When your origins are as tangled and rooted in trauma as mine, attachment and belonging are cravings that grow into a gnawing understanding of displacement. You are neither his nor hers nor theirs; searching often leads to piles of severed roots that serve as evidence of the disconnect between yourself & the knowledge that can connect you to your lineage. My roots were placed in knotted, tangled heaps at my feet the moment each foot was pulled out from the security of my mother into the abyss of an unknown space. I went from darkness to light, but only in the sense that my place of residency had changed; from the shrouded enclave of her womb to the brightly lit hospital operating room where my mother lay on the table cut open to save both our lives. I was birthed into a meticulously sterilized environment designed to facilitate a safe arrival, while at the same time born into a familial existence where my survival was not guaranteed.
The way I see it, I was physically born on Wednesday, December 1,1982 at 7:45pm, but the core parts of my actual Self died the moment I was taken home. It’s taken years (and plenty of therapy) to source their locations let alone reclaim and integrate them into who I am now at nearly 38 years of age.
I was born in San Antonio, Texas to two 18 year olds, but my origin story actually begins decades earlier in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. North Philly, where my mother was born, and where her aunt pastored the church my father’s mother (my paternal grandmother) attended on Sundays. My father was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, but lived in Philadelphia with his mother for a short time following her divorce from his father. Despite this connection-my paternal grandmother being a congregant in my maternal great aunt’s church-my parents never actually met. Yet it is here that the tangled roots that are central to my life have their beginning. While their individual stories are not mine to tell, and my sole interest and intent through my work is in sharing parts of mine, details like these are necessary for contextual understanding about the dysfunctional intertwining of their stories that I was born into.
They met thousands of miles away from Philadelphia on a military base in San Antonio, Texas after they’d both become Airmen. I don’t recall what my father told me he was chasing by going into the military, but my mother says she was chasing a boy she’d first met at a house party in North Philly at the age of 14. They’d dated on and off. She followed him and they eventually had a falling out. The aftermath involved her dating and then marrying my father out of anger and to spite him. A few years later, when my mother and father divorced, my mother moved back to Philadelphia where she reconnected with this ex; he eventually became my stepfather. But I’m getting ahead of myself which I tend to do whenever I attempt to unravel the knots in each early root in a way that’s easier for someone else to understand. It’s difficult to do because intersecting parts and their conflicting narratives cause it all to clump together in my head in a non-linear way.
Let me go back.
They met in Texas while my mother was on the rebound. They dated briefly, married quickly. Had me soon after. They were 18.
I was 19 years old when my mother apologized to me following a physical altercation I’d had with that same stepfather, her first love, at our church in Germantown, Philadelphia. I was laying on the floor in a congregant’s apartment next door. My body was still surging with adrenaline. I remember it heaved with sobs and a fury I recognized yet didn’t fully understand the depth of. I was the same age my parents were when their problems began to escalate into violence and abuse, but the anger fueling my fists and temper that day felt like it went back generations.
“I’m sorry,” she was saying. “I didn’t love your father, but I married him out of anger and spite. I didn’t know-if I could go back…I-I made a decision out of anger and I didn’t know it would lead to…this. I didn’t know it would mean you’d have to live in so much pain.” By this point, I’d known that many of the things my father had told me about their relationship and my mother in general were lies, but that moment was a critical turning point in my own self-actualization. I got off the floor that day by abandoning everything I’d been told or thought I knew about my life. Months later I boarded a flight that took me back to San Antonio, and when I landed, a bus back to the base where I was born, to become an Airman just like my parents did; but to also begin to untangle my roots on my own terms. I walked into my twenties determined to divine for myself what was true. I didn’t know back then how to do that exactly, but I figured retracing their steps would help to lay out mine as I sought to unearth pieces that would enable me to write my own narrative.
Forging new pathways to find the truth, to untangle knotted roots, to rebuild severed familial and Self connections can be an isolating experience. This is especially true if you’re trying to disrupt and break the cycles that lead to their tangling, severing and subsequent generational suffering in the first place. Healing is nonlinear and so is the process to extract what’s true about your own history vs. what you’ve been told through filters of pain, dysfunction, and trauma. For me personally, I can say that the more committed I become to both processes, the more I find belonging within and to myself. It heals the wounds around abandonment and satiates the longing which then allows me to see the belonging I’ve found in my own children and partner.
A new familial cycle has been set into motion.
So has a new creative one. “Lies They Told Me and Truths I Found in The Fires I Burned” is the title for an autobiographical project that came to me back in 2018 while I was in the middle of starting Tessera Arts Collective. I literally woke up with it echoing in my mind one morning and I immediately walked into my studio down the hall here in our home. I grabbed two Stabilo pencils off my work table, one black, the other red, and hurriedly scrawled the words on the wall. As I stepped back to stare at them, those same feelings I’d had while laying on the floor in that apartment listening to my mother’s apology had resurfaced from my subconscious. At the time, that was my only clue as to what the words were speaking to: a desire to divine for myself what’s true. Since then I’ve looked at this phrase every time I’ve hung fresh canvas over it to paint something new, and when I take a piece down to store it, wondering when I’ll be ready to face the process of making the work attached to it. It wasn’t until we closed Tessera’s gallery at the end of June that I realized I’m ready to dive into it. I actually created a proposal for it and applied for two fellowships with it, but when I didn’t get either one, I decided to forge ahead in making it anyway over the next 18-24 months.
Which brings us to this. My blog’s been dead since 2016, and I’ve barely written anything public beyond an Instagram caption since, but because part of Truths Found involves a written component, I thought sharing the process here will help me as I work on that. It’ll also give me space to share my thoughts on why I find such a home in abstraction as a Black queer woman artist.
Think of the essays, notes, and images I share with you here as…studio visits. I hope you’ll join me on this journey.
More on this project and other things soon.
"I walked into my twenties determined to divine for myself what was true." This resonates so much with me. There is a fierce desperation that comes when we are willing to do anything to find truth. It is so hard and isolating and beautiful. It burns everything down. It is so worth it. I am so looking forward to following this series.