In the beginning came the scream. Loud, intimate, unintelligible, chaotic, personal, undifferentiated, expressive. That first sound is. Words, symbols, labels, character, structure, grammar, story, and punctuation came much, much later. At the heart of the first sound comes the fury of it all: meaning. We, all of us, were connected at shared understanding, outside the existence of a quote-unquote “official language.” That first scream is to human beings what touch is to sex; vital, like a dying man reaching out to another because nothing robs death of dying like human connection.
It is the universe of sound that concerns me as an artist; what we do with it, what can be done to it, and how can its expression makes more and more clear what is meant when we say “human.” It is the universe of sound that is our most important and potentially most vital access to whatever definition we give to the strangeness that is “being human.” How I choose to use this power is a war waged daily, ceaselessly, purely because to reach what is impossible—a clear, precise definition for “human”—makes the writer/fighter/warrior (it’s all the same thing, really) come face-to-face with constant failure resulting in pure humility (as opposed to humiliation substituting for humility). Of course, the universe one lives in (and finds themselves) impacts how best to manipulate sound to communicate and therefore share artistic expression for or with community. It is this universe—its building blocks, its use of sound, and its surrounding edifices (which we) call/ed language and structure—it is this world that concerns me because it offers a near direct link to my personal failure/s and consequently calibrates the amount of humility I can afford to express openly free from fear of . . . erasure, invisibility, silencing, dismissal, lynching, rape, etc. So it is or has become my duty to characterize this world as I see it—since it is a matter of survival for me to be fluent in the instruments devoted to my death by erasure and silencing. And, it may also invite, even offer a deep lens into my artistic practice.
A very brief memory in non-binary queer-Time about the night I came to English. At a very young and tender age, my parents kicked me out for performing my queerness openly and unapologetically. To put my lived experience in some context, I come from a tribe that adheres strictly to traditional codes so, for example, if a boy spends too much time in the kitchen area before one in the afternoon, they automatically and forcibly are reassigned female pronouns and names; it doesn’t matter if that boy self-identifies as male or a cockroach, the point is to communally redefine and publicly humiliate their most sacred Self as a cautionary tale that pollutes the local rumor mill so effectively other village boys wouldn’t dare spend time in the kitchen otherwise they’d grow up to become women. I saw it, my future chained at the neck to a cast-iron stove surrounded by fifteen beautiful African babies tugging on my skirt’s hemline, screaming “Mama! Mama!” while unintentionally annihilating my preferred pronouns. So I quit on a village and a future I couldn’t live inside; and since my tribe couldn’t see me outside that future, they quit me. Villageless, parentless, abandoned, homeless, I left my rural birthplace for the big bright beguiling bold city. All I could afford at the time was a shantytown-like shack in an elite slum sandwiched between the city’s pulse and an affluent, diplomat-infested estate within walking distance, one that hired unskilled slum dwellers like myself to perform odd jobs cheaply, working especially long hours, no breaks permitted. One night I woke up sweaty in the early morning prior to my next gig, moving past the teeming smells from screaming newborns within earshot to a more peaceful spot where I could feel the city swallow distant lights that peppered its dirt with a gorgeous glow. Exhausted, broke, in total darkness, I stood quiet and disillusioned, watching the world spin past, then whispered to myself “I can’t live like this.” I said it in English. I spoke and wrote five different languages fluently at the time, including English. The following week I spent my afternoons at a cultural center that stocked books from internationally celebrated writers whose genius shifted conversations from purely intellectual to deeply impactful, personalized movements driven by ambitious writers who believed the definition for saving lives meant changing them forever. “Do you know Toni Morrison?” the librarian asked. “Who?” Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Ntozake Shange, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Virginia Woolf, Maria Irene Fornes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Ralph Ellison, Hemingway, Faulkner, Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Lorraine Hansberry, Jelani Cobb, Dr. Cornel West, etc. . . . As writers, not all of them specifically centered Black queerness, but they were openly unapologetic and therefore intentional about who and what was central; just like my queerness. And so I came to believe that I had summoned them all; that night I stood sweaty on the edge of the world watching it slowly slip outside my grasp was the same night they gave birth to another world just for me.
And it all happened in English. Not in French, not in Kiswahili, not KiChaaga, not KiGogo, or the other languages I spoke but only English was big enough, bold enough, powerful and universal enough to breathe life back into spaces stuffed with my smallest selves, transform heartache into affirming-life when in the hands and at the mercy of genius writers. Needless to say, these authors cast a spell over me; I swallowed then internalized their magic with each read, often memorizing by writing their entire books in longhand by lamplight during my free time. As compulsion gave way to obsession, I had to meet these writers face-to-face so I applied for a passport. At the embassy, like at work and everywhere else, I didn’t have my own pronoun so I was forced to accept one of two—in English. They refused to use my trans name because they said it wasn’t quote “legal” so it was “substituted” (=erased) for my “birth name” which the white embassy people could not pronounce and never apologized whenever mispronounced. English, they reasoned, gave them the right to suffocate my given names because English rarely if ever positioned so many hard consonants side-by-side the way African names and languages do. “Why the fuck not?’ was my unvoiced but knee-jerk response, “If the language is universal, it should be African too, right? If the language is universal, why isn’t it capable or open to imagining everything, accommodating and inclusive of everyone, celebrating all possibilities unto utopia? Which universe does their version of “universal” belong in? And who does their “universe” belong to? I mean, why am I forced to pick between two pronouns (he or she)? How come power pronouns (=he) exist with power titles (=Sir, King, Chief )? Why must I choose between one of two genders (male or female) at birth? Why were names given to me by other people (=like my parents) more legal and more official than my chosen names which I picked by myself for myself to champion my gender non-conforming selves and transness? Why does English consistently privilege birth over creation? How is that universal? Or even life-affirming? Processed, packaged, legislated, documented, domination, why so little flexibility English? Why limit, contain, police, rewrite the human menu by rescripting the madness that is the human heart?” When I did speak out to rise up, the white embassy people said, “Your English is broken. Say it again, I can’t hear you because I can’t understand your accent,” but the reverse could never be true; it could be real but never true, meaning if and when they mispronounced my name or fucked up my pronouns or annihilated my genders or made assumptions that gaslit then retraumatized my queer Black body their English wasn’t broken because I was never ever meant to exist, only survive, and survival belongs in a very small, very contained, extremely supervised, binary upholding, limited, depersonalized, perverse, expressionless tightly boxed boundary that, in English, is the polar opposite of a queer African. Weeks passed; by now the embassy gatekeepers were emboldened so the grinding official process was less about reduction and more about erasure, less about making me smaller and smaller and more about making me disappear entirely so in the end, with passport in hand, I was repeatedly raped of all my identities by a language that one year prior, I would’ve sworn liberated me by recreating my world. Passport in hand literally meant upholding an official, legal, global document recognized everywhere around the world because it brutally erased absolutely everything about me that I had created to fully exist as queer so the world was a lot safer for someone like me; so the world was a little less senseless to someone like me; so the world was a lot more mine. BUT my passport erased my trans names; my passport erased my pronouns; my passport made my sexualities shameful to the point of unspeakable; my passport aborted my queer trans legacy; my passport denied the glory of my complex layered messiness; my passport mocked the power of my queer expansion; my passport flattened my many selves into one singular, predictable, stale, dimension obliterated by blinding white space; my passport reduced queer-Time into straight and linear (=history), a realm that has zero room and no spatial imaginary for Black people leave alone queer Black people; my passport screamed that my existence and life were all wrong and therefore had to be gone: poof! And that erasure was my “freedom” path through a paper and email trail plus a visa to meet the genius and magic of writers who a year earlier promised me English would wash away my pain; English could save my lost life by gifting me, a once homeless queer youth, with a linguistic home embracing me tightly inside a safer future. But the sickest, most twisted, most toxic and effective part of this charade-slash-perverted-fantasy is that I am perpetuating my own erasure; I-I-I hold up my passport at airports, at government agencies, in offices across multiple desks to tell many people and the world that official proof of my real, legal existence as a human being is that I am a non-person who is non-human. Because, when I hold my passport, it never looks like there’s a flaming world on fire screaming, “You should not exist!”; it always looks like I-I-I am that flaming world on fire screaming, “I should not exist!” once I hand over my passport at the airport, or pull out my state-issued identification when carded at a bar, or sign a lease to rent a storage unit, or fill out my paystub, or file for taxes every year, or hand a cop my driver’s license because he stopped me for driving while beautifully Black and unapologetically queer so I have to pray for mercy or that he’s in a great mood so he won’t pop me clean dead since he knows what I know, that there is no corner of this world untouched by transphobia and his hatred of me as Reality and my passport is the purest proof of that.
I am not alone. Millions and billions of people with names worldwide submit to the impossible English forces them to endure. Some are queers-of-color; most are not. Currently, I stand on stolen indigenous land whose legacy is erased then renamed in English. Most of the English names given to this stolen land celebrate cis white men who committed then endorsed extreme acts of genocide against people-of-color. Conversely, perversely, stolen land named after people-of-color honor people-of-color after they’re dead, often because they’ve been brutally assassinated by cis white men (=George Floyd Square, Patrice Lumumba Square, James Byrd Jr. Memorial Park, Martin Luther King Blvd., etc.) How do Mexicans, I’ve wondered, living in places named El Paso, San Jose, Santa Clara, Colorado feel about being labeled “aliens”? Many times during his presidential campaign Obama joked, “Hahahaha, I have a funny name Hahaha.” I’ve met people from China, Vietnam, India who’ve changed their names, erasing parts of their legacy to assimilate and financially survive in English. And I’ve met people robbed of their indigenous African tribal names and tongues because English stripped them, forcing them to assimilate to preserve what remains of their legacies. On May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, when George Floyd said “I can’t breathe” more than forty times; on July 17, 2014, in Staten Island, when Eric Garner cried “I can’t breathe” multiple times, their screams went ignored too; like me and countless others, English suffocated their voice. They were never ever meant to exist, not fully, so said English. And for identity rape to be this universal, it must be effective; for it to be effective, it can’t feel like rape; it has to be so subtle, rape feels normal, see? Perhaps, at its core, the one and only thing that really makes English a universal language is the violence it targets at those who are most vulnerable to the subtle promises that mask its lethal lies.
Let’s go out on a date. Not Starbucks, let’s go all the way, let’s do queer organic. If you party with me in community, you’d witness queer limitlessness, queer fluidity, how queer freedom escapes definition because it’s impossible to conquer. Queer abundance is not a performance art; it’s not what we’re forced to do to survive in response to the world’s hatred of us. We are queer abundant because Creative is who we are; it’s the core identity that affirms our existence is expansive. As the evening progresses, I hope your gaze will be gayzed; if so, you’ll observe a very real shift in what power should be and what being human looks like. Who are we? you ask. You are looking at a community that gave birth to its own pronouns so when we face the mirror we finally see a reflection. You are looking at a community who reinvented everything in its own likeness: from fashion to queer cuisine. The streets are our universities for protest and catwalks for ballroom fabulous. We are a tribe who push beyond the limits and past edges within the margins to create a culture that loves us back. From bathrooms to sports, we are abused by every institution imaginable so we center desire, laughter, celebration, rest, joy, freedom, fluidity and range to be expansive, complex, messy. Our humanity comes from past pain; our future is forged by a world constantly screaming at us “NOPE! NEVER EVER!” as we scream back “FUCK YOU WORLD! WE REFUSE TO CONFORM! WE WANT TO, HAVE TO, MUST LIVE!” What we give ourselves and each other is magic, queer transformational, which must shock you because you never believed in the power of our love, that it has ministry and medicine to cure this sick, fucked up world forever but we believe. Because of HIV-AIDS, because of Stonewall, because you called us crazy for centuries, because our revolution began with a touch, we have no choice but to love ourselves and each other even harder. Suddenly, an epiphany arrives; you suddenly realize you don’t despise us because of who we are; the real reason you wish us death is because without queers you have no God; and without God, you have no face, only a mask. I believe all these observations will liberate your own identity, freeing you to reimagine yourself. How so? When you get back home, face the mirror. Take off your dainty gloves, then ask yourself, If I am universal, why don’t I know this community? How are they so invisible and yet so present and alive? I witnessed so much life in them, from them, with them? As your personal narrative unfolds a history of hysteria through violence and human cruelty will become your reflection on the other side of the mirror, keep looking, go beyond your own guilt, beyond the uncomfortable hurt that comes when breathing life into numbness. Ask, How have I participated in erasing queers from the world and what can I do to put an end to my destructive tendencies to police everyone and everything? What gives me the authority to abort so much human life? To heal fully from your narcissism and the unchecked entitlement that fueled it, be completely and I mean fully accountable: confess your sins to yourself to a point where shame, yours, boils over; head bowed in humility, quickly go to the people you’ve decimated like to an altar weeping for their forgiveness, and if they grant it to you, should they decide to forgive you and grant you mercy, know this; they have gifted you a miracle among miracles; yes, it is queer people who have saved your soul. Then, publicly pledge to the world out loud in your own voice that from here on you will make restitution through healing, beginning with reparations for those you have brutalized most. Publicly admit that we were never a threat to humanity; the truth is you were too afraid to be exposed and that’s why you refused us because if stripped completely naked like you are right now you’d be forced to acknowledge that we, queer people, are the miracle the English language starves for. Our light, our undeniable strength is the result of standing in the world’s wilderness and how beautiful we are for enduring all that came with the decision to move forward when we were too terrified to take the next step. So openly celebrate and consistently commemorate our ability to affirm life and the courage we’ve shown throughout the centuries for reclaiming a language that has never really claimed us; never really wanted us; never ever loved us back. In truth, only you can do the hard work of earning our trust again. No one but you can exorcise your own demons; I can’t do that for you but should you commit fully to the process of saving your soul, I promise you three things: an identity, your freedom, and a better world. For those reasons and those reasons alone, I hope you’ll accept my invitation to go out on a date and party queer . . .
A Queer African In Search of a Universal Language
By now my search should be obvious. I want a truly universal language where I not only exist but am reimagined as central. A language that directs me towards the parts of myself it makes bleed. A visibility-language that looks at the messiness, the complexity, the pain it causes me for being me, and intentionally addresses my suffering with accountability, empathy, compassion. A language that builds its richest vocabularies from my queerest shame, not where I’m celebrated one month in the year on Trans Day of Remembrance but for all Time and beyond straight people’s linear narrative or histories where queerness has no room to fully reside. A language that governs and legislates from my most damaged, smallest places to uncover God resurrected, transformed. A language where I am not central to its void, or shape the syntax, content, meaning for its deepest, darkest vacuous wants or thirsts. A language that recognizes my existence and identities are socially expansive, nourishing, are primary and a subset or pathway leading to other silenced, erased, abandoned, unwanted people and forms of existence to build community together. A language that celebrates queerness, Blackness, queer Blackness that is simultaneously highly race-specific and totally race-free/ing, meaning not erasing or silencing or, worse still, mythologizing whatever is essential to the humanness language was initially, essentially and is always intended to reflect. Sounds where “me” is “us” poetry. Symbols that invite rather than reduce queer-Black-me into boxes, stereotypes, categories; labels made for queer white bodies that carry cis energies so they don’t serve, can’t apply, and never stick or are toxic for my queer Black body to hold; deadnames, misgenderings, racist slurs, fake power pronouns, one dimensional humanity, hyper-visibility while invisible at the margins because the language sidelines me. I want you to deeply understand how huge we are, even bigger and more expansive than the entire cosmos, so stop enslaving us to your punishing, tiny, boxed reality. In short, I am sick and tired of fluently speaking a quote “universal” language where I am subject and object of everything it despises while refusing to acknowledge queer-Black-me is divine.
Can’t you see? Don’t you realize? The Resurrection has arrived, Jesus is returning post-apocalypse when the angelic trumpets sound off, Jesus will be back. Not as a bearded white man with long flowing blond hair and soft baby-blue eyes but Jesus transformed into a dark-skinned Black preoperative trans femme carrying your gender binary plus pronouns on a bloody cross pressed against hir tired, weary spine. Hardcore religious zealots will look away in disgust; finger-pointing scribes will accuse hir of being an imposter, ask, Why would our Lord, the Almighty God of infinite wisdom, choose a woman, a Black trans femme as our savior? There’s no way . . . And God will answer them, saying, S/he was born before Time but rejected by history. More ancient than Music, hir voice is suffocated. Since the history of the world, s/he has faced more violence but chooses to transform hir pained, personal injustices into eternal love. How is s/he not divine, a reflection of my soul, closest to creation? You of little faith . . . Despite the loneliness that is hir life, despite rejection from feminist bullies and head scratching cis, Black women assuming s/he’s a deeply troubled Black man dressed in drag, s/he will not be denied nor deterred from fulfilling hir spiritual mission; s/he will collect the last first, the least will become most, lifting them up to a spatial reality that has no lies, where queerness is the purest Truth and therefore the only universal language worthy of humankind. Who will rise with hir? Beyond the smoldering ash heaps stuffed with human waste, who will come face-to-face with God? Who is worthy? Are you, English?
The sound is the one launched at birth—the scream. It contains absolutely everything the artist should write about. The conflict within the human heart expressed, shareable. That scream from birth announces something new—and vital: life. Resilience, vulnerability, mystery belong to new life. Connect new life to art. It, new life/art, comes with zero labels, no specifications. It is born free but suddenly and very quickly, it is burdened by all the trivial and artificial concerns we’ve assigned and constructed to humans that mask life. (Life is so small and vulnerable and delicate and ultimately meaningless without love but we make life, especially new life/(art) about gender, sexuality, normalcy, stereotype, genre, tribalism, social order, race, possession, class, superiority, inferiority, stamping and boxing us in. We make life un-affirming—to mute out the scream from birth onwards. But the scream is life. It is too chaotic to be trapped. It says, I come messy but I am here. It says, I have arrived. It says—and this is key for those forced to live in oblivion by the language—it says, I am enough. There is complex life in me and I wouldn’t want to be anything or anyone else. I am the meeting ground between the unknown and the imagination. It is most human, that scream. When I write from the scream, I am closest to what I believe my practice is meant to be, very much terrified because right there is sound. Is fury. Is rage. Is love.
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