One of the perks of writing for the CFC is I get to shed light on projects that excite me. Dear Universe is one such project and it comes from my dear friend Yolo Akili. We had the opportunity to talk about his unique book and how it pushes the boundaries of traditional self-help and New age genres. Enjoy!
1. What made you want to write a book with this format of affirmations?
My love of affirmation books made me want to put it in this format. I grew up reading books by Iyanla Vanzant, Susan Taylor, Wayne Dyer, Pema Chodron and many more. I love those books and some of them have similar formats as “Dear Universe.” But one thing I realize with them, and the new age movement in general, is that they are sorely lacking in structural analysis and social context. In fact, the new age movement at large has been built upon the exploitation of indigenous and people of color’s beliefs. This has helped to fuel conversations on things like “creating your reality” that completely miss the “realities” of sexism, racism and other forms of oppression. All those things to me seem to be big omissions. So I wanted to create “Dear Universe” in this format so that it could be used as a tool to build upon those conversations. It’s really the first step in a broader dialogue about self/community care, spirituality and emotional wellness that I feel is a large part of my life’s work. That’s why I wanted it to be accessible so that it could not only appeal to progressive communities, but also to the mainstream as well-people of all faiths and political perspectives. It’s small and cute, but packs a lot of power and can catch you off guard at times (Kinda like me I’d like to think! lol)
2. What does the Universe mean to you?
The universe means community. The universe to me cites us as the place where spiritual power lies. When we call on the universe for support or guidance, we are not calling on some externalized far away force. We are calling on ourselves, our families, our communities.
I believe the universe as a theoretical concept can push back against spiritual belief systems that say “God/spirit power is out there somewhere.” This idea has always been troubling to me. It makes me think of the elder christian women I have met throughout my life, who are amazing healers. However, they always said that the power to heal was not them. They didn’t think they had spirit power, but that “jesus” or someone else only gave it to them at intervals. I often wonder for many of them what their lives would have been like if they believed that power came from within them, not from a man, or anyone else. I always wonder, what more would they have done? How much more could they have healed if they had been able to embody their power differently? This is why I think the Universe as a term can maybe get people thinking differently. Because if you have the power, and if you are the power, then what else is possible.
3. How did you feel while writing the book? Do you practice these affirmations in your own life
When I wrote the book I was depressed. Honestly. I was in the middle of my Saturn return, and most of my life had fallen down around me, along with my idea of who I thought I was. Writing those affirmations was a way to pull myself out of it. I didn’t even consciously realize that was what I was doing, but that’s That’s what Dear Universe did for me. I wrote those affirmations because they were what I needed to hear. They were what I needed to remember to find the strength to pull myself together. People always quote Toni Morrison as saying “ Write the books you want to read” well with Dear Universe, I wrote the book I needed to write to survive. I wrote the book that contained the magic and love that I felt was missing from my life at that time.
And yes, I absolutely practice these affirmations in my own life. I work hard to inscribe them into my everyday way of being. I don’t just read them in the morning; I take them to heart and try to consider them in how I am in the world. This is why writing them down became so necessary to me. I needed them in physical form. I needed them as reminders when the world tries to get me not to trust myself.
4. As a queer Black man, what lens do you bring to spiritual/new age conversations? What do you think about those labels as it relates to your work?
I’d like to think that my lens brings a sharper consciousness to these conversations concerning the isms, inequality and social justice.
5. Do you see your work as an intervention or part of a continuing conversation?
Dear Universe is the beginning of a conversation. One of the things I will be releasing in the future is mini curriculums that take many of the affirmations and expand upon them. If you want to, you can do an entire two hour workshop on just one affirmation. There’s that much in there, if you look closely enough. Using the book as a starting point, there are lots of opportunities to help facilitate emotional wellness discourses, workshops and much more, particularly with young people, which is a large audience I want “Dear Universe” to reach.
6. Your work acknowledges structural oppression which is not often talked about in new age conversations. Why do you think that is and why is that important for you?
Many Spiritual communities have long seen “structural issues” as something to transcend-which really means-not deal with. Yet to me, if everything is interconnected, our spiritual lives can never be disparate from our physical realities. The psychological and structural realities of the isms are embedded into everything, and those themes, which are ultimately about the suppression of spirit based on it’s physical manifestation, have to be dealt with. It’s important for me because I am concerned with contributing knowledge and work to the world that helps to eventually end unnecessary suffering.
7. You use the term “crazy” in one of your pieces. What does that word mean to you and how do you think about it in the context of anti-ableist work you do?
The piece you are referring to is the affirmation that says “I have to own my own crazy.”
When I was young, my grandmother taught me that everyone has a “little crazy” and that always stuck with me. Her idea of “crazy” sometimes did reflect psychological challenges, but more often it was more about psychological difference. She would say “You can’t never make up your mind and that’s yo crazy” or “Chile it ain’t about finding someone to love who is not crazy, it’s about finding someone whose crazy works with yours!” She encouraged us to “Affirm and own our crazy” which I read now as meaning “affirm our difference” or sometimes “affirm our trauma” as the things that has caused us pain and made us different (particularly me as a feminine black boy) were read as “crazy.” We couldn’t do anything with our “crazy” until we embraced it. If we kept running from it, we could never be whole.
In the context of the work, I understand the term crazy has a complicated history. It has been used against those of us with mental health differences and disabilities, women, African americans, trans and gay folks, in fact-almost every marginalized group you can imagine. “Crazy” seems to often be the pre-cursor for subjugation and silencing. Yet on the other hand for many of us when white folks, heterosexuals and even queers have said we are “crazy” –what they were naming as crazy sometimes– is embracing our self value, worth, and our gender expression without apologies — because in a racist heterosexist world it is understood to be crazy for us as black and queer people to do so. So I respond by owning “all my crazy” and that term. If that’s what crazy looks like, I will be that. I know that many people disagree and think that this word, and certain other words, should never be used. But honestly, I’m not from the school of thought that says silencing language leads to liberation. I’m not going to run around and say “the word that shall not be named” because that gives it more power. I don’t think language is one dimensional and as someone who has been impacted by the term, I think I have I have an opportunity to reframe it. Don’t get wrong, I do believe we need to question our use of terminology and be conscious of how it impacts others around us. And every word is different. This is just one way I (and my grandma) reclaimed “crazy”, in the context of how crazy has been used against us.
8. How should people use this book? What do you want people to think about and do while reading it?
However they like! Lol. I’m not issuing directions!
9. How do people get the book?
Books will be available at online retailers April 15th, and you can pre-order books now at DearUniverse2013.com.
10. What’s next for you?
Promoting the book and expanding on the concepts within it. My plan is to grow this discourse about spirituality, social justice and emotional wellness more and more.
For more information on Dear Universe visit DearUniverse2013.com and follow on twitter at http://twitter.com/@_DearUniverse