Left of Black with Ingrid LaFleur


Welcome to Left of Black. My name is
Sasha Panaram. I’m a graduate student in the English department and today we’re
joined in the studio with artist, curator, activist, and afro-futurist Ingrid
LaFleur. Welcome to the show. Thank you, Sasha. I want to start our
discussion today by talking a little bit about what brings you to Duke in Durham.
So you’re participating as part of the water series for the Franklin Humanities
Institute and it’s a year-long series that’s thinking about both aesthetic or
artistic and humanist responses to water. Everything from oceanic voyages to
refugee migration. Thinking about how people build entire lives around water.
And you’re gonna be giving a talk later today entitled “From the Drexicya to
Mars: An Interplanetary Water Mission”. And you’re also going to be participating on
the Aural Futures film festival or film series rather. I would like you to talk a
little bit more about for our viewers who may not be familiar with
afro futurism. Could you give us a broad view of how you understand that term and
also how you came to call yourself an afro futurist? What was your introduction
into the concept? Yes you know that actually took a little bit of time for me to call myself
an afro futurist. Me and labels it takes a minute. But I found it to be a little
important because afro futurism is this wonderful way of kind of gathering a
very particular type of cultural production and bringing together a
particular like-minded community. So by labeling myself after futures then I can
connect in a deeper way with a larger group of people.
So afro futurism is a way of discussing the black experience you think
speculative modalities like science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, horror.
Afrofuturists look at African and African diasporic spiritual practices,
mythologies, and legends and we also look at the intersection of
science and race and technology. All of that is really to look at ways for black
liberation by determining and controlling our destinies. But in order
to do that we have to really make sure that in the imaginary in our imagination
that we have new narratives. Decolonized narratives. And that we uncover these
kinds of what I call invisible histories that aren’t usually taught to us that
can really inform our present and help sculpt the future. Alright. And you
you’ve talked about yourself and described yourself as a community
organizer and so on thank you use the language of decolonizing the mind I’m
wondering can you talk a little bit about your project AFROTOPIA and sort
of what are the different ways that one would go about decolonizing the mind?
What are the different projects? Yeah decolonization is a process. I think it’s
ever-evolving. I don’t think you ever stop simply because we’re living in the
colony. So we’re always in this kind of almost opposition mode unfortunately. But
AFROTOPIA came about when I moved back home to Detroit about eight years ago
and I saw that white men were really determining Detroit’s future. Snd they
are still because they have the capital to do so.
Detroit is 85% black. We have majority of color. So it’s very strange to have white men determining our futures and as we all know that never goes well. So I
really wanted to create something where we are starting to envision people of
color and especially black bodies and these futures in Detroit. And I thought
Afrofuturism would be a good mechanism. Now prior to moving back home
Afrofuturism was a hobby for me. So I didn’t really understand how to
implement Afrofuturism. I understood it as this cultural movement as an
aesthetic, but I didn’t really understand how to
use it as a mechanism for liberation. So I experimented. I taught youth Afrofuturism, adults Afroturism, had a book club for a long time where we would
read Afrofuturist literature. I curated Afrofuturist film series of the Detroit
Institute of Arts and the Charles Wright Museum. And all of these moments I would
start hearing from people that one they’re already Afrofuturist and they
didn’t realize they were and two they really appreciated being able to connect
with the African diaspora through a different type of portal. And this is
like a global kind of connection right. And Detroit tends to be a little more
insular. At the time, museums aren’t really bringing certain exhibitions. They
weren’t bringing a lot of the cultural production that I thought for 85% black
city should always be present. And so now that’s starting to change. There’s a real
concerted effort on the larger institutions to do that. But at the time
there really wasn’t much. And also at the time Detroit was facing and we still are
but it was a super aggressive kind of take over. The emergency manager took over
right after I came back home and that is someone who is not elected by the people
who’s making decisions that have and still are affecting the residents of
Detroit in really harmful ways actually. And I will be talking about that later
today. So AFROTOPIA was my way of really
experimenting with giving people other options and kind of other ways of
being redefining blackness in a way that I’m hoping is empowering so that we can
really not control our communities but really contribute in a deep way in our
communities. And that is what’s really happening is the hyper local movements
in Detroit. That’s what’s keeping it going. That’s what’s so amazing and
exciting. That’s great. Especially this point about people were after Afrofuturist without necessarily calling themselves that. And when I think about
the term much to your point about it being a label there’s a way that in as
much as it gestures to this anticipated temporality this thing that’s in advance
of us so much of that is happening in black socialities that are unfolding
every day. And so it’s interesting that you created the space that both calls
attention to what’s already happening on the ground. And then also at the same
time sort of pointing people together such that they can think about
collaboration together. They can think about those modes of being collectively
in the world that they can then perhaps they’re using different forms different
technology it’s different tools to manipulate that or to put that in the
world in their own ways but now you’ve brought them together in this really
unique place. Right. So now AFROTOPIA has kind of shifted. I am now working in
blockchain technology and cryptocurrency and I’m looking at creating alternative
economies. So what ended up happening as an art curator I didn’t feel like I was
affecting the change that I wanted to see enough and in a deeper way. I enjoy
definitely shifting imaginations, but I wanted to see something physical. And one
thing about Afrofuturism that people might not know about is that time it
becomes nonlinear in that space. So it’s not necessarily about creating something
for us to kind of in the far future. The future is in the now. And so with that in
mind I’m really really focused on creating mechanisms for liberation in
the now and I really believe that through economics and the shift of
values within economies then we can really see deep deep changes because
really it’s the economy that is causing the deepest traumas and is preventing us
from really attaining that liberation that prosperity and growth
that we want to see in our communities. Can you talk a little bit more about
blockchain technology. That’s quite new to me. And so I imagine it might
be new to our viewers as well. So I’m curious about sort of how that became
the thing that this evolved into or your most current interest. Yeah. Right. So
when I ran for mayor of Detroit last year, I proposed a universal basic income
that Detroit would create using a cryptocurrency. And that just the crypto
world the UVI world just kind of descended upon me which was really great
and I ended up learning more and I took this whole past year learning more
about blockchain technology and cryptocurrency and now I’m the chief
community officer for EOS Detroit. EOS Detroit is a start-up based in Detroit
and we work with grassroots organizations to look for blockchain
solutions to really make whatever their efforts more efficient and effective. And
so blockchain technology is the technology behind cryptocurrencies. So
cryptocurrency the most well-known digital currency that everyone
loves to talk about is Bitcoin of course and that was established in 2009. Since
then, many different types of crypto currencies as well as watching blockchains have been created. And a blockchain is literally a digital ledger. It is
immutable and it’s transparent. And so those two things are really interesting.
It’s secure because it’s immutable. And because it’s
transparent and anyone has access to that information, there could be really
wonderful empowering ways to use it in terms of like in government for instance.
Certain levels of transparency could be very empowering for citizens. So
blockchain technology is actually where the innovation lies. It’s where the
excitement is. There’s many many more uses for it other than creating or
having a token built on the blockchain. You can have contracts that are
automated and you can create decentralized autonomous communities on
a blockchain where communities can create their own
token and really decide how it can be used to benefit their their people. That’s
wonderful to hear. Especially it exists both in the
community but outside of it and such that there’s a different type of
engagement that allows for a more equitable imaginary and then actualized
the world. And so it’s fantastic to hear you speak to that. I’d like you to talk a
little bit about sort of the decision back in 2017 to enter the mayoral race.
And so both the decision and then sort of what’s the most important thing that
you walked out of that process learning? Or what most surprised you? Yeah so it
definitely was the most challenging decision as a candidate that I’ve ever
ever had. It’s one thing to have opinions about our city state government you know
federal government. We all have those conversations around dinner tables right.
But it’s another to in 1 to 2 minutes explain it to people and then have
questions fired back. But what really motivated me was when I was teaching Afrofuturism and I want to learn more about education because I wanted to
create curriculums in a pedagogy actually. Afrofuturist pedagogy. And I
decided to substitute teach. Got in the classroom and my entire world shifted
and changed. That’s when I really understood what Detroit was facing and
these deep deep challenges. So before water shutoffs have been going on for a
while and Detroit but it wasn’t as public at that time. So I started
learning about water shutoffs by teaching children who were living
without water. There is actually a long list of things that you find in a
classroom and many teachers know and understand some of the psychological and
emotional stress the children are undergoing and exhibiting. So you end
up being a social worker or a mom and a friend and all of these other things
before a teacher. I just couldn’t- once you come in contact
with these issues and you see it in children, the responsibility is heavy. And
you can’t just walk away. There’s nothing. I always get emotional thinking about it
because people are quick to say just pay the water bill.
But if a person can’t afford to pay the water bill, should a child still have to
deal with living with that water and the stress that he sees their parents go
through to try and provide this one basic resource that our city
government is shutting off on them right? So as an impatient person I am I first
decided to take some time to go into the social justice community and really ask
the questions about okay I know that you guys are working on this. What are you
proposing? What has government said? Why
aren’t they responding? Why aren’t they stopping this? Asking the
questions. And I think that that is always important for anybody who wants
to like kind of champion a cause. You got to go and ask what’s already happening
and how can I help? And so I thought that running for mayor one I am not a
politician. So this is not a power grab. This is not about me becoming mayor. It’s
not an ego-lead adventure. It was really about making sure that people understood
all of their options to resolving these issues. And I was willing to take the
rest to discuss universal basic income when other politicians are not because
they don’t think that that’s going to get them the votes.
But for me it’s really about making sure that we’re creating like solutions that
get to the root of the matter and that hopefully are sustainable. And so
that’s why I ran. You know people thought it was a performance. It was not. It
cannot be when you know that so many lives are being affected by this. It’s a
very serious endeavor and through that process is when I began really looking
at these kinds of like blockchain technology and cryptocurrency. And
I did that through creating co-creation sessions in my campaign office. I invited
Detroiters to come. We sat in a circle. I presented the issue. Everything from
adult literacy to tax foreclosures and occupied homes to growing the creative
economy. Even cryptocurrency. And I would present the issue, some ideas around it,
and then we would talk like one big family around a dinner table. And I was
able to create a plan of action. And coming to the conclusion that the system the
economic and government system in which we’re residing in was never meant to
serve the black body. It was never meant to create any sort of
safety or prosperity for the black body. The black body is literally an object to
be bought and sold in the system. So then why for an 85 percent black city
are we still using these same methods? And I question that.
And in that questioning it led me into this path. And what I really love right
now is that I’m actually still working on everything that I proposed as a
candidate. I’m still doing the work. I’m just not doing it as mayor which gives
me a lot more freedom and flexibility. I don’t have to compromise any ethics or
values. That’s wonderful to hear. And it’s interesting to hear you talk about it
especially in this moment when so many more increasingly we’re seeing women of
color run for elected office and sort of thinking about the afterlife of that.
Whether or not one is elected into office, what can this look like in the
aftermath? And you’re speaking especially talking like hearing you talk about
AFROTOPIA and then the blockchain technology there’s a- it has an afterlife
of its own and certainly one that you’re following and you’re willing to follow
and let lead you where it takes you. You’ve mentioned family now twice and
you’re talking about it in terms of dinner tables being around. I’m wondering
about your own family. So you grew up you were born and raised in Detroit. You
did your schooling away. You traveled extensively from what I understand and
then you returned as you said back to Detroit. Tell us a little bit about what
it was like to grow and how your family influenced the
artistic and creative decisions that you have and that you pursue now. And
then also what is it like to return to Detroit after having been away for a
number of years? Yes. Oh man. Thanks so much. Okay
I’m a born and raised Detroiter. I went to public schools in Detroit. And at that
time Detroit was 99.9% black. It was wonderfully black. We call it our golden
era. It was not perfect but it was wonderfully black. And I say that
meaning as a child I got to see black people in all types of positions.
Everything. And so that really kind of shapes your world. And it kind of
explains a lot of the cultural production that comes out of Detroit
that we’re so known for. My dad was a dentist and read both the Detroit News
and Detroit Free Press every single day, was super political in his
opinions. But he was also an art collector. And so I grew up living in
museums and galleries and going to see independent films with my father and
really understanding learning the politics from him. One thing for sure
growing up upper-middle class he always said that I had this responsibility
because of that small bit of privilege to give it back. And so that always that
was just totally in grade since the minute I was born. My mother she’s now in
Detroit and she was a foreign language professor which meant that when she was
getting her doctorate she was traveling around the world to learn different
languages. And this is where I get my love for travel and just really
absorbing and experiencing different cultures. And so the combination
of the two basically created who I am. Addicted to travel. I love the arts. And
I’m always fighting for the people. That Detroit was definitely this
beautiful foundation of really solidifying my identity before I even
left at a young age. I went to Spelman College afterwards and then NYU for grad
school and got lost in the sauce of the contemporary art world which was booming
at the time because hedge fund managers were spending all this money and so it
was super exciting for sure. And it was expanding globally. And all of those
moments and experiences were really fascinating for sure, but what I saw was
that people of color especially were not necessarily present and I came to
understand black people weren’t collecting art. And it’s because the art
world is quite intimidating. And so I really wanted to be more of a conduit
between the audience and the artists. And so I curated and I started dealing.
When I came back home I thought that I could still be an art dealer. But when
people aren’t really comfortable spending $400 on a piece of artwork and
you’re coming from New York where people are spending 10 grand you realize that
maybe this may not be the most wisest thing to do here. And so I took a full
year of not travelling. And again I’m addicted to travel. So that was a big deal for me. And I just
tried to reacquaint myself with the city. And that was hard. It was very hard. When
I was growing up my grandmother’s neighborhood was a solidly blue-collar
neighborhood with flowerpots and porches and kids running around and now her home-
I mean she wasn’t occupying it. Qe sold it by them. But that home caught fire earlier this year. The one next to it is burnt down. Across the street,
three are burnt down. There’s some vacant lots. I mean it goes on and on and on. We
didn’t live that way. So for everyone who returns back home to Detroit, we’re just
in shock. And it takes a long time for the shock to wear off.
And you’re almost paralyzed by it because it’s overwhelming. And you
don’t really- because I had been gone for so long – I spent a majority of the time in
New York – coming back home I didn’t really understand- I mean you hear
certain things when you’re visiting for the holidays, but you don’t really
understand the full depth of the issue and how it’s a coordinated effort. You
don’t realize that. You know people just think oh the recession hit and
we lost our home. No. City and county government is literally taking
homes from people and then not being able to sell them abandoned. And they become these dangerous spaces for our children to walk past every day when
they go to school. And that’s just one slice of issue. We have school closing
issues. They have led in the water in schools. We have- you know it goes on and
on and on. So you know it really does take a moment. There are quite a few of
us you went back home at the exact same time that I did and we would sit and
think, “Oh my god! What’s going on?” And “What do we do?” And “How do we move?” And “We need
a hug.” And it’s a lie you know emotionally. But once you adjust, you get to work. And that’s what basically happened. That’s great. What’s next for you?
Well I am happily working on creating a decentralized autonomous community in
Detroit. We are creating this decentralized app that will support an
initiative to provide internet for Detroiters. Forty percent of Detroiters right now
do not have access to Internet. And it’s because the internet companies are
looking at the credit scores of the area. And so of course that’s gonna be very
low when you have recession issues still haunting us. But then also we’re facing a
64% poverty rate when you add the working poor. So that means that they
will either not have access to Internet at all or they’ll have access at a
very very low speed and a high cost. So the Equitable Internet Initiative was
created and they create a mesh network in three different neighborhoods. The lower income neighborhoods. And basically a mesh network is putting a satellite
on a house and then maybe like a couple houses over you put another satellite.
The signal bounces and then people in that area are able to have Wi-Fi. So
they’ve done like 50 homes in North End neighborhood alone. And it’s a really
great initiative. And so EOS Detroit is supporting that initiative and basically
creating a token so that people can pay for their internet and provide this
service and so hopefully incentivize more people to participate in the mesh
network so that we can have access to Internet. And so two things with this
which is really exciting is that we get to hopefully create this alternative
economy that is more equitable as you mentioned and then also increase digital
literacy. So one of the issues is that if you teach children coding in a school
well when they go home they can’t practice. And so that is the thing. We
really want to increase digital literacy. People of color have been marginalized
within the tech sector and the financial sector. So we really are focused on
making sure that Detroiters are not left behind and hopefully are not just
digitally literate but also innovating within the digital sphere and creating
tools that really help their communities. That’s great. We’ve been joined today on
Left in Black with artist, curator, activist, and Afrofuturist Ingrid
LaFleur. Thanks so much for talking to me today. Thank you Sasha.

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