How Black Creative Spaces Can Be Havens for Resistance

This article is part of Dreaming Out Loud, a media series written as part of the Bioneers Young Leaders Fellowship Program. To learn more, visit

Art has always been a pillar of the life and culture of Blackness in America. From hiding Yoruba religious symbols in Christian iconography to singing of a liberated future in the so-called “negro-spirituals,” Black folks have used creativity to carve spaces that are gentle, loving and humanizing against the backdrop of a society that does not love on them. Black creativity has been a way for Black minds and bodies to heal from a seemingly never-ending struggle for freedom.  

Born from a unified struggle, the art and creativity of Black folks has shaped and shifted American culture. It has called out the ills of a country that continues to marginalize its people. It has sparked movements for Black joy. It has shown us how to change the world into one that allows Black bodies to rest instead of fight. 

Creating spaces where Black creativity and Black art are allowed to flourish can be daunting, but it is a key act of resistance. These Black creative spaces are settings and experiences that embody Black expressions and imaginations. They offer Black folks support to dream their wildest dreams out loud, unencumbered by the white gaze. They allow both artists and the beholder to relish in the rich depths of their Blackness.

This “Black Creativity” collection will explore transformative figures in Black art and creative culture. The following creatives know what it’s like to challenge the status quo, dream up possibility and tell the stories of the beauty of their Blackness.

Ebby, Chibi Magical Girl and Chrissy, Chrissy Plays Dressup

Ebby enjoys putting her art on display at cosplay competitions. She won first place at the 2022 Savannah Comic Convention as Princess Sailor Moon from the live-action series “Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon.” Photo: @ThePicWitch

Ebby has always loved anime. “Tokyo Mew Mew,” “Winx Club” and “Princess Tutu” were just some of the series that frequented her television set when she was younger. It was the magical girl animes — anime centering concepts of girls coming of age and possessing power through their femininity – that she loved the most. These were characters that brought her so much joy. 

Ebby was swept away to the furthest reaches of her imagination when in the midst of magical girls. Anthy Himemiya from the “Revolutionary Girl Utena” series was particularly inspirational for Ebby. She was a woman of color. 

“I never saw people of color, dark-skinned characters, that were magical girls or a Shōjo at that time,” Ebby said. “That was like, wow. I told myself, eventually when I get better at sewing, let me actually make this particular character.”

Countless hours and yards of fabric later, Ebby had completed her first cosplay – a costume resembling the red gown and short purple bob worn by Anthy. And, over 13 years later, Ebby – known to fans as Chibi Magical Girl – still indulges in the depths of her creativeness, dressing up as the magical girls that continue to bring her joy.

Ebby’s art has taken her far and wide. She’s donned stubbed, white horns and a beaded white wig while transporting herself to the realm of “Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid” as the magical girl Kanna Kamui. She’s metamorphosed into Madoka Kaname from “Puella Magi Madoka Magica,” complete with a bow and arrow. She’s even been seen dressed as a Black fae, adorned with pointed ears. 

For Ebby, cosplay has been an opportunity to break out of her shell and to learn new skills as she builds her craftsmanship. She has learned to visualize, prep fabrics and stitch together her own garments. She taught herself how to tease and style wigs and to apply makeup. 

“When you start to actually see every little bit, those parts of the cosplay come together, you’re like, wow, I actually did this!” Ebby said. “This looks pretty good! It’s actually becoming something from nothing!”

Cosplay, a term derived from the words “costume” and “play,” is a common art form in fandom communities in which folks dress as their favorite characters from anime series, TV shows, comics or video games. Many cosplayers like Ebby make their own cosplays, spending countless hours sewing clothes, sculpting foam armor and weapons and styling wigs – oftentimes spending hundreds of dollars on a single cosplay. Some cosplayers will go as far as to mimic the mannerisms and personalities of the characters they impersonate.

Cosplay is also a staple at many fandom gatherings, such as anime and comic conventions – providing a space for cosplayer art to be on full display. Not long ago, engaging in geek culture was considered uncool in popular culture. Today, tens of thousands of cosplayers attend conventions every year, across the nation. 

The beauty of cosplay is that it is an art form that allows fans to dream out loud by embodying characters they resonate with and who bring them joy. It offers them an escape from reality. The craft itself is a combination of ingenuity and fandom passion that opens portals to new and magical worlds. Cosplay has become an outlet for geeky folks – a medium through which folks are afforded the creative space to openly express themselves and display their unconventional art. It’s an exciting world, and for many, a personally fulfilling one. But for Black folks, namely Black femme-presenting folks, it can also serve as a reminder that we are seen as outsiders.

“You just come to cosplay; you just come to dress up as a character, or you come to socialize with people who share the same interests as you,” Ebby said. “You come to bring more people in and share your stories, but for a lot of people, they’re not in the cosplay community long enough for their story to be heard because of all the negativity.”

There is a dangerous misconception in the cosplay community that seeks to exile Black folks from fully participating in the depths of their art forms. While white folks have always been free to emulate characters from various cultural backgrounds, at times even donning blackface,  Black cosplayers have continuously been persecuted for dressing up as characters who do not share their skin color or facial features. The concept of accuracy and authenticity in the cosplay community has set a damaging expectation: that the physical traits of Black cosplayers are enough to bar them from experiences in the art of cosplay.

Black cosplayers are tired of being told who they can and can’t portray in their very own art form. And, as geek culture gains notoriety under a mainstream lens, harmful behavior that is guided by white supremacy is becoming more visible. Body shaming, racial slurs and other forms of discrimination persistently cast a menacing, dark cloud on the cosplay experience – morphing an escape from reality into a visceral reality of racism and sexism. 

“There are going to be people that will tell you other things about your cosplay or the color of your skin,” Ebby said. “It’s so hard to ignore that, but the thing is, as long as you love cosplay and you find some type of joy in it, all that negativity, all those harsh things people say, all those racist comments don’t even matter anymore.”

This anti-Black racism — the dehumanization and marginalization of Black folks — in the cosplay community stems from members who see themselves as the gatekeepers of geek culture. Racialized and sexualized discrimination in the cosplay experience has been fueled by those who have sought to dominate fandom — a group of people, particularly white men, who feel that different elements of geek culture belong to them.

“You don’t have to look a thing like them,” Chrissy said, another cosplayer. “I definitely enjoy cosplay more since I figured that out. We are all just little creative nerds together. We are all just out here trying to make our favorite characters into a reality.”

Chrissy — affectionately known by the cosplay community as Chrissy Plays Dressup — has been cosplaying for over 15 years. Their journey began after attending their first anime convention at the age of 14. The costumes emulating characters from popular animated series such as “Inuyasha,” “Naruto” and “Bleach,” were vibrant, whimsical and sensational. They were self-expressions of the folks who wore them.

Chrissy had always been a big nerd with a passion for anime. It wasn’t a question of could they cosplay, but rather an excitement to get started. They even learned how to craft models through 3-dimensional artistry to build their own props. 

Through their art, Chrissy has transformed themself into a number of magical girls. In one costume, they are metamorphosed into Amulet Angel from “Shugo Chara!,” complete with white, feathered angel wings. In another, they put on their sailor suit, large blue bow included, to be transformed into the Sailor Guardian, Sailor Venus. Their latest costume transported them to the realm of “Cardcaptor Sakura” as the magical girl Sakura Kinomoto

“I want to make something that has never existed in this world before,” Chrissy said. “That is the most exciting part of cosplay for me.”

To address the harmful behavior within the community, Ebby and Chrissy have begun adding elements to their costume designs that weren’t necessarily accurate to the character, but that represented them, their art and their culture. For Chrissy, they often imagine an alternate reality where these characters are all Black — where the softness and sweetness of Blackness is fully on display — for inspiration. 

“I’m actually working on a Rapunzel costume, and I’m using a much curlier texture for her long braid. I’m putting box braids in as some accents,” Chrissy said. “It makes it feel a little bit more like this is me. I am this character.”

Black cosplayers like Ebby and Chrissy remain undeterred in their self-expression, using their cosplay to refute the discriminatory behavior that has infested the cosplay community. In a collective stand against these white supremacist tactics, Black cosplayers have used their skin tones and hair textures to embrace and embody the deep beauty of their Blackness. Black cosplayers continue to create creative spaces where Black art can flourish and be celebrated. These Black creative spaces invite other Black folks to relish in their Blackness in a cosplay community that is safe and loving.

Black cosplays are stunning works of art and a key act of resistance.

As the granddaughter of notable Civil Rights activists Wyatt Tee Walker and Theresa Ann Walker, it was natural for Chrissy to weave social justice into their art of cosplay. And, in the spirit of their ancestors, Chrissy has found a community — a Black creative space — with the power to further expose a sensational narrative of how Black folks show up and find joy in the United States.  

“I didn’t set out trying to change the world with costumes, but I’m so happy that I’m able to,” Chrissy said. “Not like it’s a huge platform, but I have a platform, and it’s giving people the chance to see themselves in ways that they never really thought they could before.”

Chrissy hopes to be able to hold space for folks who don’t have the capacity to attend Anime conventions by cultivating new creative spaces online. They envision a space where Black folks of all abilities, gender expressions and cultures can gather and relish in the geekiest parts of themselves. 

“I want everyone to have a space; I want everyone to have a voice; I want everyone to feel like they belong, especially in something as silly and fun as a hobby,” Chrissy said. “I just want everyone else to feel a little less burdened from the expectations that society puts on us, so I hope my little corner of the Internet can be a refuge for you.” 

For Ebby, in spite of the racist scrutiny, she hopes to join more cosplay competitions, to show off her craftsmanship and to let other Black folks know that there are creative spaces just for them. 

“We’re here in this space and we want to be acknowledged,” Ebby said. “No matter the comments that I might get or the looks I might get at a convention, despite all that, I’m still able to cosplay these characters, no matter how serious it may get, because these characters bring me joy, and that’s all that matters.”

Evan Narcisse

When the original “Black Panther” movie hit box offices in 2018, T’Challa became a household name for millions of moviegoers. But for Evan Narcisse, T’Challa is a name that lives deep within his earliest memories. 

Narcisse grew up reading comic books and graphic novels, becoming engrossed in the worlds of superheroes like Superman and Batman. He was particularly fond of the Black superhero the Black Panther.

“I’ve always been a pop culture junkie when it comes to comics,” Narcisse said. “I learned to read off of comics. Most people my age, they have this arc where they read comics as a kid, then they grow up and have other interests, and they fall away from it. That part never happened for me. I was always a fan of the medium.”

A young Narcisse found escape from the often-harsh outside world, immersing himself in the worlds and stories of superheroes. These worlds, which allowed him to imagine different and electrifying ways of showing up in the tangible realm, would prove to be an early influence for his future writing career.

Although continuously told that writing would not be a viable career, Narcisse decided to charter his own path, eventually obtaining a degree with a journalism minor from New York University (NYU). After graduation, Narcisse landed his first gig as a fact checker. But his passion for writing remained. 

“I still wanted to write about the media I loved – comic books, video games, science fiction,” Narcisse said. 

Over the next decade, Narcisse  was published in media outlets that embraced and celebrated geek culture, writing reviews and articles for Gawker, Kotau and io9. While at io9, he mostly wrote about the Black Panther universe. Narcisse’s expertise in the enchanting realm of Wakanda did not go unseen. 

In 2018, the “Black Panther” movie was nearing its release, and Narcisse was preparing to release his own story of Black Panther. He was nervous. He had never written a comic book before. Yet, in a pairing with esteemed illustrator Brian Stelfreeze, acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and penciler Paul Renaud, Narcisse ushered in a new era for Marvel’s Black Panther. His story, “Rise of the Black Panther,” follows T’Challa on his rise to Wakanda’s throne and to the Black Panther legacy that made him an Avenger. 

“Comics are a unique medium with regard to how they let you play with time and pacing,” Narcisse said. “It’s very different from writing animation or video games. Each one of these media that I work in has different requirements and needs, and that stuff has been challenging but fun. But comics were really, really hard because my first chance to enter the media professionally was with my favorite character, who, little did we all know, was about to become a whole phenomenon.” 

Narcisse has written other comic books and graphic novels, publishing a mini-series titled “Wakanda,” the graphic novel “Batman: Gotham Knights – Gilded City” and a series of other comic projects that have created a multicultural superhero universe. Today, Narcisse is a senior writer with Brassline Entertainment and provides narrative design consulting for several popular video games — recently “Spiderman: Miles Morales,” and “Black Panther: The War for Wakanda.”

“I never thought I’d be writing Black Panther comics when I was a kid,” Narcisse said. “And to be perfectly blunt, I didn’t know that there was room for me as a Black person within the medium.”

Narcisse has found great success in embracing his passion. But, to his point, it can be hard for Black folks to see themselves represented in these types of creative spaces.

“It wasn’t until someone like my writing heroes Christopher Priest and Dwayne McDuffie, it wasn’t until I found out that they were Black that I realized, oh, there might be a little space for me,” Narcisse said. “We’re still underrepresented in that medium, video games more especially, but things are changing slowly but surely.”

Narcisse’s art form is a growing one: comics by Black artists written for Black folks that weave sensational tales of African ancestry before slavery. He is part of a blossoming hive of Black creatives who have intentionally carved space where Black folks can revel and indulge in their Blackness in an otherwise racist and harsh world. He is part of a collective whose niche seeks to tell the stories of Black folks and their African ancestries.  

Genres like Afrofuturism — which entangles African culture with science fiction — reflect worlds dreamed up by Black artists. The imagination of Black creatives has created worlds in which existing, often oppressive power structures are dismantled and Black folks thrive. Black creatives have become activists through their art. Their art has become a key act of resistance. 

“Hopefully, if you pick up something with my name on it, you’ll feel the pride and the fear and the anger and the love and the happiness and the goofiness and a sense of mentality that make me up as a person, and realize we can imagine our fictions in that way, we can imagine our realities in that way, and that’s what making art, making story, making magic is about,” Narcisse said. “Expressing a sense of yourself and your experience in a way that hopefully transmits and transforms into something universal that can be appreciated by other people. If I’m not hitting that, it ain’t worth it.” 

Although exhausting, Narcisse has been compelled to use his art to dispel the persistent perception that Blackness is a monolith, that there is a singular way in which Black folks show up in this world, and that all Black folks are nothing beyond the racialized violence inflicted on them by a white supremacist society. Narcisse strives to expose a narrative of Blackness as varied, as multicultural, and as something that can be soft, sweet and steeped in joy. 

“The depth and nuance and complexity of Black lived experiences is vast,” Narcisse said. “There are many different kinds of Black people. These ideas that Black people need to be stoic because of the oppression that we endure, that we have to control our emotions in different ways — there is an element of a survival tactic to that that I don’t want to dismiss — but it creates a rigidity in terms of what we tend to think of as possible with our lives and how we express ourselves.”

This rigidity can break us down, and it can make us brittle, Narcisse said. Black folks are in need of spaces in which they are afforded the flexibility to engage in the joys that build us back up, that feed our humanity, that we need to survive our lives. 

“They have the full range of hopes, dreams, responses, reactions that every other human being has,” Narcisse said. “Just because the predominant narratives about Black people are X,Y, and Z doesn’t mean the rest of the alphabet isn’t available to us. We’ve had to invent our own alphabets to subvert these ideas and to better communicate what our realities are, and speak truth to power with regard to calling out the elites and institutions that want to erase our history.”

When Narcisse sits down to write a comic strip, he envisions what he can conjure up that will excite the artist who will eventually turn his words into graphic frames of a comic. He wants to present a story that challenges them, that pushes them to paint a picture of a world of Black multiculturalism, Black joy and Black possibility. 

“I want to leave behind work that illustrates a sense of possibility and abundance for Black lived experiences that doesn’t feel constrictive, that feels it’s opening things up, hopefully, that’s charting history, that’s invoking the ancestors,” Narcisse said. “The collective spirit of my ancestors from Haiti who fought for their own freedom and really scared the entire world as to what Black agency could look like — I want to honor that spirit.”

Jasper William Cartwright

A gash of radiant light breaks through the raven-black sky, peeking over the mountains to the east and dissipating the fog that had covered the dense grassland. Rain pours from the storm clouds above, mixing with the blood that now stains the battlefield. Crimson-red dragons circle the skies overhead, spraying down flames that scorch hordes of undead and soldiers of the Animal Kingdom. An odor of dirt, iron and char clings to the air. Spread across this magical and mysterious landscape is a blur of chaos and violence, as a battle of creatures only found in the realm of fantasy ensues. 

This fantastical world, where armies of mythical creatures come to wage war, was born from the imagination of Jasper William Cartwright and his fascination with world-building. 

“I think that was always the thing I loved the most when I look back at my childhood or the books and games and shows and films that I loved — it was always the worlds I was fascinated in,” Cartwright said. “It was all about going somewhere that wasn’t where I was, just a normal human speaking to other humans. It was always about, can there be anything more fantastical to this?” 

When Cartwright was young, he spent hours dreaming up vast landscapes, mythical and strange monsters and new traditions and folklore. Once these new worlds took full shape, he would whisk his friends away to the whimsical lands, dank dungeons and thick forests of the Feywild, all of his own creation. Guided by Cartwright, his friends embarked on thrilling adventures, challenging battles and enchanting quests, crafting legendary tales of staving off hordes of undead from innocent town folk, overthrowing mad kings and freeing their people and rowdy bar fights that inevitably ensue during a drunken night at a tavern. 

For over 20 years, Cartwright has continued to build new worlds, cultivate magical realms and weave fantastical tales as a Dungeon Master (DM) and player of the fantasy role-playing game Dungeon & Dragons, known as D&D. Today, Cartwright is a regular DM at D&D in a Castle – a D&D retreat hosted in a real castle – and co-host of “Three Black Halflings”: a podcast Cartwright started with friend and fellow Black DM, Jeremy Cobb. 

In D&D, players create characters of different races, classes and combat abilities to form an adventuring party. These parties set out on riveting adventures in fabled worlds that take them into the depths of dungeons, the dens of monsters and the dimly lit taverns alive with rowdy drunks who are gambling, singing and conjuring up magic tricks. Candy-like dice are rolled to determine the success of players’ actions and how those actions will impact the overall story.

The game of D&D puts a unique type of art on display that relies almost entirely on collaborative and interactive storytelling.  

“What I love about it is it really feels like that kind of gathered-around-the-fireplace type of storytelling where you have to ask for a lot of buy-in from your audience,” Cartwright said. “What that creates is a really fantastic, immersive, shared space for everyone to exist in. I love the fact that my players are helping me write the story just as much as I’m helping to guide them on their journey. I think that’s a really exciting part of it.”

Along with hand-drawn maps and several opened books hidden from everyone’s view, the Dungeon Master sits at the head of the D&D table, ready to narrate this new story as told by their players. As a DM, Cartwright draws up maps and character art, introduces new challenges, performs all ancillary characters and makes sure his players are having fun. For Cartwright, it’s a labor of love.  

“I love this,” Cartwright said. “I want to throw myself into it because it fills me with joy, and I feel that I’m good at it, and I enjoy it, so I’m just going to go for it. It wasn’t until after [my start] that I was kind of like, oh, there’s some blockers here, or there’s some resistance.”

Here, Cartwright is alluding to D&D’s troubled history with race and representation. Although, D&D has been around for nearly half a century and is one of the most popular tabletop role-playing games of all time, it has also helped entrench some ideas about how we define and navigate race in fantasy. These ideas rely on a cultural default of whiteness that has continuously acted as the gatekeeper to the human imagination.

The realm of fantasy is imbued with European mythology and folklore — absent of multi-racial representation and diverse conjurings of new, mythical worlds. The game itself was developed during the 70s, receiving influence from notable fantasy writers such as J.R.R. Tolkein and H.P. Lovecraft, who was blatantly racist. Their works created a blueprint for the troubling conflation of race, culture, ability and, oftentimes, good and evil. 

“I’m a firm believer that every single person has something to say, has a story, has value — creative value,” Cartwright said. “We need people’s stories, and we see what happens when we only get the same kinds of stories over and over again. It has such an important impact, the way that it shapes the narrative of our society, the way that it allows our society to function.”

To address the racial stereotypes and colonialist supremacy that has seeped into the fantastical world of D&D, Cartwright has used the game as a vessel particularly suited for Black creativity and Black culture to flourish. Taking inspiration from the stories, myths and legends of different regions in Africa, Cartwright creates D&D campaigns to tell stories intimately enriched with the traditions and folklore of different cultures. 

“It’s really enjoyable watching players meet different types of cultures, myths and legends drawn from different places and that mean very, very different things,” Cartwright said. “Being a Black person in a world where prejudice doesn’t exist feels good.”

These topics, along with the lack of cultural representation among DMs and players, are points of conversation on Cartwright’s “Three Black Halflings.” Through thought-provoking conversations and guest interviews, the podcast explores racism and diversity in the worlds of D&D and popular culture and offers tips for other DMs. For Cartwright, being able to navigate these spaces with other Black folks and to engage in conversations about race has helped him connect to the rich, beautiful depths of his Blackness. 

“It was a way for me to connect to that side of myself, which historically I only ever did when I was around my other Black friends,” Cartwright said. “What I have discovered is this really wonderful connection to a part of me that I didn’t get to express for the longest time.”

Cartwright continues to carve out these Black creative spaces in D&D, providing countless Black players with their own space to connect with parts of themselves that are suppressed in an otherwise racist and tangible world. D&D can be an opportunity for Black players to recognize their own creativity and the value of their imaginations in creating these worlds where prejudice doesn’t exist.

Although their existence is real, spaces for Black folks to bask in their geekiness and express their fandom for D&D can be hard to find. Cartwright suggests starting with the “Three Black Halflings” Discord channel.  

“Never doubt that you will bring value to the table, whether that’s for jumping into a D&D campaign or deciding to write a script or paint something,” Cartwright said. “Whatever it is, I guarantee you that you have some value. If you have an urge and a passion to do it, you will add value to the space, and I, for one, will be thankful that you’re there.” 

Brandan “BMike” Odums

Brandan “BMike” Odums has always been a creative. Some of his earliest creations were doodled renditions of animated characters such as Sonic the Hedgehog and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Although only in second grade, a young Odums knew that he was going to be an artist.  

“I was always interested in drawing or putting pencil, crayon, marker to blank paper,” Odums said. “I was always doodling to the point where my classmates would offer to buy it or ask me to give it to them, or make requests.”

While in high school, he studied visual arts at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. He wanted to master creating visuals that delighted the beholders of his work. And he did, rising to the top of every art class. Driven deeply by his passion, Odums learned about professional art tools, different visualization techniques and how to create stunning works of art. 

For Odums, engaging in creatives spaces brought him joy. Every stroke of the paintbrush, every mark of the pencil, every line and every shape sketched, it all offered Odums a space to live within his wildest imaginaries. Creating art was a refuge from the obstacles life often presents. However, even though becoming a proficient artist while at NOCCA, the lack of Black representation deterred Odums from further pursuing art. He had a strong foundation to create art, but had not had the opportunity to explore the message he aimed to share.

“I didn’t have examples of what it looked like to be a Black artist, and not because these examples didn’t exist,” Odums said. “ This was before Instagram, before YouTube, and I had teachers who were predominantly white and who didn’t see the priority in introducing me to examples of Black artists or the legacy of Black art.” 

After graduation, Odums would go to college for filmmaking and videography, eventually founding 2-Cent Entertainment, LLC. Odums would spend the next eight years directing music videos for acclaimed hip-hop artists like Mos Def, Curren$y and Juvenile, and creating original content with a collective of Black creatives. Their projects aimed to educate, particularly the youth they engaged. These projects also sought to tell the story of a segregated city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – of a politically violent landscape. 

It was September 2005 – Hurricane Katrina had made landfall, collapsing New Orleans’ levee system and releasing devastating floods that wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast. Most of the city was under water. Over 200,000 homes were destroyed – over a million people displaced. Countless people were stranded on rooftops, and hundreds others had drowned. Survivors spent days without food or water, their resilience wilting under the beating sun. 

The disaster response was most tragic of all and exposed how racial and economic inequity, anti-Black policies and corporate greed work together to suppress New Orleans’ most vulnerable. Black folks suffered the most in the storm’s aftermath, including bracing themselves for an uptick in police brutality. Stuck without basic necessities, Black residents were labeled “looters,” as they scavenged for resources. Today, much of New Orleans is back. However, nearly 20 years after Katrina, in the Lower Ninth Ward – the city’s poorest and Blackest neighborhood – empty edifices and desolate streets continue to pepper the neighborhood.

These abandoned spaces became popular backdrops for the music videos Odums would direct. The videos sought to pay tribute to the neglected landscape and expose parts of post-Katrina New Orleans wrought by disinvestment, institutional failures and violent politics of racialized space that led to the death of over 2,000 people during the 2005 hurricane. 

In these spaces, it feels as though Katrina happened yesterday. And for many people, these spaces are a nuisance that elicit fear – a reminder of the neglect and the way anti-Black racism has egregiously impacted their communities. For Odums, these homes were everything but empty. The facades of these spaces were covered in graffiti art – blanketed in the voices and stories of a collective of people who once called these neighborhoods home.

“We were in the middle of these abandoned, forgotten homes, with the idea that people were displaced, that there were people in New Orleans that could not return because there weren’t places for them to return to,” Odums said. “Here we were in the middle of these apartment complexes, these housing projects, showcasing this idea that these spaces were there, and it was not being used for the reasons they should be used.” 

Odums ascribes a spark in curiosity to paint again to New Orleans’ housing crisis and community disinvestment. Attracted to the beauty and temporary nature of graffiti art, Odums began painting a series of murals, all depicting Black revolutionaries, in what was once the Florida Housing Development in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. This project would soon become a radical, underground art movement, with young creatives from across the city sharing their stories through words and images added to the now abandoned yet luminous corridors of Odums’ project, called Project BE. 

“When it comes to the public art in the murals, I think it is an opportunity to collaborate,” Odums said. “It’s an opportunity to go into spaces, not as the voice but as the listener. I don’t live in this town of this city or this neighborhood, but I can sort of be at best a listener and an amplifier of the voices that are there or a collaborator with the voices that are there in hopes that that creates something.”

Soon after its conception, the Housing Authority of New Orleans terminated Project BE, demolishing the Florida Housing Development. Odums remained undeterred, eventually finding great success in his art form. He has collaborated with notable organizations and public figures, including Nike, Revolt TV, Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Boys & Girls Club, and so many more. He has painted murals from Palestine to New York City’s Times Square. 

Through five-story murals, indoor installations and found-object sculptures, he continues to tell the stories of state-sanctioned, racialized violence and creative forms of Black resistance.

Creating art has always offered Odums a haven of resistance – a sanctuary away from the often harsh outside world. There was no stress in these creative spaces. Odums wasn’t chasing some large entrepreneurial dream. Rather, he had discovered his message. Much like the graffiti art that inspired him to again create, Odums creates art to tell the stories of Black folks as they resisted and continue to resist the racialized violence that has been a distinct part of American history. 

“I really enjoy speaking to and for and with Black voices and Black people, and my work often represents that in a very direct way,” Odums said. “The why [I create] is simple, but it’s also complex in how you think about storytelling, how you think about representation. I think for me, the very simple part of it is I paint things that I love and what I appreciate. I love exploring Black history and the impact of people in the past.”

Through vibrant spray paint, a bold departure from realism and a unique play with color, Odums paints to respond, to resist and to call attention to the social and political fervor of a generation of Black folks and activists that blossomed in an environment marked by the nation’s first Black president, the revival of calls for police accountability and gained traction of the self-care movement. 

“Nina Simone said it’s the artist’s duty to reflect the time, so there’s this idea of reflecting the times and what’s happening from my perspective, and my reality, and my story, and just being authentic to my truth,” Odums said. “There’s the idea about the responsibility of Black art.”

“Sometimes my art can go places where people aren’t ready for me physically to be. They might not be ready to sit down and have a conversation with a Black man from New Orleans. But they will experience my work, or they will sit with my work and allow it to communicate with them.”

Today, Odums continues to use his art to be a steward of the present time, to cultivate creative spaces that offer a refuge for others to grow and create. He is the owner and lead artist for Studio BE, an art installation and creative space located in an abandoned warehouse. Studio BE is a space for community and the culture and stories that come with it. It welcomes folks from across the globe to engage with creativity to develop their critical voice and dive deeper into their imaginations to envision a future of possibility for Black lives.

“It was always a part of my journey to create stuff that was of service to people,” Odums said. “As the public art began to take more attention, it just became a natural fit to think about it as a community service project.”

Through their Eternal Seeds program, Studio BE also serves as a center to educate, empower and support young creatives. Embodying the power of Black creativity and collective expression, the program affords young artists with the space and the tools to radically transform the world into one that is loving, just and bursting forth with creativity. For Odums, it is important for this next generation of revolutionary artists to see themselves reflected in these creative spaces. 

“The space has allowed other people to create these moments that are valuable to them,” Odums said. “Even the weddings we’ve done in the space, where Black love has been exhibited and celebrated in that space specifically because the space existed.”

Odums is grateful to have been afforded the privilege to live a life deeply immersed within the beauty and richness of his imagination – dreaming up the possibilities for Black life to flourish. 

“I think New Orleans as a whole is such a magical place as it relates to the why in creativity or the why in artistry,” Odums said. “It’s a very old city. There’s a lot of old cultural practices and traditions that have existed and continue to exist outside of the idea of capitalism. It’s these things that people do because it’s the language they speak, not because they’re trying to achieve some sort of status or fame. 

“And the way this city loves me, and the way my parents love me has informed where I am. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for the people of New Orleans who decided what I was doing was important enough to uplift.”

Myles “Fro” Martin

Myles “Fro” Martin hopes that people who attend his spoken word performances are able to find some type of connection with his poetry.

Myles Martin wrote his first poem when he was in eighth grade. It was a love letter to his then-girlfriend. At the time, Martin didn’t make much of his writing talent. He put down his pencil and paper for what he thought would be forever. 

In 2019, Martin had been incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. He spent a total of 30 months behind bars. And, although their young love didn’t last, Martin and the girl he had written a poem for all those years ago reconnected, finding love and admiration for each other again. Martin wrote a new poem, this time about their connection. Inspired by the same muse, Martin began to write again. 

“I had my own personal space and time, and it was just quiet times to think,” Martin said. “That’s why I just started writing. When I reached the two-year mark in October, 2021, I wrote a poem about what it was like for me to be locked up that long, and where my mindset was, where my mental state was, and I just kept writing.”

After his release, Martin began trying to readjust his life. He had been gone for so long. He no longer had contact with his two children. He worried about getting his record expunged. He had to find employment. He had to find shelter. 

Like so many other Black men in the United States, Martin has struggled to find stability after he was stripped of his life by the Prison Industrial Complex — an institution that imprisons Black men at an alarming rate. Labeled “convicts,” these men are barred from housing and food assistance, quality jobs and quality healthcare. Their mental health, which is greatly impacted by incarceration, is never tended to. The previously incarcerated are forced to navigate a hostile environment that is challenging and actively sets them up to fail once they are released. 

A month after his release, Martin decided to participate in an open mic night at a local establishment. He had never performed at an event like this before. He had never even been on a stage. But this was an opportunity to share his art with an audience. Over time, Martin became a popular act, adopting the stage name Fro

“People loved my poem,” Martin said. “I went back two weeks later, did another one.”

For Martin, poetry is an escape. His art is like a journal — a creative space that offers refuge for self-expression. When the world becomes heavy, Martin is able to carve space in which he can find joy, in which he can find release and in which he is able to honor the deepest parts of his Blackness. His poems contain real stories. They speak to Martin’s struggles, to Black struggles, and call on readers and listeners to have honest, and often difficult, conversations about race and racism.  

“I want people to feel, I can relate to that, but I also want people to feel like, oh, I never looked at it like that,” Martin said. “I want people to see another perspective on things.”

Poetry has also provided Martin a platform to advocate for other folks who are routinely funneled into the criminal justice system. He has performed moving spoken-word pieces at the Texas capitol in Austin, at a Tyre Nichols rally and at press conferences, decrying the maltreatment of Black folks by the criminal justice system and calling for reform.

Recently, Martin performed at a press conference and rally for Joshua Wright, who was shot and killed while in custody in Hays County, Texas. Corrections officer Isaiah Garcia fatality shot Wright while he was still shackled to his emergency room bed at Seton Hospital in Kyle. 

“That’s the same county I was locked up in,” Martin said. “That’s the same guard that used to harass me when I was locked up. So [his death] hit home.”

Upset by a lack of attention paid to Wright’s case, Martin felt compelled to write a poem, calling for “Justice for Josh.” 

“I had to try to make sure that if nobody is listening to [the family], please at least listen to me,” Martin said. “I’m like a megaphone for people who don’t know how to express themselves, or can’t, like the people in jail. 

Martin also writes poems to advocate for his childhood friend, Cyrus Gray. Gray, who was never convicted of any crime, spent four years in jail while he awaited trial. 

Martin never intended to acquire a platform with his art. He was empowered to write as a means of helping his friends and other Black folks subjected to the cruelty of a racist society. 

“I feel like when it comes to doing activist stuff, I feel I have no choice,” Martin said. “I have to be as loud as possible because there are people out here that you can’t hear at all, people in jail that you can’t hear from.” 

Martin writes at least six poems each week. While some weeks reap gold, others take him back to the drawing board. Regardless of what he writes, Martin seeks to paint a picture of Blackness that is softer, more emotional and deserving of freedom. 

“My goal is to show people that being arrested doesn’t mean guilty, so that people can have actual fair trials,” Martin said. “When you go on trial, everybody automatically thinks you’re guilty. You can just tell people looking at you like you’re guilty. You don’t even know the crime yet; they’re already judging whether or not I’m guilty. And just based on my appearance.” 

Martin has every intention to continue his art and to continue carving out these Black creative spaces in a society that would rather see him in chains. He hopes to someday use his platform to create his own independent comic book, beaming with Black characters and Black stories. He strives to continue to tell Black stories through art. 

“Every single day I’m pushing, I’m doing something,” Martin said. “I hate when I’m not working. I hate when I’m not writing. I hate when I’m not doing something. And I hate when I’m not making some type of impact.”

Through poetry, Martin seeks to weave a narrative of Blackness that is deserving of freedom rather than inherently an offender. 

two week notice

by Myles “FRO” Martin

I put in my two weeks 
Because to weeks ago my coworker thought he could relate to 
Hed’d say to me how he got harrassed by the police and ticketed 

I didn’t get it 

So I changed the subject 
Yet he continued 

Talking bout how he was subject to police brutality 
Saying things like “don’t get me wrong I know it’s hard for your people but we have it hard too”

I changed the subject….

He continued 
Like “we really need to bury these issues 
Because blacks-“

That’s where I stopped him 
I gave em 2 options 
I said “you can walk away now or jump down this rabbit hole
But you can’t climb back up”

He nodded 

Then said he’d been to Tdc 
hes saying he’s been to prison so what’s the difference 

My answer was the difference is you did it and I didn’t 

U earned your criminal position 
The same position I was born in
U went to an all white gang and got sworn in 

Forced it 

My upbringing was torture 
We wasn’t gangbangers 
We were hard workers working hard to shake reality 

U get arrested for possession of meth and claim police brutality 

I got arrested for being black and thanked god I was still breathing 
I was Arrested for no reason 
I could’ve been shot fa sneezing 

Then he said we’re the same 

I called my boss n put my two weeks in

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.