Black women are not a monolith. So, building on the first part of the episode about Black women in Pittsburgh, I spoke with Jahqwhan “Jah” Watson. A native Ohioan by way of Cleveland — who came to Pittsburgh as a Pulse social service fellow last summer —Jah picks up where Naomi Ritter and Janel Young left off. We explore more of what gets left out of the conversation when discussing Black women in Pittsburgh and the unique experiences that shapes and cages their identities.
Jah’s reflections are important because they’ve had a life not shaped by what we’re used to as long-time residents of Pittsburgh. Their reflections come from trying to acclimate into a city with its own set of systems, rules for socialization and history. Jah’s reflections are intimate, authentic and a fresh take on how we talk about Pittsburgh nurturing and shaping Black women.
“Whatever my experience in Pittsburgh is has really sort of like beat me out of myself, and I’m really having to beat back. To come into myself,” they said. Listen up.
Jourdan: I would like to start this episode by sharing with you a listener reaction I received to part one of the series of how Pittsburgh shapes and cages the experiences of Black women, I received it a day after it was released. Hi, Jourdan. I’m writing to share with you my profound admiration for the podcast episode. I have only been in Pittsburgh for about three months now, and most of what you all spoke about in the podcast was stuff I usually think about and do not have the words for, I thought I was tripping when I think about how white Pittsburgh is or how my experience is here, albeit in a pandemic, has been shaped by being an immigrant Black woman.Thank you all for shedding light on this and making me feel less isolated in my thinking and experiences.
Jourdan: One of the main goals for From the Source podcast is to give color and depth and context of the experiences and the stories that make up Pittsburgh and to challenge the ways that we speak about current events and look at issues that are unique to our region, as you continue to listen in and share and repost and comment on the episodes, it only widens our focus and encourages us to tell more stories, better stories, more diverse stories, more unique stories to represent the city that we all live in. So thank you for your continued support. And please continue to let us know where these stories land for you and how they make you feel in hopes that we can tell better stories to represent the city that we all share, live in, and love.
Jah: There’s a spirit within me that guides me, that is feminine
Jourdan: Jah relocated from the Cleveland, Akron, Ohio area in the summer of 2019 to be a part of the Pulse fellow Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service experience.
Currently they serve as the policy coordinator with Grounded Strategies. It’s fair to say that it is unique that Pittsburgh was the city where Jah found themselves where they found a deeper meaning and understanding of who they are, who they were and who they are.
Jourdan:As a Black femme living in Pittsburgh.
Jah:Since coming to Pittsburgh, I think I’ve found a Black life trans, queer, non binary community that had folk, very loud and present with their gender identity, and really was a space that I just kind of like slid into.
Jourdan: It was all about comparing and contrasting being from Cleveland and living in Pittsburgh, it gave Jah a critical eye, the unique eye to be able to spot the systems that confine and shape the experiences of Black women in Pittsburgh, Black femmes in Pittsburgh.
Where does one go to seek out friends, community and safe spaces in a city they’re completely unfamiliar with, which happens to be the worst city for Black women and femmes to live in?
Jah: I intentionally, like, sought out and looked for relationships with Black people when I got here, and so my circles were predominantly Black.
Jourdan: After a few months, Pittsburgh finally began to feel like home. Jah found a circle of friends to rely on, began to explore and fell deeper in love with the neighborhood that they had moved to and found things in the city that reminded them of Cleveland.
Jourdan: But it was their experiences working in the nonprofit industry, they say, that really showed the mismatch between the intention to help Black women and Black people in this city and the outcomes of those intentions.
Jah: Pittsburgh, not only working within the Pittsburgh nonprofit, has been like slick depoliticizing. What I found was a space with good intentions and not necessarily a framework to do the most good.
Jourdan: Pittsburgh has a very strong relationship with the nonprofit industry. There’s almost 11 nonprofits for every 10,000 residents of the city of Pittsburgh and 13 of the top 50 largest employees in the city are nonprofits because of the large number of nonprofits that are represented in the city and the social services that they tend to offer.
The industry is sort of intertwined is the conversation around quality of life because they directly deal with the shortcomings or the gaps in health care, education, child care, all of these services that really aid to impact the quality of life that people are able to obtain living in the city.
Jourdan: My conversation with Jah lasted almost two hours. We spoke about everything from childhood friendships to growing up in marginalized communities, underserved communities with marginalized identities, taking risks in the safe places that they were able to discover with Black femmes and Black women living with joy in Pittsburgh. Here’s more on how Pittsburgh shaped encaged the experience of Jah, a Black femme living in Pittsburgh.
Jah: So coming to Pittsburgh, I really looked for the Black places. I looked for the hood. I’m like, where is the hood? Because I came here via a service program called PULSE. The way it works is like they provide housing with other fellows. And so I lived in Garfield and that was a dope place to be. Because it reminded me a lot of like a Cleveland spot, you know, lots of Black people, lots of just like familiarity. I did a poetry partnership that was beautiful at the Hill District Library. That was a major place that inspired me and my femmehood and protected me and provided security. I went to “Black people are in the future” at the Homewood Library.
Jah: Libraries are also just like a really great place, space to exist. For me. I feel like I’ve also been like spaces where I can rest and just be. So Black people in the future at Homewood library was also like a major, significant space and Frick Park.
I feel like being in Pittsburgh has really challenged a lot of my politic, especially in terms of my world building, future building, I came to Pittsburgh very strongly rooted in an Africana critique. So like these systems do not serve Black people very blatantly and within like the professional spaces in Pittsburgh, they seem to like not be very clear to people.
I encountered the ways that, like Black people were not being served because they are Black.
Jah: Since coming to Pittsburgh, it was really welcoming and supportive and like representative of me and now I identifiy as a black non binary trans femme like somewhere within those shades, using like my own language to define myself. There is a woman’s spirit within me.
I feel like if we’re talking about like the continuum that we exist on and that I exist on along with that, a masculine counterpart like two halves of one whole.
And then there is like this larger enveloping force that is beyond gender, that is genderful like the source of gender maybe.
Jourdan: So what was it about Pittsburgh that made you have to seek out safe spaces because you are black femme?
Jah: I really have to defend myself for myself at the end of the day, for myself and so on. It is still a struggle. It’s still a struggle because of wanting to exist in a community with aligning values. I think Pittsburgh, because there is such a small, small, small, small, small community of Black people and particularly Black women and Black films and Black, queer and trans people, child its come to some point where, like I’ve been I’ve had to sit because everything around me is just like not naming me as femme. And I’m like, child, am I even femme? Whatever my experience in Pittsburgh is really like, beat me out of myself and I’m really having to beat back to come into my soul.
Jourdan: Growing up in Cleveland, Jah, was a child who was raised and socialized to be a young boy who grew into a young man when they came to Pittsburgh and found that richer sense of self, the city was a place to develop and to explore. But it was also a place where they had to learn to unpack some of those unhealthy, not useful ways of being that offended.
The community that they seen themselves as being a part of this meant learning, as they say, when not to take up too much space, when to put the boots on the ground and be a safe space for other black femmes and women in the city and to consider what their being present meant for other black femmes and women as well, being compassionate and considerate.
Jah: So when I got your invitation, I was like. Is this space for me to inhabit because I still feel like taking up space within the umbrella of, like Black womanhood?
Feels like a space that doesn’t belong to me, that I don’t feel comfortable inhabiting and being like claiming
Jourdan: Jah, that’s so very considerate and thoughtful and accommodating, I think, for you to have that level of awareness and understanding. So I think for me as someone who is unpacking gender identity and expression. It takes the identifying away from our bodies and how we present or how I present in the pieces that make me a woman or make someone a man and forces us to consider our essence, to consider something expressed and communicated through our bodies. That’s on the inside. That makes me think, of course, of the conversation I had with Janelle and Naomi where they were saying that from a young age, they were taught what was acceptable and what was not acceptable. And specifically when it came to growing up, being socialized as young women, that there were things that they had to negotiate within themselves concerning safety if it was safe for those things to come from the inside to the outside. So it’s interesting that you’re saying, granted, you were assigned male at birth when you were born, but there was something on the inside of you, a femininity, a femme-ness. Inside of you, you have to negotiate, if it was safe for that to come out and to be expressed through your body on the outside. Is that accurate?
Jah: Yes. It’s one thing to identify as Black within a professional space, because then it’s like.
OK, folk will name you, but your pronouns is different to translate that into hitting the hitting the road or hitting the pavement as a Black femme and taking up space as a Black femme on the street where everything is at odds with Black femmeness.
Jourdan: So what are some of the things that you had to kind of or are there things that you had to unlearn to kind of excavate from your mind and your way of thinking, your way of being? That came as a means of socialization because you were socialized and raised to be a boy or a male to be masculine. What of that did you have to unlearn on your journey to discover and embrace yourself and your femmeness?
Jah: Yeah, I’ve always had more space for humanity, for the women in my life, things I’ve had to unlearn and sort of like not taken up too much space, like being very present and sort of like my women friends might be conditioned to just give me space or like to not.
Jah: And so trying to be more present, but like pausing, being quiet and pointing out like. Offering space to take up being very like intentional about checking in to see, like if they feel like they have space in a relationship. being mindful of emotional labor, of invisible labor, that’s done. The biggest thing that is like that, I feel like has been.
Jah: A revelation through one of my personal friendships is loyalty, I feel like that is also the crux, the crux of my gender politic, what I owed to myself as a person.
Jah: Is to align my loyalty and expectations with other femmes and black women, neutrality is not a politic that I can hold as a black femme person, someone under that umbrella.
Jourdan:At this point, for me it became crystal clear that Jah’s politic, Jah’s core belief was to align with the interests, the values and the intentions of black women in black femmes and align with things that supported their well-being. So the golden rule is to do right by women, do right by Black women and femmes.
Jah: I think I was really allied to Black women as like someone through my conditioning, as like someone assigned male at birth so that allyship was wading through a lot of like guilt and commitment and being like, I take up a lot of space. So what can I do to displace that? I’m coming into a place about what it means to move beyond that, go into a space that is like, let me put my boots to the ground and move with this. These are still things that are percolating like coming up in my mind. But the question is to ally with Black women, to ally beyond the confines of race, beyond race and like, who benefits from that, is it Black women who still benefit from that?
Jah: Or am I just moving into a shadowy color blind or like colorless politic? What is it really? This has been really a moment of like articulating the future that I want to exist in and what tools is it going to take to exist in that future? At some point, though, I get to name shape myself.
Jah: I don’t know. I want to be good. I want to feel good. I also want to create and be an active agent in the creation of safe spaces for those who will come after me. I want to be active and also challenging racial hierarchies and like racial monoliths and moving into humanism.
Jah: That is like accountable to racial devastation while also moving beyond moving through that to something beyond something less limiting.
Jourdan: Although this is a two part series, there are so many other things that we did not get to talk about, if there is something that you feel like is also being left out of this conversation, of the ways that Pittsburgh shapes in cages the lives of black women, please feel free to reach out tag me and your statuses. You can also send me an email if your heart moves in that direction. My email address is J-O-U-R-D-A-N. at publicsource, DOT ORG.
Jourdan: Thank you for listening. Thank you for sharing and we hope that this conversation gives understanding to the lives of our neighbors who we live next to work with and pass every day. Socially distanced, of course.
And we hope that you continue to come along on the ride with us to share better stories for a better Pittsburgh with this medium. Thanks.
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