Interview By Tia Williams
Our Family is a series that celebrates two-mommy families and delves into some of the challenges they face. The goal of the series is to depict same-sex parent families in a way that’s authentic and dispels myths associated with same-sex childrearing. ELIXHER had the opportunity to chat with Atlanta-based life and business partners Onyx Keesha and Noble Julz about their blended family and “village living.”
ELIXHER: How do you define “family?”
ONYX: I would define family as a mutual love, respect, and commitment. I don’t really define family based on bloodlines or the traditional way society would. I think anybody can be family as long as you collectively come together towards one goal, if that goal is raising kids, if that goal is building a community, whatever that is, [it’s] family to me.
JULZ: I believe we are born to our relatives but we pick our family. [There’s a] mutual agreement and understanding of being there for each other no matter what. That’s different than friends. That’s different than relatives — because you ain’t gotta like all your relatives in your bloodline, but with family you have to. You made a commitment internally you would be there for that person.
ELIXHER: How long have you been together?
ONYX: [Laughs.] Feels like 20 years. We have been together on and off for the past four years. We spent a lot of time [during] the off times building our friendship and building our relationship outside of business, which is very hard since we run our business together. So there’s no break.
JULZ: I think in this lifetime it’s been four years. However, I believe it’s been several lifetimes. The connection, the way we know each other, is impeccable for four years.
ELIXHER: How did you first meet?
ONYX: We first met when I was directing. I had a big theater company and I partnered with a choir in our community to do this tribute to Michael Jackson. Julz’s daughter was in the choir. I was watching people as they came into my space [when] she walked in. I remember turning to my assistant director at the time and I was like, “Who is that? I haven’t seen her before.” We were very different. She came in in a fitted, baggy jeans, and I’m all like prim and proper. But it was something about her. That was when we first met, but she wasn’t really receptive to me. She smiled at me, but thought I was straight and married to a doctor. That was the energy that I gave off. But our first interaction outside of that play was at Out in the Park at Great Adventures.
JULZ: The choir director was my brother. My rule was I will never date or try and be interested in a woman where my child is because I don’t know how it will affect her. When I walked into the space, all of the women were off-limits. I wasn’t attractive and I wasn’t attracted to anyone. I saw Onyx and after every rehearsal I would go by and speak to my brother. She would be standing there. I’m like, “Hi” and she says, “Hi.” My brother invited me to Great Adventures. Some things had transpired and I wasn’t going to go. My money wasn’t right and priorities. Onyx gets on the phone and says, “I have a ticket.”
ELIXHER: Tell us about your family.
ONYX: We have a village. We have a very non-traditional family. It’s in layers. Julz and I, we are — I hate to say — the primary parents [to] our three kids: Semaya (15), Joesph (12), Kaia-Simone (6). However, their other parents are very much a part of our family. My ex-husband, who is my son’s father, is very much a part of our life on a daily basis. My ex-wife, Nikk, is very much a part of our life as well as their girlfriends. When people see our village, they are like, “What is this? Is this some kind of poly thing?” No. It’s not at all. But collectively we all raise the kids and we all raise the kids in the same house. Our lives are so busy because of the business, but we have that support.
ELIXHER: So the other parents aren’t in Jersey?
ONYX: No we all live here, together. It won’t be like that forever but for now, we’re all in the same house. It’s important for our kids because my son’s father is so important to his life and his development. I’m raising a young man and his experience with his father I never want to take that away. But with him being in the house all of our kids have that male experience. They have that “traditional” father experience. And the love our kids feel coming from the village is tremendous. It is like they are always loved. They always have someone to go to. They always have someone to talk to and we’re all parents. We have meetings about what we’re going to do with the kids. Sometimes, the kids have meetings with us! Our oldest called a meeting two weeks ago to tell us about how they feel. She made everyone talk about what they were feeling and what was going on. That’s what we’re teaching them — how to function in a community or village setting. We have a very non-traditional family. Julz has a biological daughter. I have a biological son. We also have an adopted daughter. And we want two more kids.
JULZ: The respect is impeccable. It’s completely a blessing from God because the parents respect my decision as the last decision — our decision as the last decision. Joey’s dad will be like if you want to play video games you have to ask Julz. It’s just the respect of us being the primary parents and the respect for our relationship.
ONYX: We were at bible study last night and they were talking about the concept of traditional families and what does that mean, and how in a lot of respects it is ridiculous to even say there is a traditional family. Our family is so non-traditional but it works for us. No matter what happens with me and my ex-husband, we created a child together and our commitment is to that child. There is no reason for us not to communicate. There is no reason for us not to pour the love we have into our son. And I know not everyone can do that. I feel like as grown ups, we can move past our emotions, our hurt feelings, or our jealousy and focus on what’s most important. Everything else will fall into place. We don’t have the most perfect kids, but our kids experience life at a level I feel most kids don’t. They know how to work with different people. They know how to give love. They know how to receive love.
ELIXHER: What was the adjustment like for your children?
JULZ: The kids keep us together. Instantly, when we were talking and first speaking about our kids, Onyx said, “My son loves guitars and video games.” I said, “My daughter loves guitars and video games!” When they walked into each other’s existence that was it. There are times Onyx and I are just getting back together after one of our break ups, and it’s the kids that hold us together. When we break up, we still make plans of how the kids are going to still see each other. That is a major part. It has to happen.
ONYX: They are siblings. You can’t tell them any different. Our oldest two grew up as only children for most of their lives, so you would think they are used to having a selfish mentality. But when they got together, it was complete “‘This is my sister. This is my brother.’” The bond they have is so strong. We are really blessed because it could be completely different. Baby girl was a whole other thing because she came to me and Nikk as a foster child. She came to us at 13 months, in the foster care system for 8 months, and in 6 different homes. She had a screaming problem. She had a lot of issues the state would not really address. When she came into our life, she was adopted, and we moved to Georgia. She had a lot of transition, but for us to raise this baby girl, who at times would scream when we weren’t even next to her, navigating that, in a blended family, in a new state was very difficult. She just turned 6. We look back now at her journey and her growth and we know it is because of the village mentality.
ELIXHER: How would you describe a typical day with you two and your children? Is there a such thing as a typical day?
ONYX: 1, 2, 3. The baby girl has to be at school first. At 7:15 a.m. Our high school student has to be there at 7:30. Our son has to be at school at 8 a.m. On days when we can’t be at home at night because I’m in school or working, we have “dinner” in the morning. One of the things that is important in our house is sit down dinners. Our dinner time is everyone sits down at the table, we say grace, Julz asks a deep question, and the kids start talking. That’s our experience. If we’re not going to be home at night, we do that in the morning. So that means we’re getting up an hour earlier, I’m cooking breakfast and everyone is sitting at the table. The last child is out at 8. We pack up and head to the office. First child comes home at 2:30 p.m., [the next arrives at] 3:30, then 4:30, then dinner. Our kids started a production company so they are in the process of making a movie. My baby girl is a dancer so all she does is dance.
ELIXHER: What advice do you have for other same-sex couples thinking about starting a family?
ONYX: Be open with your kids from the beginning. I wish I could say something like, “Be prepared for people to not like you,” but all of that stuff is just normal. I believe the biggest thing is to start from the beginning open and comfortable with who you are. I’m working on a documentary called My Normal because for children of same-sex couples it is their normal. We are the ones who make it feel like it’s not normal. One of the things we are grappling with as we expand our family is all of those questions. Do you want to biologically have a child? Do you want a known donor? Do you want an anonymous donor? Are you going to adopt? Who is going to carry? I think those questions are the ones you need to pray about and focus on because that kind of dictates how you are going to set up your family and the conversations you are going to have. These are conversations you are going to have to have not only with your kids, but also with those people who support your family.
JULZ: I would add talk to your partner first about what family means to you and come up with that conclusion. Be clear. When I came into Onyx’s life, I was not for this village living.
ELIXHER: What advice do you have for parents thinking about co-parenting?
ONYX: There has to be standards. It’s difficult. The love part is easy. But when it comes down to things like I believe my son needs to be in private school and his father is like, “No, we don’t need to pay for private school”….now as co-parents, we have to come to an agreement. There is friction in that. At times as co-parents, [we think], “It’s my child! I birthed him! It’s my way or the highway.” But as co-parents it can’t be [that way]. Co-parenting is really about a respect for each other’s different opinions. I give my co-parents the space to express themselves. A lot of times, I’m like “No,” but Julz reminds me I have to compromise. In our community it’s hard because there may not be a blood tie to the child. You also have to respect their love choices. My co-parents have to respect that this is who I bring into my life as I have to respect who they choose to bring into their life. I may not like them. I may feel that way, but I have no right to say that. This is someone I created a child with. I have some level of trust, love, and respect for you. As a mom, you get defensive. It’s all about communication and compromise.
For more information about the Keesha-Julz family, check out their website: onyxkeesha.com.
Tia N. Williams is the woman behind The Buddha In Me, an agency of artists, speakers, poets, and activists based in Atlanta. The Buddha In Me specializes in providing quality programs to educate, enlighten, and entertain. Tia recently received her M.Ed. from the University of Georgia in College Student Affairs Administration.