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the black lesbian who turned mysticism into money

August 13, 2019
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Avoidance has been a super-power of mine, especially when it comes to my mother. We’ve played the game of denial and avoidance our whole lives, and although we have a beautiful relationship, one of general honesty and compassion, that’s still my mama. And what I mean by that is, she’s still someone who can trigger me to call on the conflict tactics I haven’t used since I was a teenager just because her voice is that holy and honorable to me, that her holding disappointment about my decisions can be too heavy a burden. This is why the month after I resigned from an old job, I avoid my mother’s calls relentlessly, telling myself I’d call her back by the end of the day but knowing that I wouldn’t. Instead, in the ultimate millennial move of denial, I replaced the soothing voice of my mother with that of my crystal-carrying, tarot-card-reading friends. 

I’ve always been attracted to esoteric practices, and my mother always had an array of people with different beliefs in our home, especially those most interested in connecting to an African spiritual practice. But I never knew my mother to do anything beyond pray, and when she felt so moved, to speak in tongues. This moment of viral spirituality has insisted on me seeing the internet as a safe and familiar space; it’s filled with what has always been in my home. And when I thought about it for a bit, there was even a Black mystic presence even on my television. Once night fell, I would witness infomercial star, Miss Cleo. 

Miss Cleo was born Youree Dell Harris in Los Angeles, California. She had two children during her teenage years and one in her twenties. It was in 2006 where she came out as a lesbian and told The Advocate Magazine about a queer grandson that made her consider coming out: “He and I started talking when he was concerned about coming out. He was 16. When he made the decision I told him I’d be there to support him 100%, and he embraced [coming out] wholeheartedly,” Harris said. “It’s a different vibe than when I was his age, being raised Catholic in an all-girls boarding school. But he was afraid of nothing, and I thought, I can’t be a hypocrite. This boy is going to force me to put my money where my mouth is.”

Miss Cleo died of colon cancer in 2016. Much of the shadow of who she was in pop culture is based on the charismatic, patois-spitting, future-seeing woman of the 1990s that dominated the narrative around the commercial appeal of mysticism.

Now sage is available on Amazon, crystals and other spiritual symbols are both sold commercially and through entrepreneurship, and the language of abstract, spiritual law is part of our daily discourse. It can become easy to forget the innovators who inspired a cultural shift — especially in the case of Black queer people, who can too easily become represented by our most cartoonish moments. Miss Cleo is known for illustrating a “scam”, but she was actually attempting to navigate the monetization of an undervalued Black spiritual practice for her livelihood, while maintaining an integrity alongside that marketability. It was the internal struggle of art and commerce that all Black artists are plagued with in a white supremacist capitalist society.

I know this too well because I’m a feminine, Black gay man who too often is made into a purse, a reality television archetype, instead of being handled as a whole human being, and rarely engaged as a divine being. My viciousness towards convictions is seen as sass, my concerns as secondary. My plans — my vision for myself and others for the betterment of us all — are too often regarded as non-serious, especially if compared to someone more masculine, or who is at least willing to perform straightness. I know intimately how easily someone will make a flat, one-dimensional cartoon out of Black genius. In these moments I return to Huey P. Newton’s quote, “Quite the contrary, maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary.”

What Miss Cleo knew — as most conscious people know — is that the things one sees has as much to do with the eyes  doing the witnessing, as with the subject being witnessed. Though I challenge myself to see the revolution in all Black people — Huey P. Newton and Miss Cleo — I realize it is just as much my responsibility to gaze at her Black queer life differently, rather than being pulled to regard her as nothing more than an embodiment of a commercial rise and tabloid downfall.

My mother had my sister in her early 20s and me in her early 30s. It was in her 40s, like Miss Cleo, that she came out as a Black lesbian. Some of that had to do with my mom knowing that she had to locate a bravery in order to empower me as another Black queer person.

I eventually did call my mother, despite my nerves and I prepared for the disappointment in her voice. She answered, “Hey, baby! I know about the job.” Then she said, You won’t believe it! I’ve done 22 tarot card readings this month. I can’t believe it! I have a gift. I can see everything perfectly. It’s like a movie.” Indeed, life is just like a movie. She continued, “I just did my girlfriend’s last night and you should’ve seen her face.” I replied: “I could only imagine.”