Just a few months ago I re-published my article, “Creating Social Change One Person at a Time,” in which I talked about how the impact you have on individual people around you can, in itself, be a form of social activism. Denny Upkins is back to demonstrate exactly how this phenomenon can happen and the ripple effect it can create in his tribute to Cherie Priest.
CN: general discussion of racism and homophobia
An author by the name of J.D. Stroube once said, “A complete stranger has the capacity to alter the life of another irrevocably. This domino effect has the capacity to change the course of an entire world. That is what life is; a chain reaction of individuals colliding with others and influencing their lives without realizing it. A decision that seems miniscule to you, may be monumental to the fate of the world.”
If you’re a Star Trek fan then chances are you’ve heard the story of the recently departed actress Nichelle Nichols and the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
After the first season of Star Trek, Nichols wanted to leave the series because she felt her role as Lt. Nyota Uhura was being diminished. Broadway seemed like a safer bet for her career-wise. At a formal dinner, she met Dr. King. While Nichols was honored to meet the famous Civil Rights leader, she was even more surprised when she learned that King was a Trekkie and wanted to meet her. As the two conversed, Nichols revealed that even though she was going to miss Star Trek, she planned to move on. That was when King insisted that she stay with the series. King explained that Star Trek was one of the few TV shows he allowed his children to watch.
“He told me not only that I shouldn’t but I couldn’t leave,” Nichols explained in her autobiography.“He knew more than I knew. He knew more about me, where I was going to in my life, than I did.” Nichols further elaborated that King told her she couldn’t leave because she was a role model for millions —the only African American on TV in a role worth having. Heeding the wisdom of Dr. King, Nichols would remain with the series in the iconic and groundbreaking role, shattering barriers and inspiring millions. Nichols and King would remain very close friends. In fact Nichols spoke and sang at the funeral of the Civil Rights Leader.
In addition to being a celebrated singer and actress, Nichols is a prominent Civil Rights activist in her own right. These two important figures have shattered barriers and been a guiding light for countless lives, including myself.
In the case of vibranium sharpening vibranium: these two important figures are also an example of the seeds we sow and the positive impact we can make on the world without even realizing it.
Even though I’m still in the relatively earlier stages of my professional writing career, it’s been a wild ride thus far but it’s also been a blessed one. I’m honored and humbled to list a number of amazing storytellers as mentors and true comrades: David Dark, Pauline Trent, Gail Simone, Amaya Radjani, G. Willow Wilson, Reginald Hudlin, Lisa Mantchev, Eugie Foster, James A. Owen, Nicholas Almand, Perry Moore among others.
If there is one figure who has perhaps been the biggest mentor and influence to date without probably even realizing it, well, that honor goes to one tiny gifted redhead: Cherie Priest.
I met Cherie years back while living in Chattanooga. I was busy preparing to relocate to Atlanta for art school and nearly missed the monthly Chattanooga Writers Guild meeting. The special guest speaker was a local author who just published her debut novel, Four & Twenty Blackbirds. She and I hit it off immediately and from there, a friendship was born.
Not only was I blown away by Priest’s charisma and mystique, but her prose were next level; in many respects still groundbreaking. Namely, the Southern Gothic novel’s heroine, Eden Moore; even in the 21st century, Blacks and other PoCs being the leads in quality narratives, especially in speculative fiction, is still sadly very rare. Be it movies, graphic novels, or television episodes, I can almost always tell when a Black character is being penned by a nonblack writer. There are certain nuances and complexities that descendants of the African diaspora possess which elude most nonblack storytellers. A testament to Priest’s talent, if I hadn’t met her in person, I would’ve sworn she was a Black woman. And I’m not the only one. Fellow Parker Publishing alum, the late L.A. Banks sent Priest a note explaining she was both amused and surprised when she discovered Priest is a tiny white woman.
Cherie was responsible for introducing me to the wacky wonderful world that was Livejournal. In those days, invite codes from an existing member were required to join. Cherie’s blog posts always brightened my day. She delivered a distinct witty style of commentary on subjects ranging from her day-to-day misadventures, updates on her adorable pets, her most epic movie reviews, progress. But what truly moved me was how Cherie frequently used her large platform to fight for people of color, and other minorities. Her motivation? Doing good in the world because it’s simply who she is. I remember her mentioning in passing to a friend of ours that she doesn’t wear the title ally because she doesn’t believe that’s a title she has the right to bestow on herself. I for one can tell you that even after all of these years of being involved in activism, that’s a rare trait to find in someone. This is even moreso when it comes to cis straight white people. It’s little wonder that Cherie’s example of speaking out against systemic oppression was one of the catalysts that led me to come out online.
I would state that after coming out, life got better. The reality is that life simply doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t get better. It just gets real. Upon coming out I had to deal with so-called allies and supporters tripping over themselves to place all queer men in a proverbial box as a one-dimensional sassy gay accessory whose sole existence is to validate their cisgender heteronormative privilege. Since coming out I’ve had to regularly suffer racist Karens and Beckies with a gay boy fetish and the garbage genre that is M/M romance. Since coming out, I’ve had legions of fauxgressives attempt to klansplain to me the great white lie that homophobia is worse in the Black community. Then I had the joy of watching many of them go from zero to demonic when I didn’t back down from speaking truth to power.
Sadly that LGBTQ “community” continues to prove to be anything but. A toxic cesspool of transphobia, racism, and antiblackness, there’s a reason why many Black and Brown LGBTQs identify as nonstr8 or same gender loving or in my case, MSM. While being Black and an LGBTQ, often finds me being targeted from all sides, being Black and the experiences that came with it, equipped me with the wisdom, tools, and skills to survive being an LGBTQ.
In spite of all of this, I had no desire to become an activist. I wanted to live a simple life in peace. But as the old adage goes, if you ever want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.
When racist white authors repeatedly attacked BIPOC creators and fans again and again and again—I felt the call from the Powers That Be and was given a choice: complain and do nothing, or take action. Watching Cherie use speculative fiction as a form of activism in her fiction and her blog for years, it seemed almost second nature for me to take that play one step further. In response to the racist gatekeepers, I organized the “Shatter the Silence” protest and subsequently the online community forum, Fen of Color-United (FOC-U). The protest celebrated PoC excellence in speculative fiction while sending a message to bigots. The acronym wasn’t random. Needless to say, the campaign was an overwhelming success and somewhere along the way, I realized I found my calling as an activist.
Inspire is what Cherie does. On countless fronts.
Seeing my fam’s evolution on her journey from where she began to where she is now has been a joy and a masterclass of sorts for myself. I’ve watched this woman spend countless hours in a library or a bookstore researching projects. Whether the genre is horror, Southern Gothic, YA, superhero fiction, or Steampunk, Cherie is constantly evolving and elevating her game. Along with her brooding hunky husband Jym, and the warm, beautiful and brilliant Spyder (the other great love of my life), I’ve sat in the audience at a number of Cherie’s convention panels and signings. I’ve watched her field very charged topics and interactions with opinionated fans with grace and class. When professional challenges arose, she repeatedly transformed roadblocks that would deter most people into opportunities. She puts in work and her 23 published titles, nominations and awards, and other accolades are a testament to this.
Fate has a funny way of bringing life full circle. Years back I was making the submission rounds with the manuscript of my debut novel, Hollowstone. I was becoming frustrated with the rejection letters and worried that becoming an author wouldn’t take. While visiting Seattle, I was at lunch one day with Cherie and Caitlin Kittredge. Sharing my concerns, I asked if either of them had any advice for a stressed-out aspiring novice. Both ladies reminded me that they had been in similar predicaments and that this is part of the process for authors. Cherie added, “All of the ones who make it are the ones who don’t give up.”
My friends’ words proved prophetic. A few months later, Hollowstone was picked up by Parker Publishing. That tiny novella resulted in a profusion of opportunities and blessings that I’m still reaping today. While I still have a long journey ahead, all things considered, it’s been an awesome ride thus far. I went from sitting in the audience at convention panels to being a panelist with creators who I admire and respect. In fact, when Cherie and I were on an LGBTQ panel, I couldn’t help but grin. As far as milestones go, that one was near and dear. Her student had become a teacher.
So am I sharing this to count the ways why my squadron is better than yours? Likely, but that’s not the only reason. The last few years have reinforced my belief that you give people their propers while they’re here. Tomorrow is never promised and don’t assume that someone knows what a blessing they’ve been in your life. When someone has been in your life for two nearly decades, and they’ve been nothing but positive, supportive, and family in the truest sense of the word, that’s a gift that you don’t take for granted for a second. Like Dr. King and Nichols, and my relationship with Priest, this account is also a reminder that when a person aims to be the best version of themselves, they’re often inspiring and blessing others without even realizing it.
And to Cherie, this has been long overdue but this is just my way of saying thank you. For being a wonderful friend, a gifted storyteller, a supportive mentor, for being one of the good ones. The very few good ones.
Be it an uncertain art school student coming out of the closet, my publishing credits, or the people I’ve aided through activism, my accomplishments are also a part of your legacy. Just so we’re clear, everything positive that has transpired in my career: It’s on you.
And just so we’re clear when said career inevitably goes crashing because of an inevitable sex scandal with an Olympic gymnast, a politician, and a Hemsworth……well……that’s also on you. Now, I don’t want to hear any backtalk or any excuses. You just have to take ownership of my actions and move forward. 😉
Here’s to you Ms. Priest.
Love ya, Red.
About the guest blogger:
Dennis R. Upkins is a speculative fiction author, a journalist, and an equal rights activist. His first two young adult novels, Hollowstone and West of Sunset, were released through Parker Publishing. Both Upkins and his previous work have been featured in Harvard Political Law, Bitch Media, MTV News, Mental Health Matters, The Nerds of Color, Black Girl Nerds, Geeks OUT, Black Power: The Superhero Anthology, Sniplits, The Connect Magazine, and 30Up. You can learn more about him at his website dennisupkins.wordpress.com.