Reflections on Electoral Organizing

This piece first appeared on Red Fault, Austin DSA’s blog, on August 21, 2022.

The evening of Tuesday, March 1, 2022 grew increasingly somber as the hours passed by. With the expert coordination of Austin DSA, my campaign collaborated with Bob Libal’s team to gather folks at Black Star Co-Op for a watch party. For at least an hour, everyone had trouble refreshing the Travis County Elections page.

In Texas, early voting returns often provide good insight into the final outcome. 

Well, the website ultimately resumed operations, and bad news awaited me, Bob, and our teams. The incumbents drew at least 75% of the vote in both races. We moved quickly to buoy the spirit of the crowd, open a tab, and pull our families close.

We delivered our remarks flawlessly, uplifting our campaign messages of housing as a human right and no new jails. Our first campaigns were over. 

Electoral organizing is grueling work. The planning, the canvassing, and the fundraising  can easily consume a year. Putting one’s name out there in the most public forum possible can be affirming and nerve-racking. 

On a deeper level, I reflected privately and publicly on the relationship between electoral organizing and prison abolition—if any. 

I am deeply committed to ending policing and prisons in the United States. 

Could I earnestly advance that mission of my life if I served as an arm of the state in any capacity? 

I landed on the reasoning that the justification for my campaign existed within the local nature of the office. 

To be a Justice of the Peace or County Commissioner in Texas means living and operating in the same community whose members will appear in the elected official’s chambers. A local elected official should be more accountable to their constituents because their constituents are truly their neighbors. 

This principle underscores the dynamic governing campaign promises made and the track record in keeping them; there should be alignment between the two. Moreover, any public opposition to the police state is useful in a time of various crises. 

Having solidified this philosophy, I turned to the fundamental elements of campaigning: door knocking and calling folks for money. 

Although days come when a person would prefer to do neither, both actions provide a candidate and local DSA chapter with the best resource in electoral organizing: direct conversations with people. 

I trudged through cold weather in previously unknown neighborhoods to make my pitch to folks on their doorsteps—in thirty seconds or less. I frequently encountered ‘no solicitation’ signs and waves from folks indicating that they weren’t interested. 

However, as I often led my speech with reflections on truancy referrals and eviction proceedings, I had hundreds of people note their approval by requesting a yard sign. 

People responded passionately when I mentioned the school-to-prison pipeline, often sharing how their school districts would scrutinize the attendance records of their children. Through their personal experiences, they know intimately how kids are so often criminalized and pushed out of their classrooms in twenty-first century America.

They soulfully conveyed their apprehension about the looming eviction crisis, as various pandemic-era protections were scheduled to evaporate as Election Day approached. A few months after my campaign, I am encouraged to see the news of the $300 million affordable housing bond that will likely appear on the November ballot. Stable housing is – and should be – a pressing concern for us all. 

In the midst of very demanding electoral work, these field interactions renewed me each day. 

Even if—as in my case—the final result is a disappointing one, the nods of approval and pride that one may receive while canvassing make it all worth it. 

Future candidate-centered campaigns undoubtedly exist in Austin DSA’s future, and it’s exciting to see the chapter presently pivot toward work to support abortion funds in a post-Roe world and push for mass divestment from the Austin Police Department.

I look forward to joining my comrades in knocking doors for these and other efforts.

With each central Texan we reach, we expand the circle of our vision for the future: one that is rooted in radical love and collectivism. 

With my first campaign in my rearview mirror, I hope to continually apply its lessons to our chapter’s efforts to improve the material conditions of the working class in Texas. 

I thank Austin DSA for its endorsement, support, and its solidarity forever. 

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Austin, Texas

I fell in love with Austin, Texas slowly, methodically.

We connected in 2016, in a period of transition for us both. My law school graduation loomed; the city was then embroiled in a debate about ride-sharing services and implications on accessibility. It showed me just how politically engaged it was from the start. I stayed near RM 2222 and I-35 for that weekend. I found it charming & fun, though I didn’t necessarily think about it past potential future vacations.

I returned just over a year later to celebrate a law school buddy’s birthday. Lake Travis called and demonstrated the versatile nature of the city. Even then, it wasn’t quite clear just how permanent of a fixture this unique capital would be in my life.

Fast forward to 2019 — a friend & mentor informed me of an interesting job opening in the city. I decided to apply, and — by April of that year– it was confirmed that I’d be relocating to ATX.

***

I don’t know when it exactly clicked that this was my place. It could have been with my feet submerged in the pool at Kitty Cohen’s, chatting it up with an Oregonian couple on a cross-country road trip.

Perhaps it was as I walked through Pease Park, taking in the lush greenery of a quiet day in September.

It may certainly have been the first visit to Mt. Bonnell, celebrating a neighbor’s birthday and witnessing the breathtaking sunset from its elevated perspective.

Kayaking on Lady Bird Lake shirtless, after years of being in my head about my fatness, seems like an opportune moment where a nice affinity for the city was recognized.

***

I fell in the deep love I referenced as I took on many new journeys in life.

I became an uncle, began to speak openly about my bisexuality, and ran for elected office for the first time in ATX.

I dated from Casa Colombia to Cinepolis. I hosted friends from Maryland and Minnesota, joyously taking them to see Nether Hour at Latchkey.

I meandered countless times through the Boggy Creek Trail, sitting with the full pain and joy of life as I did so.

I joined Ebenezer III Baptist Church two weeks after I moved. I met Dr. Angela Y. Davis at an Austin Justice Coalition event on E. 4th Street. I celebrated the arrival of a baby for dear friends near Cedar Park. I took the MetroRail for fun on a random Saturday in May. I seemingly identified five cities in one as I got to know the lay of the land better.

At some point, I visited BookPeople every other week. I sent more than several finds to my niece in Oklahoma from the Post Office on E. 6th Street. I visited various campuses of the Austin Public Library to conduct business, wander through the stacks, and discover even more writers. I found effortless connections at crawfish boils, thirtieth birthday parties, and backyard jam sessions.

I faced a racist investigation from the Texas Board of Law Examiners, and I prevailed. I grew more committed to my racial justice advocacy as a civil rights lawyer. I understood intrinsically that — despite the tough political landscape of this state — I was called to it for a reason.

I stayed up all night. I slept well. I leaned into my impetuous exhortations of love. I kept my cards close to my chest. I floated in pools. I accumulated 30,000 steps on a UT game day. I wrote. I dreamed. I sharpened my politics. I laughed hard in bars, at dinner parties, and on rooftops. I planned a life here in ATX.

I don’t know just where this path will lead. Maybe I’ll remain in ATX for another decade — or stay here for 50 years? It’s wonderful to have some strong notes of stability presently mixed with unknown variables.

Wherever the path leads, this city has already left an unexpected, indelible mark on my life. That — in and of it itself — makes it beyond worthy of a grand love that is growing by the day.

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Cascading Grief

For James Robinson, 1987-2022. For millions of Black people across history.

I learned of James’ death on an elevated portion of I-35 near downtown Austin. Up to that point, being suspended from the ground matched the mood of the evening. A new band named Minivan Dad summoned folks to an incredible backyard set. It was a lovely spring day in central Texas.

I called Desireé, then Brenda. Understandably, answering machines greeted me. I offered condolences and then let the stream of consciousness flow. I’m here for you, call me if you need anything, is he really gone?

I stepped out of my Uber, compartmentalizing the bad news as I did so. The night still called, even as my heart seemingly paused.

***

It’s tough enough to process an unexpected passing, and then an ongoing pandemic joins the equation. As of this piece’s publication, the seven-figure marker of COVID-19 casualties in the U.S. quickly approaches. One million people.

I find myself, likely as others do, drifting between some state of normalcy and disbelief. I pull into the parking lot of my neighborhood HEB; I dig into my pockets and realize my mask is at home. It’s April 2022, a far cry from March 2020. I think of the practices that have shifted in 25 months. Sanitizing wipes are no longer used to scrub down every surface of one’s home after a trip outside. I’m both a survivor of COVID-19 and have a booster shot in my arm. Yet, the initial apprehension of early 2020 still governs it all.

Do I go in the store or return home? Why did I forget the damn mask in the first place? I sit still for a minute.

***

I’ve written about death publicly pretty much only once before. Almost seven years to the day, this essay idea jumps from my mind onto the laptop screen. With the unbelievable devastation of the pandemic, it calls me back with both a gentle tug and a forceful mandate.

I remember Donald, I remember Aunt Sara, I remember Cassius, I remember Meonne, I remember Uncle Greg, I remember Tiauna, I remember my grandparents. Now, I remember James. These Black folks — who I knew & conversed with & loved — were no longer with us physically. The years pass, but sometimes that reality slips from me.

***

Where am I?

I drive east on I-20 through heavy rain, with Grandma Jackson in the passenger seat. I sit on her porch, tracing my fingers over her handwriting & awaiting her memorial service. I speak with Donald for nearly an hour near the elevators in the East Towers. I weep in the pews of the Rankin Chapel, watching his stately parents on the stage. I inch closer to Aunt Sara, her umbrella providing protection from the Mississippi sun at an Alcorn football game. I stare at her picture while in Louisiana for Thanksgiving nearly a decade after her passing.

I throw my fists up with James at the base of Table Mountain in Cape Town. I open Instagram to find a post from his fraternity, memorializing him.

2011 somehow seems like it was yesterday, yet it was eleven years ago.

***

My experiences with grief, especially from 2012 onward, prove how non-linear it is. Over two years into the pandemic, deep grief is now an indelible, collective understanding. I cry frequently these days – on the couch, on solo road trips, on a seat in the airport. Depending on the day, the mask collects the tears. I embrace the catharsis of it as I did when I was a young child. I shed the shame I felt about it as a teenager and a twenty-something.

What is the cause of this weeping and its steady flow? Perhaps it’s the substance of work? The realization that this country’s deep commitments to white supremacy & capitalism eviscerated Roe as hundreds of millions of people suffer? There’s a recognition that supporting racial justice initiatives is my life’s work, and I may never achieve a balance between that work and rest. That reality is both empowering and sad.

Maybe it’s the individual deaths in my life over the past decade? News of passings conveyed over phone calls & social media posts can bring back vivid memories. Some days, I could close my eyes and picture the brilliant smiles of these wonderful Black people in front of me. Other days, the times I shared with these folks & the grief blur together as I push them to the back of my mind.

The older I get, the more I seemingly comprehend the nature of grief. It ebbs & flows. It exists across time. It reaches inflection points during a pandemic. It is necessary to experience the fullness of the human condition. It may confer a wide smile one day, and then bring forth a heavy sob the next. It demonstrates the transcendent power of love.

It forces one to remember. For that, despite the pain, I am grateful.

With James Robinson in Cape Town, South Africa in 2011

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Update: Publicly Holding the Staff of the Texas Board of Law Examiners Accountable for Anti-Black Racism

Thank you all so much for the outpouring of love and support as I shared the details of my arduous ordeal to become a Texas attorney.

On January 10, 2022, I submitted a formal complaint to the executive director of the Texas Board of Law Examiners. My grievance primarily focused on the staff attorney assigned to my case and his bold argument that I violated the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct — and his maintenance of that assertion well after he knew the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board had no issue with my conduct. At the end of this correspondence, I urged the executive director to assess the race of bar applicants as a factor that should weigh heavily into the decision-making process of what cases proceed to the hearing stage.

I expected little from this administrative process, ostensibly because the executive director approves the cases that proceed to the three-judge panel. However, in the response that the executive director sent on January 24, 2022, she indicated that the full board would consider my recommendation about race assessments in hearing determinations at its next public board meeting. The date for this meeting is March 25, 2022.

I plan to attend to further tell my story on the public record, discuss the history of racial discrimination in bar admissions, and push the Texas Board of Law Examiners to be transparent as it tackles anti-Black racism within its operations.

For any Black attorneys or Black bar applicants who faced the invasive mistreatment of a character & fitness investigation — whether in Texas or another jurisdiction — I’d love to hear from you. Recognizing that this is a big ask, I would ideally love to convene a group of Black attorneys and Black bar applicants to join me at this public meeting.

Shoot me a line at andrew[at]andrewrhairston[dot]com

Solidarity forever in the quest for racial justice,

Andrew

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Most Popular Vox Populi Posts for 2021

Vox Populi

At the end of each year, I enjoy compiling a list of the Vox Vopuli posts which attracted the most viewers. This year, for the first time, I’m also noting the single most popular post in each category since VP was founded in April, 2014. If you see an author or title that looks interesting, I hope you’ll visit (or re-visit) the post. Thank you for being part of our community! — Michael Simms, editor

Most Popular Vox Populi Political Articles in 2021:

Abby Zimet: Slipping Free of the Shame To Say His Name, Now More ThanEver

Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, & Max Wilbert: Bright GreenLies

Dan Brook: The Cost ofMeat

Baron Wormser: Notes from the Time of theLeader

D.W. Fenza: Democracy & the Corruptible Soul of HigherEducation

Most popular Vox Populi Political Article of all time (2014-2021):

Noam Chomsky: The Death of the AmericanUniversity

Most popular Health Articles…

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On Becoming a Texas Lawyer

I recited the required oath and officially became a Texas lawyer on November 30, 2021. After starting the process in 2019, and delaying it a few times to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, I sat for the Texas Bar in February 2021.

On its face, it all seems like a pretty fair timeline. However, consider a request that the Texas Board of Law Examiners asked of me in March 2020. For background, I spent three years of my legal career in D.C. after graduating from law school in Louisiana. At the time, the only jurisdiction where I was admitted to practice law was Louisiana. The inquiry from the Texas Board of Law Examiners sought greater clarity on this discrepancy — they asked me to prove that the time that I spent in D.C. constituted ‘lawful practice.’

I wrote out a response and shared it within several weeks.

After another few weeks, I heard back and learned that the Texas Board of Law Examiners found this explanation to be insufficient. Accordingly, they instructed me to reach out to the D.C. Bar and report back with an official blessing from them on letterhead. I contacted the D.C. Bar Committee on Unauthorized Practice of Law in June 2020, having recently deferred my July 2020 bar application to the fall. Of note, in my original application, the electronic system used by the Texas Board of Law Examiners still indicated that I had not resolved the ‘proof of lawful practice issue.’

The months came and went. I pushed back the test administration one more time to February 2021, to accommodate my full-time work schedule and figure out life amid a global health crisis. I communicated with the D.C. Bar Committee a few times. They asked me to complete a questionnaire to gain further clarity on my work from 2016-2019, which felt pretty standard.

In December 2020, as I recovered from COVID-19, the representative from the D.C. Bar Committee shot me a line to explain their thinking. They appreciated my explanation, but the relevant rule requires for lawyers licensed in other jurisdictions to apply for admission to the D.C. Bar within 90 days of commencing their practice at a physical office in D.C. It was a routine mistake, but it was a mistake nonetheless. To resolve the matter, they proposed that I pay the equivalent of the dues that I would’ve paid to the D.C. Bar from 2016 to 2019.

This made sense to me, especially as I dealt with the stress of surviving COVID-19, still working full-time, and preparing for the February Bar. I verbally agreed and awaited the agreement to sign.

Several weeks after that conversation, and a few weeks before the bar exam, the representative looped back. He explained that since I did not have an active account with the D.C. Bar, I could pay the back dues to a non-profit organization called the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center. He forwarded the agreement, I signed it in February, took the bar later that month, and made the donation in March. That day, I submitted the agreement and proof of payment to the Texas Board of Law Examiners, in lieu of a letter from the D.C. Bar.

Let me take a slight step back to explain an essential component of bar admissions. Each jurisdiction is tasked with determining whether bar applicants have the ‘character & fitness’ to practice law in a particular state. The investigations can be wide-ranging and expansive. In certain instances, the investigators may examine a person’s conduct in high school.

Up to the point of submission of the D.C. materials, my character and fitness to practice law in Texas had been approved. On March 18, 2021, the director of character and fitness of the Texas Board of Law Examiners wrote me a letter. She indicated that my preliminary character and fitness approval would be temporarily rescinded. Her team sought more information from me about the D.C. investigation over the next two and a half months. It all culminated in me receiving this:

The Texas Board of Law Examiners issued a negative preliminary determination letter to me on June 11, 2021. Their argument centered on me never applying for admission to the D.C. Bar and not disclosing the investigation that led to the agreement — the outreach that they asked me to make.

With the tremendous support of my boss at Texas Appleseed, I hired a lawyer and approached the process with earnest zeal, even as I felt deep apprehension about it.

As we prepared for a hearing on November 18, 2021, we gathered letters from various folks of significance in my life. In total, 20 letters comprised my evidence packet. 13 lawyers wrote incredible reflections on my fundamental character. My parents, niece, aunt, and aunt’s boyfriend came to Austin on the 17th. My aunt and her boyfriend kept my niece in the space below the conference room, and my parents joined me in the conference room where the hearing took place.

The opening statements proceeded, and the board attorney emphasized that my conduct was serious enough — from their perspective — to warrant the determination that I would never possess the requisite character and fitness to practice law in Texas.

The three-judge panel of the Texas Board of Law Examiners instantly grilled the board attorney. They lifted up the fundamental fact that I argued — didn’t the staff know about the investigation because they asked the applicant to follow up with the D.C. Bar? The board attorney fumbled over the timeline and couldn’t clarify whether the argument was that I didn’t disclose the investigation or that I didn’t timely notify them. He then questioned me for 40 minutes, incessantly asking if I applied for the D.C. Bar – a fact that I admitted to and noted that I should have done.

My lawyer called my boss, my father, my mother, and me. Each person delivered heartfelt and authentic reflections on who I am and the good character I possess. The board attorney had no questions for anyone but me, but he still asked the three-judge panel to permanently decertify my character & fitness.

Within fifteen minutes of the conclusion of the hearing — in the time it took for me and my aunt’s boyfriend to pull the cars around from the garage — my lawyer walked out with my family and flashed a thumbs up. The three-judge panel unanimously certified my character & fitness to practice law in Texas — free and clear.

Now that I’m three weeks removed from it, and I recognize how costly, unnecessary, and very racist the process was, I feel compelled to tell my story and also seek out the stories of others who may have endured similar mistreatment. Since character & fitness investigations are so lock & key, and they involve the most intimate details of a person’s life and career, I understand that many folks may be reluctant to share. However, I have a deep hunch that character & fitness investigations are largely used to exclude the historically underrepresented in the legal profession. I especially want to hear from Black attorneys and law school students.

Shoot me a line — andrew[at]andrewrhairston[dot]com

You’ll all hear more from me soon. In the meantime, keep seeking racial justice in all that you do.

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A Lesson for Thirty

I turn 30 tomorrow.

As conveyed through my numerous social media posts this year, 2021 has been completely dedicated to commemorating this milestone. It’s a blessing to arrive here, especially with the childlike excitement I’ve brought to it.

Is it 2021 or 1996? Similar vibes of sheer happiness.

In the past 30 days, I thought about different ways I could acknowledge the dawning of a new decade. Should I try to revive the Facebook Notes feature (does it even still exist? shoutout to the grand authoress Sesali Bowen for the recent reminder in an IGTV video!) and write a list of what I’ve learned from 1991-2021? There must certainly be some value in letting my Facebook friends know that they should buy plane tickets on Tuesdays and decline the additional insurance coverage when they rent cars?

Perhaps I could upload a video with a meditation and prayer for this new season of my life? Incorporate elements of comedy and pragmatism in either form of delivery?

In the final 24 hours of my twenties, I decided to push out this short essay. Its overarching theme?

Love.

Love that may originate in excitement and end in heartbreak. Love that builds ties – some of which may be unexpected – across the years. Love that ultimately instructs one in greater empathy. Love that guides through pain. Abundant, sustaining, enriching love.

That is the lesson for my thirtieth birthday and the rest of my life.

Love hard. Love through the difficult moments to heal from them. Love them and tell them. Love the person you become, regardless of their response. Love the mistakes you make and the character they build; love the forgiveness that you may ask for or seek out from someone else once a sufficient amount of time passes. Love as you grow and find some eventual sense of peace.

Love your friends. Love your lovers. Love your family. Love these people to hold them accountable when they do harm. Love the feedback they give you when you do the same.

Love humanity enough to fight for the world we all deserve. Love one another as we collectively fight to abolish prisons, policing, and state control of Black people. Love people who have abortions, do drugs, engage in sex work, and break all the other molds that have been forced upon them through centuries of pervasive white supremacy.

Love and study the frameworks that will get us to true freedom, such as disability justice, environmental justice, and reproductive justice. Love in the face of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia to do away with the oppressive systems that perpetuate them – once and for all.

If you’re reading this, I love you. Thank you for supporting me and my craft. Much more awaits. Beyond grateful to see 30.

– arh

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Andrew Reginald Hairston: Husky Boy

Vox Populi

 

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People of a certain age will remember the dominance of JCPenney in the 1990s. Affordable, comfortable clothes adorned the shelves of the department store’s various branches; it offered enough name brands to make it appealing to kids and their caregivers alike.

I mean, Southpole, anyone?

My mother found plenty of husky clothes for this big boy on the racks of JCPenney stores across the South and the Midwest. I probably was ambivalent about them when my mother initially purchased them, but then, as I realized how much they allowed me to cover myself, I grew to appreciate them more. Husky clothes for a husky boy – it made sense.

For the first five years of my life, I was relatively small, and then my girth grew. I developed an affable, agreeable personality to avoid the taunts that inevitably come with being a big kid. This method worked…

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Husky Boy

This piece originally appeared in Vox Populi Public Sphere on May 15, 2021.

People of a certain age will remember the dominance of JCPenney in the 1990s. Affordable, comfortable clothes adorned the shelves of the department store’s various branches; it offered enough name brands to make it appealing to kids and their caregivers alike.

I mean, Southpole, anyone?

My mother found plenty of husky clothes for this big boy on the racks of JCPenney stores across the South and the Midwest. I probably was ambivalent about them when my mother initially purchased them, but then, as I realized how much they allowed me to cover myself, I grew to appreciate them more. Husky clothes for a husky boy – it made sense.

For the first five years of my life, I was relatively small, and then my girth grew. I developed an affable, agreeable personality to avoid the taunts that inevitably come with being a big kid. This method worked until about the time I was 12; at that point in my life, due to some long-forgotten inspiration, I resolved to lose a significant amount of weight.

I saw this endeavor through, likely shedding fifty pounds from 2003 to 2004. I became so small that my mother began to warn me that my diminished form could impact my kidney function, describing the demanding process of dialysis as she did so.

I agreed to gain the weight back, and then I continued to gain weight throughout my years as a teenager. I arrived at college as a solidly big guy. The taunts of childhood turned into more subtle forms of mockery as I navigated the terrain of a culturally diverse university in the nation’s capital.

These slights be damned, I settled into the reality of having lived in my body for nearly twenty years at that point. I employed humor and wit to distract from my large size; based on their reactions, people seemingly appreciated this method of engagement. My personality allowed me to deflect when it came to my weight.

As I transitioned from college to law school, my accomplishments met my personality to provide enough cover from my body and its size.

I completed my first quarter century on Earth with some form of mastery on how to conceal my body enough to not make it even the remote focus at any given time. This period of my life – my second tour in D.C. – was made infinitely better by my ever-present cognizance of how I navigated the world as a big man and my intentional selection of some of the most compassionate friends a large guy could have. I hit a stride – my weight was there, but it didn’t dominate my thoughts like it had during my adolescent years.

I journeyed along this path for a year and a half, and then a dear friend, Desireé, loaned me her copy of Hunger by Roxane Gay. Normally, it takes me about a month to finish a book; I read Hunger ravenously and completed it within two weeks. Dr. Gay’s description of an inconceivably terrible childhood trauma and its relationship to her subsequent weight gain enraptured me. I so greatly appreciated her candor on a topic that affects all of us in very intimate, piercing ways throughout our lifetimes.

Finishing that masterpiece made me reconsider my relationship with my size and pushed me to interrogate my previous decisions to make myself less noticeable in social interactions.

For one, I started thinking about my attire to gatherings centered around bodies of water – whether pools, rivers, or oceans. Prior to reading Hunger, I approached these outings something like this – the funny big guy clad in the t-shirt at the pool will usually be given a pass, if conventional wisdom governs?

From 2000-2018, I made it a point to almost always have a shirt on when I entered a body of water in public. I would indulge in my love of swimming and floating without fear of my large frame being scrutinized.

It worked relatively well; I shared laughs with friends and social acquaintances over this eighteen-year period without being knowledgeable about any slights made about my weight. I created a comfortable groove that I barely questioned until that life-changing memoir came on the queue. Instead of internally interrogating how I appeared in these social circumstances, one consistent thought emerged – why was I so afraid of being seen in my divine fullness?

I kept these thoughts to myself as 2018 wrapped up, but I was ready to operationalize the answers I’d formed as 2019 dawned.

Along with these considerations of the weight I carried, I entered the new year of 2019 still mourning the loss of my maternal grandmother, as well as considering a move from D.C. to Texas. I understood this period in my life as both a possibility and an opportunity. A possibility to bring a newly discovered appreciation for my large body to Texas, and an opportunity to shed some of the shame that I felt about my weight for twenty-seven years at that point.

I reflected on both thoughts, giving a good deal of consideration to my grandmother and her opinions about big people. Grandma Jackson typically reserved her harsh commentary about large folks for women she deemed to be too big. I contended with the paradox of this ire, recognizing the notes of sexism within it – that I was shielded from – as I got older, but also registering the disdain of fat people that it ultimately signified. I mentally walked through the contradictions, honoring Grandma as a newly minted ancestor and acknowledging that her physical absence allowed me to forge my own legacy in her honor, extricating anything I deemed worthy of removing from my worldview.

I settled into my new apartment in Austin, more than willing to push my former boundaries and experience legitimate pride in my body.

I started small. I swam in my apartment complex’s pool shirtless. I slept in the same manner. I researched more writing and speaking engagements from Dr. Gay, picked up Thick by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, and I followed Sonya Renee Taylor on social media. All of these luminaries provided unique insights on how anti-Blackness intersects with fatphobia to reinforce to so many people that their bodies are inadequate and worthy of their contempt. As I grew more confident in my body – understanding the ways in which this discontentment had been built by a personal and collective history – I also had moments where I reverted to the psyche of that husky kid trying on large clothes from JCPenney.

***

The true test came in December of 2019. My dear friend Amber was turning thirty, and she invited a group of us to commemorate this milestone with her in Palm Springs. My self-assurance with my weight grew consistently in the six months directly preceding this trip. Before I flew to California, I’d even gone on a shirtless walk around Lady Bird Lake in Austin – an activity I’d grown to greatly enjoy during my time in the city and a previously unthinkable way to do it.

Amber is known to many as the High Priestess of Black Joy, and I knew that she would cultivate the spirit that her moniker evokes throughout any celebration that honored her. It was the end of a decade, an incomparable thirtieth birthday, and the holiday season – my body was well-equipped to carry me through this momentous occasion.

We converged in Palm Springs from every corner of the country, unified by our commitment to Black joy, Black feminism, and our unyielding love for Amber.

That weekend was everything you’d imagine a proper thirtieth birthday party to be. We ate well, laughed, smoked, and shared so many stories, toasting Amber and ourselves along the way. In a signal to my completely conferred happiness with my body, I appeared on Amber’s Instagram stories without a shirt on – something I wouldn’t have even thought about doing a year prior to that date. I felt 180 degrees away from that husky boy; in the process of experiencing that glorious weekend, I imagined that some form of full acceptance of who I’d grown up to be – over the course of twenty eight years up to that point – took place.

To top off this transformation, at the zenith of the weekend, we recorded a choreographed twerk video, led by the inimitable Director of Praise and Twerkship, Jazmine Da K.O.S Walker.

That weekend reinforced that my body belonged to me and should be uplifted as often as possible as I continue to draw breath.

The events of Amber’s thirtieth wrapped up, and we all went our separate ways – perhaps even anticipating some form of a reunion in December 2020. Of course, that expectation far departed from reality. The coronavirus pandemic settled in, and I decided to temporarily move back to my parents’ home in Oklahoma. It turns out that the weight fluctuations that come with a once-in-a-century global health crisis tend toward gain over loss.

I came home physically and proverbially – as an adult with much more confidence about his size contending with the kid who returned – in some form – to the circumstances of his childhood.

In 2020, I engaged in conversations with my parents and sister about fatphobia and its relationship with the false equivalence of big people and poor health. They were moderately receptive, but semi-frequent exhortations to watch my caloric intake came from their mouths.

I found the balance where I could; I took my characteristic walks to get fresh air and relieve stress – any impact that this light form of exercise had on my weight was merely incidental. I pushed back sometimes when I considered the examination around my weight to be too much; I bit my tongue more often.

I thought back to that kid meandering throughout various JCPenney Stores in the 1990s and 2000s; I wondered if his present relationship with his size made him proud. I figured that it did, with a big fuck off to minor periods of self-doubt.

I found comfort in the nuance – in the recognition that my relationship with my body didn’t need to be perfect all of the time. It was sufficient to find and hold onto periods of contentment where I could.

Finally, I also acknowledge that people believing my big body to be bad wasn’t always awful; obesity is considered to be a co-morbidity for purposes of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

I finished the process before April began.

Stigma around fatness may still exist for now, but at least I’ll be around another day to fight for its termination.

As always, my body will carry me through that fight to others I must face.

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Pandemic Reflections on Money

This piece originally appeared in Vox Populi Public Sphere on February 10, 2021

To the Sumlins, whose generosity will never be forgotten

Money stresses. Read that as a subject and verb as well as a general, ever-present thought. Michael Arceneaux, my fellow Howard alum, writes about this subject with painful eloquence in I Don’t Want To Die Poor, inspiring me to lay out here my own complicated relationship with money.

Throughout my adult life, money has always been there – or should I say my fixation on my lack of money is perennially there. As a child, I didn’t consider money that much, if at all. My mother worked in corporate America, and my father engaged in ministry work; they created and sustained a very comfortable childhood for me and my sister, beginning with our births in 1991 and 1996 in North Carolina, respectively. We took several trips to Disney World, lived in spacious homes across the Midwest as we moved for my parents’ various work opportunities, and never seemed to experience any delay when requesting the video game system or popular toy of the day. We were a young Black family, and my parents undoubtedly faced the racial discrimination that defines America; my sister and I just felt like our material and spiritual needs were met by the world our parents forged for us. 

In 2009, I enrolled at Howard University, and my parents and sister moved to Oklahoma. My father assumed the senior pastorship of a historically Black church in east Oklahoma City – – the historically Black section of the city. Although my parents and I never discussed the specifics of their income, I had every indication that we were pretty well off. I began my college career, opened a college checking account that October, and settled into a plane of possibilities. Fully controlling money was certainly a new experience for my 18-year old self. I worked only one job during my time in high school; I was a junior barista for a Black-owned coffee shop in downtown Columbus, Ohio. During this short-lived period of brewing espresso and preparing chai tea lattes, I deposited my earnings in a pre-existing bank account that my mother had. I couldn’t have made over $150, and, after I quit, I largely reverted to requesting money from my parents when I wanted to hang out with my friends. Just a couple years later, I was in D.C. with a bonafide debit card, using scholarship money and contributions from family to assert my independence in any way I could. 

I considered myself to be relatively engaged in politics during this period of my life, but the reality of the Great Recession likely didn’t fully register in my mind. As the Obama Administration settled into power and ensured that corporations were shielded from bankruptcy, I remained blissful in simply moving the few hundred dollars in my bank account at any given time from this restaurant on U Street to that Howard swag from the bookstore. As I went through my upper years at Howard, I came to deepen my interest in politics by running for and working in student government. As a bonus, I learned that the positions paid modest stipends over the course of the academic year. This policy partially paved the path for me to study abroad in South Africa during the summer of 2011. Between steady family support and additions to my bank account from student government roles, I rarely thought about money. During that time, enough of it was at my disposal. 

Then in 2012, in a moment likely felt by nearly all Black Americans at some point in their lives, the finite nature of money steadily took up all the energy it could. My parents faced a church split, and my father’s income vanished for a time. Although my mother later became a teacher, she didn’t have a salaried job when they first moved to Oklahoma. Although my father started another church soon after his official ouster from his previous role, the instability of that period pushed my parents to seek bankruptcy protections. At the same time, as I entered my senior year of college,  I lost the merit scholarship that I’d held the previous three years. I thankfully got a paid internship that defrayed some of the costs, but I had to rely on private loans, university grants, and generous contributions from my community. I generally had enough money to see me through to my graduation, but that nine-month time frame made me reconsider just how aware of money I was.  I went from thinking about money occasionally to reflecting on every dime I had pretty much hourly. 

I ended up moving to Louisiana after college to attend law school. I used a similar combination of scholarship money and federal student loans to fund my time in Baton Rouge. Even as some factors improved across my family’s financial station, I began to comprehend during this time in my life that solvency would likely elude me for some time. For one, I knew that I would pursue a career as a public interest lawyer fairly early on in law school, with the incredibly modest pay to accompany it. Over the course of this period, primarily 2013-2016, I benefited from the benevolence of family, friends, and church members in the form of gifts and small loans — tangible, selfless investments in me and the future I sought to pave for myself. 

I got to the end of law school and began my career both deeply indebted to my community and the U.S. government. I returned to D.C. for this purpose, and it quickly became evident just how expensive the city is without the safety net that college provides. I made $42,500 in my first job out of law school in 2016, not including bar prep fees and a small loan repayment stipend. This number is right up the alley of many public service jobs that are available to recent graduates. I soon understood why D.C. ranks among the most expensive U.S. cities, and why it’s prohibitive for so many folks. I rented a room in a large row house in Columbia Heights – just a few blocks away from Howard. I attempted to keep expenses to the necessities of groceries, my car note, and insurance, and I strived to save even a little money. At that point, I was still in the forgiveness period of my student loans, but they loomed. I barely broke even every month. 

After ten months, I was pushed to the financial brink. I had to reach out to a wealthy friend from law school to ask for a formal loan in the amount of $2500. I hated to put her and her husband in that position, but, given my knowledge of U.S. history,  I didn’t feel comfortable asking another Black person for that sum of money. I typed up a contract to indicate that I would pay them back $250 a month for twelve months — bringing that interest rate to a decent 20% — and they agreed. Soon after, I took another job that conferred a nearly $20,000 increase. I paid them back on time, but that entire first year in D.C. made me fully aware of how America’s legacy of anti-Blackness was playing out in my life. 

I did everything right, but I perpetually had very little money. I found time to travel to places that I wanted to go, such as Mexico City, but a sentiment resembling guilt often settled in my mind. During this time, if I had a disposable $500, I was doing excellently. Toward the middle of 2018, I was almost a year into my new role, and my sister, now a recent college graduate, decided to come to D.C. to get a master’s degree from Georgetown. I found a new apartment to accommodate us. I liked what I saw when I toured it, but it was a two-bedroom apartment within D.C. limits — an inherently expensive thing. As I prepared to move out of my old residence and welcome my sister to the District, cash dwindled. 

I sat in my car one morning that summer, about a month prior to her scheduled arrival. I was stressed by the math of money that constantly made little sense, and then it dawned on me to download the Uber Driver app. I provided all the information it required — driver’s license number, a background check, and car insurance info — and began when it all got approved. This commenced a grueling schedule. I woke up at 6 a.m. or earlier to drive Uber before my salaried job began each day. If I could get an airport run in, I usually could make $35 for the day. I grabbed coffee from the neighborhood 7-11 to get the energy I needed each morning, then I prayed it would carry me several hours ahead in the day to 5 p.m., when I usually left work. 

Perhaps, more than any prior epoch in my life, this time period solidified my anti-capitalist politics. I worked hard balancing two jobs; it still wasn’t enough to achieve financial stability in a meaningful way. 

I appreciated having a little cushion as my sister and I settled into our new home, and we established our collaborative dynamic as adult siblings. However, I realized that the childhood days of obliviousness about money were certainly relics of the past. I thought about money every second – covering bills, sending money to family if I could, saving for vacations with friends. It took up virtually all the space, even as I learned and grew more at my job, where I combatted the school-to-prison pipeline and attacked felony disenfranchisement laws. 

It is clear how I viewed the world, then and now: through an anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, abolitionist lens. Still, money practically dominated all aspects of my life. 

That year in D.C. with my sister, cherished as it was, moved very swiftly. I took a job in Texas as she graduated from Georgetown; she charted a path back to Oklahoma to become a high school chemistry teacher. The South called us home, seemingly offering stability. I got an apartment in Austin, started my new job, and tipped my hat to my highest salary to date. I learned I would become an uncle right before I moved to Texas; I could use the wiggle room of a higher salary to dote on my niece. Then, old student loan debts came due, ill-advised romantic pursuits materialized — with the financial requests to boot — and I found myself downloading the Lyft Driver app in February 2020. 

I completed approximately 30 trips over the course of that month, having no idea what the next ten months would have in store.

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