TED Talks Broke My Heart. Mwende Katwiwa Put It Back Together Again.

In November of 2015, I decided to quit my job of 16 years as an administrative assistant. I remember as I was exiting my office after turning in my keys and leaving a manual for the new executive assistant, I turned and looked at the office and took a picture. I wasn’t sure where I would end up, but I decided that day to never remain hidden in a box again.


My former office.

I was starting a new chapter in my life, and one of the first things I did was make a list of everything that I ever wanted for my life and as a spoken word artist. I have been performing for over two decades, and I feel that I have something that world needs to hear. One dream I had for years was to give a TED Talk. As stated on their website, TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. I had listened to TED Talks over the years and was inspired, encouraged and motivated. I wanted to give those same feelings to someone else. This was my dream. So much so that I downloaded an app on my iPhone called Echo that allows you to type in your prayers and it will remind you on a day and time that you choose to pray for whatever you listed. I have Ted Talks on my prayer list for every day just before bedtime.


That is why when I saw the article “I was invited to give a TED talk — then asked to “cut Black Lives Matter” from it,” by the writer, Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa, I was devastated. Mwende writes, “After finishing, I went backstage only to notice the curator of the conference walk up behind me. She informed me that there had “recently been 2–3 talks on the TED platform about ‘Black Lives Matter’”, and suggested that I “cut the ‘Black Lives Matter’ portion from my talk” to make it “just be about Reproductive Justice.” While in shock, Mwende states, “I spat out that I could not cut ‘Black Lives Matter’ from my talk, since the foundation of the talk was how the Movement for Black Lives and Reproductive Justice were inseparable for me.”  Mwende went on to give her poem and talk in its entirety, but still, I was heartbroken. How could an organization that I dreamed of being a part of ask a Black woman to remove Black Lives Matter from her talk? The very essence of a Black person saying Black Lives Matter means we cannot just remove it because some feel it won’t play well with their audience. It would almost be as insane as asking me to remove my skin. Me being Black and saying Black Lives Matter is inescapably intertwined.

I went to bed that night and didn’t pray to give a TED Talks. Maybe it was time to dream another dream. The next morning as I drove to work I couldn’t shake Mwende’s article. How did I reconcile my dream with the reality of what she said? But then I was reminded of my poem Spaces that was recently selected in a nationwide call for artists by the National Academy of Medicine to appear in a permanent, online art exhibition about equity, and I paused. Spaces is a poem about standing in spaces that make you uncomfortable so that one day someone else that is marginalized can stand in those same spaces. And perhaps because of what you did, they will stand in their authority knowing they have right to be in those spaces and to speak boldly in those spaces.

I thought about all the times that I stood in spaces that made me uncomfortable. Spaces where people assumed I was a server and not a speaker. Spaces where I was the only Black person in the room. Spaces where I questioned if my braids were appropriate. Spaces where I reminded myself to code switch. Spaces where people had influence and power that could affect my very livelihood if I said the “wrong” thing. Spaces where I stood afraid, voice quivering, knees knocking, but still knew that I had an obligation to stand in those spaces for two reasons. One, for every Black person that came before me that stood in spaces where they felt uncomfortable. Black women like Fannie Lou Hamer who testified at a Congressional hearing during the Civil Rights struggle. Fannie Lou Hamer who was beaten within an inch of her life simply because she stood in spaces so that others could be liberated. Hamer once said, “I guess if I’d had any sense I’d’ve been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do to me was kill me, and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.” So, I have vowed if women like Fannie Lou Hamer can stand in spite of all the obstacles in her way then I can stand behind a microphone even when I am afraid. Two, I stand for every Black person that will come after me. So, they know they have a right to be in these spaces and to speak their authentic truth in these spaces.

We don’t run. We don’t change the message to make the masses comfortable. Change dwells in the realm of the uncomfortable.

It is not easy bearing the task of standing in these spaces, but when you know whose shoulders you are standing on and who is climbing up your back to stand on your shoulders, you promise yourself that you will stand in these spaces even when you are afraid and uncomfortable.

Thank you, Mwende for being a spacemaker.

Mwende stood in that space to make it available for poets like me. Mwende stood in her truth and never wavered. Mwende stood in that space and spoke to truth to power.

Will I ever be invited to do a TED Talk? I don’t know and even after writing this I may have ruined that opportunity if it was ever possible. Who knows?  I am okay dreaming another dream. My soul can rest just fine because of women like Mwende that reminded me always to stand and speak my truth. Unapologetically.


4 replies »

  1. Hannah, sometimes standing in the space of who we authentically are is the best, bravest, boldest thing we can do. Once again, your words have inspired me.
    And TED is the one who’s lost out.
    Your words are rippling out in a far wider pond.

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