I dedicate this to Islan Nettles, Dominique “Rem'mie” Fells, Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, and to every jawn, Black femme, trans and queer sibling, woman, and girl who is living, dead, or murdered.
This is not a poem. This piece, this theory speaks to a Black intracommunal logic of relationality and absence. This is a Black theory that names itself from within and it urges the home to call a “thing” a “thing,” to call a “place” a “place,” and a “person” a “person.” “Jawn Theory” calls on itself: it disrupts and haunts itself in its own tracks through analytics of Black gender and sexuality. This is a visual-audio-textual reading of the racial and sexual landscape of a Philadelphia Black femme. As an experimental performance piece comprised of two previous series #TheShameStudy (2018) and #VisualBodyJournal (2019–), “Jawn Theory: A Bodily Geographic Tour” is a three-part auto-ethnographic performance. The visual performances are captured and ruptured into three visual scenes: West Oak Lane, Philly travels (July 2019), a Philadelphian grammatical geography of a Black femme “Grammar: #VisualBodyJournal” (July 2019), and its counterpart “Person/Place/Thing (Grammar II)” which was performed in 2020. The audio consists of two voices: the voicemail message of my mother Lezlie McCoy who passed on in 2015 and my own. The recurring hum disturbs the Black femme, and in turn they disturb every effort to erase and dismember. The charge is to haunt more often, more frequently.
[This piece forms part of the series con-text-ure hosted by VNMR. Ibaorimi's scrubbed sound approximates the line between sound and noise, static and signal. Like the blurred photos and repetitions of "redacted" throughout, it texturizes the il/legibility of Black femme sexualities, and tenet issues with disclosure, censorship, secrets and "to whom" are things clear or blurry, explicit or implicit—the elisions of subject/object that characterize ontological plurality, the auto-ethnographic and the "jawn." —Eds.]
In 2019, I walked around my block and a few blocks over just to run into a pulled-out braiding hair and a “jawn” dressed in all black, with a map of tattoos on her body. Two strangers, we greeted one another with so much pleasure. She was playing with her son in a playground that was attached to the David Cohen Ogontz library and we shrieked with glee as we looked at one another’s hands—our nails. We compared and contrasted, admired one another’s beauty and needed to know in which shops we got our nails done. After a brief exchange, she told me that I could take her photo. For reasons of privacy, I will not show her face or disclose her name. However, as “jawns,” we both had an understanding. I saw her only one more time and we shared a little laughter. Our encounter, her haunt, left such a mark on me that I felt myself thinking of her during the days to come. A “jawn” knows a “jawn” when they see one.
After seven days, I went to a local tattoo shop and asked for a marking to commemorate a “thing” that could only be understood by other jawns. On my way home, my thigh and my heart swelled up. I took off every layer of clothing and wanted to document the swelling and the commemoration of home. I did. A jawn needs no explanation, because even if she or they are considered excessive or nothing at all, by definition she or they are everything; a person, a place, or a thing. I documented my private performance and as I do with all performances, I posted images to social media. Not too soon after, I had to return back to Austin, Texas.
I have been back home twice. As a much as I enjoy home, I admit that I am my own disturbance and a disruption to others. Been a “freak jawn,” “still a freak jawn.” So many rumors and so many of them confirmed to be true regarding my sexual geography, the hoing in sexual decision making and the occupation, the smutting and the queering. Once a ho, always a ho. Once a jawn, always a jawn. There was nothing to truly undo, but rather be and keep on being. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, I have returned home once again—Philadelphia. I documented my image once more with ghostly dildos and vibrators.
I approach the “jawn” with ontological exploration. As part of Philadelphian grammar and dialect, the term “jawn” is a form of recognition and of identification of persons, places, and things. With the expression, “Did you see that jawn?,” Black Philadelphians understand which “jawn” is the subject or object. Regardless of the expression, there is a collective understanding of those who use the language that this person may be either discussing a woman, man, or gender variant individual, but in many cases it has signaled gender, a place where people go (perhaps it is a store), or a thing that is an inanimate object and possibly non-human. This can also be an act or gesture. It is that place or geography, thingness or humanness, and object or subject that informs the possibilities of how this Philadelphia grammar is marked onto the bodies and ontologies of the Black femme figure. When the jawn is a “person” she or they are also the thing and the place in question. There is no distinction to be made here, as she or they are gregarious haunters that are known and unknown through desires and shame and through the (mis)recognition of the spectator.
I draw from Hortense Spillers’ (1987, 67) theorization on the “zero degree of social conceptualization” of Black people’s “body” and “flesh,” and Fred Moten’s (2003) disavowal of the distinction between the human and thingly nature of Black beings. Spillers defines the flesh as a “zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography.” The flesh is not legible to the person who seeks to thingify the body. The flesh signifies the objectified being’s subjecthood, which for the Black being or object their subjecthood is misrecognized. Like Moten, I address humanness and thingliness, but unlike Moten I have no concern with solely a racial relation through whiteness, but rather an intraracial and sexual relation of subject-objects to more objectified and misrecognized subject-objects. The “jawn” as a theoretical framework that speaks to the embodiment, experience, and visuality of Black women and femmes cast off as gendered and sexual others from their racially othered community-familial folk who cast shame. I argue “the jawn” as a Black affirmative femme figure understands the complexities of her/their sexual subjecthood and subjectivity through shaming cultures. The jawn embraces the affective nature of her/their relationship to others, as others.
Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Spillers, Hortense. 1987. “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2: 64–81.