Earlier this week, bluestockings writer Jessica Jiang interviewed Ericka Hart – a kinky, poly, cancer-warrior, activist, sexuality educator and performer. Living and teaching at the intersections of Blackness, queerness, womanhood, and chronic illness, Ericka’s performance and education work centers Black and brown experiences with sexuality, the medical community, and systems of care.
Ericka will be giving a talk at Brown University entitled “Coming Out a Warrior” next Wednesday, October 11th, supported by Brown University Health Promotion, Brown University LGBTQ Center, Legacy Series, Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, and Women’s History Series. The talk will be from 6:30-8 pm at 85 Waterman St. Rm 130, and more event details can be found here.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
bluestockings: To begin, I was wondering if you could talk a little about how you’ve come to see your body as a tool of resistance, since that’s so important throughout your work?
Ericka (E): I think just existing as a Black queer femme is a way that I commit my body as a tool of resistance – just by existing and constantly making it clear that those are my identities, and that’s how I exist and navigate the world.
More recently, I do what I’ve called topless activism, to show my breast cancer scars. When I’m wearing a shirt, folks are not necessarily marking me as a breast cancer survivor, and I think it’s important that breast cancer is visible to communities that I navigate, being in the Black queer community. And especially in the month of October, [breast cancer awareness] is marketed to white cis women, middle class, living in a suburb, generally speaking cisgender. And it’s weird to think that chronic illness would be “marketed” towards a particular community, but it is, because social disparities exist within the health community and medical community.
bluestockings: You describe yourself on your website as a “cancer warrior.” Can you talk a little about the intention behind using the terminology of a warrior instead of a survivor?
E: Honestly, I have complicated feelings about both of those terms, because “survivor” and “warrior” [implies] that there’s something that I’ve overcome or beat, and that it’s done. And the thing is that there’s no cure – or cures, rather, since there would be multiple for breast cancer – so there’s nothing really that I’ve “beat.” And I’m not a breast cancer surgeon or oncologist, I just kind of showed up to my doctor’s appointment to make sure I had the chemotherapy, or went through the surgery.
Folks are like “well that makes you a survivor,” but I think that there’s this inspirational porn that surrounds breast cancer survivors, or breast cancer in general. Where it’s like wow, you take away this femininity from a cisgender woman, meaning her nipples or her breasts, and that makes her a survivor because she can navigate the world in this particular way without being “normal.” And my push-up against this is that there is no normal, and that everybody’s body is different and varies. And that it would be, oh you’re a survivor now because you went through breast cancer, and not a survivor just because I survived navigating the U.S. as a Black queer person, I think is ridiculous.
bluestockings: Does that go back to how breast cancer awareness month is marketed towards a very narrow ideal of the white cis woman? Like when breast cancer is what a white woman survives, the acts of Black queer folks are not seen as surviving in the same way.
E: Yeah. I mean, I can’t stand the month of October and I never have. My mother passed away from breast cancer when I was thirteen, and all of the pink, and “let’s celebrate survivors and warriors” drives me nuts because it just diminishes our narrative. And it diminishes us to a chronic illness, and doesn’t honor our intersections.
bluestockings: I’m also wondering about your work with sex education. You describe on your website that your work is “pushing well beyond the threshold of sex positivity,” so I’m wondering about your relationship with the idea or the movement surrounding sex positivity, and what you think its limitations are?
E: I have my masters in education with a concentration in human sexuality, so a lot of the work I’ve been doing is working with elementary, middle, high schoolers for the past ten years in sex ed. And when I was diagnosed, I saw this gap in breast cancer survivors not having any information about sex and sexuality throughout their treatment. And then that happened to me. That’s how I saw the gap – I went through chemo, and no one told me that would lower my libido, or have me have less vaginal lubrication. And I thought that that was a huge [thing] missing. A big part of my life is my sexual self, and I felt like the only focus was on how I could navigate going to work or talking to people, but not necessarily being intimate, and I thought that was something that needed to be talked about.
So I created a curriculum for breast cancer survivors, pre- and post- treatment and/or masectomy, if that was a process in their treatment. A lot of teachers, or sex ed people who identify as sex educators, just kind of crown themselves with that title [but] haven’t actually done the labor to remove all of their biases from sex. But in my work, I don’t do gender specific work, where there’s this idea that the gender binary exists and boys need to be separated from girls to have a conversation about sex. Regardless of the age, they’re always together. I think it’s insanely important that we do not have a conversation about sex ed separate from race and gender and socioeconomic status, you know, various social issues or dynamics that don’t often get raised in a sex ed space.
The work I do is for Black and brown queer young people, and when I center Black and brown queer young people in my work, it then reaches everybody. It’s not starting at having it reach white people, who sex is made for. It reaches those who are most marginalized, and then everybody gets access to that particular information. My desire is that no one is left out.
bluestockings: I’m also thinking along the lines of everyone or all bodies having access – how do you see us as creating a world where all bodies are affirmed or all bodies have access, especially because so much of your work centers around intimacy and sexuality? I’m wondering what your thoughts are on who has access to beauty or desirability as an ideal, and how disabled or chronically ill bodies navigate that.
E: That’s challenging, I think, having young people especially understand that desire is rooted in, and is, a political choice – talking about the various ways that various images you’re attracted to are political. I think knowing that, having that information, having that distinguished makes the biggest difference. I can’t bring in all of the images in the world that people are attracted to, but I can have them get that desire is political, and there’s freedom in that. Because then when you look at an image and you’re attracted to it, then you can decipher, oh I’m attracted to this because white supremacist capitalist patriarchy says I should be attracted to this.
bluestockings: I think that’s really important work because even in so many activist or leftist spaces, I think we see this really troubling trend of social capital or desirability being connected to this ideal of the thin, abled, light-skinned, cisgender person, and so on.
E: Yeah, absolutely. Conventionally attractive, pretty privilege – all of that has to be deconstructed on unpacked. Even in our political spaces, who are we listening to? Like me, people listen to me. There’s plenty of breast cancer survivors to listen to, to get inspired from or whatever nonsense that is, but they’re listening to me, and there’s a lot of pretty privilege in that. And I can’t deny that I benefit from that privilege. Now it’s weird to say that because so much of my life I’ve been called ugly, or so on and so forth, but I have to be straight up that I have a conventionally attractive body, conventionally attractive scars even. Even scars are broken down into what’s attractive and what’s not.
bluestockings: A lot of your topless activism centers around being really, unapologetically visible in your body. I’m wondering if you can talk a little about what that visibility means to you.
E: As a little Black queer girl, I didn’t get images of people that looked like me. As I got older, there was Ellen, and I would always go back to Ellen as a reference – as someone who was a lesbian, and unapologetically a lesbian. But I didn’t necessarily have images of people who looked like me who were open and out.
I think about Janelle Monae and how much I wished that she would be queer, because I really wanted somebody that looked like me, you know? It wasn’t just that I was attracted to Janelle Monae, it was that I wanted somebody in the public eye to look like me and to be that accomplished, and still be so present in their queerness. And she hasn’t come out so I can’t really live off that claim, but Queen Latifah as a person that’s broad-shouldered and big, and has a big presence. I really want Queen Latifah to be queer, but she’s not.
I think the importance is that they would be visible people for little young queers to look up to, even myself, just to be affirmed. So I put it on social media so other people can just be affirmed, and it’s affirming for me – I get to be affirmed in my existence. That’s what the Internet does, it really provides a space for folks who don’t have community or have a small community or don’t know where their community is to be affirmed.
bluestockings: I’ve definitely seen that a lot online. I know of a lot of Black femmes and women who have large followings online, but that hypervisibility also results in backlash and complications. Have you encountered complications that arise with the kind of visibility you do have, and if you have, how do you navigate those?
E: I mean a lot of people want to see me covered in pink, and standing in some sort of survivor pose, and being very strong. I’m not light-skinned, so as a brown-skinned femme oftentimes I am already marked as powerful and strong, I can never be dainty and soft. Most recently I was in a magazine, and if you flip through the magazine, the part where I’m featured is with other breast cancer survivors, and I’m the only breast cancer survivor of color, the only Black breast cancer survivor. The other white women are put in this position where they’re super soft and very demure. And I’m standing there with my arms on my thighs, it’s black and white and looks very deep and profound. I took a million other pictures too, and I didn’t get to be soft and demure. I saw the ones that could have been like that, but this is how the media would like to see me.
Whenever I post a pic on my social media that’s pretty and pink and super dainty, and saying something maybe superficially inspirational which I oftentimes don’t do intentionally, there’s more likes on that photo than a photo when it’s me being intentionally sexy and loud and being me, being very human. So even within my breast cancer advocacy, folks want to pigeonhole me into this ideal breast cancer advocate rather than celebrate me in all my intersections.
So I do come across that a lot, and it’s a lot of labor. Like I never thought that going topless last year at Afropunk would ever have me in an O Magazine spread, which I’m grateful for, but at the same time I learned a lot of lessons, and how anti-Blackness is pervasive in the media, even as a breast cancer survivor. In fact, your breast cancer will not save you.
bluestockings: In closing, I was wondering if you could talk a big about how you see your work fitting into your long-term goals? What are you ultimately hoping to accomplish?
E: I’m a sex educator, so my intended long-term goal is to sex educate until every Black and brown person is clear on the ways in which white supremacy has impacted their views on sex and sexuality. And I think that’s my goal. Goals are always overarching and huge, so you keep reaching for it. Do I have a plan specifically? I mean, with the social capital that I have, I want to continue centering the most marginalized, who are Black trans women. And just keep sex educating in any way, shape, or form.
Jessica Jiang is a staff writer at bluestockings magazine.