Photos by Michelle Mosqueda
To many people of color living in the United States, February isn't just another month in the calendar. For a population whose history has been reduced to horrific tales of shackles and segregation, we take the shortest month of the year to celebrate and reflect on our achievements as a community. We honor the triumphs of African-American innovators, inventors, thinkers, and writers, many of whom don't even make it into the textbooks. How many people, for example, could really speak on the contributions of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson? These women were integral to NASA during the space race of the late-60s, a time where African Americans were treated as less than, but if the film Hidden Figures hadn't been released last year, would we even know their names?
I never learnt about them in school.
Many political and cultural movements that have shaped America began with queer, LGBT, and women of color, yet the impact of these communities is usually erased or whitewashed. It's important to tell the whole story, cover to cover, but can a generation so wrapped up in selfies and reality TV really see the bigger picture of what's going on?
On the first day of Black History Month (February 1), Mic, a millennial-run news outlet, hosted a panel at Ludlow Studios in New York. A diverse group of attendees came together to discuss the impact of black queer and trans-identified people in movements that are shaking up headlines around the world. The panel, entitled Imaging Black Futures, was the first in a series called Pass the Mic, and included three panelists whose work overlaps with racial injustice, gender, and sexuality: rapper Junglepussy, community organizer Kei Williams, and DJ/activist D'hana Perry, AKA Battyjack.
Touching on how they are navigating today's tense political climate, the panelists centered their discussion on an essential question: Everything seems to be coming to a boil around us, so where do we go from here?
After the panel, I caught up with Kei Williams to get some final words on the event. "The turnout was great, especially in the mist of these times," they said. "I feel like folks need to have more of these conversations around what is possible right now. What I want folks to take away from this: imagination is what's going to get us free."
Shayna McHale: A rapper known by her stage name Junglepussy who has garnered praise from the likes of Erykah Badu and Solange.— @JUNGLEPUSSY
Kei Williams: A queer transmasculine-identified community organizer working with #BlackLivesMatter, NYC Chapter.— @BlackBoiKei
D'hana Perry: A DJ and documentarian whose work delves into the intersections of identity, race and self-esteem. — @Battyjack_DJ
(Moderator) Jamilah King: Senior staff writer at Mic and former senior editor at Colorlines. —@jamilahking
Jamilah King: First, I wanna ask how did you prepare for January 20? There are a lot of black and queer kids who are really worried about their future right now.
Shayna McHale: I got asked to do a rap workshop with my old English teacher from my high school and I was so excited to do it, but then I was also just worried about the day. I'm like, 'how am I gonna tell these kids what to say when I'm at such a lost for words.' Long story short we didn't even end up getting to do it because my English teacher felt overwhelmed too. It was such a hard day for everybody.
Kai Williams: I just remember being upstate at my parent's house and I was like, this is what we have to do, this is what we have to take in. Before that, I was just preparing our chapter for our next steps as far as what we're going to do for our community.
D'hana Perry: I've been reconnecting with my family, looking more inward trying to connect with people around defense classes and really trying to pay more attention to what my right might look like. So just trying to be a little more prepared for whatever comes. But mostly, I don't even know what I'm doing. I'm just out here, winging it.
"If your wakeup call was January 20th, 2017…too late!"—Kei Williams
JK: There was an interview with [civil rights activist] Audre Lorde that I was reading recently from 1982, early in the Reagan administration. She was saying how in the early 80s, it felt like a really demoralizing time to be organizing—and also like a really powerful time.
Demoralizing because we shouldn't be in this place to begin with, but it was really incredible to see people coming together. Do you think that this time is like that? Are you energized or are you tired?
DP: I been chatting with my family about this who were around in the 60s, 50s and 70s and I kept asking them is it worse now? Hands down they say it's worse now or just as bad.
SH: I would say in the morning when I wake up I'm really energized and ready to do it then by 9, 10 PM, with all the announcements, I'm like, you couldn't do this earlier in the day. It's like an up and down, everlasting, emotional roller coaster and I've just come to embrace it. I'm definitely not going to let it fully defeat me. It's just fighting, you always have to fight, always got to keep your chin up and just press forward.
KW: If your wakeup call was January 20th, 2017…too late! We've been doing organizing work for at least 3-4 years in the streets.
JK: So Shayna, first of all tell me about your sweatshirt because your sweatshirt was received a certain way before the Donald Trump pussy grabbing comments and now it's perceived a different way.
SH: So my sweatshirt reads "this pussy don't pop for you" from one of my songs called "Pop for You." I'm basically explaining to the word it doesn't pop for you.
JK: How do you see your role in this moment as a musician?
SH: With Junglepussy the name doesn't matter but just navigating through the industry has definitely been….anywhere that's going to work with me it just shows their progressiveness and their open mindedness…scrapping preconceived notions about whatever. So Junglepussy, the name itself, is how I do my activism.
JK: D'hana, you're a DJ, and you create spaces for queer people on the dance floor. How do you think about creating in terms of physical space? In terms of freedom?
DP: For me it's all relative and it's all about where I am. Freedom is this kind of nebulous idea at this point…
KW: Recently I've been thinking about the reality of freedom and the actualization of what freedom looks like in the United States as a black queer American. What freedom looks like in the ideal world, it's not obtainable. The reality for blacks folks in America is freedom is far off and that's why I don't agree with using freedom and liberation interchangeably.
JK: What's the difference?
KW: For me liberation is more so work for me. You work towards being liberated and freedom falls under that. Freedom is just one part of liberation to me. Freedom is this personal struggle. It's not about what the system can give me. It's not about what my circumstances can give me. It's an internal freedom. What I freedom from is all the things that I restrict from myself all the things that I let society dictate to me for myself and that's kind of what I'm divorcing right now.
DP: Freedom is more of a state a mind than an actual thing that you experience. I think that black people don't necessarily experience it because of so much stress and just everything that is put on you. Maybe it's more of a state of mind.
"Junglepussy, the name itself, is how I do my activism. Anywhere that's going to work with me just shows their progressiveness."—Junglepussy
JK: Can you all tell me about this generation of artists, of blacker artists, who are coming up right now? Tell me about the empowerbility in that community.
SH: It's just so inspiring to see them just be their best selves just be brave enough to share yourself in this ungrateful world. The representation matters so much. Just having the Internet to be able to just bask in these people.
DP: The Internet gives and gives. Just getting to know people through online communities and things like that has been really important for building spaces for like-minded individuals. On the other hand community is complex and notion of community is complex so sometimes for me I struggle with the idea of community versus a population. We are so diverse within our subgroups that having spaces that feel safe or specific can sometimes be hard to do and hard to maintain.
JK: How has New York made you the artist or organizer that you are?
SH: It's just been really interesting to see all the movement that New York has. It's just so important to be here at this time but I always tell people don't get attached use New York like a tool.
DP: New York is always a place I've felt at home at. All the struggles and everything that goes into being here makes me who I am in a lot of ways.
KW: As an organizer I think New York shapes me in a lot of different ways because of what New York is. It's supposed to represent this melting pot, this big immigrant population and it doesn't! We all live in our boroughs. If New York was really a melting pot gentrification wouldn't be thing. That's the reality of living in New York.
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