A conversation with culture writer Jenna Wortham

Illustration—Niti Marcelle Mueth

The celebrated New York Times journalist and podcaster Jenna Wortham is best known as an astute commentator on culture and technology, as well as for her much-lauded 2020 anthology Black Futures, co-edited with Kimberly Drew. But in the Black queer communities of which Wortham is a part, she is also recognized as a devoted care worker with a profound commitment to liberation. 

In BESIDE’s five-year anniversary issue Our Transformations, Toronto-based writer Tendisai Cromwell interviewed Wortham about her community-oriented and justice-focused approach to healing practices like herbalism, gardening, sound therapy, and reiki. Here are some excerpts from their conversation. 

On healing ourselves and our communities
I really do believe that we all deserve to heal and we deserve to heal on our own terms. The medicine we need is already inside of us, and we just need help locating it. It’s one thing to take care of yourself and be well, but I’ve learned over the years that my wellness doesn’t mean shit if the people around me aren’t doing good.

On unearthing our interconnectedness
One of the last films I saw before lockdown was Fantastic Fungi. It’s about how mushrooms and trees are connected under the soil and they create a kind of internet. They’re able to talk to each other and communicate. These properties really speak so much to collaboration and non-competition and ways to work in tandem. And, essentially, be a community. It’s such a model for thinking about how—even if we feel like we’re living our own separate, individual lives—we’re all touching each other. That’s all something that the pandemic unearthed and is still unearthing: how deeply connected we all are as people on this planet.

On learning the healing power of plants
My mother had a garden in the back of our childhood home, which I always worked in. So very early on I had my hands in the dirt, feeling really connected to nature, feeling really invigorated by watching things grow and having them for dinner. Even though I have terrible memories of finding things from the garden wriggling in my salad. Now I’m tickled when I get my greens from the farmers’ market and there’s a tiny inchworm. Yeah, but I think even from a really young age just understanding things like having a dish with lots of garlic and onion is medicine.

On finding slowness in the pandemic
I have learned so much about myself this year. I’ve learned that my pace of life is not tenable. And I didn’t understand that I’m the only one who has the power to change that.

When the pandemic started, my life sped up, it didn’t slow down. I didn’t have energy for myself. I couldn’t care for my relationship. My partner was extremely worried watching me essentially self-harm by just refusing to slow down. I think that was the end of the summer. Since then, I’ve really been in a place of much healthier boundaries with myself and work. I think what I’m really realizing is that having that surplus of energy means I can show up more for my friends.

Read the full conversation between Jenna and Tendisai in our five-year anniversary issue Our Transformations, available for order online in the BESIDE boutique.

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