On May 8th, a flurry of Black fae crossed my social media timelines, bound like distant cousins by a single hashtag: #BlackFaeDay. These fae modeled unique, hand-crafted aesthetics — encompassing a range of homelands, colors, prosthetics and relationships to gender. I didn’t know how these earthly beings came together when I first saw them, but I learned that the gathering was sparked by Twitter user @maximilli_lo.
As I scrolled through pictures of Black fae playing in forests, fields, waterfalls, town centers and the sanctities of their homes, I contemplated the significance of the Black Anti-Pastoral.
Being historically scattered and dispossessed, Black people have had to find nature wherever we land — be it in cities, wilds, or countrysides. I’ve struggled to connect with lifeforms around me in the recent and not-so-recent past — when my stress levels were so high I felt the pressure in my blood vessels, when my limbs were rigid from years of getting by without learning to stretch. Nature, ferality and pastorality were recurring themes in my senior year of undergrad, but my worn-out body responded feebly to the subject matter in class, stowing lessons away until I’d “gotten by” what I was going through.
One of my professors was Vievee Francis, whose most recent poetry collection is Forest Primeval (2015). Primeval is a cunning dissection of race, gender, and power in fairytales and epics (among other things). The front cover of this collection shows the back of a Black girl’s head, neck and shoulders — wildflowers tangled in her unkempt hair. The girl’s gaze is on something “we” can’t see. She wears a tousled muslin dress associated with country living — attire befitting the hard, fortifying work of willing soil, seed, and wildlife to feed you. This image and its accompanying poetry suggest the Black Antipastoral knows callous better than it knows cute; its nature is unfiltered — an undisguised meeting of joy and trouble, puzzle and answer.
…in a great deal of African American poetry we see poems written from the perspective of the workers of the field. […] The poems describe moss, rivers, trees, dirt, caves, dogs, fields: elements of an environment steeped in a legacy of violence, forced labor, torture, and death. Are these not meditations on nature?
– Camille T. Dungy, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009)
The girl, woman, of Forest Primeval says her nature is unruly — endangered and dangerous. She is not garden plots, soft rustling and rustic charm — she is rust, unyielding roots, jagged edges darkened by deep water. Given her history, you can’t contend with her nature without also encountering violence. Beautiful or not, she’s been misshapen from her original form, obligating her to search for what’s still true and redemptive in the world, and in herself.
The wilderness unraveled me — those boundaries of self and the performance of the self.
– Vievee Francis, in the LA Review of Books
As I scrolled through #BlackFaeDay, it was evident that fae personae are identity-affirming, self-affirming, for many cosplayers. Standing against flora, foliage, and sunlit walls, some Black Fae Day participants announced revelations of their true forms; others agreed that cosplaying gave them unusual gender euphoria. In these exaltations, we see that “play” isn’t only good for children. Dressing ourselves and trying on characters gets all of us closer to our natures. And unlike luxuries, dressing up is possible for anyone with a body — despite our social standings and material resources (or lacks thereof).
In her 1972 essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” writer/theorist Alice Walker honors the self-contained art of deprived Black women in the post-Reconstruction, country South. She writes, “They dreamed dreams no one knew—not even themselves, in any coherent fashion […] They wandered or sat about the countryside crooning lullabies to ghosts […] these grandmothers and mothers of ours were not Saints, but Artists; driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release.”
As we resist the life-restrictions we and our foreparents have faced, the art of self-making by playing, by reconnecting with our autonomies, and releasing our natures, may be an anchor that keeps us from succumbing to madness. Play is part of what keeps us alive, or keeps us from living dead lives.
Black Fae Day was a consortium of dreams brought to life.