Kim M Reynolds
In writing to his nephew, James Baldwin told younger James about his father, and how he was long destroyed before he ever died because “at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him”.
Audre Lorde tells us that she had to define herself or else she would be “crunched into other people's fantasies” and be “eaten alive” as she routinely introduced herself as a “Black lesbian feminist mother warrior poet”.
And Zora Neale Hurston said “if you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it”.
These three poignant and brief excerpts from Black writers, two of whom were openly gay, beg the question of how do we become? In a world where we can die long before we stop breathing, where we are erased, where we are simultaneously overdetermined, how do we be who we are? Why is this important? How does it happen? Where and when? Becoming is a photo and interview series that seeks to address some of these questions by capturing five South African individuals who identify as Black, queer, and creative in their moments of becoming - doing the work that helps them be who they are. As such this work disengages from “speaking back” and centres the knowledges
and expansiveness of Black queer perspective.
This presentation focuses on intertwining Black feminist and Black queer theory with the interview responses. As such, the work of Akwaeke Emezi, Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, Yvette Abraham, Patrick E. Johnson, Stuart Hall, bell hooks, etc is utilized to expand and compliment responses to the interview questions which included,”what does becoming mean to you? Why is it important to be who you are? What were some of the pivotal moments?” included in the thesis that accompanies the project, found at https://www.becomingphotoseries.com/ .
Overarching, the personal becomes intertwined with structural; emotion, affect, and politics overlap and inform each other; all in aims of liberation and Black and African feminist knowledge creation. Becoming seeks archive, amplify, complicate, see and love Black queer voices.
Can you introduce yourself- your name, where you come from, how you describe yourself?
Awe, my name is Allison-Claire Hoskins, I'm from the city of Johustleburg, Johannesburg, Jozi. I moved around in Joburg and Joburg is my birth place, but I’m based here in Cape Town. I’m a creative person, personality, writing, performing, I would like to say pianist, soon to be. Poet, performance poet, and yeah, that’s who I am.
What does becoming mean to you?
Becoming to me means not being scared, to let go of the fear, the fear that holds us of facing ourselves. Becoming also means being happy with yourself and breaking down those walls, and those walls are the fears that stop you from being your full self and living to your fullest potential and what yourself and your identity is. That’s what becoming is.
What were the pivotal moments of becoming you? What was the process?
Being a teenager and navigating clothes, style, and fashion is also a part of becoming. I hated shopping for clothes. I loved shopping for food [laughs]. I loved grocery shopping like “Yas, whose gonna eat!” But shopping for clothes was always challenging because I could see the looks my mom was getting from other mothers looking at me and my Che Guevara t-shirt and my khaki shorts and my all-stars. I remember one time my aunts bringing my mom aside and saying, “Yhu, Allison is going to be a lesbian if you don’t watch out, with her clothes, you know?” And my mom was like, “No no, she’s not a lesbian!”. So, that’s why it took so long to come out because from there I just saw the negatives about being yourself. I also struggled with my body when puberty hit - breasts getting bigger, hips getting wider. I covered myself in baggy stuff to hide because I started seeing the attention I was getting and I was feeling uncomfortable and not understanding the language of my body yet. And people started sexualizing my body, even my homies, my male homies would be like “Yoo”, and I was like, can't we just go back to playing, you know? I knew I needed to express myself creatively through clothing, but the stores my mom was taking me to of course only had certain styles. You know I have a very masculine side of myself or the pink pretty dress side and I was like, “Well I’m somewhere in between”. I don’t have the words for it, but eventually I started experimenting more, and I think in that experimentation I started feeling more comfortable even going out to get clothes. It became more exciting - “Oo I can match that with that,” and “oo my all stars with my dress”. I don’t have to wear my all stars with my khakis anymore! I can mix it up.
You have page poetry, academic style poetry, spoken word, and I know many people hate the word “performance” and the history behind Black people performing, but I see it as a positive, that we are good at performing and creating. I don’t see performance as a bad thing for me as a Black person because I’m really good at it. It became a bad thing when other people started taking money, appropriating, not us having the power. But when I’m on that stage, I have the power, I give and I share. So I use performance poetry.
Why is it important to be who you are?
If I don’t become, then everything ugly about this world wins. It means that I die. So everyday, you choose life, and by choosing life, you choose yourself. And you need to choose yourself cause otherwise the people telling us all these ugly things about ourselves win. And I don’t know much about the creation of the world, who, why I’m here, but I know I’m here. And I’m here, and I need to be here. So, that’s why I need to become because whoever did this, it will be a smack in their face and in my own face if I just don’t live my best life, if I don’t be. But it’s difficult, it’s not easy, but I think once you choose and you choose consciously everyday to choose life, choose yourself, you win.
Can you introduce yourself?
I am Cyan Peppah (pronounced Cayenne Peppah). I consider myself an artist. I was born in Cape Town, and I’ve lived across the country, but Cape Town is my home and where I’m operating from, working from, doing my art from and learning from, and experiencing from. I am 33 years old even though I don’t look it [laughs], and yeah I am an artist; it took me a very long time to say those words, but I’m an artist. I’m an artist because I took something that was natural to me, that I enjoy doing, and I did it regularly, and other people saw it and enjoyed it and other people hated it and and other people didn’t understand it and some people asked to do more. And people actually asked me to do it for them, and some people offered me money to do it. And it is my voice.
What is becoming to you?
I think a big part of becoming for me, especially in the context of where society wants to hates you, is to be the most exaggerated version of yourself but also the most beautiful version of yourself and not reserving that for special occasions, but making sure that it's part of your day to day life. So, that process for me started about four years ago and it started with my name, Cyan Peppah. So Cyan Peppah the name is a funny story. I was getting ready for a music festival and I was wearing a neckpiece with black and cyan feathers. I took a selfie, and thought, “Okay this looks cool, I’m going to post this to social media” but I’m really bad at captioning images, normally I just post as is. So, I was thinking, “Should I put cyan because of the feathers?” At the same time, I was watching Paris is Burning and Pepper Labeija was doing a monologue at that very moment. And I was just thinking “Cyan or Cayenne Peppah” And then when I said Cyan (cayenne) Peppah, it took it back to a line from Jill Scott, from her first album, a track called Love Rain, where she makes reference to cayenne pepper in a very sexual way. And I was like “Cyan Peppah, yes!” And so I put that as the caption. One of my friends Ina Propriette, one of the more known drag queens in Cape Town, she commented saying, “Oh is this your new drag name?” And I was like, “Yeah! That has a nice ring to it”. So from that point, whenever I did a look, I would always do the look as Cyan Peppah. But I think over time, the looks that I did, going to the club, going to events, just started merging with my day to day life. And when I’m talking about being very intentional or being very exaggerated, it's not putting on a show, it's like being very intentional with how you identify and what’s comfortable for you and what’s important for you. What’s important for me is queer visibility. What’s important for me is creativity; being able to colour outside of the lines; playing with all the toys at the same time. So for me, becoming is that process you do every single day when you wake up, when you kind of have to amp yourself up to go out in the street and wear the crop top or wear the pants that are a feminine cut and wear it because you love wearing it and you feel good in it. But also knowing you might get a comment or there might be a physical reaction, but you just need to do it because you keep on hiding and you can’t keep hiding forever.
How does art help you become?
Art is a bit of a buffer; sometimes it's easier to say something in a video, put it on social media and you physically don’t have to deal with the consequences, because sometimes the consequences aren’t so easy to deal with - doesn’t matter how bad of a bitch you think you are. Art is a bit of protection or shield, or armour that you wear. And I don’t necessarily see it as a negative because amour can be dope, it can be pretty [laughs], it can be sparkly and shiny you know? While I’m still coming into my own, which may sound funny for a 33 year old, but I will continue to find ways of doing what I need to do and saying what I need to say, and art has consistently been that vehicle for me.
Why is it important to be yourself?
You need to be who you are for survival. Survival is passing on. The reason we pass on stories and experiences is so that the next generation can grow. I also feel like people from my old community are stagnant because all they know how to do is survive. There’s no tradition. For me growing up, there was no tradition, tradition was going to church for Christmas and Easter, basically Christian traditions due to colonialism. But if you took away the religion, what did we actually have? We didn’t have that. And there is a movement now where people are trying to reconnect to where we actually came from outside of a colonial context. But yeah, that’s why it's important to be yourself. It's not about me and “oh I’m going to do me, this is my voice, this is my life”, it’s partly that, and that’s valid, but it's also literally for the survival for people like you - people that look like you, that do like you, that sound like you, that feel like you, that’s why need to be ourselves, we need to be seen as ourselves. And as much as we show ourselves to other people, we also need to be comfortable looking in the mirror, and a lot of the time, that’s very difficult. Sometimes it's not about the clothes you wear, but hating the body you’re in or not identifying with the body that you’re in, and not feeling like you can do anything about it. For example, if you’re a trans person, if you’re not identifying with your body, but the opposite body, but because of the house you’re living in, the community you live in, you can’t do anything about it because that is going to threaten your safety. So, you’re just trapped in this world, in this body you can’t do shit about, and you hate it every single day and you wish you weren’t you, and the only way to get out of that is to try for self love. So, that’s why I choose myself, so people like me can be remembered.
Who are you? How do you introduce yourself? What are the things that define you?
I am Qondiswa, I am from the rural Eastern Cape, I grew up in primarily middle class environments even though that’s not necessarily where I’m from. I’m a theatre maker, performance artist, actor, writer, and I would say a decolonial or post colonial thinker. I’m also an activist.
What does becoming mean to you?
There’s this thing in the theatre where they say “emerging”, where you are an emerging theatre maker, emerging playwright. Becoming is that thing, when you’re in that emerging phase. It takes like 5 years apparently [chuckles], and then you have Become! You are the expert! But on an interpersonal level, I would associate becoming with more of myself, becoming more of myself or yourself or oneself. And that’s a constant negotiation, and something that is not stagnant, it's not a finished project. And that it’s affected by where you are, like geographies, but also communities, and the people you are speaking to, the kinds of things you’re building, the kinds of things you’re doing all have an effect. And that’s part of the reason of why I don’t think it's finished, it doesn’t get finished.
How has art helped you become who you are?
I’ve been lucky because I’ve always had art, so before anything, even this thing of singing in the church choir, but I’ve always been writing for as long as I can remember - sometimes yes for school, but oftentimes for myself. And having some kind of expressive medium to help you mediate your experience of the world is a massive thing, it’s taken for granted. Even the people who eventually become doctors and mathematicians, having something where I’m just expressing how I’m going through the world and how I’m understanding and seeing things outside of product, it’s very important. And then as I got older, I just started to diversify my mediums, my tools. Even now, I’m in a new kind of stage where I’m trying to figure out singing ‘cause there’s something about it in a society that encourages voicelessness, I would say it encourages to keep your head down - “Don’t worry democracy’s got you!” There’s something about having tools to voice.
Why is it important to be who you are? Why is it important to get things out of your body that need expression?
I have things to say, and I feel righteous about the fact that I must be listened to. Sometimes I don’t know by who, sometimes I’m speaking to different people, but the people I am trying to speak to, I would like to be heard and to engage with them. And when other people ask of me to hear them, to engage with them in their mediations, in their community building, that I must have the grace to do the same. So yes, to get away from the space of voicelessness, but then when we’re there not not also just be, but to listen. And listening is as much of a privilege as speaking. So, I speak often because I’m trying to make connections with other people, so I’m speaking through the art. I’m trying to make connections with people outside of my particular context; if I stay within my context, I run the risk of retaining a myopic scope of issue, of what’s happening and especially how to solution (action verb), so to guard against helicoptering, we must engage and become a part of communities. I speak to connect. I speak to explain where I’m coming from. That I know that depending on where we are, as we move, the particularities of my intersection are not always going to be the primary frame, but that I am here, and that I do come with this, and that there will be times where solidarity will mean doing the work from my particular frame. So, I speak to say this is where I’m coming from and knowing that we don’t all think the same thing, but that the thing of overlap. And being really transparent about this is what I think about things, and I know we are never gonna think the same way about things, but we’re never going to get to utopias either, so we can fight with each other for now, and these are the things we can do together. Where am I coming from? What do I want? What do I hope for the future? But also expressing to express what I hope for the future is one part of what we must all do, and that I speak as well to engage, to listen, to figure out how I must shift, how I must free up sometimes, my politics, my actions or activities, to become more porous, to allow things I haven’t considered in. And sometimes to accept that the way you’re doing the work right now, it’s not always helpful, and maybe it can become more helpful if you do it like this. I speak to archive, especially because we come from lineages of lost histories, drowned archives. There’s something about the fact that we’ve got all these mediums - we have our phones, the fucking interwebs, photographs and digital cameras, and film cameras to youtube - archive yourself, archive your community and your reality, archive your struggle, and write into the discourse what you do, ‘you’ as in we all, us, the left or whatever. Assert it into the discourse, into the mainstream discourse. Mostly I speak to fight back. I feel systemically oppressed, it’s in everything. And in all the work I do, I am trying to connect with other people who are also trying to act against oppression, whether it’s conceptual, literal, but because of what I do, oftentimes what I can do is go and share space with people to give space for them to talk to each other and use artistic tools to talk to each other, ‘cause oftentimes there’s too many chats, or it’s exhausting, or it makes fights. So, when you start with the artistic sense and questions of, like, how are peoples realities, there’s a chance of “Oh shit, I recognize that picture”, and from that point we can begin to diversify and say, “oh shit, this is the particularity of this one, this one, this one, this is how we can help here, this is how we can help there”. It’s very painful to express, to engage, to fight, but it gives meaning to an otherwise formless existence. It helps give shape.
Can you introduce yourself for me?
My name is Neo Baepi. I am 28 years old - I don’t look it [smiles warmly]. I have quite a long geographical history in South Africa. I was born in a small town called Klerksdorp in the North West and I grew up in a town about the same size 45 minutes away called Potchefstroom until I was about 6, and then I moved to Johannesburg with my dad and we lived in Yeoville which is in the CBD and you don’t want to live there now. And I lived in places like Soweto, PE, Cape Town, Texas and grew up with most of my formative life in Johannesburg. I identify myself probably 6 different times a day or an hour, but I would say that I’m a gender non conforming boy, and I like girls... who also bend genders. I’m a photographer, I really like taking photographs, and I feel a lot more human when I have a camera in my hand ‘cause things are so bleak, things are so sad, but when I get to take photos of people who want me to take photos of them, I feel like we can work on this mess of a world we’ve got.
What does becoming mean to you?
So, up until very recently, I identified as a lesbian but even when I did, I didn’t feel like one and I couldn’t relate to other lesbians and I really didn’t know why but I just went with it because labels right? It's a way to move through society. And then I met my partner and what she made me realize was that I was given space by her and her thinking and our relationship to explore my gender and my sexuality and my sexual orientation. The things that have stayed consistent are my sexuality and my sexual orientation, but my gender is always transforming. So, becoming to me is that transformation. It's about accepting and embracing that I’m never going to be one thing, or a set of things, and I shouldn’t fixate on those things. So, the reason I like talking about my queerness is because I sometimes forget I’m queer - it’s not something I fixate on, its not a thing that makes me who I am. And I realize it’s getting trendier and it’s getting cuter to be gay, and I appreciate that, but I also interrogate that. I’m very conscious of gay for play ass niggas, because I’ve always been this way. And growing up, I was never forced to accept it as my entire destiny; I am so many things before and after I’m gay. So, becoming means constantly making the world adaptable to you as opposed to the other way around. I am tired of bending and crouching for this ugly planet. I’m going to expand it so I can walk tall. So yeah, that’s what becoming looks like to me, it’s making the world bigger so I can breathe and be. I’m tired of being small, and becoming is the process, it’s a very active process of not being small.
Why is it important to choose yourself?
It’s important to pick yourself, not in the cheesy way, like “choose yourself” as a sticker on a wall in white woman’s home, but picking yourself is important particularly as a queer person, because nobody else is going to do it for you. Most recycling has to happen more rigorously; when you throw away cardboard, you have to clean it, you have to separate it from colours, you know what I mean? When you throw away your milk carton you have to make sure it’s clean or you might as well not recycle - bad recycling is just as bad as pollution. So if I pick myself at the expense of others, then you’re not really choosing yourself, but if you pick yourself empathetically, then it’s community based and you do it for everybody else, including yourself. It's very rewarding to do it that way. There’s no point in picking yourself selfishly. No, there's nothing wrong with being selfish, but there's no point in picking yourself at the expense of other people which is what racism is, which is what whiteness is. But choosing yourself mindfully and empathetically is different.
What were pivotal moments of becoming?
When I was younger, I convinced myself that I had a rare disease where I grew female, femme parts. That's not a mistake, that’s very intelligent for like a 10 year old to imagine. So that was really pivotal, that’s when I realized I’m beyond just gay, there’s something and it’s not a dysphoric thing - I’ve never been dysphoric - I just accepted it as just a difference which is why it’s probably easy for me to empathetically pick myself. I didn’t say I was in the wrong body, I was like “I’m in this body and we have to deal with it”.
Another pivotal moment was the death of my uncle. I was 12 when he died and he committed suicide and he was really depressed. I was 12 so I didn’t know, and you know the family barely talks about it, but I lost my best friend, he was 23 years old. And that's when I discovered mental illness as something that's not really explored for Black people, and I might have to say we are the most depressed people out here and we don’t really confront that.
And I think the third pivotal moment was when I slept with a woman for the first time… [laughs]. Yeah, I don’t think I need to say more about that [laughs once more].
All of those things I suppose in some way consciously, unconsciously, subconsciously, have made me who I am, and who I’m trying to be. If someone had to ask me if I’m a good person, I could say absolutely, without a fucking doubt. I am a very good person. But that's not the same as asking, “Do you like Neo?” You don’t have to like me, but you can’t challenge my character. I know I’m a good person. And it's very gratifying to know that.
Can you introduce yourself for me?
I am a healer and writer. I love poetry and classical art – unfortunately (because it’s so Eurocentric). I love the ocean and mountains. And love, and loving and eating.
How do you maintain the becoming process?
I think a lot of the ways that I can create communities- for me the biggest thing even in my friendships and my relationships, I always look for the people that I can be just like... You know how everytime you walk into a room you become immediately aware of the politics of yourself within that room, and the politics of the room? I try to find spaces within which I'm not constantly aware of the- where I can just be and not hyper-politicize all the time. Because a lot of my friends are queer and are poly, when I talk to them I don't have to overexplain, I don't have to like… I feel like at work, I have to be queer, right? Because they're not queer and they struggle with identifying with queer people, so I have to constantly be queer and embody whatever that means in a social context. But in my relationships and in my close friendships then I can just be because all those people are queer. And when we talk about our relationships and our partnerships, we're just talking about relationships and partnerships. And when we're talking about our identity politics in our families, then we're talking about our parents, you know? There's a different language.
So, I try to find people who are like that, who can do that for me. Toni Morrison says this and I never forget that, which is that one of the biggest things that whiteness does is that it preoccupies you with itself, and I think about how all oppressions just really do that, like, they make you busy with themselves all the time. The whole time you're just engaged in defense, you know? So, I'm really happy when I don't have to be in defense, but I can just be and just be a person, whatever that means. Because that also is a lot, like, once you're done being over other social categories there's that, like, you're still here being a person and all of that as well.
Why it is important to be who you are, maybe outside of defense?
I think we really do need to intentionally see ourselves beyond defense, like what else is there? What is beyond that lense, and how else do we define ourselves? All of our work is concerned with whiteness and everything we're running from, and our paintings and photos and poetry is about it, like, what else is there? How do we imagine ourselves out of that space? And is there even an identity, does it look like the same kind of social identity that we have now, beyond all of that and does it look the same? What's its function when racism doesn't exist and antiblackness and colourism doesn't exist? What does it mean when you say to someone that you're Black? Does it mean the same thing that it does right now? And what are some of the ways that we identify ourselves for the sake of whiteness? Because it would be a shame for us to miss ourselves completely, for all the record of who we were to be concerned with how we fought.
What comes out of your poetry expression?
I try to write imaginative poems of a different world, and different form. I think about medicine a lot, like what heals the wounds, and I think for me it's like, because the outside makes its way into the inside and whether or not the people who are politically thinking and the people who are not politically thinking, either way, what happens outside comes inside and then we become defined by what is outside. And then what is outside defines what's inside, what's inside gives birth to more and more of itself and then at the end of it all, we're just- you're sitting there, you don't have anything. Say in a world where there was no longer anything to run from on the outside, but everybody who emerged from the inside looks like everything there was to run for before. And that's it. That's the world that we would have then. We would continue to run even when there was nothing chasing us.
How does your art help you become?
As I'm writing it [work] and then after I'll read back through everything and I'll be like, “Okay, now I understand that”. So, I think it helps me in that way cause then I can really go into that narrative world and that world doesn't always look like this world, which helps me feel more rooted within myself. Love, intimacy helps me do that, helps me be really rooted in myself. Meditation, physical activity like hiking helps me do that. The healing work definitely, because I'm just the whole time in a very grounded space to be able to do the work so that helps. Yeah, things that bring me into the room, into my body, into a space help me do that. Art helps me do that, I like post impressionist art. Very nice contextual art helps me feel very rooted. Even sickness [laughs]. Sickness does that for me as well because it kind of brings me into my body, like when I have a headache, my attention is brought to my head, to my body and then I can like focus there. Art is a way of knowing.
Becoming as a visual arts project can be found here:
Kim M Reynolds (she/they) is a Black and queer critical media scholar, writer, and cultural worker from Ohio in the US, based in Cape Town, South Africa whose work focuses on the narrative and critique of Black arts and politics. Kim holds two master's degrees in critical media and film from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and University of Cape Town (UCT), with distinction. She focused on discursive colonialism in popular culture and news, Black and African feminist studies and Black queer theory, Black film, and photography as an a libertatory tool in Black imagination.
Kim is currently a freelancer writer and poet, guest lecturer on critical media analysis and co-convenor on the course ‘racial trauma and justice’ at the University of Cape Town, and is co-lead of the research and organizing collective Our Data Bodies, which examines how technology and big data reproduce racism and what community solutions emerge from that examination. Kim is also a co-producer of Blackness and Dance, an independent study on Black identity and dance for radio in Cape Town. Their written work has appeared in New Frame, Mail & Guardian, VICE, Black Youth Project, and Teen Vogue. Their poetry was published in a 2021 anthology, Woven with Brown Thread, a project curated by Upile Chisala, supported by the Centre for the Less Good Idea, and their flash fiction was published by OutWrite as a part of their annual queer literature festival in 2021.