Activism Ain’t Just MLK’ing. It’s Katherine Dunham and Dancing. It’s Octavia Butler and Sci-Fi.  

By Trelani Michelle

When we think of activism, we think of Martin, Malcolm, Rosa, Fannie, and the likes. We think of people on microphones in churches and on Capitol Hill. We think of people in the streets protesting with signs and bullhorns, saying what we ain’t gon’ tolerate. And we’re right to think that. It is.

It’s more than that though.

Activism is also dancing. Katherine Dunham reminded me that. Born on June 22nd, 1909 in the suburbs of Chicago, she started dancing in her late teens. Soon after, she started teaching young, black kids in the neighborhood dance techniques. While in college, she switched her major to anthropology. 

Katherine Dunham narrowed her focus to dance then earned fellowships to travel to places like Haiti, Jamaica’s maroon communities, and Trinidad to study how they danced, how they moved. She wrote about how they didn’t separate spirituality from dance and about how their techniques originated in Africa. And she brought those dances back to the U.S.

When she had to choose between college or dance, she opened the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theatre near Times Square in New York and started touring the world. Eartha Kitt and so many others got their first start at this school.

There’s activism all through the story already, but here’s more:

  • Before her, it wasn’t okay to do anything “African” on stage. European dance dominated.
  • She refused to do shows at venues that didn’t allow black folk to buy tickets.
  • She refused to sign a contract after they asked her to replace dark-skinned members of her dance company. 
  • She went on a 47-day hunger strike in her ’80s, because of how the U.S. government was treating Haitian immigrants.

Then comes June 22nd, 1947 and Octavia Butler is born in Pasadena, California. The first book of hers I read was Parable of the Sower. She wrote it in 1989 (it published in ’93), but the story is set in 2024. Clean water is hard to come by. Towns are being privatized by corporations. School is a luxury. And, no lie, the president is promising to make the country great again. She wrote this in 1989!

Science fiction, aka sci-fi, typically involves a future time, an imaginative place, or some kind of technology that doesn’t actually (yet) exist in the real world. Sci-fi is also dominated by white men. Now when you take black characters and create a different world for them, then you got Afrofuturism.

That’s activism at its finest.

Before you can live it, you gotta imagine it. You gotta be able to see it before you experience it. It’s gotta be real in the mind and in the heart first. Those are the first steps of activism. Katherine Dunham imagined a world of theatre where black people could move and sound like black people and be praised for it. Then it manifested. Octavia Butler imagined a 15-year-old black girl leading a community of grown folk and giving ’em something to believe in when the world is upside down.

And when a college classmate claimed that he wouldn’t have tolerated slavery, as if our enslaved ancestors were weak and ignorant people, Octavia Butler wrote Kindred to take us back to the era of slavery so that we could see ourselves in the characters. So that we could see their day-to-day decisions and their individuality. Though I’m a writer, I read very slow. Plus, my attention span is short. I gobbled that book up in two days. Then read it again a couple years later.

I appreciate Katherine Dunham and Octavia’s Butler for showing and reminding us that activism is 1) acknowledging the truth, and 2) creating a different experience for your people–whether you’re dancing, writing poetry or sci-fi, keeping/teaching/raising someone else’s children, voting, protesting, refusing to code-switch, running the Olympics with a 30″ weave and 8″ nails, and the list goes on and on (and on and on).

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Trelani Michelle authored seven books and ghostwrote even more. She graduated with an MFA in Writing in 2016 then taught high schoolers an interesting mix of creative writing and social justice.

After a 10-week internship with the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center, she published an oral history called Krak Teet, centering the lives of 19 Gullah Geechee elders over the age of 80. Earlier this year, Trelani was crowned Savannah’s Best Local Author.

These days, she’s known as the hood historian, teaching black history with a lil cussing in it and a whole lotta information school textbooks overlook. Life stories are her thing, so she helps people write about their life—whether it’s a book, a business page, or a bio.

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