Below the Radar Transcript
Pandemic Conversations: Reading the Political Moment — with Michael Roberson
Speakers: Paige Smith, Am Johal, Michael Roberson
Paige Smith 0:06
Hey listeners. Welcome to the ninth episode of our Below the Radar Conversation Series. Today we talk with Michael Roberson, public health practitioner, activist and LGBTQ community leader. Michael and our host Am Johal talk about how to read the current political times. Enjoy the episode.
Am Johal 0:30
Hi, welcome everyone. Excited that you could join us again on Below the Radar. I have Michael Robertson here with us: activist, educator, public health practitioner, and many, many other things. Welcome, Michael, wondering if you can just start by introducing yourself a little bit.
Michael Roberson 0:49
So my name is Michael. Well, first of all, welcome, welcome, welcome. And, and I'm very, I'm not only excited to be in dialogue with you, but very happy that you invited me to be in dialogue with you. My name is Michael Roberson. I am originally from Camden, New Jersey. Camden is a small inner city, across the bridge from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My trajectory about Camden is that it’s Hood Hood. I can say that because I'm from there. I'm going to create a word that you can't get any hooder, then Camden, Camden, Detroit, Baltimore, all of these sort of North Eastern Midwestern urban cities have very similar infrastructure, very similar problems. So yeah, I was born there, bred there, went to school there, graduated from Rutgers University, and applied to law school twice, got accepted, and put on a waiting list and got tired of waiting and began working for the Kansas City Board of Education as a crisis counselor. Then I moved to New York City in 1999, with $177 worth of change, to do public health, much more concentrated with black LGBT folk, Black, Latino LGBT folks, and more specifically, the house ball ballroom community. I was blessed enough to create some things and then in 2008, I got fired in a very public and very painful way. One of the great Greek philosophers montain says that philosophy is about learning how to die. And for me, there was a decimated. If philosophy was learning how to die, then theology is about rebirth. And so I went to seminary and got two masters degrees in theology, but not to be a minister at all. But I wanted to place public health in conversation with theology, because because it was my assertion that the theological abomination narrative had direct impact on health disparities impacting black gay men. And so since then, because I've been doing public health for 27 years, since then, I've started doing public health as a consultant. And I've also been doing race and sexuality and theological work through the Center for Race and Religion and Economic Democracy for the last nine years along with the public health. I am a member of the International sound art collective called Ultra-red. Ultra-red emerges out of the act of movement in 1994, with artists like mine who thought that sound can be an apparatus, or an investigative tool, particularly as you engage in oppressive structures, more more specifically, at the time, looking at the AIDS crisis, and IV drug users and then so, and gay men, and so it's been around for now for 26 years, and Ultra-red has six projects around the world, one in Berlin, two in London, two in Los Angeles, one in New York City. The one in New York City, my colleague Robert and I often times organize, which is a collective called college around the house ball ballroom community. So for the last eight years, I've been known in national art and politics through Ultra-red. I am an adjunct professor, I teach a two day course at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and two courses with Robert Sember at the New School University in New York City. And last thing I'll say about me is that I owe two things. I am blessed enough to have been, to be a cultural consultant for the new FX show Pose about the ballroom community. And I was just hired four weeks ago as a public health advisor and the Community Engagement Specialist for the New York City COVID-19 contact tracing initiative. So yeah,
Am Johal 4:25
Wow. Wow. I wanted to speak with you a little bit about if you could talk a little bit more about Ultra-red like coming out of the ACT UP movement in the US, particularly for audiences here in Vancouver and Canada who may not be aware of it. It'd be great to get a little bit of background in terms of how long you've been working in public health, particularly around HIV AIDS and also other health impacts.
Michael Roberson 4:54
So I come to Ultra-red through Robert Sember, I met doc growing through Robert. Oh my god this has... for about, I think 11 years. Robert, 2009 Robert was, he had a residency at the New School just prior to him becoming an assistant professor there. And Ultra-red was looking at doing some work around the house ball ballroom community. And I had introduced Robert more broadly to a colleague of mine, both of ours, who we call the mother of HIV prevention and community organizing in the ballroom community in Arbor, Santana. And Robert an arborist and daunt created the arborist intent... No, at the time it was called the Ballroom Oral History Project and looking at sort of the oral history of the house ball community. And, and the ability again, to use this archival history as a way to organize. This was so for Robert and Don. This is very dialogical to Utra-red's work because Ultra-red was becoming less artists but more organizers who use art, that's right, Robert is absolutely but he's organizing. Same thing with Don. But as we begin to attract not only people in Ultra-red who they were doing work with maybe not be official members, but also the communities that Ultra-red began doing work through. So Ultra-red for instance, do a lot of work in the west coast in Los Angeles work around Pedagogy, the school of echoes, but also work around migration issues, particularly with migrant workers in LA, East LA, and in London, they do a lot of work around gentrification, and sort of political movements that way. And then again, in New York City, we do a lot of work around the house ball ballroom community. One of the things that's before, so for me, I became familiar with Ultra-red through Robert 2009. And around 2012, they asked me because Ultra-red was hired by colleagues of ours now at an art collective called Erica, which is in Glasgow, Scotland, who was the first non US artist to be commissioned to do the Whitney Biennial. And they hired Ultra-red to organize their week full of events. And so Ultra-red looked at, created a week full of events and called it the Sounds of Freedom, looking at historical art movements, altruistic art movement in many ways, who used art to investigate systems of oppression. And so they got a guy named George Lewis, who was at Columbia University, he did a lot of work around jazz. And he did some, some some, he did a protocol around jazz and electric guitar and just some performances.
Michael Roberson 7:53
Fred Moten, one of the premier scholars around the black radical aesthetic tradition, they also got him to do some work around that same thing. He did some, he did a protocol around that, and did some performances. And then it got the people can't think of their names at the moment, who are pivotal in sort of the organizing the creation of the New Yorican, New York and poet movement in New York City. And they just didn't work well. And they asked me to be do the work around ballroom to do a protocol around room ballroom, as the first protocol for me was that the houseball ballroom community being a community that's predominantly black, Latino, and LGBT, was not going to perform at the Whitney. Partly was because one, the expectation for us is to always just before not only because we're, we're ballroom, but also because you're black and Latino, as well as LGBT. The other thing for me was that particularly in a space, like the Whitney, who in it's everyday operation doesn't offer opportunity as space for marginalized, particularly class marginalized communities to be involved, like ballroom. But I was always a fanatic, a fan of Cornel West. And I remember listening to one of his lectures in 2006, on YouTube, I forgot who it was honoring, and he talked about this notion of philosophy and freedom. And so I said, um, for me, instead of performing ballroom has something to say. So I constructed a concentric circle format, it got nine ballroom leaders to sit in a circle. And then we created concentric circles surrounding them, and about 100 and... 100 plus people came to listen to the conversation, because one of the things one of the protocols at Ultra-red is that we do listening sessions, right, we either use audio or video, the video stuff really came through me but uh, to, to, again to to engage in dialogue for other folks to be able to listen to, and so I had these folks sit around these non ballroom folks. And I facilitated a conversation called the what did i call it? The Intersected Labors of Oppression. Right. So I asked the non ballroom people, for instance, the trans folk in the circle and the ballroom community, I said to them, what does it mean to be a fem queen, a fem queen is a term we use for trans women in the house ball community. And so, you know, they will respond to it, I asked to gay men the same thing, what does it mean to be a butch man in the house ball community, and butch man is a term we use for gay men in the house ball community. So they responded, then I took it a layer up, they had no idea. That's what I was doing. And I asked them, What does it mean to be part of the house ball community within the larger black LGBT community? So without them knowing where I wanted them to go? They begin to talk about systemic classism, because historically, there has been classism over and against the house ball community coming from and stemming from the larger black LGBT community. So they begin talking about that. So the last the next layered up question, what does it mean to be part of the black LGBT community within a larger Black community? So they began to talk about systemic homophobia. So then I asked what does it mean to be black in America? They began to talk about systemic racism. So the fundamental question for me was then through all of these intersecting labors of oppression, because oppression, oppressions are laborious, right, they're not static. They're working within one another systematically and intentionally. I said, so through all of these labors of oppression, what does it really mean to be human and free? So they took a pause and then this, this outpouring of dialogue that was emotive and everything began to happen. So after that happened, we took a break to everyone, including those of us listening, so 100 plus people in the back of the room had big poster boards up, and I asked those who came to listen, not the ballroom folks, just three propositions. What did you hear? What did you see? What did you feel? And the kind of generative sort of formations that came out of those three propositions were amazing. This then opened up space for both Don, through Robert, Ultra-red, but also Erica to say to me, “Oh, Michael, we think we want to do more work with you.” So that began my relationship with Ultra-red.
Am Johal 12:26
Now, when you are engaging in these art practices, and community organizing, and then all of a sudden you kind of pry a door open into, say, public health agencies, clumsy, bureaucratic structures that are looking to get into communities to share information, get information back, how do you deal with moving across and being inside of that system, all of a sudden, like that, when you pry open that space, all of a sudden, you're in this whole zone of a bureaucracy and a world that speaks in different languages that has different tones in terms of its bureaucratic inertias? These types of things. How did you navigate that context?
Michael Roberson 13:17
That's, to me, that's the beauty. This is an interesting conversation. That's the beauty of being both gay, so as a gay man, right, but also doing HIV prevention. Because oftentimes in the early days of the AIDS movement, most of the people doing the work were artists, right. But think about let me talk about specifically black gay men. When I think back into when I went to union, to get my first master's and did. I got a lot of pushback from professors that said that I was done lifting up enough theologians. And I said, Well, you name some theologians who theologized around the intersection of blackness and my gayness and I'll look them up. They thought I was lifting up too many artists, too many poets, but it was the poets, it was the artists who were also organizing. So there was the Essex 10 field and the Joseph being and Santo saints, who are talking about being black and gay in arelationship to God, but also in relationship to the AIDS epidemic. So for me it for being part of the LGBT community, both being black and being and the large LGBT community, it was just an easy was an easy, what's the word I want to use? It's the tension that you were sort of talking about describing. It just felt that it was just an easy, it was a very easy sort of unfolding, right, if you will, right. And so, if you think about it back in the day, it's interesting to have Tony Fauci to be in this moment around COVID, because Tony Fauci was also pivotal during aids, right? And so he became this ally to the community because ACT UP beat him, if you will, into submission. Right, taught him right. It taught him how to do what he does now. And so this, so I'm describing sort of the same thing. So for me, I don't I didn't find it difficult. That's number one. But number two, I also think that being part of the house ball ballroom community, and having to do work around the community that I belong to, it was also a very easy thing to say that if we are going to, let me say it different, it was also an easier thing to say that if we are going to create interventions, to address the HIV concerns of this community, that it's our practices, right? It's it's theological, our practices are both theological, political formulations around freedom and joy, and all these other things that have everything to do with the way we deal with public health, that it doesn't mean there was not a public health in relation to HIV, it does not mean that we didn't get a lot of pushback. Absolutely. I got a lot of pushback.
Am Johal 16:16
When I first met you back in January, you also talked about this phenomenon, particularly in New York, of black men being shunned from the church, and ballroom, providing a kind of family, a support system around which it wasn't really being identified by public health agencies either.
Michael Roberson 16:44
Yeah and so some of that is a historical conversation. I think that it’s beginning to shift now. But part of the reason I went to Union Theological Seminary was for that very, that very thing, that the theology of abomination has such a direct impact on health disparities impacting black gay men, but that public health, it's limitation around crisis management was not saving communities. And so that in which I desired to talk about, that in which our heard community members talk about public health in many ways, said, that's religious, right? And that there's no, there's very little space for that. So that's part of the reason why I went to seminary for ballroom in and of itself, to, to your point, ballroom in and of itself, I think, not only provided what I call a space for political literacy, even though we didn't think that's what it was doing. But it also created a space of, of a theological matter, you know, when you when you when you've been told that the very essence of who you are, is the antithesis to God, and God for black folks has been the center of our freedom movement, it then says that you are not part of the lexicon of the black struggle for freedom. But it also says that in which you are designed to have this relationship with God, you have no access to. And so ballroom, for me, created that space. And I think it creates that space for a lot of black Latino LGBT folk, even though that there's not a lot of attention paid to that, there’s not a lot of folk who are sort of articulating that. I'm a believer that that's exactly what it's doing. I gave a good example, you know, I am a consultant with the heat program, which is in Brooklyn, New York. And one of the things that we do as an intervention called many men, many voices, which in its original format, is an HIV prevention behavioral change intervention that I helped to nationally difuse for the Center for Disease Control from 2000 through 2007, so almost every community based organization in New York, in the United States, it does work around black gay man has to do that or that intervention. And so I facilitate that for the heat program, but I do it mostly, a lot of the times I use Union Theological Seminary to do the intervention around black, young black gay, young black gay men. At the seminary, the very space that created pain is providing this space to reconcile that pain.
Am Johal 19:35
Now I know that you collaborate a bunch with my, our mutual friend, Alessandra Americo, and Free Home University and with the Musa Gettys foundation, so you've been coming up to Toronto quite a bit in Guelph and other places, but I think given your background and story, it would be great to get some of your reflections in terms of how we can read the present political moment, there's so much going on with a pandemic, with Black Lives Matter, with Trump being president and all of these things. I think that there's a lot of, a sense of people being overwhelmed by the present political moment and how to orient oneself with all of these multiple crises on top of crises that already existed before. And I know that's a big question, but I wanted to throw that out to you to help us maybe think through that.
Michael Roberson 20:31
You know, I, we were having initially a conversation with one of my great colleagues whose shoulder I stand on named Kwame Banks. Kwame comes out of Philadelphia as well and he is the very first person I saw do sort of ballroom. And also community organizer, intersected them both. And we're talking about this moment, and I said that I'm, I'm a believer that the universe is asking us to take a cosmological pause, this is what the pandemic has done. So this is part of the reason why we're paying so much attention to this moment, because we all are asked to take a pause. And so in this pause, I am a believer that there are three propositions that the universe is putting forth, for us to, to sort of, to contemplate on. One is a philosophical one. The philosophical question is, who do we desire to be? So when we move out of this moment, as we're moving out of this moment, who do we desire to be now? It's not just who we're going to be, but who is it that we desire to be? The second one is a theological proposition, which is how do we desire to love more expansive, we have at this moment to me has not taught us one thing is that the notion of communities coming together, and in an invoice in the ethic of love, if that's not the most important thing then I think we've missed the moment. And the third one is a political proposition, which is, how do we begin to politically organize differently, moving away from a right not to die, and moving towards the right to live? Those are two separate things, I think, oftentimes, marginalized communities are engaged in the political trajectory around, we deserve not to die. That's a different sentiment than saying, I claim my right to live. And so that to me, those three things I think the problem, this moment is asking us to think about. It's very interesting that here we are in a pandemic that is illuminating, right, all of sort of the brokenness of our system. And that I speak from a particular house ball lens, in that next year is the 40th anniversary of grid. Between two pandemics are we situated in, but think about the 1980 Ronald Reagan becomes president. And he ushers in this move away from Barry Goldwater's ultra conservative Republicans, connected to less government and more towards this new neoliberal project of the Republican Party, right, connected to global capitalism, the deregulation of banks. Reagan was very boisterous around the war on drugs, the disposable bodies, disposing black and brown bodies, who were implied in this one drug into mass incarceration. But he was very silent around the AIDS epidemic. Again disposable bodies, most of those who were being affected, were a gay men. And so here we are, 40 years later, Trump being president, and there's a move towards, away from the neoliberal Republican connected to big bank, big money, more towards a Trumpism that's really around fascism. And another pandemic emerges. And so in, and so in between those things, I think the illumination, particularly in the US context, white supremacy, this moment of George Floyd is something I think we have to sit back and reflect on. What are we being called to do? What are we being called to ask? I think I was listening to a woman my body or
Michael Roberson 24:52
she talked about Black Lives Matter as a movement may have been contextualized or concretized in 2012 in relationship to Gabrielle Martin. But the movement around mattering of black lives has always been, it's just that this moment right now is asking us to think differently. And part of what has happened is that it's allowed this sort of global kind of protest, but it's intersectional. And in its reach, where you're having, typically, white folk in relationship with black folk, in relationship with Indigenous folk, in relationship with Latinos around the border wall, having sort of a conversation. So I think that this one of those moments, it could be one of those moments of watershed, this could be a watershed moment. How are we then again, addressing allyship and approaches. I think there's a difference. But I have said for a long time that Trump is an absolute blessing and I know that sounds antithetical to progressive talk, but he's a blessing and why he's a blessing because if Hillary became president, even though I voted for Hillary Clinton, if she became president, we would have still lived in this false pretense that we live in a post racial society. Obama became president and so we don't need to have a conversation around race. Like, we would have thought we were still lived in this notion that the next hurrah around civil rights is marriage equality. But then Trump becomes president and his sort of his attack, particularly on trans lives and the military, particularly in the military, and, and help and engaging in sort of these things, blocking of bonus for tranfolk, of illuminating that that's not the case. And so, because of Trump, and this is not, you know, a supporter from because of Trump, that you're seeing folks who oftentimes have never been engaged in a dialogue of support. So I've seen black men, black trans men, talk about black trans women's lives in a certain kind of way. I've seen a black folk talk about in support of the immigration issues that a lot of Latinos are forced to confront in the US, which has never had never really occurred in such a kind of way. You're seeing this relationship between public for, in particular, in relation to health disparities, and access to health, then compensated with was pulled off of the you've never really seen before. And at this moment of Trump being president, sort of pulled that all together, had again had that been Hillary we would still be living, and thinking nothing was broken. And the laughing about that, and this current moment, it's illuminated all of the cracks that has been part of our capitalist system.
Am Johal 28:04
So as we're speaking right now, we're a few days before July the fourth when we put this out in public, it'll be a few days after, but you'd mentioned you'd been doing some reading around this date.
Michael Roberson 28:19
So when when we first got going I started talking about some things, I did not know we were not recording. But I talked about a great colleague of ours, Alessandro commerical, who is the founder and director of the Free Home University in legit Italy. And she travels between both New York City mostly, and lecture Italy, who I started doing work with in 2015, through the Musa Gates Foundation, met her through my colleague Robert Sember of Ultra-red and so she's part of a collective called Eco-versity. And they do these monthly calls. And she thought that the moment, particularly around the George Floyd moment, was calling for them to engage in the conversation around race, global sort of blackness, if you will. And she asked me to help her to articulate that conversation, but also to host the event. And so she got a colleague of hers who is born in King Burke, Germany, to be in the dialogue. She also got an artist and an educator and named also from Sao Paulo, Brazil and I brought in my colleague and friend Dr. Charlene Sinclair, who is the founder of the Center for Race and Religion Economic Democracy. And what I realized, that the day that we did it on, on last Sunday, June 28, was LGBT pride in New York City. Not only was it LGBT pride but because of COVID, we can't celebrate the way that we normally celebrate. And so not only was it pride, it was the 50th anniversary of the very first Pride that happened in the 1970s that this conversation we were having was sandwiched between pride but also tomorrow is the fourth of July. And some of the hypocrisy around this American project of democracy, what a moment to be able to talk about that. So I took that conversation and I've read some things from Frederick Douglass, who had a speech in 1852 in Rochester, New York, entitled, What to The Slave is The Fourth of July? Then I read that day, President Trump is giving a speech and there is a rally in front of Mount Rushmore. Mount Rushmore is the mountain in which four presidents are carved into the Black Hills mountains of the Great Sioux people, sort of the contradiction in that. And so I wanted to if I could read something from Frederick Douglass something from the great chief of the Sioux people and sort of contextualize this moment. So Frederick Douglass writes, "What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour." he placed that in conversation with a great chief of the Sioux Nation who just put out today. He said "Nothing stands as a greater reminder to the Great Sioux Nation of a country that cannot keep a promise or treaty than the faces carved into our sacred land on what the United States calls Mount Rushmore. We are now being forced to witness the lashing of our land with pomp, arrogance and fire hoping our sacred lands will survive. This brand on our flesh needs to be removed and I am willing to do it free of charge to the United States, by myself if I must. Visitors look upon the faces of those presidents and extoll the virtues that they believe make America the country it is today. Lakota see the faces of the men who lied, cheated and murdered innocent people whose only crime was living on the land they wanted to steal. The United States of America wishes for all of us to be citizens and a family of their republic yet when they get bored of looking at those faces we are left looking at our molesters. We are the ones who live under the stare of those who have wronged us while others have the privilege to look away and move on, we cannot. When I can remove those faces from our land I believe I would not be alone." So for me, those two sentiments speak very freely of what this moment meant. One in 1852 and then the other in 2020. What to the grave sin of America I can is the genocide of Indigenous people in dialogue with people.
Am Johal 34:23
Michael, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar. It's been wonderful to speak with you and I really look forward to your visit to Vancouver when the border situation allows it, probably sometime early next year. But look forward to keeping this conversation going and thank you so much for the amazing work that you do in so many different places.
Michael Roberson 34:49
And thank you for inviting me and I listen to me, I'm looking forward to, I have never in my life been to Vancouver. So when COVID happened and I said “oh my god does this mean I can't go to Vancouver.” So I'm very excited not only to come to visit Vancouver but to be in dialogue with the wonderful people that I know are doing such great work there.
Am Johal 35:08
Paige Smith 35:14
Thanks again to Michael Roberson for joining us on this episode of Below the Radar. Below the Radar is created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Stay in the loop with Below the Radar by following us on Twitter and Facebook and be sure to subscribe wherever you find your podcasts. As always, I want to thank the team that puts this podcast together, including myself, Paige Smith, Fiorella Pinillos, Kathy Feng, and Jackie O'bunga. David Steele is the composer of our theme music, and a special thank you to our listeners. Tune in next time for a brand new episode of Below the Radar.