Tanea Lunsford Lynx
Where you come from, there is a culture.
By Muni Suleiman
Between 23andMe and Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., it's safe to say that the idea of lineage is becoming increasingly prevalent in popular culture. It is also one that Tanea Lunsford Lynx, CC ’13, explores extensively. A San Francisco-based creative and activist, their work spans across media: written, visual, and performance art. Currently a faculty member at the City College of San Francisco as well as a recent Artist in Residence at the San Francisco Public Library, their work has been featured in Foglifter and Nothing to Lose But Our Chains: Black Voices on Activism, Resistance, and Love, amongst other publications.
Having studied cultural anthropology and human rights at Columbia, it wasn’t until their senior year that they revived their interest in writing. Now, they find resonance in how their educational background in cultural anthropology, human rights, and social change has imbued their writing with an ethnographic foundation of observing, note-taking, and preserving. They’re currently working on a novel entitled Sanctuary City, an investigation into the experiences of Black San Francisco, gentrification, and police violence. In addition to writing, Lunsford Lynx frequently experiments with other disciplines such as film and collected oral histories. And in their Women and Gender Studies classes, they navigate education, often marred by punitive structures, as a form of empowerment.
All of Lunsford Lynx’s work leverages vivid imagery, culturally-specific language, and community narratives of resistance to depict deeply intimate experiences often marginalized by anti-Blackness. In doing so, they honor the people and the places fundamental to who they are. Their work, as they describe, requests and requires reverence for generations, communities, and individuals often disenfranchised from that deep respect.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue & White: Throughout your artist bios, you describe yourself as a fourth generation San Franciscan. What does this concept of lineage mean to your connection to San Francisco?
Tanea Lunsford Lynx: It’s important to name the folks who came before me and to acknowledge their place in the context of this city as I make myself known to others. Part of that is that both sides of my family have been here for four generations.
In the context of a place, four generations is actually not that much, but in the context of San Francisco, where folks are being pushed out, priced out, it is quite significant. But we know that San Francisco is unceded Ohlone territory. Folks have been there for so many more generations than that. I think naming that I’m fourth generation San Franciscan is also acknowledging part of the lineages that have been there much longer than my family as well.
B&W: On San Franciscans being pushed out, you often describe your work as fighting for places and communities that people no longer remember, documenting ways of life that no longer exist by means of structural inequalities and state violence. How do you understand art as a way of remembering?
TLL: I love this question.
I think art, and particularly writing, can be a form of ethnography, a form of remembering, in a very powerfully subjective way. It’s acknowledging that this is what happened from my standpoint, this is what it looked like from my view. And particularly in a context like San Francisco, where the evidence of what I saw quite literally is no longer there, like buildings being torn down or communities being pushed out, that writing, that remembering, can be quite radical.
I’m also tapping into a lineage of Black feminist thinkers, artists, teachers, and activists who saw and found power in that subjectivity and created art. I’m thinking about folks like Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Patricia Hill Collins, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and so many more who found a way of being in a relationship with places where they were from. So, in that way, they open up a reminder that memory can be healing. Memory can be power.
Memory can be reclamation. Memory can be manifestation. I think a lot about Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographies, and then I think a lot about Toni Morrison’s Sula.
B&W: I love that book so much.
B&W: It’s interesting because it’s almost like you’re also mentioning these Black feminist writers and authors as another form of a lineage. Maybe not as biological, but in thought and artist philosophy. I wonder how, as a Black writer, you navigate rhetoric that personal anecdotes aren’t real. Especially how Black experiences are discounted by, “Where are the numbers? Where are the facts?”
TLL: I think what you’re getting at is just how subjectivity is not prized as valid or rigorous, when realistically it is actually the farce of white supremacy that teaches us that only the written word and only the statistics are what make for capital T-truth. Realistically, in my lineage—birth, mentor, and communal—so much of our healing power and our staying power has been in story.
Story has quite literally saved lives. When I think about Black midwives or folks who were freedom fighters in different ways, we didn’t, or we couldn’t, write down many of these things. But it was a beautiful duty, an inheritance, to pass these things forward through story.
To prize solely that which is about the facts and the statistics without a qualitative story or without the voice of folks at the table, it’s just boring. It’s been done. For example, so much of the census is based in numbers. Also, we know that so many of our folks are not counted. If we’re only looking for a dominant transcript, we’re only going to get the folks who feel safe opting in.
I think there is something particular about the site of Columbia that's really interesting in this question. Every generation or so, there is a group of students who hold a nonviolent direct action at Butler Library. Being in relationships with the names of folks who are in the Core Curriculum that are chiseled into that library, and placing a temporary banner over it with theorists, writers, and artists, particularly women and femmes of color, that shows a possibility of what could be. And that absolutely prizes story and other ways of knowing besides prizing folks who are lauded within the canon as, you know, Cis. Het. White. Old. Dead. Men.
B&W: You’re creating work that doesn’t translate itself, but it’s more rooted in Black experiences for Black audiences and Black readers. Why is that important to you?
TLL: Yeah, I think it’s important that my work doesn’t translate itself because I know who I’m talking to and I want to reach them.
It’s as if I’m talking to someone who I have a relationship with, someone else comes into the room, and my voice changes to acknowledge that they’re there. I think we Black women, Black non-binary folks, folks across gender within the Black experience, particularly in the United States, spend a lot of time having to literally translate our experiences to make them understood by other folks or to prove [ourselves] really.
So choosing to reclaim this written space as one where I’m not doing that is quite intentional and it’s very freeing. It’s saying, “I don’t have to do that.” It’s saying the conversation that I’m having between me and this community is valid on its own. And if you’re eavesdropping, like okay, but you are a guest.
B&W: That’s such a good point. Even in classrooms, I feel like my language is sometimes policed at Columbia. Especially in classes like CC and LitHum, as I’m sure you’re familiar.
TLL: Yes! Oh, it’s not gonna last forever.
B&W: Did you find that your time in New York as a Columbia student, but also outside of the Morningside bubble, affected how you saw San Francisco once you returned there, if at all?
TLL: During my time at Columbia, I was very intentional about also being at school in the city. It was important for me to go take dance classes at Alvin Ailey. It was important for me to walk down 125th as often as I could. It was important for me to go get my hair done at salons with folks who look like me. It was important for me to make friends who were making art in different parts of the city that weren’t recognized in large museums or venues. The city was absolutely my teacher.
I think a lot of my experience in New York did beg the question of public space and who gets to be in it in a way that’s not policed, regulated, or surveilled. There are so many open public spaces within New York that folks use as part of their home.
And so I thought about what that could look like. I thought about Black folks resting, talking story, playing dominoes and chess and being together. And I saw a real absence of that in San Francisco: Black folks outside being together. 3rd St. in San Francisco was a space historically where that was folks' experiences, particularly my grandmother's.
B&W: I think a lot of the explicit and implicit messaging at Columbia encourages acceleration and that you should leave behind your hometown. The choice to go back to your hometown is often perceived as going backwards, but you actively encourage people to think about where they’re from and go back, literally and metaphorically. How did you know that you wanted to go back to San Francisco after your time at Columbia and in New York?
TLL: I chose to go back to San Francisco, to come back home, because I was offered work as a restorative justice kind of counselor/facilitator, and it gave me the opportunity to interrupt a criminal legal system that had devastated not only my family, but also so many families within my community. I came back for this job to do this work, but something that I’m inviting folks to sit with is this idea that where you come from, there is a culture. It’s valuable. It’s a part of you in some way or another, and there’s work to be done. There are stories to be documented. There are things to be uncovered and honored. There are things to be righted and corrected, and there is an essence of you in that place. One of the things that’s so unique about where we come from, regardless of where it is, is that we’re in it.
One of the particularly isolating and violent forms that gentrification takes on is a desire for homogeneity. So we see buildings that look exactly the same. These pop-up restaurants that look exactly the same, or these new cultural events—big quotations with the cultural events—that look exactly the same. There’s something that strips the history of a place in a desire for it to be comfortable for folks who aren’t from there. In the context of gentrification, a lot of what I’m doing is not only digging into my memories and my words in this place, but those of my family, those of my neighbors, those of my community, and those of folks who came before me.
All of that wealth of living, that wealth of knowledge, that wealth of culture is in every other place. But it’s the farce of white supremacy that tells us that that’s not a culture.
B&W: You currently have work situated in the exhibit titled Muni Raised Me (no relation), and it’s described as a “love letter to working-class San Francisco” and “an exploration of land that is not ours, we will never own, and what we owe.” How did you come to this more complex understanding of your relationship to San Francisco?
TLL: I think part of that is what it means to be born and raised here. When I think about the mentors who raised me up [and] the organizations where I worked, a lot of the cultural ways of being and becoming radicalized in this place has to do with being in a right relationship with the land and with other folks. Coming up as a young person in San Francisco and learning to organize, I also learned to build altars. I also learned to identify Native and Indigenous plants. I also learned the name and the language of this place, what it was called before, the people who still steward this land, the fights for autonomy on this land.
One of the deep cultures of resistance here is about remembering. I’m grateful as an educator now to be able to infuse all of those learnings into my teachings as well because it’s so deeply braided, which is such a beautiful opportunity for solidarity. It was in the cultural and physical landscape of this place.
When I think about Alcatraz, for example: it’s a huge tourist attraction, [and] the visits to Alcatraz are run by the National Park Service. Folks pay to get on a ferry to go there and listen to all these tours, but Alcatraz was occupied by Indigenous folks reclaiming that space and that land through Sunrise Ceremony at least twice a year. That’s just one example of how our history and cultural landscape is just weaved in.
B&W: I found myself really fascinated by another part of the exhibit, which is the idea that public transit is a mode in which people come of age. Atlanta, where I’m from, is a lot more car-dependent, but New York really helped me see how public transit enforces community.
TLL: I think your point about public transportation is about reclaiming the commons. Just like the parks, buses are public spaces that are made possible for and by the public. By us, for us.
There might be 20 people on a crowded bus, one person is playing a song, and half of the bus really likes it. There’s a culture in that moment. Or, a bus line goes down through a certain part of the city that might be really wealthy and unfriendly, which is not uncommon during times of gentrification, and then I might turn a corner and then be in this neighborhood where folks know each other’s names and speak to the bus driver. Then, you know, they get off and it keeps going. So I think there’s something really beautiful about the ways that we can build culture together in transient spaces and choose to relate to each other or not, choose to acknowledge the story that’s there or not.
B&W: Another note on community, and I want to make sure that I don’t overlook this, is that you also talk about your community in terms of queerness and how that also informs your work in resistance. I would love to hear you talk more about this very specific community of Black queer people in San Francisco.
TLL: Yes! Growing up in San Francisco, it was clear that I was in a city that was more queer and gay-friendly than other parts of the United States. Even still, it did not mean that we were free from homophobia or transphobia. It just meant that that was a part of the fabric of our city.
As I got older, moving into my place within that fabric was nuanced. A lot of the places where folks felt safe taking up space being both Black and queer were in pockets outside of the mainstream of what it looked like to be queer. Some of the most sacred spaces I’ve been a part of are for folks who are Black and queer in the city, and sometimes those moments were, like the bus, transient. They didn’t last very long, or we created them in motion. They were autonomous or reclaimed spaces.
But there is a deep and rich lineage of Black queerness in San Francisco as well. Members of The Cockettes were Black and queer. When I think about the organizing of clubs and feminist bookstores, there were Black queer women and femmes in particular who were also making attempts to gather.
I think of folks like Pat Parker, who was here in the Bay both in San Francisco and in Oakland, making work and creating spaces for women and femmes to heal through an artistic sense, but also in a medical, cultural sense through clinics. That history was here.
B&W: I’m interested in your abolition work outside of art. I also want to acknowledge that you are a child of an incarcerated parent. Was it difficult working within the community to imagine a world outside of punitive prison systems, especially as it pertains to juvenile prisons?
TLL: Yeah, I think that was some of the most impactful work I’ve ever done because it not only required me to imagine a possibility of a future that I had not seen and didn’t have a framework for, but it also required me to convince others that that is possible. It meant changing punitive habits and recognizing punitive habits with other folks who were in that path of least resistance. Something about prisons and jails, and particularly those for youth, is that they are hidden in plain sight. They’re recognized as a norm, and yet [their] violence is known so deeply that they can become abstracted—I’m going back to the example of Alcatraz—as a literal attraction.
Our imagination for the punitive is deep, it’s nuanced, it’s rich. But our imagination for liberation, our life outside of that, is really limited. I think that speaks to how pervasive the prison and carceral system is, but it was such an honor because I got to change my own mind. I got to change other people’s minds.
That can be really affirming because I think when one of the main questions around abolition is, "Okay, and what else? What are we going to do when this happens?” And it's like, no, there's a framework for what we do when it happens.
B&W: Speaking about abolition, it’s been on my mind because I’m from Atlanta where policing is manifesting in such a physical way through Cop City. I really related to how you were writing about the disorienting experience of not only a city where you grew up rapidly changing, but also rapidly changing in a way that is violent to who you are.
TLL: When we think about all of those hubs where Black and Indigenous folks in particular are being pushed out, marginalized, and surveilled, it’s a staple part of the process of gentrification that more funding goes to police and more money goes to surveillance ops as a means to push folks out. I'm so grateful for folks who are organizing to stop the taking up of that space.
I think earlier we talked about a curriculum as a values document. A budget is quite similar. To say, "This is where our money goes," is to say this is what is important to us, this is what we value. The same is true for land. For folks to take up or sweep land and use it to train for violence is a way of saying, “This is what's important to us.”
We’ve seen this in budgets across all of these spaces. It’s certainly true for the budget in San Francisco as far as more resources being put towards police and surveillance, and such is also true for Chicago, Austin, and Brooklyn.
B&W: In your artist statement during your residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts, you wrote that you’re often “investigating joy and considering how to write about it authentically.” A lot of Black feminists have also written in this tradition of using joy and hope as a radical tool for change.
But I often find it so hard to do that sometimes, especially in the face of police violence. I wonder how you’ve been able to investigate and write about joy over these past few years, and how do you advise others to at least try to do the same?
TLL: Sometimes when it’s hard for me to access joy, I think about it like medicine. I literally cannot keep going if I have a deficit. So I have to put down whatever I’m doing, whether that means asking for an extension or asking for grace later, to prioritize this.
Having joy allows me to feel where the yes and where the no is in my body. It’s a catalyst for knowing how I can use the power that I have; it’s a reminder that I can say no, that I can say yes. It’s a reminder of my humanness, and it’s therefore also revolutionary. Above all, I have autonomy in my body and a connection to others.
It doesn’t have to be a whole day of joy, but it can be like, “I’m going to reclaim time to sit and listen to the birds,” or, “I’m going to reclaim time to be outside in this new hour during daylight savings time. I’m going to reclaim time to enjoy every bite of my meal.”
There are different ways that I can reach out for it with whatever energy that I have.
I would advise others to connect with what it is that brings them authentic joy. I would advise them to know that joy has been seen as a luxury afforded to some, but to remember that it’s a lineage. It’s a birthright. It’s a duty. And it’s often forgotten. But it’s key to everything.
B&W: That’s such an inspiring response. Oh my goodness, that felt really great. I think we got to this question in our conversation, but to ask it a little bit more explicitly, what do you think is the purpose of art in social movements, especially movements pertaining to abolition?
TLL: Art is everything. I’m just thinking so presently of the Black Panthers right now and how art was an integral part of everything, whether it was the art of meal making for each other and for children, whether it was the art of hosting space for meetings, whether it was the art of taking care of each other’s afros, or whether it was creating literal art like paintings, drawings, and taking photos.
Art allows other folks to be invited into a movement and to overhear people talking about themselves and their goals in a way that might make [the] movement irresistible. Toni Cade Bambara talked about this, that the role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible, and I so agree with that.
There’s an exhibit that’s up at the Oakland Museum of California. It’s a smaller exhibit of Angela Davis’s life and work, and what is key throughout the exhibit is all of these artistic renderings of Angela Davis that literally propelled the campaign for her freedom. Walk down the street and see her face in storefront windows, see a drawing of her in the newspaper, and see her on different stickers and shirts, like “Free Angela, Free Angela, Free Angela.”
It was irresistible. You had to see her face everywhere. People were claiming their solidarity with her, visually through art, and that created the conditions for her freedom like an act of love. And that is incredible power. I think it’s seen as softer power, and soft is often the way.