Love and Money, Sex and Death
From Love and Money, Sex and Death by McKenzie Wark, published by Verso, out now.
For a long time, I harbored a secret name. I was Ken or Kenneth to the world, but to myself I was another. To the point where she almost calved off as a separate personality.
That name was Karen. A name that belonged to a classmate from high school, a popular girl, whom of course I wanted to be or be like.
On a school excursion we all went horse riding. As the best rider, Karen rode the best horse. On the home stretch, the horse bolted. She lost control. We all heard her screams. Thrown to the ground, into a coma from which she never arose.
I know. There’s something fucked-up about taking her name.
Much later, the name Karen became a meme: the generic name of the generic white woman who calls the cops to complain about Black people. I gave up on changing my government name to Karen. Or to anything. Just speaking for myself: I don’t care about my government name or gender.
Ironically, that I have the luxury of not caring about my government name or gender, that I never legally became Karen- is peak Karen.
What I feel called to work on is that I am a Karen, or at least that any claim I micht make to womanhood means a reckoning with myself as a Karen–a white woman. A sentiment I expressed to you more than once. To which you gave your gentlest eye roll.
When we met, we both still went by our government names, and genders. You had certain skills of observation and saw something I barely saw myself: that we shared a secret. That we were both girls. You were the only person other than Christen who knew my other name. It came out in an exchange of con-fidences. After you read the Karen in me.
Your secret name was Venus, partly after Venus Williams, whom you resembled. More after something Saidiya Hartman wrote, about the Black women aboard the slave ships, about whom the archive says so little, and most of that recording only their disposition as property. Sometimes their enslavers called them Venus. Like Hartman you wanted to fabulate stories about Black women’s lives, to make them matter, only you wanted to write stories for the women about whom Hartman hadn’t had much to say: Black trans women.
You taught me things about transsexuality. What I thought was my private secret was a shared secret, a covert commons.
I’m in on it now.
I wasn’t ready to come out. You were past ready, but the world was against you. When you stepped out into the world as Venus, it cost you dear. There was no hiding your Blackness, which already marked you for trouble. When you came out, that was then multiplied by your estrangement from your religious family, and by poverty, precarity, by being far from a home that wasn’t even home anymore.
You wanted a teacher for the one thing you thought I might know: about writing, an art you saw as controlled by white people- -which it has to be said is an accurate read. I offered edits, gave notes, some advice. Encouraged you to submit your writing, which I don’t think you ever did. “Submit” is a loaded word here when considering the Black writer and a world of white editors and gatekeepers, including me.
After I came out and started to go out, I’d see you at raves.
Sometimes I’d rather not be recognized as Professor Wark as I’m off the clock, but with you I didn’t mind. I’ll never forget the gabba show where I talked you through writing your book proposal, shouting through the ultrafast beats and pulsing lights. [couldn’t help but hope you’d pitch it, but part of me knew it would never happen. You didn’t lack for talent or resolve. fi’s that sliver of self-doubt on top of all the material obstacles. Living in that garage, coping with the stress of sex work. I wanted to believe you could still write, like you wanted.
I don’t care if it’s naive, but I believe everyone can make art. Maybe not everyone is the next Saidiya Hartman or Janet Mock, but everyone can make art that means something in their lives and the lives of those around them. But then, I’ve led a luxury life. The world left a little clearing where that was achievable for me. A clearing called whiteness.
Not for you. The money you could make was good enough, but it was cash. Cash from dealing, cash from sex work.
Sometimes dangerous, and when not dangerous, emotionally fraught. Housing became a problem. Hard to rent when you have no digital money trail.
It got worse. Chronic, low level health problems, salved with street meds. And then you became known to the police. You saw where things were heading. Trying to get by on legit jobs, but with no résumé, making minimum wage. The hormones reshaping your face, pushing out tits, making boymode physically as well as emotionally impossible.
You taught me a concept for all this: transmisogynoir. The hatred of Black trans femininity, that most fallen thing. You taught me more than I taught you. Which merely extends and reinforces the structure within which you struggled and in which I was mostly left untouched.
Let’s not let pass without mention, let’s not have slip into nothingness, the times I got to be in your presence when you got free. On the dance floor, eyes closed, that serpentine writhe, that curlicue of the hand, raised over your head. That smile. The way you could just release yourself into movement in the summer heat. The memory of that is sacred to me.
Then fall, and the COVID lockdown. I lost touch. You weren’t answering my texts. You kept me separate from the rest of your world as you knew you didn’t fit in mine. Then summer again, a cool summer compared to those to come, but the mood in the streets-fire.
An unexpected text from you, to make sure I’ll come. To the uprising for Black lives. I came, just a body among others, there because you called. Meaning you, Venus, and you, that to which you belonged–Black life. Out on the streets of Brooklyn, after curfew, me in one little group, running into you in another.
“What’s the vibe?” I asked.
You smiled, wide enough to crack the world. “A Black rave.” Joining forces. Off to find others. Our streets! You were brave; I was timid. I tried to warm myself on your courage, which part of me also felt as reckless. As if your life didn’t matter.
I came to listen, to witness, to refuse to be governed. Refusing the order of violence that divides us, that inflicts pain on you beyond even the reasons of order and property. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. I’m just repeating the lesson back, responding to the call. To be on the same page.
I gave up one thing that put me on the side of those who get to enjoy at a distance the prospect of violence against another.
I gave up masculinity. This wasn’t for political reasons, or even for reasons. Now everywhere I go, no matter what they think of me, people get to deal with someone who does not appear in the guise of a man. I’d give up whiteness, but that’s different. What you taught me is it’s mine whether I want it or not.
A story I never told you: rewind back to summer 2019. I’m in Times Square. Tourists clot the sidewalk. I’m lost, which is embarrassing for a New Yorker. I’m heading up Seventh Avenue. I’m aware this whole time that I’m with my ten-year-old child. We are going to Flame Con, the queer comics convention at the Sheraton Hotel.
I see three young Black men on the sidewalk. They are giving away free CDs. One is pressing a CD into my hand. I know this hustle. Once it’s in my hand, he will ask for ten dollars. So I don’t take it. He’s persistent.
“Ma’am, ma’am, ma’am,” he says.
“No thank you.”
“No thank you.”
“Hey,” says one of the others, “that’s a dude.”
“That’s a dude!” The third chimes in.
Now all three of them are following me up the street, taunting.
“Suck my dick!” All of them start on this one.
“Suck my dick!” Their tone shifts toward menace.
I’m walking faster, but they still follow. That won’t work. I turn around and face them, making sure my child is behind me, a bitch shielding her cub. It’s a standoff. Heart pounding techno tempo. Seconds stretch out so long you can look around inside them. I’m aware of where we are. There’s surveillance cameras everywhere–and probably cops.
That’s when I ask myself: if the cops arrive, are they more likely to take the side of three Black men, or my white tranny faggot ass? And I think it’d be me. That if this gets ugly and the cops show, whiteness will protect me. Conflicting feelings: none of my encounters with cops have ever been pleasant, but “unpleasant” has been the worst of it. I want to be safe, but I don’t want police to be what saves me.
Looking around, inside the second it takes to think tactics, for a way out. Now they’re chanting: «Suck my dick! Suck my dick!” I hold up both hands and point to my tranny self. “No! You come here and suck mine? A beat one of those where time bungees down forever before it snaps back. Laughter. They’re laughing. At me rather than with me. It doesn’t matter.
Better to be a pathetic joke than a threat to masculinity. They go back to hustling tourists.
I take my child’s hand and, looking around, spot the lobby of another hotel. Ah, just ducking in here would have been a less risky street tactic. As a well-enough-dressed white person, I can enter any hotel lobby. We sit down and hold each other, which comforts me, at least. Hearts pound. We talk about how not to handle oneself on the street, which turns into a discussion of race, class and transphobia. We hug. “I love you Dad? We go off in search of comics and cosplayers.
I don’t know what could be a more basic, gut-level, urgent urge toward revolution than the existence of surplus pain. My mother’s premature death was a thing of flesh. Yours, Venus, came from the violence of marginal labor, from the order of the straight family, from antiblackness. Nothing will ever extort a reconciliation from me to any of that. No story where that is wished away will ever hold me happily ever after. Maybe it’s why I don’t trust stories at all.
I heard through the transsexual grapevine that you had chosen to leave your life. Or maybe: chosen to steal it back from the living death of antiblackness. It was during the lockdown, that time of isolation. The lockdown saved a lot of lives, but it took some as well.
You’d think I’d be inured to loss by now. I bear it like a duty. The coldness where I touch what pushed you toward the limit. The hot rage I feel against what did the pushing.
I went by myself to Green-Wood Cemetery. Found Jean-Michel Basquiat’s headstone. I sat on the cool grass for a while, then gathered twigs and made a little altar of them against the nearest tree. The living wood against the dead. As I had when Kato passed. I would have so loved for the two of you to meet in life. Kneeling before this makeshift shrine, I tried to pour all the frozen sadness in my heart out onto the ground, but I couldn’t. I poured out a little Cointreau, your favorite, from a flask, instead.
The Brooklyn Museum has a sunken forecourt that makes it something of an amphitheater. Christen drove us both here this bright June afternoon to hear leading Black trans women step out of the queer chorus and assume their roles as icons in the movement for Black lives, for the abolition of prisons and police, that whole cadaverous modernity, for the revolution that just has to be made to make these lives livable- and with that, everyone’s. We’ve come for Brooklyn Liberation for Black Trans Lives.
Venus, I felt your shadow standing in the gaps between bodies. How you would have embraced all the feelings of this day. Maybe cracking that grin, hollering with delight, with relief, with rage.
Two more Black trans women died just the week before. Riah Milton (age twenty-five), murdered in Ohio. Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells (age twenty-seven), murdered in Philadelphia. Last May, police shot and killed Tony McDade, a Black trans man (age thirty-eight). Just yesterday, video recorded from outside Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco’s cell at Rikers the day she died surfaced, which showed correction officers waited an hour and a half before calling for medical help. Lavleen was twenty-seven.
It’s a tricky thing: to not lose sight of the dead, to say your names, honor them, and yet not stop there. I say your name quietly: “Venus.” What I want to remember is the life that in another world might be yours. That dance floor joy, those brilliant scraps of prose, as more than just fragments. You saw so clearly that what barred your love of the world was the order of the world, and that to love the world this world has to end.
The organizers asked us to wear white. I chose the Ghost slip over the Rick Owens- both of which Christen gave me. I blend with the human filaments of the crowd, bristling over the grounds all around the museum. Coming up Washington Avenue, I see you assembling, so many overlapping and varying shades of collective Black. Black and trans but also, augmenting your body, queer and cis and white. So many white-clad bodies streaming, milling, chatting, buying ice cream from the truck, clapping and cheering on cue, although from here nothing much can be heard beyond oratorial cadence. Everyone keeps a few feet apart. Everyone wears masks.
We’re late. Checking the Signal app on my phone: Jessie gives me her location, but there’s no way to get to her without combing through the crowd. The parkway running east-west along the front of the museum is like the languid back of some sleek animal, covered in brilliant fur. Too dense to weave through, so I circle around and amble down Lincoln Place, which runs parallel, one street back. Circling back around to the parkway, there’s construction. I pick my way around it. Jessie is by the 2 and 3 train entrance, but I don’t see her. Maybe I drifted the wrong way around. Few people, so I’m going in closer. I can almost hear the speakers.
There’s a catwalk over the top of the entrance to the museum. I see someone going up there, so I follow. It’s not roped off or guarded. Up top I can see the whole western half of the demo. It has a peculiar texture. There’s no tight knot at the front. Everyone is keeping their distance.
lanne Fields Stewart takes the mic. “Black people where y’all at?” The crowd roars back, like lions after slumber. *See that police helicopter? Let’s let the militarized police state know exactly how the fuck we feel about them!” Thousands of fingers rise and flip the bird. “For too long, Black trans people have fought for our humanity.” Roar!
“Today is the last day!” Stewart leans into her cadence, performing a series of promissory futures, whose possibly teeters on the actions of those here gathered. It isn’t really the last day. It could become, with this witnessing, the first day of the possibility of these days ending. Our affirmations-roar!-bid us bind ourselves to it.
Stewart talks about the matter, the materiality, of Black trans lives mattering. “Transphobia ends today.” Roar! “And it doesn’t end because your nonprofit got a grant off of it. It doesn’t end because you put a trans flag on a credit card. It doesn’t even end because you said to your white family that trans lives matter. It doesn’t end because you fuck us and still misgender us to your friends. Transphobia ends today, because if you ain’t with us, you are gonna to learn what it means to be against us!” Roar!
I feel my being exceed itself, expand, exult. Can a performance enacted together communicate the feeling of wants and needs that go beyond even the political, that speak the world where the world is alive?
Cerenne Doroshow takes the mic. I’ve met her, at the Body Hack night at Mood Ring. Río introduced us. I didn’t have anything to say other than that I was honored. Like the other speakers, she addresses herself mostly to you, making the rest of us spear-carriers in this production. As it should be. “Black trans people send me some love! I love all of you!”
“This is what trans lives look like.” Ceyenne gets emotional, her voice cracks. “For every girl that died. The police need to be ashamed of themselves. For every time we had to bury one of ours. They need to be ashamed of themselves. Everyone one of these babies you see behind me. And these babies down here-I want you bitches to live!”
The crowd roars. I’m crying. I think of you, Venus. That everyone should be loved. To fall away from some arbitrary ideal of the human is to be excluded from love and included in violence. But then maybe that’s not really love, the love that’s bounded by violence, bound to violence. Maybe there’s another, one you didn’t think you’d ever find. We both lost mothers, in such different ways, blistered over loss, in such different ways. Losing kin, fellowship, left too deep a wound. You never found another. And yet here it is today, this other practice of belonging, care, kith. That which would need be centered if there’s ever to be a concept of femmunism.
Ceyenne: “Babies, I love you. I love each and every one of my trans family members. I want you to breathe! To stand tall. And proud! And Black!” Roar. “We’re whorrrrrrrres!” Roar! “If you could smell me right now. I smell like good pussy!” We’re not in church anymore. This is the flip side of that language-its tail. Ceyenne is speaking as, and to, Black trans sex workers. “I gotta tell you, if I didn’t tell you, you’re looking at a Black international whore baby. It’s me. And I’m selling me, to save you.”
To Ceyenne, nothing changes unless Black trans people control their own organizations, raise their own money and, most important of all: own their own property. She wants to invest in a material base for Black trans life. Part of my brain wants to read this as a petit bourgeois idea, but then another part of my brain reminds that part that I own property. That I am petit bourgeois already. An inheritance born of white colonial extraction. I’m not battling systematic, racist exclusion.
I think about walking the length of the catwalk to see more of the crowd. Glancing over to the east, I see two people blocking the path. One looks like a tall, Black cis man and the other like a less tall, white cis woman. They have shades on and are blank faced, as if they were acting as security. They are security. I’d not noticed that all the orators addressing the crowd are up here.
Each of the speakers up here has the bearing of a goddess. I’m reminded of how for you, not only approximating but exceeding the Platonic ideal of feminine beauty was your armor for survival. Everything conspires to minimize Black trans women. So you, they, sometimes maximize yourselves, become larger than life. It’s a femme art not every girl can pull off. It must be exhausting. Were racism and transphobia really to end today, would this style of performing the power of the self end too? Would we still have our icons, our queens?
Craning around security, I see Cevenne as she steps back from the mic, resplendent in shining black gloves and black cape over a white dress, a bright scarf over her head, under a broad-brimmed black hat.
I see Raquel Willis, in a simple white tee and jeans, a different trans femme style. She takes the mic out of its stand, comes up close to the edge of the railing, looks down at the crowd, letting us breathe. We sip on the image of her drinking us in. I’ve never met her, but you and I saw her speak at a rally back in summer 2019, just after Layleen died in solitary at Rikers.
I’m thinking of the contrast between that event and this one. That one was downtown, a stone’s throw from City Hall. Not that any stones were thrown. The mood was a slow-burning anger, grief, despair–rage. Your Black trans rage. Raquel reminded us that day that the first Pride was a riot, that not much changes without the refusal to be governed. It was, like all good movement oratory, prophetic.
From up on the catwalk, Raquel reminds us of the ancestors, the Black and brown trans women who are the uncompromising radical core of what used to be called gay liberation. “We know who Svlvia Rivera is. don’t we?” Roar! “We know who Marsha P. Johnson is, don’t we?” Roar! We know who Miss Major, our living legend, is, don’t we?” Roar again. The agenda comes out of their lives, their actions: on mass incarceration, police violence, the violence of men, the dangers of illegal sex work, on homelessness, on health care. They were street queens.
They couldn’t take cover in passing, in fitting in, so they went the other way, the goddess route, the stuff of legends. You told me how you tired of it, of how it exhausted you to be Venus. You didn’t want to be fabulous anymore. You wanted the right to be ordinary.
Raquel takes aim closer to home, lambasting white-led and queer-led nonprofits, ornamenting themselves with Black trans people but whose core agenda is elsewhere. And worse, tell Black trans people “that you are not worthy to be a leader of these organizations that these white folks are gatekeeping, and these resources they still gatekeep.”
There’s a very discreet cop presence. Cops know they’ve not winning the hearts-and-minds thing here. Repressive power requires consent. Here in Brooklyn, these last few weeks of the uprising for Black lives, enough people just said–fuck that, The more the cops rampaged, the more people just refused to be policed, until the city gave in and lifted the curfew.
Now it’s all police ” reform” noise again. The repeated failure of police to be anything but an unequal distributor of violence just gets them more money because that violence is their actual function. The revolution to make a world in which you could just be is both practical, immediate, material–and deeply utopian.
I’m remembering our impromptu seminars, in back of the club, in the rave chillout. We spoke of intersectionality. Multiply the lines of oppression by each other and in the square where they nearly all intersect is you- the Black trans woman. We spoke of assemblage, where there’s no lines, just groups with inde-finable boundaries, one of which gathers loosely here, under these labels but not reducible to them. We tried to think it as a dialectic, where the experience of those whose oppression is most specific, most particular, are also those who lead back to the totality of racialized capitalism. We spoke of the falling away from a Platonic ideal of Woman, of the whiteness of that ideal. The Karens who are its guardians. In and against which the tactic of Black beauty, not approximating but exceeding it.
All those paths in thought led us to abolition.
I’m thinking about the wearing of white. Perhaps it refers to the Silent Parade, against lynching, a hundred years ago. The children wore white. Something about Blackness obliging whiteness on its own behalf. That liberation will most likely pass through an inversion of a hierarchy of values, that Platonic order of proximity to the ideal, those order-words, that it might abolish it all along with the forms of coercion that hold them in place.
We leave the amphitheater, this pride in white, walk to the park, in the sun, in the green. We don’t have pride, like it was a thing you could buy; we become a pride, a collective noun. No statues topple. Some days there’s no need. We sculpt the landscape for ourselves today, honor your icons and legends as ours. For someone like me, that means bearing witness to your witnessing. There’s another time that connects past to present. The time that calls, and is heard calling, for the abolition of all that would not let you be.
When I say “we,” that is still more symbolic than actual, intending to extend beyond this alabaster pelt of people, but barely. A solidarity beyond our various identities but falling short of a universalizing gesture. As you never stopped reminding me: I always got to go home to my safe white life.
It would be too easy for me to stick to my own hurt feelings about how often I’m excluded from womanhood. I have to deal more urgently with the question of what’s called for when one becomes a white woman, a Karen. Even one who nurses to her fresh-grown breast her difference.
Venus, I can’t write what you’d write here. I know my words are compromised. What does solidarity look like without same-ness? When Ceyenne speaks, when Raquel speaks, when you spoke of certain things to me, I can’t say: I feel your pain. All I can say is: I feel my own pain when you speak of yours. When I witness the joy of Black trans women, I can’t say: I feel your joy. All I can say is: you open for me the feeling of another joy.
The strategy and tactics of aligning our struggles is politics. you never got to make.
The sculpting of situations that might bind us is art. An art you never got to make.
McKenzie Wark is the author of The Beach Beneath the Street, Capital is Dead, Sensoria and General Intellect among other books. She teaches at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York City. In 2017, she came out as transgender. Since then she has published her more experimental trans autofiction Reverse Cowgirl (Semiotexte 2020) and a work that combines both memoir and literary criticism about Kathy Acker, Philosophy for Spiders (Duke UP, 2021). She also edited a special issue of eflux journal and the Critic’s Page of Brooklyn Rail on trans |fem | aesthetics, both in 2021, cementing her place as a notable contributor to trans culture.
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