Throughout my life various songs, books, and films have been crucial in teaching me how to name myself.
At ten years old, in the last singing competition I ever lost, Whitney’s “Greatest Love Of All” challenged me to find my voice, to cultivate range, and to love myself through the early hardships of childhood abuse and primary school bullying. Through reading Maya’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and watching the live action blockbuster adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple I was able to identify my traumas, to know that I have never been alone, and to seek out my kin who would facilitate my—and our collective—healing. Between Tracy Chapman’s rich timbre and searing vulnerability in “Be Careful Of My Heart” and the vibrant and flagrant descriptions of Jamaica in Fiona Zedde’s Bliss I learned that my experiences of black queer love were too pure and delicious to ever be prayed away. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues taught me the name of my gender and Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater has compelled me to learn what it is called in my mother tongue.
I was ten years old when I lost my first singing competition. I befriended the girl who won by singing a song I hadn’t heard until then. Because of how beautiful the song was, and because I was keen on learning how to win, I learned the song. I was both terrified and impressed by the song and the enormity of Whitney Houston’s voice. I listened to it repeatedly, overcome by the visceral shifts I experienced with each listen.
“I believe the children are our future
teach them well
and let them lead the way
show them all the beauty they possess inside.”
— Whitney Houston, “Greatest Love of All”
Whitney’s declarations about believing the children are the future made me believe there was a safer world out there for children like me. A world in which adults treated—and taught—us well and showed us all the beauty we possess inside. “Greatest Love of All” initiated the first instance in which I considered that I may be beautiful. I was ten years old and that was the first time a song made me cry. I learned to sing that song well. And when other people heard me sing it, they cried too. I learned that my voice was an instrument I could utilize to make people see my beauty, and thus treat me with even momentary kindness.
“Learning to love yourself
it is the greatest love of all.”
— Whitney Houston, “Greatest Love of All”
No one at that stage in my life had taught me that loving myself was something I could—let alone should—do. Many people who were meant to love me hurt me. Despite the many instances of abuse and pervasive bullying at school I was subjected to, Whitney taught me that I was beautiful and worthy of love, not just the love of the people around me, but also my own.
At the age of nineteen I realized that I had endured near-constant violence for the entirety of my life and that my body didn’t feel like it wholly belonged to me. I was in a relationship with a girl who hated me but sometimes bought me thoughtful gifts. During one of our anniversaries and following one of many stormy fights she bought me a copy of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. At that point in my life, I developed the language to understand some of the things that were done to me as a child. I knew that I was a rape and molestation survivor and I recognized that that girlfriend and my first had crossed consent boundaries with me, but I struggled to name their harm as what it was.
“He held me so softly that I wished he wouldn’t ever let me go. I felt at home.”
— Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Through this sentence, in which Maya describes how her violator made her feel, I came to understand a crucial lesson about surviving intimate violence. Violators sometimes came in the form of people you trusted. This is a part of their violence: giving you a false sense of safety so that the harm they perpetuate against you feels less severe. And so that you—and not them—carry the residual shame. Maya’s vulnerability in writing about this particular element of surviving intimate violence helped me learn to start shedding my shame.
I internalized the value in Maya’s vulnerability and started telling my story and naming the various kinds of harm I had survived. This not only helped me release my shame but also resulted in me cultivating a makeshift virtual community of fellow survivors.
There is a scene in the blockbuster adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple that introduced me to reflections of myself which shifted my relationship with my survivorship. The long-suffering Celie—portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg—watches in awe as her new and eccentric friend, Shug Avery—played by the legendary Margaret Avery—enchants a crowded underground bar with a sultry blues performance.
In each woman I see parts of myself: Celie, the trauma-afflicted, perpetually dissociating survivor-victim who didn’t know that sex was meant to be consensual and mutually satisfying until she met her new ally. And the mostly triumphant survivor, Shug who—while bearing her own scars from intimate violence—has reclaimed enough of her power and sense of sacredness to facilitate the healing and ultimate freedom of her friend. Although I was—and in many ways still am—far from the almost hedonistic and decadent free-ness embodied by Shug, she was a powerful possibility model for what a healed me could look like. And in addition to showing me who I could be, Shug’s relationship with Celie reinforced the importance and possibility of collective empathy and healing.
Years before my first queer relationship I prayed that my mother’s God would rid me of my sinful attraction to women. When I was twenty, after—and during—at least three mostly disastrous queer relationships and dozens of casual encounters I found myself truly in love for the first time. Friends had introduced me to the African American, Cleveland-born folk singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman. The rich timbre of her voice and the simplicity and searing vulnerability in her music opened me up in ways I hadn’t imagined possible.
“You and your sweet smile,
You and all, your tantalizing ways.
You and your honey lips,
You and all; the sweet things that they say.”
— Tracy Chapman, “Be Careful of My Heart”
It took me a very short amount of time to collect almost her entire discography and watch damn near every YouTube video there was of her performances. She occupied my mind and senses in ways no one else had before—or since.
When I read Fiona Zedde’s Bliss that same year, I was smitten—not only with the gorgeously depicted Jamaican backdrop or the beauty of the first black lesbian love story I’d ever read, but with one of the protagonists, Hunter. Fiona described her in a way that—in my mind—conjured a very vivid picture of my sweet Tracy. I was so convinced of this likeness that I contacted the author about it.
“Dear Fiona,” I wrote excitedly, “I can’t get this out of my head, but Hunter in Bliss looks just like Tracy Chapman to me, and that’s made this beautiful book that much more enjoyable for me.” She graciously wrote back to say she totally saw Hunter as a “young, late 90s Tracy” and we talked wistfully about the book being adapted into a film some day.
From then on, Fiona’s Hunter was my Tracy and my Tracy was Fiona’s Hunter. I kept the book for much longer than the two-week period stipulated by the queer library I volunteered at. And I read it so many times with my love’s voice as the soundtrack that it is impossible for me to listen to Be Careful of My Heart without visions of Bliss Sinclair leaving America after a torrid affair ends in mild heartbreak only to wind up in a delicious but complicated love affair in her birth country.
The fullness of my heart from marrying that story and song in my mind forever convinced me that black queer loving and desire were things too pure to ever be prayed away.
I’d been alive twenty-one years before I learned the name of my gender. I picked up a copy of Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, excited to indulge in a story about stone butch lesbian women and the pre-Stonewall bar scene. And while that brilliant book delivered on its promise of giving in depth insight into the emerging LGBT(QIA+) rights movement—it also served an immensely special and pivotal purpose.
“I felt my whole life coming full circle. Growing up so different, coming out as a butch, passing as a man, and then back to the same question that had shaped my life: woman or man?”
— Leslie Feinberg (Jess Goldberg), Stone Butch Blues
It taught me—through a stunning depiction of Jess Goldberg’s painful journey towards embracing queerness, finding community, and being forced to pass as a man to secure employment and the simultaneously isolating and liberating experience of determining their gender beyond the binary—that I too, was non-binary.
While Leslie never uses this term to describe Jess’s gender journey, that book—and subsequent internet research into who Leslie was—was the catalyst in me understanding who I was. And while the language I eventually acquired—pronouns that fit snugly and gender names (agender, genderqueer) that felt like cozy favorite jackets—brought me a bigger sense of self than anything else pertaining to my identity, there was a niggling discomfort in the back of my mind.
Everything about this identity seemed firmly rooted in a Western context. And while I couldn’t deny my distinctly Western outlook on the world, despite being a black person who had only ever lived in South Africa, I felt a quiet yearning to know who I was within the context of my ethnicities.
It’s Akwaeke Emezi’s breathtaking debut novel Freshwater that almost grants me permission to seek the context of who I am in accordance to my ethnicity and lineage. Emezi daringly carries their queerness, trans-ness, non-binary-ness, and neuro-divergence and places them firmly at the center of Igbo Ontology and themself in the holy yet precarious position of straddling two worlds.
“The first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin.”
— Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater
Emezi’s work teaches me that my names—the ones I have learned, and those which I have yet to discover—have always been sacred. That the stories that introduced me and led me back to myself did so to reinforce my innate worthiness of an affirmed and hallowed existence.