In June 2011, I made a decision that would forever change my life: I broke up with a partner of over three years and mentally committed to getting back home to New York City as quickly as possible. Within six months I was back, soon moving into a house in South Slope, Brooklyn with a friend of a friend (who would ultimately become one of my most trusted friends) and a rotating cast of housemates. After working at NYU for two years so I could use the tuition reimbursement to do my Masters, I made another life-changing decision to throw that all out the window and do an accelerated MA program that would get me to doctoral work—and engaging with queer theory, critical race studies, sound studies, and affect theory—more quickly. After being the site of my anguish over how I was still not doing what I wanted after two years of living there, the South Slope house suddenly became the birthplace of my career dreams. The house would also become a meeting place for the various pockets of queer community with which I was involved: Dykes on Bicycles, my fellow volunteers from Queers for Economic Justice, and a group of friends who came into being around going to see the Shondes perform around Prospect Park. The three years that I lived at that house was also a period of time when I was largely single (with the exception of two different periods of about three months), leading me to learn the love and power of close friendships and queer community. And so, when I moved to Austin in June 2014 to begin my Ph.D. coursework, I took my set of keys with me. I have continued to return to my old house ever since.
On this most recent return home, I came back to my old house in South Slope to (virtually) teach my final class at Tulane, the last day of a queer and affect theory seminar entitled “Sensational Theories of Bodies and Media.” When trying to explain what this course is about to people who don’t write or read critical theory, I describe it as “a class about the political and cultural formations of feelings.” More than that, we spend a lot of time thinking queerly about bodies, about how we are all assemblages of constantly moving lines of flight and sounds, affects, and vibrations. We talk deeply about how much with whom we connect influences who we become in a moment, about the queerness of imagining and configuring ourselves outside of normative understandings of time and space. On this particular Monday, I was more emotional than usual in this class in which I am already the most vulnerable with students. I found myself processing in real time what it meant to be back at that house as I was closing out my teaching career at Tulane, all while talking through a book chapter on Black queer femme lineages of house I had written that represented the new direction for the book (which, after meeting up with a friend who also did the PS program at NYU (albeit in an earlier cohort with me) and then two of my DJ friends over the weekend, I suddenly felt more excited about working on again). When we moved to José Muñoz’s “The Sense of Ana Mendieta” during the second half of the class, I completed another moment of full circle, back to one of two teachers and mentors who had first made me want to go to NYU.
And in everything I’ve done since, New York City—and more specifically Brooklyn—has come with me.
On May 5, 2021, Dawn Richard flew up to New York City to pose with a billboard of her most recent album, Second Line, that Amazon Music had posted in Times Square. Captioned “how it started …. how it’s going 😏🙌🏾😩🤯,” the Instagram post does a time jump between 2005 and 2021, the span of Richard’s entire music career. The 2005 clip flashes back to when Richard had just made it to the final round on Making the Band 3, joining what would become the pop supergroup Danity Kane. Dressed in a red dress and a big smile, the 22-year-old Richard gushes, “I can’t imagine what great things to come. I’m excited and… this is the best day of my life.” The post then jumps to Richard 15 years later, wearing a beanie and a mask while standing in Times Square. “Here we go, here we go, this is it,” Richard begins. “Ahhh!!!” she screams as the electronic billboard for Second Line flashes up behind her. At 37, she at last sees her work starting to take off in the way that she wants it too. In New York City during the same week as Richard, I feel a part of the vibrations of this celebration. In 2005, I began college at the University of Pennsylvania, wanting to be a music journalist but settling on business school so I could maybe work in the music industry afterward. What happened instead was that I fell into both queer theory and a radical queer politics—and within five years, was back in school at NYU in the niche performance studies MA program, the place to go to study sound studies—and queer theory and critical race studies and dance studies and affect theory—at that moment in time. From there, the journey was both slow and fast simultaneously, just like Dawn’s. I completed a Ph.D. in American/Black studies within five years, (at last) gaining some traction for my music writing in the process. After two years of teaching at Tulane (and three years of living in New Orleans total), I was at last headed for the tenure track, in the African American Studies department at Cal State Fullerton. In saying hello to New York again, I was also getting ready to let go of New Orleans.
Richard’s most recent album, Second Line: An Electro Revival, is her love song to New Orleans upon recently moving back—and my love song to New Orleans on the verge of moving out. On a Thursday night in April, I go out in search of a to go beer with the sounds of the most recent single (at that moment), “Mornin / Streetlights.” It will take me a mile of walking east on Magazine before I can finally find somewhere who will sell me a pint of draft beer to go. Walking back on Prytania, I laugh aloud (but also bite my lip) to Richard’s lyrics of “Cruising on [their] body like I’m on the ten/ On the ten.” With I-10 having been my literal route to the queer party—and house music—enclave that is St. Claude Avenue, I have to laugh at how much I’d been on that highway en route to love or sex or connection, particularly during my first two years in the city, in the before times. I then think about how long it’s been since I’ve had sex with someone else (almost a full year now), about how nice it might be to connect with someone in that way sometime soon—and maybe even wake up together the next morning. But then there’s also something going on about recircling our old routes, about both returning back to the place(s) we once called home and even walking through particular memories from our past with new eyes, ears, and hearts. As the song makes a deeply affective synth transition between “Mornin” and “Streetlights,” I feel myself digging back into some feelings and memories that I haven’t let myself have access to in a while, out of feeling like I might not be able to emotionally handle them again quite yet. But on this circling back around, something is different. After the pain of the past year, there’s finally healing.
Wherever we come from, we always go back to that place, over and over and over again.
I don’t want to still be writing about you at this point. It’s been almost a year now since that night on your floor, with you calling it a closure conversation and me viscerally experiencing it as a questioning of my entire reality. “You said yes” (I didn’t) repeated over and over again, as if none of the other context mattered, as if me saying I loved you and you not saying it back—but then still saying how much you wanted to fuck me the night before—wasn’t an emotional manipulation, an emotional coercion, an emotional violence. Every time that I’ve seen you and stared you down on the river (or out with the lover that you used to compare me to) ever since, my face has been full of the pain of that culmination—and then full of everything that gets reactivated, over and over again, every time I see you. This is the invisibility of the emotional violence that FKA twigs has started to talk about, albeit not in as much of a systematic way as many of us would have hoped. These are the violences that we choose not to see when we focus on people’s charm but not their manipulative prowess. And since we don’t see it (or let ourselves see it), we stop listening to the pain of those of us who have to wake up every day and remember what it was like to feel so disconnected from our bodies, just wanting it to end. We wonder why they’re still so upset about this thing that happened many months ago, why they can’t just let it go already. Because it wasn’t physical violence per se, it’s not supposed to have been so traumatic.
It wasn’t always like this. In fact, it was once the opposite of this.
I was never a parade person. I am someone who prefers to do my work—and my celebrating—more in private, in the intimacy of a small group of people with whom I can be my full self. But I grew to enjoy parades more in New Orleans, bolstered by how much my friends, lovers, and partners enjoyed them. If ever we materialized Dawn’s lyrics “I took my papers and I rolled something/ We’re looking for some temporary loving,” then it was during the weeks of celebration leading up to Mardi Gras. This was especially the case on the Mardi Gras that I spent with you. It started (again) that weekend, huddled closely together as we were watching Bacchus. This was the third time that I was meeting you—and this time, I could no longer hold back from how physically and intellectually drawn I felt to you. It started with a look and a touch that Sunday night, a kiss (and many more) that Monday night, and beautifully sober sex that Tuesday afternoon. Earlier in the day, we opted to stay in the Quarter after everyone else had disbanded, walking up towards Claiborne to try to find a cheaper Lyft back to my place. And then we stumbled upon the Mardi Gras Indians, dancing in the street after Zulu. So we linked hands and followed them. To experience that with you as queer white women who write about cultures that aren’t our own will always be one of my most powerful memories of New Orleans—and quite possibly of my entire life. Later, as we would have sex to “Love Under Lights,” I would register the curves of your body with each note, burned forever into the bodily memories of my Cancer sun.
Somehow, I have been able to protect the memory of that day from everything that would come after it.
Although I loved New Orleans during my first two years in the city, during my third year, I started to grow away from it. Without the second lines and house music parties and queer bar(s)/nights that had kept me so connected to the city, I realized how little I had really gotten to know people during what had felt like a stream of endless partying. At the same time, I also felt like I saw the same people everywhere, even once the pandemic started. It is a strange sensation to feel simultaneously too immersed in and too disconnected from a particular scene, to have community in theory but to feel more connected to the queer people you know in other cities where you do not currently live. And so, in my third year, I largely kept to myself, hanging weekly with the best friend that I had met seven years ago (when I had first moved to Austin) and every few weeks with another handful of friends whose company I enjoy. Although at first a turning inward after an incredibly difficult breakup, I soon found that I was spending so much extra time with myself because I wanted to—and not just because the pandemic was mandating it. New Orleans and its surrounding areas soon became a green space where I could walk or bike around, a ray of light towards the kind of life that I’d like to have more of in my next move. Coming up on a full year of keeping largely to myself, I feel more sure than ever about who I am: that my work means a lot to me but is not everything (especially if it leaves no space for meaningful relationships in my life); that I am definitely poly but have a very particular idea of what that means for me; that I would rather take my chances in a dark music club than be out a parade; that I have limits on my emotional energy—and I only want to share this with people in reciprocity; that I can’t have sex with someone without it meaning something to me; that I do my best research—and teaching—when I also have ample room for creative writing; that I am already becoming the kind of mentor that saved my life when I was a student; that I want people to see me emotionally in addition to intellectually and physically. (And, as I type that last part out, I’m releasing tears that are already 33 years old now.)
LA represents a lot to me. Although I haven’t been there since I was 11 (more of my friends live in the East Bay at this point), it has been an anticipated next step after three years of applying to countless jobs at Fullerton, Long Beach, USC, and UCLA. Something about the city seemed to be calling to me, even though I couldn’t fully realize it yet. As someone who grew up near/in New York City, living somewhere as small as New Orleans (especially during a pandemic) has been a real struggle for me. I can’t get lost here; hell, I can’t even get lost when I go to the beach at the tip of the boot, 2.5 hours away. And I’ve missed being in a city that never gets skipped on the tour. Ready to have this be the last move for a very long time (if not forever), I am moving to LA with an open heart. The sun, the beach, the music, the cave/canyon cycling, a cousin (and toddler) for family support, a bunch of friends (already), a school that actually cares about teaching, the chance to help build something from the ground up, (at last) joining a Black studies department, getting back to the public service mission of a public university, (finally) making enough money to live by myself in East Hollywood or Little Armenia on my own… If LA is both the West Coast’s answer to NYC and its own entity entirely, then I’m excited to start to get to know it.
Dawn Richard’s “LA” begins with a swooping synth chord, over which she soon sings in reverbed vocals “These LA streets are killin’, killin’ me” (a double reference to both the music industry and anti-Black police violence). Those lines first seem to fade into the background, as Richard sets the opening scene on the highway: “Lemonade lakes in the plaza/ In my Chevy, going 90 down La Brea/ It’s wavy ‘cause that shit don’t matter/ MJ on the radio, so we blast that.” The scene is one of drinking whiskey cocktails by the water and then driving through all the ethnic neighborhoods along La Brea. Richard weaves her vocals into the staccato synths, stitching together a rhythm between words and sounds. When the song shifts to the pre-chorus, the bassline suddenly gets funkier, as Richard now sings, “We thought we was above it all/ ‘Cause we been friends since Wayne was a hot boy/ He said we should keep drivin’/ For the sake of survivin’, now we hot, boy.” At this point, her vocals begin to take center stage, becoming crisper and louder with the funk backing from the bass. Whenever I get to these lines in the song, I viscerally remember what it felt like to first listen to Lil’ Wayne, Juvenile, and the rest of Cash Money Records in the late 90s, from up on the East Coast. For Dawn, these lyrics are a reaching—and feeling—back to New Orleans, from her other LA of Los Angeles. As she returns to vocally looping, “These LA streets are killin’, killin’ me,” the lines now burst beyond the space and time of the song, sonically and affectively reaching back for the sounds of southern Louisiana. After some long drawn out synth chords, Richard explodes into one of her best bridges, smoothly yet disjointedly transitioning to a soundscape of fast-paced synth chords and cymbal clashes. A guitar then enters the mix, soloing as Dawn comes back in to repeat those chorus lines one more time. After the final run through, the guitar solo gives way to a trombone solo from Trombone Shorty, ending the song back in Richard’s musical roots of a sonic New Orleans.
The many places through which we’ve passed stay with us forever, sonically and affectively and vibrationally.
A different you, back when I was about to move to New Orleans and you out to California. We met up at Bbar, where we had so often congregated with so many of our various overlapping groups in Austin. After over a year of not sitting down together one-on-one, I wasn’t sure that this would actually happen—but then there we were. I have no memory of what we talked about during the first hour that day; my journal, which is usually a source of meticulously documenting these kinds of conversations, has nothing of the first half of our two hours back at our favorite bar. All I remember is that midway through the convo, you gave me an opening and I jumped right through it. “I felt sexually and romantically attracted to you.” You told me that you had felt the same way—and we talked about what did (and, just as significantly, what didn’t) happen 1.5 years before that moment. I moved to New Orleans with the heaviness of what, under different circumstances, might have been for you and me. And I immediately missed you, in a way I had not even as we were drifting apart. I miss you still; I have never stopped missing you. [I shared all of this while on my first date in ten months, with someone who has been in my orbit since the fall and I finally asked out, reminding me of the joy of connecting. “It sounds like you were at different points in your journeys,” she responded empathetically.] So I send an email once a year or whatever, waiting to see if there might be another opening for us to reconnect. And then I go back to missing you, you who were such an integral part of every meaningful moment of my time in Austin—and have existed in the spaces in between my loves and lovers since then, at times even overpowering them.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot the past couple of months, as I’ve been saying good-bye and making my closure with this place in a more private—or at least quieter—way than I have in other cities. But the thing about enduring the kind of emotional violence that I did nearly a year ago now means that you stop and reflect on where you could have been better with people. And I keep coming back to you. I probably hurt you more than anyone in my romantic life so far, many of those times unintentionally: skipping out on your birthday party due to some silly drama with other people in our main friend group; sharing a hotel with you in the middle of Pennsylvania only to tell you about how amazing it had been to reconnect with my Brooklyn ex before heading back to NYC; leaving the party when you had first gotten back into town with someone who looked like Robyn to a Robyn song (about whom you would later scream at me, months later, “I’m not [name]!” at the New Orleans po’boy bar on E. 12th Street in Austin); cancelling on you that time we were supposed to go to Tuezgayz because I was “tired” (but likely too afraid of what might happen—or of the disappointment I might experience if you didn’t actually want me that way that night); adding a queer confession about fucking someone else in a friend’s performance during the Austin queer arts festival for which we were both in virtual attendance last month; other things from the longer past that I’m probably forgetting right now (perhaps out of self-protection). I was scared too.
Someday, if we sit down face to face again, maybe I’ll actually tell you all of this. There is so much that I still wish I could tell you.
So what I’m actually starting to do here is say good-bye to my seven years in the south, years when I was constantly back and forth in between both Austin and New Orleans. After all I didn’t say to my friend back in Austin, I made it my resolution to say what I was thinking—and feeling—to people going forward. And while that can be really empowering, it can also be absolutely fucking exhausting. I have often been someone who holds feelings for people; I even joke, increasingly out loud with crushes or lovers or partners, that I bring feelings out in people that they didn’t even realize (or want to recognize) that they had. In my therapy sessions that I increasingly do not really need, I talk about all the closure conversations here that I am choosing to not initiate (this time). Why should I expend that kind of energy trying to convince people that my feelings matter? But I think part of it is also remembering this last conversation with this friend in Austin that I deeply cared for on more levels than I can articulate—and how that conversation has moved with me over the course of the past three years. It is always hard to say good-bye; it is even harder to speculate about what might have been in a different time and place. This is often one of the most painful things about moving and leaving a place behind. But, on the flip side of self-realization, this can also be one of the most powerful things about making your peace with a place. And so, this time around, I’m trying to exist somewhere in between these two extremes.
I started listening to Dawn Richard when I first got here. Her last LP before this one, new breed, was released during my first Carnival season—and it quickly became the soundtrack for the rest of my time here. I heard a confidence in her music that I had yet to reach in myself but was yearning to embody, so I kept listening and, hopefully, learning. On the first verse in the title track, Richard raps,
Fuck the heels and dress
It’s nothing I can do up in a suit, yeah
Brown liquor, Henny sipper
Or could flip a deal like you do, yeah
I don’t follow no instructions
I’ma make you do something, yeah
There ain’t no bitches, ain’t no queens
I’m the motherfucking king, yeah
Over an electrified trap beat that simultaneously sounds like the most late 90s Cash Money–inspired production that she’s yet to put on a track, Richard transitions from rapping the verse to singing the chorus. Before getting to the second verse, the song is interrupted with a sample of the infamous Grace Jones interview on the Australian talk show Day By Day in 1985. After the reporter asks her if she is actually bisexual and then follows up with asking, “Well do you find women attractive?,” Jones glibly responds, “I find women attractive. I think if I didn’t, I wouldn’t find myself attractive.” For me, the reverse has been true; while I’ve always felt affirmed in my queerness in my adult life, I long struggled with really believing that I’m an attractive person. But then I hit a turning point this spring, after realizing that spending so much time with myself wasn’t all that scary and that I loved myself very much as I was. And so when Richard sings, “I am a lion/I am a woman/ Nothing can stop me/ I do what I wanna” at the start of the chorus, I feel it now. For someone who has, in the past, felt very relationship-oriented, there is something shifting in this moment, as other possibilities that I might have previously viewed as placeholders are (at least mentally) emerging as meaningful arrangements in themselves. More than that, I am finally feeling that, no matter what else is going on around me, that my relationship with myself—and my work and my friends and my passions—is fulfilling in itself, is the stuff of making a life.
This is the energy that I’m taking with me from this LA to my next LA, just like Dawn.
Yet one more you, existing at that intersection of intellectual energy, friendship in ambition, and moments of attraction. I hadn’t seen you in five years, since we were randomly on that panel together that turned out to be the day that Prince died. We ended up with everyone from the conference at Woodys that night, dancing at the club where I first started queer clubbing at the 18+ night while I was in college. I had left a bag in your hotel room that I went to retrieve with you after we had started to fade on the dancefloor. I wanted to stay up all night talking (and maybe more) with you but I didn’t have the emotional energy to be present like that in the moment. After we hugged goodbye and I walked out, I turned around and stood at the door, pausing for a moment but ultimately deciding that I didn’t want to knock unless I could be fully there with you. Five years of planes seeming to endlessly cross in the air followed. And then there we were, back in New York City, where we had each once (at different times) lived. We were both wearing all black and glittery gold shoes, which we held up against one another’s after we hugged hello. After you took me to see some art on the African diaspora at a gallery in Chelsea, we went and walked downtown to the West Village to eat falafel and be two beer/wine queers and talk. It felt really good to be back in your energy again. As we got to the subway station and hugged goodbye, I knew I had to say how I was feeling that afternoon, since I was feeling it all again—and could actually be present with it this time. And so I finally told you. I was so nervous and talking through a mask at that point—and ended up saying it all over again so you could hear it. But then you heard me, loud and clear.
This is the space for connection that queerness has opened up for me after seven years in the south.