Two weeks ago, I take the toe stops off my roller skates. I dig the toolbag out from under the free weights and board games in the built-in bin in the entryway, just to get to the right size Phillips screwdriver. Gripping one skate at a time between my thighs, I loose the large screws and spinning washers holding each toe stop in place. Now when I skate the only thing stopping me from busting my ass is my imperfect balance.
As a kid, I learn the basics of skating on my suburban neighborhood street on custom pink and purple rollerblades. I don’t know which parent is responsible for a matching bag with Danielle stitched down the side to tote them to and from the rink up the street from my childhood home. Come high school, I am far less graceful on roller skates, slowly teaching myself the little I already know on a different configuration of wheels at a Christian youth skate party in full view of the first boy I decide I love.
I am grown and a much better roller skater and I make it a habit to visit the rink as often as I can, usually by myself. I spend my 31st birthday a little high at the rink on the west side, alone among a small crowd of black folks, weaving between a few goofy boys celebrating a birthday, smooth old heads donning their own tailor-made skates, and two teen girls holding hands and practicing synchronized tricks to early ‘90s R&B hits. Mary croons, real love… I’m searching for a real love and I close my eyes and sing it to myself as I round the bend.
Months later, the global pandemic unfolds in the U.S. and I am ordering my first pair of roller skates online -- all black faux leather, sleek black wheels, black laces up the ankles. When they arrive at my doorstep, I skate in celebration from wall to wall on the hardwood floors in the living room. It feels reminiscent of the rink I can’t go to for the foreseeable future.
Roller skating on uncertain terrain requires me to yet again teach myself the little I already know on my downtown street, at the empty high school parking lot, on the basketball court at the closest park when not occupied by neighbors shooting around. I’m newborn Bambi wobble-walking in my tightly laced up skates from the sidewalk stoop in front of my house, awkwardly pausing in a patch of grass to regain my balance, then cautiously stepping over the curb. I carefully weave between collected debris and cracked concrete and slight slopes. I avoid moseying walkers, zipping bicyclists, and speeding drivers forcing me to swerve in and out of the narrow space between parked cars. I am winded and my knees and thighs are aching long before I make it to a recently paved surface.
I can’t remember the last time I let myself do something I am categorically not good at. Maybe it’s my Virgo moon or a significant fear of failing (or maybe those are one in the same), but regardless of arena, I tend toward measuring twice, taking low risk options by drawing on long-term self-reflection and research. I desperately want to be good at what I do to the breaking point of only doing things I am good at or I am confident I will be in relatively little time.
It is difficult for me to exercise patience, learn slowly, and make deliberate moves one step at a time. I am accustomed to picking up knowledge and skills quickly, achieving proficiency and edging toward my own sense of mastery. I often say to my stepdaughter, practice makes practice to remind her that perfection isn’t a realistic or ultimate goal, but this is a way of living I am still continuously learning and modeling.
I wonder if this is why I haven’t fallen while skating and learning new tricks yet. Perhaps I haven’t taken a big enough risk.
In late spring, I finally decide to apply to grad school after years of declaring plans and waffling. Due to the pandemic, universities scramble to shut down campuses, send students home, and move to virtual classes mid-semester. To maintain adequate recruitment levels, admins waive the application fees at my school of choice. I am accepted to the full-time social work program less than a week after submission.
I write in my entrance essay about being a self-led student of black feminist theory since earning my bachelor’s degree in 2010, voraciously studying academic papers and thinkpieces and political essays on Tumblr and Twitter, buying and reading a library of mostly black women artists and thinkers, creating an entire grassroots organization to do it alongside other people. A decade later, I am preparing to be a formal student again. I am ready to take the work I love to the next level, to sharpen my tools, to kick down doors and hold them open, to keep thinking and feeling and writing.
I choose the sections of my six foundational classes, fill out my FAFSA form - this time listing my own financial information, and google the cost of required textbooks in preparation for the fall semester. As the start of classes draws close, my financial aid package is still in limbo, so I spend days on end playing phone tag with my student loan servicer and the financial aid office, sending documents back and forth to get my tuition and fees covered as soon as possible.
Two weeks ago, I learn my undergraduate loans are in default, much to my surprise. The process I start and carve out steep payments for over a year ago to consolidate my two public loans is not submitted by my servicer to the U.S. Department of Education. I am paying for this egregious oversight that renders me unable to access public student loans until my current ones are back in good standing. I am forced to complete the same consolidation process again on top of figuring out how to pay for school in the meantime. I feel like a failure before my program even begins.
I do my homework: I send a message to a black woman friend that teaches skate lessons in my city -- first class is at the end of the month. I follow a bunch of fly black women skaters on Instagram from LA and the Bay Area and watch tutorials and skate videos back to back. I crowd-search public tennis courts near me, the best places to skate outdoors. I set aside time to skate once a week, encouraged by sweet summer weather. I start my own skating playlist and work my legs and hips in rhythm. I get a little better at holding my own each time, and I finally put protective gear on my wish list.
I don’t drop out.
I do think about it.
Instead I scale back to a part-time course plan with the help of my incredibly helpful advisor. The cost of two classes a semester is far more manageable than six. I double check all of my paperwork with my student loan servicer, getting on track to reinstate my previous loans by mid-Spring. I figure out my very tight budget and sign up for a payment plan through the bursar’s office and apply for a small private loan and rent my textbooks.
I take a step and stumble and get back up and ask for help and work at it and and and.
I’m learning to spin. The first step is to remove my toe stops and practice balancing on my front wheels before I do anything else. The goal is to build muscle and memory, to stand steady and then turn freely. I might fall. I probably will. But I already know what to do when that happens.
My first $1000 installment of my $3500 total tuition is due and I am fundraising to cover a portion of the payment until my private loan is approved and processed. If you would like to donate or share, feel free to use PayPal, Cash App, or Venmo at elleiswrite. Any amount, good thoughts and prayers are appreciated. Thank you for reading and sharing.
Update: My deepest thanks to 24 friends and comrades who donated a total of $1011 over the last two days. I sent my payment to the bursar's office on Friday, September 11 as soon as I crossed the threshold. I appreciate everyone who shared the essay and shared what they could financially. I am so grateful.
In the finished basement of his quiet tri-level sits a timeworn Kimball in a dim lit corner, adorned in stacks of books and sheet music. Joshua explains he won a hotly contested toss-up with his twin brother Jared to lay claim to the childhood piano they shared. The book on the mantle was gifted by their eldest sister Jessica, a virtuoso in her own right that helped shape the musician he is today.
Joshua sits at the bench before the keys, raising his arms as if to conjure Harry Burleigh himself and lift the notes off the page, and begins to play with a familiar, conversational cadence. After all, music defies both place and time. The mesmerizing sounds he produces as his hands weave from one end to the other are otherworldly and yet firmly rooted beneath Joshua’s impeccable pedal work. His feet are just as talented as the span of his fingers stretched wide between octaves, and he only wears his signature socks while playing, whether at home or on stage.
The piece is titled The Frolic of From the Southland. It is the second movement of several, a name that carries far more than the music itself and may be why Joshua found Burleigh, or perhaps, it is the movement that found Joshua, knee-deep in an exploration of little-known black artists that was sparked by Black History Month over thirty years ago. An effort to highlight unsung black cultural innovators every February transformed into a journey to uncover answers to a question that manifested as a young piano and trumpet student. Where are the black classical composers? Joshua details what he calls listening tours:
Every day in the morning I woke up with a purpose and intent to find someone new and do my homework and look them up and their pieces. That was satisfying and fun and informative for me. And then I actually started listening to some of these pieces that resonated. I never heard that before and they were brilliant and gorgeous. I'm like, How come we don't hear about this? How come I can't find this music? Why do I have to pay $80.00 because it's out of print or it's on back order?
I had a couple pieces that I had under my fingers and I was trying to figure out how do I make this more than just a recital and make this something. And I just remember the people that I saw on stage that evening that I worked with, these people to my left, my right, in front, and behind me literally just asking. So I just put some stuff together and went to the people that I've always wanted to work with and just have a good creative relationship with in general. And I said, Hey we're going to link up and do some stuff!
It would be a mistake to believe that Joshua’s current musical iteration began in 2017 on stage at the Madame Walker Theatre. His why cannot be separated from his early childhood.
Joshua’s commitment to classical music began with a love for Saturday morning cartoons. The theme music and soundtracks for shows like Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry served as glimpse into the importance of music in every aspect of creative and cultural production. His parents were not musicians themselves, but offered their full support to their children’s aspirations. The twins followed the footsteps of Jessica and started piano lessons as five-year-olds.
A few years later, Joshua began playing classical trumpet, an instrument that came relatively easy to take up with a background in piano. Just before high school, he was invited to be a part of the New World Youth Symphony Orchestra as a trumpetist, joining the ranks of young prodigenous musicians from across the state. The high-level opportunity brought an intensity, self-discipline, and a sense of ownership to Joshua’s craft as a musician, a time he describes as a major turning point as an artist. Joshua recalls performing George Gershwin's Cuban Overture for the first time with the group:
From that first moment when the conductor lifted up her baton and that first note happened, it sounded exactly like what I heard on the recording. And for a minute I was like, Oh, shit! We are, these people sound amazing! For me, that was it and it was immediate. I'm in a room with musicians who are way better than I am and I have to work. I worked to get into this group but I've got to work to stay here. That's when I really just upped my game because it required it. When around me, I had to match that level.
Joshua has been that kind of dedicated student since listening intently to the backtracking of cartoons as a kindergartener.
For me it’s not enough to just play a piece of music.
He employs exegetical study of black composers and their music. He researches the structural elements of pieces and movements, the geographical and biographical background of the person and what culturally shaped their compositions. This information is not always readily available and can be just as difficult to find as archived sheet music, but social context is what reveals deeper meaning and motivation behind and in the classical works.
Further, the classical genre is highly regarded as foundational, traditional music and the most recognizable and celebrated composers are overwhelmingly white and wealthy. White supremacy has rendered classical music a literal Ivory Tower. As with most genres within and beyond music, black classical pioneers have been erased and excluded from canonical history and contemporary form.
I think especially with composers of African descent you can't get away from that.
A driving force of Joshua’s analysis and application is to reframe the canon and ensure black artists like Burleigh, Still, Bonds, and more are included and prominently featured in the larger narrative as they should have been already.
What it comes down to is we don't know what we don't know yet. So once it's presented to us we have that knowledge and then we have the responsibility to use it or not use it as we see fit.
Joshua’s work introduces new audiences to classical music. He enjoys playing vignettes of concertos, or, teasers of longer pieces, and often shares background information about the composers and pieces before and after playing. The entertainment of performance is not without political and cultural education. His hope is to illustrate how innovative classical music is and highlight the manifestations of classical elements in today’s popular sounds. Classical is expansive, is for and by black people, and should be accessible, approachable, and applicable beyond the genre.
There's another place we can go where we can see ourselves. There's another place we can go where we know we have our massive thumbprint.
Teaching is one more way of bridging the gap between the genre he loves and new students of the craft, whether that path leads to highly competitive performance spaces or other creative fields of practice.
There’s this idea that if you don't get first chair or if you don’t get into the school of music of your choice or if you don’t land with the symphony music orchestra of your choice then you’re automatically garbage and you have no place in music and that’s just not true. That’s just not true.
Teaching is a futurist practice to make blackness visible and valued in classical music, work toward the unseen here and now. It is why documenting and archiving blackness is a political project to preserve and shape black life, black culture. But Joshua offers a deeply related point:
Even highlighting that there are black composers out there, to be perfectly honest, is not exceptional. I only have to do it because they’re unknown. And again, with some of my works now, when I do my stuff, I don’t even say, if it’s relevant I’ll say they are composers of African descent, I just do it. Now y’all know what I do, so everything that you hear, yeah, I would take the bet that it’s black. Because there is a broader conversation to have, there’s a bigger conversation to have, like the surface conversation is blackness and relevance to classical music.
Joshua’s work showcases black composers and musicians as a starting point for further exploration rather than a means to an end. His long game is not one. It is a matter of doing what is necessary, while refraining from the urge to call what is necessary revolutionary. He is simply seeking to change narratives blackness has been erased from. And Joshua Thompson is composing otherwise ways of black being.
Last Sunday, my stepdaughter and I went to a Latinx church we’ve never been to. On the drive to the city’s west side, I explained to her most of the service would be in Spanish and many of the people attending are brown and black folks, like us.
“I don’t even know that many words in Spanish anymore. I really only know numbers now, and just up to 15,” she whispered.
She was visibly nervous and also openly curious about the experience. My stepdaughter is biracial, of Mexican heritage, and depending on the season, can pass for white. She’ll be eight in a few months and already recognizes that racial identity and ethnic background are social constructs with their own cultural signals, markers of group belonging commonly defined by collective experience. In her mind, her identity as a Mexican child and capacity for acceptance in this particular Latinx community somewhat depended on how fluently she speaks and understands Spanish.
I’m a queer black woman helping raise a growing brown girl in the U.S. Our relationship with each other is just shy of a three-year milestone. And in that time, we’ve talked a lot about race, black-brown solidarity, and how whiteness impacts what we think and feel about ourselves and others, as age-appropriate and honest as we can be. Because of who we are, who we are to each other, and how we move through the world, we don’t have a choice but to.
“It’s okay that you don’t know a lot of Spanish, baby.” I assured her, “The amount of words in Spanish you know doesn’t change the fact that you are Mexican. Plus, there will be some translation to help us understand and feel welcomed. You know, many of the places we go, people mostly speak English, and those whose first language is Spanish are often left out. We might feel a little of that same discomfort, and that’s okay.”
And it was okay.
As we walked into the building, we heard people singing a worship song in Spanish from the hallway. She took my hand, briefly squeezed, and we entered the sanctuary doors together.
Although my lived experience is a world apart from my stepdaughter’s, our positions hold common threads as people of color. Our time together in church this week was a reflection of my own childhood, memories I often draw on as a parent.
When I was four, my family moved from Landover in PG County, a well-known and historically black community in Maryland, to Merrillville, Indiana, a town birthed of white flight from Gary during the steel crisis of the early 1970s. I was one of just five black students at my elementary school when I was my stepdaughter’s age. By contrast, my parents chose a church home in East Chicago, Indiana. On weekdays, I was taught by all white teachers in classrooms with almost all white kids. And on weekends, I spent most of my time in church and close-knit community with black people, with black children.
I didn’t have language for the pressures shaping me then. I subconsciously began shrinking myself at school. I spent my days gradually perfecting my handwriting and grades and diction, raising my voice to an unnatural pitch to match that of my girl-ish classmates, putting on a tweenage veneer of likeability. I was a wallflower in perpetual late bloom, a mouth full of metal, ill-fitted glasses, pimple-prone, thick-haired, dark-skinned, and fully vested in futile attempts to take up the promises of whiteness -- to be softer, prettier, loved. I wasn’t myself, didn’t want to be, and I couldn’t pinpoint who or what told me I shouldn’t.
The first time my friend at church asked me, “Why you talk like that?” I balked at the question, hurling back, “What do you mean?” She shrugged and declared, “You sound like a white girl,” and carried on eating the chips we had just bought at the corner store across the street. Her words convicted me, and rightly so.
Racial impostorism describes an identity struggle for authenticity and community, mostly attributed to multiracial people. The phenomenon can manifest among people of color of all backgrounds in personal and political ways, recently highlighted as Kamala Harris and Cory Booker entered the pool of 2020 presidential candidates.
Harris is tasked with reconciling her history of targeting marginalized communities with “a big stick” as California’s top prosecutor. Her department fought due process to keep people in prison, denied hormone treatment for incarcerated trans people, and proudly launched an initiative to criminalize the parents of truant students, most were families of color. As a senator, she sponsored human trafficking legislation that obstructs the wellbeing of sex workers and their ability to work safely.
Booker’s campaign debut refreshed the memory of T-Bone, a gang-affiliated character he admittedly invented to vouch for his “Ph.D from the streets of Newark,” and his neoliberal investment in privatizing public goods from schools to sanitation. His policies as mayor and state senator directly impact access to educational opportunity, living wages, and affordable housing and health care.
Social media and offline spaces have turned a critical eye not only toward Harris’ and Booker’s records as elected officials, but also their cultural significance, especially in the wake of former President Barack Obama. Democratic contenders must win the black electorate for a chance to win the primary, and the stakes are high for Harris and Booker as black candidates.
Their campaigns and curated personas incorporate black signifiers in hopes of somehow passing an imaginary litmus test. A snippet of Harris dancing and snapping off-beat to Cardi B, Booker’s campaign video emulating an Empire episode — these efforts can read as political pandering, and worse, as corny, deserving of the jokes and memes and thinkpieces questioning their intent, their policies, their impact.
Some people take the corny charges seriously and personally, claiming the racialized criticism of Harris and Booker is unfair. Apparently, holding black politicians accountable to harmful policymaking rooted in anti-blackness is tantamount to stripping their black identity. The reaction is familiar.
I don’t know if my friend at church intended to hurt my feelings by telling me I sounded white, but I do know now that I was seeking white acceptance. The identity I was striving for at school was, in my mind, a better black than that of my church community, and I acted like it — by changing how styled my hair, dressed, and talked to other black people. And my friend called my behavior exactly what it was because she cared enough about me to say it. She wasn’t the last to poke fun at me for trying to be someone I wasn’t, and I am grateful.
Sometimes calling out and calling in, uprooting racial impostorism and internalized anti-blackness, is getting clowned for being corny and dragged for bad policy. Sometimes it is like my stepdaughter seeing a glimpse of her whole self in a Latinx worship song and being accepted regardless of how many words she knows in Spanish. Sometimes it’s a fellow black girl being honest with me in church.
Accountability looks a lot of ways when we are looking funny in the light. Our communities can and do bring us back into the fold, into sanctuary, space to be ourselves in a world not made for us.
coming out is not a singular one-time event that exists in isolation
coming out is a lifelong, every damn day process of breaking and healing and recovering and embracing and becoming and being whole as best we can
it doesn’t always get better, sometimes it just gets bitter
the closet is a misnomer, a collision of violence and safety, a social construction and a doorway, a casket and a womb all at once
we've been home all along
perhaps we know better now
it's so good to see you
there’s this weird thing where people think feminism means every thing every woman is on or about or believes in must be feminist by virtue of being a woman
there’s multiple feminisms
issa feminism for everyone
you get a feminism and you get a feminism and you get...
that’s ahistorical pluralism without drawing on necessary and collectively determined values
something something the failures of identity politics blah blah blah
first of all
auntie bell hooks taught us patriarchy knows no gender (read bell hooks for the feminist wire)
hell, it’s thriving in our own thoughts and actions but we don’t want to talk much about that
it’s a little easier to externalize and smash the patriarchy than ask ourselves hard questions about what we carry in us
further, there should be no room at the inn for feminisms that subjugate women and others just because a politic is “strongly held” by someone who happens to be a woman
but let’s be clear
we can pontificate about what is or isn’t feminist all we want to but what we don’t get to do is personally and arbitrarily decide the parameters of feminism
we shape feminism as it shapes us, but we are not its sole authors or owners
however, when we take on feminism and its weight and the political consciousness it affords, we might find ourselves challenged on what we think we know about feminist politics by other feminists and rightly so
nothing quite like getting all the way snatched up by someone who cares enough to do it for your benefit, or alternatively, is all out of fucks to give and we thankfully become the beneficiary of the very last gracious one
perhaps feminism is a lifelong practice of doing better with what we know better, or rather, embracing humility when ego begs attention and takes up far too much space
just as we are ever-becoming persons, feminism is an evolving framework that asks us to interrogate and uproot gendered power so our world can be better for all people, not just women (read yasmin nair for current affairs)
feminism is a framework that sharpens us and our understanding of the world around us and how we move through it
feminism is a framework that (re)connects us to others as we’ve always been but we're communally conditioned to forget and granted generational power to erase our interconnectedness over time in exchange for violent domination
best part about all these constant and changing and connecting and colliding parts is feminism is a framework that doesn’t require us to like or be liked by all women
we should check one another on our shit
because the politic demands the kind of love that both supersedes and gives substance to our often temperamental affect for one another
we can and should earn and learn from an L when our proclaimed politics and actual behavior don’t align and we fail to fully see and value our selves and others
we have a precedented opportunity to gain a feminist principle here from a woman like Cardi B
“on sight” is a love language among black women, feminist or not, because what is love without accountability
accountability, an urgent and timely matter that might just find us at any given moment, venue is hardly or entirely a concern
time and space and decorum are social constructions any damn way
i love you and because i love us for real you can and will catch these proverbial and physical hands on today, right here and now
this is what a feminist looks like
I didn’t know I knew the sound of Liliana’s footed pajamas against the hardwood floor balcony. The step just before the staircase is the loudest spot in the entire house, perhaps inconsequential if not for living with a six-year-old. Her little feet don’t yet know to shuffle around it. I heard the noise distinctly over the silly romantic comedy on tv and looked directly above me to see her bed head peek over the railing. I put down my glass of wine, jumped from the couch, and quickly tiptoed upstairs to where she stood half asleep, rubbing her closed eye with one hand and pressing a wad of toilet paper to her nose with the other.
During several years when I was her age my nose bled nearly every other day. I don’t know what to attribute the episodes to, maybe stress, dry skin, the weather or some combination. My parents bought a lug of a humidifier for the room my younger sister and I shared, placing it between our twin beds against opposite walls. My dad would twirl a single q-tip along the edge of the Vaseline jar and swab the jelly in the crevices of my nose. I’d fall asleep to the low purr of the humidifier each night.
I knelt before Liliana and cradled her face in my hand, checking her forehead and cheeks for heat, then scooped her into my arms. With my free hand, I grabbed two q-tips, our mini jar of Vaseline, and soaked a washcloth from the linen closet in warm water, then carried her back to bed. She let me gently wipe her nose clean and listened intently as I shared about my frequent childhood nosebleeds, consenting to the same care my father taught me. To help her fall asleep again, I snuggled next to her and softly sang her favorite lullabies, love songs I’ve sung to her for the last year and a half.
Lil doesn’t immediately take to strangers and has no problem communicating her discomfort. In rare form, we clicked almost immediately. A couple weeks after her mother and I started dating, I met her for the first time on an early October morning. An unexpected fart cut through expectedly shy introductions, stirring up a much-needed fit of laughter. She reminds me today she didn’t fart on me, but in my general direction. I could only be so lucky.
She calls me her MooMoo, a creative, mom-adjacent name holding considerable weight as another person in her village. Mom especially belongs to the two people who conjured her up together. Elle wasn’t enough to describe who I am to her, just as my partner’s kid certainly explains but doesn’t honor the fullness of our connection. I tell her in jest how lucky she is to have so many mothers. She’s my baby’s baby. She's my baby. She became so very quickly and will remain so forever. I am thankful my partner and her ex-wife parent so intentionally and expansively, there’s room for the love Liliana and I carve out for ourselves.
I am not her mother, but I mother her, too.
I’ve proudly collected every piece of art she’s created and gifted me since before my partner cleaned out a drawer and gave me a key to the home we share. In my makeup bag is a plastic ring she asked me to keep after I informally moved in. I wore it faithfully on my pinky until my finger itched with irritation. I schedule my work life and life’s work around the half week stretches we have together. Her car seat has a permanent place in my car alongside water bottles, snacks, art supplies, and books galore. I take her to school and pick her up on our days more often than not, and in between, I put in shifts at work, flexibility a request and requirement so I can parent how I desire. When the weather allows, we bask in the sun at our favorite park a short drive away from our house. Liliana and her mother are my family, divinely and purposefully chosen. The evidence manifests in car rides and homework routines, tooth wiggling and made-up songs and morning hair styling, to Vaselined noses in the middle of her mother’s overnight shift. These are labors of love not required of me as her non-custodial, legally unbound MooMoo.
She shows me how big love is and can be. How is it possible to love a person so much the verb itself anchors and moves me in ways that don’t make sense, yet do?
Long before the October morning of our meeting, I wrestled with the implications of dating a parent for the first time. I could draw on my identity as an older sister and cousin, or my work as a youth educator and on-call babysitter to make ends meet. But parents can attest no single set of experiences can ready people for raising a child, for holding full responsibility for their safety, wellness, and growth in a world of debilitating danger and endless possibility. Nothing could prepare me for mothering Liliana save for simply mothering her, following my partner’s lead and gladly serving as a trusted adult among so many in her life.
Liliana is an artist, socially constructing the power of chosen family, friendship, and community in her drawings, paintings, stuffed animal and Shopkins collections, and lego designs. She illustrates us, her mothers and each member of her family filling the two places she calls home. Her artistic representation of family reveals the nuances of simple ideas. Behind each picture is the political nature of nontraditional family values and ways of being.
Parenting in and through partnership means I choose to love and care for Liliana with her mother, but in many ways, our connection is invisible and rendered unprotected. che gossett cautions:
"love not as property relation but as the end of property relation."
Liliana doesn't have to be my daughter for an outpouring of mothering and relating between us to be real. It just is. We can and should allow our love for one another to transform family structures that condense blood relation and belonging down to ownership and re-center bonds formed and strengthened by choice and commitment. We are, in effect, queering our understanding and practice of family.
My partner and I talk regularly about Liliana’s growth and changing needs, what we want to work on in ourselves as her stewards, how to better protect and provide for our family, and yes, how we might navigate relationship with each other and Lil should we ever part ways, by choice or circumstance. We have to, to sustain our selves and our family in unknown territory. Reality is my partnership and mothering are inextricably tied, a connection that could very well be complicated or broken by factors in and outside our control. My choice to partner, to mother, to family necessitates contending with this reality, embracing it and building within and beyond its boundaries every day. We choose each other and live accordingly and exceedingly.
When I formally moved in a year ago, my partner imparted to me that at her age, Liliana would not recall many concrete memories of her life before me. I am firmly rooted in the picture of Lil’s life and lead my own with her in mind and heart, always knowing exactly what’s at stake.
Today is my 29th birthday. In her acclaimed novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” My 28th trip around the sun was one of being questioned, asking questions, and questioning e v e r y t h i n g. I can’t yet say much for year 29 for it just began today, but I can say I have a visceral kind of feeling that it will be one that answers. For my labor, a year of questions, is not in vain — toiling with crises for entire seasons on end, unearthing struggles I thought I already confronted yet here they are again, wrestling with all things from molehills to mountains and then some. This year put me and brought me through it.
Black Woman Poet Lucille Clifton reminds me:
Parts of me experienced a thousand tiny, sharp deaths all at once. Death is a funny thing, a hard and hardened and hardening thing. Death shows you exactly who you are, whatever means brings it round your way. This weekend’s theme was made possible by a Black Lesbian Mother Warrior Poet who lived and died and lives yet still. Audre Lorde coined and gave life to Self Care, a thing so far removed from the poetic theory and careful practice she wrote of in one of her last published works, A Burst of Light, a collection she finished as cancer ate her body.
“Caring for myself is not self indulgence, it is self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The quote we know all too well, stripped of context, of meaning, of politic, allowing white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy to convince queer and queered Black Women and Femmes (of all fucking people) that we must run ourselves so ragged laboring for every and anyone that a Self Care weekend like this is necessary at all. It’s like holy scripture one verse plucked from the Good Book made into exegetical bullshit.
What we don’t know is Audre Lorde was explicitly political and deeply personal in her thinking and art making. She wrote in the same essay a few lines before, “Overextending myself is not stretching myself. I had to accept how difficult it is to monitor the difference.” Just after she wrote, “It is about trying to know who I am wherever I am.”
The forces and principalities of this world are trying to eat us alive like a cancer. We were never meant to survive, Beloveds. And yet. Take abundant comfort and radical hope in one another, in the power of the And Yet. We are here and been here and will be here. A ethereal reminder from our ancestor(s). The highest, most sacred form of Self Care is remembering your Self, is reclaiming and recovering You every single day.
Let this knowing infect your consciousness. Let this knowing help you determine your values, your politics, your care, your work, your love. Let this knowing guide your decision making, from the small business to the monumental. You are your best work, Beloveds. You are you best work. Become. Your life. Our lives depend on it.
A long-form exploration of DACA, black-brown solidarity, and the value of U.S. citizenship
Five years ago this month, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) began accepting applications for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The program allows undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children to apply for work permits and renewable two-year reprieves from deportation. The Obama administration created the policy by executive order in summer 2012 under pressure from proponents of federal DREAM Actbills and immigration reform initiatives. In 2014, President Obama unsuccessfully attempted to broaden the program’s eligibility and renewal requirements. A controversial legal battle between the Department of Justice and 25 states including Indiana ended in a 4–4 Supreme Court vote after Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death, setting no legal precedent and denying an expansion that would have increased the number of eligible undocumented youth from 1.3 million to 1.5 million.
DACA outlines exhaustive restrictions primarily regarding age, date of arrival to the U.S., background check, and education level or military enrollment to determine potential approval. USCIS has rubber stamped 787,580 applications, authorizing about 89% of the total received nationwide to date. Data shows an 8% denial rate of initial applications, while less than 1% of renewals are turned down. Once granted approval, program participants are likely to retain their DACA status throughout the biennial renewal process.
Of about 11,000 young people currently eligible in Indiana, just 9,576 Hoosier applicants have been approved for DACA as of June 2016. Nearly 33% of DACA recipients in Indiana reside in Marion County. Central Indiana could very well serve as a site for increasing awareness of and support for DACA in politically unfriendly territory, encouraging critical review of the program, and reimagining the value of U.S. citizenship. Local organizations like Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance indicate hopeful possibility.
Benefits of DACA
The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy published a report in April 2017 highlighting the tax contributions of undocumented youth. Key findings include:
Undocumented Hoosiers currently enrolled or eligible for DACA contribute $23,288,000 in state taxes every year. If every eligible young person in Indiana received DACA, tax payments would increase by nearly half a million dollars. If the Trump administration dismantles the program, the state would lose more than $12 million dollars in tax revenue annually.
The administrative cost of DACA is minimal as potential recipients are required to pay all fees associated with initial and renewal processing, averaging $500 per application. The program effectively pays for itself. However the advantages of DACA are not only fiscal, but humane as well. Indefinite detention and deportation of undocumented U.S. residents damages the social fabric of family and community. Living under constant threat of internment and removal from the country without equitable access to legal protection, representation, and resources negatively impacts individual and collective financial, physical, emotional, and psychological wellness. The qualitative benefits of temporary access to employment and education without fear of detention and deportation are immeasurable.
DACA is a significantly compromised version of the DREAM Act’s path to permanent residency for undocumented youth. Tax contribution analysis reveals the U.S. reaps the financial benefit of the undocumented workforce paid under and above the table and the social advantages of keeping families of varied immigration statuses intact. A moral, liberal-leaning defense of DACA seemingly acknowledges the failure to create and pass comprehensive immigration reform and atone for generationally exploited labor of undocumented communities. It is a stop-gap, and even with its flaws, perhaps DACA is arguably better than no program at all.
Criticisms of DACA
Undocumented immigrants are not a monolith, and in true form, some undocumented people, DREAMers or otherwise, do not support DACA. The program represents a small fraction of immigration policy reform, the DREAM Act of 2001, and each unsuccessful revival, initiatives seeking to grant permanent residency to undocumented people of all ages providing for themselves and often, their families. Because DACA was established by executive order instead of federal law, the current administration can rescind the order at any time, mandating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) end the program, tossing nearly 800,000 recipients into legal limbo after five years of relative safety. President Donald Trump’s comments on retaining, reducing, or repealing the program conflict, but USCIS continues to accept and approve applications and DHS has hinted at honoring authorized work permits through their current expiration dates if the program is dismantled in the future. If DACA eligibility is restricted or the program ends altogether, DHS and by extension, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has full access to a list of all approved and denied DACA applicants, the names of their family members, contact information, addresses, workplaces, colleges to effectively launch unilateral detention and deportation projects.
Since the fifth anniversary of DACA on August 15th, two recent news stories juxtapose narratives about DACA’s impending fate. On August 25, the White House announced DACA is officially under formal review. The president is purportedly rescinding DACA under recommendation from DHS and likely influence of known DACA-opponent Attorney General Jeff Sessions, considering only whether to end the program immediately or allow the protections of current recipients to gradually phase out. Recent reports also claim a contingent of White House officials are looking to use DACA as leverage to push sweeping immigration policy through Congress likely to directly and negatively impact the families and communities of DREAMers. In exchange for keeping DACA intact, the officials are allegedly calling for designated funding for the construction of more detention facilities and a wall along the Mexican border, an E-Verify requirement for businesses, and severely reduced legal immigration made possible by restrictions outlined in the Raise Act of 2017. This potential deal places the Trump administration at a political crossroads with conservative idealism and the president’s own campaign promises to end the program. Ten states have threatened to sue the U.S. if the president does not rescind the DACA executive order by September 5th while 20 states submitted a memo to the oval office offering a compelling case in favor of DACA. A congressional deal of this magnitude puts DACA recipients’ squarely at odds with the fight for undocumented rights as a whole. Insubstantial protections extended to 800,000 DREAMers will further endanger all undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
At best, DACA primarily functions as harm reduction policy, allowing undocumented populations branded “low enforcement priorities” by politically influenced standards to temporarily stay in the U.S. and pay taxes to American governments while remaining legally barred from voting rights and accessing most of its benefits and services. DACA applicants must undergo an extensive background check. Undocumented young people with a felony conviction are ineligible for the program when statistically, a small percentage of deported immigrants have criminal records and of those who do, most convictions are categorically nonviolent offenses and likely related to immigration status. Similar to the disenfranchisement of U.S. citizens post-incarceration, DACA blocks felons from the program even after completing their time in prison and re-entering society. Recidivism rates surge among former prisoners lacking access to sustainable employment, and DACA approval for otherwise eligible undocumented youth could open up new paths to opportunity.
Because the U.S. criminal justice system is built on anti-black white supremacist capitalism, communities of color and under-resourced areas are historically and presently hyper-criminalized and over-policed. Undocumented immigrants are largely assumed illegal by the state and its actors, and made to endure race-based targeting and discrimination without the added security of U.S. residency and documentation. Programs like DACA perpetuate carceral politics by bestowing arbitrary goodness and worth constructed on centuries of injustice and inequity. DREAMers are made to be individualized victims of collective circumstances, families traversing national borders of dangerous terrain, parents simply seeking better economic conditions for innocent children. DACA eligibility requirements demand applicants submit to American exceptionalism by distinguishing themselves as indebted, patriotic immigrants as opposed to “illegal aliens” and “bad hombres” to prove they deserve deferred action above millions of other undocumented people — their family members, friends, coworkers, neighbors, fellow parishioners, community members and leaders irrespective of criminal records. For DREAMers to survive in impermanent increments is an exercise in disassociation not taken lightly, ideologically aligning with a global prison state cashing in on black and brown bodies of all immigration and citizenship statuses.
All five versions of the DREAM Act ending in the creation of DACA in 2012 curtailed granting U.S. citizenship to undocumented young people. Liberal and conservative lawmakers placated to bipartisan agreement in hopes of garnering support for immigration reform across the aisle. Each attempt at further restricting eligibility and benefits failed to pass the mandatory vote threshold to end debate on either the House or Senate floor in 2001, 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011. Arguments against amnesty consistently fail to mention U.S. imperialism as a significant cause for political turmoil in Mexico and throughout Latin America resulting in economic and social strife driving Latinx people to risk emigrating to the U.S by any means necessary.
What happens to a dream deferred?
In Indiana, post-RFRA refrain “Indy Welcomes All” rings hollow for Hoosier DREAMers within legislative context. DACA and its imperfect predecessors withhold full citizenship, the rights and protections residency provides, in exchange for ongoing exploitation and the illusory promise of inclusion in the American Dream. Citizenship is actively positioned outside the realm of possibility for most undocumented families, newly transplanted to long established, the common thread is illegitimacy. The U.S. economy cannot effectively function without immigrant labor, and by design, illegality preserves a low-cost, highly profitable undocumented workforce with few options for recourse or recompense. The financial benefit of undocumented labor to Indiana’s economy, to American capitalism altogether compels critique of U.S. citizenship itself and political exclusion of entire swaths of people living, surviving, and working within the country’s borders and on its behalf abroad.
Symbols of material citizenship are birth certificates, social security numbers, photo id cards, and voter registrations, but the title U.S. citizen holds intangible value more difficult to subjectively define. The implicit worth of citizenship depends on self-directed and socially assigned identities, presentation, status, power, and lack thereof. Citizenship denies and affords comfort, security, access, and opportunity. Denial is an emotional, financial, and physical cost forced upon some groups of people designed for others’ direct and indirect gain. Denial’s bounty is the devaluation, social conditioning, exploited labor and means of survival of black people, brown people, poor people, and more in the U.S.
The struggle for justice for undocumented immigrants and Black Americans overlap and diverge often, but are inextricably linked. Citizenship and denial of such does not provide sufficient shield for black and brown people from police brutality and ICE raids, mass deportations and incarceration, indefinite detention and disproportionate prison sentences. Redlining practices, subprime lending and banking discrimination, unexpected loss of income, housing displacement, and destruction of entire cultural districts are products of deliberate and imprudent erasure. Educational and vocational opportunity is unjustly tied to zip codes, neighborhood tax revenue, bodily and mental ability, test scores, and documentation status. The fight for equitable access to affordable housing, food, health care, insurance, education, sustainable wages, and employment to survive and surmount inordinate poverty rates among Americans of color are interconnected. The American Dream is birthed of white and wealthy imagination sponsored by denial after denial.
Latinx, Black, Chicano, Pan African, and undocumented immigrant liberation movements have emerged and evolved, collided and collaborated over time. Relentlessly pushing for amnesty and full U.S. citizenship alongside undocumented immigrants in Indiana and nationwide is justice-oriented restitution that can and should parallel dismantling anti-blackness and oppressive immigration policy created and sustained by an exclusionary understanding of citizenship. Liberatory work demands trading either/or limitations for radical both/and visioning. Tearing down state-sanctioned oppression cannot happen apart from compassionate communal care for othered people existing in-between. A comprehensive and simultaneous expansion and deconstruction of U.S. citizenship is a black-brown solidarity project worthy of continued exploration and investment. Five years of DACA, millions of undocumented futures hang in the balance.
Yesterday, Tomorrow died.
Tomorrow Imir Ingle, a black trans woman in a long line of miraculous rebirths and systematic, state sanctioned grand larceny. Black. Trans. Women. Irrevocably shortened lives memorialized in bookends, erasure bloodstained between.
She shouldn’t be a hashtag, and won’t be, but should be. She should not be dead.
They say the devil is in the details. They say she died alone in a crowded room. They say a reaping worked through her own hands. They say she is a statistic of an epidemic, a poison injected in her veins, a bittersweet ecstasy, a split second to simply exist in a place not made for her.
They is us is we. We killed her. We mourn her. We celebrate her, in whispers and wails, in wonder.
Her memory conjured up by grieving loved ones, the estranged and strangely familiar, floating, anchored, hand in hand, laying rest a world of difference housed in the same body. Her chosen and dead names sewn to teeth and tongue. Her funeral, an echo chamber. Her becoming, a death wish choked up in our throats. It should not be.
She should be. She should be. She should be. And yet.
We keep her close, release her to wishful, faithful, hopeful better in the best way we know how. Words spoken, broken hearts, written reports, vigils, funerals, moments of silence and rage and every feeling deserving of space? For they, us, we un/steady living, breathing in rhythm, protest, everything, nothing.
How incredible, how incredulous to rewrite her story for our gain, some semblance of healing. How easily, how violently we forget she needed and desired and hated and imagined and loved this side of glory. She stood before us and told us so. We turned eye and ear.
It’s not too late to listen to her voice, a heavenly chorus in a long line of miraculous rebirths. Hallelujah! She is not gone.
Yesterday, Tomorrow died. Yesterday claimed her body, but left with us what lives forever — her name. Tomorrow, always.
Note: This essay originally appeared in Assymetry: A Selection on Organization and Mobilization, a print zine published by Janneane and Benjamin Blevins of PRINTtEXT. If you’d like a print copy, send me an email or visit the periodical shop!
Photo: “A Constructed World” by Anna Martinez, ihatepainters.com
I am an alchemist, uncomfortably existing and surviving between a collision of politic and practice. My words, an extension and envisioning of my life, of life itself, feels like and is so often attributed to blackgirlmagic, a phrase created and popularized by black women to give language to what about us can’t be fully captured in words alone. Last I put pen to paper, I explored redefining the act and substance behind prayer, a seemingly magical paradigm shift from speaking words aloud to allowing those words to shape action and movement. I believe in magic as I believe in prayer.
I study holy books gifted to the universe by black women feelers, thinkers, and doers. I sit in a circle of believers on Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons navigating and transforming a world we are in and of. I whisper scripture forged between tongue and teeth and released into the ether, “on earth as it is in heaven.” I hold space in classroom and church, cohort and congregation, where fact and faith connect rather than conflict. I believe in magic as I believe in prayer.
Alchemy brings together what is and what could or should be in a noisy, messy clash. Deconstructing oppression is challenging work because our collective imagination is unable to see beyond systems making and molding our lived experiences, the identities we choose, those placed on us. Liberating our imagination is a continual exercise in letting go and taking up, a profound belief in ways of being that defy explanation or don’t exist. We have no mode or model but ourselves. We have to conjure it up.
“won’t you celebrate with me
I believe in magic as I believe in prayer.
Abracadabra in Hebrew roughly translates to “it comes to pass as I speak.” Social justice is science fiction, using our words to weave imagination into reality as is, to let imagination build reality anew. Our challenge is to keep our feet planted and our heads in the clouds, to give voice to our past as it unfolds in the present, to give language to liberation within reach.
“Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity for our existence. It forms the quality of light from which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”
I am an alchemist in a long line of black women poets, scholars, scientists, prayer warriors, magicians, forerunners, fruit of the same. I believe in magic as I believe in prayer. Let us speak our future into existence.