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Interview with NO! director Aishah Shahidah Simmons of AfroLez Productions

Still from NO! Photo Scheherazade Tillet

Still from NO! Photo Scheherazade Tillet

Aishah Shahidah Simmons is an award-winning African-American feminist lesbian independent documentary filmmaker, television and radio producer, published writer, international lecturer, and activist based in Philadelphia, PA.

In 1992, she founded AfroLez® Productions, an AfroLez®femcentric multimedia arts company committed to using the moving image, the written and spoken word to address those issues which have a negative impact on marginalized and disenfranchised people.

Her documentary NO! screens at the Institute of Contempoary Arts on March 15th

AfroLez – the name brings up Afrocentricity as well as lesbianism, do you think those ideologies make a difficult marriage?
I’m re-interpreting language and attempting to make it more inclusive. In 1990, I coined the term AfroLez®femcentric to define the culturally conscious role of Black (African descended) women who identify as Afrocentric, Lesbian and Feminist. I created this word to counter the line of thinking which assumes that if you’re of African descent and identify as queer and feminist then you’re not a part of the Black community. There is also an assumption that if you are Black and queer, you don’t have an understanding of racism and/or that you’re not committed to the struggle for the liberation of African descended people throughout the world.

I take this a step further to say that I believe in and support the liberation of ALL marginalized people. I want to envision a world where everyone understands that no one is free while others are oppressed.

How does if affect queer people of African descent negotiating a Eurocentric queer culture?
People of African descent, regardless of our sexual orientation and gender identity, who live in the West are existing in a Eurocentric culture. As a Black feminist lesbian, I personally believe that existing in a specifically Eurocentric queer culture has a negative impact on people of African descent because more often than not the queer identity is centralized at the expense of all other identities.

What’s problematic and troubling for me is that often queer identity is equated with White queer identity while African, Asian, Latino, Arab, Pacific Islander, Aboriginal/Indigenous, Roma/Gypsy queer identities are marginalized in the name of queer unity.

If homophobia and heterosexism ended right now, I would not be safe as an African descended woman. I would still have to fight against racist and sexist oppression. So, I have to incorporate all of my selves in any space. However my herstory and contemporary reality have shown me that more often than not, I’m covertly and overtly asked to leave my racial/ethnic identity at the metaphorical door of Eurocentric queer spaces.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying people of African descent should completely abstain from a Eurocentric queer culture. That’s ridiculous and for many, impossible. I know for many African descended queer people living in various countries in Europe, South American, and/or in some cities/towns in the US and Canada, being in a Eurocentric queer culture is their only option. I am, however, suggesting that we do not negate, deny, marginalize our cultural/racial/ethnic identities while celebrating/living our queer lives.

Why do you make documentaries as opposed to fiction?
While I thoroughly enjoy narrative films, I’m interested in creating a cinematic space where herstorically marginalized women can give their testimonies about their lives. I believe that my choice in filmmaking formats is strongly influenced by my preference for reading non-fiction over fiction. In many ways, NO! is two simultaneous documentaries merged into one. I am feminizing Black history from the time of the enslavement of Africans in the US to the present-day. I am also breaking silence about sexual violence within Black communities in the US. If I weren’t a filmmaker, I think I would’ve been a historian. At some point on my life journey,  I may venture into narrative filmmaking. However, right now I am committed to using the documentary format to tell the stories that have yet to be told.

Where did the idea for NO! come from?
I started making NO! in 1994 and the idea for NO! came from my strong desire to cinematically break the silence that countless Black women have kept (and keep) about the various forms of sexual and physical violence that they experienced (and experience) within Black communities. I also made NO! because I am an incest and rape survivor.

Through my making NO! I literally healed and saved myself. When I started working on the project 15 years ago, I envisioned it solely being used within the African-American community. Little did I know at that NO! would speak directly to and be used by countless women in numerous countries in Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Europe and India. While this speaks to the power of cinematic story telling, this also speaks to the sobering reality of the universality of violence against women.

What are your working on next?
While it took me 11 years to make NO!, I spent additional time creating supplemental materials, which include a 100-page interactive study guide, a 2-hour supplemental video, and subtitling NO! into French, Spanish, and Portuguese. After 14 years of very literally living with both the vision and ultimately reality of NO!, I’m very slowly but surely recuperating from an amazing journey which metaphorically took me to hell and back. Presently, I’m in the very initial stages of my next feature length documentary project on Black Muslim women, which will be a collaboration with my mother Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons who is both a practicing Sufi Muslim and a Feminist Islamic Scholar.

NO! screens at the Institute of Contempoary Arts on March 15th

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2 Responses to Interview with NO! director Aishah Shahidah Simmons of AfroLez Productions

  1. Wow, it looks like there are going to be two films that I know of about Black Muslim women. It sounds like one is on Muslim women in general and the other on Black Lesbians (who use to be?) Muslims. I wouldn't mind doing a short narrative piece inspired by a very close friend of mine who is a muslim that fell in love with one of the wives many years ago. I promise her I would never tell…lol. I would like to revisit that conversation and see if she would give me permission. Anyways…without saying too much, it's a crazy unbelievable story I was still to this day shock about.

    In peace,

  2. I have frequented your port before. The more I read, the more I keep coming back! :-)

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