By Carolyn Wysinger
Picture yourself standing at the top of a lush green mountain. To your left is the expansive Pacific Ocean and to your right is the setting sun. Now imagine standing with you on that hill are 150 Black queer women from around the nation. Imagine spending an entire weekend in this community of women healers, artists, and elders.
For 8 years, Black Lesbians United (BLU) has created a space where Black queer women can celebrate their unique journey and community. Perched atop the hills of Malibu, BLU is described as “an opportunity for women of African descent to celebrate, build community, and share good times with women who love women.” It is indeed a magical place
Part of the magic lies in it being a closed space dedicated to women of African descent. It was born out of the need for a space that was uniquely our own. There are many festivals and retreats for queer women, but almost all of them are heavily populated by white women. Headed into its 8th year, BLU is a weekend retreat that combines workshops, performances, and parties to create an experience that highlights our community. It has become more of a family reunion than retreat, where scholars and artists like Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Kofi Odoma, Lisa C. Moore, Yazmin Monet Watkins, Tiona McClodden, and CC Carter are your aunts and cousins. The programming is curated so that women are able to take in all kinds of experiences — from flag football to erotic poetry to dance and drumming classes to writing workshops and even a few closed spaces to explore kink play. There is something for everyone on The Land.
On Labor Day, I celebrated eight years as a BLU-Bee. Ten years ago, I was fresh-faced and all of 26 years old at my first retreat. I had begun finding new queer friends via MySpace. Yes, MySpace. But I had no idea where to find Black queer people. I was asked by my friend and BLU board member Damnyo (“The Wrap Party Podcast”) to volunteer. I didn’t know what to expect. The idea of 150 Black lesbian and bi women on a mountain was both exciting and scary. I went ahead and took the plunge.
Check-in day was buzzing with activity. Once campers made it to The Land and got their BLU swag, there were volunteers to show them to their suite, cabin or tent. As a longtime volunteer, my BLU weekend started when I received a volunteer walkie-talkie before I could even get both feet out the car. (Isn’t that how most family reunions start? Always something to be done.) As volunteers, we spent those first few hours helping sistahs up and down the site with luggage and finding open bunks. For campers, the day was theirs to get situated and comfortable. There were a handful of classes available for early birds, such as yoga, art or dance classes.
Opening night is where the BLU vibes truly come in. This year, we gathered at a fire circle right on the side of the mountain. By firelight we were led by spiritual leader Queen Hollins and master drummer Djembe Jan in an ancestral ritual of opening up the sacred space and welcoming the ancestors in. We honored the ancestors through the drum and offered up a prayer. The founders received love as we honored their journey from the early days of Sistahfest in the 90’s to present-day. Overall, we set our intentions for the weekend of honoring our stories and our strength.
After the fire circle, there were a number of night activities that campers could jump into. There was a Singles Mingle as well as Family Feud and a Spades/Dominoes card party. Some of us just hung out meeting new people and sharing laughter. At some point the camp went quiet as we all settled in to rest before a big day two.
For me, day two started with an early morning walk to the edge of camp so I could take early snaps of the sunrise for my SnapChat buddies. At 6:30am, there were already a few sistahs out and about doing the same. Some were taking quiet time listening to music while others were looking for Sunrise Yoga before breakfast and the opening workshop. Lunch was the BLU BBQ and pool party. Sistahs officially got loose as DJ Porsche T spun at the pool. Youngins taught elders to twerk and people got very familiar very fast. The sun only peaked out that day but the pool area certainly got warm enough for us all.
After evening workshops and dinner, we had our first set of night performances. Day two ended with an amazing Bare Nubian Ritual with Queen at the fire circle. It was an incredible liberation ceremony where we got to honor our relationships and tell the stories of our breasts. On the other side of camp women were having a relaxing midnight swim.
My day three started with another liberation ceremony with Queen. I was her all-weekend volunteer but only because I offered myself up to the experience of doing all of her workshops in succession. It might have been one of the single best self-love decisions I have ever made. On this day, we did the sacred womb ceremony. Similar to the Bare Nubian ceremony the night before, it was all about reclaiming and reconnecting with our wombs. Lunch was moved to the basketball court for the annual BLU Basketball Game and sandwich bar. We had one more set of performances before heading to the annual White Party to turn up one last time.
The parting day is always the hardest day. You start to realize that you will be leaving behind women who you have spent the last four days with–enjoying The Land, dishing about BLU crushes or eating every meal with. You leave The Land bonded with women that you might not have ever met without the retreat. We had one last opportunity to enjoy the family vibes in the closing ceremony. We played the drums, sang, and danced one more time in celebration. And just like that the weekend of healing, liberation, and connection came to a close.
As I headed home, I reflected on the things that bring me back to BLU every year. I love BLU because I saw myself fully for the first time there. I had never heard the names Ruth Ellis, Audre Lorde or Barbara Jordan before I came to BLU. I learned about the healing elements of dance and the drum. I learned how to create sacred healing spaces and, more importantly, that I already had healing hands. Some of the strongest voices in the Black queer community I now call friends and family because of BLU. I found love for a fleeting moment there, bare and naked in a pool at around midnight. I met my greatest mentor and cheerleader there.
I would say that these things could happen for you too at BLU. But I won’t. They might but BLU is a very personal experience. Everyone comes out with different stories to tell. Every year is a new journey towards community and family. Even if you come feeling depleted like you don’t have much to give, bring yourself! You will certainly come out with an experience that will refresh and energize your soul.
You can keep up with BLU on their website, blacklesbiansunited.org, or find them on Facebook. The retreat will return to Malibu on Labor Day 2017. Registration is generally $300 per person, with opportunities for early bird rates and discounts at different intervals throughout the year — so keep your eyes open.
Carolyn Wysinger is a snarky Black queer woman from Richmond, Calif. who may just as well be from Long Beach because she owns it. She is an author, blogger, bibliobutch and Facebook statistician. She spends most of her days ranting on Facebook and driving people around on Lyft. She didn’t create the #lyftchronicles, but she sure as hell made them worth reading. She will finish her book eventually. Follow her on Instagram @TheKnockturnalProject and on Snapchat and Twitter @knockturnalpro.