Recently, I had the great pleasure (and dare I say honour) of sitting down with James Powell, art and culture editor of The Tenth. The Tenth describe themselves as “a media organisation that documents the history, ideas, aesthetics, and politics of the Black LGBTQ+ community”. This is achieved through digital platforms, events and a biannual publication reflecting the world’s most talented artists and intellectuals in journalistic endeavours and creative encounters that reflect the contemporary Black queer experience. I wanted to quiz Powell about the incredible work they do, and why it matters. Expansive, enriching and life-affirming, our conversation spanned various subject matter — from the fundamental and philosophical questions about life, to why it is good to have green tea before bed. Warmth, patience and complete generosity are some of the guiding principles embedded within the institution and its interaction with its community. “We meet people where they are,” he tells me, “Our goal is to create a space where Black queer folk can fully express themselves without fear. Our work is about respect and understanding that different people are coming from differing experiences”.
Through my conversation with Powell, I get the sense that ‘queerness’ or queering is less about a fixed and constant state, but rather, it is a lens through which to engage some of our most challenging and exciting ideas about the human condition. Ultimately, it is about humanity. He mentions something that stays with me – queer humanity! I’ve heard these two words before, but placed side by side they take on a different resonance. They crack open a deep truth that I cannot even begin to articulate….a truth that is known only through feeling.
Holding between them, in-depth experience in fashion, performance and creative culture, The Tenth was founded by three individuals; Khary Septh, Andre Jones and Kyle Banks. After years of working in these largely white spaces, the trio dedicated their efforts and used their talents to build a home for themselves and their kinfolk. In the early days Septh, Jones and Banks homed in on what they knew (which was Black gay men in the U.S), however, over time and with the strong support of the Black creative community, they have been able to evolve — allowing for a multiplicity of voice and perspective. For instance, Powell tells me stories of how over time, they have been carried, held and championed by fearless Black women from Silicon Valley, to Hollywood and cities across the world. “We’ve always known the importance of Black women in building what we’re doing but this experience was validated when we worked on our Tech Issue and met some of the most courageous and inspiring women”. The tech issue is the fourth volume of the publication, exploring the Black queer identity at the threshold of the future. When I ask him how they go about deciding different themes for the publication he responds; “As Black queer people, we are not limited to speaking about specific things – we want to speak about artificial intelligence, about the environment, about the future, history, mythologies, uncovering obscure stories….everything”.
The biannual publication is a key component of The Tenth. Speaking on the importance of print Powell reminds me that a large part of the community either chooses not to be online or cannot be online. This makes sense for a publication that seeks to facilitate cross-generational, international and multicultural conversations. Powell explains that digitising is important—of course—as it allows them to cast a wider net but the book is an artefact; a beautiful object that one can carry with them. “Print will always be at the heart of what we do,” he says.
As a fun exercise to conclude our 2 hour-long conversations I throw a few ideas to Powell, asking him to tell me the first thing that comes to mind when he hears the phrases, rapid-fire style:
JP: It is powerful yet undervalued. It is resilient. It is strong. It shows up. It pushes forward no matter what. It is fun. We carry each other. We have humour and strength.
JP: Black joy is peace. It is interdependence. An amour. A weapon. It is a superpower and we need to use it.
JP: Invisibility is a means to being visible. You need both. Both are extremely important depending on the context. When we think about how [enslaved people] fought against slavery or how [enslaved people] escaped slavery, for instance, it could not have always been completely visible -somethings had to be in secret for them to be effective. Visibility and invisibility, we need both.
JP: It is visceral. It uplifts others. It is not pretentious. It seeks to elevate. It is a celebration of uniqueness but also a celebration of what makes us similar.
JP: A constant battle. A fight that will continue until we are all free. Gay liberation is not just about one person or a few people, it is about all of us. If we can liberate queer people, actually if we can liberate Black queer people, we will liberate everyone.