It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
In a world reeling from the destructiveness of white supremacy and the accumulated terrors of centuries of violence against living ecosystems, avry jxn's ongoing multimedia project Wild Talk offers a vision of a different way to be—to place remembrance and reverence at the center, and to start from there.
avry is a land steward and cultural worker from Des Moines, Iowa. In their photography and writing, jxn documents Black rural land-based practices, and listens for the lineages of horse farmers, sharecroppers, barrel racers, trail riders, grandmas, cousins, and spirit guides in the living memory of the earth. Wild Talk has taken them throughout the Black South in search of horse medicine and ancestral lifeways.
avry's work is rooted in a deep and abiding sense of relation, of joyous responsibility to those who dreamed them up, who called them into being, who are making this world anew. At one point during our conversation, avry's phone rang. It was their grandma. They smiled and paused our interview—"I can't ignore my grandma's call, ever."
The Black ecological wisdom, the radical discipleship to the land that avry demonstrates in every facet of their life, is an urgent and generous knowing. Wild Talk serves as a visual reminder that Black land stewardship has always been a spiritual practice, a way to attend to each other's wellbeing under conditions of consistent unwellness.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length. All photos and captions by avry jxn.
Who are your guides?
One thing I'd like to first say is, spiritually, in my tradition "old souls" are people who have passed on. So I would definitely say spiritually I'm guided by the matriarchs who have come through my family. So my big mom, my Mama Marshall, they definitely guide me in how they communicate with the things that I feel called to do. And I would also say my grandma—who's here, and who definitely facilitated the introduction to my work. And all the artists and land stewards and Black folks who are operating outside of the ways that they were taught to growing up, they all affirm me.
Can you talk more about how your grandma facilitated you into your work?
Yeah, my grandma, Annie Ozell Robinson, was a sharecropper in Monroe, Louisiana, and a part of the Great Migration. She had moved up to Des Moines, Iowa, with her family and her sister's family, her kids and her sister's kids. And she's always held a relationship to the land and a relationship to our story, where we're from, and a relationship to animals and God. So I think that having that grounded in me, whether it was tending to her garden when I was young, or not throwing away food, or making sure that whatever animals that were in the neighborhood got to eat. And also just being very clear about how I got to where I was. She just always made it known to me that whatever I did, I had to be responsible with it, and I had to be accountable to the people who got me to where I am.
My grandma always affirmed the fire that I had in me. So when I was able to articulate that, I understood that the rage and the fire that I've always had since I was a kid was rooted in the rage that my ancestors experienced, and that they often didn't have avenues to express it without the fear of death or violent sanctions. I think my grandma affirming that in me is what introduced me to be able to take big risks.
It's interesting that you mentioned rage, because that's not necessarily something that I would have thought of in relation to seeing your work.
I talk about a righteous rage. When you're younger they say you have a smart mouth, or you're too smart for your own good, or you always have an attitude—or you know—all those things. But as I got older I realized that those things are true, but they're true because I was really born to honor the suffering that the people before me have experienced, and to do work that is aware of that. I was doing intensive community organizing work, and the rage showed up in how I talked to people, it showed up in how I organized—very urgent, very responsive and impulsive, very angry about the systems.
The Black Southern horse culture, Black rural land stewards—you know, this is hard work, really hard work, but our pleasure is much more important than just being in a state of rage.
But I would say over a year ago I had a shift towards saying, 'Actually, I'm not going to live in a place of rage that's going to cause me to do harm to myself spiritually, mentally, physically. But in spite of that rage, I'm going to begin to live in my own pleasure.' Which is where the horses come in, which is where the traveling comes in, which is where the quitting the jobs comes in. But I'm also going to document other people who are so committed to their pleasure that they'll do whatever they need to, to experience it. The Black Southern horse culture, Black rural land stewards—you know, this is hard work, really hard work, but our pleasure is much more important than just being in a state of rage or being complacent with systems that demand we be comfortable and productive in our rage.
"from Jones County, Georgia this living canvas carries the Southern tradition with grace. in honor of her birth the baddest peach conceived a sacred twerk down in the city in the forest. like our folks always have, from juke joints to freakniks. i left Mississippi to make sure i warmed up my suh. here are shots of the preparation ritual."
Could you talk more about horses in particular? For me, growing up in the Northeast, a lot of the ways that I interacted with horses or saw other people interact was definitely tied in with elitism and this white ideal of equestrian sports. I'm also thinking about the ways horses have signified state power throughout history (i.e. mounted cops). I feel like through your work I've been able to access and learn about a different tradition of horsemanship that's not limited by those things.
Yeah, I could talk about horses all day long. I don't remember the first time I saw a horse, but I remember always being called to horses. To the point where I'm in middle school looking up horses for sale, as if I'm gonna buy one [laughs]. And I got close, but it didn't happen. But, when I think about it from a Southern, Afro-ecological standpoint, and the idea that all life has value inherently, and has to be treated like such, I see horses as a medicine. I also see how horses have been used in the project of colonialism and the foundational stages of capitalist development. The herd has been exploited for their inherent life, at the same time that we have. Horses are a reminder that our stories are much longer than what we experience on the everyday, and even what we can consciously remember sometimes. So when I submitted to the call to the herd, it felt like a return. It didn't feel like I was learning something new, it just felt like I was remembering.
[T]here is a de-legitimization of Black folks who choose pleasure. Especially those who ride horses and do trail rides for pleasure and for medicine, and not for sport or not for the money. Even within the Black horse industry, a lot of times what we see is a devaluing of people who just love horses, and so they keep horses. There's different realities. I feel more at home when I go to a ranch in Georgia, on 145 acres, where all the horses are free roam, than when I go to a luxury stable with expensive gear. It's not about the standards set by anybody else. It's our culture, our traditions, our music, and dances—that's enough.
And so to me, it's about documenting Black Southern landways, agrarian ways, and documenting the ways that we just do what we want to do, and we do it well.
"training horses demands trust. practicing that trust in life has taken me deeper into myself. i've remembered who tf i is, by answering the call on my spirit. even when the risk was heavier than the guarantee. the herd taught me. i'm not extracting stories from subjects, i'm sharing my culture. i'm tellin' stories of what home is to me."
What does horse medicine feel like and mean to you?
Whenever I give people an introduction to horses, I'm always like, you know, horses communicate 85, 95 percent intuitively. It requires me to be much more mindful and aware of the thoughts I'm having, the energy that I'm embodying, the way that I'm carrying my body, and it requires me to be aware and respectful of the intuitive communication signals that I'm receiving from the horse.
Whenever I'm training or riding or just being in relationship with horses, it connects me to a much longer lineage. I found out that my great-great-grandfather, Mose Jackson—the last person on my paternal side to be enslaved in Kirksville, Missouri—was a horse wrangler on the plantation of Pryor Jackson. He was enslaved for about a decade after the Emancipation Proclamation, but when he left the plantation, he left with his horse and his hat. That's where my family's last name comes from. Before I even knew that, I felt like, this is something that the old souls who make me up have already experienced. The relationship that I have to horses, the training, the handling, the conversations, the medicine, is the same exact medicine that they experienced, because horses are still so free. They've been colonized just as much as we have, but because of the nature of their spirits, it's unable to be destroyed.
What have you learned about freedom through this project?
Horses are what gave me the space to be able to create this cultural project. Horses are what gave me enough bravery, courage, strength, will, to actually commit to the work of cultural preservation and archiving and documentary work. I grew up in a two-parent household in Des Moines, Iowa, both working parents, both first-generation college students…
[avry's grandma calls]
…So yeah, I committed to living in ways that I was taught were unacceptable. I graduated from Morehouse College in 2017 and started doing impact consulting while I was a student. I worked four months post-grad in what I would say was my first 9-to-5 job. And it was a pretty well-paying job, way more well-paying than a lot of my family has been able to accomplish at my age. And so it created ripples in my relationships with my family, leaving that job because I wanted to experience the freedom that I know I was called to experience. After I did that, I started living in my car, going to the gym to shower, all so that I could put all of my resources into cultural preservation and the study of the places where resources do not steadily flow.
I would say I've learned that my freedom is accessible. It's inaccessible maybe in terms of our physical reality at times, but to me, what I've tried to journey to is a freedom within. Even in an extremely colonized reality, I want to embody my autonomy.
"a shot from a stable cross the river in NOLA. they say they kill dem boys over the water in any competition."
Earlier you mentioned the Southern agrarian framework that your work takes place within. What do you feel are the principles of that way of life?
For me, the Southern agrarian way is a commitment to your relationship to the land, because your understanding of the land is parallel to your own spiritual hygiene and wellbeing. And coming from particularly the Black Southern hoodoo tradition, which is the liberation spiritual practice of Black people, that survived the genocide and violence of the slave trades and is still actively in practice today, [we] understand our ancestors, the land, and our own spirit as one, as a collective spiritual presence. So when people say the universe and everything works together, for me it's like that sacred space is the soil. The sacred space is me recognizing that I have inherent value just because, and so does every other living being, and what does it mean for us to engage with the world in those ways? And the hardest part is engaging with yourself in that way [laughs].
Horses are what gave me enough bravery, courage, strength, will, to actually commit to the work of cultural preservation and archiving and documentary work.
When I think about my role as being a land steward, it's mostly about horses. And it shifts the conversation a lot too, because we don't necessarily see Black people—especially Black non-binary hoodoo practitioners—who are working with animals as an extension of their spiritual responsibility to themselves and to the collective. But it's like, no, I don't have to primarily identify as the grower to be a steward of the land—actually I am the herder, I'm the wrangler like my great-great-grandad.
Is there anything you wanted me to ask or that you'd like to add?
I've been thinking through, where do I see the work going? I think part of what took me so long to be able to start creating and offering in the ways that I am now is being insecure about my gifts. And so I'm in a space now where I'm like, no humility in 2020 [laughs].
I don't have to primarily identify as the grower to be a steward of the land, actually I am the herder, I'm the wrangler like my great-great-grandad.
I think it's really important that people understand that growing up Black in this country, particularly growing up Black in the Midwest, East Coast, and the South, the rural South, a byproduct of that is not believing that what you have to offer is valuable. And I see that firsthand, even in this moment of the Black Renaissance of art, young Black people are still insecure about what we have to offer the world, because the social experience of our everyday reality is not telling us that what we have to offer is inherently valuable. And so I'm at a state now where I definitely am not fully confident in all the things that I'm doing, but I think it's also important to just share that I'm creating through my insecurities of not being the best photographer, not having the best branding or content or whatever, you know, all the stuff that keeps you from pushing your work out.
Is there anyone you'd like to shoutout or uplift?
First of all shoutout to all my diasporic cousins of the Great Migration whose families been holding it down heavy in the racist midwest since our displacement from the South. And shoutout to all of us migration babies makin' that return home to the land in honor of our people. I have to give love to the platform Fort Negrita by my sister Annemarie, a Black minimal waste cooperative. [And] I should shout out Gangstas to Growers, a hot sauce cooperative of young people who are from the west side of Atlanta.