to actually have to think and presence the lives of the people below you because the lives of the people—the system of bodily, the ladder of bodily hierarchy requires people to be below you. It necessitates there being people below you, and it relies on you not to question it and not to disrupt it. It relies on you to continue to look at the ways in which you constantly are trying to ascend the ladder.
And the ways are really sneaky, y’all. They’re real sneaky. They’re things you might not even notice, right? They are the small privileges that we cherish and take, right? It is the privilege to have the bus stop for you, and to never question when the bus doesn’t stop for someone else or to never question why the bus stops for you, right?
It is to notice the places where you hold even minimal greater access or power than someone else, and to move out of the way at times. It is to say, “oh, there is an entire group of people below me, and what would it look like for me to take less space in this particular space whatever that space is?” These are complicated questions. They are nuanced questions. They are questions that exist, that we have to be constantly navigating inside of a world that is always giving us new tiny ways to ascend the ladder, right? Always giving us—this diet is one small way to ascend the ladder, right? This particular efforting at thinness, this particular efforting at more money, right? Because I have this education and this particular set of language, I’m higher up the ladder.
This is for us in activist circles and organizing circles and social justice circles, “because my politic is perfect I’m higher up the ladder.” There are all of these ways in which we assess being better than other people. The wild part about it is that the ladder doesn’t care who you decide to make yourself better than, just that you’re invested in being better than someone else. You can be better than the Trumpers. They’re fine with that. The ladder is fine if you’re better than your racist uncle. That’s cool because what the ladder relies on is the continued investment in comparison as how you define yourself, that somehow your worthiness, your enough-ness, your inherent divinity is conditional, externalized in a world where there is something out there which will make you enough. Always, right?
And so the invitation to divesting in the ladder I believe is the work of radical self-love, and it’s the reason why I do it because I really, really see it as our access to a world where the ladder is useless. Because if the ladder can’t give me my worth, then what reason do I have to mess with it? If the ladder can’t tell me that I’m valuable enough, if the ladder can’t tell me I belong, if the ladder can’t tell me I’ll have resource, if the ladder can’t tell me that what makes me me is it, then what use do I have for it? And that’s the work.
And so I want to talk a little bit about radical self-love and why I think radical self-love is the answer to the ladder for bodily hierarchy. So radical self-love, I always start by telling people what radical self-love is not, and if you have not read my book, The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love, join the club y’all. You’re late. Join the club. Get the book.
But in the book, I start by telling you what radical self-love is not. It is not self-esteem. It is not self-confidence, and there are a couple of reasons why it’s not those things. One, they are wildly conditional. Your self-confidence could be great. You put your outfit on, you’re going outside in the world. You were like I am doing it today, and nobody gives you a compliment and then you’re like, hmm, maybe my outfit wasn’t as cute as I thought it was, right? You study for the exam, you feel good, you’re like I got this. You get the paper back, you got a D. You’re like maybe I don’t got this, right? All of a sudden, your self-esteem doesn’t feel quite as shored up as it did in the beginning, right? That’s the nature of self-esteem and self-confidence. They’re conditional. They are also often impacted by the external world.
But more importantly to this conversation is they are not transformative, and that’s what matters to me. I like to tell people all the time I’m a nice person but this work isn’t altruistic. I’m not doing this because I just tend to—I just want to spend a decade of my life tending to the individual self-esteem and self-confidence of people in the world. That doesn’t help me at all. That’s not why I would do this work. Why I would do this work is if there was something that I could help you get to that would improve the condition of my life, I would help you do that.
And if what I could get you to get to is divesting from a system of hierarchy so that my fat, Black, queer, neurodivergent body has access to all of the resources, opportunities, love, belonging, community, that you have access to, yep, I’ll spend a lifetime helping you figure out how to move that out of the way so you can get out of my way so that I can have some joy. Absolutely, gladly, unapologetically will I do that kind of work, and that is what radical self-love get us to.
It’s a love that divests from an externalized definition of enough-ness. Radical self-love, and I talk about why self-love is radical using the actual definitions of the word radical. Inherent or the origin of a thing. I believe that the love that we have, that we came here with it, that it is the origin of us. It is the inherent state of us. You didn’t have to work to love yourself as a baby. You arrived here as loved. We know we arrived here as loved by just the way we relate to babies, and that we find it aberrant as a society in general, right? If you get specific about what babies we care about and what babies we don’t, then we’re back inside of this system of bodily hierarchy but what we do know is that babies are loved. They embody love, right? You’ve never seen a self-loathing toddler. You’ve never seen a toddler who is like I just hate my thighs, I don’t understand. Never, right? And you never will. That is not the relationship that we came here with. We came here in right relationship with our bodies and in right relationship with the bodies of others.
And so everything else is learned. Every other relationship of disconnection and malady that we have with ourselves and with others is conditioned because our inherent state, our original state is a state of love.
Radical also says thorough-going or extreme in proposing change. I would offer that we live in a thorough-going and extreme system of shame, of marginalization, of oppression. The ladder of bodily hierarchy is thorough-going and extreme. From the time you wake up in the morning until the time you go to bed, you are told that you’re deficient in some way, that there is some way you are not enough. There is some way in which you are not enough, and you’re not going to be enough, and you should buy this thing that might help you be enough but only for a little bit and then you’ll need to buy it again. And that’s the society that we live in.
We live in a society that is extreme in the ways in which it treats bodies it doesn’t value. When the police jumped out of a car and shot 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in the chest four times in a situation in which adolescent workers and foster care workers and kids who work with youth with emotional behavioral problems have navigated a billion times before without ever having to shoot a child in the chest four times, we know that there are bodies we just don’t value. We know that there are drastic and extreme ways that we treat the bodies we don’t care about.
So I’m proposing that we need a love that is just as drastic and extreme in the ways in which it treats the bodies we decide are inherently worthy and inherently enough. And how do we move from that place? That’s what radical love gives us access to.
Radical proposes drastic political, economic, and social change. What I want people to understand and I said this when I was talking about the self-confidence thing is I’m only interested in a love that changes the world. I’m only interested in a love that tears down these systems. I’m interested in a love that dismantles the ladder of bodily hierarchy and creates a world where we get to operate like we understand that we are inherently enough and so is everyone else, and every system that does not reflect that must go. That’s the world I want to invite us into. That’s the world I want to create. That’s what radical love gives us access to.
So if you got a self-love and it doesn’t do those things, it’s not radical self-love. I don’t know what that is. That’s cute. That’s self-confidence. It’s self-esteem. But if it’s not a love that changes systems that are upheld by our belief that we are not enough, then we are missing the point. And Dylan, I would invite you to just go back and listen to what it is that I just said because you missed the point, and you missed the point that I was just making.
Lastly, radical self-love has to be the foundation, the foundation. We have tried a world built on everything else. We have tried a world built on everything else. We have a world built on carcerality and punishment. We have a world built on greed and exploitation. We have a world built on extraction. Those things already exist so at this point I’m just like can we try some new shit just to try it? What would it look like if we built it on love? Let’s do that experiment. Let’s just see because we’ve certainly been doing the other thing and we see the result of that on a daily basis, right?
So that is what a radical love gives us access to, right? An understanding, a deep embodied knowing that our inherent divinity cannot be added to or subtracted from which means that whatever the world is offering us to try to do that, we don’t need it, right?
If we understood that, if I understood that my enough-ness is my birthright, then there’s nothing that the ladder of bodily hierarchy could give me to make me want to invest. The ladder of bodily hierarchy couldn’t offer me White supremacist delusion and whiteness as a way to be enough. It couldn’t offer me capitalism as a way to be enough. It couldn’t offer me superiority in my able-ism to be enough. It couldn’t offer me heterosexism to be enough. It couldn’t offer me my cissexism to be enough. There is no externalized status that that system could offer me that would make me enough because I’m already enough, and they are already enough, and we are already enough, and if we got that, all of the structures built on that system would really crumble.
That is the thing that radical self-love gives us access to. That is what we get an opportunity to be invited into inside of radical self-love. But radical self-love again is an internal experience that impacts our external world. Radical self-love is you, you saying where have I been complicit in trying to climb the ladder? Who have I ignored below me? What way have I made my belief that I am not enough complicit in the maintenance of this system of harm? And what would happen if I undid that story of indoctrination inside of myself? How do I become new but not new? How do I return? How do I return to that which is inherent in me, to that which is my origin, to that which is the foundation of my creation?
I like to say that whatever it is that decided that there should be an ocean and bumblebees and ponds and lily pads and grass and honey and flowers, whatever decided that there should be tulips and hummingbirds also decided that there should be a Sonya Renee Taylor, and so how is it possible that I could be any less divine, any less necessary, any less important in the ecosystem of humanity than all of those things? That’s what radical self-love returns me to, and I believe that’s what the invitation is inside of radical self-love.
Here’s the last thing that I want to share, is when we talk about self. In order to—the first thing you gotta do to dismantle this ladder of bodily hierarchy is look at how you’ve internalized it, right? It’s to look at how it’s in you, how it’s governing the way that you move through your life, how it’s governing how you are with your children, with your family, with all of these other things. That’s the step one, right?
And then step two is we gotta create something new. It is not just enough to get rid of the old thing because what happens in a vacuum is that the other thing will come back and fill the space. The space will be filled. The question is with what. So you can dig up the roots but if you don’t plant new things, if you don’t turn over the soil and plant new things, the weeds will come back.
And so here is really where I think it’s an opportunity, and it also does the things that I believe is at the bottom that is about how do I give more space to the people at the bottom of the ladder because if the people at the bottom of the ladder weren’t at the bottom of the ladder anymore, the ladder would destabilize and it would fall. So the more that we raise to prominence the lives, the voices, the experiences of undocumented, trans, Black, disabled, queer, fat human beings, the more that we follow their leadership and their guidance, the more destabilized the ladder of bodily hierarchy becomes.
So here’s a way that I think we can do that because here’s what is also true, is that the people at the bottom of the ladder have been innovating how to survive. It’s the only way you can survive the ladder is to innovate and figure out how you operate if the world says you are the lowest on the rung and we intend to give you pretty much nothing, then the question becomes how do I make something out of nothing. That’s what the people at the bottom of the ladder are excellent at, excellent at imagining a world where you can get anything done because you have to. My mama—there’s a meme that used to say, “I’ve done so much with so little for so long that I’m now capable of doing anything with nothing at all.” And that is the magic. That is the magic of the people who have been the most marginalized, is that the conditions of life have created it such that there is an innovation that those with more privilege, those of us with more privilege, simply can’t access. We ain’t had to. We haven’t had to exercise that muscle.
And so those folks are already visioning a world, you know? I told some—I said this in a live the other day. I said if you can’t imagine a world without police, that’s fine. You don’t need to. We’re not actually asking you to because there are people who already have. How about you just follow them? How about you just turn your energy and resources to the people who have already done the imagining for you because obviously you haven’t had to imagine a world without police because obviously perhaps, they’ve worked for you. But for the people who they have not worked for, they have already figured out how you solve things without inviting folks who will murder you. And so how about you just turn your attention to the people who’ve already created the thing? You don’t have to have it figured out. You can turn your resource, your opportunity, and signal boost the people who have already.
And so, I’ve been playing with this idea that I’ve been calling the VCR theory, right? The VCR theory or the theory of obsolescence is the idea that innovation is, like I said, the sort of foundational machinations of marginalization. You gotta figure it out, and that there are all kinds of phenomenal technologies that get unlocked in us when we are trying to navigate a world that continues to throw barrier after barrier after obstacle.
And so part of what I believe in this space, this new space that wants to come is about living into what I call the liberatory imagination. How is it that I move into the new world without dragging the old world with me?
And the way that I talk about this is I talk about VCRs. If you’re a person of my age, then you might recognize back when we used to watch movies with these big, clunky, plastic tapes, and that’s how we saw a movie. You wanted to see something on TV, you got this big giant clunky tape and you stuck it in the mouth of this metal machine, and it gobbled up the tape and then it showed you a film that was often crinkly or fuzzy depending on how you treated the tape, and that’s how we watched movies. If you wanted to watch a lot of movies or have them all at home and didn’t have a card to Blockbuster Video that didn’t have a bunch of late fees on it, you had a big giant wooden entertainment system in your house, and your grandmama just had all your tapes there. That was how we were watching movies.
And then someone was like this is a lot. What if we—we can make these smaller. It doesn’t have to be like this and so then someone was like DVD, right? Somebody was like, oh, let’s make it thinner and we’ll make it round, and it will be easier. There was a whole separate machine to rewind tapes. You gotta tell the truth. There was an entire separate machine so that you can rewind the tapes to the beginning, and I know this because I used to work at Blockbuster Video.
So somebody made DVDs so you didn’t have to rewind tape, right? We were like, oh, this is so cool. Somebody even made Blu-rays. Who’s still got a Blu-ray? That was like the innovation in between that nobody used, right? So we did that and that was cool. Everybody had DVDs and you could downsize your big giant clunky entertainment system, and then somebody was like, wait a minute, we have an internet. Why would we—we could just put the movies on the internet and the people could just watch them from the internet.
Of course capitalism is always right beside innovation being like how can I exploit this? Where are you going? Capitalism is always saying, hey, where are you going? So you have to be mindful of that because capitalism is like, oh, right, we could do that and we could put it behind the pay wall and then you could pay us to watch it. But either way it goes, what it was is that people innovated outside of VCRs. No one ever had to protest a beta tape. No one ever stood outside a Radio Shack and Blockbuster and said down with Blockbuster, down with VCRs, never, not once. You know how we got rid of it? Because we imagined something new and something better and we did it, and the world followed because the new better thing was sexier, was easier, was more exciting than the old clunky difficult thing. And the opportunity that we have in this moment is to innovate the new, better, sexier, justice world.
That’s what we have the opportunity to do. That is what marginalized people do every single day, is they imagine the world, they imagine the world where police aren’t the way in which we think we keep each other safe while killing each other. We imagine a world where people have enough economic resource to not just survive but to thrive. We imagine a world where trans folks can live vibrantly in the fullness of themselves. We imagine a world that is liberated, and it’s so sexy, it’s so beautiful that people just go there because it’s the better world.
And so I invite us today to spend a little less time talking about all the things that have to be destroyed. Destroy them. We know what they are. But if we’re not going to go back to normal, then we need to start following the people who are innovating past the VCR. We need to start following the people who are innovating the new world, and we need to throw our resource and our energy and all of our internal offerings towards that.
In closing I’ll just share this lastly. I put a meme on Instagram one time that said if you want to know the way to freedom, follow a Black woman.
I had a person who got on and they were like, I just feel bad because I feel like Black women, we’re always asking them to do everything, and it just feels like more labor. I was like, be clear. I didn’t say climb on the back of a Black woman. I’m saying that Black women were going to freedom to lead you. I said we were going anyway. What I said is that I know epigenetically through the blood in my veins that are a manifestation of the labor of Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman that we were always moving toward freedom regardless, and if you see somebody going to freedom, you’d be foolish not to follow.
And that doesn’t mean they’re going there for you but if you see them going—as a matter of fact, if you see them going, what you might want to do is run out a few steps ahead of them and clear the path. What you might want to do is run out a few steps ahead of them and pick up some leaves, move a rock out of their way, clip some brushes, get some branches out of the way so that the path is clear because they were going anyway.
That is what marginalized people are doing anyway. They are going towards freedom and liberation regardless, and what you can do if you hold a position on the ladder of bodily hierarchy that is higher up, is that you can go out a few steps ahead and clear the path and clear the path and clear the path so that the people who are already innovating towards liberation might get up there collectively because it’s sexier, it’s more beautiful, it’s more luscious, it’s more divine than anything it is that we are in right now. And that’s how we don’t go back to normal. That’s how we create the new world, and that’s the world I’m interested in going in.
I hope it’s a world you’re interested in going in with me. I hope it’s the work that you’re down to do. I hope that radical self-love is what leads you to move out in front and clear the path so that those who are already innovating towards liberation might help us get there sooner.
Thank you. I so appreciate your time. I’m totally down to take some questions. Thanks for letting me be inside of this conversation with you.
Sheri Brady: Thank you. I’m practically tearing up here so I feel like as someone who has a body who’s never been appreciated in the way that I think it should be, I feel you. You spoke to me so deeply and so many as you can see in the chat as well, I think. We do have a couple of questions. I think you spoke to some of those but I think I will just get some clarity from you.
Someone asked once we sort of started doing our own work for radical love, how do we inspire others to do the same?
Sonya Renee Taylor: I’m a firm believer—here’s what’s real in my experience. It’s all contagious, right? Our shame and our disconnection, our misery, our not enough-ness is contagious. We feel it. We move in it every single day, right? So what I am very clear about is that when—you know, as Toni Cade Bambara says you have to make the revolution irresistible. What I’m proposing is that radical self-love is just irresistible. It oozes off of you. That somebody’s like, oh, something’s moving in you different. What is that? And then you share what it is you’ve been journeying, and then you invite them. I’ve been doing this and it’s changing me. I’ve been doing this and I’ve let go of these old hang-ups. I’ve been doing this and I see the world in a clearer way. And people will follow you.
Like I said, you didn’t have to—nobody has to go proselytize about getting rid of the VCR. Nobody has to knock on doors and be like, would you like to try a DVD today? That’s not what happened. What happened is somebody tried it and then somebody saw it, and somebody was like, oh, that’s way better than what I’m doing. And so that’s the invitation, is to be such an overflowing fount of your own work that, one, it directs how you move so it directs the places where you go and the places where you put your labor but then it also is its own light that attracts other people and enfolds them in that. That’s been my experience.
Sheri Brady: Thank you. Someone asks as well, how did you achieve your level of understanding? What has most influenced and inspired you?
Sonya Renee Taylor: There is no one source. I’m like a Swiffer sweeper of life. I just go around picking up things all the time. I think my life circumstances directed a lot of it. Here’s the deal. I grew up a queer, Black, fat, neurodivergent, dark-skinned girl in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, so there was a certain level of the world that was always going to be reflected back to me. I just started asking questions. I was a naturally curious nosy kid. I wanted to know all the things. I wanted to know why crack had swept through my entire community and why it had swept up my mother in it. I wanted to know what hurts drew her to it. I wanted to know why the world treated my disabled brother differently. I wanted to know why I got treated differently as a dark-skinned girl. I wanted to know, and my wanting to know began to reveal to me, oh, there are all kinds of levels to how these experiences happen.
And so what I do in my work is I teach us how to get curious. It’s not some magical thing. It’s about asking questions but part of the reason we don’t ask questions is because we’re afraid of the answers, right? We’re afraid that the answer will reinforce our greatest fears, and what I would offer is that radical self-love invites us to—no matter what the answer is, still I’m worthy and enough. It doesn’t actually matter what’s happening out there. The answer is I’m worthy and enough, and so if there’s something that doesn’t align with my worthy and enough-ness, then that’s the thing that needs the question, not me, and we have that switched.
Sheri Brady: I have two more questions. The first one is people are looking for sort of tips on building radical self-love in children. So many children are being indoctrinated so early, how can we disrupt this with children?
Sonya Renee Taylor: Absolutely, so again, curiosity. Teach your kids to ask questions, to not assume that the world that they are being given is the—is just it, right? This is one of the things that we squelch in young people all the time because we get annoyed as adults when kids ask us questions. Oh, please don’t ask me no more questions. Here’s the deal. If you want a child who is connected through a radical self-love, you want a child who asks questions, who asks questions about the world around them, and then you help them be critical of the things that are unjust, to the messages that will detach—because again, kids come here as radical self-love, then they are told, no, that’s not who you are. No, that’s not who they are, right? So the question is how do I continue to actually realign them to their truth and make them question all the other things rather than questioning themselves. That to me is one of the primary ways.
I have a book for girls, cisgender girls age 7 to 12. It’s a puberty book but it really is about sort of how do we start experiencing the changes of our bodies from a radical self-love standpoint. And then I also have another children’s book coming out hopefully in 2022 called the Book of Radical Answers. It’s also about how do we answer young people’s questions from a radical self-love standpoint.
Sheri Brady: Final question. How can people find out more about your work? Some people are interested in sort of getting you to talk to their groups, especially with young people so can you let people know how they can—
Sonya Renee Taylor: Yeah, so if you’re interested in, you know, hiring me, you can send me an email. You can shoot my agent—I don’t manage any of that myself but you can send an email to email@example.com or you can go to my website, sonyareneetaylor.com. You can fill out whatever form needs to be filled out and it will go where it needs to go to start those conversations.
If you’re just interested in hearing more about my ideas and thoughts, today is my last day on Instagram as a place of engagement. I will still post videos there but it is not a place where I will engage. Comments will be disabled but you can join me on Patreon for as low as a dollar a month. You can join me on Patreon where I will be moving my community and my conversation and my dialogue and my engagement over to that platform so I invite you to hang out there. Get the books. The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love, Your Body is Not an Apology Workbook. Those are all the places where I invite us to do the work.
Sheri Brady: Yes, get the book. I highly recommend it. Thank you, Sonya. This was a great session as you could see in the comments. Just fire. Thank you so much.
Sonya Renee Taylor: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Sheri Brady: Be well. Take care.
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