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Eshe Shukura

 

"I loved guaranteed income. But I often was like, I don't want it to feel like dignified welfare, I think it is more radical to think about it as something that people are owed, that people you know, deserve. That it should have been happening for years."

 

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Eshe Shukura

Ashby Combahee  

Okay, so my name is Ashby Combahee and I’m here with Dartricia Rollins and we are interviewing Eshe Shukura. I don’t think I’ve said your last name before. So we are interviewing Eshe for the Telling Our Own Stories: Black Women’s Leadership Legacies event. Today is September 23rd, 2023. And Georgia Dusk: a southern liberation oral history project is conducting this oral history at 7 Stages Theatre in Little Five Points neighborhood of Atlanta. So you have been asked to participate in this storytelling project to uplift the stories of Black women and their lineage of radical leadership in part of the film screening of Storming Caesar’s Palace. Storming Caesar’s Palace uplifts the story of a band of ordinary Black mothers who launched one of the most extraordinary yet forgotten, feminist anti poverty movements in US history, providing a blueprint today for an equitable future. This oral history collection is in partnership with The GRO Fund, filmmaker Hazel Gurland-Pooler, Red Owl Partners, Tender Foundation, Black Feminist Futures, Center for Civic Innovation Atlanta, Represent Georgia, and WRFG Atlanta. So with all that, Eshe, can you please introduce yourself by saying your name, your pronouns and your age?

Eshe Shukura  

Dang, don’t put me out there in these streets. Lawd. Oh, no. My name is Eshe Shukura. My pronouns are they/them. And I am 32. Yeah, that’s how old I am. Yep. Had to remember.

Ashby Combahee 

So, our grounding question for this oral history is, who do you dedicate this oral history to?

Eshe Shukura 

Dang, that’s a really good question. Actually, when we were when you asked me my name, I started to I was like, should I say my middle name? Because I’m named after. So the way our names work in my immediate family, or we’re named. Our given name is our first name. Our like kind of Black Woman Warrior is our second name. And then our family name is the chosen name that we have of Shukura. So my name, my full name is Eshe Katailili Shukura. And I’m named after a Kenyan warrior named Mekatilili, who her name has no meaning, which is always interesting. Because like, when you have African names, people are like, what itmean? And I was like, so. And there’s not a lot written about her. So every once in a while, I will Google her. And there’s like a children’s book, or there’s like an essay, or there’s like, some extra stuff in a Wikipedia page. And yeah, I just she was captured by the British. She fought. Basically, the British were trying to kidnap men from her tribe to put them on plantations. And to and they were taxing, you know, the people of her nation. And she was fighting against that. And there’s just like, little fun stories about her. Like, I love the story where she danced. This, like, they talk about her dancing this like funeral dance, like around and she just like, always was doing this dance. And I always think how people get so dramatic. Not saying that’s not right. But about, like, we have to, you know, take history so seriously, you know, people didn’t do this back in the day, we were just so serious. And I’m like, she was doing this dance everywhere. So like, you know, just like people are full, you know, and have like, full personalities. And then there was this other cool story about her bringing, like, a hen into a parliament meeting. And some chicks, and she was like, you know, you see how these little chicks follow this hen. That’s how my people gonna follow me. And just, I don’t know, I’ve also read an offhand one that like, apparently, they may celebrate her close to my birthday. So I was like, I don’t even know my parents knew that. So just, I always want to, like, bring her energy in and learn more about her. And yeah, so that’s who I dedicate this to.

Ashby Combahee 

Yeah, I appreciate that context and information, shares a lot more about your background. So a little bit more about your background. Where are you from?

Eshe Shukura 

I’m originally I’m from St. Louis, Missouri. So I was born there, in the 90s I grew up there for about the first eight years of my life. And then like maybe 9-10 a little bit because my dad still lived there. So I also grew up a lot in Atlanta. My mom moved. We were I’dmoved here through divorce. So my mom moved here first, and I moved here with my mom and my sister. And every year, I first moved to Jonesboro it was a very big transition for me, because I’m from St. Louis in the city. So sometimes when people think about St. Louis, you think about Ferguson and things like that. And one of the things I learned later in life, which I was like, maybe I don’t know, I never knew this. But St. Louis is its own city, and it’s not in a county. And then there’s St. Louis County. So like, a lot of those cities that you may hear about, especially Ferguson when the uprising’s happening, they’re in like St. Louis County, and they’re considered like northside. But I grew up in the southside in the city. So like, I just grew up, walking around, and, you know, knowing my neighbors and, you know, playing outside in these very real ways. You know, I never figured out how to double dutch unfortunately, I could turn very well. Very good. Amazing turner, backwards forward. But yeah, I moved to Atlanta, and we first moved to Jonesboro, Georgia, and it was a big adjustment for me, cuz I just never lived in such a suburban place. And in an apartment complex and and, you know, went to I went to, I grew up going to a school in St. Louis, this was a Catholic school. But a weird Catholic school. It was a kind of pan-Africanist Catholic school. So we wore like, black and white Kente cloth jumpers. We sung Kirk Franklin, it was lit. It was, actually, it was like Sister Act kind of, in a way. We it was like, very Black. Pretty much. I’m gonna say 99% Black students. And, yeah, it was just like, the kind of private school that I went to, and, you know, and then went up to eighth grade. So I was in school, my sister and just, you know, I had family that worked there. I hated religion, I would skip it. Yes, I skipped early, and I would just say I was sick and call my dad. I’d be like, I’m not feeling well. And it was just this kind of beautiful experience, then to be pulled, moved to a public school that I just really had a hard time with. Not even just because there were white students, which is fine, but like, it was just a different environment, you know, not so family like, not so. Yeah, just didn’t feel like they cared very much about young people. So I, but then I moved into Atlanta. So my mom moved here for her relationship. And slowly we move closer and closer, until we moved in with them. And then my dad came. So I used to go back to St. Louis for the summers. But my dad ended up in a relationship with a professor at Spelman, Dr. Kuumba. And when she got that job, they were able to move here. And so my whole family ended up in Atlanta, and now all of them gone, you know, everybody lives somewhere else. My mom lives in Alabama. My dad lives in Kenya, my sister lives in Alabama. So I’m like holding it down. ATL.

Ashby Combahee  Eshe Shukura 

So you named quite a few people, who, you know, got you here in Atlanta who were raising you. And so I’m wondering those people that you’ve already named, and potentially others, who shaped you, and how did they shape you? What were the values that they instilled in you?

Eshe Shukura 

Um, so it’s interesting, because I know this, this is like, really about Black women’s stories. And so much of my story is about my mom, but like also about my dad, you know. So I grew up in a pan-Africanist, like kind of household and had those kind of values in instilled in me kind of early. And when I lived in Missouri, it was like, we had more of a like political family. I would say, like, we went to more meetings and, you know, I was like, one of those kids singing, they had the young pioneers program and we’d be like YPL will never die. And singing these African birthday songs and stuff like that, and I think when I moved to Atlanta, a lot of that changed. And when I think about like the adults who shaped me here, it’s hard, because I think I felt young, like my younger me felt like I didn’t have a lot of influences or like mentors, but I don’t think that’s like fully true. And I think sometimes when we look back on our lives, we can be like, damn, you know, nobody loved me. We can get on our Drake. And, yeah, let me like kind of mustard on that question. I don’t know why I said mustard all dang, but it’s recorded now. I’m like muster and ketchup on that question. But actually, now that I think about it, a person that comes to mind for me is a woman named Keisha Greene. And so I used to be a part of Project South Youth Council. I was a part of it when I was younger, and then I quit to do theater for a while. And then when I went to high school, I like changed high schools in the last couple of years, and they happen to be across the street. I went to Carver School of Arts and so I just started going back. And Keisha was an ethnographer, or is an ethnographer. She’s not gone. She’s still with us. Yes, yes. And she was doing a kind of a story on the youth. So Project South had a program, a youth radio program that was at WRFG called Youth Speaks Truth. And she was kind of doing ethnography on our program. And just like, you know, being there capturing our stories, you know, learning about us, and, you know, I didn’t even really know it was a study, I don’t think I really understood it until I went to college. And I took a class on ethnography, I was like, oh, Keisha, you was really doing that was like, that’s great. But I, she really took, like, the time to really get to know us. And she, like, helped me get my essay together for college, because, you know, my background in school has always being kind of passed through, because I’ve, you know, kind of straddle the line of being a gifted student, but like, also a student who struggles with writing and reading, but is kind of ignored. Because when you go to schools, where people are often on really, really low reading levels, or have really, really big struggles with writing, you can just kind of be shuffled through. So I’d never written like, a long form essay before college, because my college application, they were like, turn in, you know, five, five page essay, and I was like, like, one that you wrote in school? I’m like, not not me. I’m like, we didn’t do that stuff in my college, my schools. So it was like, the first time I’d ever written one. And Keisha just was, like, you know, supportive with that. And, you know, and I ended up having, I think I actually wrote a longer paper because I didn’t know that about double space. But I wrote on the No Child Left Behind Act, and I remember reading it and being like, how it just like, wasn’t helpful for young people, and how it really led to a lot of social promotion and also just like over policing and discipline, and just being in that environment. And you know, even having the idea to write about something like that was like because of these programs and these spaces that were shaping me and giving me thought and then I think another thing I would like to say about Keisha was she also one time took me on a trip with her family in South Carolina. So we went to the beach and it just was really special to me, like meeting her family and having an adult in my life that like wanted me to be a part of something more because I think yeah, as a young person, even though I said like it’s not totally true but there are times where I felt like I just was like really alone or just didn’t have a lot of you know, or had parents who go through the various things that parents sometimes go through and they’re just like, I am the youngest too. So I often what I felt like kind of neglected in a way just because my stepbrother the who is the like right above me is like only three years. So, is three years older than me and then everyone else is like, a little bit older, so I just kind of felt alone and having that adult mentor and supporter, who just like checked in on me, was, is really important. And I realized that was what critical ethnography was right, I realized that there is like anthropology and ethnography where people take stories, and you know, and that is it. But like, the fact that she really cultivated relationships with us, and still to this day, she reaches out to us, you know, I happen to go to college, and she ended up teaching at UMass Amherst. So I went to Hampshire College. And that is those schools are very close to each other. And, you know, I got to meet meet with her again. And I’m just like, like, just a couple of days ago, she likes messaged all us on Facebook, and was like, Yeah, I’m gonna save all your numbers again. So it’s just like this kind of constant relationship. And I think the relationships that stayed really shaped me. I think my mom shaped me and her stories and just like, kind of seeing my mom in multiple ways. And I, working in guaranteed income, I really think about, like, the ways that my mom’s life could maybe be potentially different or move differently. If she had something like that something supplemental something that was, you know, regularly hers. Because she worked and she didn’t work and the, like, I’ve seen her struggle and not struggle and have health things. And, you know, and just kind of parent really young too. I like not to make my dad sound bad. But I’m like, he was like nine years, like her husband’s nine years older than her. And I mean, I know, it’s very normal for that time period. I’m sure a lot of us have parents that were like, Yo, you was talking to her at like, like, 18. Okay, sir. But I think about like how that must have, like, been such a big pivotal thing for her life, you know, to like, be a parent, at a young younger age, you know, have to like deal with like, what it means to grow up. And I don’t want to call my mom out, but I’m just like, you know, moving in through relationships and relationships, and thinking about what it could’ve meant for her to be able to, like choose herself sometimes or make different decisions. And I think that has shaped me to be like, Yeah, I definitely want to be, like, more independent in my life or, you know, have really think about the relationships that I want to be in. And yeah, I don’t know, and my mom’s like, kind of a free spirit. So I will say, like, she’s also shaped me to be like, more into my body. You know, as much as I had to deal with fatphobia growing up. And even my mom, you know, sometimes would be like a culprit of it. But really good stories or really good times with my mom have been like, her. Buying me clothes that are just like, really cute. And like, you know, uping me and being like, Oh, that’s a really great outfit. And, you know, you look good, and, you know, really allowing me to be free. She’s always been the type that is like, not afraid to be naked in the house. It don’t matter if the men are around, she’s like, you know, this my body, I’m comfortable. And I really love that about my mom, or just like, how outgoing she is. And you know, and I think that like, that has also made me more comfortable in the world to like, have someone who’s like, it is okay for you to be sexy. And that was like when I was like in high school, right? When people are always telling you that like, it is not okay for you to like be this way is not okay for you to wear, you know, revealing clothes because it’s just like too much. And it was never really sexualized in in that household. So I always felt like it was just okay to be that to be seen.

Ashby Combahee  

Well, Eshe, you’ve covered quite a bit. It was wonderful. I love when I have these oral histories and I don’t have to necessarily guide because you take it where it needs to go. But I want to provide a space if you want to specifically address more in detail. What does it mean to work with communities to provide guaranteed income and how are you personally impacted by the welfare system and your community?

Eshe Shukura 

Um, so it’s great. I don’t I’d never got to implement it really. So I came into The GRO Fund a little bit after their launch, I actually used to work at Economic Security Project, which is another kind of convener of, they don’t run guaranteed income programs, but they are a big convener in this space. And we were doing some funding work for GRO and they wanted to do a launch project. So I was like, well, let’s do a video I had never produced a video but thankfully, you know, sometimes you just put some Atlanta people together and something shakes. So shout out to Aurielle Marie for doing the poetry Logan, Lynette for, whew, working with me and having patience with me to make the film. Christopher at WRFG for like, recording the sound just like, but it was a really beautiful project. And I think I didn’t know what guaranteed income was before I took the job at Economic Security Project. I just my friend, Bianca found the job on indeed. And I was like, I like culture. And I want to be a cultural strategist. And I applied thinking I wouldn’t even get it. Because it was a little bit more than what I had done in the past, I’ve mostly just been an organizer. And I got it. So it’s cool. Like, it was cool to learn about. And I got to actually see this film, as a part of it. Hazel came in and did like a small, kind of stripped down screening, it was like before even color correction. And I think that this was like pivotal for me, because I loved guaranteed income. But I often was like, hmm, it’s great. But like, what’s the like driving motivator behind it? You know, I was like, I don’t want it to feel like dignified welfare, I think it is more radical to think about it as something that people are owed, that people you know, deserve. That it should have been happening for years. And I think that like seeing that momentum. And those stories and learning about other people like Johnny Tillman, who was like a big welfare rights activist. It was really motivating to me and it kind of made me want to, like, be even more in the narrative work. So like getting to work with GRO. This program is specifically for Black women. Whereas ESP, I was like, kind of, you know, working around all the different types of programs. It’s just been really beautiful to like to learn, and I want to connect the folks in our program to things like this, because I think when you are, you know, just kind of living your life, day to day, you’re in isolation. You know, you’re just like, Yeah, that’s great. We got this money. And you know, people are always in disbelief that they’re in this program. But yeah, and we’ve been doing some story collection. So as a part of the program, we were just in southwest Georgia a couple of weeks ago, talking to some of our participants. And yeah, isolation is real. People are. And it is interesting how folks regurgitate talking points from folks who mean them, no, well, you know, do not mean them well, and how we think about ourselves and our communities. So I think, you know, doing this work, I also really think about how it’s so important to really start changing and shifting those narratives. And then as far as my own relationship to the welfare movement, or to the welfare system, I don’t have a lot. Um, I know that my mom kind of learned over time that she was on welfare for a couple years. And I know, it wasn’t fun for her. I know that she had to be very complicated around her relationship with my dad, especially in her like, kind of first years of marriage with my sister, because of like, rules around, you know, marriage and then having a man in the household who can provide. And I know that like, it wasn’t really a great thing for her and she did not like it and she worked her way. Like you know, she was just like, I don’t want to be on it. So she, you know, it wasn’t a thing. And then I grew up pretty like working class for the most part, there are times of struggle, there are times of, you know, good things. So I don’t it wasn’t like a very big part of my life. And my only personal experience with welfare was when I went to California, and I did a program where I was literally only getting paid $400 a month y’all. They tried us, they tried us.

Eshe Shukura 

Sorry, I’m almost done. I been talking. Yes, I’m sorry. I know I’d be going, I’m a Leo.

So, yeah, it was like the program only paid us like $400. And luckily, I did have some money. Because I decided to do it. They were actually expecting only people in California to apply it was a queer emerging artists residency. And there were four of us who we came from out of town. And we’re like, we gon do it anyways. So we immediately kind of went through the welfare system to get food stamps, I found it really easy to get them in California. But one of the kind of weird things that I noticed was when I applied for welfare, like the funding, they made me one go through like this weird this very, like, kind of intrusive questionnaire, where they’re basically like, do you believe the federal government is watching you? And I was like, do y’all want me to answer this for real or like, I’m like, I know, I’m like, I’ont gotta believe but, but you know, and I was just like, Okay, so there’s this kind of psyche evaluation, there’s this, these different ways that they like, you know, try to pathologize you or just like to see, you know, are you deserving. And then when I learned that you actually have to pay it back, I decided not to take it. Because they were like, once we find out that you make enough money, we are requiring you to pay us back. And I was like, wow, so just learning how these systems just kind of perpetuate these cycles of poverty because luckily, you know, I have a parent that, you know, lives in Atlanta and no, my parent couldn’t probably support me. He can support me just like being in California doing my thing, but like, I have something I can fall back on. Right. Like, if I decided that I would need to leave California, I could go to a home and I’d be okay. But, you know, just it is very hard. And I think there are like many people who you know, struggle with these things. So, yeah. That’s my, my spill.

Ashby Combahee  

I appreciate you, Eshe. Thank you. Thank you for putting this event together.

Eshe Shukura 

Yeah. Thank y’all. Thank y’all for doing this story collection. This was fun.

 

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