When I was college, I stumbled upon a book called “Letters from Young Activists” that moved me to tears. For the first time I read about experiences that reflected my own, and it really influenced my politicization. Kenyon Farrow was one of the editors of this book. I wrote a review on the book on my personal blog only to find a comment from him thanking me for writing it! A few years later, I ran into Farrow when he spoke at a UC Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender conference.
Farrow is an activist and writer and former Director of Queers for Economic Justice. He’s currently writing his first solo book which will hopefully come out next year. He is a consultant for Political Research Associates, researching the Right and it’s impact on LGBT politics.
His work revolves around race, gender and sexual politics and he isn’t afraid of telling it like it is. He openly speaks about his personal experiences as a gay black man and how this impacts his politics. This year he was featured on BET’s Modern Black History Hero. Whenever he speaks at conferences, protests (including the recent SlutWalk NYC) and universities, it’s always a deeply moving and inspiring experience.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Kenyon Farrow.
Anna Sterling: How did you become politicized and what brought you to the work that you do today?
Kenyon Farrow: Part of it is a legacy I carry. I come from a long line of African Methodist Episcopal ministers. Several of them in my grandmother’s generation were involved in civil rights and desegregation work. My mother was an activist and organizer and did some tenant organizing when I was a kid in the housing projects in Cleveland. [She] had been a member of the Cleveland Black Panther Party before I was born. Even on my dad’s side, people are politically engaged. We love to debate and argue politics.
Secondly, when I moved to New York in 1999, I got here 3 weeks before Amadou Diallo’s murder by the NYPD. The city was going through a lot including several other police brutality [incidents toward] black men. A lot of black and brown queer youth were being targeted in the West Village. I actually moved to New York as an actor. I was theater major in my undergraduate studies and doing classical theater work in the city, but I felt my work as a performer felt less relevant than what I saw happening around me. My ability to do the work as an actor was being impacted by the gentrification and what happened to Broadway in the late 1990s. So I stopped acting and decided to write more and do more organizing work. Around 2002 I stopped acting full-time and focused the last 10 years on writing and organizing.
AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
KF: Shug Avery from “The Color Purple.” When I was a kid, I felt very much like Celie. I felt I was too skinny, unattractive and undesirable. Physically, I could relate to her but Shug was everything I wanted to be. She was creative, artistic and her own person. To be somebody she had traveled certainly the country at a time when it wasn’t considered okay. As a blues and jazz musician, it was even more scandalous. She was a slut. They said in the book “She has that nasty women’s disease” and they labeled her as such. She was queer and continued to live her life even when it was challenging for her. She was a preacher’s daughter and estranged from her daughter because the life she chose, but she still chose it and that was instructive for me.
I see my work and life as a writer and organizer in Barbara Smith. She’s a real life heroine. We’re both from Cleveland. I admire her ability to do the work she did as an out black lesbian radical thinker. She was challenged and attacked in many spaces for her stances and handled and continued to do work she wanted to do despite that and that’s left a great legacy for people like me to follow.
AS: What recent news story made you want to scream?
KF: The Wall Street protests makes me want to scream in some sense. There’s two things I’m tired of. I feel like in these mostly white left-led mobilizations there’s always a reference to slaves. “We’re slaves to bankers!” I’m tired of people haphazardly throwing around what they think chattel slavery is and similarly you often hear people equate oppression with rape. Physical, sexual assault capitulated in that way to describe other kinds of oppression is not okay. It’s always these rape narratives or comparisons to slavery I find both really politically shortsighted and also politically dangerous. What’s the difference between saying these young white kids are slaves to banks and Michelle Bachmann saying slavery wasn’t so bad for black families? Ideologically, the leaps are not that different and it’s a real problem.
AS: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
KF: One of the challenges is represented by some of the tensions happening around the SlutWalk movement. While we understand different communities are treated different and particularly women of color are hypersexualized historically, people still have to live under the conditions produced through the same narratives. We still see ways narratives about women of color’s sexuality and bodies play out even today in public policy and mainstream media and so on. What I feel is a challenge is around what to do with women of color who still figure out ways despite that history and contemporary reality to actually embrace wearing skimpy clothes and be overtly sexual. I see this broadly as a tension continuing to get raised and not knowing how to grapple with the Shug Averys of the world. Despite ways in which they are trapped by certain labels, people still figure out ways to embody sexual politics that don’t mirror the politics of respectability. That’s a real challenge I want more conversations around.
AS: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
KF: Thai panang curry. It’s almost an amphetamine for me. It does something extra that goes beyond a normal food experience. I’m getting carried away just talking about it! My drink would be mojitos. I can drink mojitos all day long. The feminist I would take is Zora Neale Hurston if I could resurrect her.