I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free


Arts & Culture

In the future imperfect, which is to say, in that commingling of temporalities wherein the past is brought forth to the future to give rise to the present, Black (Trans) Lives Matter provides a conceptual framework to understand the ongoing struggle in the present by way of a future (aspiration) in which black lives will have mattered to everyone.

—C. Riley Snorton

I’ve had two songs stuck in my head since May 26, when mourners and demonstrators began gathering around the site of George Floyd’s last breath. When this is all over, I’m not certain I’ll be able to think of one without the other, those songs and the feeling of a gathering force. Or, more nearly, I don’t think this—the struggle for black life—will ever be over, but something will take its place in the immediacy. The virus will wax, the governors will make tepid conciliations, attention will turn back to the presidential election, a new song will become the only song I know. But for now, these two songs, written on either side of social and historical divisions, have become for me a single, oscillating anthem.

The first is somewhat unlikely, more a memory than a song. I hadn’t heard Evan Greer’s “I Want Something” in nearly a decade, but watching the old brutality unfold anew in video after video online, there it was, still playing in a younger corner of my mind. In the story I tell myself, I first encountered Greer’s music as a teenager in the Philadelphia suburbs. I have a vivid memory of biking around that town, feeling the wind in my face, playing “I Want Something” over and over. It’s possible that this is an invented scene, given that I can’t find the version of the song I remember anywhere. Nonetheless, I loved that song in the way that disaffected suburban kids love things. Bush had been elected for a second term. The Patriot Act, which expanded the state’s ability to surveil its citizens under the auspices of war, had been renewed. War was endless. I wanted out.

At the time, in the early 2000s, Greer was a founding member of the Riot-Folk Collective, whose album Rise Like Lions I associate with a specifically Bush-era sound, a kind of mostly white anarchist heartfeltness. In truth, I periodize this style of folk-punk as “Bush-era” not because the bands stopped playing afterward but because I stopped listening. In the long interval since then, Greer became the deputy director of an internet freedom nonprofit, released a new album, and came out as trans, a fact that, though a decade belated, came to me as a surprise. Or, well, surprise is not exactly the right word because, although I didn’t yet know it, my attachment to “I Want Something” as a teenager had to do with what feels to me now like its markedly trans sensibility.

“I Want Something” is profoundly, almost painfully earnest. Each verse of the song sketches a portrait of young people who are isolated, burned out, worn down. Each verse, that is, paints an incredibly bleak, dysphoric picture of the here and now. But despite (or because of) all of that bleakness, Greer sings through it with exuberance. Each chorus interrupts these scenes of depression, dissociation, with what can only be called a utopian demand—“I want something / better than this.” And while Greer insists, over and over, that she “doesn’t know exactly what” this something better might be, as Kathi Weeks observes in The Problem with Work, “the utopian demand can be seen as something more than a demand for a specific goal or set of goals. Rather … it is a process of constituting a new subject with the desires for and the power to make further demands.”

When I say that this is a trans sentiment, this exuberant oscillation between insisting on the bleakness of the present and making inchoate demands for “something better,” I don’t mean that it is only trans, or that trans politics should be organized around this style of hopefulness. I ordinarily don’t have much tolerance for it. At the same time, transness, at minimum, is the insistence on the human capacity for once unimaginable change. Certainly, and despite my lucky suburban life, as a black, dysphoric teenager in 2005, I had to cultivate—actively cultivate—a kind of wide-eyed optimism about what the future, and the future of my own body, could entail. I had to believe that feeling, intense feeling, was not only important but also potentially life- and world-changing. That with care and time and resources, my desire for “something better” could materialize. Although we tend to think of earnestness as a kind of naïveté, naïveté is nowhere among its definitions. Instead, earnest is defined as, at once, a form of potency and a portent, as “showing sincere and intense conviction” and “a thing intended or regarded as a sign or promise of what is to come.”

One learns quickly how tenuous trans life is, how few of us consistently have the care and community and resources we need to enact, let alone sustain, “something better.” And, of course, there are many bad takes out there that understand transition as inherently radical. It isn’t. In fact, the technologies—material and imaginative—that enable transition are bound up in white supremacy, Western imperialism, chattel slavery, eugenics, like everything. But that’s a story for another day. For the time being, let me lean into the earnestness that seems, to me, one animating affect of trans life. Riffing off of Joshua Chambers-Letson’s After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life, let me right now understand transition as one kind of “rehears[al for] a different world, [that] makes it anew, again and again.”


On the day that Tony McDade was killed by the police in Tallahassee, Florida, I watched the final video posted to his Facebook, in which, among other things, he outlined a plan to seek revenge on a group of five young men who had jumped him. Like the thousands of other strangers for whom McDade’s life came into view only after his death, I had my own agenda for watching then and for writing now, an agenda that is not identical to recovering the true story. Indeed, the story of McDade’s death has yet to fully be accounted for, a fact that many who didn’t know him relate to his having been trans—or, in his own words, “a female slash male,” “a he-she.” The truth is that, unlike those of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, McDade’s story is hardly amenable to the liberal, juridical logics of victimhood, which has both everything and nothing to do with his gender. In the interval between shooting the video and being shot, McDade allegedly killed a local man and seemingly undertook this action with the intention to commit suicide by cop.

Obviously, this does not mean that McDade’s life and death are not grievable. This does not mean that his name should not be called out across the country and the world, the way it has been at many of these recent protests. Of course it should. But to do so in earnest requires that we rage not only against police brutality and the spectacle of black (trans) death but also against the routine, ordinary violences that inhere in poor, black, mad, gender-nonconforming life. McDade lays this all out very clearly when he insists that what brought him to his final confrontations were, among other things, physical assault, years of sexual abuse, “living suicidal,” multiple incarcerations, accumulated neglect and betrayal by intimates and the state. After an arrest in 2009, he reportedly wrote a letter to a judge begging to be sent for mental health treatment; instead he “got 10 years in prison and was transferred far from home.”

This is pure fabulation, but watching McDade’s final video and reading accounts of his life, I can’t help but think that transition was something he did in order to eke out a morsel of something better, to live at least some aspect of his embodied life on his own terms. Gender, after all, has long been a mechanism of black flight and also a justification for the policing of blackness. I’m thinking, here, with C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, especially his account of Harriet Jacobs’s and Ellen Craft’s cross-dressed flights from slavery. But I’m also thinking of Dora Trimble, a perhaps apocryphal black person who seems to have lived in New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century. There is a poem addressed to Trimble in my most recent collection, a poem that exists only because of what Chambers-Letson calls the “annihilating historical reality of violence, denial, and bodily dispossession” that laid the foundation for McDade’s black life. That is, I only know about Trimble because of a series of mocking news articles that document their intermittent arrests, incarcerations, and fines for crimes like sleeping outside, being drunk, and wearing men’s clothing. In this last instance, it seems, Trimble donned masculine attire—stepped however briefly into a trans life— in order to take flight from their life in New Orleans where, according a story in the New Orleans Item, they were “well-known to the police.” But, alas, I know this story only because Trimble failed to get away.

I mean no disrespect to those who know and love Tony as Natosha, a love that is certainly more meaningful than any I can extend to him. I simply mean to say that many forms of the story can and do exist in the same time and place. That perhaps, like Trimble nearly a century ago, if McDade could not have help from the state institutions of “care” and if he could not have freedom from them, perhaps instead he could cultivate the feeling of freedom in and through gender, understood here not as identity, but rather, in Snorton’s phrasing, “a terrain to make space for living.”


Presently, I live in Northampton, Massachusetts, an overwhelmingly white, liberal town. Two days before the protests came here, I was joking with a friend about what they might look like here, the old white radicals and young white radicals parading down the upscale retail strip called downtown. Perhaps there would be an acoustic guitar. It wasn’t anything like that.

Instead, the demonstration consisted of hundreds and hundreds of young people, led by a contingent of black and brown high school students. A crowd gathered at the police station down the block from my apartment. Someone scaled the flagpole and replaced the American flag with the Black Lives Matter flag. Someone, or many someones, tagged the station with BLM and abolitionist slogans. It was mostly white, and we did march back and forth down Main Street, yes, but there was a different feeling in the air than I expected, a feeling of motley we-ness, one that I associate, ordinarily, with a much darker commons.

Soon after my partner and I joined the crowd, a group that had been split off from the larger body returned and was greeted with cheering, palpable relief. They got the chanting going, a few tentative rounds of “no justice, no peace,” some more sure-throated seconds of “Black Lives Matter,” and then, for a long, stretched-out moment, everyone chanted “Black Trans Lives Matter” in unison. My partner turned to me and said, “You’re going to write about this, aren’t you?” She was clearly moved, but nervous about it. Nervous, that is, about what it might feel like for the mattering of my life to be a useful protest chant. I was, at least as far as we could see, the only black trans person on the street.

In the beginning, I said that there were two songs on my mind. The first was Greer’s “I Want Something.” The second is, of course, Nina Simone’s rendition of Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” a song that was part of the sound of the civil rights movement.  I can’t help but hear Simone’s black echo in Greer’s white trans earnestness. “I Wish I Knew How,” too, insists on the unfreedom of the here and now—freedom is what one wishes for, never what one has. At the same time, the song’s consistently heightening exuberance eventually reaches and transmits what I can only describe as the fleeting feeling of freedom. As Chambers-Letson writes, “Though ephemeral, when this sense of freedom is generated across the body through performance, the body becomes aware that the rest of the time something’s missing, something better than this is possible, and that something must be done.”

Lately, I’ve been listening to Simone’s soaring on repeat as I run through my new suburban town. When she reaches that peak, when I hit my stride, when for a moment, I can pay no mind to my otherwise constant vigilance, my tensing against who is looking and what they might see … well, love, that’s how it felt to be held, however abstractly, by the motley we. To occupy, momentarily, “a future (aspiration) in which black [trans] lives will have mattered to everyone.”

In the end, the Northampton cops pepper-sprayed a group of demonstrators who got too close to the station’s doors. The station’s been cleaned. The Black Lives Matter flag no longer flies from its post. The demonstration will recur and this time the station will be barricaded hours in advance. A video has circulated online that depicts the brutal beating of black trans woman Iyanna Dior by a group of black cis women and men. Intracommunity calls to defend black trans life have been met with affirmation, yes, but also derision and accusations of unduly diverting attention away from the present struggle. We only get so much access to the feeling of freedom.

It’s impossible to know what the other side of this will look like, how this unfolding situation will crystallize into a narratable event. Whether a stretched-out moment of insisting that black trans life matters will, in the end, matter. Whether “Black Trans Lives Matter” will ever occupy the simple present tense. In the meanwhile, the Okra Project has begun and funded an enormously ambitious project to connect struggling black trans people with life-sustaining care. In the meanwhile, Dee Dee Watters of Black Transwomen Inc has raised nearly $10,000 to support Iyanna Dior. In the meanwhile, strangers and intimates alike have given Tony McDade’s family more than enough to put him to rest.

In the meanwhile, the crowd is assembling again outside my window, louder this time, gathering force.


In the meanwhile: How to Support Black Trans People Right Now.

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two collections of poetry—most recently Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019)—and an assistant professor of women, gender, sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.