Editors opened the doors to Freedom School, then even wider as magazine of black thought
Here’s a gift for a time cultural opportunities feel exhausted and the latest Netflix offering feels meaningless: A free, 100-page, sumptuously produced magazine full of voices and images most of us have never encountered or considered, with (as editors and graduate students Najha Zigbi-Johnson and Lesedi Graveline say in a foreword) poems, essays and short stories, photos, paintings and other visuals “grounded in themes of afro-futurism, ecology, community, lineage and ancestors, abolition, embodiment and pleasure, art and movement.”
The magazine, an often surreal and playful piece of art called Freedom School, became available online July 17 at freedomschool-litmag.com.
Thumb through its pages – the format allows the reader to mimic actual page turning for a richer experience than a traditional website – for a melding of words and images from people who are under-heard, and in many cases previously never heard. That’s on purpose: The editors’ goal is to be democratizing in a way that makes the magazine’s birthplace at the Harvard Divinity School even more surprising.
So Los Angeles-based filmmaker, architect and artist Kordae Jatafa Henry is interviewed in Freedom School (talking about how he connects his work to traditional African dance and ritual, as well as about how George Floyd and Breonna Taylor makes him think about the future). But there’s also work by Aliyah Blackmore, whose mix of poetry, art and essay on themes of ancestry and queer black identity called “Why Do You Wake Before the Sun?” appears because Zigbi-Johnson knows Blackmore – they’re lifelong friends.
“Harvard produces publications that don’t usually reflect the work of community advocates and leaders of people who don’t go to places like Harvard. It was really important for us that we pulled from communities beyond Harvard and reflect an array of identities and experiences,” Zigbi-Johnson said last week, as the editors sat for an interview by phone. (Some comments have been edited and condensed.) “For us this publication is very much its own commentary on the limitations of academic scholarship.”
Surprise again, then, to hear how Freedom School came about from within America’s most hallowed ivory towers: A class itself called “Freedom School: A Seminar on Theory and Practice for Black Studies in the United States” that Zigbi-Johnson created, pitched and got funded with doctoral student and Black Lives Matter leader Karlene Griffiths Sekou. It was a wholly student-led class focused on black thought and imagination that was made open to people from outside Harvard. (Assistant professor of African American religions Todne Thomas midwifed the idea.) “This course came to be because of the lack of resources for particularly black students at Harvard” who wanted to apply their studies in practical ways, Zigbi-Johnson said. One of the projects the class decided to do was the magazine.
With designers Giovanna Araujo and Chindo Nkenke-Smith, the editors began thinking last fall about Freedom School as a publication, though work began in earnest in March, after coronavirus arrived – and was essentially done entirely via Zoom video conference.
There was a learning curve, Graveline said, but the reception to the final product has been encouraging from the halls of Harvard to among hometown audiences. “I really didn’t think that members of my community in little Auburn, Massachusetts, which is a very small, Central Massachusetts town, would necessarily want to read something like this – they’re not even close to being proximate to black radical scholarship or thought,” Graveline said. “The fact that they could engage with this was really moving for me, because that was our goal.”
“To have my neighbors read it and say, ‘I love that poem by Arianna Monet, the way she’s talking about black women is so beautiful’ – I love that,” Graveline said.
People also want printed editions of the magazine, but those mass copies don’t exist. “Part of what we wanted for this magazine is that it would be free for everyone, and that there would be no limit to accessing it. That’s largely why it’s online right now,” Graveline said, describing also the pleasure of watching word spread through social media in communities representing an eclectic list of contributors.
Another democratizing element of the publication is the several “love letters” Graveline delights in seeing scattered through Freedom School, which address their authors’ origins. (For Graveline, a grandmother and great-grandmother in Botswana, “who I don’t think would be mentioned in a Harvard publication for any reason … it’s just so beautiful to see where people come from.”)
“It’s important to highlight that we didn’t do all this by ourselves. We are a part of a collective,” Graveline said. “We would not be here without our communities, without our ancestors. And we are doing this for those who will come after us.”