Building Strength through Movement and Afrofuturism
Over on her Instagram page, Ruby Smith Díaz suggested that her dialogue with Nora Samaran in Turn This World Inside Out would be a good read for Black History Month. She’s right! So we’ve excerpted it below. As Ruby puts it: the exchange is about “Blackness, Afro-futurism and reclaiming autonomy over our bodies through movement and rest.”
Ruby Smith Díaz was born to Chilean and Jamaican parents in Edmonton-amiskwacîwâskahikan (ᐊᒥᐢᑲᒖᐚᐢᑲᐦᐃᑲᐣ). She is an arts-based anti-oppression facilitator, a multidisciplinary artist, and a personal trainer supporting marginalized communities in feeling powerful and grounded in their bodies.
NS: What does nurturance culture mean to you?
RSD: Imagining a world that is much more oriented toward life, thriving, and a future.
Violence against Black people often reaches the extent of death. Not to lessen the impacts of other harms, but for us it often results in death. So, for me, self-care to build resilience and joy are essential. Self-care is so often denied to us, and we often deny it to ourselves. It can mean care of the body to build physical strength, as well as connection to culture and art to build inner strength.
Art is an incredible way to challenge and heal from white supremacy because you can create art that has nothing to do with the current reality that we’re facing, and instead, create a reality that isn’t solely created in resistance to an oppositional force, but is created in a noncoercive way, on our own terms.
For me, nurturance culture has meant looking into my own history, it has meant wearing clothing full of patterns that are reflective of my own identities and trying to learn about them, participating in DIY culture and creating food, literature, art, and clothing that are reflective of my identities, and also participating in projects that defend and enhance the lives of those communities whose very existence is threatened by the state. A lot of it is also rooted in joy.
The Afrofuturism Trading Cards that I’m creating with young people, for example, are based in joy. We do character sketches, and the youth imagine that they are living in a time that is free of racism, homophobia, classism, and all of the other oppressions that exist today. We ask what it would look like if we were truly free and unafraid to be who we are. What would you look like? What would you wear? What would your superpower abilities be, and how would you use them to bring healing into the world?
For me it is important to create a project that is based on imagining a different context, which is important especially for youth today who see the amount of violence that is directed at young Black people like themselves— and the vicarious trauma that they experience and that I experience watching those things—to create representations that aren’t just about Black death. That connects to joy and identity. Afrofuturism gives us a lot of possibility.
NS: Robyn Maynard, in a class visit last term, said that it shouldn’t have to be some science fiction future to imagine Black people’s lives being valued.
NS: So, making art, painting, artistic expression, the jewelry you choose to wear, the pleasure in it, and movement, being alive in your body—those things feel connected, right? For you, how is creating art and feeling joy a form of resistance?
RSD: Well, yes, because as an Afro-Latina person I feel like there’s so much to get defeated over in our communities. When I met Fred Hampton Jr. in Chicago a few years back, he would often speak of people being demoralized; so, for example, people who use drugs as a means of escape from the trauma that they are facing, or drop out of movements because they feel ineffective or get depressed by what we’re facing, and I’ve often thought about demoralization as the way the systems around us work together to make us feel like giving up on life by excluding us from basic things like access to health care for our bodies, or imprisoning us, or isolating us from our true histories and cultures.
So, I try to find those little things that bring me joy because I try to remain afloat. I like being able to create spaces where the people around me can feel joy. Sometimes it is in the act of taking back time for myself, because I often overextend myself in paid and unpaid work. So instead of rushing to the next appointment or fitting one more thing for someone or something else, I’ll take back my time to do two minutes of flossing, or of putting on coconut oil on my skin. Even when I don’t have access to financial resources that will pamper me I have to find ways of doing that within my financial resources. The notion of self-care is often marketed as needing to purchase something, and for me it’s about finding ways outside of capitalism to care for yourself with what you have, building resilience for yourself. These are acts of radical self-love.
NS: How does that connect to movement and to bodies, to your work as a personal trainer?
RSD: There are many Eurocentric ways that bodies are idealized in the North American fitness world. And for me, as an Afro-Latina person whose body looks very different than what’s represented in the media, strength training has helped me appreciate my body more for its larger frame and build, its natural muscular strength, and has also helped me to feel proud of that and take up more space. It allows me to shift that narrative in my mind, which brings me more joy and makes me hold myself differently because I know the things that my body is capable of doing, whether it’s dealing with a lot of chronic pain or feeling especially energetic. And because I know all of the amazing things it has done for me and continues to do, challenging it and bringing movement into it through exercise can bring me ease and joy.
When I was younger, I always wanted to shrink, because as a person socialized as a woman in this society I was taught that it’s desirable to take up less space. I also wanted to shrink because I didn’t have a body that matched the Eurocentric body standards that were being glorified in the media. So, when I started working out, it was mostly sparked by me disliking the way that my body looked and wanting to achieve a certain kind of body.
When I started my own practice, it mattered to me that it should be a body-positive one that is affirming of people’s racialized identities, of queerness, of gender identities, and that honors their stories. Gyms don’t offer that, and obviously they can be very intimidating and hypermasculine spaces.
The mainstream fitness industry, as we know it, tends to work on the basis that our bodies are flawed and exercise is punishment. Whether it be that your body won’t look good on the beach, or that your body is not cishetnormative, I believe a lot people develop estranged relationships to movement because of how fitness is marketed. In my practice, I encourage people to do things that feel good, and to find out what the movements are that they really enjoy or do not enjoy doing, and what would feel good for them. It’s important to recreate those relationships of joy to our own bodies, and acknowledge how they shift and change. Not everybody is training for a marathon. I want to include people who want to participate in things that feel good and that create a little bit more health in their life in whatever way that means for them.
I think there is also a connection in thinking about resistance to capitalism and oppression, when we think about the lifespan impacts of not being able to move in ways that you want to, and who tends to be most impacted by this. It is often people who are from poor or working-class backgrounds, or who live in areas that don’t have proximate access to recreation facilities, who are often working multiple jobs and don’t have time to incorporate specific movement that isn’t associated with paid work. And if we look at who is doing a lot of strenuous physical labor, it is predominantly Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color. In addition, trans folks and people with disabilities often can’t even access spaces where they can move their bodies in healthy ways. On a larger scale, this is connected to mental health, and ultimately the resilience of our communities.
NS: So, you create ways for people to exercise when they might not feel comfortable at a regular gym, and make it as accessible as much as you can.
RSD: My work is a body-positive personal training service dedicated to empowering people to feel their best in their body, according to their own terms. The gym where my practice is based, and the training I do, offers support in gaining strength, power, endurance, and confidence, while leaving diet talk, fatphobia, transphobia, and Eurocentric body standards at the door. We welcome and center the participation of Indigenous people, Black people, people of color, queer fam, gender-binary breakers, radicals, and beyond, in any shape and at every size.
In contrast, trainers at most gyms are required to sell packages that require you to shrink, and that is something that has never aligned with me, that will never align with me. Specifically, being a person who’s Black—our bodies have been sold and auctioned and stolen. Our bodies have been genetically modified specifically to make slave owners more profit, in order for people to be genetically stronger, to genetically resist disease, to genetically be bigger or stronger so they can pull more cotton off shit. Our bodies have been essentially created in the imaginings of a capitalist system.
NS: Slave owners bred people.
RSD: Yes. When Africans were brought off ships, they were auctioned firstly for their condition that they were in. And then they would also often force people to have sex with each other so that their offspring could be lighter skinned or could be stronger or more resilient. And then we think about a lot of how Black folks now, especially people who identify as Black women or who are assigned as female at birth, are often shamed because of the stature of our bodies. And it’s like, you are shaming us for that even though it’s something that served you for capitalist purposes. So that piece in particular is partially why I named my business “Autonomy,” but also why I consider it very important to listen to people in terms of the goals they want to achieve for their own bodies. It’s important that we define health for ourselves and for our own bodies first. That we are the ones who know our bodies best.
NS: How would you connect this with cultural understandings about nurturance, of how we take care of one another?
RSD: On one hand, self-care for people who have been asked to give of themselves in particular ways is a form of resistance in a different way than it is for people who have not had as much of a load to carry.
At the same time, I think what makes this complicated is the way of thinking about it, the way that we think about it in this Westernized society. This society is very about binaries, and about objectivity, and can’t hold multiple realities simultaneously existing, which makes it complicated to talk about. I think about how many Indigenous societies have a version of the medicine wheel, I think about the Yoruba people in Nigeria, how they have a version of the medicine wheel, and the Mapuche people have their version of the medicine wheel, and they all represent different cosmologies, but what all of those cosmologies have in common is that they represent multiple layers upon multiple layers, they represent multiple things all at once. So, the basic understanding is that it is a collective of multiple experiences, that the individual is really important but is also part of the whole, even as the whole is really important, which gives back to the individual.
Therefore, taking care of yourself is also taking care of the collective, but you can’t just do that, because if you just take that one piece and you remove it then you don’t have a whole part of the circle anymore.
NS: What are the models that work for you? What kinds of care have you seen that resonate for you as making sense, maybe when harm happens, or even just in daily life, since harm is continuous and ongoing? Have you had experiences where it’s been done well, where you’ve felt it mean something as more than just a theory?
RSD: It can show up in seemingly simple things. I can think of one experience when I went to Colombia. I was maybe twenty-two or twenty-three years old. I was working with a nonprofit, and we were doing an exchange of approaches to working with youth. And we were all going out one night and people said, “Oh I really want some snacks.” So, we stopped by the corner store and a few people went and got snacks and then the group comes back and people open up the chips and start passing them around without even asking for them back. And I wanted to say, “Wait, those are your chips, you bought that, it’s going to get all eaten.”
NS: Western individualist mind.
RSD: Right, just a basic level of care there, that this is just everybody’s now, that was a shock for me at first. It’s just embedded culturally.
NS: So, what would you want readers of a book about nurturance culture to know, from your perspective
RSD: Nurturance is one of the ways that we reclaim our own agency. There are different sites of resistance—a lot of the resistance that we see is performative and comes from looking at systemic things that are happening in our society, which are important, but we also need to understand our own identities and experiences, which shape how we interact with others because of the ways that we were raised, and also how others interact with us. Nurturance allows space to heal among us as well as social resistance. For somebody who has experienced a lot of trauma from white supremacy—growing up in an environment where they were told that the color of their skin was ugly or unattractive and that they would never be loved because of the color of their skin—healing might mean having time with a counselor and nurturing those wounds. Or perhaps creating spaces for people who have gone through similar things to create networks for people to share and feel connected. I think it’s important to value our own processes and allow them the time they need to happen, as much as the things we do outside of ourselves. If we want a world that is different and that leaves behind all of the oppressive systems and values that we have, we need to be able to heal ourselves, because we embody so many of those oppressive values and systems and perpetuate them in our lives.
I often say this in my workshops—I believe it’s Angela Davis who named this concept—how we absorb and replicate consciously and subconsciously the toxicity of the environments in which we are living. I often use the analogy of elk in northern Alberta. They are hunted by folks who are living off the land—now when the hunters are opening them to skin them and process them, they are finding that their insides are rotten, or smell like petroleum. And obviously the elk are not participating in the oil industry, but because they’re living in this very toxic environment it is reflected in their very core of being and in health—just like us humans, who are living in a toxic society that exhibits and contributes to harming us in many different ways. We often inhabit and replicate the toxic behaviors of the society and the state we live in. We need to be able to understand what is happening to us and heal ourselves so we don’t perpetuate those toxic behaviors and ways of being.
 Robyn Maynard, guest lecture, English 1102, Douglas College, Vancouver, November 8, 2017.
 Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love (Oakland: Berrett-Koehler, 2018).
 Angela Y. Davis, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016).