what are your pronouns?
June 28, 2019
“Language is a place of struggle.” — bell hooks
There’s no other way for me as a writer to enter the conversation about gender and pronouns as it concerns Black folks without returning to language.
My fixation on language is not coincidental, it’s consequential. It’s a direct result of having a keen understanding that Black people’s relationship with language has always been a challenge. And to me, it’s probably the challenge. Language — how we first translate our emotions and ideas from the abstract into something legible — is where change begins. Language is where revolutions and utopias alike are negotiated and created. It’s the spirit of the idea that, if we can write something down — and truly believe it — we can have it. That goes for both utopias and revolutions.
It’s easy to forget that literacy is revolutionary. Our ability to wield language was not free, but paid for by risk and blood. To honor this reminder, I purchased vintage alphabet cards from the 1970s that represented each letter of the alphabet with a different Afrocentric image and theme: A is for Afro, J is for Jazz, and so on.
The photographs are nostalgic to me, even as a 28-year old who didn’t actually live through the era. These alphabet cards serve as a reminder that anything is possible; a people whose literacy was outlawed have advanced into a space where we are creating our own devices to promote reading with images and words that resonate with us. That, too, is Black power.
In 2019, language remains a place of struggle. Black people are still experiencing illiteracy due to lack of education opportunities, and are born into environments that don’t facilitate or prioritize intellectual expansion or mission. Which begins with reading. Growing up poor, Black, and queer, I am acutely aware that my life was saved by literacy. And in the same breath, I know lives are ruined when not in possession of that power.
Social illiteracy around the many different languages of Black life is the conversation of my generation. The discussion often returns to pronouns: she, her, he, him, they, and them. It’s here that many people become preoccupied with the transgression against gender binaries — and specifically the binary inherent to the English language — as opposed to engaging the Black queer thing on offer: freedom.
Throughout my life, I’ve connected with people who made me literate in my gender expression, outside of the binary. Yes, my gender and my gender expression are my own, but they are also the composite of people I’ve met and admired. I’m a collage of all the Black folks I’ve ever known, from all different gender expressions and journeys. These are my friends, but they are also amazing artists and activists, and in their own way, they all taught me about my identity, a thing that is constantly evolving and transforming — and, thanks to them, it is also always elevating.
In an effort to encourage more literacy about Black modes of gender expression and identity I made devotions for them — based off of those Black alphabet cards from the 1970s — and tried, with their permission, to explain the different ways they have taught me to be even more of myself. The most important lesson is probably one told to me by one of my best friends, the artist Ashleigh Shackelford: “There are as many genders as there are Black people.”
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