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From March to Movement: Uniting Asian, Black, and Blasian Communities with Rohan Zhou-Lee

Rohan Zhou-Lee leads the third annual Blasian Pride for climate justice wearing a purple leather harness, pride flag, dark green feather shawl, and a golden Sampaguita crown by Marharlika. Photo credit @sd_herzog_photo

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rohan Zhou-Lee sparked a movement redefining Black and Asian race relations. The 31-year-old of African-American, Filipino, and Chinese heritage founded the Blasian March, recognizing mainstream media’s limitations in capturing the essence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

The Blasian March has gained momentum since its inception in 2020. Inspired by the contributions of Asian organizers in BLM rallies and aiming to foster collaboration between Black and Asian communities, this transformative movement breaks stereotypes and provides a platform for understanding among marginalized communities.

“We need to help people see their stories and create a new narrative based on lived experiences. That’s where the celebration comes in,” Zhou-Lee said. “We want individuals to feel empowered to create their own stories and let those stories anchor them as they connect with different communities.”

The Blasian March builds community through education on parallel struggles with racial injustice, colonial settler violence, and mutual celebration. It goes beyond traditional forms of protest, incorporating innovative platforms like book fairs, film festivals, and fashion shows to encourage artistic expression. Marches also include performance art, free food, and essential resources, enabling participants to immerse themselves in community-building without concerns. Zhou-Lee and the Blasian March seek to reshape the narrative around activism and promote solidarity among Black, Asian, and Blasian communities.

“Ever since ancient empires, Africa and Asia have always had some level of trade. There have always been bridges between our communities,” Zhou-Lee said. “White supremacy has done such a good job of suppressing those bridges. But those bridges never left. It’s beautiful that the Blasian March is helping people find those bridges again and cross them once more.”

The Personal is Political

In the summer of 1969, a series of spontaneous demonstrations erupted at the Stonewall Inn, a popular gathering place for the LGBTQIA+ community in New York City. Fueled by frustration and resistance to ongoing police harassment, the Stonewall Rebellion — alongside significant events years earlier like the Cooper Do-Nuts uprising in Los Angeles and Compton’s Cafeteria confrontations in San Francisco — became a defining moment that ignited the LGBTQIA+ rights movement.

The uprisings were rooted in the struggle for LGBTQIA+ liberation and influenced by the broader movements of Black Power and feminism of that period. The legacy of these uprisings and their connection to the Blasian March lies in their shared commitment to building unity across various communities experiencing social injustice.

“The Blasian March serves as an invitation for the Asian community to join and connect with the Black community, providing a space for unity,” Zhou-Lee said.

The first Blasian March, which took place on Oct 11, 2020, in New York City, held significance for the Filipino community as it commemorated the sixth anniversary of the murder of Jennifer Laude, a trans-Filipina woman who died at the hands of U.S. marine Michael Pemberton in 2014. The tribute drew attention to the impact of the U.S. military presence in the Philippines and highlighted the systemic violence faced by trans individuals worldwide.

Zhou-Lee pointed to the significance of the phrase “the personal is political,” drawing inspiration from author and activist bell hooks. As a queer and non-binary Black Asian author, dancer, and organizer, they reflected on their own encounters with anti-Blackness and queerphobia within the Chinese and Filipino communities and the critical need to make space for Black Asians. In exploring their Asian and ethnic identities, Zhou-Lee has found the healing and empowering nature of reconnecting with their roots.

“I think folks really need to heal from white mythologies, white miseducation about what has happened to us,” Zhou-Lee said, referring to the whitewashing of Black History and attempts to invisibilize Asian American contributions to civil rights from U.S. History.

Reconstructing Lost Histories

Following the Civil War, the “Lost Cause” myth emerged in the South, romanticizing the Confederacy and downplaying slavery as the main cause of the war. Slavery’s impact and brutality were often minimized, with textbooks omitting crucial details about the harsh conditions and violence inflicted on Black people. Historical narratives during segregation upheld white supremacy, glorifying Confederate leaders while ignoring the central role of slavery. Ongoing efforts are challenging these distortions by uncovering and teaching the true history of Black Americans and their contributions.

One example of such erasure occurred in 1882 with the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. This discriminatory federal law restricted Chinese immigration to the United States and perpetuated stereotypes and discrimination against Chinese American laborers. As a result, the contributions of Chinese Americans to the development of the American West and their struggles for civil rights were effectively erased.

The Blasian March Book Fair seeks to reconstruct lost and forgotten histories by providing free books written by Black, Asian, Blasian, and Indigenous writers. Zhou-Lee described it as an opportunity to distribute literature and allow communities to reclaim and share their stories.

Also central to Zhou-Lee’s work and the Blasian March is a commitment to the Land Black movement, which advocates for Indigenous sovereignty and the return of ancestral lands to Indigenous communities. The movement aims to rectify historical injustices of U.S. colonization responsible for continued land dispossession and the forced displacement and assimilation of Indigenous peoples that have led to a loss of cultural heritage, economic resources, and self-determination.

The Blasian March’s expansion from rallies to arts and literature allowed them to address specific community needs. It recognizes the challenges people of color face in finding books that are accessible, affordable, and representative of their experiences, especially in a time of heightened book bans and increased cuts to public education funding across the country.

The book fairs have experienced a notable rise in attendance, with growing engagement from Asian and Black readers and support for Black and Asian-owned bookstores to promote community wealth.

“We fundraise to purchase books directly from these bookstores, and it’s heartwarming to see their increased support. It signifies a positive change in equal interest and support,” Zhou-Lee said.

The Blasian March as a Vessel for Social Change

By acknowledging the unique learning styles and cultural backgrounds of people around them, Zhou-Lee strives to create an environment that accommodates these differences and embraces diverse approaches to education and celebration. They describe a harmonious connection between their role as an artist and the march’s emphasis on art-centered activism and community organizing that empower them to unapologetically express their opinions by writing fantasy novels and poetry and imagining Black Asian solidarity and multiculturalism beyond political boundaries.

“It’s also encouraging that we’ve had fewer conversations about how to support each other in these spaces. Two years ago, we organized our first Black, Asian, and Asian trans power rally to uplift these communities, and now there’s a growing understanding of how to hold each other up,” Zhou-Lee said.

The impact of the Blasian March brought Zhou-Lee to the 2022 Unite Festival in Zurich, Switzerland, where they performed an original ballet solo called “Homage” that pays tribute to Asian Americans killed by police in the United States. The rendition first premiered at the A-Squared Theatre Asian American Performing Arts Festival in 2016. Zhou-Lee also sang the National Black Anthem and debuted a commissioned poem titled “The Obsidian Wings of Heaven,” honoring the memory of Nzoy, a South African immigrant who died at the hands of Swiss police during a mental health crisis.

The deliberate inclusion of “Homage,” the National Black Anthem, and “The Obsidian Wings of Heaven” in the festival’s program served as a reminder of the transformative power and role of the arts in advocating for justice and shedding light on social issues surrounding race and police brutality.

“This transformative journey has taken me from audition struggles to a more rewarding and stable career in writing and public speaking. It’s truly been a beautiful experience,” Zhou-Lee said. “My ballet teacher in Chicago used to say that in one shot, you have to tell the entire story through your movement. That principle has influenced my approach to the Blasian March, where I make it explicit that I am Asian.”

The Blasian March holds a special place in Zhou-Lee’s heart. Once a local event in its founding city, the march has grown into a nationwide movement, with organizers in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York spearheading the expansion with their own artistic elements.

“It’s where I truly came into my own, embracing my queer journey and discovering so much about myself,” Zhou-Lee said. “It was amazing to see others take the lead and reimagine the event in their own unique way, incorporating theater, music, and diverse performances.”

Zhou-Lee recalled experiencing a sense of awe during the 2022 Blasian March in Chicago, where they experienced a sense of awe and detachment.

“There was a beautiful moment where I realized that the rally had taken a life of its own. I found myself in the back, listening to the crowd chanting in solidarity with each other. It was a moment of collective empowerment and connection that I had no direct involvement in, and it was truly wonderful,” Zhou-Lee said.

In June, Zhou-Lee witnessed a Korean drumming ensemble perform at Blasian Pride in New York City while trans marchers of Afro-Caribbean and Indo-Caribbean descent joined together with Pride flags in hand.

“I was moved to tears because it was an organic display of solidarity. It showed that unity is possible, not only as a response to oppression but because it brings us joy and empowers us individually and collectively,” Zhou-Lee said.

With love at its core and Zhou-Lee leading the way, the Blasian March has become an instrumental vessel for social change, demonstrating the potential for impactful transformation when communities work together in solidarity.

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