When I was a child. What age, I can’t remember. But when I was a child tends to suffice for stories like this.
When I was a child, I would play dress-up with my little sister. I’m the oldest of four. Theoretically, I should have been playing with my older, decidedly more butch cousin. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on who you ask – I was always just a tad bit too “sweet” to play with the other little Black boys. My job was to take care of my siblings while my mother worked and my grandmother (known as “Big Girl”) supervised us to make sure we didn’t get into too much trouble. I was allowed to be a part of the Black matriarchal system that sustained us all.
My sister and I would take turns transforming bed sheets into whimsical ball gowns and “fixing” our unquestionably Black hair into something “presentable” – or, at least what we thought “presentable” looked like. This ritual would sometimes birth the flashiest of fashion-week runway shows in the living room of a two-bedroom duplex shared by many. In those narrow hallways, we put on our best Naomi or Tyra as we walked cautiously, yet fiercely, down the runway in Big Girl’s Sunday heels. For us, playing dress up was an escape. It allowed us to imagine a type of material existence far out of reach of our hodgepodge mix of minimum wages, social security checks, and earnest Black Southern hustle life.
Back then, I didn’t recognize our game as an act of political resistance, a testing of the waters of Black femininity. Back then, I hadn’t found my Black Femme – one of the many places I’ve come to call home. I was just thankful that my scalp was as resilient as my burgeoning queer heart and that, while she might not have named her actions as such, my sister was providing the affirmation I didn’t know I longed for.
Though I was more interested in playing dress-up than remembering inane sports facts, learning how to “chase tail,” and other masculine rites of passage that consisted of a crash course in misogyny, sexism, and heteropatriarchal violence, I did not name myself as Black Femme until my early 20s. Up until then, I had no idea that such a thing could exist. But as I came more into my queer identity, recognizing it as a radical knowing of sexuality and gender rooted in resistance, it seemed only natural to ground this resistance in my blackness and to enshroud and sharpen it through what I had come to know as my femininity. Blackness is so often contrasted against femininity as harsh, brutish, and ugly, that I did not see a way to name who I was outside of the limiting confines of Black masculinity. I was fat, Black, and large, all things I was told couldn’t be beautiful, couldn’t be feminine. Naming my Black Femme allowed me to unpack the ways in which white supremacy had twisted my vision of Black femininity – a femininity that I had come to know as all encompassing, both harsh and delicate, ugly and beautiful, and always powerful.
It was through this reawakening that I was fully able to acknowledge my Black Femme roots. I was raised by a cadre of Black Southern women originating from rural Georgia who did what they had to do to survive and could stretch a dollar to sustain nations. These women were denied acknowledgement of their femininity, though it was something they manifested so easily. I always felt more at home in their presence – fixin’ plates and holding court in the kitchen – than that of my uncles. And now I knew why.
Too often, when Femme is invoked, the image that accompanies it is a white, thin, hetero, cis, able bodied, so- on-and-so-forth person. Contrasting these images with myself, well, I didn’t think Black Femmes existed. And yet, every day I watched Black Femme Magic manifest through these women in the shape of hot greased frying pans meant to prepare comfort food or defend against fools, concealed knives in bra straps before heading to the function, and a Black femininity that, while rendered invisible under the gaze of whiteness and Black masculinity, was unapologetic about being both feminine and loving blackness.
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Black Femme Magic
Upon this naming, in learning to see both my Black and my Femme, I was able to draft a blueprint of Black Femme situated not only on the foundation of my Black Southern lineage, but also on the foundation of the Black women icons who helped me to shape a liberatory Black Femme politic. This politic is rooted in nurturing Black communities through all the ways nurturing manifests itself and being flagrant in my love for Black Queers in all our genders. My Black Femme sits on a foundation of Black Southern survival. Black unwavering resilience. Black love conditioned on mutual respect and autonomy. Black pain and Black joy. My Black Femme is remembering and knowing, even when I don’t.
For me, Black Femme is Harriet Tubman rescuing hundreds of enslaved Black folks while carrying a shotgun for any who dared turn back. Black Femme is Bessie Smith’s defiant sexuality and loud fat blackness manifested through her music. Black Femme is Eartha Kitt’s purr that made her the first Black Catwoman – and the greatest of them all – and her never compromising fierceness. Black Femme is Tweet singing about touching herself and Khia giving you a play by play of how to eat her just like that. Black Femme is Josephine Baker’s delicate Black politicized performance, Grace Jones’ Black gender fuckery, and Sarah Vaughan’s Black jazz. Black Femme is the entire cast of Living Single and Girlfriends, though I maintain that Living Single did it better. Black Femme is Beyoncé’s hyper femininity and Rihanna and Solange’s carefree Black girl magic.
Black Femme is the countless trans and cis Black women building resources and solidarity for themselves in a world that denies them shelter and safety. For while Black Femme does not equal Black womanhood, it has been heavily shaped and influenced by it, and thus must always pay homage to and honor Black womanhood in the many ways it exists.
Black Femme, unlike the cold confines of the white beauty myth, is vulnerable and powerful, ever changing and evolving. Black Femme is fluid. Black Femme is complicated. To paraphrase Regine Hunter (Kim Fields from Living Single): Black Femme doesn’t wear outfits. Black Femme creates looks.
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A Black Femme Politic
Oftentimes, Black Femmes get relegated to the margins of our movements. We get slandered as being frivolous, whimsical, and giving in to capitalistic standards of beauty, while demands for our labor and sexual openness are constant. We are victim blamed for our trauma and not viewed as authentic, complex individuals manifesting an authentic, complex identity. And yet, from prison abolition to body liberation, Black Femmes are moving mountains and nurturing movements.
Now is the time to move towards a Black Femme politic that recognizes and seeks to mimic Black Femme desire to own and express our sexuality and gender on our own terms. A politic that is grounded in the liberation of Black womanhood and all Black women and girls, and that exists in reverence of Black Femmes, not in our exploitation.
Black Femme is not new. Black Femme has always existed and resisted in one form or another. In knowing Black Femme, we see the ways in which Black femininity, while constantly under attack, is always enduring, thriving, and liberating. In knowing Black Femme, we see a divine scheme for how to challenge toxic masculinity and be unabashed in our disdain of whiteness and white supremacy. We see how to have fun. How to fight back. How to laugh and be carefree in tight skirts, denim, plaid, leather, however Black Femme manifests for you. Black Femme is an illuminating kind of blackness that consumes all. It is reconnecting and healing. It organizes. It convenes and holds space. It is loud and angry even when it’s quiet, sad, and sick.
In a world that values thin, straight whiteness above all else, I have always been Fat, Black, Queer, and Femme, even when I was too afraid to admit these things to myself. And in Black Femme, I have found a history of resistance and liberation grounded in Black femininity – born from the blood and broken backs of Black women and girls, but also their laughter and hope – that deserves to be uplifted and honored in our movements. I invite you to know Black Femme.
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[Headline image: The photograph shows a young black person with curly hair. The person is outdoors and smiling at the camera.]