without a room of my own: the search for mindspace & creativity as a young, Black, womanist/feminist, femme-woman-mother-artist-sex worker
To be an artist and a black woman[…] lowers our status in many respects, rather than raises it: and yet, artists we will be. — Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens
I have spent a good part of the last few months puzzling over how I am supposed to do this. How am I to be an artist, and Black, and a mother at the same time? I am a mother of one, just One, as I am often reminded. I should be able to do life with just one. More than one is the real challenge. This, according to my mother who believes that I am a freeloader, sitting here in my grandmother’s house, making less than a pittance writing and drawing and living off less than five hours of daily rest. Here is this lazy Millennial who can’t manage to get shit together with just one kid.
This week has been spent figuring out how much debt I can avoid and how much I can save over the next two months before I attempt to move out of my grandmother’s house, an act of self-preservation and environmental self care I have decided to pursue. Over the past couple of weeks my best friend has helped me set an annual budget and a daily schedule for the next three months in order to manage the projects I have going on in addition to attending school full time, being a mother, camming, and sleeping. Living in my grandmother’s house I have so far managed to avoid prostitution. Once I move that may change, depending on how much I am able to bring in from webcam modeling and selling clips. This (camming, recording) I must manage to do while my son is out of the house or asleep in his room.
My bedroom is an amalgam of art studio, playroom, library, living room and bedroom depending on the hour. I have a corner of my room sectioned off, where there is a desk topped with mugs full of pens, markers and paintbrushes, and an uncomfortable chair. I never work at the desk. Instead, I work in front of the TV, my laptop on a TV tray. There are pine boards all over the place (because pine is the cheapest wood at the hardware store), and crates full of sketchbooks, bags full of sex toys and lingerie, and baskets full of clean clothes I may or may not fold before my next laundry day. This is the space I have to do my work. I have no room to dedicate, and much of my work is done after my son is in bed at 8pm.
My first mistake was in thinking “children” instead of “child.” My second was in seeing The Child as my enemy rather than the racism and sexism of an oppressive capitalist society. — Alice Walker
Alice Walker said to have one child, “a meaningful digression within the works.” I wanted a daughter. I have a son. He is beautiful, but of an entirely different temperament than I. I was a quiet, manipulative child, capable of long bouts of silence and self-entertainment, and not easily bored. My son is boisterous and loud, a shy extrovert. He does not walk, he stomps. He is not graceful is most senses of the word, but he is kind and gentle with reminders. He is creative and demanding. He takes up space in a way I never would have dared to as a child. He trusts me in a way I do not remember ever trusting my mother. He demands of me. I endeavored, as a child, to be as unobtrusive as possible, so as to avoid being mocked or hit or yelled at or told to do something. Most of my requests were mumbles, whispers, carefully muted inflections. My child endeavors to been seen. If he thinks you didn’t hear him he will simply yell louder, else he will break something or jump off of something to get you to pay attention. This is my One Child.
What will I tell my son of these days? I struggle not to think of him as a hindrance, because I am aware of all my intersections: femme-woman-mother-poor-sex worker. All of these things that shouldn’t be a hindrance but, in the world we live in, undoubtedly are. I am walking on a very delicate tightrope here, as a semi-out sex worker, abuse-leaver, imperfect femme Black woman. As far as full service sex work goes, I only ever speak in past tense, never in present, for I am already a walking target, and what will become of my son should his father ever decided to legally claim him and pull rank? Granted his father is poor and Black and non-military/non-cop, so I have slightly less to worry about than some. But, he has already tried to use my sexuality/sexual activity against me once, in court, and I’ve no doubt he’d do it again. Camming is legal, though it still poses a threat. Anytime a non-cis male person is up against a cis male, especially a white cis, their sexuality will be called up for scrutiny, regardless of relevance. Will my son learn from other men to think less of me? Will he bash other women for their “promiscuity” until he learns that his mother was a hoe? Will my guidance be enough to combat the misogynoir the men of this world will endeavor to teach him? Will he see my decisions as selfish or self-centered? Will my need to be selfish even matter? I need to be self-centered, for myself and for him. So he can grow up seeing a Black woman center herself and maybe not be threatened by it.
Being an artist has its pitfalls as well. People ask, “What is your backup plan?” They say things like, “You might need to get a part time job,” as if I haven’t been looking, as if it is something I have never considered before. As if $9/hour is a viable backup plan when a sitter is $10 per hour, and daycare (with government help) is still $25 per week. For some reason people seem to think that being an artist is an irresponsible choice I am making, a self-centered act of frivolity. That is not the case. Have you ever woke up in the middle of the night and Google searched exit bags? I have. I can tell you that exit bags are supposedly one of the more humane ways to do it — jumping off a bridge will feel like a thousand glass needles shattering your body, blood vessels bursting like bugs against a windshield. It took me years to find this information. Have you ever felt smothered under the weight of your own grief, your own uselessness? Imagine yourself as the pea under mattresses full of heartbreak, poverty and unfulfilled desires, topped with a slender cis white woman who seems to be ruffled by your meager existence stories beneath her. To be Black, trans, queer, or femme — especially a combination of those identities — is to live a life of abject yearning in most cases. When I chose to be an artist, I simply chose to live, despite having very little reason to.
After my breakup last year, which could have been the final wrinkle in an endless sea of sheets, I decided to write, to start this blog and to stop looking back at a relationship — really relationships — where I have had to beg to be seen and heard, to be treated with dignity and caring and respect. I don’t believe in indulging in the whole “suffering breeds creativity” myth, for that elevates suffering to a place of piety and affords it a reverence that it does not deserve. Much of the suffering people of color endure is at the hands of cruel rulers. Most people misinterpret the story of Job. They think his suffering was a test of his will, and that suffering leads to rewards, as his did in the end. Job’s suffering was brought on not by his own misdeeds or mistakes, but by chance. It is actually one of the realest explanations in the Bible as to why suffering occurs: for no fucking reason at all. Job’s suffering was the product of two gods gambit. It meant nothing. Most people suffer and die with no respite. Never forget that Hagar was a woman of color who was sold to a well-off (read:white-ish) couple as a sex slave (concubine), was raped and impregnated to give them an heir, and then was cast out into the desert with that child when the white woman felt threatened by her husband’s fondness of Hagar’s son (after having a biological son). I find no comfort in glorifying suffering. Most importantly, I am not waiting for an afterlife to set me free while others live their lives on my back. No, ma'am.
Some days I can barely think. Either because of physical exhaustion (my son waking two or three times in the middle of the night) or mental exhaustion (anxiety and worries skittering through my mind like tiny ants). I am struggling to balance my art with my child’s needs, with my financial needs, with my intellectual needs, with school… It is not that I refuse to work for minimum wage — by the way anything less than $20 per hour is minimum wage for me, since I am supporting another person — it is that if I am gonna work for next to nothing I may as well have a flexible schedule and time to work on my art, so that I can continue living for myself and for my son. Working a “regular” job would be degrading— how dare they demand this of me, to steal my time for themselves and barely give me anything of value in return? And a lot of people consider this ironic, or paradoxical. That I consider sex work to be my escape from a certain kind of wage oppression. Time is such a valuable commodity. I can make minimum wage money camming three nights a week and have hours left to paint, to draw, to read. Why leave the comfort of my home to labor for people who will scoff if I have to leave work to pick up my sick child? Who will call me lazy, not caring that I am my son’s sole caregiver?
I have fully absorbed every dimension of my struggle, I think. Even with dating I have assumed that in order for me to retain full use of my body for profit without conflict, I may have to cease dating cishet men of color period (I long ago ruled white men out). Before this year I had assumed that I would have to accept an open relationship in order for a boyfriend to be “on board” with my escorting were it to happen, but I have now released all my fucks into the wild. I have bills to pay, and unless he is willing to give me an allowance I see no reason to acquiesce to his possessive demands. I will find a femme lover instead, or continue to relish my soloness. I have also accepted that I will forever be labeled “lazy,” “eccentric” and “free-spirited” by people who have no interest in my actual existence. Until I make money and/or gain public recognition of my work, I will be reduced to a rainbow-haired Millennial freeloader who is out of touch with reality and wants to avoid being a “real adult.” If adulthood is simply suffering dressed up, then I pass. I’ll wear my suffering however I want, and strip it all away.
I am creative in spite of my suffering, not because of it. It is often said that suffering breeds the best art. The Harlem Renaissance is an oft-cited example. But what then of the so-called fallow years in between when Black people, LGBTQ+, and others continued to suffer? For most of us there is an ebb/flow for sure, but not really. So I rebuke the idea that we must suffer in order to create extraordinary art, though I do believe that experience is key. I also think that the fact that we continue to create art and stories despite the state of things is revolutionary all on its own. We may not all be able to afford studio space to dedicate to our art, but we continue building corner studios and closet booths, shrines to our inborn drive to make.