Interviewed by-Natalie Solmer
I’m very grateful to Tatjana Rebelle for taking the time to talk with The Indianapolis Review about their writing, art, activism, and life. Tatjana is a person living in Indianapolis who is working hard to enrich our community in many ways, but is best known for their long running open-mic, VOCAB, which provides a safe space for marginalized people to share poetry and music.
Tatjana Rebelle (they/she) is a mother, activist, organizer, writer, performer and promoter. They have lived in Indianapolis most of their life, which is where they learned to use their writing to deal with growing up in the midwest as a bisexual, biracial child of an immigrant. They are the founder and host of VOCAB, an all-inclusive monthly spoken word and live music event that is in the midst of its 12th year. They have been fighting for social justice for communities of color, QTBIPOC rights for several years on their own, as well as working for American Friends Service Committee, combating Islamophobia, white supremacy, and fighting for Palestinian liberation. AFSC gives them the chance to follow in their idol, Bayard Rustin’s, footsteps in taking a nonviolent stance against global and local oppression. Their goal is to bring art and activism to the people that need to hear it the most, with every action they take.
NS: Your chapbook, This Is America, is really remarkable. I have read it several times now, always feeling disturbed, hopeful, sad, angry, every emotion. In this book, you document the process that led to the book itself–after giving a speech at the 2018 March for our Lives Rally at the Indiana Statehouse in 2018, a white supremacist used a 10 second clip of your speech and posted it on his Youtube channel, distorting and degrading your message and calling you ‘anti-white.’ You include in your book your speech in its entirety, as well as other writings of yours, but most disturbing to read are the Youtube channel comments from white supremacists that you include in the book. Did you ever have any doubts about amplifying these people’s voices? Was it a difficult the decision to publish the comments? What inspired or influenced your decision?
TR: There is nothing that prepares you for seeing something you did out of love be twisted into something so hateful. Speaking at the March for Our Lives Rally was truly a defining moment for me as a speaker and activist. I knew what I had to say wasn’t going to be liked by everyone. That is a risk I take everytime I speak about the realities of white supremacy, policing and uplifting Palestine. When you counter the dominant narrative and use your moment to speak on the behalf of people being terrorized everyday by racist policies, you know you can become a target. I thought the few people that heckled me at the rally would be the end if it. Those people’s comments were overshadowed for me when two young people came up to me after I spoke and thanked me–one, a person that identified themselves as queer, the other, a young woman in hijab from Palestine. I try to use my privilege of having a platform to speak of Black, Indigenous, Trans, Queer, POC, immigrant, and other marginalized rights and issues. With that being said, I was not prepared to see a video being released calling me anti-white and using my words to push white supremacist propaganda. The chapbook was a way for me to show the reality of the world we live in. Uncut. Unedited. Once I had spoken with a copywriter attorney and knew I was legally protected to use the material, I had no issue using the comments. I am the type of person that has to turn darkness into light for healing. The chapbook became a means to an end. I was able to release it for others to see, outside of the computer screens. It also coincided with an art installation, where I took several of the comments and blew them up 2ft ×4ft, to create a space where you couldn’t escape it. Some of the comments, I used to inspire paintings I created to add another level of release.
The entire project was a way for me to release the hurt and show people what it is like to be a queer person of color talking about things that everyone seems to know, except those that aren’t effected by racism, colonialism and xenophobia.
NS: In publishing the Youtube comments, you certainly are exposing the racism that is all around us, while also showing the extreme miseducation and instances of false information that people are receiving and truly believing, such as comments about ‘Jewish slaveholders’ and ‘everything in the world was created by white people.’ Reading over these things is really hard to take, but it is true that Indiana itself has something like 30 active hate groups. Do you feel that there is any hope of reaching these people? I know you mention that it is especially important for white moderates to act. Do you see white moderates as your main audience for this book? What are your hopes for the book?
TR: Indiana has a long history of racism that is marked by the guise of Hoosier Hospitality. I think here we have accepted racism and hatred as long as it’s done after dark and behind closed doors. I did write the book for the white moderate audience because they seem to be the only people that don’t understand racism. Every black and brown person has learned to navigate the world knowing racism is deeply embedded in this society. We know what is said about us, so if anything the chapbook become proof. I don’t have a mission to change the mind of any extremists. My goal is to get the white moderate to take on the labor of ending white supremacy. What I am saying is nothing knew. Dr. King spoke about it. Those working to end human trafficking that we refer to as slavery, said it. What we need is a cultural shift where whiteness isn’t the only thing centered any longer. My ultimate goal is to no longer have to shed light on white supremacy, but it seems to be the number 1 topic people ask me to speak on. As a young child I remember wishing someone would have advocated for me when I needed it. I feel it is my duty as a human being to advocate for every human being to be able to live with the dignity and respect we all deserve.
NS: Reading the book, I was also reminded of how the IndyStar once questioned the actor Adam Driver’s statements about growing up and seeing Klan activity. Driver grew up in Mishawaka, where I went to high school, and I knew what he was talking about. My mother taught at the Hebrew Day School in Mishawaka, which routinely had instances of hateful vandalism and threats. In addition, my father once lived really close to the grand dragon of the KKK in Osceola (they mention this guy in the IndyStar article), and everyone talked about it and knew of it. The IndyStar has since added on a correction to the beginning of the article–which is an interesting read–they talk about the history of the popularity of the Klan in Indiana, which peaked in the 1920s and 30s, around the time many immigrants (including my Catholic grandparents from Eastern Europe) were coming here and how the KKK “here had a particular focus on what Madison referred to as “hyphenates.” Immigrants; non-native-born, non-Protestants. And they were staunchly anti-Catholic.” Just like so many conservatives today, they were afraid of the country changing and were blaming all their problems on African Americans and immigrants. I am interested in your work in ‘Inclusion Training’ and what that means. What are some of the ways that we can teach people to move past their fears and stereotypes and become more inclusive?
TR: This question comes at a interesting time for me as I am looking to step into the nonprofit realm full time. Inclusion seems to be the new buzz word for organizations to use when it comes to their work. Yet, these same organizations remain white organizations. It is becoming extremely apparent that people are willing to change their mission statements, yet are not doing anything to change the makeup of the organizations themselves. The most disappointing aspect of the nonprofit model is how segregated it is and how those organizations with the most money and collective power in Indianapolis are ran by white men. While the outcome of the work is not necessarily the same as the business world, it is indeed setup the same way.
The greatest thing anyone can do is look around their office and notice who is there. If you have a board meeting speaking on your work focusing on poverty, reentry, health care access and the like, and 98% of the people in that meeting are white, you are propagating white supremacist ideologies.
I think the most important aspect of inclusion is education and self awareness. Realizing you are complacent in harm to others is really hard. Yet, the labor of helping you process that should not fall upon the one person of color in your life. We live in a world were Google exists. You can find all sorts of resources and trainings that can be taken to help learn how to actually navigate the world. Racism was created as a tool for the elite to justify human trafficking and free labor. Everyone has the capacity to accept their role in that or reject it. We need to be more fearful of finding out we’ve been played by a select few in power making money than being fearful of each other.
NS: You do so much important work for the Indianapolis community, including founding and running one of the city’s most popular spoken word and music venues for poets, VOCAB. Congratulations on 12 years of VOCAB! I encourage everyone to read or watch the interview you did with Dan Grossman for Nuvo, wherein you talk about its inception and hopes for the future. I admit that it is very hard for me to get out and go to readings, due to my schedule and young kids. This is one reason why I started Indianapolis Review–because I can do it from home, and I get to still interact with the community (but I’m still planning on getting out more when my kids are older!) That being said, as a professor at Ivy Tech, I often encourage students to go to your open mic and others in the city. Many young people don’t realize how much is really here in Indy. If someone is coming to VOCAB for the first time, what should they expect and what would you like them to know?
TR: VOCAB is a art and activism space that I created to give people a voice. It is a space centering QTBIPOC identifying folks to share their truth and talent to heal. I am intentional of booking artists and poets that often are overlooked in the scene because of their gender identity, sexuality, race and ethnicity. The artist scene is oversaturated with white artists and my intention with VOCAB is to show how many amazing artists live in this city. I do ask if you are attending and not a person that is effected by racism or as we like to say, a colonizer, you are welcome to join us, but be mindful it is not a space where you will be centered. Take in what you hear and use it for reflection. Don’t use VOCAB as a place to get a pat on the back or to talk through guilt. We’re in a beautiful moment where there is damn near a spoken word event every night of the week. If VOCAB isn’t the space for you, there is definitely another space which you will love. We talk about real issues from sexual trauma to the police murdering black trans folks. It is a space of healing and letting go.
NS: Also on that note, I think the rest of the U.S. really doesn’t have a sense of all of the immense talent that is here in Indianapolis (and this is another reason why I founded Indianapolis Review). My next question for you has multiple parts: who are some of the poets from here that you feel deserve more attention, and what are some of the other open mics or spoken word events that you think people should know about? Also, is there anything in particular about the Indianapolis spoken word scene that you feel makes it special? Any special challenges? Any special advantages?
TR: Indianapolis has a long history of talent that often gets forgotten about. That is one of the things that inspires me to keep going. After 13 years, I’m still finding talent that is unbelievable. As far as poets, I am inspired by too many to mention but do feel compelled to mention Kafe Kuumba has been around long before VOCAB started. That open-mic is going on its 30th year and none of us would be able ro do what we do, without the work put in by our elders.
I think as a whole Indianapolis has the potential to become a major player in the industry as long as we keep going. Just like Minneapolis, we have all the ingredients to be put on the map but just need people to stay here and help push it to where it can go.
As far as the spoken word scene, we have this amazing position where almost every open-mic in Indianapolis is run and organized by women and nonbinary people of color. We have been able to create a culture of talent and support without being a part of the mainstream artist community. This also leads to the disadvantage where we are often left out of the conversation when it comes to the “scene” because those conversations are being had by the handful of white elite promoters that think they are the only people bringing shows to Indianapolis.
NS: I encourage everyone to read your blog, where you write about your latest passions, thoughts and projects. It was on your blog that I found a neat video that featured a piece you wrote for Central Indiana Community Foundation, “Through our Eyes,” about all the good and bad aspects of our community. What is next for you? What projects are you focusing on at the moment? Also, you have written that you are trying to focus more on self care as a busy mother, writer and activist. What does that look like, and you do you have any self care tips for others?
TR: My focus right now is reigniting joy in my life outside of the work. The one thing I have learned is the greatest thing you can do in a society built to tear you down is to thrive. My goal now is to continue to grow VOCAB as the space I want it to be and live my life to its fullest. I have some writing projects in the works, as well more traveling. To me self care is centering yourself and not feeling guilty about it. My self care is logging off as much as possible and being present in the moment with whomever I’m sharing that with. Self care is honesty. Learning how to love yourself fully as you are, is the greatest act of love and resistance. Rejecting the dominant narrative based off of racism, sexism, xenophobia and colonialism within myself and my community is what I care about. The struggle is real, but not living life because of it means they win and I refuse to go out like that.