Black queer healing poetics of Vanessa Rochelle Lewis
Black Healing October is now
By Isadora Dean with Margaret Rhee
It may be hard to get a sense of a person through Zoom, however the dynamic feminist energy of Black queer artist and activist Vanessa Rochelle Lewis is infectious through any digital screen. Busy with four radical projects — an upcoming book from North Atlantic Books called Reclaim UGLY — Uplift Glorify Love Yourself & Create A World Where Others Can As Well (about how to reclaim our bodies, relationships, and imaginations from the impacts of uglification and the compulsion to participate in systems that hurt ourselves and other people); a yearlong, online social education project called Creating Freedom Movements: More Justice, More Joy that supports diverse participants to learn more about the theory, practical strategies, art, and emotionality of grassroots movement work while incubating their own freedom or healing projects; a month of daily, online workshops, performances, and sacred healing spaces, called Solidarity Healing September, dedicated to creating a more gentle, welcoming racial justice landscape for Black Allies to support each other’s healing and growth while fundraising for Black Healing October; and finally Black Healing October, which offers 150 hours of free, online, ASL-interpreted, healing and joy spaces for Black people, facilitated by over fifty-five Black healers, artists, and educators. Vanessa’s poetics illustrates how healing and radical self-love intervene in these challenging times.
As a dynamic queer Black artist from the Bay Area, Vanessa received national attention in 2017 with her organization Reclaim UGLY, which was featured in Vice, Wear Your Voice Magazine, and RaceBaitr, and which educates communities about what uglification is and how it works to marginalize people who don’t fit the normative notions of beauty or respectability, rejecting those standards and finding a way to feel beautiful in one’s own skin. Prior to founding Reclaim UGLY, Vanessa was the senior and co-managing editor for feminist magazines Black Girl Dangerous and Everyday Feminism, an instructor at multiple Bay Area Community College and grassroots art organizations, the fundraising and development coordinator for the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project, and the artistic director of the queer Black liberatory theatre project, Congregation of Liberation. Vanessa performs and facilitates regularly in the Bay Area literary scene, feminist scene, and queer arts scene, and at numerous surrounding universities and colleges. Vanessa facilitates performance, writing, and healing workshops through her organization, PleasureNess Literary Academy. She received her MFA in creative writing from Mills College, and her BA in creative writing from San Francisco State University.
What follows includes an interview that activist and artist Izzy Dean conducted over Zoom, where Vanessa talks about radical self-care, healing practices, feminist novels such as The Color Purple, and how to reimagine futures for young activists.
Introduction by Izzy Dean:
Vanessa’s work and energy is the kind of radical feminism grounded in queer women of color, Black politics, and fat femme liberation that is healing, groundbreaking, and real. Through a simple Zoom conversation, as the interviewer, speaking with Vanessa, one is left feeling so empowered, ready to take on the world. Perhaps in these troubling times, we need the radical queer Black visions of healing that Vanessa Rochelle Lewis offers.
For young feminists still finding our voices at the intersection of art and activism, Vanessa’s journey and her advice and coping with and navigating the times we’re currently living in now. She offers ways to express ourselves out of the darkness of the current political times.
In October, a fundraiser to support Black Healers will be held by Lewis’s organization. Please click here to donate to Black Healing October to sponsor a Black Healer and her organization.
Interview with Izzy Dean and Vanessa Rochelle Lewis
Izzy: Please share with us your favorite poems, and how does poetics and Blackness intersect?
Vanessa: There are two poems that have had the most profound impact on my life. The first is “Child of the Americas” by Aurora Levins Morales, which invited me to consider my own Blackness, to question what it means to be a Black person of this continent outside of a colonial lens and if it’s possible, how Chicanixism informs my own understanding and reclamation of both diasporic and Indigenous Blackness. It has deeply invited me into my own radical Black imagination about the continued creation of my Blackness and humanity, and reminds me that I am constantly becoming and allowed to embrace the perpetual newness of that
My second favorite poem is Lucille Clifton’s “What The Mirror Said.”
When Clifton writes “you a city of a woman,” and that someone needs a map to understand their way around you, it invited me to think about my Fatness and how loving it, recognizing it as a part of me and not a thing to change or fix, has transformed me in miraculous ways. It’s okay for my body and personhood to be complex, to take up space, and to be unmanageable, unruly, and difficult, even. It’s okay to be fat and even fatter than what I am, and that’s glorious. Its ok to demand the people who want to engage with me to honor all that my body is, to respect and even languish within its largeness and difference, and to allow me to direct the flow of their traffic (attention). Most importantly, these standards define how I treat and think about myself.
I get to demand the intentionality and reverence that one should offer all creation — because I am created, I am creation, I am creating, and I am creator. We all are. And not one part of me belongs to another person — not my body, my consciousness, and my standards.
Izzy: 2020 has been a heavy year to say the least — what are ways you are taking care of yourself, practicing your radical self-love? What are works you are engaging with or creating to help heal?
Vanessa: I’ve actually been struggling with practicing what I preach in 2020. I noticed this about two weeks ago when I witnessed my mental and emotional health slipping. I found myself crying a lot, I found myself extra exhausted and stressed. My partner was extremely frustrated with me because of how much I was working. So I’ve had to make a big change in the last several weeks and bring back a lot of what I do to take care of myself — and it is a struggle, that feels really important to name that self-love is a practice, but also a project for some of us.
For me it looks like, with the help of my lover, stopping to go for walks, enjoying the trees and flowers, forcing myself to stop work by six — I cannot meet deadlines that are in competition with my body, my joy, and my well-being. Once six o’clock happens I am spending time with my loved ones, be it playing interactive games, being by the pool, or barbecuing. Another way I am taking care of myself is with my love, my dangerous, joyful, rejuvenating love of romantic audiobooks — just laying out and relaxing listening to them while eating snacks.
Izzy: So recently you’ve been getting back into that self-love, realizing that you pushed yourself to a point that was unhealthy and now you’re coming back to it.
Vanessa: Yes, when I get in the rush, I forget that I am disabled. I forget that I have decades of trauma that I am still trying to heal. I forget that my body is also my work so it’s so important for me to get back to it.
Izzy: You said you have been working a lot, what projects are you currently pushing your energy towards?
Vanessa: I have three big projects right now, which is not in alignment with self-care. The first one that I am so excited about is that I am writing a book; the title is Reclaim UGLY: Uplift Glorify Love Yourself & Create A World Where Others Can As Well, and it explores uglification, which is the topic I study. The book will help us understand all the different ways we have been taught and socialized to uglify ourselves and each other. It explores the questions on purpose, how does it happen, and how do we begin to reclaim our hearts, our bodies, our imaginations, our dreams, our relationships, and our futures from this practice of uglification. It looks at uglification from something like interpersonal violence, bullying, but also systemic things, like how governments and corporations uglify groups in order to enact acts of political aggression. It’s really about understanding how this process works and how it’s interlaced into so many different forms of oppression, but also like how we begin to imagine our liberation, our healing as a collective front, but also something that really truly does start within ourselves.
Izzy: Your second project?
Vanessa: The second project I am working on right now is a part of Reclaim UGLY, and it’s called “Black Healing October” and “Solidarity Healing September.” This project was inspired by the amazing work that is happening with Black Lives Matter. We are working so hard, we are fighting, we are protesting, we are organizing — this is all exhausting work, when you are in the midst of this rush, it is hard to slow down. So Black Healing October is a month of free online healing spaces for all Black people. We will be hiring anywhere from thirty to ninety Black healers, depending on how much we can fundraise, to make sure we have some kind of online healing venture everyday of the month. We will be paying Black healers, making sure they have tech support, hiring ASL interpreters, and using CART (the real-time captioning service) to make sure that this monthlong event is as accessible to all Black people as possible. We are working hard to make sure that Black people who experience the most isolation and ostracization within their community really get centered, while creating a space of hope and reunification.
We are applying for grants, but we are also doing a lot of grassroot fundraising, which is where “Solidarity Healing September” comes into play. This is an invitation for white people and non-Black POC that feel comfortable and safe, and people who feel they identify as police-protected to join us and also have healing spaces, have educational workshops, where we can work together to explore anti-Black racism, liberation, healing. There is going to be a workshop for diasporic Koreans to unpack Korean shamanism and Korean culture prior to being occupied by the Japanese, so really a lot of different ways for folks to learn about themselves, heal themselves so we can be more open, and have this spiritual and psychological spaciousness to be in solidarity with each other.
I also work with a very special collective of queer women who are activists-healers-educators to host a year long radical education project called, “Creating Freedom Movements: More Justice! More Joy!” Creating Freedom Movements cultivates holistic, healing-centered, visionary leaders while nurturing justice & joy projects through an immersive year-long cohort process. We do this by collaborating with over forty of the Bay Area’s most respected, grassroots organizations and social justice activists. Our workshops cover everything from social movement, history, and analysis; healing practices; the arts; and practical skills. What I love most about Creating Freedom Movements is just how much we treasure the criticality of intimacy, community building, pleasure, and imagination. These are the values that are going to help rescue us from the stronghold of culturalized oppression. CFM is currently accepting registrants for our new application.
The last big project, which still lives deep within the womb of imagination, was inspired by the Young Women’s Freedom Center, an organization that serves formerly incarcerated women and girls, founded by formerly incarcerated girls in San Francisco in the ’90s; they are doing work right now to abolish prisons, juvenile halls, supporting women and girls who are facing court cases, helping them really understand their rights and protect themselves, and doing a lot of mutual aid. I was hired as an arts healer, to facilitate art healing retreats and workshops for formerly incarcerated adult women. A lot of the women that I served had been incarcerated for over a decade, some of them up to four decades, and were released in the midst of shelter-in-place. They have been living in these halfway houses where they have been degraded, locked up, and not respected as adults — as people who have beautiful things to offer but also who deserve agency and the opportunity to lean into self-efficacy.
A lot of folks were feeling lonely, disheartened, so they got to be a part of this workshop and connect, giggle, have fun and come into their power. What was really cool was at the end of the program, these women said that the project felt so good for them, so inspiring, so invigorating, that they wanted to create the same experience for other formerly and currently incarcerated women — so they hosted their own healing arts summit across the course of a weekend.
It had a keynote, two panels, and eight workshops. They continue to host art healing workshops on their own and they sent me a business proposal and asked for my support and the support of people who have the privilege of not being formerly incarcerated, what they wanted to create was a rustic healing and rehabilitation center somewhere in nature, where they can be away from sirens and concrete. A place where these women can really heal in a way that is deinstitutionalized, that fosters freedom.
Izzy: What/who was the text or author that helped shape you into the feminist and writer you are today?
Vanessa: There are three that come to mind. The first is the book The Color Purple. This book starts off with one character writing about desire for another character — Celie is writing about her desire for Shug; in the movie Shug is a thin, light-skinned, kind-of-mean lady, but in the book, Shug is this fat, dark skinned woman. Celie talks about how dark and how Black this woman is with reverence, with pleasure, and with desire. I had never read that before; I had never seen my complexion talked about with lust, with appreciation. Growing up I was made fun of really intensely because of my skin color. There was so much violence I experienced as a result of white supremacy and racism but at the hands of other Black kids so deeply connected to our internalized racism. Reading this book and watching this woman who sounds like she looks like me be loved, so passionately, by another Black woman, was so inspiring for me. There was so much more in this book — we see a theme throughout the book of apology and listening, of apology and understanding, apology and changing, which is also something that felt very new to me.
The second book is Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, which I read for the first time in my mid-twenties. I’ve always struggled with Christianity. I was angry at colonization and was angry at how Christianity was used to oppress people; I was learning about how colonialism was spread through the use of missionaries, the way that the Bible was used to validate slavery; I couldn’t understand why we were so connected to this religion that played such a role in our oppression. As I age I have a lot more understanding and compassion for that; it is still an interesting thing. The main character of the book, her name is Lauren Oya Olamina, and she was going through some similar things; she was watching her world transform — similar to how we are watching our world transform right now. She questions why her elders are so attached to a world that was instead of trying to figure out a world that is. She decides to digress from Christianity; her father is a pastor and she makes her own equivalent to the Bible. I liked a lot of what she had to say in this version, but what I especially liked was the permission she gave herself to think freely, to understand how she wanted to relate to earth and healing.
This girl has a disorder called hyperempathy disease — I’ve always struggled with empathy issues — but seeing her use her hyperempathy as a tool for collaborative liberation, as opposed to a disease as the state was calling it — to me felt like maybe my first introduction to disability justice and my first introduction to what reclaiming ugly means, thinking I’m not gonna let this part of me be pathologized.
The last book is called Does Your Mama Know? It’s a collection of chapters, stories, essays, and poems written by Black American and Caribbean women about their relationships with their mother — specifically coming out to their mothers. This book was my introduction to Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, to Black Feminist theory. These phenomenal Black Queer womxn speaking their truth. My high school librarian passed this book onto me in my senior year, and it was given to me in a moment where I thought I needed to escape the Black community in order to have joy. I was so sick of being made fun of, and since I grew up in a Black community, I associated the teasing and the bullying with other Black people. This book introduced me to internalized racism, to colonization, to the harm that I was experiencing as a result of violence that we had been experiencing; it also introduced me to intersectionality. This book forced me to think about all the variables, to have compassion, to realize that my anger was not at other Black people but at a history and a system that did this to us.
Izzy: What advice would you give young people who are still developing their voice within this world, be it activism, art, or the intersection of both?
Vanessa: First and foremost, let your joy and your pleasure guide you at all times. There is such brilliance in joy and pleasure. We live in a world that is deeply capitalistic; it does its best to suck you dry, tell you to work hard or that things need to be a struggle. If things don’t need to be a struggle, don’t let them be. How can we incorporate and center the things that feel so good for us, and rejoice in them, explore them, and let them inform our professional direction? Do what feels good. If something doesn’t feel good, and you can say no, say no. I say this especially for us who are disabled, who are queer, who have Black or Brown bodies; we don’t only carry the trauma or stress of our lives, but also those of our ancestors as well — we need to breathe, we need to heal, and we need to live as long as we possibly can so we can continue to do this incredible work.
Allow yourself to have pleasure; don’t shame yourself for your pleasures. Some things are called “privileges,” be compassionate and gentle with yourself, really think about this. I think there is a way in which our culture has taught us to try and eradicate ourselves from that privilege, but it’s not that we need to give up the thing that is privileged, rather we need to figure out how as many people as possible can have access to those things. So if you do have access to those things, especially as someone, who is mixed race or not, is still a Black woman — hold onto them. You need them, your ancestors need you to hold onto them. Think with pleasure, with joy, how can we turn these three fish into enough fish to feed everybody as opposed to you losing fish.
I also think, when it comes to finding your voice, yes, we do need to read each other’s writing, we do need to have conversations, we need to build community, but also spend time with yourself, meditate, journal, pray with yourself, have conversations with yourself. If you are a person who enjoys sex or sexuality, have that with yourself. I am someone who is really into self sex magic; I learn things about myself through it, I learn about what I want, I remind myself about my swag, my power, my magic — don’t let nobody tell you that you are too much, or that you are arrogant or a narcissist for loving yourself. We need you to worship you, to see your inner divinity, to walk around with that magic coming from you.
It is inevitable that we are going to hurt people; we may say the wrong thing, bump into them on the street, or push one of their triggers — it’s okay to have grace and compassion for those people when these things happen, but don’t beat yourself up, don’t expect perfection from yourself, and don’t allow yourself to succumb to someone else’s projections. You get to decide beauty for you, joy, righteousness for you. I really don’t want young folks who are about to do and are currently doing so many amazing things to be holding on to some ghosts that they don’t need to. Your ability to access liberation is so important and pleasure is such a rejuvenating force. There’s a lot of talk about self-love, which is important to me, but self-compassion is what is needed to access that self-love.
The last advice I will give is that softness is a superpower. Patriarchy teaches us that we need to be aggressive and move with force, but if you take a brick and drop it, that brick breaks. If you take something nice and soft, like some cotton, or a pillow and drop it, it does not break. There is power in softness; don’t let anyone take your softness from you.
From Reclaim UGLY:
Love Constitutes a Set of Actions Based on Ideas & Values
Fat Liberation is Human Love
Migrant Justice is Human Love
Black & Indigenous Liberation is Human Love
Disability Justice is Human Love
Housing Advocacy is Human Love
Body Positive Free Health Care is Human Love
Elder Support is Human Love
Youth Work is Human Love
Transformative Inclusivity is Human Love
Friendship is Human Love
Rematriation & Reparations is Human Love
Trans Liberation is Human Love
You Are Human & You Are Worthy of Love
Vanessa Rochelle Lewis
Born and raised in South Central and Adulting in Oakland, Vanessa Rochelle Lewis (MFA) is a Queer, Fat, Black, Femme performer, facilitator, educator, writer, activist, healer, joyful weirdo, and Faerie Princess Mermaid Gangsta for The Revolution. Vanessa has danced across many professional and creative stages.
Vanessa founded the organization Reclaim UGLY: Uplift Glorify Love Yourself — And Create A World Where Everyone Else Can As Well! Her vision is to cocreate a world where everyone knows that they are a safe, welcomed, and valued member of their communities; has the support to dream authentically and exists in their truths; and accepts that there is no face, no body, and no person who is ugly or unworthy of love and acceptance.
Vanessa is currently working with North Atlantic Books to publish her first book on how uglification covertly (and overtly) impacts our lives and communities, and what it means to reclaiming our bodies, thoughts, and desires from coercive- and oppressive social hierarchies.
Izzy Dean is an artist, activist, and teacher and a recent graduate from the University of Oregon in Women’s and Gender Studies and Spanish. She is currently living in Madrid, Spain where she has been involved in various activist and nonprofit organizations, one of which is the Madrid Contra la Brutalidad Policial. In the United States she worked with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) with a focus on prison abolition and DA reform. Her film La Gentrificación del Taco addresses the gentrification of Mexican food happening in her local community. She is currently working on a project that explores biracial identities.