“Cutting Where They Intersect”| Lydia and Taylor

by Lali Pizarro

Editor’s note: Lydia and Taylor are second to be featured in Transcension, Voices’ ongoing series embarking on a journey to witness and amplify the voices of Swarthmore’s most inspired creators.

 

Taylor Morgan '19 (Left) and Lydia Koku '18 (Right)

Taylor Morgan '19 (Left) and Lydia Koku '18 (Right)

 

On the night of Wednesday, November 15th, at 10:45 pm, just fifteen minutes before Swarthmore’s Blackest, queerest, and here-est radio show is scheduled to air on WSRN, I sit alone in Parrish West Parlor, pondering what questions might be appropriate to ask two of the smartest, most articulate women on campus. As I struggle to type questions into the Google Doc I’ve created, entitled “BLACKQUEERHERE Interview,” the front door to Parrish quickly opens and closes.

“LALI! LAAAALI!” It’s Taylor and Lydia, joyous, lighthearted, and welcoming as ever. I can’t help but grin. We chat a bit on our way up to the station. When we arrive, they decide which songs they want to play and quickly debrief me on how our hour together will go. They ask me what I want to hear from them, and I tell them I just want them to talk about topics about which they’re passionate, articulating why they do what they do, and why it matters to them. It’s clear that this will pose no difficulties--they do not need me to tell them to be themselves on air, or in any other realm of their collective existence. As Taylor explains that they remain “vulnerable” and “real” on the show, they both give knowing smiles and laughs, and I can tell that this honesty and vulnerability is foundational to BLACKQUEERHERE and their friendship.

Just from my first few minutes spent in the station headquarters, I feel the love, family, and community that make up both the spirit and essence of BLACKQUEERHERE. Taylor and Lydia have brought their friend Vanessa along to sit in on the show, and more friends, Jasmine and Frames, meet us as the show begins. We pile into the space, a motley crew of campus activists, writers, scholars, queer people, men and women of color, Black Studies students, intellectuals, free-spirits. Hugs and welcomes are exchanged. As Lydia and Taylor take their seats near the microphones and begin to play the opening song they’ve selected, I can almost actually feel the space, as Taylor and Lydia put it candidly, begin to “decolonize.”

BLACKQUEERHERE has been on air for about seven weeks. From 11pm to 12am every Wednesday night, Lydia and Taylor discuss topics pertaining to the self-care, self-love, experiences, and struggles of Black femmes and Black women on campus, drawing largely on their own experiences as well as scholarly research. Their mission, which can be found on the WSRN website, is to: “Promote socio-economic well-being for black women and femmes on campus through making visible self-care routines and strategies in the face of inequality,” and to “discuss ways for Black women and femmes to develop self confidence, to find and rediscover value systems, and to build and maintain our social networks.” Lydia refers to BLACKQUEERHERE  also as “a space that does not center whiteness or maleness.”

Lydia and Taylor themselves can’t seem to entirely remember how the idea materialized. As they discuss its origins, it is clear that the foundations of BLACKQUEERHERE have always existed within each of them, in all aspects of their respective beings.

23667195_913091948839382_1332869022_n.jpg

 

Lydia says of her decision to start the show her senior year, “This is my last year and I was really thinking about the legacy that I want to leave behind when I graduate and where I want my narratives to be and how I want them to be portrayed. So I was like, ‘what better way to do it than through a radio show that’s for us, by us’...I came to [Taylor] after one of our really deep conversations one night...And I thought, ‘how great is it that we are here, two people who are very dedicated to exploring what genuine self-care looks like, to being honest about our feelings and our emotions within our friendship, and to also being very liberated in terms of expressing our blackness and our queerness and the intersection of the two identities?’ So I asked Taylor, ‘Would you like to co-host a radio show with me this semester?’ and she said yes, and that’s how we got here.”

The name of the show, BLACKQUEERHERE is very salient to its creation and its content. Taylor is the mastermind behind the name. She explains, “I wanted someone to be able to see the title and be like, ‘this is a show I need...’ And I think particularly, in our discussion about intersections of identity, rather than just looking at monolithic, hypothetical ideas about them, I think it’s the intersection of Blackness and queerness and existence, that is so powerful and so radical.”

Perhaps necessarily, our discussion of the show’s name and its meaning launches us into a conversation about existence, truthfulness, and vulnerability, which are central to Taylor’s points about the power of intersectional identities and existence. She says, “To speak to vulnerability, I think, going off of the idea that existence equals resistance, and that’s in our name: BLACKQUEERHERE, not just BLACKQUEER. By being vulnerable on air, it’s taking the idea of existence as resistance to another level. It’s saying, ‘I’m not just going to be passive about my existence. I’m going to make it so.’”

To Taylor and Lydia, the idea of existence as resistance rests on a Black femme or woman’s ability to be unapologetically herself. Lydia adds, “and it’s really going to be in your face. Such that you can’t avoid it. We are loud, we are flamboyant, we are goofy…” At this point, Taylor glances at Lydia knowingly and adds, “foolish” at which point Lydia goes on to say, “We are foolish” and the two laugh loudly, joyously, and unapologetically.

When the laughter ends, Lydia continues, “we also show that we can be all of those things and still be… intellectuals...and such.” The word is met with more loud laughter. “What did I call it? OH! Sophisti-ratchet!” Lydia exclaims. Even more laughter ensues, this time from everyone in the room. 

Lydia stresses, “All of these different fragments of ourselves can co-exist and they really come to the forefront here on air. And we’re just allowing ourselves to feel free to make mistakes all the time. We’re not putting on a face for our audience.”

This honesty and fearlessness has been met with an immense amount of support from dedicated listeners on campus, whose experiences and needs have really resonated with the content discussed on BLACKQUEERHERE. This resonance fosters an incredibly intimate relationship between Taylor and Lydia and their listeners.

Lydia expresses, “...just hearing that there are people out there actually listening to what we have to say...We have people who listen every single week and who are really dedicated...And so to learn that people are listening to what we have to say and are infusing it into their daily lives…We had one episode where Lindsey came on the show and we had a really in-depth discussion about what it means to be a Black woman on campus, especially at the center of a political movement and to be taking care of yourself. And I was in tears...I was in here sitting on the ground in tears and I was breaking down, because of the emotional labor that I’ve had to perform, that she’s had to perform, that you’ve had to perform...For us, I think that this space has finally become a venue and an avenue for us to begin to be honest, especially within the Swarthmore community, about what these intersections of our identity really mean to us...and then all of the labor and all of the trauma that goes along with it.”  

This labor and trauma mentioned by Lydia necessitates the practice of self-care. BLACKQUEERHERE centralizes self-care as critical to the survival and self-definition of black femmes. Self-care is a term that Swatties hear all of the time from faculty and staff, from peers, and via media and campus publications. Taylor stresses the importance of being intentional about self-care, particularly as Black femmes, and conceptualizing it in a way that is accessible and tangible and, in her words “can be applied to my everyday life.”

Lydia candidly states, “yes, as Black women, we often shield ourselves. We often try to mask what we’re going through and name it as something else. In this space here, we’re calling everything what it is. And for that to be self-care, says something, and models something for other Black femmes here on campus.”

How do Lydia and Taylor conceptualize self-care in an accessible manner? What does it look like to them, and how do they illustrate that to their listeners? Taylor answers this question, drawing on her own experiences. When she came to Swarthmore as a freshman, hearing the world self-care thrown around on a nearly daily basis, she states, “I couldn’t even conceptualize what self-care looked like.”

She says, “I realized that [self-care] has to go deeper [than just pampering yourself]. The thing I was missing in asking myself ‘what is self-care?’ was not asking myself first, ‘what is self?’” Taylor then pulls out her phone and shows me a Facebook status she had written earlier that day, inspired by an article she read, containing the quote, “all behavior is communication.”

The status is as follows:

“I’ve been thinking about the quote ‘all behavior is communication.’ And so my interpretation of that quote is: our reactions, feelings, and actions, past or present, are all really just embodiments of an unspoken thing or un-thing that our body and mind tries to convey to us or make us understand. What is it your body is saying? What does your mind want you to know? What does it want you to remember? What does it want you to heal from? When and where in particular does your body communicate with you the loudest? Are you ready to listen?”

Based on this status, Taylor says that self-care for her is “trying to compile times where I’m able to recognize how exactly I’m feeling and what in my past, or what trauma I’ve experienced, or what people that I’ve met contribute to that. And putting those puzzle pieces together over a long period of time, enables me to have a deeper understanding of who the self is that I need to care about. Particularly the self not in relation to anything else or anyone else. A self that’s defined totally on one’s own, individually and rooted in one’s own body and mind and spirit.”

Lydia too pulls out her phone, having scrolled up in their Facebook messages to when the pair first became friends two years prior. Lydia then reads a message from Taylor, posing the question privately, “how does one practice self-care?” In a spontaneous, on-air moment of reminiscence, the two marvel at how, years later, they now have a radio show dedicated to discussing the very topics from which their friendship developed.

When asked about their favorite segments and moments on the show, they each have trouble deciding. Tellingly, they both ultimately choose episodes in which they found themselves being vulnerable with themselves, prompting moments emotional and visceral self-reflection on air. These moments, they’ve noticed, are the ones that resonate most with listeners.

Lydia’s favorite is the aforementioned episode featuring Lindsey, because, as she says, “that’s the episode where I really got in touch with the radio show as something that’s not only about the two of us...that was the first time we really brought on a guest. So to have somebody else and their voice being heard and captured through the space, and knowing that there were other people listening… That was the first episode where I really got in touch with my affect and the affect surrounding emotional labor.”

This episode is particularly salient in Lydia’s mind because not only did she realize her impact on others, but Taylor and Lindsey encouraged her to self-reflect and recognize her own needs and feelings. She says her peers questioned her, “Lydia, you know so much about asking people for help, so why don’t you do it? Why are you struggling?” She goes on to reveal that “in some ways, asking for help is laborious. I’m recognizing that I’m still internalizing some of the messages that I’m fighting against… That’s hard.”

Taylor’s favorite episode is one where the two discussed what mental illness, namely depression and anxiety, look and feel like. She says, “I was being very honest with myself, in a way that I often do not allow myself to. Talking about internalizing messages, it’s as if your mental illness, or your otherwise state of emotional exhaustion, forces you to be in a place of vulnerability because it lowers your ability to effectively create this facade of strength and hyper-productivity that Swarthmore encourages.” She goes on to mention the listener support she received in this moment of public vulnerability, stating, “Not only [was] I being vulnerable and real, but I [was] being affirmed by it and because of it. And that’s so empowering.” Out of this episode came a segment called “women of color affirming each other,” in which guests on the show are “invited to participate in a process of vocally affirming one another’s abilities, strengths, and importance in one another’s lives.”  

As an outside witness, Taylor and Lydia seem to have an almost spiritual connection to one another. This connection vastly colors their collaborative relationship in regards to BLACKQUEERHERE. When I inquired as to the significance of them choosing specifically each other to work on this project, I was told a powerfully truthful story about hair, self-definition, and friendship. The story, dictated by Lydia, is as follows:

“Last year, Taylor Morgan was walking around growing her hair out, half-natural, and half of it was permed, relaxed. And she had the little relaxed ends, like it was profound...Just how stark the difference was. One day, Taylor was working at the Lang Center and I came out and I was like, ‘girl, stop going around looking like that. Just cut those ends off. Just allow yourself to be natural, to be free. And I didn’t even know that she was gonna go ahead and do it…So I go to class, I come back out, and Taylor is at the end of her shift. And her hair is fully cut.”

Lydia goes on to say, “There is not a person who I can talk about the struggles that I’ve had coming into my Blackness...And we come from such different backgrounds. Colorism was such a significant aspect of my life growing up, and to be doing a radio show with a light-skinned femme… I had never pictured that. Ever. We have a soul connection. We make each other feel really, truly loved.”

At which point Taylor takes over, explaining her experiences being raised by a white mother, who didn’t know how to do Black hair, “I grew up and I would always be very anxious and very self-conscious about any curls that were on or near my head. I had virtually zero friends of color, I never knew a Black person, I never had a Black friend, growing up, ever. People used to make fun of my hair...And all these white kids would tug on it and put their hands in it...So I straightened my hair. I wanted my hair to look like everybody else’s and I wanted to be able to do it like everybody else, AKA, all white people...I used to ride horses competitively a lot, and for my hair to even fit in my helmet I had to straighten it. So for me, it was not even a choice to have straight hair, or so I thought. So my second year here, I was like, ‘I’m gonna plan to go natural, probably, but I just need to grow out and cut it off at the length I want’ because I was afraid of doing a big chop and having shortish hair. But you know when you want to do something but you need someone’s position to finally be like, ‘OK, I’m going to do this.’ It wasn’t until Lydia walked in that I was like, ‘okay I’m gonna do this…’ So I went in the bathroom [with scissors] and the definition [between my curls and my straightened hair] was so profound that all I had to do was take strand by strand and cut where they intersected. And cutting where they intersect...that’s so...It’s more than being like, ‘I’m not white anymore.’ It’s like, ‘I’m rejecting this oppressive ideology that has been engrained in my consciousness and that has affected and prevented the way I interpret and see myself.’...And so, that was Lydia...I’m here with Lydia because there is no one else I can be this vulnerable with in a way that’s different.”

 

23666677_913091942172716_1392099508_n.jpg

 

After this question, we take a brief break to play more music, and then spend about ten minutes watching Taylor feed her dog via an iPhone app. We shriek with pure joy as Mickey Mouse (the name of Taylor’s dog) appears on screen. Just as Taylor and Lydia can engage in conversations about trauma, self-doubt, and vulnerability, they can indulge in moments of pure, wholesome happiness.

As for what Lydia and Taylor want their listeners to take away from BLACKQUEERHERE, it’s clear that they both want Black femmes to feel valued and empowered, above all. Based on the passion and truth with which they speak, it is evident that both of them know what it’s like to feel unheard, undervalued, and neglected. This common experience is part of what makes BLACKQUEERHERE so universal and important.

Taylor explains, “What does it mean to have your voice validated and to feel welcome and worthy at all times? I have always grown up thinking or getting the impression, particularly by white people, that my voice was not valued, no matter what I did or said...Growing up, because I was a brown person in a sea of whiteness, I was marked as the thing that no one should pay attention to. And I think because somewhere inside of me said, ‘No, I’m smart. No, I have value. No, I have worth,’ there was a constant fighting between that. What I want people to take away is that whether or not you realize it, you are worthy. You are beloved. And there are people...who just want you to love yourself and shine, in whatever way that means for you.”

Lydia echoes, “Part of the reason why I’m doing this radio show is because I needed to be affirmed. I needed to be told that, ‘yes, you can have what you want. And yes, you deserve it. And that it’s okay for you to express the full extent of your humanity. For me, if all we’re doing here is letting other people from the most marginalized backgrounds know that your voice matters, if to nobody else, it matters to yourself and it matters to us. And we care to hear what you have to say. If that’s all we’re doing here, that’s perfectly fine with me. That is everything that I needed and wanted… that could’ve saved me from a suicide attempt my freshman year...I’m just trying to give a younger me what I needed back then.”

Our time together ends in a goofy jam session to “Ultralight Beam,” to which Taylor knows ALL of the words. Sitting in WSRN studio, surrounded by the sounds of Chance the Rapper and a powerful gospel choir, watching Taylor dance as though no one and everyone is watching, seeing Lydia hug Frames with such love and affection, hugging Lydia and Taylor good bye after being told that I’m welcome back anytime, it occurs to me that I have never before at Swarthmore felt so worthy and beloved.

Here is the WSRN Schedule