InspiHERed By: Shawn Smith
InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each week ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. In the spring we featured Shawn Smith, creator of HerSaturnReturns.com, in our “Friends We Follow” column. This week we learn more about Shawn’s personal journey, her thoughts on community, the role of artists/activists and more.
ELIXHER: Tell us a little about yourself.
SHAWN: My name is Shawn. I’m 28 years old. I’m from Brooklyn and I am a lesbian. [Laughs.] I am a lesbian. My mama said it’s okay. [Laughs.]
ELIXHER: [Laughs.] Are you originally from New York?
SHAWN: I am from New York. I’m born and raised in Brooklyn. Brooklyn has transformed since I was born here obviously. I really love living in Brooklyn. This is my zip code, 112- etcetera.
ELIXHER: What is it that you enjoy doing?
SHAWN: I enjoy doing my profession. I don’t really have recreational time, but I like to blend my recreational time with my professional time so that I can always do well in both. So I write and I am an archivist and librarian. I guess recreationally I produce theatre. I also enjoy money and working with money.
ELIXHER: What do you write?
SHAWN: I write non-fiction mostly. Although I’m trying to get into fiction, so lately what I’ve published are just non-fiction essays. But I write fiction stories. I haven’t really delved into how to publish the fiction yet. That’s something that I’m working on. There have been a lot of opportunities in poetry, which is why I begun writing poetry, not necessarily because I feel called to be a poet. My non-fiction is prose and in the fall, I will start an MFA in fiction. I’m super excited to be a student again, and to write with a structured feedback process.
ELIXHER: Tell us more about the theatre you produce.
SHAWN: I’m part of a collective called the WOW Theatre Collective. This theatre started thirty years ago and it’s always been a collective. We own the space that we’re inhabited in on 4th Street between Second and Bowery and that’s why Rivers of Honey is dedicated to that space because Rivers started in ’98 and the collective wanted to have a space that was specific to women of color primarily because it’s a feminist theatre. The feminist movement and feminism in its historical context has largely been considered a White space and a working to middle class space. They, as a collective, wanted to be clear that it’s a space for everyone and it has always been primarily lesbian, so that part was already taken care of. Being a part of the collective, I really wanted to nurture that; that’s why I’m there. Theatre was secondary. I just really wanted to be a part of a collective space. I believe in community and in community building. I think that the best way to do community building is in a socialist way. In a way that’s non-hierarchical, in a way that’s a collective way.
I’m also a part of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, which is also a collective. I joined that collective when I was an undergraduate. What prompted me to become an archivist and librarian was showing the importance of lesbian herstory and learning about other collective spaces that existed beforehand, learning about what the community really looks like and what it smells like and tastes like. Reading Audre Lorde’s writings and touching her pen, paper that she edited. Just being a part of that rich herstory was motivation to offer my services to this collective force.
ELIXHER: What do you think is so important about being a part of collective?
SHAWN: Well I think that most people who are coming out, they need a place to come out to and perhaps it was my own coming out. I came out when I was sixteen, and that meant for me that I was a high school student and I wanted to have a lot of sex and so in that process, I broke up with my boyfriend, joined the one student club in school.
I got a job with the Rose and Sherle Wagner Foundation, a woman with a lot of money who wanted to give it all to young people. She hired young people to go around the city and learn about every youth organization that existed then come back to her and tell her what they did so she could decide who to fund. We called it the Youth Activists – Youth Allies Network, also known as the Ya-Ya Network. While I was there, someone asked her for money to train a young woman to start an organization. She wanted to do it in Brownsville and East Flatbush. And I was like, I’m from Brownsville and East Flatbush. She had us sit in on this meeting and I said, oh sweetie, you don’t know anything. And I said immediately, I’m from Brownsville and East Flatbush! That day, this mid-forties, Jewish, white woman had this great idea and I wanted to put it into fruition.
So she trained me to start a non-profit when I was seventeen. It was called Sister Outsider which was named after Audre Lorde’s book of poetry and her essays. Sister Outsider was the beginning of my non-profit world introduction. We employed young women who were self-supporting and we paid them living wages. I had a staff of ten to twelve women. I had a budget of over $200,000. I traveled the country and keynoted and trained and received training. It really opened my eyes to what organizing was and what the larger nonprofit community was and because we were a peer-led organization we only worked with each other. We really had to decide who we were. And so that’s when all the identity formation came into fruition. I left Sister Outsider when I went to college and in going to college, I wanted to replicate what I had learned to further nonprofit development.
Yet, I found the world is actually really straight and boring. You know, just heterosexual, largely white. It’s very capitalist. I was just so disillusioned. I was coming from all this stuff and I met all these people who were doing powerful work. I mean I was on Native people’s reservations. I represented Australia at a United Nations Conference, I was doing things that the average girl from Brooklyn wouldn’t do as a teenager, you know? Before I turned eighteen, I leased my own apartment because I was making a living wage. I had already started to hous people. I would bring people to my house who were coming out and in need of housing. I always lived with people. My staff would sometimes have to stay by my place, or we’d find young dyke women on the street who would ask if they could stay with me.
I wanted to build spaces where people could be themselves and learn about themselves (primarily young people) but really people who were interested in being a part of something larger and needed an outlet to create that. So being in school is when I started to study the pedagogues, the Audre Lordes, the people that I had been quoting but never really knew about. That’s when I realized that community was important, that most movements were led by groups of people. There’s always a single person that steers them but that single person is led by a community and is driven by a community. Lesbians of color, specifically Black lesbians, to be honest are on so many margins, especially women who are gender non-conforming, that there’s no place else to go but to lead. You can’t really be alive unless you’re leading. It also comes from my home—my dad is Rastafarian. I was raised that way. My mom was a Black Nationalist, even though she is Afro-Latino. You know how women who aren’t traditionally Black have complexes so they’re like super-black? So that’s my mom. She’s like, Black Power! So coming from that perspective, I’m definitely a conspiracy theorist. All about segregated spaces, whether it’s “Black only” or “women only” or “lesbian only” spaces. I’m into that. I’m a separatist 100 percent. Not a question. And it is being a separatist that allows me to co-exist with other people outside of those spaces; my spaces are my respite for the shit of the larger world.
ELIXHER: What do you think is power behind those segregated spaces?
SHAWN: Well, I think that there’s strength numbers. There’s strength in a single person’s ability to understand their power and then to merge that with another person’s single ability to understand their power. So you have powerful individuals working together. That’s like the strongest form of unity and I think that when you segment a person’s identity, you segment their sources of power. I do believe in coalition work. I think that the Black lesbians should align with the Desi lesbians and the trans men should align with the gay men, whomever with whomever. Pick a group, any group. The left-handed Republicans so and so, blah blah blah should align with the right-handed Republicans. The point is that it’s really about finding your source of power and then building it to its highest point. I think that in order to do that you have to be around people like you and you have to learn about who you are and embrace that. Then you can go out into the world and you know, break some shit down. The problem is, I think, people, specifically young people…whatever, all people, people in general, if you don’t stand for something, then they fall for anything. People get put into this world for a purpose and we each individually have a purpose. And those purposes are to align ourselves with a larger community and to create something. That’s really what I live my life based on, so that community to me has to be a separatist community in order for it to be efficient.
It’s really an issue of efficiency. If we all go to a room and we’re all different identities, and the objective is to draw a circle on the wall. Let’s say there’s fifty people in the room. (This is me being a librarian now.) Let’s put a bunch of books in the room and let’s put them in order. You have to have a system, right? You have to have classification. You have to name things. You have to decide who’s gonna draw it. What color pen are we going to use? Are we gonna put it in the center of the wall? The top? The bottom? That means something different to you than it does to me. This group of people is going to want a black marker. This group of people is going to want a red marker. There’s a reason for that. There’s a societal reason this group wants to use one thing and another group wants to use another.
ELIXHER: Is it dangerous to send a message that all Black lesbians are the same?
SHAWN: Well that’s the point. I think that because all Black lesbians aren’t the same, we need to communicate with each other. No two individual people are the “same.” But there are same issues that affect specific groups the same. Those issues won’t be dealt with if it’s dealt with by a larger group. I don’t expect an Asian lesbian to give a shit about my Black brother. I just don’t expect it. And it’s not even about my brother. It’s like about my Black mama. [Laughs.] I just don’t expect it. And you know what, I don’t give much of a shit about her Asian brother or Asian mama in the way that her Asian sister would. There’s just something important about not ignoring the parts that align us. And then we can all talk about all of our mothers collectively. For me, I need to have alignment with other Black women. And Black women who don’t want to align themselves with me then they don’t need to. They can go suck their White girlfriend’s vaginas. They can do that and that’s fine. I’m only interested in people who want to build strength. Not people who want to deter the building of strength. So you know, separatism isn’t for everyone. I think that’s important too. It’s important to have a smaller group of powerful people than a large group of weak people. It’s important to weed that out and really work with a core group of people.
Like Rivers of Honey is really held down by a handful of people and really has become a powerful production, in that, we’ve had people fly in from different parts of the country to have people perform. I’ve had people stay at my house just to be on that stage. And the Lesbian Herstory Archives is built from a relationship with two people. It was a collective and they had people come in and out of that collective. It was a core group. The women that I work with now, they are the women that have been there for twenty years or more. They’re a core group and they kept that organization alive. There are people who come in and their only purpose is to dismantle it. You have to weed those people out. Being a lesbian doesn’t make you part of the collective. Being Black doesn’t make you part of the group. It also means that if you aren’t part of this grouping, you don’t even get to try out for the team. [Laughs.] So no White boys at the party. They have their own party. And we’re already excluded from their party.
ELIXHER: [Laughs.] This is true. What or who would you say inspires you?
SHAWN: My little sister inspires me because she is the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen. And she’s twenty-two now, and she thinks she is grown, but she’s not grown. I’ll put her over my knee. She’s blossoming into a person and I measure my life based on her development and when I make decisions I think about what she would think about it. We talk all the time about what her plans are for the future and about what I would do and what makes me happy, why do we do what we do, whether it’s what major to I choose for college, or which boy to date.
I think my family in general inspires me. I have three siblings from my mother and father, and two half sisters from my father. But I like to say I have nine brothers and sisters because my dad has a second family. I would say we’re pretty non-traditional in our mode of thinking because my dad was something of a hippie. He’s a Rasta, you know? We chase our dreams. He’s a psychologist but he’s also a musician. He sort of imprinted in our brains that you must always do what you love and don’t waste time. Time is a lie. Just jump into it. That’s common rhetoric today but that’s how I’ve been raised since I was born. That really colors my every move. Colors whether or not, if I’m in a relationship the minute I feel that it’s not working, I just stop immediately and I walk away. [Laughs.] Because I don’t have this attachment to ideas. I have attachment to productivity and efficiency and what’s real.
I’m also inspired by my grandmother who is not alive. She’s very much part of my life. And her mother and her mother’s mother. I feel connected to all of them. And my mom because she’s adorable. I have dreams all the time where I’ve met them in different ways. I see them in the world in different ways. And I’m led by them. I never feel like I’m walking alone, so I live my life to nurture their spirits and to listen to their guidance because they’re awesome. They’re smart ladies and they’re very wise.
I don’t know how to put it. If I’m at a crosswalk and I have a free day and I’m like what should I do? I’m standing here. I can go left or I can go right. I can not walk at all. I can turn back around. I put it out there and I ask them. They will always, never fail, tell me which way to go. It’ll be something slight and simple, but I will always catch it. I’ll go that direction and in that day, I will have bump into ten people that I haven’t seen in a long time. I will have walked directly into things that were perfect for me to find. And it happens to me every single day of my life. Maybe it’s because I live in Brooklyn and Brooklyn is totally my domain, but I was in DC in the summer and I bumped into Lisa Moore who is the founder of RedBone Press. I bumped into her like six times in passing in DC. I’m not from DC. I ended up in her house. It was so happenstantial. I ended up staying at a Black lesbian house. I was sent to this one house from three different angles. Never met these people and one of them is in the anthology. It was just the most magical experiences. I’ve had so many magical experiences in my life that I’ve stopped being surprised by them. Every single day. [Laughs.] And it’s sort of like, okay, I get it. You know?
I remember not living that way. And I know not everyone lives that way, and they can. It’s so easy to just let go and trust in your ancestors and just follow their path and then you’ll be fine. So because of that I don’t doubt how I feel or what I believe or the things I think because they’re not mine. They’re larger than me and they’re sent to me.
If people disagree or think that I’m an asshole, that’s okay. Because maybe their ancestors don’t agree with my ancestors. [Laughs.] Or maybe they’re not listening to their ancestors. But either way, it just feels good to be a part of myself, you know?
ELIXHER: What makes you proud to be a part of the Black queer community?
SHAWN: Well, what I love about communities is that everywhere you go you’ll find some. What connects me to Brooklyn is the fact that New York City, bi-coastally New York City and California, have historically been epicenters of queer culture. And so here I’ve been at CUNY [City University of New York], my undergraduate and graduate degrees were in CUNY. I’m a part of a center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at CUNY graduate center. I’ve been a part of that organization for ten years. I still connect to the activism that has happened on these grounds. I see the gentrification. The way the ownership of this land is transitioning and being taken over or being lost or being found.
I’m doing a project now where I’m mapping the points of Brooklyn’s Black history. It’s called “More Than a Map” and what we do is find points in the city where there is Black history and there’s a mobile application that’s created so that when you’re walking now, on your phone you can see this is where so and so had their first kiss. I’m making sure to have a lot of Black lesbian history in it.
There’s me growing up in Brownsville. Me growing up in East Flatbush. My grandmother died on this land. When it’s home it’s home. So that’s one thing.
Then there’s the awesome part of New York City which is that people come in and out. There’s this transplant history. There’s people who are like, I’m new. So you always get a taste of a new world. Then you have the new ones and they’re all excited. Their energy is raw and vivid and imaginative. They bring that energy to the people who have been here who know that they’ll calm down eventually but in the meantime we eat some of it up too and use it to revive us.
I just really have fun here. I respect the city. The politics of the city are really insane. I have a love/hate relationship with this city.
ELIXHER: What about specifically the Black queer community?
SHAWN: I don’t feel a very strong Black queer community to be honest. I think there’s definitely a queer POC [people of color] community and there’s definitely a queer community. The Black queer community? Eh, not so much.
ELIXHER: Why do you think that is?
SHAWN: [Laughs.] I don’t know. Because we don’t like each other. Black people don’t like each other. [Laughs.] No, I just…I wish I knew. I think because we’ve stopped fucking each other. I think that’s part of it. I think that we’re branching out a lot and that’s fine. But once you stop fucking a group, you don’t have any reason to know them. That’s part of why I don’t really talk to Black men. I don’t fuck them. So you know, who is that again? You know? Why are they around? But I love them dearly…on their side of the room. Don’t come over here.
There’s also competition. A lot of people are now artists. There’s less activism, more art and so even with me, I came into the queer community as an activist, and I’m sort of in it now as an artist and a writer and a documentarian. I think that as artists there’s something solitary about art. There’s also something exclusionary about art. There’s something competitive about the art world. There’s something opportunistic about how to promote your art, just wanting to be the person. So people are competing with each other in a way that I think is not beneficial to the community.
Then there’s also the class issues of the Black lesbians who go to Lover Girl compared to the Black lesbians that go to Rivers. Not to say that there’s no overlap, but to say you’re this type of person. Is your hair natural or straight? Do you wear stilettos or do you wear skippies? I don’t know. I’m making this up. There’s a divide where I don’t think we’ve really bridged these gaps. And we don’t use each other’s resources in those divides.
There’s also the alcoholism and the marijuanaism that is rampant within the Black community. I mean, we may as well be on a fucking reservation. It’s really ridiculous how all of our social events revolve around alcohol. I just got over ten years of alcohol addiction. That’s what I did. My first marijuana episode was not with my dad who’s a Rastafarian. It was with a counselor at a non-profit for queer people. They gave me a blunt and a cigarette. I’d like to say, “I don’t smoke or drink anymore and that’s a political thing,” but after not smoking and drinking for six months, [Gay] Pride got me started all over again! We need to wake up and do some shit. What do you do when you’re high? You create art, but you don’t really stir some shit up. And the art may not be as thoughtful as it could be. But whatever. I’m into people getting high if that’s what they want, do what you’re gonna do. But I’m also into people if what they want is change, if what they want is community organizing to do that and not to want it while getting high because there’s a contradiction there. I feel like I’m on a soapbox and I don’t want to be preachy about it. I just wish there were more people who were interested in other things.
ELIXHER: So how would you like to see those other things manifest?
SHAWN: I would like to see it manifest in organizing. I would like to see it begin with a collective group of people saying, I’m interested in acknowledging and naming my community with you. I don’t want it to be like, you’re my friend or my ex’s best friend so I think I know you but I don’t really know the rules for that, so I can’t really have a conversation with you but I’m going to say hi when I see you at the club maybe this time, but not this time because I’m with my girl. I want it to be a person to person, face to face, eye contact to eye contact, acknowledgement of “I want to be in community with you and let’s talk about what that means and let’s make that look like something.” And I don’t really know what that could look like but I’m ready to have that conversation. Right now I sometimes feel like I’m having it by myself. I know that I’m not. New York City is New York City. People are finding ways to make money. I have three jobs. I get it. I have five directions of income. I get it. And a lot of my time is spent towards that. But I make sure that my money comes from my work which is documenting, archiving, librarianship, lesbian. I do make sure my money comes from that so I can at least be in touch. But everybody can’t do that. Some people actually have to have the nine to five or their MBA or whatever. Or they want to just chill and have a drink. I get it. But I think there’s a way we can formulate some sort of physical space that communities form. Right now I think some of the connections are happening online.
ELIXHER: I’ve heard a lot of people say that. They want spaces where we can just talk.
SHAWN: And resurrect spaces that used to do that. There’s a group called AALUSC, African Ancestral Lesbians United for Social Change. They started Salsa Soul Sisters in the seventies. They sort of put a call out for Black lesbians to do that sort of thing. But there’s an intergenerational issue for why that isn’t happening because this generation doesn’t do that in the way that the seventies lesbians did. They totally sat up with their legs crossed, with their grass skirts and touched each other’s faces and said, I love you. You’re beautiful. Let’s have a conversation. They did that to people they weren’t trying to fuck. Just for community sake and we don’t do that. We’re very cautious and we’re alienating ourselves and each other. We’re sort of…I don’t know…we want to be pretty and we want to show we’re pretty people. We want to do individual identity formation instead of understanding the identity of our community has nothing to do with “I am me.” That means absolutely nothing if it’s not connected to something else.
So you know, all of the new ways to identify yourself is also a problem. I’m like, can we just pick something and then can we move on from there? Because really once someone identifies themselves outside of the larger community, you can’t be in community with them. You just stepped outside of my box. I’m sorry because my box is my box. Now I might be the only one standing left in my box and then I become the same thing they’re doing. But that’s what we’re doing: I’m not a lesbian; I’m queer. I think “queer” makes sense because it broadens the box but people are not happy with that. But people don’t want community. They want their own box and they want to be this multi-gendered, west coast, non-conforming, anti-me, not-from-brooklyn, alien and so it’s like if that’s who you are, how do you relate to me? I just need to understand why that matters.
ELIXHER: Is there a place for having a sense of individuality and non-conformity, too?
SHAWN: In art.
ELIXHER: But not necessarily in community organizing and mobilizing people?
SHAWN: Exactly. I think that just because someone is an artist, doesn’t mean they have to organize. I need to stop expecting that from artists. I have to appreciate their work and if they use their body as a template, that’s awesome. And they’re there to be seen and not to work with. I get that and I’ve learned that. But I think there are some people that are interested in more than art and they don’t have the tools to acknowledge or build onto that interest.
Even with Rivers, what does Rivers do? It just gives artists a place to showcase their work. But people don’t come to watch performers. The performers are okay, you know? People come because they want to sit in that room and they want to talk to the person sitting next to them. There’s still a way to bridge the artists with the ones who want to do more.
Individuality, there’s a space for it in the impetus for people to come together. So the artists who are really good, should be really good and do their best. Those people who consume the art, there should be something else happening besides the consumption of art. There’s something missing that makes the art less significant if it’s not really applied to anything else. And I don’t really know what that is. I’m still trying to figure that out. I think a group of people communicating on it can have the answer.
ELIXHER: What’s next for Shawn?
SHAWN: I just got a new job. I’m the archives coordinator for Story Corps which is an audio archive. I’m doing that full-time. But I’m also doing the research that I’ve done at the Lesbian Herstory Archives to present at conferences, so aside from presenting the Her Saturn Returns book with the goal of Sex, Death and Other People’s Money to start conversations where women are talking about these things together and perhaps even writing their own stories. Also I’m using the Lesbian Herstory Archives research that I’ve done to present Black lesbian herstory. Last year there was a lesbians in the seventies conference called “In Amerika They Call Us Dykes: Lesbian Liives in the 70s.” I did a workshop there with Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Julia Wallace, Brownwynne Pereirra (now known as Jabu) on Black lesbians in the seventies. We want to take that and tour with it but everyone’s schedule is crazy. So I’m actually aligning myself with different Black women archivists to present more Black lesbian herstory findings and how to make it part of your curriculum or whatever you do with your project or your organization. I created a ‘zine and I used the ‘zine to collect the things from our archives. I disseminate that as a tool to present.
I’m also working with the Lesbian Herstory Archives to put their catalog online. We got a grant which is awesome. It’s the first time in history that the largest lesbian archive in the world will be accessible online. People will be able to search it. They don’t have to come to the archive to do it. Other than that I’m giving tours at the Archives and I’m lecturing at different ventures. If people are interested in receiving a presentation of Black lesbian herstory, they should contact me. If they’re interested in a group of them receiving something at the archives, they should contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And that’s pretty much it. I intend to have a lot of sex as well. That’ll be good. [Laughs.] If I can fit that in.
ELIXHER: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
SHAWN: There’s no beginning or ending of who you are. We are constantly evolving. We’re transforming at all times. I never wake up and turn on my gayness. And I never turn off my Blackness. In every part of everything I do, I’m always me and I’m always walking with the community and I’m always walking with my ancestors, and I’m always walking with my family. If people understand that about themselves then they won’t shortchange what they do. They won’t put things in their bodies that don’t work for them. They won’t take jobs that aren’t sustainable—self-sustainable as well as sustainable for the community. They won’t compromise.
If people really looked at every aspect of their lives and turned it into nurturing the parts of themselves that mean something to them, they’ll realize in five or ten years they’re living in a world that they’ve created. That’s probably the first step if we’re working on ourselves first. Because you can’t really formulate a separatist space if you don’t know who you are. If it’s about formulating who you are, start with where do you work, where do you live, what do you eat, how do you sleep–the necessities. And even just changing that really alters more than we know.
I’d also like to add that although I’ve been branded as transphobic in the past, it’s actually true that I love my Black trans men and really wish they would continue to align themselves with their lesbians sisters and lovers instead of teaming with White folks who put dirt in their ears, and tell them that community like me is against them.
I’d like for them to allow for Black lesbians and other lesbians of color to have a space of their own, just like, I will advocate for them to have a space of their own. Together, we can do these things when we are ready.