ESSAY: What, You Can't Hear Me?


keisa

In this essay, there is the use of the n-word, which the author spells out. The author wants to warn Black people who might experience discomfort in seeing the word.

by Keisa Reynolds

Berkeley, California, 2014. There is a Marine-turned-political-science-student facing me with a blank stare. Perhaps he is a republican. Moments ago I finished my rant about Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emanuel. I stressed the evils of his policies and the damage he has caused communities of color across the city. Lance*, the potential republican, looks at our classmate, Jonathan, who nods and says, “You know, I’ve heard a lot about Rahm,” and shares his piece. Jonathan is a sweetheart for pretending I didn’t make an ass of myself by delivering an unwanted rant. I thought they wanted my opinion because I was a Chicago resident. Of course I have some level of expertise. I pay attention to these things, you know?

Lance didn’t want to know what I thought about Rahm Emanuel, he wanted to know what I thought about our quantitative methods professor’s dickish move of writing “Read the fucking manual” on the whiteboard. Oh, I guess that makes more sense. Let me file this moment under the neverending list of embarrassing responses I had to what I thought I heard but was in no way related to what was actually said. This is a moment that reminds me exactly who I am, and while I am not afraid to say it, it often gets awkward for everyone around: I am deaf.

What? If you are like me and didn’t hear, I am deaf. Yes, I am capable of speaking. I have a habit of doing that. My first language was sign language, then my parents decided they wanted me to be more normal. Don’t shame them; they are also deaf, and they, unlike me, don’t have the privilege to pass as anything but. My parents speak too. Deaf people know how to speak; sometimes with our mouths, sometimes with our hands, sometimes only one over the other. There isn’t only one way to be deaf.

*

My family knows a lot about passing. My dad and his siblings were called niggers by their cousin who didn’t realize they were related by blood. The cousin thought his father was fully white, certainly not half Afro-Indigenous. He ran off crying when my aunt, the youngest at the time, put her hand on her hip and said, “Well, if I am a nigger, what does that make you? We come from the same family!”

There was a look of pride on my aunt’s face when she recalled that moment when I interviewed her for a research paper during my junior year of high school. My English teacher, who is Black and Jewish, encouraged me explore what it meant to live in between cultures. We shared a mutual love for our Blackness and recognized the ways in which we came to fiercely identify as such. We are not people who happen to be Black; everything about looking and living as Black people shapes how we understand the world. However, I couldn’t focus solely on race for the project; I realized there was more to my own identity than my family’s multicultural background.

My aunt doesn’t pass for white and has no desire to do so, but she codes as anything other than Black or Afro-Indigenous. “I am Black,” she says without hesitation whenever someone asks, “Wait, what are you?” During our interview she said she chooses every day to affirm her identity regardless of how people think they understand her. Her love for her people is the only measurement of her Blackness.

“I am deaf,” I told a childhood friend shortly after I moved away for college. She responded with, “I know you had hearing aids growing up, but I didn’t realize you consider yourself deaf.” She wasn’t wrong. This was a recent revelation. I realized I was exhausted living between not quite hearing and not quite deaf.

*

An aspiring sign language interpreter blew my cover on a tour of the ASL department of my undergraduate institution. As the tour guide I delivered the usual spiel about the department and its accomplishments. The guest was a student of ASL and deaf culture for years at this point. She was passionate about her field and the people she served. She thought nothing about asking me if I was deaf in front of a handful of strangers. Visibly shaken, I answered yes. The prospective student smiled and said, “I knew it.”She was proud of herself for recognizing what most people mistake as a Valley Girl accent. It is the same voice an English professor, a fellow Black woman writer, thought was insincere and unprofessional. The professor urged me to practice changing my voice or no one would take me seriously. She warned my career would not go very far. I wanted to hide anywhere on the street where she accosted me. Instead I reminded her I spoke for a living, and I was fine as long as my paychecks cashed.

But the student didn’t have the same ill intent to shame me. She wanted to show she had the potential to be an expert of deaf people. The rest of the tour looked at each other as if I transformed right before their eyes. My voice no longer sounded like mine, but a deaf person’s.

Later my mother assured me I don’t sound deaf. In sign language, she told me that student didn’t know what she was talking about. I reminded my mother she cannot actually hear my voice. Others can. My ability to speak the way I do doesn’t mask my disability. And I wasn’t sure I wanted it to. The less people who know I am deaf, the more people I have to repeatedly remind that I am incapable of fully hearing them. Most people say, oh, I am sorry, and speak slightly louder, then promptly return to the same mumbling mess I heard. I am part of the circle, but often, I have no idea what is going on. And rarely will someone try their hardest to help me.

*

My mother insists I am hard of hearing or hearing impaired, not deaf. Deaf is a word  reserved for who the world considers the most helpless. She gets frustrated that I don’t know sign language as well as she feels I should. I can hold my own in conversation, even if my hands don’t go exactly where they belong, but it does not feel like the language I learned to speak first. My father blames her for not teaching me throughout my childhood. “What was I supposed to do? She was supposed to be normal.” Normal. Or Mainstream, the word used to categorize me as a student the disability office kept tabs on, but mostly left alone. I can read a lips, a survival tool well-meaning people assume is a party trick. Try me, can you read what I am saying?

I would prefer you tried to speak to me like a person, but yes, I can read you saying sometimes you masturbate with hot dogs.

*

“They are just jealous,” my mother assured me when I told her about the isolation I felt when I was mocked by my deaf classmates. Two of them, whom I knew for years, spoke in sign language while I sat directly across from them on the train. In school they saw me walk down the hall with my friends. They saw the smiles and laughter. They didn’t notice I often faked it. Like my mom, they saw me as normal. They questioned my presence: She isn’t deaf, what is she doing here?

As a mainstream student, I was invited to attend field trips that would keep me in the loop about Deaf culture. For my classmates, that was their culture, not mine. We went to the School for the Deaf, where we saw students perform entirely in sign language. The hearing people were the ones who needed interpreters. It was a switch that seemed to delight my classmates. Their eyes lit up when we sat in the cafeteria after the show. They were surrounded by people they considered their equals, peers who couldn’t make them feel less than.

I felt the same way. I knew they didn’t think so. They assumed I was anxious to return to the hearing world. The School for the Deaf was their safest place because once we returned to school, I was the one who could pass. It didn’t matter that I had to ask people to repeat themselves until they grew frustrated and said, “Never mind.” And you know, it really didn’t matter. My inconvenience was nothing compared to the teasing they faced and the assumptions our hearing classmates made about their intelligence. My inability to hear has hindered my life, but I was never discarded in the same way as most Deaf people are in our hearing society.

I recently got hearing aids for the first time in almost eight years. I know I can’t hear. Everyone around me knows I can’t hear. Yet most hearing people are more comfortable with me saying “Oh, I have a bad ear” with an apologetic giggle than me saying I am deaf and need them to try to accommodate my needs.

My new audiologist showed off the latest hearing aids and gushed about their invisibility. Part of me was relieved because I grappled with the fact that strangers will look at my hearing aids and try to practice their sign language on me. Those strangers were always as annoyed as my deaf classmates and parents that I wasn’t an expert. Part of me felt my option of visibility was removed by people who want deaf people to fit in.

There is no normal. There is no magical solution that will help me fit inside the narrow space I fear will suffocate me. There is the only choice I make every day: Hi, can you speak up? I am deaf.


For The Love of Brown Girls

By Keisa Reynolds 

Still from "Brown Girls"

Still from "Brown Girls"

Brown Girls is a tribute to what Chicago offers in arts, music, film, and most importantly, in its people. It explores two areas we can always appreciate—sisterhood and friendship—but it offers another perspective we don’t often see in media: two women of color from distinctly different ethnic backgrounds loving each other and having each other’s backs.

Loosely based on the friendship of Jamila Woods and the writer of the series, Fatimah Asghar,  the series follows Leila (Nabila Hossain), a South Asian-American writer just beginning to own her queerness, and her best friend Patricia (Sonia Denis), a sex-positive Black-American musician who is struggling to commit to anything: jobs, art or relationships. While the two women come from completely different backgrounds, their friendship is ultimately what they lean on to get through the messiness of their mid-twenties.

“I think this series is going to explore sisterhood and friendship in a different way that I never really explored in my own writing, and not what we’ve seen around women of color,” says director and producer, Sam Bailey.  “Usually you see all black girls or all Latinas, this is all brown people enjoying and loving each other. As women and women of color, we’re just so hungry for that content. It’s really important to me to contribute to that.”

Bailey is a Chicagoan, born and raised in Logan Square, where her hit web series You’re So Talented was filmed. Brown Girls was filmed in Pilsen at an arts collective space called the dojo.

Everyone in the crew—behind the camera—have a specific view and are all Chicago artists,” she says. “You feel it on set. The energy is vibrant.”

Watching the series, viewers might find that it feels “innately Chi-town.” Popular local artists and personalities are easy to spot in the trailer, which was released in early November.

All people I worked with before either through You’re So Talented or other films—people were connected to each other from one way or another,” says Bailey. “I think that’s why it went so well. No one really had to prove [themselves]—only to show up to set and bring their best work and it showed.”

The series might strike a sense of familiarity in brown girls of various ethnicities and nationalities as they watch these women of color unabashedly discuss sex, kiss, and laugh with each other on screen. It’s much like the lives of people of color every day, but it’s rarely showcased in this way.

“The entire series is all people of color,” says Bailey. “There [are] no white people, including extras. The world [doesn’t] crumble or change when there’s no white people. People are still loving and fucking.”

Brown Girls is out in early 2017. We’re waiting!

View the whole spread here.

Stop Disrupting Black Joy With Your Fear

By Keisa Reynolds

Often we hear how important it is to learn how to spend time alone, Ive heard people say that you dont really know yourself until you have really spent time alone.

I agree with the sentiment so much. This piece was meant to be an essay about how great it feels to spend time alone and learning how to enjoy it. Then the murder of Alton Sterling happened, Philando Castile the next day. Then, I discovered we never learned to say the names of Stephanie Hicks and Essence Bowman, and we still struggle to uplift Mya Halls.

I experience joy when I spend time by myself. Sometimes it feels impossible when black joy gets snatched on a daily basis. It’s not easy learning to spend time alone when you are told your body is perfect for harassment and violence. Spending time alone, no matter how many of us have to do it, doesnt feel radical, especially when youre learning how to survive in the face of violence.

Spending time alone is a luxury for many people. There is always potential danger no matter who you are, however, the higher social status (real or perceived), the less danger you face, and the danger you do face looks very different than most. Its easy to not think about it, because no one should have to. Living life is a luxury for many people. Theres a kind of personal freedom in taking advantage of living life, doing what you want, what you can.  

I imagine the sense of personal freedom Sandra Bland felt as she drove to Texas to start a new job. I imagine the sense of personal freedom Alton Sterling felt when he figured out how to make money outside of the system that denied him professional prospects. I imagine the sense of personal freedom that Rekia Boyd felt as she enjoyed being out with her friends like the average 22-year-old before she was shot in the head by a Chicago police officer.

Many of my friends who are, and are accepted as, white heterosexual cis men walk home at all hours of the night without a second thought. Walking with my ex, a white man, in the South Loop at 10pm on a Saturday did not make me feel any safer; it reaffirmed how easy it is to navigate day-to-day life as a man, specifically as a white man. I would have taken a cab or requested an Uber instead of walking around. While safer than walking alone, requesting a ride still isnt the safest option for women, femmes, and gender nonconforming people. If there is another black person with me, the idea of safety in numbers goes away; the more of us, the greater the possibility of danger.

Black people face being perceived as a threat or receiving threats, sometimes both. Even our laughter can be seen as disruptive and threatening. Being a queer black feminine person is not a risk, nothing about my identity is a risk. The violence black people experience, including the violence we face at the hands of law enforcement and vigilantes, does not happen because we bring it upon ourselves.

It is summertime here. I would like to do the following: go camping, take a road trip with friends, hold the hand of a lover as we stroll through the park, sit on a restaurants patio while sipping mimosas, wear sundresses, wear a smile. I can and will do those things, and I will experience joy when I do. I will also experience sadness because the countless lives weve lost that wont be able to.

Experiencing joy and personal freedom is a right reserved for all, not a few. Black joy, whether or not it is accepted, is a gift to the world. 

Panteha Abareshi: Artist Profile

Sixteen-year-old artist Panteha Abareshi has won the internet over with her bold illustrations of women of color living unapologetically female.

For the Phoenix, Arizona resident, illustration became an outlet as she battled Sickle Cell Beta Zero Thalassemia, a genetic disease that causes her chronic pain and physical limitations. In the fall of 2014, the condition had took a drastic turn and led to her being frequently hospitalized for long periods of time. She began to channel her energy into illustration and creating representations of teenage girls of color and mental illnesses. She spoke with Hooligan via email about growing up as a woman of color in Arizona, and finding her footing as an artist.

How have your personal experiences shaped or influenced your artwork?

My art is very much a visual representation of my struggles with mental illness, as well as a way of conveying my thoughts and emotions surrounding love, romance and sexuality. All of my work is very personal and the reason a lot of it is so graphic is because I put all of the emotion I’m unable to express verbally into it.

From a very young age I’ve been very opposed to the notion that women should measure their worth on their ability to be in a committed romantic relationship, and their ability to be a housewife and mother—being told repeatedly that marriage is the peak of success in a woman’s life and that not wanting to have children is “just how I feel now” before I “meet Mr. right”. So much emphasis and importance is placed on romantic relationships, starting in middle school and maybe even earlier. I remember all the crushes I had and the intense pressure I felt to look and act a certain way to get their attention and conform to what they found attractive. I have no desire to be in a romantic relationship. I was never seeking a boyfriend. I personally struggle with intimacy and certainly don’t value it to the extent that the media demands young females do.

I convey this through my work. There is a reoccurring theme of intimacy being shut down and of romance being warped and darkened by juxtaposing it with murder and blood. It is exaggeration, but it communicates a strong and clear message about my personal feelings and experiences.

You mention media representations of young women and intimacy, specifically how young women are supposed to be crave and value it. What are some sentiments other young women have shared about your art, especially that component?

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from other young women who tell me that they relate very strongly to the notions of the warped nature of romance and intimacy that I convey in my art. One message that stood out specifically was a girl my age telling me that she felt alone and very isolated because of her lack of desire to be intimate and romantic with anyone. The fact that people feel alienated and wrong just because the notion of intimacy and romance holds no interest completely disgusts me. The entire aromantic and asexual spectrum is essentially nonexistent in the media, but individuals who do not identify as asexual/aromantic, but are uninterested for personal or mental health issues need to be shown that they are valid and not figments of imagination as the media would make it seem. I’ve had numerous cases of people, both male and female identifying, tell me that my art provided comfort and validation and it is an unbelievably validating thing.
 

What representations of women of color and mental illness do you see in current conversations about art, culture, and entertainment?

That’s the thing! I don’t see the representation and the representation that I do see is so

flawed, stereotyped, and inaccurate to the point of insult. There is no accurate portrayal of what living with mental illness is truly like in the media. The fact that the word “depressed” is used so trivially and the fact that bipolarity is used as an insult illustrates just how warped and painfully inaccurate the understanding and portrayal of mental illness in the media truly is.

Thankfully, there is currently an amazing movement that is picking up rapidly, aiming to create a space in the art world for POC and WOC specifically. There are zines for only queer women of color and there are galleries only showing POC artists. The art world is slowly realizing that there is this whole community of artists that have such talent and so much value that they have to share. I am so lucky to be able to join this movement and contribute and work with other POC. It is an amazing feeling of solidarity.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that there are any current conversations on mental illness that are significant enough to make an actual impact. I really hope to start conversations, and to really bring more people to understand the complexity and truth of what mental illness is. It’s a difficult topic, because it’s virtually impossible to understand the struggles of mental illness to their full extent without experiencing it first hand. But I find that it’s easier for neuro-typical individuals to understand the emotional struggles when they’re expressed through art.


A lot of people find your work through Tumblr, which is awesome. Has Tumblr or other platforms influenced how you create your art?

I wouldn’t say that the social-media platforms I use influence the actual creation of my art, but it certainly pushes me to hold myself to a higher standard because I want to maintain consistency in the work I put out into the world. Posting my work on Tumblr and Instagram has given me a bit more confidence in my work and some assurance that choosing to be an artist won’t a regrettable choice. Of course, it’s nice to get positive feedback from people who relate to my art. My blog and instagram make that possible. Aside from that, what I truly love about Tumblr is that I can find and follow so many amazing artists, many of which attend the universities that I’ll be applying to! It’s great to be able to keep up with the work of people that I admire so much and have the ability to reach out and connect with them. While it doesn't provide artistic inspiration in terms of actually affecting my technique, seeing the diverse and inspiring array of art from all the artists I follow pushes me to work harder and to improve.

How do you see your artwork growing in the future?

I’m completely self-taught. Considering how much my art has changed and improved in only a year’s time I cannot imagine what I’ll learn and how much I’ll grow once I’m receiving a full-time, formal art education. I’ll hopefully be accepted into a BFA of illustration program, and the possibilities that will open up for me excite me so much. All the growth that I want to make requires small things first—taking an anatomy class to fine-tune my understanding of proportions and the way the body moves. Doing a color study to better grasp shades, and to give my pieces better coloration. I can’t point exactly to where I see my art going, or what I see it becoming because I don’t know. All I can say is that I am always eager to refine myself and practice new techniques, and I can’t wait to learn and grow in my work but also as an artist.

I really would love to create bigger pieces, just to have more visual impact, and I’d love to do more visual storytelling—maybe a short comic strip or zine. Ultimately, I want to do larger-scale collaborations and have the opportunity to show my work and speak about all the things I’m passionate about.  

Read the full spread here.

Who Benefits From Being Woke?

By Keisa Reynolds

Over the years, online dating websites and apps have been a way to meet new friends and lovers who share your interests and want to talk about them, and maybe make out. These days, dating platforms are useful for finding people who share similar social and political views—a criterion that has become increasingly important to people seeking new dating prospects and friends.

OkCupid recently added a fill-in-the-black question for users to answer: ____ lives matter. The options are Black, All, and I’m not familiar with these movements / no opinion. If someone has been paying attention, they'll pick black lives matter as their answer. They might pick it because they want to get laid. Ideally, they will pick it because it reflects their beliefs.

After seeing the new OkCupid match question, I searched Black Lives Matter on the site and saw mostly white and non-black people of color in the results. During my usual search for potential dates, I often somehow land on the profiles of white people who say they have no tolerance for racism, and they only won't speak with you unless you believe black lives matter. I see #blacklivesmatter on Tinder profiles of white and non-black people of color. White queer people also write in their OkCupid and Tinder profiles that they are intersectional feminists. I don’t feel more or less inclined to swipe right or send them a message. Most of time I wonder, is their feminism truly intersectional? Does black lives matter belong on a dating profile of a non-black person? When did this become a thing?

People deserve the opportunity to weed out potential matches, their political and social beliefs are one way to start. For people living in smaller cities and towns, being able to weed out the purposefully ignorant jerks is necessary for their self-preservation. Same for those with marginalized identities, namely queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people who don't have enough spaces in person to cruise or seek partnerships. That aside, it feels like social consciousness is being romanticized and used for social currency. And as usual, it benefits the people who are not directly impacted by specific issues of social injustice.

I go to men's profiles and see a disclaimer: only interested in feminists. What does it mean for a man to declare a preference for feminists? Men should be engaged in feminism, but not through romanization or sexualization of feminists. White men write that they support for Black Lives Matter and care about issues that impact black people and other people of color. I don’t see as many black men or other men of color state the same, presumably because it is likely obvious through the other information on their profile. Hetero men of color are also likely to mention they are mostly interested in women who are feminists.

In a recent interview with TimeOut, Feminist author Roxane Gay said, “I think woke men are great, but sometimes they’re not really woke, they’re performing wokeness. What’s even worse is they want cookies, they want to be congratulated for being aware of their privilege and the benefit they have as they move through the world, and I’m not going to play that game with them.” “Performing wokeness” is an excellent way to describe it. People, not just men who identify as feminists, who align themselves with struggles and movements tend to spend too much time making sure everyone knows how woke they are.

One of my favorite sweatshirts is from AfroPunk, says NO RACISM, NO SEXISM, and continues a list of oppressions. I have pictures of me wearing it, I look cute and conscious—does that make me more dateable? Being open about my intolerance of social injustice has me perceived as an angry black woman, not a caring, socially conscious person. Being woke online is for white people, particularly heterosexual cis men. And many of us are guilty of praising white male mediocrity when it comes to them understanding the importance of social issues.   

It is innocent enough to mention black lives matter or intersectional feminism on your dating profiles, but it is as annoying as it is a relief there’s a small possibility you are not a terrible person. I can’t tell if they are speaking to me as someone with a marginalized identity, or people who share their privilege and also want to feel good about their wokeness.

To be a queer black feminine person in online dating is already a hard enough feat; having to make sure my profile shows a certain level of political engagement makes me feel like I am appealing to non-black people. Funny enough, I may scare them away. It doesn't help that online dating is already difficult for marginalized people, especially black women, heterosexual or LGBTQ-identified. For many of us, our interest in social justice is not about gaining popularity, it is about survival, it’s for the sake of liberation. This isn’t to say white people can’t also feel this way, however, it is fair to say for those trying to prove their wokeness, it’s not coming out of necessity.

My blackness is political enough in a space where black women and femmes are still seen as least desirable and non-binary people are viewed as confused. My feminism can't be described in a single word, and it won't appease men. A white or non-black person believing black lives matter doesn’t mean they also have to date me or any other black person (besides, we know dating or sleeping with a black person doesn’t absolve people of their anti-black racism). But there is something to be said about romanticizing people’s commitment to social justice and giving too much credit to mediocrity.

Lemonade, Black Femininity, and Vulnerability

By Keisa Reynolds

From Beyoncé's song "Love Drought" featured in her visual album  Lemonade  

From Beyoncé's song "Love Drought" featured in her visual album Lemonade 

Black women are often relegated to less than desirable emotions: anger, jealousy, sadness. Beyoncé allows herself to feel every single one in Lemonade, her sixth studio album and second visual album. Whether it's autobiographical or a work of fiction, Beyoncé creates a world where black women and femmes do not silence themselves.

The visual album reminds us of novels written by 20th century black women writers, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, who beautifully capture black women, their relationships, and their allegiance to black Southern traditions. It is not only the imagery that reminds us, it is the way Beyoncé fully humanizes herself, Jay-Z, and men who have caused harm to women and femmes they love.

My mother once told me, a man will never tell you the truth as long as he loves you. It is damaging to believe women and femmes must settle for dishonesty, and it is not our responsibility to guide a man through his shortcomings. By choosing ourselves, as women and femmes, we create a world where our desires are centered. And our stories are shared with each other; none of us go through it alone.

We know from Miss Zora: if we are silent about our pain, they’ll kill us and say we enjoyed it. Beyoncé, whether she is playing herself or all of us, creates space for black women and femmes to be vulnerable and name the sources of our pain. She questions her own emotional responses like many of us do. She affirms those emotional responses, they are hers to own.

As a sensitive black girl and someone who loves hard, Lemonade validates my sadness and anger and praises my happiness. Lemonade depicts the rollercoaster of love and relationships I’ve entered hopeful, left broken and wondering if I could do it again. Beyoncé tells us, through the words of Warsan Shire, we deserve more, we deserve love. Often we will find it within ourselves and among other women and femmes.

Watching Lemonade, like reading Their Eyes Were Watching God or The Bluest Eye, is an experience I would want to share with my sisters, my mother, and the young girls in my family who will grow up being told to give themselves to men. But it is not solely about our relationships to/with men, it is about the space we deserve to feel every emotion however undesirable they may be. We deserve our full humanity, which is not given to us; it is something we take, and as the most disrespected person in America, we fight for.  

Lemonade can and should be enjoyed by everyone, however, it is for the black woman or femme. Beyoncé doesn’t speak for every single one of us, but her work is an offering for those of us struggling to articulate how we feel or needing validation for our feelings. It puts our stories of pain, loss, and grief into the mainstream spotlight without removing us—we define ourselves, we shape our worlds. This album is a treat for all and a testimony to the power of black femininity and sisterhood. Good job, Bey.