Photos by Dawn Jefferson (Dawnie Marie)
Bunny Bread Factory, New Orleans East: So I’m from the East. Yes, New Orleans East. Literally born & raised in the East. So I’m a legit East Beast. I know its strange, but I am proud of that. I mean I can’t lie and say I’m from Uptown, I’d be found out so quick. I call the East many things: “the land that care forgot” “hood suburbia” “the city’s step child” “the after thought”. Because to me that’s what it is. Let’s back track. When I was younger I felt ashamed to be from the East, because people think it’s lame. It’s not as hard as uptown or as fancy as the garden district. It’s just there. So I would say it and cringe with anticipation.All that changed when I was in college. I started to notice more and more that the New Orleans I love was rapidly changing. So of course the pride I had in my city transferred to where I am from in the city. I see it like this: the place i live in is uncared for. So who else can better care for it than me? Why do I not have pride in it? Maybe if I do, maybe others will begin to care. I’m from here. I can’t change it. I should care about it, especially if other people see it as a wasteland. So now I go hard for the East, like I go hard for the city.Maybe I shouldn’t care what other people think. Especially the new people coming in, who don’t appreciate all parts of New Orleans. You know that no matter what map I see of the city, the East is NEVER on it? Gentilly barely makes it. I even confronted someone about it. She was an artist, who made New Orleans themed goods. She gave me some weak excuse about using some other map as a reference. I wanted to yell I didn’t care, she clearly had space to add the rest of the ninth ward. I digress. I shouldn’t care, but I refuse to be erased.This kind of relates to how I live as a black woman. I have pride in my black womanness I have to love my black womanness. I have to refuse to be erased as hard as they try. I also have to work over time to be sure I am heard and seen. Which is what I need to start doing for the East and the city in general. The black community is fighting to be heard and seen. We need to have pride in the places where we are from, because if we don’t who else will.
Mwende: At the end of 2016, one of my friends asked to profile me as a creative for one of their projects. Towards the end, after realizing I had taken almost all the photos with my jacket on (obscuring the words on my shirt), I asked them to take a few more to capture the shirt. When my coat came off and my high waisted, fitted jeans and crop top were revealed, my friend whooped and made a comment about my hips/waist area, but then almost immediately apologized for it, partially I think because of my response. Even though I knew they didn’t mean their comment in any harmful way, I had an almost automatic reaction to shrink and cover myself in some way. As we continued the shoot, we spoke about how I often don’t wear clothes that fit my body in certain ways because I don’t like dealing with most of the comments I get from people. And it’s not so much because I think there’s anything inherently wrong with commenting on a woman’s appearance (hey now, I like a well meaning compliment as much as the next person), but because in my experience, especially when dressed in a more feminine way, the comments that I receive are actually less rooted in appreciation, and more rooted in expectation (of willingness to engage, of accepting the unwanted sexualization and objectification that almost always follows what could have been an appreciation). As if someone noticing and liking a woman’s body somehow means the person, usually in my experience, someone masculine, should have access to it and to say whatever they want about it, despite how it makes the woman feel.
As I was talking, almost as if on cue from patriarchy, two men walk out of one of the stores we’re shooting in front of on Bayou Road, and, after briefly hearing me speak about my experiences, proceed to reword my statements about feeling like I can’t wear what I want without unwanted and uncomfortable attention in a way that truly made me want to put not just one, but both of my jackets back on. I stopped posing and even the photographer lowered their camera and we watched them walk away, still loudly speaking about my body.
We finished off the shoot, but I wasn’t as relaxed as when we’d begun. I put back on my jacket and noticed a knot sitting in my stomach that hadn’t been there that morning, but was all too familiar to this body.
When I was younger (up until about age 12), I was an proud tomboy. My small boyish frame and the masculine way I carried myself aided in my tomboy camouflage, but right before I became a teenager, I was struck by puberty. Suddenly, I noticed that not only did my body change, but the way people perceived it, looked at it and spoke about it, especially older boys and men, changed as well. And it made me feel uncomfortable. Like I had to not just exist in my body, but now start actively protecting it.
Growing up distanced from femininity and conventional standards of beauty gave me a very limited (and misguided) understanding of what femininity was and what it actually meant to walk around presenting in such a way. From the outside looking in, femininity to me was about being pretty and having other people recognize it in a positive way. Femininity and conventional beauty were a benefit, something to be coveted. It was good attention, and it was always wanted and deserved. For all people knew of my tomboy self I didn’t care about such things, but deep down, I began to tie so much of my negative personal esteem as a girl to my masculinity.
I thought femininity would be a saving grace, but I didn’t have the courage to abandon the safety of non-recognition I had found in masculinity.
As I got older, I didn’t have a choice. No amount of tomboying could hide me from being read as ‘(young) woman’, and I was secretly glad I had finally been inducted into the ownership of my girl/young woman body and the beauty it possessed through puberty. I thought this meant I would have more control in how I moved around the world. This transition that I thought would give me more autonomy over my body actually made me a target in ways I had never perceived and often times don’t think can be perceived or understood in the same way by people who are not women, femme or feminine presenting.
I remember the first time I learned that sometimes, the only person who thinks a girl’s/woman’s body is her own, is that girl/woman.
I was in middle school. In the hallway. Talking to a brown boy who was a friend of mine. I was wearing a white spaghetti strap tank top, and tight flare jeans. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but I remember at some point he reached out, squeezed my breast and started laughing.
Though he was thought what he did was a joke, the way my body reacted told me there was nothing funny about someone touching your body when you did not want them to. Up until this point, I was very unfamiliar with male attention in any way. I had seen girls grabbed at the waist, and sometimes, their breasts in these same hallways before, and by the shrieks of the girls and the way they still maintained friendships with the guys who did such things, I’d assumed it was somehow a good or pleasurable experience. I had seen so many of my girlfriends experience some sort of instance like that I thought it was at the very least, normal.
When he touched my body, I felt it go rigid. My hands reflexively snapped up to hide my chest, and my stomach begun to form a small, tight ball. I was unable to really speak. I just sort of started at him, mouth slightly agape, trying to sort through my feelings of horrified shock, the disgusting way my body felt, and the overwhelming feeling that I wasn’t going to be able to react in the same, dismissive way that I had seen my friends do. All of this happened in the span of mere seconds, but I was so lost in my own body and that experience that I was glad when I looked up and saw one of the hall monitors, an older Black man who had (what I assumed) a similar look of horror on his face. He was already on his way over to us, and I felt the knot in my stomach slowly start to unwind with each step he took. He briefly said something to the boy about keeping his hands to himself but then, much to my surprise, when the boy walked away, he took me off to the side to have a conversation with me about how I should not be wearing spaghetti strap tank tops because it was against the dress code, but also because of what it told other people about me.
I knew about body language, but up until then, I did not realize that body language was more about other people’s perception, than the actual translation of what your body was trying to say. I did not realize how easily lost in translation women’s and feminized bodies were. That day, my body was saying was that I was getting comfortable stepping into the body I was not giving a choice in having. What that boy and the hall monitor heard, was that this body didn’t want a choice in what happened to it depending on what it was wearing.
That day, my 12 year old body learned to fear itself and what is said to others when I wasn’t policing it, especially around those who don’t speak the language of consent. It didn’t stop me from dressing feminine, but it was a lesson I would relearn at various times in my life, from strangers and acquaintances alike, generally from those who are men, and later on when I found myself in LGBTQ spaces, those who were masculine presenting. What the hall monitor told me also stuck with me because it was the first time that I clearly realized I wasn’t just growing into a woman’s body, but specifically a Black woman’s body. This was the second time I had been talked to for a dress code violation, but each time, other girls, specifically white girls, had worn damn near, if not exactly what I was wearing, but because their bodies looked different (either had not hit puberty, or had, but were generally less sexualized), they were not spoken to or reprimanded.
In the summer of 2015, one of the first posts on this blog was a piece titled “It’s A Man’s World” talking about masculinity and our history with it. I wrote:
I made a conscious decision to stop being afraid of expressing myself in feminine ways. I would be lying if I said I felt physically more comfortable in a dress than a button down shirt and slacks, but I would also be lying if I said I didn’t feel good in ‘women’s clothes’ and makeup … I’m definitely not done exploring my masculinity/femininity and how they intersect, overlap and complicate my gender expression, my love life and my personal identity, but at this point in my life, I’m not afraid of finding the answer.
I want to live in and fight to create a world where a woman or femme presenting person can wear (or not wear) whatever they want and be free to be. But I know all too well that is not the world we live in. And honestly, as much as I want to be my unapologetically femme woman self, I know there is a difference between being unapologetic and unafraid, and I am both.
The world we live in is one where women are assaulted, and even before being asked if they are OK, they are asked what they were wearing or what they did to invite harm on themselves. As if assault isn’t inherently opposed to invitation and consent.
In the past year or so, in committing to expressing myself freely through feminine clothing, I’ve honestly been constantly harassed in ways that have made me feel as helpless as I did in that middle school hallway.
I remember one instance in particular that still sits heavily with and within me. I was at the after school program that I used to run and had spent the day as I usually do, helping the young people I work with on creative writing. At some point, one of the older youth asked me if she could talk to me about something. She began to tell me about a school dance she had attended and how a boy had asked her to dance. She didn’t want to, so she politely told him ‘no’. Instead of moving on, the boy had gone to tell the adults chaperoning the dance that his feelings were hurt by her ‘no’, and she ended up being spoken to and pretty much forced to dance with the boy because, according to them, she didn’t really have a good reason not to. The way she explained, she “eventually agreed”, but I was stuck on the fact that she had said no, and the adults there had shamed her into saying yes for the sake of the boy. So I explained this to her. Explained to her that ’no’ is and should have been a complete sentence. That she didn’t need to explain. That if she had already decided she didn’t want to dance with him, the adults should have respected her decision and come to her aid when he complained instead of what happened. She went quiet for a few moments, then smiled, thanked me and went back to her writing. I didn’t realize it until she turned away satisfied that she wasn’t actually looking to tell me the story, she was looking for adult validation that her body was, in fact hers, and she had the right to resist the expectations put on it by others, including other adults.
Minutes later, her father, a man who I had always respected because of his clear and intentional involvement in the lives of his girl children, entered the room to pick her up. He pulled me over to the side and I was worried that something else was going on with the girl that he wanted to inform me of. Instead, looked at me in a consuming manner, and whispered in a low tone “Damn Ms. Mwende…you in them jeans…mmmmmmmmm”.
I froze. Froze like I was back in the halls of middle school in a body I was learning to navigate even though everyone else seemed to have the roadmap on how to treat it.
And the worst part about it honestly was that I had just had that talk with his daughter about body autonomy and consent and here he was, making me feel just as vulnerable as she had been made to feel. I felt the knot that by this point had over the years grown to rival the size of my large intestine, grow tighter.
I never told this story to anyone at that workplace, but that moment has sat very heavily with me over the past year. Of how I could tell a young girl that her body is her own, but so quickly through that experience know that I am partially lying to her.
As a survivor of rape and an advocate for women, I think a lot about Black women’s bodies and autonomy, especially with the young women that I work with and with myself. But this year, I was forced to think about it in the context of the communities I have found myself in over the years and currently. Communities that have preached love and “the Black woman is God” but then covered up or not believed Black women’s lived experiences of violence and assault, especially when Black men are the ones at fault. Everyone keeps talking about how terrible 2016 was, but for me, it was more of a series of highs and lows. At least 3 of these lows was learning about / being told about assaults of various kinds that Black men who I either admire, have shared platonic intimacy with, have supported and befriended (and who have supported and befriended me) have committed, as well as the community response or more often then not, the lack of response once they were made aware.
In 2016 I thought a lot about the policing done to Black girl & women bodies by others, but also the policing that we as Black women do to ourselves and our sisters in order to keep them safe in a world that does not allow for the full expression of Black girl & womanhood. A world that simultaneously depicts our strength in art in nude, sexualized manners, then shames our bodies in real life as if they themselves are not works of art and more importantly, ours to do with what we want.
I think about how Black women I know police themselves not out of trying to achieve some fucked up depiction of ‘Queenhood’, but out of general concerns for their safety and the stories they fear their bodies tell other simply by virtue of existence. Sometimes, when I hear Black women talking about how other Black women dress and generally hoe shaming other Black women, I hear a sense of fear and desperation. Of clinging to a particular notion of patriarchal safety that tells them if they are woman in a particular way, they will not be punished (through violence, shit talking etc) for being women. But the reality is, choosing a certain kind of womanhood doesn’t make you any safer, it just gives you an illusion of safety. While some may make you more of a target based on what you wear, the reality is that all women’s bodies are susceptible to violence in this society we’ve created whether you’re wearing a nun’s outfit or walking around butt naked (just ask the man today in Nairobi who grabbed my arm , then my breast as I was walking by wearing jeans and my cousins jean’s button up that was 2 sizes too big and didn’t show any part of my body). But women are, as we have always been, resisting to the narratives put on our bodies unless we scribe them for ourselves (I’m encouraged by moments such as Kenya’s My Skirt My Choice/Miniskirts Protests.)
During this particular shoot with Noirlinians, I wanted the back of my shirt captured because it had a cool design (thanks to Designing Polished Brand) so I turned around and asked for a photo to be taken. I didn’t bother posing, but I noticed some hesitation by Dawn, and when I turned back, Denisio, out of pure concern because she knows how tender I am about these things, said that I may not want to take the photo to be taken in that way.
I asked Dawn to take it anyway and she took two shots, one full body and another from the waist up. When she sent us the proofs to select, I immediately saw what they meant and could imagine, based on past photos of myself and the comments that I received, that I wouldn’t want to deal with the attention photos of my backside tend to attract. I ended up up not choosing that full length photo to be edited and placed in the blog, but honestly, after writing this, I actually want to share it now. Just because as Black women we are often not in control of the narratives over our bodies, doesn’t mean we should stop telling them or expressing them in the ways that make us feel beautiful and great.
So, here I go.
Fuck all yall who’ve ever made me feel uncomfortable in this body. Fuck all of you who will undoubtedly do so in the future. This body is mine and I have to learn to be comfortable in it, even if the world it moves through is an uncomfortable place for any woman’s body but especially those who chose to showcase it in ways that people deem “inappropriate” or are simply born into bodies deemed as such (see Patrice Brown (#TeacherBae) and Preston Mitchum’s piece about how society finds Black women’s bodies inappropirate in general).
DENISIO: I can remember lying in bed one night, eight years old, and rolling over from my back to my tummy only to feel a sharp pain in my right chest. My hand found a small hard lump the size of a walnut just beneath the surface of my nipple. I ran downstairs to my mother who was watching tv and declared to her that I had cancer. She sighed and lifted my shirt, her cold fingers prodding at the painful bud.
“You don’t have cancer, Denisio. You’re growing breasts,” she said with exhaustion on her breath. “We’ll go to the doctor this week, go back to sleep.”
I obediently returned to bed but couldn’t fall asleep because I was so excited. In my mind, becoming a woman meant becoming something between my modelesque mother and Jessica Rabbit. It meant I wouldn’t have to wear coke bottle glasses anymore. It meant I could get my hair straightened and have long “flowy” hair like all my white classmates. It meant I would be beautiful and not cute anymore.
Shortly after my parents split up and my mother, who could no longer afford the mortgage or my private school, was forced to move to an area in Colorado called Pueblo West (basically one big trailer park). I was literally the only black kid in my new school which, I shit you not, is now a prison. To make matters worse, puberty ended up being a hateful ass dick that didn’t want me to be great. My boobs grew to proportions worrisome enough that I had several doctors visits just to make sure I really didn’t have cancer. Coarse black hair sprouted everywhere, and since I was still technically a small child, I wasn’t allowed to handle a razor. This resulted in even more teasing from my white classmates who had grown tired of the nigger jokes and needed new material. For years I was awkward in this new body, and felt ashamed by the attention it seemingly warranted. I did not at all look like the confident girls in baby doll dresses and chokers I saw in my babysitter’s Seventeen magazine. I felt like Michael J. Fox in the beginning of teen wolf, hairy and confused and out of control.
While I had no friends to speak of at my school, I did have two wonderful friends in my neighborhood. A brother and a sister. I’m changing their names for protection and because they still mean something to me.
I feel like I have to tell you that this is the point in the story where the humor dies out for a bit (if imagining me as an awkward gangly pre-teen is funny to you). There is no easy way for me to talk about sexual violence. I wish that I could ease into this part. My first impulse is to warn you that this post could be triggering but there was never any warning for me, and life for black queer women and femme identifying individuals is perpetually triggering, exhausting, and rarely consoling. There was no caution label on my life to alert me to the ways in which I would be violated time and time again. No fine print to tell me that a lifetime of womanhood comes with male identifying individuals presuming ownership over my body.
Josh was a year older than me, tall and lean with shaggy brown hair, blue eyes and freckles. Cassandra was two years younger, tiny and delicate with large brown eyes that always seemed wet with tears. We had adventures together, building forts and chasing rabbits in the prairie next to our duplex. They were kind and sweet like their mother. They went to a church where they spoke in tongues and wrestled rattlesnakes which now seems crazy but to a child of an African catholic mother was entertaining and exotic. I loved that family, except for their father. Their father, which I would later find out, was a real life Monster.
I was raped by Josh and Cassandra’s father on a deceptively sunny afternoon right before or around my 9th birthday, I’m not sure. Trauma is funny like that, there are parts of it that are sharp and completely in focus, then there are parts that feel wistful as steam. Cassandra and I were playing monopoly on the nutmeg shag carpeting of the living room with Josh when their father suddenly filled the doorframe behind us. He was a tall and painfully thin man with comically large hands, brown hair like Josh’s but with wild dilated eyes that always made me nervous. Like staring into a pitch black room and seeing the shadow of something you know is evil. His face was pitted from acne. He smelled acrid and bitter like rotting citrus left in the sun. He told me he needed to talk to me and led me to his daughters room. As he took my arm, I turned back to looked at his children, confused. They quickly looked down at the game.
He locked the door and turned on a vacuum to drown my screams. It started on my back, him crushing my tiny frame to the point where I nearly lost consciousness from the lack of air. I felt myself tear and pain rolled in like thunder down my legs. It ended on my stomach with something that wasn’t his penis being rammed in a place I didn’t yet know things could go into. When it was done, he made me get on my knees and pray for forgiveness. I remember feeling something wet between my legs, smelling something metallic like iron, and realizing it was my blood. He informed me that if I told anyone he would kill my mother. I believed him. He told me to go straight to the bathroom and clean myself up and I obeyed. My genitals were so swollen I could feel them against my inner thighs as I walked. I packed my underwear with tissue. We all had dinner after and then I limped home.
I didn’t tell my mother. Not for 23 years. There were many reasons why I stayed quiet. For one I believed the Monster’s threat. I didn’t want to lose the only two friends I had. I also knew that the divorce was taking a toll on my mother. She drank a lot more. I could hear her sobbing in her room nearly every night through the thin walls of the apartment. I was not oblivious to the fact that we were running out of money. I didn’t want to add to her problems. For the next week I hid my underwear and washed them in the sink late at night after my mom went to sleep. When I felt my body getting feverish, presumably from the infection, I snuck baby aspirin and then adult aspirin and slightly expired leftover bubble gum flavored antibiotic syrup from some long ago sickness. To this day I am amazed that I was able to hide it that well from her, and that I didn’t die from infection. As I grew older from time to time, she would ask me about the Monster and if he ever touched me. She never liked him. Decades later my mother admitted that she suspected something was wrong, but forced herself to believe me when I told her he never touched me.
The violation left me with a map of scars both physical and emotional that made sex extremely painful for a long time. As an adult I avoided seeing the same gynecologist more than once because I hated having to explain “what happened”. I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I also avoided looking at my vagina because I assumed it must have been as disfigured as it felt. When I did become more comfortable with others seeing me down there and with sex in general, I mistakenly believed my body was something for the enjoyment and validation of others. It was something that made him or her or them love me. I never thought of my vagina as something for me to enjoy. It was a thing, a broken thing that sometimes worked, sometimes didn’t. I was a broken thing.
My 30’s has been a time for me to unlearn all of the unhealthy beliefs I’ve clung to about my body and sexuality. It is an ongoing grueling process. But it is not without progress. Recently, I’ve become more aware of the other ways in which I’ve been violated by well-enough meaning folks who were never taught about body autonomy. I’m learning to become more comfortable with calling things what they are and not speaking or living in euphemisms – something one of my favorite writers, Kristina Robinson, spoke about at a panel discussion a few months back (albeit in a different context). There have been times in intimate partnerships where I would have sex with someone because I felt guilted or pressured to do so, or I would verbally say “no” but the person would keep on and I was too tired to fight it. And then there are the daily aggressions of cat-calling and street harassment. The “harmless” comments when my hourglass shape is more visible in clothes. I am becoming increasingly aware of the way my body reacts to these things, the tensing of my muscles, the quickened pace of my heart. And also how I shift my behavior and even my appearance to avoid these agressions. For instance if you look at previous blog photos of me with low cut tops, you will notice that I have little to no cleavage in them. This is because for a very long time, I used to tape my breasts away from the center to avoid having cleavage in low cut tops. In my warped mind, my cleavage was too much and looking like I had a gap in the middle of my chest was more respectable and thus would warrant less unwanted attention and comments. I actually hesitated to write about this, even more so than the rape, because it seems so vain and embarrassing. But I vowed long ago to be as transparent as possible so, there you go! My name is Denisio and I used to torture my breasts for fear of looking “too sexy” 😐 Since October I’ve started wearing more body conscious items that show a lot of cleavage. This is a deliberate decision to take ownership of and become more comfortable in my very feminine body.
One of the other ways in which I choose to heal myself is by talking about what happened to me. As often as I can. As loudly as I can. For so long I avoided the subject with close friends and family and even with myself because it felt so heavy. I feared telling someone and them looking at me as something to be pitied or avoided. Damaged goods and whatnot. And then one day in therapy I told. And it felt really good so I told other people. And they didn’t pity or avoid me. Each time I type it or speak it aloud it becomes easier to tell and the weight gets lighter. I feel more in control of my body and my story because I’m the one who is telling it. And the more I speak to other women about what happened to me the more I realize that so many people in my life have had similar experiences, which is the strangest combination of comfort that I am not alone but disgust and anger that sexual violence against girls is so commonplace, some sadistic rite ushering one into womanhood.
I don’t know how we begin to teach young folks about body autonomy and assault and at this point in my recovery I definitely don’t have the energy or headspace to teach grown men about it. But something needs to be done. So I do what I can. I share my stories to whomever is willing to listen. I power through my discomfort. I claim ownership of my body and how it is represented and used. I love on and vent to my beautiful friends like Mwenders and my incredible and patient partner who has taken time to learn my trauma and help me work through it. I am getting there slowly. I am surviving.
Noirlinians is a love story by two wandering Daughters of the African diaspora