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With Reclaim U.G.L.Y., Vanessa Rochelle Lewis Is Imagining A Better World

With Reclaim U.G.L.Y., Vanessa Rochelle Lewis Is Imagining A Better World For Us All

Like so many Black queers and feminists before her, through Reclaim U.G.L.Y., Vanessa is doing the difficult labor of building towards a new world where we all can thrive. 

By Caleb Luna

Vanessa Rochelle Lewis, in the genealogy of so many Black queers and feminists before her, is building another world through the Black feminist practice of centering the visionary leadership, creativity, inclusion, and pleasure of those most impacted by systems of oppression: anti-Blackness, colorism, ableism, anti-fatness, transmisogny and transmisogynoir, xenophobia, and more.

You may be familiar with Lewis from her writings and editorial work across multiple blogging platforms including Racebaitr, Wear Your Voice, Black Lesbian Love Lab, The Body is Not an Apology, Everyday Feminism or Black Girl Dangerous. After moving to Oakland in 2016, I was finally able to share space with her in person. What stands out most in Lewis’ presence is her energy, her silly yet unabashed flirtations, her warmth and her kindness. While as imperfect as anyone else, Lewis—for me—often models what it means to not only love and embrace one’s body and one’s sexuality, but also how to turn regrets and mistakes into lessons for how to be in better relation with others in the future. 

These experiences undergird much of her work in the world—including her campaign against uglification which takes the form of The UGLY Conference, her Reclaim U.G.L.Y. organization, and her upcoming book, Reclaim UGLY — Uplift Glorify Love Yourself & Create A World Where Others Can As Well. Most recently, through Reclaim U.G.L.Y., Lewis has spearheaded Solidarity Healing September, a month-long fundraising and heartraising effort for non-Black folks who are invested in Black liberation to lend their time, resources, education and love to support the economy of Black Healing October.

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The latest wave of ongoing Black rebellion against state violence was instigated in May of 2020—following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and more—amidst a rising global pandemic. This health crisis required many of us to stay home, yet still did not offer respite or protection for Black folks from the terrorism of the police state and random white militia. Millions took to the streets to protest the ongoing terror reign of anti-Blackness. But many more, for a variety of reasons, were not able to, and sought alternate methods of showing up. A revolution has many lanes, after all.

This is the genesis of Black Healing October—a completely magical, month-long virtual event with over 55 healers holding over 65 virtual events by, with and for Black folks to bond, love up on each other, collectively wail and laugh, and heal from generations of anti-Blackness. It’s one of the most recent iteration of Lewis’s Black queer feminist world-building project, a project that would also teach, heal, and transform her own life in so many ways. Lewis and Black Healing October received an outpouring of support in the form of over 20 volunteers, 6 sponsorships, 3 grants, 190 donors, and 25 Solidarity Healing September presenters. But Lewis was soon confronted with limitations, and a lesson in anti-capitalism and Disability Justice that would shift timelines and goals of the project. 

Speaking with Lewis over the phone, she tells me about what she learned through the process and the changing landscape of both the world and her own body. “I’m going to bless myself with pace moving forward,” she promises. “I got this idea in June, and we took off. I felt this sense of urgency and honored that, sometimes at the expense of my mental and physical wellbeing. But, I believe that we should be able to create movement spaces that don’t hurt or kill us. I’m going to trust that I don’t need to move at a pace that is beyond my physical or economic capacity. I’m going to trust myself to take my time, to believe that I can go slow, and that people are still going to appreciate what I offer. I can’t compete with capitalism, and I can’t let capitalism dictate the work we are doing when we are trying to create alternatives to oppression.”

With the support of Lewis’ extraordinary team, timelines shifted, and a new world was built through the collaborative culture, care and intention of her comrade-colleagues. Rooted in a vision of Disability Justice that encompasses both Black liberation and anti-capitalism, Lewis and her team of volunteers and paid collaborators spread the labor of recruiting, promotion, administration, website building and more equitably, taking into consideration identities of both oppression and privilege. Lewis specifically names Lauren Chinn as a non-Black accomplice who leveraged her mental, emotional and financial resources as a fifth-generation Chinese-American with generational capital, educational privilege, and family support to support Lewis’ vision.

“It’s been so extraordinary collaborating with someone who has that kind of resource and capacity, and it really does make me think about how critical, how beautiful, and how important interdependence is for folks invested in liberation work. How good it feels when people can do what they love and care about while working with people they simultaneously believe in. . . Lauren and I are both artists, and her art allows my art to shine in ways otherwise unimaginable. It’s enabled hundreds and hundreds of people to be involved in this project. It’s this beautiful, loving, ripple effect, and a very special kind of economy that we created. And I think that’s such a disruption to the kind of white supremacy most folks don’t really notice or acknowledge in our daily and professional lives. Lauren is such a good model for people who are trying to leverage their privilege.”

While Black Healing October is a space intentionally curated to support Black folks, Lewis recognizes the necessary cooperation of non-Black accomplices in building a world without anti-Blackness, and that we have our own work to do as well. It requires more than lip service, but the redistribution of material, financial and emotional resources. 

For Lewis, it’s the only way to survive the rapidly transforming planet. “This is really important to me as we get deeper and deeper into COVID-19 and global warming. We can not go back to how things were. There is no reversal. Our only option is to figure out how to collaborate towards survival. That means we cannot profit at each others’ expense anymore. We have to share our resources because that’s the only way that there will be enough.”

Lewis has a personal stake in this transformation and the unsustainability of racial capitalism. As the Founding Director of Reclaim U.G.L.Y., Lewis wanted to be intentional about creating a work culture that was both collaborative and also allowed room for growth and healing. She says they absolutely accomplished this feat, and it was made possible through the kinds of people who were drawn to help coordinate the project, through co-creating their pedagogies, and by focusing on what they were trying to nurture through their programming as opposed to focusing on what’s wrong with the world. Lewis says that generative attitude and approach has been really transformative for their team and created the guide for how they treat themselves and each other. Creating their coworking space has been in and of itself healing.

Despite Lewis dedicating her time and resources to collective liberation, as someone existing at the intersection of multiple oppressions including anti-Blackness, misogynoir, colorism, fat stigma, and ableism, she is regularly the target of attacks like the one that instigated Reclaim U.G.L.Y. And unfortunately, these attacks do not always come from strangers. Lewis has been the target of many campaigns intended to undermine her work, most recently from a former housemate. “I think it’s a great illustration of what Black women, especially dark skinned fat Black women, have to put up with regularly. And to stay soft, to stay focused, to still work towards liberation is really phenomenal,” Lewis shares. “No one should have to be as strong as what we have to be at times.” This is the background for her work with Reclaim U.G.L.Y., making it all the more both urgent and impressive.

These attacks are designed to sow doubt and undermine agency in their targets, and they are frequently successful even in the most resilient, supported, uplifted versions of ourselves. As such, Lewis also speaks about how imposter syndrome impacts her initially, as it does for many of us who are uglified, in undermining her dreaming and capacity to show up fully in her vision. Trauma happens in relation, in community, and in response, healing from it can only happen in community, through the care, support and investment in others and an intimate drive for collective freedom. 

“Part of what’s been beautiful about Reclaim U.G.L.Y. is the risk I took to believe in myself and the copious amounts of support I have experienced from others, especially other fat people. People who understand what it’s like to be uglified, to be excluded, and who are consequently interested in a more tender world. A lot of the people invested in Reclaim U.G.L.Y. are people who understand, ‘If I’m gonna be free, everyone has gotta be free.’ For me, it’s also about more than freedom: it’s about happiness. We fight for resources, we fight for liberation, we fight for justice so that we can be happy, and invest in that happiness, and enjoy that happiness. I think that if I can heal the wounds in me to be happy… everyone else can as well. My happiness does not exist in a vacuum.”

Here, Lewis articulates the specific potential of fatness as a vehicle for laboring toward freedom across difference. In other words, Lewis is commenting on the necessary coalitional potential for multi-racial fat liberation in service of Black liberation. For Lewis, this is about collective freedom, but it is also about collective joy, and reimagining who is allowed to access it in its current configuration. 

“Right now, in this culture so dependent on uglification, joy has become such an exclusive commodity that some specific bodies get entitled to, and other specific types of bodies get rewarded for how they are able to assimilate or participate in the capitalist regime. And I cannot assimilate, in my fatness, in my Blackness, in my queerness, in my disability, in my darkness, in my neuroatypicalness. I just can’t assimilate. Nor can I participate in a capitalist regime because it’s actively there to exploit me. So what are the alternatives we can create?”

The inaugural Black Healing October in 2020 was free for attendants and included ASL Interpretation and Live Automated Captioning for every session. While also fundraising through Solidarity Healing September, grants, donations and more—some groups, including Fat Lib. Inc, Cupcakes & Muffin Tops, and Bad Rep Theatre hosted their own fundraisers to donate proceeds to—Reclaim U.G.L.Y. was able to pay all healers and ASL interpreters as well as hire program support. Each session spoke to the wide spectrum of Blackness across age, ability, size, gender, class, geographic location, sexuality, and more. Even in her own Black womanness, Lewis expresses her diverse experience also shaped by ableism, colorism, homophobia, gender-based violence, capitalism, sizeism, and these are the nuances so tended to in Black Healing October. 

“Our healers are so diverse. The majority are from Oakland, though we had healers from all regions of the country, and are queer and trans. But we also have healers that live on 3 different continents right now. So many different experiences, queer, trans, cis, straight, agender, asexual, youth, elders, cis men. Another thing that’s been really amazing is that we’ve been working with an ASL interpretation group called Pro Bono Interpretation. They center Black and Indigenous people of color, and queer and trans people of color, and they came into existence in supporting movement spaces, marches, rallies, and especially Black Lives Matter, to make sure that Black D/deaf folks can participate… So it’s really great to create space where all our folks who have access to a computer and the internet can attend.”

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In attending to the nuanced experiences within Black identity, Lewis cares for communities that are too often flattened. Through attending to her own complexity, Lewis embodies The Combahee River Collective Statement adage, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” Further, she addresses the collective struggle necessary to thoroughly combat anti-Blackness. And that requires an abolitionist approach.

“We know oppression exists, and our focus is elimination of oppression and not oppressors. Because I believe any person can grow, change, be something different. I’ve grown, changed, and I believe others can too.”

Vanessa Rochelle Lewis saw the world we need, and she envisioned and labored with and in community to build it. Like so many Black queers and feminists before her, she is doing the difficult labor of constructing these alternatives, and in the process, building a new world where we all can thrive. 

As part of further efforts to continue the work of healing and centering the needs of those impacted by uglification, Vanessa and I, along with Jules Pashall, will be hosting a Valentine’s Day fundraiser. The conference is called Glory: The Fattest Love of All and was inspired by Sherronda J. Brown’s article, “Fat People Deserve to Glorify Our Bodies.” It will serve as a benefit for the 2021 Reclaim U.G.L.Y. Healing Retreat and Transformative Imagination Conference: Our Bodies Are Wondrous Sites of Pleasure & Liberation happening May 28th–June 5th. 

The preferred way to support Black Healing October and her other work is to sign up for the Reclaim U.G.L.Y. mailing list or follow Reclaim U.G.L.Y. on social media (Facebook // Instagram). 

Caleb Luna is a fat queer (of color) critical theorist, artist, and performance scholar. As an activist political thinker, they are interested in engaging embodied difference as a generative resource toward fatter understandings of collective freedom. Their writing online at Black Girl Dangerous, Everyday Feminism and The Body Is Not An Apology and in Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (2018); Canadian Art magazine (Winter 2018); Queer Nightlife (2020); Fat & Queer (2021); and more. caleb-luna.com.

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