With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing and Pride Month just around the corner, Junauda Petrus-Nasah, activist and critically acclaimed author of The Stars and the Blackness Them, was quarantining in her home city of Minneapolis with her wife and their daughter when George Floyd was murdered just blocks away from their home. We checked in with Petrus to talk about how her blended family has been impacted by the coronavirus and protests against police brutality, their intentions for honoring their queer ancestry for Pride, how she’s finding joy within her black LGBTQIA community at this time, and more.
You and your wife co-parent a beautiful blended family. Can we just start by honoring how wonderful you are as a unit, and describing your family dynamic for our readers?
Me and my wife started dating four years ago and she had a two and a half year old when we got together, and it was really exciting to see her as a mama. My wife was born in Cameroon, is very dapper and dresses masculine, and really has this very tender way to her and I really love seeing sort of this multi dimensional parent – like, she’s certainly a mother but she’s also a daddy and she’s very much off ering me a re-imagination on what motherhood and masculinity and family is. So when we got together, I really was drawn into the beauty of family like I’ve been single I don’t have any kids that I had before we got together, but I do come from a very big family. I’m one of 11 kids, there were five different moms amongst all the kids that my dad had, and I grew up in a household with my mom and her four daughters. So I feel like there was always this understanding that family is beyond this nuclear construct that I think was pretty singularly what we saw growing up and what families identified as. Yeah, and then the dimension of queerness I think is an opportunity to imagine and create families in ways that makes sense for our spirits.
With coronavirus ongoing in this country at the same time as the nationwide protests within the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd, this is a really challenging time for black mothers, in particular. Have you noticed any changes in your parenting style and ways of communicating with your child as a result of the events of the past few months? How are you making sure to mother yourself during this time?
I think COVID was one of these things where we truly had to beat them into “What does the adaptation of this moment look like that feels right for our family and all of us involved?” – me, my wife, my daughter. I work from home, typically, my wife suddenly had to work from home and a child that you know had to be schooled from home. So a lot of it was trying to find structure for all of the needs that everybody had. And then, I feel like also just trying to pay attention to my daughter emotionally. Because I think there are a lot of ways that us as adults are very anxious and overwhelmed by it all, and at the same time she was having as much of an experience with it as we did, she just had way less contact. So I think for me it really was like alright like I gotta be her playmate, even if I feel like I’m tired, I’m stressed, I’m exhausted… And I’m for sure the more playful one, being an artist and having a youth work background, so I really have been using this time to be close and appreciate that this is temporary… A typical schedule would be like we’d have her, she’d go to school, we’d have her, she’d go to school. We also co-parent with my wife’s ex, so there would be all these times where she’d be gone and when she’d come back we’d be like “She’s taller! Her vocabulary’s changed!” … So I’ve really actually been cherishing it, and not saying that it’s all been easy, but I really have been leaning into things I’ve always wanted to do with her, like I taught her how to sew, how to make granola from scratch.
And we live in Minneapolis, and where George Floyd was murdered was four blocks from where we live, and we were always across the street at the gas station that it happened at. So I say all that to say is that right after it happened, we instantly felt the pulse that was happening in the world but in a very intimate way. As the events were blossoming – first the shock of it and being like oh my gosh like this thing happened and happened so close to us and it’s so horrible and it’s so graphic and, you know, public. And then that night, the protests began but like, even before that like there was a memorial and people going there and you know just honoring the space and I got a chance to do that. And then literally overnight the whole city changed… A lot of the wounds that were exposed in this moment of George Floyd and the ensuing uprising have been things that have been long festering. So these are things that my daughter and I often have reasons to talk about as well as my wife. But the proximity, made it so that we had to almost create some distance for her, so that it didn’t feel as scary. The whole week there were sirens constantly, constant pops, and then we’re on the news and we’re like seeing our neighborhood with National Guard walking down it and you know fires and things and, you know, in a lot of ways mourning and grieving all of the change that we’re seeing in our community, but also me personally feeling inspired and grateful that there’s actually shifts that are happening.
So I feel like this time has been super duper surreal almost, in a lot of ways. My child was experiencing like panic attacks as a result of the whole experience there’s just been a lot going on… So it’s been deep, I mean it’s really been deep. We have taken our daughter to the memorial site and, you know, brought flowers to it and we have talked about police violence and white supremacy in the ways that you can explain to a six year old because I don’t think it’s a thing that anybody should feel privileged to be avoidant of. It’s like there’s gravity on the planet, there’s white supremacy in our communities that needs to be addressed… And at the same time, being like well I don’t want her to absorb all of these passive issues around her blackness and her intelligence and her relevance to existence.
How are you reclaiming black joy in the midst of all the pain that’s been amplified on a global scale?
I very much activate in ways that, I think, feel sparked by adrenaline and exhaustion. And, you know, that is an inheritance of white supremacy. And I just want to find myself in nature more, I’ve been reading more poetry and reading more books, and I’ve been really intentional around social media. I’ve been very interested in pieces of whimsy in my life. Specifically, you know like, coloring in a coloring book. And I think there’s a part of me that is hyper cerebral and also like a warrior, so those things together really do sort of activate me in ways that can lead to burnout. And in this moment, because I’m an activist and all of this stuff is happening in my city, I really am finding black joy by being around other black freedom fighters and revolutionaries and queer folks – black queer femme revolutionaries who are all like “Yeah, we inherited this system that is broken and wants to break us, and instead we’re going to dream so sweetly and magically, and let that be the new standard that everybody falls in love with.”
What’s your mantra of hope?
“Sweetness is here, kissing at all things broken or confused.” It’s from a poem that I wrote that a friend of mine made into a poster. It’s a thing that I wrote and didn’t think too deeply about, but now it’s like yeah, sweetness is here, in all of this stuff we return to sweetness and we return to deserving the feeling of being healed.
Your novel The Stars and The Blackness Between Them came out last year, and it centers the stories of two black queer teens. What was your inspiration behind writing this book, and why do you think its important for there to be more black LGBTQIA representation in the teen literature space?
The book blessed me with its existence in my heart, and in a way where these characters showed up – their stories around what is it to be a black girl getting to love on another black girl and see the sacredness and divinity in her existence through this love. And I feel like for me, I was born in Minneapolis and both my parents are from the Caribbean, so I truly had this opportunity to hold these very unique people within myself. And I think these characters, one is Trinidad and one is from Minneapolis, really get to see how connected blackness is no matter where it is, and also how unique we are, wherever we’re from. It’s interesting because Minneapolis has become such a well known place due to what’s happened recently, but it’s a place I’ve always been proud to be from – Prince is from here, I feel like black expression from here is super grounded in creativity and radicalism, kind of like this sensuous, femme natural essence, you know, so I felt like in the book I really wanted to honor Minneapolis and black people in Minneapolis. And similarly with Trinidad, I am so grateful to be of that lineage. This book also has a character who’s a man who’s incarcerated, and he’s an astrologer, so a lot of the book is talking about the existence of black masculinity in this particular character, as well as the father figures who are healing their spirits through their fatherhood and also supporting their daughters in ways that really ground the young people in affirmation and limitlessness.
Before I wrote the book, I had done so much work as a worker and as a performance artist and as an activist around prison abolition and police brutality abolition and police abolition. So I think the book really is a way of like “How can I offer these secret sacred jewels of existence that I had to uncover through arduous sort of studies? How do I create a narrative that holds all of the beautiful magical healing spells that affirm me and make it accessible for young people?” And I was a young person that consumed a lot of books… so I felt like for me it was really important to offer that to young people. And whether you’re queer or black, I think the story just is so tender, that I think we all can relate to being young and figuring ourselves out and not knowing everything that good.
Black LGTBQIA life matters, and is an integral part of the Black Lives Matter movement. What is the significance to you of these protests coinciding with Pride month?
I feel the ancestors with us. The riots and the revolution that started the Pride movement were started by police resistance by Trans and Queer black and brown people. And I think the unity of that moment really sort of shifted how people felt about queerness. I think there have been other societies that were more assimilation based and respectability based, whereas I think with Stonewall, it was like “Listen, we’re fabulous.” A majority of the culture that’s in the world is from black and brown queerness. You can’t have no Beyonce without that, you can’t have no Rihanna without that. It’s just reality. I feel like there was a certain dignity that was being asserted and I think that is the thing I really do look towards because it is scary to break from the norm and the status quo. But I also feel like the black folks, I mean I’ve been protesting and been an organizer forever – we beg, we beg, we stand up, we show up constantly. But there was always this thing that like it’s more comfortable to have black people be in a caste system under whiteness and that caste is protected by a police state. And I think, right now it’s like black folks are like “Listen, first of all, we don’t need these police policing us and our bodies for us just being our beautiful black fabulous selves.”
I feel like this moment really is around a dignity around black folks and indigenous folks. Like the precipitation that I think sort of sparked it to this level is that we had all these months where we got to sit home and reflect on what’s important, or we were forced to be on the front lines of a very dangerous viral scenario that our government was actively like “We don’t know what’s happening.” So, I feel like all of a sudden, people were all like “Oh, yeah. This country never really cared about us” … and ultimately black trans women are still going to be hyper vulnerable in a society that hasn’t dealt with white supremacy or transphobia or homophobia or any of these kinds of oppressions. So for me, I feel that that in this particular moment of black resistance, there is an unapologetic leading of queer and trans voices. And I feel like the ancestors are so proud of us. So I certainly feel humbled and grateful to be, in this lifetime, a part of the resistance and ways that have yielded me so much joy and access to my own life.
What is your wish for LGBTQIA families, especially those who are new to the LGBTQIA community and still have a lot to learn?
That we can imagine and create families that feel good for us. And we’ve always done that – like the term family within queer community is also a thing you ask somebody to know if they’re queer. Like “Are you family?” or “Is that person family?” It’s this beautiful ism that I think has come out of the fact that so many queer people had to find and define family for themselves when our families couldn’t love us and see us and cherish us. And making family through lovers and relationships and partners and things like that, still gets to be a place of imagination and curiosity that we don’t have to try to fit into the ways that the heterosexual, patriarchal, nuclear family structure. That isn’t inherently family – there’s aspects of family that might fall into that – but we get to just trust what feels good to us.
I also feel like just based off of some recent experiences, my wife and I had to really be intentional around how family is created in regards to legal rights and things like that. Because there’s still ways that our legality as parents can be challenged because a lot of folks aren’t used to understanding queerness in the context of families. So you know, just getting a lawyer, even if you and your boo are hella in love, have your heart be clear. If y’all are married or not married, the marriage amendment almost all of the rights that straight people get under marriage to queer families, but a lot of that is still interpreted by individual judges. So on a practical level, know that you know that there are ways that it’s important to be intentional around the legal aspect of what family is.
Do you and your family have any plans for Pride this month?
I kind of came out later in life, when I was 30. So I feel like pride for me is still so like you know how kids come out at 15 and everything is a rainbow? I feel like there’s ways that pride for me still such a tender thing that I’m like “Yeah, I’m gay and I’m proud of it, that’s exciting!” Last year, me and my wife and my kid totally got super cute, wore all white with rainbows all over us, road our bikes to the park, saw the parade. And so like this year it’s like “Oh, gosh, what are we doing?” because that kind of felt like the ritual.
But maybe we’ll do some stuff around like teaching about our queer ancestors for our daughter. Honoring that at our altar and we all spend time kind of spiritually as a family. And there’s ways that we can show pride for queerness in a way that’s educational and, you know, we can still do a bike ride. Make some yummy rainbow colored food – I mean not like with food coloring, but purple grapes, red watermelon, green grape… and I know there’s gonna be stuff virtually, like a virtual Pride parade and things like that. So we’ll see, but I do feel like there is a thing that maybe this year might start, because I think pride has become very much like rainbows and people dancing on a car in a g-string. Which I love, too. But I think there’s so much resistance. There’s something about being in quarantine and not getting to celebrate Pride, and then being in an uprising around anti black and police violence… This question even prompts me to be like “Yeah, how do I get intentional around the radical roots of pride this year,” in absence of kind of this very beautiful celebratory event that can kind of get caught up in things that aren’t truly about what we’re still even fighting for.