InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each month ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This month ELIXHER spotlights writer and Black Girl Dangerous creator Mia McKenzie.
ELIXHER: Tell us a little about yourself.
MIA: I was born and raised in Philly, and although I’ve spent a lot of my adult life in other places, I think of myself always as a West Philly kid. This means that despite my small stature I am scrappy as hell and I will go West Philly on your ass if I need to.
I come from a family of churchgoers and I was raised going to church, and because of that I have a particular interest in and connection to the stories of Black churchfolk, and especially the ways in which incredible amounts of queerness and equal amounts of homophobia co-exist in Black churches. My debut novel, The Summer We Got Free, which is out November 23, explores those issues, and I think reveals a lot about who I am, where I come from, and how I think.
I’m a queer Black femme nerd. I was a pretty awkward kid. I grew up feeling like I didn’t really belong and that feeling has stayed with me throughout my adult life. I’m an Aries, so in some ways I am just naturally outgoing and enjoy being the center of attention. I’m confident and sure of myself in many ways. But in other ways I am socially awkward and would prefer being alone with a book to almost any other activity.
ELIXHER: When and how did you become a writer?
MIA: I’ve been writing since I was a little girl. I can’t even remember when that started, it was just always there. My mother aspired to be a novelist. I remember as a kid watching her at her typewriter, clicking away for hours on a novel she was perpetually writing. I remember her yelling through the front window to us on the porch, telling us to quiet down or something, and her fingers never leaving the typewriter keys. I inherited writing from her.
I started to really think of myself as a writer in sixth grade, when my teacher, Ms. Boston, put heavy emphasis on story-writing in our curriculum, and even had us binding our own original, handmade books. Through most of my childhood, though, I aspired to be an actor. I loved being the center of attention, loved being on stage, and had the lead in all the plays throughout elementary school. When I auditioned for Philadelphia’s High School for performing arts, for the drama department, I got one of the highest scores in the history of the school. Then suddenly, at thirteen, I got stage fright. So, I decided to be a writer instead.
ELIXHER: What inspired you to start the blog Black Girl Dangerous?
MIA: I had a really bad experience that left me feeling that, as a Black person, no matter who I am I will always be perceived in negative ways. If I stand up for myself, then I am angry and scary. Just by refusing to take anybody’s shit, I am threatening. As Black women, we are always so cognizant of people’s perceptions of us, and always having to modify ourselves–our tones of voice, the language we use–to make other people feel less threatened by us. We are expected to accommodate anti-Black racism by not doing or saying anything that will scare white folks. In this way, we are asked to make racism easier for people. I got tired of being expected to do that. I decided that I would, instead, embrace my own dangerousness–remake it and reshape it and retell it–and use it as a tool of self-expression.
ELIXHER: Black Girl Dangerous is doing a series of writing workshops for QTPOC. How does organizing a community of writers enhance the work that you produce?
MIA: My goal for creating the workshops is to create a safe space where queer writers of color can work on their craft and get the support they need in producing great work. As a writer who has taken many workshops, I know how challenging it can be workshopping with white writers who do not understand or value your experience, and undervalue your gifts because they have been taught that great writers are white men.
I wanted to create a workshop where no such nonsense was being perpetuated. I believe that queer people of color are the most interesting and gifted people on the planet, that being forced to find new ways every day to resist, to survive and to thrive, makes us particularly prone to exceptional beauty and genius. That’s why the BGD workshops exist. My ultimate goal is to have the writers from the workshop contributing to the blog.
ELIXHER: You were part of the ensemble show Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance, how do you believe that your creative work builds upon that history and creates a Black queer legacy?
MIA: I love this question! As queer and Black as my writing for the blog is, my fiction is even more queer and Black. I love Black people and I love queers, so I can’t think of anything better to write about than queer Black folks. Queer Black writers are the foundation of the history of Black literature. The Harlem Renaissance was very, very queer. Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, Angeline Weld Grimke, Alice Dunbar-Nelson–all queers. The Harlem Renaissance was basically a whole lot of Black queer artists getting free. Without it, without them, the legacy of art and artists in general, would not be what it is.
The Summer We Got Free is a story about many things, including queer blackness. It tells a story about what it means to be free within the confines of a Black community that is dominated by religion, and how the embracing of queerness, the owning of it, is part of getting free. All of my fiction writing is in many ways influenced by writers like James Baldwin and Alice Walker, whose queer Black stories are integral to our literary legacy, and I hope that I am making a valuable contribution to that legacy.
ELIXHER: What makes you proud to be a part of the Black queer community?
MIA: I am in love with and fascinated by queer Black people. I think the decision to live a bold queer life is an incredible kind of freedom. The fact that we, considering all the ways in which we have been denied freedom throughout history, take that identity, grab hold of it and walk around with it, switching our hips and strutting our stuff and kissing our girlfriends on street corners, makes us free in ways that no one before us has ever been. Black people are the most hated people on the planet; anti-Black racism reaches into every corner of the world. To be hated that much by the world already, and to say, “Fuck it. Imma put on these sequined tights I took from my sister’s closet or these boy jeans I got out of my brother’s dresser and walk right out into that world,” or to write that poem about loving another man or that story about loving other women and let the whole world see it, and to do that because being what you are is something you simply must do–that is freedom! I believe Black queers are the most amazing beings who ever walked the earth.
ELIXHER: What changes would you like to see in the community?
MIA: I guess I’d like to see a lot more Black queers as opposed to Black gays and lesbians. I’d like to see a lot less conformity within queer community and a lot more resistance. I’d like to see my people, including myself, thinking more radically. I would also love for us to get over this butch/femme dichotomy that dominates the queer Black women dating scene. As a femme-identified person who likes to get it on with other femme-identified persons, the hyper-heteronormativity of most of the queer Black community gets on my damn nerves.
ELIXHER: What’s next for Mia McKenzie?
MIA: Well, the novel is out November 23. (It’s called The Summer We Got Free and y’all should buy it.) My publisher is putting together a tour so I’ll be out and about promoting it. The BGD blog keeps growing and we’re working on expanding it. It’s my dream to be able to curate the best writing from emerging QTPOC writers and be able to pay them for their art. I’m working on a short film, a QTPOC narrative, that I hope to produce next year. I also have works of fiction in progress–a novella and a short story collection–that are screaming for my attention. I’m booking reading and speaking engagements at colleges and other places, fueled by BGD fans who want to bring me to their school or wherever. Much of my energy and attention right now is focused on love and family with my primary partner. We are planning to have a couple of gaybies in the near future. So, basically, what’s next for Mia McKenzie is…well, everything. Everything, y’all. Bring it.
– Interview by Cyrée Jarelle Johnson
Cyrée Jarelle Johnson is a Black Femme dyke writer, scholar, zinester, and poet. Cyrée Jarelle is committed to relocating Femme culture from margin to center using writing, non-formal education and communal publication. Ze remains a crippled Jersey Grrl abroad; in hir swollen feet ze is a wanderer, but hir heart is in the foodcourt at the Woodbridge Mall.