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surviving

What I learned from these two years is that capitalism is not something you ever truly survive. You are a slave to the world until the world is no more.

CW/TW: mentions of sexual assault, gun violence, houselessness, and more in the following essay. Reader’s discretion is advised.

I have written some very hard pieces before. Essays about some of the times I’ve been sexually assaulted; essays about being abused by the Black Church; essays about navigating very scary mental health institutions; essays about what it means to be undesirable and looking for Love. These essays have taken me days-to-weeks to write for the level of commitment and vulnerability that each of them required. None of them, however, prepared me for this one. I have been writing this piece for years.

Years of taking mental notes and scrapping them. Years of struggling with the idea that this piece may never get written. Years of battling with whether or not I would even live long enough to write it. And as I sit here now, finally able to write the piece in full, it has taken me months to complete. Months of back-and-forth; months of heavy sighs and (re)traumatizing heartache; months of deep reflection and very long nights that turn into very early mornings.

I’m writing it, though. I promised myself that if I ever made it to the side with greener grass, I would share my story. I want to share it because it matters. I want to share it because writing is how I heal. I want to share it because my writing may be how someone else heals. I want to write it because, for me, it is the only way I will truly know myself as victorious—and to know myself as victorious is the only way I will know that I am more than all of the trauma I have ever felt, experienced, wrestled, and struggled with. So I am choosing to write the hardest essay of my life, and sharing the deepest parts of myself with you.

For two years now, I’ve thought long and hard about how I would structure this essay. I thought I would start off with the backstory on my childhood to provide the reader with context. Then I thought maybe it would be better for me start off at the genesis of this particular story around homelessness: in 2017—the moment my life changed forever. Then I decided maybe it would be best to start off by talking about the strengths, and weaknesses—maybe even the failures—of community.

Now that I have finally arrived at this moment, however—the moment in which I no longer have to ponder on how I’d tell the story of “how I got over”; the moment where my “soul gets to look back and wonder” how I made it over—I do not know where I want to start.

People so often talk of the calm before the storm, but now that I am resting in the tranquility that comes after the storm—overlooking the damage that has been done and preparing to reconstruct—I have arrived at this: the waters only needed to be troubled because we were already slaves; this meaning: the storm is only made possible through the existence of anti-Black capitalism.

So journey with me, if you will, through the last few years of my life. I want to paint you a picture of how I have lived through housing insecurity and job scarcity.

In December of 2017, I wrote about my experience with homelessness as a Black Queer person. I wrote that essay with a tone that suggested I was no longer homeless. But I was. And what I did not know was that I would continue to be homeless for the next two years.

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That same year, I ran into issues with housing at Morehouse College. However, I had also recently “come out” to my very Christian, cisheteronormative family. So even if I wanted to quit school and go home, that was no longer an option. I had a close friend who allowed me to live with her since the Summer of 2017 until I found my footing again. I started freelance writing, with hopes that I could save enough to move into my own apartment, but I quickly learned that freelancing—especially as a person with multiple marginalized identities—had few opportunities and an even smaller amount of money. I couldn’t do much else, though. In October of 2013, I was diagnosed with a life-altering heart condition that kept me from working most other jobs that require hard, manual labor.

At an early age, I learned that protections for Black disabled people do not exist. I grew up essentially living in and out of the hospital with asthma, gastrointestinal concerns, and more. I did not know the horrors of searching for a job as a fat Black disabled person, though, until that diagnosis in 2013. Several times, I applied for government assistance and, despite having a heart condition, they—in so many words—told me that I was not disabled enough. Jobs turned me away out of “fear” that I “could not properly do my job.” Other jobs turned me away because I am fat. Nightmare after nightmare, hardship after hardship. Putting myself through school and navigating chronic homelessness all at the same time.

All of this combined pushed me into doing sex work as a means of survival. As a fat Black Queer AMAB-nonbinary person, this often meant placing myself in situations that were dangerous. A lot of—mostly cisgender, thin/gym-bodied, and/or lightskin—sex workers online have made many people believe that the occupation is inherently glamorous. However, for many of us who are further on the margins, and especially for those of us who did/do street work, it is everything but a glamorous occupation. Because sex work is criminalized and illegal, and desirability politics determine who has a right to safety and income, being a sex worker of any kind is a difficult task.

I forced myself to live through the horrors of being misgendered because being open about being nonbinary got me less money, irrespective of the clients’ gender. I once fought my way out of a client’s home after he put a gun to my head in an attempt to steal my phone. I was sexually assaulted on several different occasions and, after a while, just accepted that as part of my reality if I was going to ever survive the world. For me, it felt like the trespassing of my body could never amount to the way the rest of the world had already violated me, and if I was going to ever live, I always had to die. The assaults felt like reminders of this. “Die in this moment so that you can live in the next,” I remember thinking.

I wanted nothing more than to be able to sustain myself in a world that felt like it was crashing down around me. So I persisted. I kept writing. I kept doing sex work. And I slept on one couch until I no longer could, and I moved on to the next one. Slept on one floor until I no longer could, and then I move on to another. Slept in the bed of one abuser until they felt my body was no longer of any use to them, and therefore no longer worth paying and providing shelter for… and then I moved to another. When all else failed me, there was my truck—which really became a safe haven; an escape route; what felt like my underground railroad and the only access I would have to freedom. Until that freedom felt like just another prison. I began to reckon with the fact that my body no longer felt like my own; like I was far too large to fit in the world, but also too small to ever truly be seen.

My follower count on Twitter kept growing. Varying opportunities—from writing to organizing, to public speaking—kept coming in. On the outside, it looked like I was creating the perfect world for myself. On the inside, I felt like the world had already swallowed me whole. I showed up to community organizing meetings with a smile on my face. I provided friends with emotional support because that is what fat people are socialized to do. Always. I felt like I was constantly performing. Because I was. To borrow the words of Ashleigh Shackelford:

“The reality of visibility is that being seen is only available if you kill all parts of yourself. Having a large following online means struggling with when to be yourself and when to continue to please your audience; when to sell yourself vs. when to be honest. Creating mainstream narratives to inspire and to be consumed means never having an identity but that of emptiness so that more people can find a home inside your flesh.”

This is what I was experiencing. Buried in my own body while others got to live out the fantasy of who they thought me to be, or who they wanted/needed me to be for them through my performance.

So in 2018, I instructed my mind and my heart to find safety in the moments where I was allowed to be my most vulnerable self.

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Early one morning, I was having very severe heart palpitations. None of my medicines were working, and they only got worse as I got more anxious about what this meant for me. At the time, I was staying with my friend, Venkayla. This was her senior year at Spelman College and it was a weekday. Without hesitation, she called the ambulance, rode with and remained present with me the entire time I was in the emergency room. Doctors told me that they could not perform a cardioversion in the moment because I ran the risk of damaging part of my brain. At the very same time, a pastor from back home—who at one point was my spiritual advisor—called to question me, by which I really mean berate me, about my queerness, despite me telling her I was in the ER. This was one of the hardest days of my life, but Venkayla held me through each moment without hesitation.

One weekend, my nephew came down to visit my best friend, Jordan, and me for his spring break. That week, we all got the flu. Miserable, we still found ways to enjoy one another’s presence. And when I was sitting in the hospital one night, vomiting any medicine the nurses gave me, them being around me made me feel held in a way I had not often experienced.

I think about the times Clarissa and I stayed up late at night to finish articles for publications when she allowed me to stay with her; or when Taekwon gave up his room and slept with Raekwon so that I had a place to lay my head; or when Simi opened up her home to me, after knowing me for only a few months, when no one else would. Justin and Antoinette cared for me in ways that would one day prove to shift the way I navigated the world entirely: by helping me create a website, legitimize my brand, and being otherwise great friends and business partners to me. Taiza and Avery; Delaney and Josh; Kapryce and MarTáze; Eva and Jill. So many people supported me at one of the most vulnerable times of my life.

There were two moments that would eventually shift my reality. I didn’t know then, but as I reflect on it now, those two moments made room for me to be exactly where I am now.

Nearly a year ago, in December 2018, my friends Deba and Frankie allowed me to come and stay with them at their apartment. Both of them had gone home for the holidays. Alone in their apartment, I cried. A story I’ve never even told them. I cried because I was exhausted. There I was, on the eve of a new year, by myself and with no trajectory of change in sight. I was heartbroken. So I told myself that I needed to do something different. That night, at exactly 11:06pm, I opened my notes app and wrote down my New Year’s Resolutions. Two of those resolutions were to find housing of my own and a job that I was passionate about. I signed the note with these words: “I write these here so that the Ancestors help to create room for the necessary resources needed to accomplish all of these things. I believe that I will win!”

I felt confident about 2019. Something felt special about what the year was going to bring. So I rested in that.

In March of 2019, I met a person that I deeply admired at the Movement for Black Lives strategy convening. That person was Ashleigh Shackelford. Because we are both organizers in Atlanta, we had come in contact before, but we had never intentionally shared space with one another before then. Be that as it may, on that day, we instantly became family. There was something very divine about us connecting in that moment, and it was Ashleigh who would play a very pivotal role in the setting of a sun that never cast its light on me. The dawning of a new day was just over the horizon.

We exchanged numbers and talked every day. Both of us—in all of our fat, Black, Queer, and Trans glory—needed each other in ways we did not know. At some point, I expressed to Ashleigh that I really wanted a Queer Parent and that I wanted it to be them. They accepted. Following that moment, I disclosed to them all that I had been experiencing for the past two years. Immediately, they began to help me figure out ways I could finally get a legal job with benefits and how I could find stable and safe housing. They helped me raise money to stay in hotels for weeks at a time. They helped me raise money to make sure I could eat. They gave me the room to be vulnerable and took over responsibility for me so that I was not doing it all alone.

I felt comforted, held, and loved in ways I had never felt before; in ways that I did not even know were possible. Ashleigh, and all of my community, never let me go. They all worked to make sure that I arrived at this very moment; a moment in which I am able to tell the world that I did, indeed, make it over. Just under a year since I wrote those resolutions, I am now in my own stable housing and have been hired both as Associate Editor of Wear Your Voice Magazine and as the Lead Organizer of Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative (SNaPCo)—a Black trans-led abolitionist organization here in Atlanta, GA.

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What I learned from these two years is that capitalism is not something you ever truly survive. You are a slave to the world until the world is no more. You live to see the next day until you don’t. And as exhausting as that sounds, what once gave and continues to give me a moment of peace is knowing that I am surrounded by people who value community, and all that is required to maintain it, in a very real way. I am alive because I am cared for, and I am cared for not because I am good, and holy, and righteous, but because each of them have a commitment to me in spite of that.

Over the course of the last two years, I have written a lot of essays about the harms of capitalism; about anti-fatness; about ableism; about cissexism; about rape culture. I wrote essays that were filled with research, but no one knew that I was living it in real time. Hypervisibility, especially on the internet, is where we go to die. There was never room for me to share just how real these abusive systems have been to me. It is only because I am in community with other people who love me that I was ever able to escape that reality and allowed to be a whole being.

Now that I am in my own housing with two jobs that I am passionate about, I am having to work through a feeling of guilt. I am a socialist, but I have been raised my entire life to believe that I am supposed to work—and work hard—to deserve a space in society. So out of guilt, I want to overwork myself. To pay back the time I was “inactive” in society. To pay back the friends who held me along the way. The reality, however, is that my labor is not what makes me valuable, no matter how much capitalism attempts to make me believe that it is. I don’t owe society anything. I owe myself care, and love, and restoration, and healing.

I give myself to community because I value it. I work these jobs because I value the work that we do. And I recognize that now I will continue to see the harms of these very systems manifest in a different way. What will never change, however, is that I am cared for. And that will always drive how I show up in the world. I can never survive capitalism because the water is only able to be troubled because we are always already slaves, but I will always be held by the community who wades in the water with me. That’s enough.

Da'Shaun Harrison is a nonbinary abolitionist and organizer in Atlanta, GA. They write and speak publicly on race, sexuality, gender, class, religion, disabilities, fatness, and the intersection at which they all meet. Their portfolio and other work can be found on their site: dashaunharrison.com.

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