Excerpt from And the Category Is...Inside New York’s Vogue, House, and Ballroom Community, Beacon Press, January 2022

Chapter 7: BODY – w/ Luna Luis Ortiz, LaLa Zannell, and Gia Love: 

Black Trans Bodies, Body Sponsorship, and Resolving the Trauma in Our Bodies. 

When you’re receptive to information, like really make room for it, the sky opens up and data rains down. The case of my discovering House father and vogue icon Willi Ninja’s appearance in Marlon Riggs’ groundbreaking poem/doc Tongues Untied is one example. It was also the case in finding Resmaa Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands, which, no lie, was recommended to me three times in one day while I was writing this book. 

The first recommendation came from Robert Sember during a meeting for 400 Years of Inequality, an initiative founded by our friend, the brilliant Mindy Fullilove M.D. The 400 Years coalition commemorates through solemn observances the first arrival of slave ships in America in 1619—the start of our ecology of inequality. Robert, Michael Roberson, and I sit on 400YOI’s organizing committee, along with an impressive group of bright and hardworking activist-scholars from all over the map. On one of our Wednesdays together at 4pm, I’m sure either before or after we talked about pie, which for some delightful reason is our default topic after the task of dismantling inequality, Robert quoted My Grandmother’s Hands, a book essentially about how dire it is that Americans–specifically, Blacks, whites, and blues (the police force)–metabolize centuries of race related trauma or what Menakem calls, the “white body supremacy” with which we’ve all been saddled.  Not remembering its specific context, I fully remember the quote Robert selected to read to our group because Menakem’s apt and agile use of the word “phantasm” haunted me for several minutes afterward. He read:

“...The concept of “the Negro” was created to help white Americans deal with the hatred and brutality that they and their ancestors had themselves experienced for many generations at the hands of more powerful white bodies. The phantasm of race was conjured to help white people manage their fear and hatred of other white people.”

“The phantasm of race was conjured,” lyrically sums up for me the construct, the innate farce of the whole thing, but I think what Robert was getting at with this quote was that in our efforts as an organizing committee dedicated to raising awareness about inequality in a historical context, working under the premise that the arrival of slave ships on our soil was one of America’s earliest and defining engagements with inequality, it was important for us to know the events laddering up to that defining moment, how violence begot violence, and how these traumas still live out in the bodies of every American—instigators, enforcers, and victims alike. I believe Robert was proposing that after observing and contemplating the 400th anniversary of Jamestown–1619 to 2019–we should look toward healing. That maybe for the next iteration of our initiative, we may want to focus on collective recovery. And according to Resmaa Menakem’s quote in My Grandmother’s Hands, that should all but certainly start in our bodies.   

Side note: re-reading that quote just now, I would edit it by saying, ‘the phantasm of race was also conjured up to help white people manage their fear and hatred of themselves’—not just one another, which may already be implied, and if redundant, still bears repeating because it doesn’t necessarily go without saying. To be clear, I’m rock-solid on the fact that the very idea of Blackness, the construct of the negro, is just white people violently running from their own shadows.

That was my first encounter with the book. The second was through Amanda Furches, one of my oldest friends I’ve known for nearly 30 years, and at the time I’m writing this, we’re not yet even 40 years old. Same day as Robert, this dancer turned Pilates instructor turned holistic physical therapist friend of mine posted onto Instagram the following quote from My Grandmother’s Hands...:

“Few skills are more essential than the ability to settle your body. If you can settle your body, you are more likely to be calm alert and fully present, no matter what is going on around you. A settled body enables you to harmonize and connect with other bodies around you, while encouraging those bodies to settle as well. Gather together a large group of unsettled bodies -or assemble a group of bodies and then unsettle them—and you get a mob or a riot. But bring a large group of settled bodies together and you have a Potential movement—and a potential force for tremendous good in the world.”

Amanda and I grew up in North Carolina together and met in our fifth-grade class for gifted kids, and though she’s academically sharp as a whip, her excellence has often manifested most obviously and ingeniously in her attention to, care for, and use of her body. As preteens, hanging out with her always meant walking to Peter’s Creek, or bike riding to Reynolda Gardens, or cutting flips on the foam gymnastics gear the sports teams left out at Hanes Park. Our set of friends was a kid collective of settled bodies, Black and white kids together enacting the progress we wanted to see with our active bodies twenty-five years after the Civil Rights movement—and in the rural south. 

Anyhow, my point is, Amanda knows the body, and for her to vouch for this book on the same day as Robert, and with such a phenomenal quote, was a sign I should get it. What was central to this second endorsement was that it expanded on Robert’s earlier inference that a group of body-aware and secure individuals can collectively recover from trauma, and it raised the stakes by suggesting that acting together in the name of a movement could be an ideological if not moral, physical force with which to be reckoned.

That assertion formed by the seemingly happenstantial relationship of these two quotes was profound to me, especially in my thoughts around Ballroom and how voguing is a form of expression, and even more, as Ballroom legends Pony Zion and Benji Hart suggested in chapter 1, and many folks confirm on the regular, it can be seen as a means to freedom. Jonovia Chase also said as much, though more intimately, when she told me that voguing is often her needed boost of morale. She says:

To me everyone should have a little something special in them. I used to do this thing–I think a lot of people do it actually–when I needed a moment at work, so you know, I’d you go to the bathroom and vogue a little, give a little something in the mirror. Whether you use it on the Ballroom floor or not, voguing is for everyone within the culture. You should feel you can use it to express yourself whenever you feel you want to do so. It should be in your back pocket—you never know what’s going to happen! You never know when a battle might pop up, or when you just need to relieve some energy, to feel like you’re that girl.”

Here, voguing was the esteem heightener Jonovia needed to know she’s “that girl,” and she did it while in the mirror, where we are perhaps most aware of ourselves situated within these bodies. 

Ballroom competitions, along with breakdance battles of the 80’s, and rap crews spitting 16 bars for glory and validation, have often been compared to the world’s most safe and constructive gangs, and the idea that a lot of this is done through the body, based on this second quote by Menakem, substantiates them as ‘potential movements [and] forces for tremendous good in the world.’    

The third recommendation of My Grandmother’s Hands–that very same day–came from the author himself, Resmaa Menakem, on 10% Happier, a podcast I listen to that’s hosted by ABC News’ anchor Dan Harris about the positive effects of meditation and mindfulness practices on our everyday lives. Along with therapy and actual meditation, through interviews with contemplative masters, it’s helped me personally process the familial and systemic trauma residing within my own body. That day, the same as Robert and Amanda, Menakem came onto 10% and explained in such well-corroborated detail the thesis of his book, the metaphor of how his grandmother was a sharecropper at 4 years old and how her hands were therefor never supple, how such hardships are passed on hereditarily through epigens, and to that point, why he chose to use the term “white-body supremacy” as opposed to “white supremacy” because the effects show up in our DNA, and so, are most manifested in our bodies.

So, I conceded and bought the damn book later that day. As everyone suggested, it ended up being a crucial blueprint for surviving, acknowledging, and metabolizing racial trauma in this very moment in time in America—through our bodies. It lays out for Americans the path of not avoiding but feeling and processing the damages of racial inequality, allowing it space so that it’s darkness doesn’t envelop us. How the body isn’t just a tool for trauma recovery, but rather, the first and most essential, even more than the mind. Whether you’re interested or not, I suggest you pick up a copy of My Grandmother’s Hands, and actually, if you’re not interested, you probably need to read it the most. Personally, it helped recalibrate my framework for this body section of the book. 

Yes, “body (yadi-yadi)” is a category walked by mostly fem queens and others at a ball, those most bodacious (in all aspects of the word) dominating the category and walking the runway like they’re proud of it. Judges might cop a feel. Tight or revealing clothing is welcomed. I’ve seen the girls and butch queens show up body oiled. Like realness, the body category might also mean a certain level of commitment and access to augmentation, as bangin’ bosoms, curves, and hips are all classic accoutrements to this category that tends to spark tens across the board. Body is liberating in that, unlike high fashion categories like town and country, or Madison avenue or whatever, it actually reinforces and celebrates non-white standards of beauty, albeit often at the hazard of folks who go to great lengths to achieve these features. But again, this is the ongoing balancing act of real vs realness, the line of which is thankfully drawn subjectively.

And that’s all interesting, but this idea of how we can individually and collectively reenact or instead metabolize and recover from trauma in our bodies is most intriguing. How being a trans woman successfully walking body after your transition, finally being heralded for your femininity by your peers after being physically threatened, endangered, and brutalized by the outside world for not blending in might just be a type of bodily recovery from a lifetime of such trauma. My friend, the journalist Channing Gerard Joseph writes about William Dorsey Swann, or “Queen”, a former enslaved person from the 19th Century—and likely the first drag queen, who threw then illegal drag parties (basically balls), physical gatherings or movements of bodies settling together in defiance, often considered by police and newspapers at the time as riffraffs or a mob of undesirables. Perhaps predating a more apt nomenclature, in today’s context, would Swann and his cohort actually be seen as women of trans experience? If so, was it healing, an act of relief, a form of collective recovery and personal reclamation for her to put on those parties where she and others could wear dresses and be who they truly were? Was this Jim Crow era sanctuary an even riskier preamble to walking realness at a ball today? If nothing else, they were one of the first LGBTQ movements devoted to recovering from the persecutions of generational trauma, namely enslavement and gender persecution.      

We often talk about the lineage of voguing. How a spin and dip on the 4 beat, the hands of everyone in the room hitting the floor simultaneously, everyone shouting, “OH!”, is the sight and sound of your inheritance reverberating off your bones and echoing off the ceiling so loud the ancestors must have felt it. If we can hear them, then in theory, they MUST be able to hear us. Or how vogue is what ancient Egyptians planted in us, hieroglyphic stories of peace, war, victory, and loss that blossom up from us in flourishes of revolutionary dance. How voguing then becomes a living archive within us and how, based on this foundation, voguing is a way to also tell our own modern stories, the passing of a baton in an epic, historical relay race charting the Black and brown experience. How we ourselves are also voguing narratives of our enslaved ancestors, and because their stories, their names, their families and culture were ripped from them in the transatlantic trade, voguing acts as their unerasable inscription—because only print not spiritual movements can be redacted. In this context vogue is a defiant, bodily act of collective recovery from ills that are the spoils of a capitalist war. We know that at its best, Black and brown queer bodies voguing at a ball is an act of capitalist abolishment—but to what magnitude? Does it heal the past? Recourse the future? Create an alternate universe? Transcend time? The answer is yes.