today’s photo is of

today’s photo is of 

Me as the framer, behind the camera. I am not visible. And yet, I am always present in what I choose to show, in how I am reflected in the moments I witness, cultivate, memorialize, study.

When I first conceived of the desire to make a writing practice out of witnessing my younger self through the lenses of cameras held by adults who surrounded me as a child, it was because I was so moved and awed by the results of a similar practice as shared by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, on her website and instagram. 

As I daily published the first three of these explorations this week, I mentioned this connection, hoping to point anyone interested toward the path of her work, which I honor as highly as any I’ve been exposed to in my life. What I feel toward Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a creative devotion, and a spiritual one.

Then, a friend asked me to consider the harm of showing up in social media space as a white person, examining and displaying my white girlhood, and naming a connection to the work of Alexis Pauline Gumbs – without naming the Blackness of her work, the Blackness of the being and belonging she remembers and embodies, and the cultural dominance of whiteness, which gives me access that I haven’t truly earned.

Receiving my friend’s reflection, I thought of another new friend, Moe Bowstern, a white poet, gnc neighbor witch, who has been so steady in her accountability to the ig project she’s been doing daily since back in March that it has become a touchstone of my own pandemic experience. A part of this accountability has been charting her decolonial and anti-racist un-learning in public, as she receives loving feedback and and reframes from a place of growth.

These posts are my favorites often, because god yes do we all need so much modeling of repair! The violence of whiteness makes us fear being seen as vulnerable, in process, interdependent. Protecting ourselves, we cannot grow. Paralyzed, we solidify the power structure with the illusion that power connotes competence.

Emergence depends on collaborative presence; we have to fall sometimes to feel the ground. Most of us don’t trust that others will help us up if we haven’t felt it. 

I’m coming to love fucking up and falling apart because I trust that I will be loved into growth. Love is shaped so many ways, you know? But. And. No one can love me into growth if I am not there first, fingers in the dirt, landing in the humility of my unconditional belonging to Earth. For a white person in white dominant culture, this feels especially important, especially fraught. Who do I harm when I don’t have a practice of melting this perverse, pervasive insistence on my infallibility?

Receiving my friend’s reflection, I knew that I had come to the project with the larger intention of witnessing cultural forces acting on my child body. How was I welcomed into whiteness? How did my body learn to perform the gender assigned to me? When did I learn to smile and play innocent ignorance, at the cost of developing my ability to witness and interrupt harm? Was I always seeking a cultural holding that would make me less lonely? Was I always wandering into the spirit world? Did the people around me know? Did I wonder then about how and why our structures were so restrictive, so hollow? Did I suspect? Did I notice the holes? 

These questions are rooted in cultivated curiosity about my participation in genocidal patterns. I have felt again and again how each of our unlearning of cruelty is essential for our collective freedom. I write again and again in letters to incarcerated humans on the land we call Oregon: none of us are free until all of us are free. I believe this with my whole self. And, as I experience when I get to listen to or read Alexis Pauline Gumbs, we are all already free, already in the unfolding of love, already fully accompanied. 

It is each of our responsibility – opportunity? – to feel this, to help breathe this truth into the collective body. But. And. Although my practice is pointed toward remembering the truth that Alexis Pauline Gumbs seems by her nature to know, bearing witness to what is in the way of that paradise, as a white person in a white dominated world, defines the shape of my own work. I cannot shirk the difference there. Any skipped step is subtly in service to the status quo.

Receiving my friend’s reflection, I felt how I had pointed the lens. What was inside my frame and what was not. Yes, the child self I was studying was at the mercy of cultural forces beyond her control. But the adult self I am revisits these touchstones in choice. 

I get access to Alexis Pauline Gumbs as a writer and teacher: a Black Feminist writer whose poetry is also a guide to practice. My experience of her practice is that it celebrates Blackness, love, and collectivity. In the introduction to their Finding Our Way conversation, Prentis Hemphill says, “In her work and in her way of being, Alexis illuminates the Black Feminist path forward which is the path of our ultimate liberation.”

I identify with Prentis Hemphill’s use of the word ‘our’ in this statement, even though – indeed, because – I understand that the ultimate liberation they reference is not framed around my freedom or lack thereof.

Unlike Alexis Pauline Gumbs, I am not a Black Feminist scholar. I am not in devoted, direct relationship with the women and queer people, living and dead, who have shaped that movement. I am not Black. Like all of us, I have ancestors who would today be considered Black. Like all of us, I live today because of their thriving. But that honor is not mine in this life. 

Further, my recent ancestry is shaped by potent patterns of harm that both allowed my people to survive, and traumatized their relationships with Earth, Life, and Spirit. Along with love and labor, the unconditional support of the Earth, and the often conditional support of their relatives and communities, my ancestors made their ways to me by acquiesing to and perpetuating racism, settler colonialism, and murderous patriarchal christian capitalism. We learned to lie, and to forget. We learned to keep each other numb by shutting down empathy and shaming connection categorically. In these patterns, everyone suffers. But the suffering, and the responsibility, and the healing – look different depending on the places we’re held in the pattern. 

Holding this difference is the only way for me, as a white person, to enter a room where Black women thrive. Really, holding the difference, I might see that I don’t belong in that room at all. And, because of Black Abundance, I could still be filled with wisdom, just sitting in the hall.

Like Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “my creative practice and my spiritual practice are the same practice.” I think this is true for Moe, too, and for the friend who gently called me in. I offer unconditional appreciation to these three, today, in their very different places in the constellation, for their influence in my practice. I offer, especially, gratitude and humility to Alexis Pauline Gumbs, her ancestors, and our shared Earth, as I acknowledge how easy it is for me, as a white-bodied adult with the encouragement of educational privilege and social media speed, to pick and choose what I use and what I show, without sufficient context or patience to honor the integrity of how each of us knows what we know. 

I make an offering of this photograph, of my first born child in the arms of my mother, whose first born daughter, I am. A reminder of the pace I know in my body, of this particular cellular unfolding of love. This is the pace at which I want to practice. In this granular intimacy. With grief and vulnerability and dedication and joy.

Published by Devon Riley

lately: youth work, parenting, sorcery, books, walks in the woods

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s