Photo: Melisa Cardona.
indee mitchell | October 31, 2017
Since our first encounter, Alternate ROOTS has felt family-like to me. The people are personable and welcoming – they remember who you are, where you’re from, and what you do. The connection that lives within this community extends far beyond networking and funding opportunities. You can really see the love and passion ROOTers have for each other and for their work. It has been a magical thing for me to witness multiple times in the past couple of years. And each time has also been 110% completely overwhelming. Only now, after experiencing my first ROOTS Week, am I starting to understand why I’ve been feeling so overwhelmed and why I keep coming back regardless of those feelings:
ROOTS has always felt family-like to me.
My relationship with my family is fine, not great. I am few of many grandchildren to attend and complete college. Fewer of many who flew far away from the nest. I am the only grandchild (so far) to not identify as cisgender. I am very lucky to have a family who loves me very much and (for the most part) accepts me for the Queerdo that I am. Still, there’s so much of me they do not know or understand, so much of me that I fear they will never be able to hold, so much I fear I will never be able to say and they will never ask. After all, we are a Black Southern Baptist tight knit family from rural Virginia, and there’s just some things you don’t talk about. Sigh.
As a result, spending time with my family can also be 110% completely overwhelming: What do I wear? How do I present? What if someone makes a comment about my presentation, again? What if someone brings up Laverne Cox? Or anything gay? Or political? How am I supposed to respond? At this point, when it comes to my family I find myself engaging less and isolating more, because I haven’t found the best way (or perhaps the courage?) to engage in transformative conversations with them around expansive gender identities and radical Black Queer love and how to hold the two.
My experience at ROOTS Week felt comparable to that of a holiday visit with my family. Instead of opening presents, at ROOTS we shared new and exciting work. Instead of yelling over the Cowboys vs the Redskins, at ROOTS we engaged in hard and sometimes triggering conversations on consent and trauma. Instead of having different opinions on which song was Grandma Cille’s favorite and who should sing lead, at ROOTS we had different opinions on what song to sing next and where to pitch it right – if there’s even a such thing.
Like family gatherings, ROOTS Week came with the endless list of questions: What do I wear? How do I present? What if someone uses the wrong pronouns for me, again? What if someone brings up how “diverse” this community is? Or how Queer the space is? And accepting of Queers? But where are the Trans people? How am I supposed to respond?
These questions seeded anxiety that I hid behind hellos, smiles, and purposeful strides to nowhere throughout the week. And even though (as expected) my first ROOTS Week was 110% overwhelming, I am grateful to have been there, to have shared and witnessed creative work asking important questions, to have engaged and connected with artists from all over the South. Most of all, I am grateful for the space that was carved out at Carla.
Unlike family gatherings, ROOTS Week provided me with another (short lived) model of community care. I don’t know about previous years, but this year Carla was lit. It was Queer and Trans and Black and Brown and Bruja and Coven af. Carla felt like a space for my people and necessary for my existence and participation within the larger ROOTS community throughout the week. That cabin felt like a safer zone, a place of retreat, a place to find a (sometimes new) familiar face and the tools needed to reset my energy, to recharge before re-entering into the larger community. The magic of ROOTS Week began at Carla for me when I stepped out of the car and into the cabin just as folks gathered for a grounding ritual. That night before bed I wept quietly on the porch, rocking in gratitude for my ancestors who stay looking and showing out when I need them most.
The magic of ROOTS Week continued at Carla for me throughout the week. I felt accounted for as we made plans together and individually to go to this session and meet back for this performance and get food with that person and come back to chill on the porch later on before Late Night… The check ins and report backs, both brief and extended, between individuals and the full group, helped to replenish my energy and helped push me to get the most out of ROOTS Week. Being in a space where folks were taking care of themselves first and each other always gave me permission to do the same.
The magic of ROOTS Week ended at Carla for me as I laughed on the porch until the sun rose on Sunday morning. We were one of the last to leave and I never expected to feel sad to be going home. I now understand it wasn’t leaving ROOTS Week that had me in my feelings; it was the space we had carved out in Carla that I didn’t want to leave. And the harsh reality that I have only experienced this extent of intentional community care for my people in temporary spaces carved out within conferences and gatherings — that are sometimes usually mostly white and usually always (for me) 110% completely overwhelming. Ultimately, the magic of ROOTS Week for me boils down to my call to cultivate these spaces that center the well-being and existence of my people long term, not just by chance or temporarily in reaction to the larger community’s lack.
As I reflect on my time at ROOTS Week, and especially in relation to Carla, I continue to uncover what exactly I need to be fully held and cared for by a community as a Black Queer person with a non-normative gender identity. I continue to find the courage to speak, the language that works, and the models to work towards. I am reminded of the importance of Trans visibility, of the hard conversations around gender to be had in order to shift our spaces and communities to really hold and care for Trans and Gender Non-Conforming folks, as well as the necessary actions to take in moving beyond conversation. I am reminded that space is as sacred as it is political, and that I – along with all my Trans and Gender Non-Conforming siblings and cisgender allies – must continue demanding for space to be held for ourselves and for each other everywhere, not just at ROOTS Week. Our survival depends on it. All of our liberation depends on it.
indee mitchell (they/them/theirs, he/him/his) is a New Orleans based performance artist and Queer Black feminist interested in creating experimental and community centered work rooted in collective liberation and healing. indee is currently the co-director of Last Call and Alleged Lesbian Activities, as well as LOUD–New Orleans Queer Youth Theater.