Though Josie Pickens describes herself as “just a girl from the south side of Houston,” she is so much more. This Madison High School graduate is a Professor of English for her college alma mater, Texas Southern University, and a prolific writer who is a regular columnist for Bitch Media, a feminist-centered, multimedia organization; iOne Media, part of the Cathy Hughes/Radio One family; and almost everyone else. Literally. Pickens writes or has written for Ebony, Essence, The Root, News One, Cassius Life, MadameNoire, and more. And her subject matter is just as diverse.
Somehow, Pickens is able to also devote energy to her radio show/podcast, “The Love No Limit Show,” non-stop speaking engagements and community organizing with BLMHTX Imagine Noir, a local, grassroots, Black women-led organization.
The Defender somehow got this whirlwind of a women to press pause long enough to share a few words about her life and work.
DEFENDER: You write about a wide range of topic.
PICKENS: All kinds of topics, which sometimes confuses folks because they’re like, “Hey, you’re writing sex and pleasure on one hand, and then you’re writing about prison abolition on one hand.” And I’m like, “Why can’t we have all of those conversations?” All of those conversations to me center around love. Pleasure is how we show self-love and self-care. Being interested in what is happening in our communities and taking action is also how we practice care and love for our communities. So why not have all of these conversations.
DEFENDER: Which of your roles best defines you?
PICKENS: One title that I hold dear is the title of witness/cultural critic. All the work I do culminates into those two roles, meaning that I am here to witness essentially what Blackfolks particularly experience in this world. Also, my role as a cultural critic is to see what is happening in the world to my folks and use my imagination, research and all of these different things that I’ve learned through the academic process, through the writing process, to address the many issues we face as a global Black community. It also feeds into my role as an activist; seeing what is happening in the world and in our global community, and also being able to offer ideas and insight in dreams and imagination into creating a brighter world for Blackfolks.
DEFENDER: What about your activism work?
PICKENS: I also am a community organizer with BLMHTX Imagine Noir, which is a local, grassroots, Black women-led organization that does a lot of different work. Very recently, we have been doing mutual aid work, after the recent winter storm, and even before that, starting with Harvey really. We are currently doing some budget workshops. You know, it’s city budget time and we are very much an organization that is in support of “Care not Cops.” So, we’re looking at police budget spending and what we are defunding in the process of over-funding our police department here in Houston. So yes, the BLMHTX, writer, somebody who runs her mouth all over the place, either on the page or here on Zoom.
DEFENDER: What other out-of-classroom ways do you communicate?
PICKENS: I have a podcast which is a bit on hold right now because of COVID. But we do have some public conversations that we hold through Instagram Live and so forth. But a radio show and podcast called the Love No Limit Show, which continues in the kind of writing that I do, which centers expansive conversations about love. Not just conversations about romantic love, but also what does loving community look like? What does it looked like to have healthy familial relationships and platonic relationships, because all of those relationships are important. So, we have to be able to cultivate good, loving, healthy relationships in all aspects of our lives. That is what my work focuses on. That can include conversations about social justice. I wrote an article a bit ago that talks about abolition of the prison industrial complex as a love story to Black and Brown people who grow up in communities where there is militarized police. Where there is over-policing. I talk about what it was like growing up in Hiram Clarke during the war on drugs era, and what that meant. Expansive conversations about love. Not just cute conversations about how to get a guy.
DEFENDER: Which area do you think you’re having the greatest impact?
PICKENS: The professor in me hopes that I am having the greatest impact in the classroom. Every once in a while, the students will confirm for me that they have learned something life-changing. I tend to include a lot of world and culture conversations in my reading and writing courses. I introduced my students to lots of new topics in that way. I hope that because they have young minds and those minds are open and ready to mold, that that is a place where I’m making a huge impact. But also, being a writer and all of the different kinds of things that I write about; writing articles where I talk about depression and what it’s like battling depression as a Black woman. One of my first published articles talked about the murder of Trayvon Martin. I’ve done a lot of research and writing around carceral state and police violence.
DEFENDER: If you could only do one, teach or write, which would it be?
PICKENS: It would be very difficult for me to choose one or the other if it’s like my writing or my teaching that I feel like allows the greatest impact. I think that they are equal. But if you asked which one I hope will be the most impactful, it will probably be my students, my babies. I love them very much. So many of the students at TSU share my story of growing up in an underserved community and trying to find a new way, a way out of that. So, yeah, that’s at the top of the list for me. When you think about the prison industrial complex and representation, Black women are represented in these systems in the same ways that Black men are, but we never have conversations about Black women. So, it’s two-fold. On one, I think that I show up as a model, which is important. To be able to see someone who looks like you saying things that you’re interested in hearing, or that maybe you want to say. And then part two is an effort to combat erasure in these kinds of conversations. If we’re talking about police brutality, we cannot still in 2021, believe that only Black men face issues with police brutality. I need to be able to bring full stories, complete stories when we are having these conversations. And I think as a Black woman, it’s important for me to represent Black womanhood and the struggles of Black women as well.
DEFENDER: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
PICKENS: I always tell people I’m very fortunate in that I’ve only ever wanted to do two things, and I’ve been able to do much more than I ever anticipated. But I do get to do those two things, and that is teach and write. I’m very grateful that I am able to do both. I remember being a small child and my mother would buy me chalk and I would use the walls in our garage as my chalkboard and teach my imaginary friends. So, this love for teaching is something that started very early. And like I said, I just had great models all the way from elementary school and Hobby Elementary right there in Hiram Clarke, all the way up through high school. I knew that I wanted to be able to mold minds and to help people who have experiences like mine, become world citizens, at least in thought. Just allowing people to understand that there is more outside of their small communities or their families, or what have you. I’ve always wanted to teach; and then writing. I started writing poetry and fiction at a very young age, probably starting in elementary school, and continued my writing pursuits all the way up in high school. A good friend of mine who graduated with me, sent me a photograph that she had taken of a school billboard that had my name and her name on the billboard as winners of some UIL writing competition. So, I knew that I wanted to offer the world my words. I was a history minor at TSU. I’ve always been very interested in history and culture, politics, political science and all of these things. So picking my love for writing and my love for history and culture and being able to combine that through my opinion pieces through my editorials, has also been a dream realized. Those are the two things that I’ve always wanted to do, and I get to do them. And I feel very fortunate because I know that there are lots of people in the world who don’t have those kinds of opportunities. They have to switch around a lot to figure out who they really are, what they really want out of life. I’m very fortunate that I was able to figure that out early.
DEFENDER: What fuels you “witness” work for Black women?
PICKENS: I think it is very important for Black women, particularly to possibly push back against erasure. Black women create so much culture when we look historically throughout the diaspora. Whether we are talking about matriarchs in Africa. Whether we’re talking about the marketplace, which women usually control on the continent. Whether we’re talking about how Black women come into community throughout the Caribbean with different sou sous and different things where we work together and build together. Or whether we’re talking about all of the mini-movements, human rights movements that we have seen in the U.S. and how Black women have been at the forefront of those. Not always recognized—the Fannie Lou Hamers, Ella Bakers, Kathleen Collins, the Ida B. Wells Barnetts.
DEFENDER: What’s next on your personal and/or professional journey?
PICKENS: I just finished an essay that is going to be a part of an anthology. This summer, I am dedicating myself to really doing this work on my book proposal because every day someone is sending me a message like “Girl, when is the book coming?” Which I’m working on a collect a collection of essays that will basically mirror what I’m already writing. So it’ll be conversations that go in all kinds of ways, but the focus of it will be what my Love No Limit” brand… I hate using that language, brand. But, “Love No Limit” is really how I center my work. It is how I do my speaking. It is how I do my writing. It’s how I show up in community, as an organizer. So, expansive conversations about love that begin with self-love. Who we are as lovers to ourselves, who we are lovers to our family and our platonic relationships, our romantic relationships, and also who we are as lovers to our community? I’m working on that book proposal and hopefully, I’ll find an agent to get that baby to a good publisher and it’ll be out in the world. So that is my main focus. Personally, I am just working on surviving this pandemic. I’ve really been trying to focus on being healthier mentally, emotionally, physically and otherwise. So, that is some of my personal work. I think like so many people, the pandemic really showed us a lot about ourselves. Some wonderful things. Maybe some things that we need to grapple with and change.
I am doing that self-work right now, personally, as I know many people are. So, those are the things that I’m working on professionally and personally. Getting ready to gear up into going back into the classroom and seeing the faces of my students. I’ve been teaching virtually. I miss them. I miss being on campus. There’s just nothing like being on the campus of an HBCU. I ran across a video the other day where I was just recording the band marching through campus. And I am ready for some more of that. And hopefully doing more speaking work. I know that I am working with a group of young ladies who won a grant from the city, and they were doing different workshops. So, I’ll be collaborating with some friends of mine, some very talented Black women to create some public conversations over the summer. Trying to delve into more conversations around creativity. So, conversations with artists. I just finished a chat with a filmmaker for Houston Museum of African-American Culture. I just finished an interview with a journalist at the New York Times about a new book that he has coming out. It’s a photo book called Queer Love in Color. So, trying to tap into more of my creative side. Not necessarily putting politics down and my work as an activist down, but also wanting to tap into my imagination and creativity and all of the joy that comes with that.
DEFENDER: Any advice you have for young sisters seeking to discover their greatness?
PICKENS: The first thing that I think I would tell any young woman and that I tell my own 15-year-old daughter, and that I tell my students, is to remember that you have the power to shape your life. You get to choose who you want to be and how you want to exist in the world. You can push back against whatever societal norms or traditions you think are pigeon-holing you. We get to be free people in the world. We get to center and consider ourselves, and not always be in a role of giver and caretaker. Learn how to give and take care of yourself primarily. And that will give you an opportunity to better care for others.
DEFENDER: Do you have any words that you live by, like a mantra that guides you?PICKENS: One thing that I really try to remind myself is that the words of Tony Morrison and how Tony Morrison taught us that we have to create the art that we want to see in the world. She specifically talked about writing and how we should write the books that we want to read. But I like to take that idea and move it into every aspect of my life. So, constantly using my imagination to create the kinds of communities that I imagined were safe and loving as a child. In my writing, of course, writing the things that I want to see out in the world. Having the kinds of conversations that a younger me wishes that she was able to have. So, that quote and that directive from Tony Morrison, I use in many different aspects of the work that I do. And even personally, you know, being the type of friend that I wish to have. Basically, just being the change that you want to see.