After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 prompted waves of nationwide protests, many demonstrators handed out booklets informing protesters of what to do if they’re arrested, how to get tear gas out of people’s eyes and more.
The titles were self-explanatory: "Be Prepared for the Cops," "Tactics and Self-Defense for the Modern Protestor," "Basic Recon Skills," "How To Organize A Protest March," "Know Your Rights."
The history behind those titles, however, is as rich as it is complex. The booklets, called zines, have been at the center of tight-knit communities for decades.
"Zines," short for "fanzine" or magazine, are low-budget and independently published by the people who write them. Rooted in do-it-yourself culture, they span topics including fiction, poetry, art and social justice. Not limited by financial constraints and predominantly white publishing industries, zine-makers told USA TODAY they are able to tell stories often rejected by mainstream publishing channels.
Zines have long been a way for marginalized communities to share stories, spread information, build community and organize movements, several archivists and zine-makers said. Often, they offer historical records of communities that have been ignored in other publications. But many zine-makers ("zinesters") of color say their communities have only recently received credit and gained visibility for their contributions.
“We’ve always been here,” said Lauren Jade Martin, who is Asian American. “We’re not always seen.”
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Jenna Freedman, curator of the Barnard Zine Library in New York City, said she loves zines for their “unmediated stories” written directly by the person, rather than interpreted by journalists, editors or researchers. This is helpful for marginalized communities whose experiences are often generalized, sanitized and stereotyped in other media representations, she said.
"When mainstream media writes about many of these communities, it still is from this outside lens," she said. "When people write about their own communities in zines, there's so much they can convey that often gets missed by other people."
Despite the deep roots of zine-making in communities of color and movements for civil rights, zinesters of color told USA TODAY they often feel invisible in spaces dominated by white people.
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Marya Errin Jones said she’s often one of the only Black women at some zine festivals and events. White people often skip her table because “they assume my zines are only for Black and brown people or are about a topic they weren’t interested in or don’t want to talk about,” she said.
She added: “It's always isolating. Sometimes you wonder, ‘What am I doing here?'”
Jones started ABQ Zine Fest in Albuquerque because she rarely saw Black women like her visible in the zine community, even though she knows Black women have made zines for decades.
“Black and brown people and LGBTQ people needed to push into that space,” she said.
ABQ Zine Fest survives off donations and and Jones's own contributions. Organizing zine festivals requires time and resources marginalized communities have less access to, Jones said.
When fewer marginalized people organize these events, they’re less likely to feel welcomed in these spaces, she added.
In 2006, Osa Atoe started writing “Shotgun Seamstress,” which archivists said is perhaps the most identifiable 21st century punk zine by a Black woman. The first six issues were published in a now out-of-print book, but a second edition is set to launch in 2022.
Living in Portland, Atoe said she grew frustrated by how white the local punk and zine scenes were. She decided to create a zine by, for and about Black punks in order to build "more of a Black community within punk and celebrate Black punk identity,” she said.
“There was always a strange conundrum of being around a bunch of white people who envisioned themselves as anti-racist and openly discussed race and racism, but within an all-white setting,” she said.
When looking for zines to read, Atoe said she first turns to organizations led by people of color.
“If you seek out zines by people of color, they're always there and they've always been there," she said.
Lauren Jade Martin fell in love with zines in her high school art class. It wasn’t until she started attending conventions and zine meetups that she realized many of the people most visible in the zine community are white. She said her time in the zine community has made her more aware of her own race.
“It can be very alienating to people of color,” she said. “I looked around and realized my experiences are not the same as your experiences.”
More zine fest and convention organizers are shedding light on the lack of diversity in a lot of zine spaces, Martin said.
For example, the annual NYC Feminist Zinefest at Barnard College has seen more people of color tablers each year, according to the Barnard Zine Library. In 2020, more than half of the tables were to be staffed by people of color before the event was canceled due to COVID-19. Many other zine festivals, including events in Milwaukee, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston, use "safer spaces policies" to help build supportive, inclusive environments.
Martin suggested community workshops on zine-making, grants for zinesters of color who want to organize zine events, and better support for artists and writers of color to help fuel better representation.
The history of zines
The lack of representation for zinesters of color stands in stark contrast against a long history of zine-makers in communities of color, Martin said. Zines have historically been used by communities of color to announce events, spread ideas and document movements for civil rights and liberation.
Many archivists look to 1930s science fiction fanzines as the origin of modern zines. As DIY culture picked up in the 1970s and 80s, zines found new life in punk communities, archivists told USA TODAY.
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Archivists disagree over what qualifies as a zine, but zines of today were likely influenced by small-scale publications in communities of color, Freedman said. Many may not have been called zines at the time, but some now consider them to be zines or predecessors that provided a blueprint of what zines could be, she said.
In the 1910s, La Catrina, a collection of zinc-etched lithographs, celebrated Mexican culture as many Mexicans were pushed to aspire to a European lifestyle. In the 1970s, community organizers created the bilingual publication La Raza, which addressed issues of police brutality and education equity and influenced the Los Angeles Chicano movement.
“Fire!!,” published in the 1920s by a collective that included celebrated Black writers like Wallace Thurman and Langston Hughes, became an acclaimed Black literary journal documenting the Harlem Renaissance. Anti-slavery newspapers and pamphlets in the 19th century and handouts by the Black Panther Party in the 1960s are also often seen as zines, as is UCLA’s “Gidra,” which covered Asian American issues from 1969 and 1974.
Zines in LGBTQ+ communities
Zines also have deep roots in queer communities, said Milo Miller, cofounder of the Queer Zine Archive Project. Miller said queer zines discussed gender identity and sexuality sometimes decades before these conversations appeared in more mainstream spaces.
Zines offered vital information on sex and sexual health, the AIDs epidemic and reproductive health access that was difficult to access elsewhere, Miller said.
The zines that documented HIV and AIDS activism serve as reminders of friends, professors and fellow activists who died during the crisis, Miller said.
“I think a lot about what my friends would think of this archive,” they said. “Would they find themselves in it? Would they feel finally seen?”
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Many of QZAP’s zines come from "a post-WWII gay liberation era," with Stonewall in 1969 as a focal point. The collection also includes the work of queer people of color, including from a group of queer Chicano artists who reissued queer zines from Chicano zine-makers.
“Queer people and people of color have always been part of this history,” Miller said. “We’re just now starting to pull their names and give them recognition after they’ve created zines for decades.”
In libraries, universities, museums and archives around the world, there is a movement to document zines that may otherwise be ignored and lost, but it’s no easy task. In many cases, only a few copies of a zine exist and there is a constant risk they may be lost to history.
Alban Cooper, senior exhibition designer at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, said zines are often difficult to preserve because they're usually black marker scrawled across regular paper that can easily degrade over time.
Efforts to collect and archive works by everyday people, rather than just the select white men historians have always deemed important, are also a relatively new, Cooper said.
“People haven’t always thought to stop and preserve these pieces of ephemera,” he said.
Michelle Millette, founder of the Sherwood Forest Zine Library, realized the need to preserve zines when she found hundreds stored in boxes under her friend’s bed, leading her to start zine libraries in Boston and Austin.
“When we're losing a zine, we're losing someone's voice,” she said. “We're losing information that might not be easily accessible. We're losing culture. We're losing a piece of the historical record.”
Preservation through education
Other preservation efforts hinge on educating communities about zines made by people of color.
For example, as part of an exhibition centering on La Raza, a bilingual publication from the 1970s, the Autry Museum organized the Citizen Journalist Project. Museum employees visited schools and community organizations to collect photos, essays, poems, songs and artwork for three zines, said museum director of education Sarah Wilson.
Jones, founder of the ABQ Zine Fest, encouraged preserving zines in universities but said those spaces are not accessible to everyone. As a result, local zine collections in community spaces are vital, she said.
Jones is building a mobile zine collection that will travel to patios, beer gardens and community centers.
"Zines should be accessible everywhere," she said. "They won't last forever. But as long as we keep making them, they're living documents."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Zines rooted in protest culture of marginalized communities