House/Full of Blackwomen Photo by Robbie Sweeny. [ID: A Black woman with her eyes closed sits in a blue armchair with her head slightly leaning to the side. On the floor, there are three Black women, also with their eyes closed, who rest their heads against the first woman’s knees and the arm of the chair. They all wear white blouses with long white skirts. A spotlight illuminates them from above.]
throughout this writing i offer invitations and suggestions for how you might experience this offering beyond the page. it is intended to call the spirit of home close to you as you read. take the time to decide how you will read it, and i encourage you to stick to it. make space to move where you are invited to do so, and have a notebook/journal nearby to write when invited to do so or whenever you feel like it.
also, throughout this writing, i will be using the word family both as family in our broader understanding of the word, and family as a replacement for the word “community” which has been so heavily commodified that it has lost its meaning.
lastly, if you are able, play the suggested music track at the start of each section. if it ends before you finish the section, i encourage you to play it again or to choose any other music that feels right.
(shout out to Bhumi for supporting this offering)
here we go.
track: “Celestial Dance” Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio
(Sound Description: The instrumental music is warm and gentle, as if a stringed instrument and a steel drum are being played in a damp, lush rainforest)
get comfortable. if it is available to you, have something warm to drink.
go get it now. you have time.
“…any land loss is a cultural loss.
Our lands hold our memories, our histories, our identities. When we visit our lands, our elders walk us through them, and they share oral stories that have been passed down to them. So when we’re experiencing land loss, we’re also experiencing the loss of stories, connections, and historical accounts…”
-Dr. Jessica Hernandez, transnational Indigenous scholar, scientist, and community advocate
take a moment to remember/acknowledge the ancestors of the land that you call home in this moment, understanding that land acknowledgments can be problematic. they must be thought of as a means and not an end in our support of indigenous land rematriation. i invite you to treat this moment as your pledge to figure out what your role is in supporting the rematriation of colonized/stolen land back to indigenous people. perhaps start by donating to one of these indigenous orgs.
take a moment to acknowledge the ancestors and living BIPOC relatives whose unseen and unacknowledged love, labor, and stewardship of the land you are on made/makes it possible for you to be where you are right now. if this invitation feels any kind of ways complicated, uncomfortable or annoying, just stay with it for a moment.
what is it bringing up for you right now?
take a moment and move your body to the music in any kind of way that is available to you.
go ahead now. stop reading for a moment and just move to the music.
did you move? if so, take a moment to write anything that came up. no more than a page.
then set it aside and take a few breaths. if the music is over, keep reading.
if not, don’t continue reading until the song is over. just sip your warm drink.
“It is no accident that this homeplace, as fragile and as transitional as it may be, a makeshift shed, a small bit of earth where one rests, is always subject to violation and destruction. For when a people no longer have the space to construct homeplace, we cannot build a meaningful community of resistance.”- bell hooks
We laid side by side
Staring into the dark night
We had bundles
We had seeds
We had nothing
When we left home long ago
i’ve been engaged in a deep inquiry with the notion of “home” and place making since ellen sebastian chang and i embarked on a creative journey almost 7 years ago with a group of black women in what became “House/Full of Blackwomen”. this project has been an episodic journey. a series of performance rituals in public and private sites and spaces throughout oakland that have been propelled by the need to address the displacement, well being, and sex-trafficking of black women and girls in oakland through collective rituals masking as performance.
director ellen sebastian chang and i along with a group of black women artists and abolitionists started this project in 2015 sitting around a table, guided by the question, “How do we as black women, girls, and gender fluid folks find space to breathe, rest and be well in a stable home?”
sitting around that table in the house of one of the women in this project, we shared stories of how we are continuing to call oakland/bay area home through our exhaustion, anxiety, laughter, rage, hope, doubt and creativity. processing the ancestral wounds of our historical experience of displacement as black/african americans and continental africans became part of our ritual process. we came to understand that without regular attention to these wounds, we cannot holistically address the present struggles that we navigate to keep calling oakland home. the wounds of our historic experiences with displacement, violence, exodus, genocide, and forced migration are reopened for us everytime we are displaced out of our homes, everytime a beloved is displaced away from our family, and this has devastated our families throughout oakland and the bay area, destroying the cultural eco-system that has drawn many to live here in the first place. prioritizing our collective well being as fundamental to our creative process in this project over the production of art, has been a radical refusal of what bell hooks termed, “imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”. and this is how we chart our way forward home.
#2- home body
track: “Les Fleurs” Minnie Ripperton
(Sound Description: a 1970 r&b song whose lyrics and instruments encompass the openness and “free love” mantra of the time period. One could imagine resting or dancing in a field of flowers while listening.)
invitation: when you finish reading this section, do a free write or poem on memories of growing up. it might bring up difficult feelings or fond memories. stay with it for at least one page. play this track on repeat or choose one that reminds you of your adolescence. if it feels right, call the name of an ancestor (blood or chosen) who helped make your memory of home joyous or helped you survive it. whisper their name and thank them.
i was born and raised in san francisco. the home i grew up in was complex. throughout my teen years, following my parent’s divorce, i lived with my mother in a flat on castro street. it was a dysfunctional place of love, addiction, black feminist parenting, depression, support, economic struggle as well as being a gathering point for family and family. it was a place of refuge, and also a place where i experienced emotional neglect, where my mother in regular fits of rage and despair would scream that at any point we could end up homeless and that she didn’t know if she wanted to live anymore. it was also a place where i knew my budding identity as an artist, as a queer teenager was accepted lovingly and without hesitation.
our home was shared at various times with cousins, relatives, friends of siblings, and where even my mother’s hairdresser and his boyfriend lived with us for a time. our house was always full of music, loud conversations, arguments and potluck meals. this experience taught me how to live collectively with others. it shaped my value for family interdependence. it also taught me about the harm of codependency and codependent relationships but that is a story for another article.
though i lived in new york on several different occasions through the years, i would always gravitate back home to the bay. when the assault of hyper gentrification in the late 90s priced me and most of my family out of san francisco, i moved to oakland where there was a thriving queer BIPOC family and no shortage of house parties, festivals, and underground spaces. almost every night there were djs spinning in clubs throughout the town where we were welcome. oakland is where i found my spiritual family and came into my spiritual practice in the Yoruba Lukumí tradition. many of us felt like oakland would always be ours, that what happened to san francisco could not happen here. and then i noticed realtors starting to buy up property in the lower bottoms (west oakland) and advertising it as “east san francisco.” i watched friends, my own sister and many oakland family members lose their homes, victims of predatory lending in the early and mid 2000s. the writing was always on the wall, many of us (myself included) were just too naive to see it, were in denial or didn’t believe we had the power to do anything about it.
#3- when it hits home
track: “Grow” FaceSoul
(Sound Description: an acapella song composed of multiple layers of a male voice both humming and singing with a deep timber and passionate spirit.)
invitation: before reading on, put the music track on repeat or have another track of your choosing that moves you to follow while reading this section.
go to a place in your mind that felt like home but no longer exists, no longer available to you or no longer feels like home. close your eyes and see it for a moment before reading on.
what about it felt like home to you? did you ever grieve this loss?
can you locate where you feel this loss in your body?
if it is possible, rock or shift that part of your body and try to keep reading .
you are encouraged to moan and/or cry if needed. stay with these feelings if you can.
take a few deep breaths before reading on.
Suspend we notions of time
We can’t keep track of that here
In this place
There is only the breath of the middle
Should we fight?
Or should we go?
House/Full of Blackwomen as a project will come to a close with a final episode titled, “this too shall pass” in february 2023. when we gathered around that table in 2015, all of us either lived in oakland or in the surrounding bay area. since that time, some of us no longer live here. some of us were displaced. some got weary from the never-ending survival hustle that it takes to stay here and moved out of state.
ellen, my collaborator and mentor, was the first to go. priced out of the west oakland home she shared with her husband and daughter, and then displaced from the west oakland space where they had a family restaurant that they created called, FuseBox which was a home joint for so many of our oakland family.
since that first gathering, we have watched oakland continue down the same path of violent gentrification that happened in san francisco more than 20 years ago, creating a 47% rise in the unhoused population since 2017, many of whom were formerly housed folks born and raised in oakland. those figures may be even higher due to the covid. this has weighed heavy on our hearts, especially during this never-ending pandemic, and we find ourselves even in this moment continuing to navigate tremendous loss: jobs, housing, and the deaths of family and family members.
when house/full member and Boom Shake co-founder monica hastings-smith passed from cancer last year, after being diagnosed a year earlier, we all went into survival mode. taking pause and struggling to find each other during pandemic isolation. trying to move through grief in our own ways. trying to take pause to grieve while the grief continued rolling like a river.
please stop reading and take a moment to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths before continuing on. this would be a good time to rock and/or hum while you breathe. again, take your sweet sweet time with this before you continue reading.
House/full of Blackwomen table gatherings over zoom
trying to see each other
through the blur of screen-weary eyes
our connection unstable
no one to offer you water or sit next to you and hold your hand when you are sobbing
there is only the breath of the middle
how do we recover place
and belonging in this bewildered time?
#4- know place like home
track: “Black Folk” Tank and the Bangas
(Sound Description: a jazzy neo-soul mid-tempo song that illustrates the Black experience, joy and pain, through lyrics and spoken word.)
invitation: ok, now we need to shift this energy. please do not read on without taking a moment to dance to this track. maybe you dance to the whole thing before reading on. no matter if you are black or not, dance to this track as a ritual for black and BIPOC homefullness, for our collective recovery from imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. afterward drink water and stretch your body a little before reading on.
“There’s no place like home”
-Dorothy after wytch Glenda reminded she/them that she/them didn’t need no fuckin’ white male patriarchy to get her/them home. the power was always within her/them. that young wytch just had to be reminded to click them heels.
“Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.”- bell hooks
i will not end this on a note of pessimism. i cannot. i know better. nothing is certain, especially not now. and that is nothing new. what i know is we must keep doing the collective work of repairing our relationship to each other and this earth called home. we must do this work not because we know we will survive displacement/climate catastrophe/race and gender violence/covid/the tyrannies of man’s war but because if we don’t, we surely will not survive.
i have been rethinking home as not necessarily connected to a particular physical structure or place (though that too is important) but home as a spirit of belonging that holds us wherever we are. a state of being and being well. an interdependent web of family connections. connections like underground tree root systems, connected systems that we can lean into, love in to, heal with, and transmute this hell of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy and beckon a black indigenous queer eco feminist NOW.
and how do we co-create communal safe spaces so our families have places to land on our nomadic journey?
to do so we must engage in the emotional and ancestral healing work so that the untended wounds of internalized racial superiority and racial inferiority that we all carry don’t create unnecessary drama and chaos that would undermine our efforts to steward home spaces together in ways that are collectively healing.
we need each other. we have always needed each other. and we need each other now more than ever. in activist language, we talk about “struggling together” towards our liberation. but many of us don’t really know how to struggle together as a practice that is not harmful to ourselves or others. it is critical that we learn to do this now, and in ways that do not negate our rest, our joy and our pleasure in the process.
and there can be no space for “cancel culture” in this collective home making. “cancel culture” is the child of imperialism and dictatorship.
we will have to be in deep evolving practices of recognizing where our racial, economic and/or gender privilege is causing harm, and then be regularly proactive in refusing such benefits or figuring out how to use these benefits to dismantle them.
paramount in this process are reparations for black and indigenous folks. we can expect that this work will not be quick, easy, nor comfortable. but it will ultimately be liberating and healing for us all.
though i feel a deep sense of belonging to the bay, it is a belonging that is not promised. and figuring out how or if i will continue to stay here is the ongoing question that i keep leaning into.
buddhism and yoruba ifaism teaches that the only constant is change. change refuses our notions of stability. leaning into the instability of change is crucial for us as queer BIPOC folks and white folks to consider in an age of an ongoing pandemic, climate catastrophe, and political and economic uncertainty. and it asks us to do this work together. we cannot move forward in hyper individualism. individualism is unsustainable and is a tool of patriarchy. divide and conquer.
if we are going to liberate “community” from the current commodified understanding, we are going to have to learn how to live mindfully interdependent with one another, as opposed to unconsciously dependent. we are going to have to re-examine how our ideas of “personal space” might be in opposition to the collective spaces we need to be cultivating now for our survival. dismantling the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy that bell hooks talked about cannot be done in isolation. we will all have to tend the soil where we will bury this construct that we have internalized, in hopes that it will become compost for our collective rebirth.
family, let’s be clear: these days are dark and we have to be doing the deeper work,
and we have to do this work together. we must utilize our collective “ashe” (Yoruba word meaning, “the power to make things happen”) to plant the seeds for the harvest of our renewal.
we have to come home to each other.
we are (re) members of a (new) ancient tribe
nomadic in mad space
wanderers in this space of now
mambos of the avenues
side streets and
performing ceremony of discarded things
talismans of remnant magic
echoes of kitchens stories
and barber shop incantations
bembes for eleggua
to call the orisha who clears a way
for divine and infinite possibility
summon your ancestors
your inner spirit
you want to be made ready
everywhere is a church
everywhere is a temple
everywhere is a ritual ground
our wounds and scars
be oracle and compass
our feet and hands
be bibles and song
so whisper softly
your jazz prayers
as we jump this ship
and re/turn home again
track: “Brilliant Mycelium” Beautiful Chorus
(Sound Description: a gentle acapella song passing through hums, whispers and soft singing of nourishment and wisdom.)
take a few slow deep breaths as you listen to the above track
close out this reading
it is your choice
take a moment and listen
call one of your beloveds
and arrange to meet them at a place
where you can find your bare feet on some soil
hold each other
chanting softly, over and over
“we will get through this together”
and mean it.
This article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of In Dance.