Becoming Hannah Giorgis: Raising Your Voice
Hannah Giorgis is a writer and organizer whose work addresses the intersections of race, gender, immigration, class, and culture. Based in NYC, she is the daughter of Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants (and a product of bittersweet diaspora). Hannah is a contributing writer for The Guardian’s US opinion section and Okayafrica. Her work has also appeared in MTV IGGY, The Hairpin, The Toast, The Frisky, and Youngist, among others. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Hannah about how she uses her background in writing and organizing to enhance her own life and uplift her community.
What do you think people will say when asked to describe you?
Hmmm, I think people who know me well would describe me as warm and perhaps somewhat idealistic even in my criticism. I try to be clear about the fact that I ground my activism in the belief that collectively, we can do better. If I didn’t have faith that people are fundamentally capable of loving one another and honoring the depths of each other’s humanity even in a world that trains us not to, I don’t think I could do any of the work I do.
What are you most grateful for having in your life?
I’m grateful to be surrounded by love, by people who believe that creativity and criticism can and must exist simultaneously, by comrades and family who challenge and affirm one another daily. A lot of my learning has been through conversations with friends and other organizers and writers, not necessarily in classes or from university-sanctioned curricula. That’s really special, and I try not to ever take my community for granted.
Can you think of one defining moment in your life that changed your thinking?
My thinking changes constantly, so it’s hard to think of one specific moment. My life is a series of small discoveries threaded together with varying levels of cohesion, you know? I do remember being really struck by hearing Joan Morgan speak about hip-hop feminism during my freshman year of college. I was so encouraged by the ways she was able to reconcile loving something that was capable of both giving her voice and perpetuating a form of anti-black misogyny. Here was this Jamaican-American woman being asked to speak at my lily white, aggressively patriarchal college—about hip hop! And feminism! It was the first time I’d encountered work that captured some uniquely black female nuance I hadn’t previously known how to make sense of, the things that sounded like they contradicted one another but didn’t necessarily feel like they did. It was thfirst time I learned to feel okay saying, “I know this might not make sense to other people, but my lived experience is valid.” Her ability to articulate and make sense of “contradiction” still influences how I think through a lot of false dichotomies—black vs. African, feminist vs. racial justice activist, etc.
How did you find your voice?
I found my voice through a combination of writing, organizing, and community spaces that
allowed me to unlearn the things I’d been taught about whose voice is most valuable (namely, white men in America). I started a blog in college, where I encountered a lot of other young people in diaspora trying to make sense of themselves and the world around them; to be able to have conversations with other people and realize that your experiences are valid even if you don’t have the words for them yet is really powerful. Between that, campus activism, and a group of friends who encourage me regularly to be bold, I feel pretty blessed.
What do you think your purpose is?
I think if I can use my voice and my work to help envision and build a world where all black people are safe and valued and loved, my purpose will have been fulfilled.
Would you describe yourself as an activist? How would you define the term activist?
Activism takes many different forms. Sometimes my writing is part of my activist work, other times it’s not. Finding ways to affirm blackness in a world that doesn’t value it—no matter how you do that—is its own form of activism. Alice Walker said activism is the rent she pays for living on the planet. I think a lot about that sentence—what are we doing to make this planet a place where people who are discriminated against can thrive? How are we trying to leave it in better shape than we found it in? There are a lot of hows. Mine have been writing, organizing (on campus and outside it), and creating platforms for people of different experiences to engage one another’s humanity. That might change soon depending on my skills and interests—I think activism really just boils down to using whatever resources are at your disposal to make the world around you a better place.
Who are the people who inspire you the most?
I am always in awe of the brilliance of women from all over the African diaspora. The women who raised me, the women who are my friends, the women I read, the women I encounter online. I have learned so much from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Taiye Selasi, Joan Morgan, bell hooks, my cousins, my best friends, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Maya Angelou, my professors, black women on Twitter and Tumblr, Warsan Shire, the list goes on and on.
Photo credit: Jamila Okubo