Cave City is a small town off of 1-65 south. Most people know it as the huge ass dinosaur exit. But it’s more than that. It is home to a rich history and culture of Black Americans⸺most of which have been here since emancipation. I even lived across the street from the first school for Black children in the area, which later became my Aunt Juanita’s home. My family’s longevity within this area contributed to the retainment of our oral histories. We called these histories What the Old Folks Did, and in the doings of the old folk were histories of spiritual technology brought with our ancestors from Africa, and birthed anew through our ancestors here in Kentucky. I grew up in the house my Great-great-great Grandfather built, adorned with horseshoes he placed on the door to ward off evil spirits. My grandma would always share stories of how her mother treated her and her siblings’ ailments with the local roots and herbs. My grandma was the person that taught me how to send spirits away if they bothered me. I remember when she shared that with me⸺she was very nonchalant with it. As if communicating with the spirits of people passed on was an everyday occurrence. For my people, it was.
I spent most of my life in Cave City, and I don’t recall questioning my gender as a child. However, I remember how awkward I felt when forced to sing with the brotherhood of my church, and I remember dreading the month of February each year because the men in both my community and family would bully my mother into making me attend the annual brotherhood Superbowl party. Following the old trope of the need for male role models, they were more than glad to step up to the plate (eye-roll). I remember not liking the texture of the conversations the men would have. I can’t recall any specific verbiage other than grunts, groans, and sexist epithets that would make your ass itch.
Unlike the spaces I was forced to share with the men, I always felt privileged to be in the company of my mothers. Their gatherings were reminiscent of secret societies. I often felt like the shit because they would never shoo me away. They gave me clearance into their world of mystery. Newport cigarette smoke would fill the air while the remnants of their perfume gave the room color. A perfect place to invite a spirit. Their conversation held whispers of roots and tree rituals, behind daggered eyes that told me to keep my mouth shut.
I come from ladies with excellent taste. Ladies of big hats and fantastic costume jewelry. One evening, I tried on my mother’s makeup and heels while she was away. At that moment I felt right. Something clicked for me that evening, but my 7-year-old self didn’t quite understand what that was. I was enamored by the fashions of the ladies of Owens Chapel Baptist Church. I enjoyed watching my mother put on her fineries for service; she looked so powerful. Little Me envied that power. I wanted to be just like my mom. Her Sunday routines of glamour were ritualistic. An attire that strengthened her ability to call on the Holy Spirit while there. A saying that always prevailed among the ladies in my church community was, “Just because we’re poor, doesn’t mean we have to look like it,” which testified to their commitment to glamour and glamour magic. I think they saw their artifice as armor. I certainly did.
I conjure these memories because they have aided in my articulation of gender and, more importantly, how my family worked the concept of gender to their advantage.
I first heard conversations around gender during my undergrad, in my Pan-African Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies courses. I learned that gender is a colonial construct. It is a societal role created and maintained by the ruling class among the settler states. It has become a phenomenon that is widely accepted by people outside of the ruling class due to enslavement and the infiltration of white supremacist ideas, like gender, around the globe through colonization. At the time I was also learning about the fallacious nature of gender and its relation to power⸺patriarchal power. I began to wonder what relationship did Black people have to a concept that is rooted in white supremacy? Throughout my studies, I learned that pre-colonial Africans, my ancestors, had a greater understanding of being when it comes to the concept of gender. Many indigenous African societies saw what the West would later name gender, as a spiritual archetype that one could determine through years of living on the earth, not through the phenotypic performances of one’s genitalia. I give credit to my alma mater, the University of Louisville, for introducing me to scholars like Professor Kaila Adia Story who was instrumental in my unlearning of white supremacist gender and understanding of how our pre-colonial ancestors acknowledged the energy of gender. I owe the Black folks of my family and community in Cave City for helping me nurse the spirit of gender as I have come to understand it.
The church was one of the few places I was allowed to feel without being called a sissy or some other derogatory slur. Growing up as a “feelings child”, as my mom called it, I only felt safe in our church and in the mothers’ meeting spaces, when they didn’t shoo me off to play. There, my feelings were exalted because they were seen as communication from the Holy Ghost, which I often caught. It was a regular thing to see me overcome with tears after witnessing a beautiful hymn. In church, I observed that the women/femme folks were the ones that talked to Spirit in the ways that came naturally to me. Catching the Holy Ghost made me feel close to the mothers. I think that’s why I was allowed amongst them. My mom knew what kind of spirit I had in that way only mothers and seers know.
So when it came time for me to discard white supremacist gender as a framework, and create my own way of being in this world, my family’s spiritual cosmology through and around the church gave me the power to do so. When I learned that gender was an internal sense we could feel, it was all I needed. My close interactions with Spirit in my youth had solidified my relationship with my feelings, and I never felt like a man. Once I gave myself the permission to belong to my femininity completely, it felt like a hug after returning home from a long journey. I finally got to be like my mothers, instead of existing in their periphery. For the first time, my spirit felt seen.
Although I have been able to reimagine gender and work it for my good, it still feels icky. Even the idea of being transgender or nonbinary is becoming uncomfortable for me. Those terms don’t adequately acknowledge the spiritual nature of my gender or lack thereof. If I were to have a gender, it could be defined through spirit. My gender then could be a conversation I had in heaven about who I wanted to be in this life, who my ancestors needed me to be, and what gifts they have bestowed upon me to live up to my greatest potential.
Sirene Wata is a Hoodoo Devotee by way of the Martin lineage of Cave City, Kentucky. They are a digital collage artist, whose practice is influenced by their spiritual technology. Sirene seeks to have a conversation with spirit in her Art to find healing, comfort, and wisdom. As a feelings child, she uses her artistic practice to make sense of the world around her, both spiritual and physical. She also has a Bachelor of Arts in Pan-African Studies with an emphasis in Gender and Sexuality studies. She is foremost a child of The Mothers and seeks to honor and venerate the divine force in every facet of her life.