2020 is truly giving us an Oscar worthy performance. From the plot twists, evil villains, and fallen heroes, at every turn, I keep waiting for the camera to showcase a new scene in what has become the thriller of some of our lifetimes. It seems like a great epic film, a mini-series even, with each month revealing more and more about the cast of characters assembled.
It is so eerie to me that in June of 2020, we are viewing many topics on our screens: a corrupt president, Pride month, the murder of innocent Black people, and a worldwide pandemic. All at once. I don’t think even Stephen King could have pulled off such an epic feat.
In my 28 years of life, I’ve seen life through three different lenses:
- As a gay man.
- As a trans woman.
- As a black person.
Each lens has exposed me to different aspects of society. The good, the bad, and the ugly. But one that has overlapped all of them is the 3rd: my race. And my God, have I seen so much of the ugly through THAT lens. It has predominated all of them in more ways than I could have imagined and now, more than ever, I am reminded of my own obstacles that I have had to overcome to live and co-exist in a world that my ancestors were told wasn’t meant for me.
My granny, Mariah, and grandaddy, Robert James, were born at a time when this country was still segregated. They were just children in the second World War and young parents in their early 20s at the beginning of the Vietnam War. I remember my granny and grandaddy telling me about their own experiences with racism. My grandmother’s first husband was killed by white men in South Carolina. My grandaddy grew up in a town where Black people weren’t allowed to drink Coca-Cola, so Royal Crown or RC soda, became the drink of choice.
My mother, Cynthia, was in elementary school when integration took hold in Augusta, GA. She told me stories of her first friends who were of another race, one who went on to become my high school drama teacher.
As I grew up, I did not ever see my race prohibit me. I was not ever made to feel less than or inadequate, in fact, I was blessed to have early childhood educators who saw the greatness within me and pushed me to be my best. There was Mrs. Leggett, my Pre-K teacher who told my mom, “He is the quite the social butterfly,” Mrs. Douglas (1st Grade) who said, “His handwriting is great…let’s make it better,” which if you’ve ever seen my handwriting…all the credit goes to her, Mrs. Robinson (3rd Grade), who would say, “Kristopher you can always achieve what you want. Go for it.”
When I got into middle and high school, I was met with teachers who kept the motto of achieving greatness alive within me. Davidson Fine Arts was a place where I was simply an artist and an academic. With great academics, can the reward of arts influence. I strived to succeed in both. To stand out. To make myself known. It influenced me to be a performing artist, which is where SCAD came in to play with my life. It’s also where my experience with racism began.
SCAD has undoubtedly been a high point in my life thus far. I met some of my lifelong mentors and friends during those 4 years. They were also filled with strife. It made me realize that I was a BLACK actor. Not just the guy who could be your gay best friend or the classical actor, there was always my race placed before it. The black gay best friend, the black male dancer, and the black classical actor. It was as if I was a mini Othello in a world full of Ophelias and Hamlets. And I grew complacent with that. I knew that the color of my skin would prohibit me and some of my peers from certain roles, just as it would in the real world. But I now look back at that time and say, “Why did it have to?” It’s funny, how just a decade ago we weren’t as in tune with diverse casting efforts in academia and the professional world as we are now.
But racism bore her ugly crown on me in 2013 during our production of “The Three Musketeers.” I remember when the production was announced in the season, there was no role for me in the production. I couldn’t connect to any of the roles. I wasn’t “masc” enough to be one of the musketeers, wasn’t leading man D’Artagnan, and was too young to be the Cardinal. But then there was Rochefort, the henchman to Cardinal Richelieu. I had found my in. I got to work. I read the script backwards and forwards, had a coaching session with one of my professors, Laurence Ballard, (who if you ever meet him in your lifetime, simply bow…he is a king amongst us), and had clear defined choices for this role. I crafted him so that he wasn’t the clear cut villain from the script. He was a bit aloof with a troubled past, but was always ready for a fight. I made him fun. As the director, Sharon Ott, once told, “You’ve found the comic within him that I didn’t see.”
If you’ve done college theater, you know that some productions are judged by visiting arts institutions. We were informed that one in particular was coming to a Saturday matinee and would be having a talk back with some of the leads. I woke up that morning, excited. I went extra hard on my workout, got to the theater earlier than usual to do my warm up, and was ready to give this judge A SHOW ok?!?! So, as the curtain goes down, it was time for the leads to get out of costume and meet with the white adjudicator in the house. Her comments to all of the other leads were very complimentary and then she got to me and said, “And you…how does it feel to be the only black person onstage?”
I was shocked. That’s all she had seen. A black body onstage. No artistry. Just a black person.
The monitoring professor quickly said, “He’s not the only black person in the cast.” I could see the rage in his face.
She buffed it off and said, “Well in a leading role, then. How does that make you feel? It seems like many of your character choices played to your race.”
WHAT. THE. ACTUAL. FUCK.
She said it. She fucking said it. And all I could do was stare. The late night rehearsals, stage combat, all of the time and heart I put into crafting a character as an artist was diminished and ignored because I was “black.” I had taken an easy way out in this white woman’s eyes.
“No.” I said. “None of my choices were based upon my race. This is how I interpreted Rochefort off of the page. Not once did I influence my choices by being black. I based them off of Ken Ludwig’s words. It just so happens that I am a black actor. ”
She was essentially calling me the ‘Prissy’ from “Gone With The Wind” in this production. The archetype Black character from a minstrel show. And let me get one thing straight…I wasn’t fucking ‘Prissy.’ I worked my ass off in that role just like Butterfly McQueen had done with hers. While she played an archetype, I did not.
Another lead actor quickly chimed in. She said, “From the very beginning of this process, Kris had this character formed this way and it evolved. This was his interpretation. None of this was based on his race. And you’re saying that because he was the only black person in a leading role?!”
The adjudicator continued on this point, “Well, that’s what I saw.”
I was disgusted. I was defeated.
The artistic director of the performing arts department was notified. This adjudicator was banned from coming to SCAD again.
But with that, it was just one less place where she could reign with her privilege and prejudice. It didn’t matter to her.
Little did I know, that wasn’t the last time, I’d have to deal with this sort of behavior.
Very rarely do you see people of color in entertainment. Very rarely are they behind the table when you walk into a room. I thought I could make a change with that and explore casting.
I finished my undergraduate degree at SCAD, packed my bags, and moved to NYC with that dream. I got my lovely sublet with an amazing roommate in East Elmhurst and unpaid casting internship a few steps from Times Square. Strike two from racism was ready for me.
I was the only person of color in the office. Something I hadn’t experienced in my life before. I was early, impeccably dressed, bow tie on, ready to work. I had to make a name for myself and make my presence know. I was honestly going through the black man’s version of “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying”…except I was working my ass off. To any black intern reading this…I tell you now, as one of my mentors told me, “Have grace over the fire.” As much hell as you want to give, have grace. Have poise. Better moments are coming.
We were in the midst of casting replacements for a show that required female dancers of color. As I’m doing research, I hear this angry voice of how “I need ethnic people! I need girls that look like this!” I was then tossed a magazine with Misty Copeland on the cover. And of all the non-POC interns in her line of sight, she decided to toss it as ME.
And that’s when I was done.
I had sit in on way too many sessions where people weren’t “Ethnic enough,” or “Just not the right sound.” I would see artists of color pouring their hearts out, fighting to play the role intended for a person of color, for all non-POC creative teams to simply, “go another way.” Between that and Misty Copeland’s magazine cover…I had had IT.
I took the 3 months of knowledge given by that internship and moved forward with the next step in my career. It led me to where I am today: talent management.
You’ve all read about my boss and my thoughts on him, but I don’t think he’ll ever realize the impact he’s made on me. He gave this BLACK, gay, Georgia boy the opportunity to sit behind the table. IN ENTERTAINMENT of all places!! Not once did he question my knowledge or ability. He took review of my work ethic and said, “Yes.” As I started with the company, I found comfort and pride in the work that I was doing. Not once did I feel out of place. Even when I approached my boss and co-worker and came out as transgender, they embraced me with open arms. In fact, their encouragement helped me improve my work ethic even more. I could live my truth and be truthful to the artists that I was helping to represent. I had a newfound confidence that had been yearning to be blasted.
At one point, I felt the need to explore further in the entertainment industry. I thought, “Maybe a theater company or agency could be a new challenge.” I left my management job and started the next chapter. My boss said, “Well you know, these paths all lead back to management. I’m just saying.” He said it with the “You know I’m right smile” but I had to find out on my own. And oh….it was a challenge.
Navigating life as a trans woman, specifically a black trans woman can be very frightening. Each day, you leave your home in the morning hoping that you will be blessed to make it back in the evening. In today’s society, men and women like me aren’t always given that courtesy. And it’s fucked. Our justice system is shutting us out left and right, when in fact we are the ones who need to be protected from them.
I applied to a few places and had two interviews. One for a theater company that was priding itself on diversity and the other at a prominent agency.
As I stepped into the theatre company’s administrative offices, my questions was…”Where is this diversity you speak of?” Aside from the security guard, who seemed shocked when I informed him that I was going to the administrative offices, there was not one person of color. As I started my interview, I knew this. was. not. it.
There was so much discussion about what they believed in and none of it was reflected in its administration. They wanted to take narratives from people of color and put them on their forefront, yet not one person of color was in “the room where it happens.”
I said to myself, “This is theater?”
Once again, this now girl, was disgusted and defeated.
Not as much as I would be at the next interview with the agency.
Once again, I was greeted by a security guard of color who was shocked I wasn’t an actor, but someone applying to work there.
I was met by their Human Resources Director, who gave me a standoffish look. I immediately felt the dismay of my presence to her.
She kept looking my resume up and down. Acknowledging some of the people I had worked with. She then proceeded to rapid fire me questions about the industry. With every answer I gave, she would ask “Well how do you know that?”
I had seen her previous interaction with the applicant before me. A blonde haired, blue eyed white girl. She had NONE of this vibe. I could even hear them laughing about topics so far off. So why was I given this dark cloud? I almost at one point told the HR director, “I’ve seen your LinkedIn. You have a degree in Early Childhood Education and have worked here for a year. Do YOU really know?” I got the “We’ll be in touch you didn’t get the job” line and walked out of the building.
I felt the racism all over me. This singular person had stripped me of all of my pride and confidence. Something that had been done to earlier generations of my family. And I was sick of it.
When I got home, I made the decision to write my former boss. The subject was “Coming Back.” In it, I stated the following:
“From the interviews that I’ve gone on, I’ve felt my experience belittled, not taken seriously, and at times the knowledge that I acquired from working with you questioned. Needless to say, it’s been jarring. And on each one, I kept thinking to myself at how great I was starting to be as one of your assistants. I was not perfect, but I worked hard and I was fulfilled and I learned so much, which I don’t think any other place would allow me to do.
I wanted to know, with your blessing, if I may return to my position. It took me this experience to realize where I belong I’ve come to the conclusion that it is with your company. I truly miss it.
If you all have hired someone, I completely understand! But if not, I would greatly appreciate your consideration”
I sent the email at 8:31PM. At 8:40PM my phone rang, it was my former boss. “Hello?” I said.
His response, “So, I’ll see you tomorrow?”
And the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve grown in my role at the company, helping manage the careers of some of entertainment’s leading artists and not once am I questioned or felt inferior by the color of my skin. I am treated as an EQUAL. My boss has let me, a BLACK trans woman run concerts, cover press events for major networks, even help organize the Papal Pre-Mass when the Pope came to NYC.
Are there people outside of the company who have made slightly racist comments to me, such as, “Oh, are you a fan? You can go in that line.” Absolutely. Yes there are. And to that I say:
No bitch. I’m the manager. I run this line.
How does it feel to be black? I wish that adjudicator would ask me that today. Because here is my answer:
It is exhausting. It is a fight. I have built my table and my house. Let me sit at it and live in it peacefully. As long as I have breath in my body, I’m not giving up. I will show up. I will stand for what is right. I will fight back and be respected. I will be listened to. I won’t let the 21 year old version of me rise back to prominence nor do I want to see it reflected in any other black person wanting the best for themselves. That’s all we’ve ever wanted. Our own greatness. And it is forever being threatened. This ain’t nothing new. We’re just tired of people thinking that these measures they take to erase our greatness and beauty can go unnoticed.
BLACK PEOPLE ARE BEING MURDERED. BLACK QUEER PEOPLE ARE BEING MURDERED. INNOCENT BLACK PEOPLE ARE BEING MURDERED.
I will type this again for people who glossed this over the first time:
BLACK PEOPLE ARE BEING MURDERED. BLACK QUEER PEOPLE ARE BEING MURDERED. INNOCENT BLACK PEOPLE ARE BEING MURDERED.
I wanted to especially raise the awareness of Black Queer People being murdered because even within our own Black community, there is STILL a struggle to support and acknowledge the Black Queer Community. I had a conversation about this on Tinder (of all places, I know) with a black man who when I asked his thoughts on this he said, “I really have to deep think about that one. Don’t have an answer at this moment.”
My response: “Lol and here you are talking to a black trans woman.”
He was unmatched. THIS IS PART OF THE PROBLEM. If you have to think about it…you’re part of the issue. You can sit up here and try to talk your way into my panties, but have to think twice about if you can stand beside me for my right to live? BYE.
BLACK lives matter. Not just some, ALL BLACK LIVES. This injustice has got to stop for us all.
Beautiful, black people are losing their lives out here to these heinous race crimes and acts of violence. They have brought so much beauty and light to the WORLD and still have to look over their shoulders to see if someone is going to rob them of it.
To my black community, I love you. I embrace you. Always. We are resilient. We will make it through this.
To my non-black community, now it’s your turn to stand up. Instead of, “how sad” and strolling by, stop and reflect. “How can I help my friend?” “How can I make sure future generations know this is not what humanity should look like?”
I’ll leave you with these words from Bob Sinclar and Steve Edwards’ “World, Hold On”:
World, hold on
Instead of messing with our future
Tell me no more lies
World, hold on
Wonder you will have to answer to the children of the sky
Together now, unite, and fight, oh
Open up your heart, now
Peace, love for everyone
Sing it loud, sing it proud
Everybody, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, oh
Don’t take no for an answer
No, no, not today