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The Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neal Hurston argued that black women are the mules of the earth, trampled over and over again. This Roundtable session nuances Hurston’s argument and asserts that black trans women are located between the philosophy of Franz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” and the theology of Howard Thurman’s “disinherited.” Black trans women have been able to, in the words of the old black church, “make a way out of no way.” That “way” was, and is, Ballroom.

Black trans women originated the Harlem Drag Ball scene with its primary function being a critique of—as well as a philosophical and theological response to—the homophobia of the black church. Black queers were situated in the abstract of homelessness due to the communal homophobia of the black church amidst the landscape of the newly migrated southern black folk to Harlem in 1916, escaping the American terrorism of lynching and Jim Crow. Drag Ball emerges and functions as the new home: a counter cultural congregation for black queers, the beginning of what is now almost a century of community world-building, or, making a way out of no way.

About the Trans Sounds of Black Freedom Roundtable

This Roundtable will explore the history of the House-Ballroom Community (HBC) as a Black Trans-Womanist theological discourse, a freedom movement, and its spiritual formation responses to race, class, sexuality, and gender oppression. It will further examine the community’s ability to use the art of performance as a hermeneutics of the body and situate its history of mobilization as a resistance to these oppressions. It will place the HBC in conversation with other historical struggles and illuminate the community’s prophetic gift of truth-telling and its ethical gift of archiving suffering and allowing suffering to speak. Being on intimate terms with death and annihilation, through the trifecta of the philosophical, theological, and political, the HBC has something to say to the world over: “What it means to be human, to struggle for freedom, to reimagine death, and to transmute it to power, healing, and life.”

Michael Roberson is a public health practitioner, advocate, activist, artist, curator, and leader within the LGBTQ community, as well as an Adjunct Professor at The New School University/Lang College, NYC and Union Theological Seminary NYC. Michael has two Master degrees from Union Theological Seminary and is the Senior Scholar in Residence for the Center for Race, Religion and Economic Democracy. He is an international art and politics consultant and a member of the international sound art collective entitled “Ultra-Red.” Michael is also a recent TED Media Resident, where he performed a global TED talk about the underground black/Latino LGBTQ House/ball ballroom community. Michael created The Federation of Ballroom Houses, co-created the nation’s only Black Gay research Group, The National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Group, and the Nationally Diffused CDC Behavioral Change HIV Prevention Intervention “Many Men, Many Voices.”