SistaSoul Search Retreat Speech, Dec 12, 2020

As shared in keynote event, I wanted to offer to all Black women:

Thank you all for having me – it is an honor to get to come and speak with you, as Black women of faith, who are working to change the world, who are working for reparations, who are working for reproductive justice, who are navigating the complicated relationship with voting in this country, who are combating anti-blackness. I salute you, to begin with, because those are all the things. Thank you.

I am here today to speak with you about our pleasure.

Pleasure Activism – this is a book I wrote and gathered about my own journey with pleasure. I am going to speak about that, but first I want to say why such a book was even needed. Why Audre Lorde had to write the Uses of the Erotic as Power, the text which is the river flowing throughout the book.

The Black experience is by no means a monolithic experience – some of us have ancestors who were enslaved here, some of us have immigration stories of choice, some of us had to escape where we were and this was the only choice. Some of us can trace our lineage back to a specific origin, and some of us feel longing for a mother tongue we wouldn’t recognize if we heard it. Some of us were raised being told we had kings and queens as ancestors, and others with an anti-monarchial class analysis that says it’s more likely we descended from workers. Some of us were raised to be patriots to a nation in which we could make it if we just worked hard enough, others were told never to trust a thing this country told us, to seek our liberation by any means necessary. There are as many experiences as there are Black people.

There are, however, some things that tie us together into a fairly common experience.

One is that we have had to be people of faith. Be it religious or revolutionary, we have had to place our faith in something larger than us, get interconnected, something that could fuel us through challenges as impossible as forced sterilization, being separated from our children, being subjugated by patriarchs, living in places that couldn’t see or love us.

Another thing we often share is that we have had to normalize the labor of martyrdom. I cannot think of a Black woman in my life who has not been overworked and underpaid at least once in her life. I can think of so many Black women who have given their all to personal and professional labor which has not given them, us, back care, stability, ease, health, leadership or love.

Many of us share a history of sexual harm in the form of molestation, assault, harrassment, rape, or silencing of our sensual instincts.

Many of us share stories of reproductive grief and fear.

Many of us need help, permission and guidance to see our bodies as a site of pleasure, joy, satisfaction, contentment, happiness, ease, rest, peace.

I wrote Pleasure Activism for women like myself. I was smart, hard working, and when I showed up to work I got things done. Like many of us, when I was young I was given leadership “opportunities” which were often unveiled, with time, to be undervalued spaces of extreme labor. And I did the labor, eagerly seeking the belonging and love that was stolen from me at the ancestral level – you know I believe we all belong to the land, and when we are stolen from the land, or lands, we are meant to know, we can search high and low and in and out for that tether, that unconditional belonging that comes on land which knows your name.

I didn’t belong in the military world I’d grown up in with ARMY dad.

I didn’t belong in the sleeping world in which american dreamt its way through egregious injustice.

I didn’t belong to Black revolutionary space because I was queer and quirky and the men didn’t know what to do with me if i wouldn’t respect the myth of their superiority and/or sleep with them.

I didn’t belong anywhere else because I just knew that a Black queer feminist worldview was the liberating thought process that fit my mind and heart…so i floated around busting my butt for the movement, repressing my need for healing, for health, for a living wage, for respect, for consideration, for sleep…I confused numbing myself and escaping for pleasure. I confused being drunk, high, sexual, binge eating and living a deeply foggy life for pleasure.

And if we were all in the room together I would ask if you know what I mean. If you too have been the leader in your household, in your community, in your organization, church, mosque, temple, network, state, nation – if you have realized at some point that you couldn’t feel anymore, that you were scrolling through your life, that you were the most accountable person in the room and you were tired.

And that brings us to this paragraph from Audre Lorde:

“…when we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense. For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering, and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like the only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within. In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.”

Reading Audre, and looking at my life, I had this awakening – I am not constructed for suffering. I am not a miraculous being meant to toil to the bone for other people’s imaginations which are based in me shrinking and serving them. And I am not meant to give continuously of my gifts and talents where there is no love – that is self-denial.

So I began to study in earnest. And I wrote a column for Bitch magazine called the pleasure dome, where I documented what was coming to understand. I wrote about getting comfortable in my naked skin, looking at myself, desiring myself and examining any fantasies in which a thin, white able body was more desirable than mine. Now it actually feels preposterous to me – bodies are all hot, they are all flesh and nerves and magic. But that took work. I had to learn what it meant to be in consent and to set and hold boundaries and negotiate the sex I wanted. I wrote about learning that I could ejaculate and about sex toys and pornography and period sex. I wrote about weed and ecstasy and healing and wholeness and Beyoncé and gratitude and nonmonogamy and liberated relationships. And when I reached my edges I reached out to others and wove in their knowledge on sex work and burlesque and pole dancing and humor and fashion and BDSM and casual sex through apps and pleasure while parenting and pleasure over sixty and pleasure with cancer. There is so much I didn’t get to include and I am still studying and practicing. I have a book in the works being co-edited by two thick Black femmes on Kink for Black Feminists. I want to really dive into the nonsexual pleasures of food, movement…I am reading Wicked Flesh my Jessica Marie Johnson, which gives incredible historical context to this condition of martyrdom…

The last thing I want to say is perhaps the edge I have been exploring most recently. I have been appalled at how so many of our hardest working Black organizers are treated. Underpaid, inhumane hours, yes. But I am speaking specifically about what happens when Black women step into the risk of leading. Saying – yes I will helm this organization. I will co-direct this network. I will work to align our vision and our values with what we can do in this time. I have been one of these leaders, and I have held many of them, and the current ease with which these leaders are attacked and disrespected is appalling to me. We are all learning how to navigate complexity and divergent paths towards liberation. We have disagreements, we have differences and contradictions, and of course, we make mistakes. But no one, not one of these leaders, deserves to be treated as enemy. Torn down. Threatened with death and targeted not just by the state, which we expect, but by those who call themselves comrades.

Often it is right at the moment of victory, at the moment of a small win in the long journey to liberation, when we should be uplifting each other, that we are instead moved to destroy our most precious parts, the black women mothering and midwifing revolution.

And I wonder, I wonder how deeply this capacity to mistreat Black women leaders is a sign of the same colonial thinking that originally disconnected us from our bodies, our power. That others expect us to mammy, expect us to martyr, expect us to toil without celebration or even attention. That if we work hard and we begin to shine, and our magic and power and even the pleasure of leadership – right, because it feels incredible to begin to learn what works, and to be in community with others dedicated to radical change and solutions and growing and learning in public, it’s such a balm when we find each other, when we have those moments of leaping forward and that light grows in us and the shine starts to show…but is there something in us at a collective level that feels compelled to police that, to control that, to shrink that, to shut it down?

I believe that there is inner work to reclaim our inherent right to pleasure, to awaken the wiring for delight and satisfaction that exists in each of us. But I also believe there is collective and perhaps congregational work to do, to be accountable for celebrating each other, and protecting each other. I think we need to ask ourselves every day: am I satisfiable? Are we satisfiable? And whose satisfaction is served when we tear down our own? Who is satisfied when we expect labor without offering gratitude? I want us to continue to work hard for that which is ours to do – our generation is here to defund the police and reclaim sovereignty over our reproduction and make racism past-tense – we have so much to do and I want us to work knowing that our community will love us when we fall, love us when we win, love us when we learn, love us when we change.

I am not waiting for reparations from anyone who doesn’t love me. I am reclaiming the love and pleasure due to me every day. We are reclaiming it as we scale our movements up to the level of justice. We give it to each other when we redistribute belonging, joy, satisfaction. And Black orgasms.