Local poet speaks of life as an African American woman
By Mindy Cooper/The Portland Observer
Turiya Autry’s work as an educator, artist and performer encompasses a lifetime of experiences as an African-American woman.
Whether teaching university courses on the role of black women throughout history, leading youth workshops, or slamming poetry on the mic, Autry is on a mission to encourage everyone to look more critically and lovingly upon the world around them.
Since moving to Portland in her 20s, she has competed in national competitions and performed in various venues, which catalyzed her career as both a teaching and a performing artist.
“My art and my work speak to what it means for me to be a black woman and all the things that entails,” said Autry, a single mother of two teenagers, who has opened for well known figures, including Angela Davis, bell hooks, John Trudell, Nikki Giovanni, Ursula Le Guin, Lyrics Born, Spearhead, Saul Williams, Kevin Garnett and Hillary Clinton.
Her love of literature, fiction and poetry, however, emerged in childhood through her own experiences reading the voices of other black women, including Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angalou, and Ntozake Shange.
“I think coming into the words of women writers helped me to define my voice because I felt and understood so much of what they were speaking about,” she said.
As a performer she’s shared verse and vision to crowds throughout the country by sharing her work, which reaches thousands of individuals from all walks of life each year.
“I think my greatest hope with my work as a teaching artist and as an artist is really to help people find their voice and be true to their experience, and have a better understanding of the role they play in the world around them,” she said.
Her experiences teaching art include various workshops and residencies with more than 50 different K-12 schools throughout Portland area.
She has taught 15 courses, totaling over 200 credit hours, at the college level, including classes on the movements of Black Feminism and Womanism throughout history.
“I have a really vested interest in a better reality for women, for women of color, and people of color because of the injustice that there is,” she said.
“In Black Feminism, the idea is that the more we understand the things we are facing, the better we are to make sure everyone is taken care of.”
Although the movement looks differently to everyone, she said millions of black women define Black Feminism as being about expression and sharing realities to create a broader picture.
“Oppression looks different to everyone. Activism looks different to everyone. We all have to find our way in the world, but there are ways as a collective where elements of our experience are similar,” she said.
Autry looks at Black Feminism to inspire and get other women to share their stories to remind each other of the multi-faceted struggles and issues affecting equity within our country.
As a movement, which emerged in the belief that we are all aspects of ourselves simultaneously, Black Feminism is inherently about having a wider awareness of how all oppression is interconnected.
“We all have multiple identities that we navigate,” she said.
First coined by writer Alice Walker, the difference between Black Feminism and Womanism, from other feminist aims, is the recognition that different women have unique struggles—especially women of color, she said.
While feminism was a strong force for change, it was a movement that spoke to a certain constituency of women, and it wasn’t inclusive to all things relevant to black women.
“Historically, it was a movement of women who wanted to work and have equal access to job opportunities, be able to provide their own incomes and be on par with white men in society and their environments.”
She said, however, Black women, women of color and poor white women have always been working, so having access to work was not the big push.
“When we look at issues facing Black women we have to look at not only race, not only gender, not only sexuality and class, but how all those things play out together,” she said. Black Feminism is looking at the whole person and experience, and it is not an either or situation.
“You don’t get to chose to be black one day, and a woman the next. We are all aspects of ourselves, simultaneously.”
Autry explained Black Feminism is rooted in the arrival of African Americans to the country during the Diaspora.
“From that moment we were faced with the reality that our race, gender and class were being determined by institutions outside of ourselves,” she said. “So everything we had to do to survive and live within those circumstances speaks to the birth and beginnings of Black Feminism.”
People see the Civil Rights movement as the beginning of a struggle, but actually women and black people in general, have been involved in that movement throughout slavery and up until the present, Autry said.
“There were often times we would have preferred to be at home and educate our children to give them more of an education that would help them navigate the world,” she said. “So much of our survival has been women passing those lessons onto our children and our communities.”
She traces the modern civil rights movement to the resistance black women had to slavery and their activism for building schools and organizing around issues.
She said this analysis of power, privilege and oppression, as well as a study of black women’s contribution to time and struggle against those dynamics, has been a strong underlying element to both her work, as well as to her personal perspective of self.
“My work as an artist, and my engagement with black feminism, is about engaging with my identity and the world, and how my identity interacts with the world interacting with me.”
Art, she said, becomes part of the resistance against these injustices.
“People are limited by space and geography to certain neighborhoods and economics, but one way to claim that space is by adorning the walls with what you want to see.”
Like Autry, black women throughout history have also had a strong hand in using the arts and music as a means of social change.
“Black women were the first recording blues artists traveling around the world and the country,” she said. “In hip hop, black women were part of the founding of that too.”
As a lyricist and poet, Autry said she sees the value in words and voice beyond the categories of difference, which is why she has dedicated much of her life to teaching youth to empower themselves through creative expression.
“I feel like young people carry it, and they need more opportunities to find and exercise their voices for positive social change,” she said. “It is important for us to share it, and it is part of what nourishes us.”
The vast majority of people are impacted by oppression, she said, so eliminating one form of oppression is not enough. “If racism hypothetically ends tomorrow, that wouldn’t guarantee sexism would,” she said. “It is really about having a wider awareness of how all these oppressions are linked to uphold the power structure in the U.S., as well as in various places throughout the world.”
After nearly a decade of working with youth, she is excited to continue her mission as the Education Director of Caldera, which is a non-profit that empowers kids to share their perspectives through art, which Autry believes is a powerful weapon for change.
My work with youth around the arts is part of my offering in helping others reach and explore their potential, she said. “Everyone has had some moment when there has been a song, a painting or a book that has helped them see things differently. That is the power of art, whether or not we see ourselves as creative or artists.”