Words by Éloïse Armary
Erin James is a photographer, writer, and a radio host born and raised in Brighton. In 2020, she launched a zine called ‘Tough Cookie Mag’ meant to amplify marginalised voices. Topics discussed in her zines involve social justice issues such as Blackness, queerness, mental health and being a survivor of abuse. The zine is a space in which she uses her multiple artistic skills for activism. For the occasion of Black History Month, I had a chat with Erin about how she navigates society as a Black person and the way she is involved in the Black community.
How did you come up with the idea of ‘Tough Cookie’?
It started during a mentorship program run by Lighthouse, an art organisation in Brighton. It’s through that mentorship scheme that I was introduced to the concept of zines, which I didn’t know anything about. I do a lot of different things, I have a lot of different passions, hobbies and skills – photography, poetry, mix-media stuff, writing articles. A zine felt like the perfect place to combine all those things and maybe make all of that different skills into one solid publication. Sometimes I feel like I’m a bit all over the place in terms of all the things that I’m doing. I’m really into print. It’s super important for our mental health to have access to print and paper and things we can feel, read and connect from. Then Corona happened and the mentorship scheme stopped about a month before. But because all of my other hospitality work had stopped, I had the time to just focus on the zine. It went from a viable project to actually something I decided to invest all of my time in and make into a business. I’m super passionate about vocalising and speaking up on social justice issues, things that are important to people, specifically minorities and underrepresented groups. For me it’s a great form of activism because I can go to protests and I can share on social media but this is using my specific skills to make a change in an industry which isn’t super representative all the time. It started during lockdown, which I think really helped because people were really struggling and needed to focus on something to do, and the zine is about mental health, trauma and society.
What is your journey with social justice issues?
It’s not something that I have been passionate about for a long time. Obviously, being a Black woman, there is a lot of oppression that I face; I also have a lot of privileges that I am aware of. Because of my mental health issues, I found it really hard to have the will to live due to the oppressions that I face but also the state of the world right now, there are too many things to be angry about. I started to do a lot of work within myself, for example unlearning internalised racism, by having conversations with other Black people and Black friends. I talked to other female friends and found out that most women have been abused like me. In my head, I want to change the world, but I don’t feel that I have the power to do that. I try to use the resources I have, for example the mentorship scheme, to have the opportunity to do something that channels all that anger into something that can actually make a change. For me it was the best therapy to try and do something. The last few years have been super intense, there has been lots of issues that have come up. The Black Lives Matter movement resurfacing during lockdown was a massive influence to the world. I created another zine specifically in response to that for the Black community, to celebrate Black joy and Black voices. The more I started opening my eyes and educating myself, the more intense I felt and the more I felt the need to do something. Before the zine, I didn’t understand that activism could be more than protesting and rioting, everyone can use their specific skills to be an activist.
It’s about how to channel your anger into something positive and empower yourself to use that anger and do something, but it’s important to do it in a way that is going to be healthy for you, in a therapeutic way. I think anger can be what stops me a lot, but the times where I used that anger because it was so intense that I was forced to turn it into power, that really helped me, because I don’t stay here and do nothing.
Can you trace back an event where you became more aware of politics?
I’m mixed-race, I was raised by the White side of my family in Brighton, which is a super White town. I didn’t have much connection to the Black side of my family. I felt that for a long time my identity was white-washed, and I wasn’t aware that I was Black; I was aware of the racism that I got and looking into the mirror but it didn’t really connect inside myself. I didn’t have any Black friends. Being a Black person surrounded by White people wasn’t my true self, I was prioritising White comfort, I couldn’t begin to feel what it felt like to live with myself in a White world. When I moved out when I was 18, I started having a more diverse circle of friends; when I was 20 I lived in a Black household. It was things like the hair products we would share, learning how to do my hair, the music that we would listen to, the TV shows we would watch, it’s kind of like being born again. Being able to connect to a part of myself I wasn’t aware of before was really incredible. Being able to express my Blackness, a lot of issues that I had repressed have really come up. By being able to express my identity I was able to see a lot of internalised racism I had, because of not believing that I was beautiful as a Black person. I wanted to be able to confront that and change that, to be proud to be Black.
I think what was really important is the circle that I was in, because a lot of my friends were very involved in activism as well and would speak up about it. They inspire me to learn more, do better, change, and work together.
Is there an aspect of your identity that inspired your art more than others?
It’s all jumbled up together, the reasons why I started the zine has less to do with my journey of understanding my Blackness and my identity and more wanting to speak up about mental health. I think mental health encompasses all the things that I have been talking about, and it is something that everyone experiences. My mental health has been really bad, it has been up and down all of my life, it’s something that I have struggled with for a long time because of being a survivor of abuse, being a Black person in the world which is so traumatizing for us, and many other things. Learning how to take care of myself, self-care, therapy, understanding my mental health, talking to other people is a super important factor in my wellbeing and being able to sustain in being an activist and trying to make a change. The zine was more brought out of a need to speak out – about my Blackness, about being a woman, about being queer, about the world that we are living in, about the state of our political system in the UK, everything.
During covid, all the spaces to meet people and join as a community were closed. It could be done digitally but we didn’t have that physical interaction. How did Covid affect you in terms of community?
During the lockdown, we actually ended up doing the radio at our house; I live with some friends who are also radio DJs for the same station. We got delivered equipment from the station and set up our own station. We turned a tiny cupboard we have into a radio station, we took turns going into the cupboard. Sometimes we would go upstairs to listen to the actual radio and we would talk about it together. At some point, we were asked to start doing a Breakfast Show, for the community of Brighton to be able to have a place and come together to talk about things that are going on. It was called ‘The Rising’. We would get up and do a radio show from our living rooms. When we were doing the show, that was when George Floyd was killed and Black Lives Matter was sparked up all over the world. The focus of the show really moved to that. There was a turn of the show where we came together to talk about mental health and what was going on through Covid to really talking and supporting Black voices. It was incredibly important for the community to be able to come together but at the same time super traumatizing and super pressurising because we were relying on them talking about things which is a responsibility and there were things that we were going through and processing as Black people. It was very intense but I’m very grateful because we were able to have a platform to help other people, to bring the Black community together.
Tell me about an artist who inspires you in your work:
Jenni Lewin-Turner. She is from UrbanFlo. She’s really passionate about accessibility, diversity and championing underrepresented places. She curated an exhibition recently, it had a majority of Black artists in a normally predominant White space. It was filled with Black art and Black joy, it was super powerful and moving for me. I’ve been lucky enough to interview her as well. She also curated an exhibition which award-winning, called ‘Breathtaking’ at the Phoenix Center. Again, it was a collection of Black voices through different mediums of arts of Black people, what she does for the community is incredibly important and she does it really well. I really admire her being able to get things done even if she doesn’t necessarily have access to the money but finds a way to fund it.
How important is Black History Month for you?
I’m kind of conflicted, I think Black History Month is a little bit of a weird one. For a lot of people and a lot of brands especially, it’s like: “Let’s put on the space of anti-racism and activism to have the appearance of being woke, when they’re not doing the work themselves. Black History Month can be performative and that’s super frustrating for the Black community. But it’s a chance to collect our feelings, to connect to our roots. I see it slightly differently because Black history for me is the chance to reflect on the history that I am making, my friends are making, the Black community around me is making, because there are so many things that have gone on recently that are history that people will talk about. It’s a chance to reflect on the things that we are actually doing and that are changing right now.
There is a bookshop called ‘Afrori books’, they recently did a crowdfunder to open up a physical space to have the first Black-owned bookstore in Sussex. They recently met their goal and they are going to open it up in Brighton in Lighthouse. That is making history during Black History Month.
What are you looking forward to in the future?
I’m looking forward to seeing my beautiful friends and being around Black people again. Specifically I’m looking forward to something we do which is called ‘Black joy Sunday’, where me and my friends meet every Sunday, we cook each other meals, listen to music or watch a film, it’s just a day of Black joy and release. It’s something that is incredibly important to my mental health and something that I’m really looking forward to.
Do you want to share something to the Sussex community?
I can empathize with being a young person, being scared of the future, the state of being a young person in the world, the pressure to do great, to find a job, to find a property etc.
One thing that I would like to stress is that it’s really important to thank yourself for the little things and to recognize your accomplishments. Even to write them down and have somewhere where you can look. It doesn’t have to be something big, it doesn’t have to be that you started a project, it can really be the small things like: I got out of bed today, I’m still alive today, I helped someone today, I had this conversation, I learned something. It’s not to say that your problems aren’t that bad, it’s to take note of the things that you are grateful for. It can help to shift the perspective a little bit and to have things to hold on to.
I see Erin as an activist of the intimate. By being open to her thoughts and to her traumas, by listening to her needs to live a joyful life, she is resisting an oppressive society on so many levels; in so, she is making a change in society. I would like to thank Erin for her words, for the energy she is putting in raising social justice. Give her a listen on the radio (link) and stand ready for the next edition of Tough Cookie Mag.
Where to see Erin’s work: