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People Like Me

Seeing myself reflected in the lived experiences of my queer Black fam was a healing gift I didn’t realize I needed…
 
By Jumol Royes
Photo by mental-health-america-(mha)
 
There are those rare occasions when the stars align and you find yourself in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. That’s precisely what happened when I was asked to participate in Bigger Than We 2, an intergenerational celebration for Black queer and trans folks that took place in Toronto this past September.
 
I was pleasantly surprised to receive an invitation to be a part of the event from my friend David, an educator, community worker and writer, and one of the members of the Bigger Than We Collective, an ad-hoc group of Black queer and trans artists and community activists.
 
But my initial enthusiasm was soon tempered by thoughts of self-doubt. My identity as a gay Black man has been unduly influenced by the white, cis, gay male gaze. Would my version of Blackness be embraced? Would my expression of gayness sit well with the group? Did I really have something to contribute?
 
All of these fears were put to rest during our first in-person rehearsal on a Saturday afternoon.
 
It was facilitated by David and Sedina, a powerhouse performer, producer and creator, with support from Omi, the back of house coordinator. I sat outside in a circle with my peers – queer Black people like me – as we shared, learned from and listened to each other, and an outline for a collective ritual/opening ceremony for the upcoming celebration began to take shape.
 
I immediately felt at home and completely comfortable in my own skin. I saw myself, and my story, reflected in everyone else’s lived experiences, and each of them left their unique imprint on my spirit.
 
The first person I met when I arrived at the rehearsal space at Wychwood Barns was Gloria, a seasoned storyteller with a vibrant personality who was vocal about encouraging the next generation of queer Black leaders to pick up the torch and run with it. She shared a personal reflection, “I Am From,” that honoured her roots and reminded us all that we need to know where we come from in order to know where we’re going. When she dropped it like it’s hot on the dance floor at the event that Sunday, Queen Bey herself would have bowed down and been impressed.
 
I also met an amazing human who taught us the signs for Black, queer, trans and proud. They looked forward to a day when they wouldn’t be the only queer Black person in the room making use of ASL interpretation services, and showed us that more work needs to be done to reduce barriers to participation for deaf queer people.
 
Rochelle and I connected right off the bat. We both shared original poems we had composed, and discovered a mutual admiration for the old-school practice of carrying around a notebook so we could put pen to paper, should inspiration strike.
 
The group decided to gather outside rather than rehearse indoors, since it was such a balmy, sunny day. On the walk to our meeting place on a mound behind the building, we crossed paths with a man playing with a child who asked us to make space for them as we passed by. Micha, one of the more playful people in our small tribe that day, responded, “How does one ‘make space’?” It’s a profound question that I’m still pondering today.
 
I sat on the mound next to Y, a talented and versatile musician who got us all moving by showing us a few merengue dance steps as part of an icebreaker exercise. Their rhythmic drumming would later form the heartbeat of our collective ritual, preceding processions and telegraphing moments of transition.
 
When Donald regaled us with his stories and his particular way of making a point, I couldn’t help but fondly remember my Jamaican uncles. They always knew how to command an audience and make an impression, just like Donald did when he performed his piece, “I Pledge,” with the perfect balance of levity and gravitas.
 
I’m grateful to Isaac for introducing me to the concept of Emotional Emancipation Circles or EECs, “evidence-informed, culturally grounded, and community-defined self-help support groups designed to help heal, and end, the trauma caused by the root cause of anti-Black racism: the centuries-old lie of white superiority and Black inferiority.”
 
Kimalee brought a graceful and gracious presence to the group. She requested that we each bring an element from nature – representing earth, air, fire or water – to use during the nature ceremony. I brought mint leaves from my mom’s backyard garden to symbolize spiritual refreshment, wisdom and virtue.
 
One of the most powerful moments of our collective ritual was the ancestral ceremony led by Samson. We learned the South African way of venerating and communicating with amaDlozi (Ancestors) through the ritual of ukuphahla. Samson shared his thoughts about the experience on his Instagram page not long after the event:
 
“…The truth is that we aren’t alone. Our Ancestors are always present, ready, and waiting for us to welcome them into our lives. They are calling us home to our traditions, our teachings, our spiritualities, our cultures and ourselves. The choice is ours whether we answer the call or not.”
 
As someone who experiences social anxiety, but also desires to create and maintain close social connections with those around him, I’m proud that I answered the call and was able to show up for myself, and my community.
 
It was a meaningful opportunity to pay tribute to those who have passed on, share personal stories and reflections, and celebrate through spoken word, song, dance and other expressions of gratitude and joy.
 
Seeing myself reflected in the lived experiences of my queer Black fam was a healing gift I didn’t realize I needed. At the end of the day, everyone deserves to feel seen, heard and understood, and know that they matter. It’s a gift that’s bigger than me, bigger than we.
 
It’s a gift I wish for all of us.
 

 
JUMOL ROYES is a Toronto-area storyteller, communications strategist and glass-half-full kinda guy. He writes about compassion, community, identity and belonging. His guilty pleasure is watching the Real Housewives. Follow him on Twitter @Jumol and on Instagram @jumolroyes.
 

 

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