Earlier this year, Daria Dockery, an artist and internet friend tweeted, “when i accepted that my non-binary identity is about relating to my ancestors and not other non-binary people i got really free.” Intrigued by my own fascinations with memory and ancestry, and my own questions about gender, I pressed further.
As a Black queer person, I think I’ve always been searching for some kind of confirmation, some kind of reassurance that who I am is ok; that I can exist without having to compromise. When I started to learn more about my heritage and my history, I was inspired by the freedom I saw in my people even though it always felt like we were under attack. The effervescent joy and deep knowing passed down through our stories, art, and music are what initially drew me to poetry. The feeling that we were in conversation with one another, past and present. Presently, nearing the end of 2020, we’re confronted daily with survival in a hostile political and cultural climate that attempts to capitalize on our efforts to persevere. Isolation, and the belief that we are alone, threatens our livelihood. Reaching deep into the well of black history and spiritual consciousness where our ancestors abide, there is a gift of self-compassion.
This year, I’ve been finding that stillness and confidence in the earth. After years of feeling severed from nature due to the atrocities committed against people of color in the darkness of the wild, I became to reclaim my liberty by working the soil, hiking, and getting lost. In this interview, Daria and I explore the ways nature tethers us to the ancestral world, and how through adventure, the ancestors lead us back to the home within ourselves.
TERSE.: How long have you identified as non-binary?
Daria Dockery: It’s been about four years now, since 2016, but even in identifying that way it hasn’t always felt or looked like a practice; or something that I actually thought about. I saw people identifying that way, I heard it, I saw what that looked like for them. That wasn’t necessarily everything that I felt, but to my closest friends, I was talking about the fact that I thought I was non-binary. It was something that felt holding for me, just not in the way that I was seeing it. My closest friends were just working within gender non-conformity in various ways, and through loving them, it helped me be open about it. I was participating in compulsory heterosexuality because I didn’t understand what attraction meant to me and how I wanted to practice it. Even after I knew I was non-binary I picked and chose what spaces I was out in, and what spaces I would assert my pronouns in. That practice only started happening in 2018. I decided that I needed a more neutral way of referring to myself, not even a way of identifying. “She” from strangers just wasn’t working, and that’s how everything got started.
What was that transition like? Going from being compulsively heterosexual to being in a space with people who made you feel like it was okay to explore that part of yourself?
That happened in stages because of how the spaces I was in were racialized. So, when I first was coming into queerness, I was in these racially mixed or white spaces where I felt like culturally, I was still compromising things, and I just couldn’t be as honest in those spaces. A little bit later, when I was in a space with black non-binary people and black queer people, that’s when I really felt like I was able to really think about what I was trying to say because I was already held. In some ways, I didn’t have to explain as much already. When I was with the white queers, I was already compromising so much that I felt like it wasn’t worth it for me to go all the way and explain every part of the identity that I knew I was. When I was with black queer people, I just felt like they got it. I felt freer, and they actually asked me. They asked me, “What does this look like for you? What does being non-binary look like for you?” I never really experienced that in white queer spaces—there were more assumptions.
Okay, so you got to say who you were instead of being labeled.
Exactly. I felt the difference. People wanted to know, and at first, I didn’t really know what to say because for so long people reacted by saying, “Oh, you’re non-binary. You’re here,” but in black queer spaces people wanted to hear from me. For a while, I didn’t know. I had to figure out what that meant.
Then, what does it mean to be non-binary to you, now? How do you embody that?
For me, being non-binary has meant listening to my intuition and my knowledge of myself and asking what I had abandoned when I was told I needed to be the girl person. It means figuring out what was true. I just had to feel all of it and figure it out, and that’s been pressure; pressure from other people has made me decide to honor myself and my intuition. I’m a non-binary lesbian. That’s how I identify; that’s how I date. That means a lot of different things, but that’s just what I call it. So I would date women who didn’t necessarily see me as non-binary, they just saw me as a femme, even though I don’t identify that way. At one point it was just really hard for me to try to explain to that person why that wasn’t true. I just felt like I was being pushed toward myself. In a lot of ways, I knew that what I was being called by that woman who loved me in one way and thought she saw me just wasn’t it.
I will also say that being non-binary isn’t disconnected from nature, and that’s been really important, watching things grow and watching things like flower and fruit; that’s what has helped me form the words and know that it’s not just about me, it’s about other people who experience the land in the same way.
Lately, I’ve been trying to push my way into this community of black people who are working with the land in a very spiritual way, and that has brought me back to my ancestors. Everything seems to be bringing me back to them in a way lately. How do you conceive of the ancestors? What does your relationship with them look like?
So I’ll just start talking ’cause I hear something. I was living in the south, Tallahassee, and that’s where most of this started. I don’t know that I have people from there, but I learned from studying, talking to people, meeting people who were born and raised there, and learning about what had taken place in the exact spot where I lived. The land was a forest preserve that was mostly plantations before. So knowing about the violence that took place where I was loving and being able to make a living, I was just always feeling things. I never felt alone once I started learning. I always knew that there was more to the space, to the land than what was just there. From there, I came to my people.
It helped me see that there were parts of this world that I was taking in that weren’t mine, and there’s more that I share with the people who were here before me then with the people who are walking with now, in some ways.
Can you talk about a moment when being non-binary, your ancestors and nature first started to overlap?
I was in a difficult relationship with somebody who saw me as non-binary, but was making a lot of assumptions about me and not really hearing me when I said that. We went on a road trip from Tallahassee to Atlanta. On our way back we came through Thomasville and we stopped in a literal cotton field. I was with this partner, we were together, and she’d taken me on this trip, but I was detached—standing there, and touching it. We harvested some and pulled the pods and stuff, and I just knew that everything that I was doing was wrong, but also that I was held. I was surrounded by immense beauty because cotton-growing is extremely beautiful, it’s gorgeous, but also knowing the pain that happened in that exact spot in a time where I was also in pain (in my own very silly dyke drama way). I knew that there was more. I had to play that game a little longer, but I could—and I was going to get to what that answer was.
I don’t know, my mind goes to the South and sneaking away in moments where I feel weird and denied in this world. I think about a lover sneaking into a creek and just… That’s where my mind goes when I feel it all.
So sneaking away…I think I just need more of the image.
There’s a play or something that I’m pulling from called Sugar in Our Wounds by Donja R. Love. It’s about enslaved men toward the end of the war who are lovers. I saw that in 2018 with a group of black queer, non-binary people, and I think when my mind goes back to this idea of sneaking. It still wasn’t the non-binary-ness that I felt I was embodying, but seeing that, I just knew that it was me. It could have been me.
That seems like a good segue back to your original tweet. Could you unpack your statement about “finding any way to live in this body because there’s nothing to tell or explain to a world that has made it clear, it won’t hold me, there’s just being and moving and destroying now.”
When I talk about the sneaking away, seeing that in the play and the memory of people living, people holding genetics the same as mine, living openly and secretly, knowing what that happened, that’s what is holding me, and the world isn’t. I had to know that there was something to hold me and to not need to find it here anymore because I was compromising way too much putting myself in these spaces with non-binary people, where it was just some non-liberation shit. I think about some spaces I was in my last summer where people were getting my pronouns right every day and using the language but were still just trying to be seen by cis people. It wasn’t enough.
What I’m doing is less about communicating about myself to other people. I have ways, my pronouns are a way to refer to me, you can have that, but there’s a lot of reasons that what I’m doing doesn’t work here. A lot of things are secret too, ’cause gender is spiritual for me. It goes deeper.
The language of secrecy is interesting to me.
Hiding is sometimes the height of action in my life. It’s how I can imagine outside, it’s how it started.
Oh, by hiding?
Not even hiding, but just imagining myself in another place. When I say hiding, I’m imagining myself walking in dark woods, but being able to see spiritually and know that I’m okay. I know where I’m going, ’cause I’m led, but I’m not seen to the other.
I think that their unwillingness to explain. I keep using that word, but it’s kind of empowering. I think that might be why I’m here because I got their message without them ever telling me directly. I can do the same thing, and it works, it just feels like knowing and you don’t have to try. You get led eventually, eventually, you see it.
I love how that parallels what you were talking about being in white spaces versus being in black queer spaces where you don’t have to explain. You can just be. You can just go. We can come into a level of a community and fellowship together that is authentic.
What do you think is the significance of the body here? I know you talked a lot about memory and the spiritual plane, but then there is this physical element; being seen and living in the flesh.
When I think about my body and what I’m here to do, it’s about finding a way to go back inside and taking care of it. That’s been plant medicines, vibrational essences, eating different…and not eating differently. When I have issues with having breasts, I am able to get through it, ’cause I pull on things and call on things to do it. It’s a lot less stressful and a lot less about not wanting to be seen or not wanting people to react to me in a certain way. When I don’t feel right, because of how I’m perceiving myself, that’s when I have to pull on and help myself through.
I still like to wear a binder sometimes. It’s just about what I’m feeling like doing at that moment and what I need on that day for myself. I already know you see me, but I think especially during this pandemic and since I moved back to Detroit in June, it’s been a lot of connecting with literal plants; Making tinctures and essences, and knowing that there’s a cultural medicine for me that helps my people through. It’s been really supportive.
Finding a way to go back inside…I love that. I want to go back to freedom a little bit.
So originally you said “When I accepted that my non-binary identity is about relating to my ancestors and not other non-binary people I got really free” and I was wondering if you could just talk about what freedom looks like for you?
The closer I’ve gotten to myself and honoring my intuition, the more I’ve been able to hear my ancestors and know their presence. Gender and sexuality have all been a part of that.
I felt like I had a movement from trying or thinking that being non-binary was about explaining myself to other people and having to tell that to just knowing that that’s who I am. There was always so much tension and anxiety about like if my friends would use my pronouns in front of my mom and having to explain. There were little fears all the time. Now it’s just not about you guys; you guys know and you will know, and I’m trying to think about how I can exercise it rather than how to explain it.
That’s been a new thing. I had to know that I didn’t have to explain it. They told me I didn’t have to explain it because they had done it without anyone ever asking or wanting to know. People were doing all kinds of things to express who they were and telling and not telling. That’s what I’m able to call on to feel okay right now, ’cause people aren’t listening. They’re still aren’t. People too much, but it doesn’t change anything about what I know about my multiplicity, it’s just what it is.
That’s beautiful Within the context of the pandemic, depression, police violence, incarceration, and also, you’re coming fresh off of a degree and entering into a new stage of life—what does that freedom do for all of us?
So, that’s part of the destroying. It’s about me, but it’s about everybody. I make fewer assumptions about other people and what they might feel or what might be inside of them. I see what they’re doing, but I don’t try to construct any knowing for them. I know that because I’ve been shown that there is more. I would love for them to be shown that, and that’s a part of the destroying. I want you to see that there is freedom for you here, it might look like exactly what you’re doing, it might look like something entirely different, but most of the time we’re not living through that. Even when we’re our happy selves living our best lives out here, we’re not thinking through the most of what we deserve.
Definitely. And how are you working through this in your writing and art? Who inspires you?
I’ve learned that something doesn’t have to just be one thing. That’s what I felt about my work. I started shooting film photography, and I feel like every photo that I’ve taken as a poem. I play with that. I’ve been writing on my pictures and honoring that as a part of just knowing that some things are never just singular. We don’t have to be. I’m digging a little deeper. I place something and know that it might not stay there. It’s all connected and I’m taking in so much all the time. I read a lot of June Jordan. She makes me uncomfortable, but she wrote every kind of poem. She wrote silly poems, love poems, dramatic poems, and corny poems. It just makes me feel okay with doing everything and letting it be what it is. It doesn’t have to be the most profound thing in the world, but it’s coming through me and I have to speak it out and put it out to let the next thing come, not everyone sees any of it, but that’s fine too.
Daria Dockery is a researcher-poet-mover and want-to-be playwright who was born in Detroit and lives there now. they are here trying to make room for them and themselves, past and present again and again. Twitter: @spiritseen
Read original tweet here.
Recommended listening: “The World it Softly Lulls” by Hiatus Kaiyote
Photo credit: Courtesy of Daria Dockery