InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each month ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This month ELIXHER spotlights Atlanta-based performance artist Red Summer.
ELIXHER: There is a history lesson and inspiring message behind your name – Red Summer. Would you mind sharing it?
RED SUMMER: I was a high school humanities teacher for 8 years and my students studied the Red Summer of 1919. It was a series of race riots that started in Chicago and spread across the country. My students found that what the popular media had reported was far different than what the people were reporting in independent publications and in personal accounts of the event. They also found that the emotional charge of the climate led to the artistic boom of the 20’s. At our wrap up, the students stated that they learned that the people must tell their own stories and that you can make something wonderful from something horrible. “Like you always make us do…” they said. So, they started calling me Red Summer and the name kind of stuck from there.
ELIXHER: And in 2008, you quit your job as a classroom educator to become a full-time artist. How has that experience been for you? How did you make such a life-changing decision?
RED SUMMER: One of the other classes I was teaching was an entrepreneurship class called “Turning Your Passions Into Profits.” I taught that class every spring and realized that I could not teach it another semester if I had not lived it. I realized that I’m good at what I did, but I wasn’t doing what I’m good at. So, I gifted myself an opportunity to live my own dreams. It’s been amazing and difficult and beautiful. Sometimes all of that in a typical day.
ELIXHER: What’s the biggest misconception people have of you?
RED SUMMER: [Laughs.] There are so many, where do I start? I used to get really caught up in people’s perceptions of me. I wanted to be liked, I wanted to have a lot of friends… but I saw a quote by Audre Lorde that said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Now, my house has a lot less kicking it and a lot more kids… a lot of them.
ELIXHER: I know you favorite poem is “Revolutionary Dreams” by Nikki Giovanni. Why that poem?
RED SUMMER: Because I spent a lot of my 20’s trying to be revolutionary. I went from being the wife of a minister in the Nation of Islam to being a radical lesbian feminist! I wanted to be regarded and to be noted for my intellect. I wanted to be respected for my stances on the important subjects of the time. And I was in a way. Colleges and organizations pay me to come and tell them what I thought about whatever it was I was thinking about. Then, after all of that… I want to go home, eat fruit with my children and be loved.
ELIXHER: I would say you are known mostly for your work as a spoken word artist, but people don’t know you have a background in theater and film. I know one of the first times I saw you on film was in Hanifah Walidah’s film, U People. Where did you get your start and where has it taken you?
RED SUMMER: I majored in theater in high school and college. I actually started my work in film doing production work with a filmmaker in Chicago named Coquie Hughes. I met Hanifah on the top of a mountain in Malibu and she invited me to be a part of her production team for her video in Brooklyn. We didn’t even know that U People would come of it. We were just so happy to be in that space at that time. I did a few indie projects from there and decided to go ahead and get in front of the camera… so, a lot of what I’m doing now is strictly as an actor. I’m really enjoying that.
ELIXHER: You are working on a new documentary. Can you tell us more about it?
RED SUMMER: Well, when we were on the set of the “Make a Move” shoot with Hanifah, we realized that about four of us were Muslim. That was an amazing revelation because I had never been in a room with four Muslim lesbians before. The doc I’m working on now came to me first as a book. I wanted to do an anthology of stories from women who were living all of those identities: black, Muslim, lesbian and to add another layer… living in the south. Al Nisa is the video version of that anthology for me.
ELIXHER: What does the title mean?
RED SUMMER: The title, Al Nisa, means The Women in Arabic.
ELIXHER: What inspired this project?
RED SUMMER: I was on a Facebook group and someone posted a topic about being queer and Muslim. I think we broke some kind of record with how long that thread lasted. It reminded me of the idea I had and reignited my desire to tell this story.
ELIXHER: What’s next for Red Summer?
RED SUMMER: Well, after the run of Al Nisa, I hope to have a novel for everyone. It’s something that’s been brewing in me for a while and I’ve started doing a lot more reading to prepare for the task. Grad school is putting a bit of a dent in my leisure reading and writing time, so, I’m pacing myself. I’m studying Heritage Preservation to ensure that we are trained and qualified to record the stories of our own community and document the ways we have made something beautiful from what we were given. I have a big name to live up to.
For more information about Red Summer, check out her website: www.theredsummerexperience.com.
-Interview by Tia. N. Williams
Tia N. Williams is a graduate student at the University of Georgia pursuing her M.Ed in College Student Affairs Administration. Tia has developed a passion for empowering young people around social justice issues. She aspires to be a Dean of Students at a college or university in the future.