on the diversity of black women

On Tuesday morning, I saw a striking image of Janelle Monáe (wiki) on For Harriet‘s Facebook page, promoting a new song of hers called ‘Yoga’. I wasn’t a huge fan of the song, but I found that image of her invaded my thoughts for a good chunk of the day.

In this image, Janelle stood against a kumquat-coloured wall, with her hair tied up, and her legs crossed. She wore a short black sport top with TOMBOY against it in bold, white lettering. She had hoop earrings on as well as a look that seemed to dare anyone to challenge her and be foolhardy enough to think they could win.

Tomboy. That word to me feels as though it gets most of its traction in whispers and private messages among trusted friends, and yet it was arguably the loudest element of the image. It took the breath out of me.

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It should perhaps come as no surprise that I find Black women incredibly powerful, intelligent, creative and autonomous. There are some out there in the world that I will carry love for my entire life. These are a few observations that I have made throughout my time on this planet. Even in times where I may not be able to see someone who resembles my colour out on the street, I can turn to the internet to see what’s on their minds.

It is difficult for me to recall a time when the internet wasn’t full of ire. There is much I pay attention to, especially when it comes to Black women, what their endeavours are, and how they are perceived by others.

It doesn’t look good: there is little to no wiggle room outside of expectations (sometimes developed by stereotypes), and commonly I see many transphobic, racist comments made about them should they strive to do a little living for themselves. They’re not allowed space for anger, anguish or much in the way of assembly without being considered suspicious. The assumption I see a great deal of is that women in general are supposed to be meek, feminine, and appealing to men — even via online comments in allegedly progressive communities!

Salt-N-Pepa.

I enjoyed growing up in the 90s, for the most part. I was exposed to a fair deal of music with Black women at the front, addressing issues of responsibility, sexual independence, and a general sense of women going out and doing their own thing. The songs were catchy, and carried important messages for me as a young lady. I was expressing myself very freely then as a tomboy, which I did not realise until later was rather a lucky thing.

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Missy Elliott by far was the most influential rapper of my teens. A talented writer and producer of many popular hip-hop / R&B tracks, Missy always appeared to have a heart of gold, and so much love for her fans, and artists that she was working with. Her videos have been amusing, bright and colourful, and quite often memorable.

Girls, girls / get that cash / if it’s 9 to 5 / or shakin’ your ass / ain’t no shame, ladies / do your thang / just make sure / you’re ahead of the game would often be sung with gusto whenever ‘Work It’ entered the song rotation in my library. Again, messages of women doing for themselves — at least, that’s how I saw it, in any case.

However, the late 90s is when it started: I began to notice the buzzing of judgments. Wouldn’t Missy be nice if she lost some weight? Wore a little something girly? I wondered why these images mattered more to the people talking about them than how incredible it was to observe a lady making it to the top and controlling her image.

Skin of Skunk Anansie (wiki). Not an R&B artist, but a remarkable musician nonetheless.

Don’t believe the judgments stop at music. This form of behaviour permeates virtually every form of media there is, as well as other fields. Serena Williams, a professional tennis player with several notable victories under her belt, is an example of a Black woman exceeding unexpectedly, and a receiver of various crap comments because her figure isn’t appealing to some straight men looking for eye candy in the tennis world. World class athletes are not exempt from this sort of harm, nor are those of different professions who brave the world as their authentic selves.

In adulthood, I have noticed that there’s loads of work to be done in checking one’s assumptions about what kind of person a Black woman might be, just based on her appearance. These are things battled with on a regular basis. This is absolutely a problem for feminine Black men as well as those who are of colour and fall outside of the binary; it’s almost as though the shaming is intended to magically change a person to suit another’s preferences somehow.

That is not how it works. Some harder conversations need to be taking place about the beauty in diversity among Black people (especially women), which should extend to remembering that each person has autonomy and is deserving of expressing it as they wish without the peanut gallery passing judgment without invitation, or inciting violence.

Respecting people who may differ from you is not a plea, and should not be treated as such. It is a demand.

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oh snap! a thank-you to photographers who provide safe spaces

I recently finished a shoot with the vivacious and fantastic Isabel. I’m glad that I went through with it, as she was very patient with me while I sorted out some stuff internally.

Being my first shoot in well over a year, this was a special yet nerve-wracking event for me. I was being shown the city, getting to know a new friend as well as having photos taken of me in what I would not consider my most natural or even comfortable state.

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10 July, San Francisco

Maybe you would not know it to look at the photos, but I struggled more with being presented in these ways than having my picture taken (having my photo taken is one fear down after several years of practice)! Isabel provided most of the wardrobe and I approved it before putting it on. The point was to further challenge myself to take up space in something other than my usual t-shirt and jeans, to tap into my femme side.

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No matter what your goals are while photographing or being photographed, flexibility and being in a somewhat relaxed state is essential. I wanted to thank Isabel for making sure that no matter my endeavours, I always felt safe and in relatively good spirits.

time & distance

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted my birthdays to be less about me and more about putting effort into other people and causes that I believed fiercely in. At the time of making this decision, I hadn’t been living in the Northwest for a year yet, and wasn’t connected to folks or organizations.

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May ’10, Bellevue, Washington

These days, that excuse can’t really be used anymore. If the recent shockingly sunny weather has been any indication, summer is fast approaching and the season’s all but booked with events I plan on engaging in one way or another. Here are just a few I’m planning on volunteering a bit for:

    • Trans* Pride Seattle. A few local organisations (Seattle Out & Proud, Gender Justice League & the Gay City Health Project) have rallied together to make this happen on June 28. Here’s hoping that a good deal of dialogue and community gathering will take place between trans* and gender non-conforming folk in the Northwest.
    • Genderfest. Entering its second year, Genderfest is a queer all genders celebration going on July 25 – August 4 in East Vancouver on Coast Salish Nations territory.
    • GaymerX. This convention proudly boasts being the first of its kind to have a focus on LGBT geek culture. It’s all set to take place August 2-4 in vibrant San Francisco.
    • Vancouver Queer Film FestivalAugust 15-25 ushers in this festival’s 25th year, offering a beautifully diverse array of queer cinema, dedicated artists, panels and performances.

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May ’10, Seattle, Washington (Interstate 5 southbound)

This is a fairly tall order of activity, but it should provide valuable opportunities to learn skills, meet people and contribute energy to stuff bigger than myself. Good things to absorb right around the time I get a year older. Factoring in the few days I’m spending in LA in just a few weeks as well, I expect to have great fun travelling the west coast this summer. I am looking forward to the days ahead.

what it is to be bran

I had a different name at birth that only a few people know. Sometimes I forget it, and I have them remind me.

 

I’ve been told I was given the name Brandy later on due to the colour of my skin. I carried it for a decade plus, though I never felt it fit my persona. It seemed to fall off my tongue wrong every time when introducing myself, and I was already packing the awkward sheltered kid bit.

While developing said awkward sheltered kid bit, my mother would occasionally call me Bran. This was found to be most convenient when shouting for me to come home from playing outside with other children from my block, as I was much more likely to hear a heavily stressed one-syllable name than anything else, with all the adrenaline swarming about.

It stuck.

 

 

Bran started out as a thing between my mum and I, for aforementioned daughter retrieval purposes. For reasons I’ve yet to fully identify or explore, I decided to take it back in my late teens. That was a period of great personal change, sparked by family tragedies. I reckon a small part of it was due to being tired of having my name misspelled any number of ways — my given surname and first name both have lots of alternatives. (One problem abolished, another arrives; I’m sometimes called Bren or Brian.)

My first love knew me as Bran. It turned into a thing between myself, my mum, and those close to me, an upgrade to provisional nickname status. I didn’t make a big fuss about it if folks weren’t aware or simply forgot, because it felt private, and special.

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Bran in secret, sometime 2004

The name resurfaced with some urgency in my late twenties somehow. I entered a work environment where I felt okay enough to go by the nickname, not fearing being questioned too much about a name most in my experience assume belongs to a male-bodied person. I started introducing myself as Bran, although I knew with it came questions and a need to repeat the name occasionally. “Like the muffin,” I add from time to time, as I find it’s a good way to dial up the name and spelling to newcomers.

Moving to a new state sort of meant I could reinvent myself as I pleased. I’d long abandoned the idea of moving to Philadelphia and took on my first choice of Seattle. It is here that I have attached a somewhat political undertone to the Bran name, with a slight nod to my mum due to its origins. Instead of hiding away my boyish mannerisms, I’ve chosen to embrace them in addition to the occasional streaks of femme I yearn for.

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Bran out loud, sometime 2010

I wouldn’t say that I’m angry at all when people choose to call me by my full name, especially if they aren’t aware that there is a name that I feel suits me better.

There are occasions where it’s just easier to go by a more common name, places where I don’t want to open myself up to the scrutiny of strangers, and a myriad of other possibilities that I cannot predict. We’re human, we falter. I am certainly guilty of that.

I feel it’s a matter of trust. When I refer to myself as Bran in front of you, I am placing a key part of my identity that has evolved over the years into your hands. I don’t have to get into the whole story, but I’ll tell you in person if you so desire. I am far from famous but if I have made an impact in your life in any way, I hope you’ll remember my name.

bending in the wind

I’ve mostly felt celebrated because of my physical features.


Perhaps that assertion isn’t entirely fair; some have praised me for the role I play or once played in their lives. Daughter. Sister-of-sorts. Girlfriend. Confidant.


While it’s wonderful to have the attention of others, it’s frustrating having it if you’re going to be put in some sort of categorial corner incessantly. It seems silly to lament the whole thing, doesn’t it? We all do it to some degree.


I have come to recognize when certain people do it, whether consciously or not. Most of all, I am able to point out when I do it. It does make communication easier if you crave brevity, but it leaves lots of gaps as a result. The more gaps you leave, the harder it gets to fill them.


For the most part, I don’t want to be a bother, so I don’t mention that I’d prefer not to be called some things by just anyone. I shrug it off, and continue about my day.


This acquiescence may be seen as submitting, or even closeted behaviour. Be that as it may, I haven’t got the time/patience to take issue with everyone that associates words or phrases with me out of their convenience.






I am alluding to gender.


I believe I have a mid-gender crisis, and I don’t know how to convey this to people in a way that each of them (or even a good number) will understand. I’m still working it out myself.


Mind you, I said ‘mid-gender’.


Genderqueer, or even genderblind, as I told a friend tonight. Neither male nor female. Don’t want bottom surgery, but wouldn’t mind top surgery if binding gets too tedious and if I can afford it.


That’s right, surgery. I’ve thought it through that far.


Summer 2007, Los Angeles (Koreatown)



But there we are with the labels again. It all sounds so stereotypical to say ‘I don’t follow the norm’, which is why I don’t tend to say it. Saying such a thing would beg the question, ‘what is normal?’ and would you believe it, there are loads of ways one can answer. Fancy that!


All I know is that I wish to be appreciated for my non-physical traits first, and possibly forever. I also know the aforementioned is a lofty goal. It can’t hurt to attempt to communicate that, and to tell those around me that femme is an act for me, a dramatic role. Femininity is a rare dish.

Summer 2007, Los Angeles (Downtown)

I’m working hard to find a balance while staying true to my core, as it evolves and takes shape — that often starts simply keeping content with wearing the stuff I feel most comfortable in. I welcome opening up a dialogue with anyone who wishes to know more, and I feel as though I still have so much more to learn about this journey I’m currently on.

I won’t cram my non-gender down your throat if you won’t cram yours down mine. Deal?