Some Of The People Knew Magic Fifty years after the Stonewall Uprising, queer and trans folks are uncovering hidden parts of LGBTQ+ history. A new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, "Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall," features works from from queer artists of color who were born in the years after Stonewall. We talked to four of them.
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Some Of The People Knew Magic

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Some Of The People Knew Magic

Some Of The People Knew Magic

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Heads up - the following podcast contains language that some people may find offensive.


TOURMALINE: History is pushed down. It's suppressed because, you know, it causes people to make connections between, oh, this happened a long time ago. Was there any kind of reparation?

KIYAN WILLIAMS: Fifty years from now, people will remember the young, black, trans, queer, gender-nonconforming kids from the hood who continue to fight.

MICHI ILONA OSATO: It's powerful to think people will be talking about us and about community in the future, using words that we don't even know what they are now - and that they'll be so far beyond what we think of as our, like, breaking down of boundaries and barriers.

DEMBY: This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Gene Demby.


And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. June is pride month. All over the country, people are celebrating who they are and fighting for justice.

DEMBY: But this June is special.


DEMBY: It marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. On June, 28, 1969, queer and trans folks were gathered at a gay bar in Manhattan's East Village.

MERAJI: That night, the police conducted a raid on the bar, the Stonewall Inn. Raids like this had become routine. Police would show up and shut the bar down for serving alcohol illegally. And they would arrest people for dressing outside gender norms. And though this happened a lot, the night of June 28 was different.

DEMBY: On that night, people fought back - breaking glass, throwing bottles, throwing punches - and the police quickly lost control.

MERAJI: Story goes, that is the night that sparked the modern LGBT rights movement, the night that queer people proclaimed they were not going to take it anymore. And it's what sparked the first Pride parades across the country the following year.

DEMBY: And now 50 years have passed, people are looking back.

MERAJI: One of the places looking back is the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. They have an exhibition called "Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall."

DEMBY: It features the work of 28 LGBTQ+ artists who were born after 1969. Their work reflects on the legacy of Stonewall but also deals with what's happening with queer and trans people today.

MERAJI: And on this episode, we're going to hear from four artists who have work in the exhibition. Each of their pieces was inspired by the queer and trans people who came before them, people whose stories were not well-documented and had to be pieced together from the little information they could find. And one of those artists is Kiyan Williams. Kiyan works across sculpture, performance and video. They're originally from Newark and currently based in New York City. Their piece in the Brooklyn Museum is called "Reflections."

DEMBY: It's a video and performance installation and a tribute to one of Kiyan's transcestors. That's a word that's pretty new to me. It's pretty dope, too...

MERAJI: I like it - transcestors. Kiyan's piece draws from archival footage of Jesse Harris. Kiyan came across Jesse in a film called "Tongues Untied" by filmmaker Marlon Riggs. And "Tongues Untied" is an experimental documentary about gay black men. And it came out 20 years after Stonewall.

DEMBY: Kiyan said that Jesse appears in "Tongues Untied" for only about 19 seconds. And Jesse doesn't even have a speaking role. In fact, Kiyan didn't even know Jesse's name at first.

MERAJI: But in those 19 seconds, Kiyan felt an immediate connection with Jesse.


WILLIAMS: There were so many striking similarities when I first saw Jesse on screen. The first is that, we actually look alike. We both have similar skin complexions and high cheekbones. We both, at the time, had, like, a five o'clock shadow or, like, stubble with, like, you know, makeup on. Jesse had on red lipstick. And I believe that I was just, like, getting into red lipstick. And I also noticed just in Jesse's posture that the way Jesse sat kind of languidly on the bench - legs crossed. They were smoking a cigarette out of their right hand just kind of very slowly with their manicured nails.

And I remember just feeling a sense of familiarity in the kind of just graceful way that Jesse held their body in space. And I was both amazed - quite literally - and intrigued about who this person was. And that led me to do research in the archives of Marlon Riggs, the filmmaker. And as I went through the original, unedited footage that Marlon captured in the late '80s and early '90s, I encountered both the original interview and I also encountered some unpublished interviews and footage with Jesse.

And then I later, through my research, learned Jesse's name and more about Jesse's life. And so that became the inspiration for the piece of uncovering or trying to unearth or exhume the voice of this artist because their life or their personhood seemed to very deeply reflect my own. When a viewer encounters the work, they first see Jesse either on a park bench sharing the monologue about their experiences with housing instability, or they see Jesse being confronted by someone assaulting them, or they see Jesse with a friend, like, one of their comrades just walking down the street in a moment of, like, jest and play. And that image is projected onto suspended Mylar - suspended mirrorized (ph) acrylic. And what happens is that when the light bounces off of the Mylar, it's reflected and refracted off of the surface and onto either the wall or the floor. Sometimes, it's reflected back onto the viewer. And so the viewer sees multiple images of the video at once. And they also see the light abstracted and kind of broken apart into just, like, color or shimmer because the image becomes distorted sometimes. And they also see themselves in the mirrorized acrylic while also looking at Jesse.

And so it's about, like, taking the video of Jesse just in their everyday kind of quotidian life, having, at some points, like, mundane moments of Jesse just sitting down and through reflecting it through the mirrorized acrylic, giving it this kind of ethereal, sublime, dream-like feeling where, like, what appears to be reality becomes something more.


WILLIAMS: In one excerpt, Jesse is remarking on their life and some of the struggles that they experienced growing up in D.C., being estranged from their biological family. And in the same scene, we see someone in a park, who is behind Jesse, begin to verbally harass them. And the excerpt ends with Jesse getting up off of the bench and responding to and confronting their harasser. I remember distinctly Jesse standing up with their, like, long blue dress kind of trailing behind them and saying, you're not going to do a mother****ing thing to me. And if you come over here, we're going to beat your ass.

When I first saw the footage, I felt a deep sense of solidarity and connection, in part because eyewitness experiences that I was having in my own life - dealing with street harassment and being publicly verbally harassed and assaulted. And I also felt a sense of triumph and, really, inspiration to witness Jesse stand up, you know, and fight back and speak back to the person who was harassing them.


WILLIAMS: Jesse and I are different in the times in which we were born, certainly. I try and call Jesse by Jesse's name as much as possible because I don't have any way to know Jesse's pronouns or preferred pronouns, which is, like, a discourse and a conversation that is a part of, like, a more contemporary queer identity. And so how to language and define Jesse is something that, like, always escapes me because I'm very aware that the language that both existed at the time Jesse lived to describe Jesse and, perhaps, the language that Jesse used to define and describe their own being is probably different than the language that I use and I have access to to define myself.


WILLIAMS: One of the kind of haunting, glaring differences is that I don't know if Jesse is alive. When I did a performance of this work back in 2015, I posted an image of the performance on Instagram. And a friend of mine responded, and she told me that Jesse was her uncle and that Jesse had, essentially, been missing for 30 years. It makes me feel, like, deeply sad potentially knowing that Jesse could've died anonymously.

And it's haunting because I realize that, on one hand, Jesse's reality or fate could be my own, that I could also fall off the grid. And it also made me take heed more to Jesse's proclamation that, you know, I am an artist. And that's something that I - like, a mantra that's very simple but that I, like, repeat to myself often. I'm an artist. I have the capacity to imagine my life on my own terms.


WILLIAMS: I think that 50 years from now, people will remember that so much of what we call queerness has been commodified by corporations and that there was or, perhaps, is a contingent of sort of affluent gay, lesbian and maybe even trans people who have kind of assimilated into the American hegemony. But they will also remember the young, black, trans, queer, gender-nonconforming kids from the hood who resisted the commodification of queerness and who continue to fight.


MERAJI: And we're headed to the next stop on our tour of the "Nobody Promised You Tomorrow" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.

DEMBY: That's after the break. Stay with us.


MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.


UNA AYA OSATO: Hi, my name is Una Aya Osato, and this is what my voice sounds like.

M OSATO: And my name is Michi Ilona Osato, and this is what my voice sounds like...

U OSATO: (Laughter).

M OSATO: ...Sometimes.

U OSATO: (Laughter) Right now.

M OSATO: Yeah.


MERAJI: And if you haven't guessed it yet, Michi and Una are sisters. They're both artists. They put on monthly burlesque and drag performances. On top of that, Una's a sex educator and a stripper. And Michi's in school for acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, so they're doing a lot.

DEMBY: A lot - very, very busy. Una and Michi and their co-artists created a piece about a group of people you've probably never heard of. It's a group called the Lavender Hill Society. According to Una and Michi, Lavender Hill was a multiracial, multigender queer commune that existed in the 1970s and 1980s in Ithaca, N.Y., of all places. Its members ebbed and flowed between the East Village in New York and Ithaca. And when they were in Ithaca...

MERAJI: Hopefully in the summer...

DEMBY: Yeah, hopefully - Ithaca's very...

MERAJI: ...And springtime and maybe autumn (laughter).

DEMBY: ...Very cold. When they were in Ithaca, the members of Lavender Hill lived all in a house that they built. They planted food, and they loved together. In New York City, they put on weekly shows of poetry and performances with other artists.

MERAJI: Una and Michi's piece in the "Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall" is a collection of photos and artifacts from the Lavender Hill Society, some real, some imagined. There are all these photos and an old printing press they used to publish a book about the commune. There are posters from their old performances. There's a calendar, where they put down who was doing chores each week and when they were going to have orgies.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: So is that real or is that imagined?


MERAJI: And to get to Una and Michi's part of the exhibit, you walk into the Brooklyn Museum.

M OSATO: And you'll turn the corner. And you'll find the Lavender Hill Historical Society, which has just a huge wall of framed photos and art from our dear loves at the Lavender Hill Commune, that they shared these archives of their lives from the '70s and '80s with us, and an audio of the five of us when we went up to visit and rented a cabin in the woods and did mushrooms and sang our songs.

U OSATO: Who knows what kind of mushrooms?

M OSATO: Portobello.

U OSATO: (Laughter).

M OSATO: And some hanging macrame and flower creations to give it a little spruce of nature and all kinds of images.

U OSATO: It's both, like, artifacts from the commune and new ephemera that we've created in reflection, in conversation to thinking about queer communes, and what do queer communes mean to us as a collective of queers in 2019? So the art from before, from now is all mixed together. And it's this beautiful kind of tree conversation of, what is chosen family? And where do we learn about our history? How do we create the future and the present? And one of the really beautiful things about the piece is, like, you feel like you're walking into a home. And it's our home that we've created with each other, with our elders, with those in other realms. And we get to be there together.


M OSATO: There are lots of tiny, little portraits of different relationships, so there's these beautiful group photos of our elders building the house that they lived in.

U OSATO: They, like, actually built a house. And they, like, were from, like, New York City. They had no idea how to build anything...

M OSATO: Yeah. They had no idea how to build a house, but they did.


M OSATO: And then all these different relationships within the commune - sibling relationships, romantic relationships, group love...

U OSATO: Yeah. There was, like, a lot of sex and drugs and all different kinds of ways of being with each other that the commune did and just, like, a different - I feel, like, a more liberated version of, like, how bodies can be around other bodies and - without limits.


M OSATO: And bodies living freely with each other and in nature - and this, like, loving relationship with nature is just woven throughout all of these photos and all of the things that they were doing in their lives and also glitter...

U OSATO: (Laughter).

M OSATO: ...Woven through everything, accidentally or on purpose...

U OSATO: (Laughter).

M OSATO: ...Because glitter never leaves.

U OSATO: It's timeless (laughter).

M OSATO: Yeah.


M OSATO: It's powerful to think, like, in 50 years, people will be talking about us and about, you know, community in the future, using words that we don't even know what they are now - and that they'll be so far beyond what we think of as our, like, breaking down of boundaries and barriers. They will have broken even further into dimensions that we don't even see right now. And that is really incredibly inspiring.

DEMBY: For our final stop on this tour, we're going to meet Tourmaline. She's a filmmaker and writer and her piece is called "Salacia." It's a fantastical film that takes place in a once-real place called Seneca Village.

MERAJI: Gene, have you heard of Seneca Village?

DEMBY: Never.

MERAJI: I hadn't either. It's this area right in the middle of New York City where black people could own land in the 1800s. And that was during a time when slavery was legal in New York. But everyone in Seneca Village was evicted from their homes in the 1850s to make room for Central Park.

M OSATO: Tourmaline's piece tells the story of Mary Jones, a real person who lived in Seneca Village. And in order to tell the story, she drew on both historical archives and black storytelling and folktale traditions. She used Virginia Hamilton's acclaimed folktale collection "The People Could Fly" as inspiration, weaving words from the text throughout her film.

MERAJI: Here's Tourmaline with the story of Mary Jones.


TOURMALINE: In June 1836, Mary Jones, who was a black, trans New Yorker, who was a sex worker, was arrested. And she was arrested for stealing someone's wallet. And the New York Sun and The New York Herald came out with these really big articles about her at the time. And there was a lithograph made of her that called her a man monster. It was a lithograph of her likeness. And she looks beautiful. And it was supposed to be, you know, salacious. It was supposed to be, you know, getting kind of moral outrage about trans people, about black people, about sex workers. And so she, through the course of her arrest, was outed as trans. And she was sentenced to prison for, I think, five years.


TOURMALINE: You know, this is before Stonewall - right? - 183 years ago. And I read her court transcripts, and they were, just, so intense. Some of the same questions that many of us who are black and trans and have to deal with legal systems get asked, like, what's your real name? Who are you actually? And you can just see the kind of treatment of trans people and, particularly, you know, black trans people continuing for so long. But also, what I thought was so powerful about her was that she came to court, just, dressed to the nines. You know, she wasn't going to let a kind of court proceeding push her fabulous self down, you know? And that's why you have these lithographs about her, referring to her as a man monster, where she looks, just, amazing.


TOURMALINE: My piece is projected on the wall. And, you know, you walk in, and Mary Jones is in front of a bull. And there's a voiceover where she's talking about, you know, they say the people could fly. They say long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic. And they would walk upon the air like climbing on the gate. And that's text right out of "The People Could Fly" that was from Virginia Hamilton. And then you'll see scenes of Seneca Village. So you'll see marshy, old New York. So Seneca Village was a marshy place. Before Central Park, there was a river that ran through that community. And people were living off of the land. People were farmers, so you'll see kind of black life. And then you'll see a scene of Mary Jones doing sex work and stealing this person's wallet, you know, because she probably did, you know, like, you know, steal this person's wallet. And people just needed to survive.


TOURMALINE: And then you'll see Mary Jones do some magic and get confronted by the police. And then you'll see her in prison doing a spell. And you'll see a lot of water. And then you'll see her on the run with people who, you know, who were incarcerated with her, you know - and her fighting a guard and getting the keys. And it's not necessarily linear, so you'll see her back in Seneca Village. You'll see her running and fleeing prison. And then you'll see Mary Jones say, kind of over and over again, we can be anything that we want to be. And then the film loops back to the beginning.

Seneca Village, similar to a lot of places where black folks had gathered here in the U.S. and made meaning, made life, created power, faces historical erasure, right? And part of that reason is because, you know, Seneca Village was demolished through use of eminent domain while this person, Fernando Wood, was mayor in order to make Central Park. And I think, you know, one of the reasons why people don't know about places like Seneca Village is because, you know, it causes us to question what's around us, right? It causes us to question, like, why were, you know, in the place where - one of the only places in New York City where black people could have land and vote and have a kind of political power, why were they evicted to make a park happen? You know, this park, Central Park - at the time, there were multiple locations that people were wanting a park to happen in New York City. It definitely didn't need to be right on top of Seneca Village.

And so I think that history is pushed down, it's suppressed because, you know, it causes people to make connections between, oh, like this happened a long time ago. Is it similar to anything that's happening today? Or, oh, this happened a long time ago, was there any kind of reparation that happened? Was there any kind of reparation that could happen now because of it? How did this change black life in New York City?


TOURMALINE: I think it's important to talk about and make art about someone like Mary Jones because we're in a moment of intense conservatism, intense respectability politics, intense pushing down people who don't fit in, who might not speak the right way, might not dress the right way or smell the right way. And the stories where we show, well, actually, those of us who don't fit in, those of us who are, you know, disrespectable, we have a past. And it's actually really powerful.


DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show. You can follow us on Twitter, we're @NPRCodeSwitch. And sign up for our newsletter at

MERAJI: And a big thank you to Lauren Argentina Zelaya and Lindsay Harris, who are two of the curators of "Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall."

DEMBY: This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan and Leah Donnella with help from Jess Kung. It was edited by Leah and Steve Drummond.

MERAJI: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Maria Paz Gutierrez, Karen Grigsby Bates, Kat Chow, Adrian Florido, LA Johnson and Sami Yenigun. Our interns are Michael Paulino and Jess Kung.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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