Interview with Blackberri, Queer Activist and Lucumi Elder
wolfie: this is the interview with blackberri for the queer pagan elders interview project and oral history. it is the 19thof March and it is a glorious day and we are sitting here drinking tea. if you could give me a brief bio, because probably not everybody in the book is going to know who you are, and they need to.
Blackberri: I was born in 1945. I was born Charles Timothy Ashmore, that was my name before I legally changed it in… ‘70… maybe ’74 is when I changed it. Maybe ’75. But, anyway, even before I legally changed it I had become Blackberri in 1970 or ’71. I was at the University of Arizona at the time and I lived in this community that basically defined itself as a feminist community.It was near the Women’s Center. It was a bunch of folks who all kind of settled in the same area. We didn’t live on the same block, but we did live in the same neighborhood. We shared things; we gardened and made crafts and did all kinds of stuff. We had study groups at the Women’s Center. And I actually started the first gay liberation group there, which met at the Women’s Center.
But before that I actually was born in Buffalo [New York], that’s where I grew up until I was 7 and then I left Buffalo and moved to Baltimore. In Buffalo, I lived with my mother’s father and his two step-children. And his wife. And we left and moved to Baltimore with my grandmother and her husband.They didn’t have any children (chuckles). We lived with them for a while, and then we got an apartment above them, an apartment opened up in the building. So for the most part I grew up in Baltimore. I grew up just about the time that they were trying to integrate the schools. And that was a real hard transition for me just because in Buffalo it’s kind of a different system. In Baltimore they weren’t used to black children in white schools, and white teachers didn’t know how to treat them, or didn’t know anything about them. So, of course I was always one who spoke up for myself, and that was not a wise thing to do in school, with white teachers in white schools. I was considered an uppity little black child. (laughs)
wolfie: why am I not surprised?
Blackberri: They really gave me a hard time.That was my career in mixed schools in Baltimore. Even though I went to junior high… first I went to an all-black junior high when I got out of elementary school. I was there for my freshman year. And then we moved all the way across town, so I was going to an integrated school again. Same problem with the white teachers. There were gay children at the school and by the time we all went to high school together we were a tight knit community and for the most part we were out at school, many of us. Yet still kind of closeted in other ways. Me, it was different for me, my mother caught me when I was fourteen, and so that was very liberating, you know, that she…
wolfie: she knew.
Blackberri: She knew, right. With her, if it felt like I was having problems with it, then we would deal with it in another way, but as long as I was okay with it, she was okay with it. And I was very okay with it, and so…
wolfie: that’s a pretty amazing parental position to take at that point.
Blackberri: Yeah, well, you know, after she caught me she told me she already knew ‘cause no girls ever called the house. She said, “Don’t no girls call this house. How could I not know?” (both laugh)I didn’t think about that, but you know, but there weren’t nogirls [inaudible]. So, that was very liberating for me, because then I could… I actually became a little flamer after that. Trying to get across town was interesting, being a little flaming queen, especially in the summertime. We had to travel at night, especially in the way we were dressed so outrageously. In the daytime we dressed down, but at night we dressed up. (both laugh) And I was lovers with this boy in my neighborhood for… oh, I’d say at least eight years. And everybody in the neighborhood knew. And we came out that year. I was fourteen and he was… twelve, I think, maybe? But he was a big twelve. He was big for his age, very mature. Very handsome. And respected by the gangsters in and around our ‘hood. I, on the other hand, was a sissy, so… well, I guess they talked about me when I wasn’t around. Nobody ever said anything bad about me when I was with them, but every time I would show up they would always tell my friend that… “oh, Lee, here comes your girl.” I was his girl.Things that go on in bedrooms, people don’t know what goes on behind them.
Blackberri: We didn’t have those roles in the bedroom.
wolfie: well, as the long-ago adage says: butch in the streets, femme in the sheets.
Blackberri: Yeah, I was… we got stones thrown at us when we left the neighborhood. People would yell shit out their windows because we would walk holding hands or with our arms wrapped around each other. We didn’t really care, you know. At one point he got a girlfriend, and she never really liked me. I didn’t care, you know. I wasn’t jealous of her, especially, but she was particularly jealous of me. It was kind of like a race to see who… who he would go with for the evening, you know. But she always knew she was in danger if she didn’t get him out of the neighborhood before he saw me, because if I saw him and I said I wanted him to come with me, he would tell her “later.”
wolfie: and she would stand there fuming.
Blackberri: Yeah. Plus she was older. I think she was twenty-one and he was fourteen, I think. Like I said he was a big boy. He was a bigboy.
wolfie: so how old were you when you knew that you were gay?
Blackberri: Well, I was really really tiny. I was… maybe… four or five. I would sit out in front of my house on Williams Street and some little boy lived somewhere on the block. My first experience was rubbing “pee-pees” with this little boy on my block. And then we moved. Then I met this boy that lived… I was in third grade, maybe? Second, third grade. I met this boy that lived in the next block. He was maybe a year older than me. Also, I had sex with the brothers who lived next door to me. At least two of them, maybe all three of them, but I know at least two of them. And some kids from my school. And the neighborhood bully who everybody was totally terrified of, including myself, and he caught me one day when I was by myself and he told me he was talking with the boy up the street and that changed my status with him.
wolfie: and this was when you were how old?
Blackberri: I was seven.
wolfie: yay. ah, precocious kids.
Blackberri: So I never got bullied anymore by him. Everyone in the neighborhood was terrified of him. When he would come out, all the little kids would come in. He was a real terror. We lived really close to a movie theater. Every Saturday I would go to the movie theater. I couldn’t really tell you what any of the movies were that I would see there, but I would spend a lot of time down in the bathroom looking at pee-pees. Every once in a while I would find some boy that would let me play with him while the film was going on. Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know who seduced who. I was willing, anyway. It was very consensual, believe me.
Blackberri: And then we moved to Baltimore and it was the same scenario. The boys in my neighborhood, and the boys at school. It’s kind of the way it came up. I was never ever lonely, and never was by myself. I always knew gay boys or questioning boys, and… so… I was busy.
Blackberri: The other thing was, brothers. Brothers always found me interesting, especially if I was… it was always the older brother that I was friends with… in some cases it was the brother just before the oldest brother, the brother in the middle. Sometimes I had sex with the older brother. Sometime I had sex with the younger brother. Sometimes I had sex with both of them, both the younger and the older. It wasn’t a lot of sex, but… they were curious… so I gave them what they wanted.
wolfie: you sated the curiosity.
Blackberri: So, yeah. I grew up really really queer and… and I’m really glad that I had that freedom and that my mom didn’t repress me or treat me bad or make me feel different. It kind of made me the person I am today.
wolfie: yeah. that’s really awesome and not a common story.
Blackberri: No, I know. I realize. I know my story’s very different.The other thing was, the boy that I was growing up with, he told his mother at one point. I mean, she probably already knew because everybody in the neighborhood was talking, but he [inaudible] and told her. We got in this argument this one time about whether or not he loved me, and he said, “I’ll tell my mother I love you. I do love you.” So he did. It was really good ‘cause, you know, I had a really good relationship with his mom and he had a good relationship with my mother, too, so, I mean, it was kind of like a two-way street. Only he had two brothers and a sister, so he didn’t have a lot of communication with his mother. His mother would often talk to me around his birthday or Christmas about what would he like, what does he talk about. So she got all that kind of information from me. On the other hand, I was an only child, so when he showed up on Saturday morning… early Saturday morning, sometimes earlier than I got up… mom would just open the door and let him in and he would come up and take off his clothes and come into bed. And when I got up, and had a second breakfast I’m sure, I think my mom would always fix his breakfast.
wolfie: it sounds like he was quite the growing boy, too.
Blackberri: Yeah. He was. He was very mature for his age. He looked much much older than he was… he was tall and very handsome. Extremely handsome. And everybody liked him. His mom was always happy when he was with me. She would say, “I know when he’s with you, he won’t get into any trouble.” So I was a blessing in that respect. And we did a lot of stuff together, especially in the summers. We were together every summer. In the daytime I was really a little science head, so I would go out collecting things in fields and streams and I’d jump on a bus and go to the end of town where there were woods so I could explore. A lot of times he would come with me. We did a lot of stuff together. At night we played games. We played street games; we played tag games, games where there was a lot of running and a lot of spreading out: capture the flag and red line, group games. Of course we were always on the same side so we could run off together somewhere and make love in between running from other kids from the block. (laughs)
wolfie: hide and seek…
Blackberri: Yeah, we always hid together.
wolfie: was your household when you grew up of any particular religious bent?
Blackberri: No. That was the other thing. My grandparents were AME Methodist [African Methodist Episcopal Church]. My great-grandmother was non-denominational. I went to that church until I was ten or eleven, and then I lost interest. I had no interest, really, from the beginning. The only thing was, at Sunday school there was this boy that I liked. And we would meet in Sunday school and then when the big service started we would be downstairs, all the adults and everybody would be upstairs, and we would be downstairs in the bathroom messing around. I started going to his house during the week, sometimes after school.
I ran into him many years later, we were both adults, and that was interesting seeing him after all those years. Both of us were still queer. He was living with a lover. He was living downtown. And I would visit him downtown. I knew several folks downtown that I visited. I used to hang out downtown. It was my “haint.” All the little queer kids would hang out. Some of them were hustlers, some were just down to see what was happening. That’s where I got introduced to pot. And so I was going downtown and hanging while people were smoking. My mom used to pooh-pooh it, you know, she never wanted it, until I was at least in my thirties.
One year we went to D.C. and did a concert there. My aunt, her step-sister, lived in D.C. and we went to visit. Auntie saw the dreadlocks and said “you wanna smoke?” and I said “Yeah.” So she brings out the pot and she’s rolling a joint and my mother said to her, “That’s right, give him that stuff.” She realized after she said that that it was her step-sister that was rolling this joint, and then she goes, “You smoke that stuff?” She said, “Child, we’ve been smoking for years!” She says, “Really??? Give me some of that!”
wolfie: did she like it?
Blackberri: Yeah, she did! It was really funny. I told her, I said, “All these years you wouldn’t touch it because of me, and now you see your sister doing it… your sister has to do it before you would even think it was a legitimate thing to do.” So, it was really funny. Especially the first time being stoned with her.
wolfie: side question, how long have you had your [dread]locks?
Blackberri: Well, these are my third set. The first set I had for sixteen years, until I got initiated. They were down to my calves. When I got initiated and got The Big Haircut sixteen years ago, they told me that I could do a partial and keep my hair, but I told them, “Nah, I don’t want partial anything.”
wolfie: i can’t see you doing anything halfway, really.
Blackberri: Yeah. We gonna do it, let’s do it. They said, “Yeah, it’s the best.” My Godfather has some of my hair in his pot and I have some of my hair in a special place. It will be buried with me when I get buried. It was my first hair. And I have some of my Godchild’s hair, too.
wolfie: there’s a lot of magic in hair.
Blackberri: We basically keep it to protect them.
wolfie: when in your life did you start exploring different spiritualities?
Blackberri: I’d say in 1968. I was living at the Castalia Foundation, which was also the League for Spiritual Discovery, acronym for LSD. I lived next door to Timothy Leary. I lived in an ashram. We actually used acid in the ashram for meditations.
wolfie: it’s such amazing stuff.
Blackberri: That’s when I got turned on to spirituality and I did a study, I really started reading all kinds of different books and stuff. So that’s when I really started. I was a bunch of different things. I had a bunch of different incarnations. I even had a little Christian incarnation for a while. One summer I went to a holiness church and got the holy ghost…
wolfie: the holy ghost touched you?
Blackberri: Yeah, the holy ghost touched me. That was probably my first experience with spirit. It was definitely a spiritual experience. My mom really didn’t like it. That was always… I was always proselytizing and she didn’t want to hear that bullshit.
There was a period of time when I started becoming psychic. I started… I could read people. And I could tell things about them, and that was… that was kind of a mistake. I was really scaring a lot of folks, and then I was scary. People were afraid of me, so I stopped.
wolfie: how old were you when that happened?
Blackberri: I was 16, 17, around that time.
wolfie: i had a really similar experience when I moved here to the bay area, I would get on BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] and people would be feeling all these things and thinking all these things. I didn’t really have a lot of filters at the time and i would go up to somebody and like, “this thing that you’re so sad about, this is going to work out this way and everything,” and I thought I was helping. (laughs) people were not happy to have the weird hippie come up to them and start telling them what they were thinking. and being right. i learned to shut up. (laughs)
Blackberri: I… I just scared so many people. ‘Cause I did tell people things and… it just moved them away. I had some possession stuff happen to me, too, and that was a kind of interesting thing. But now, Egun [spirits of the ancestors] or whoever I’m working with can speak through me, as they sometimes do.
Music has also been like that. Music has come through me. Some of it I’ve used over and over again, and some of them have been one-time things that were meant for whoever was there to hear it and never… I would never remember the chords or the words or anything. Usually at some point when there’s a group of folks and we’re maybe really high or… got some kind of meditation going and that happens.
wolfie: i remember seeing you, like 20-something years ago. you did a couple of your standard songs and then you hit this channel and were just flying with it. and it was a glorious performance. i’mtrying to remember where or when… it was somewhere here in the bay area.
so, when did you start playing music?
Blackberri: When I got converted, I started… well, that’s not true. My grandfather actually taught me how to play harmonica when I was eight or nine. So I picked up the harmonica. I was playing the harmonica a lot. I got really good at it. I had harmonicas in different keys, so if I heard something on the radio, if I had the right harmonica I could play right along with it. So I really developed an ear then. And then I started… well, I was also singing. I was singing since I was really little. My mama said one time when I was really small the Paul Whiteman Orchestra was playing “Rhapsody in Blue” and she said I was standing in front of the radio conducting and it was so cute.
wolfie: oh, I bet.
Blackberri: I’d always been singing. I’ve been singing since I was really little. I remember in the summertime we used to get those books with the pop tunes in them, the lyrics to all the pop tunes. So we would sing to each other sitting on the steps in Baltimore, we had them big ivory steps. Every neighborhood had them… all the buildings were connected; there was no space in between.
wolfie: yeah, like the brownstone kind of things.
Blackberri: Yeah, right.
wolfie: you’ve used the word queer several times. queer is kind of a relatively young construct as far as a self-identity thing. it really sort of gelled in the 90’s and before that it was pretty much pejorative. how do you feel about the identity queer?
Blackberri: I used it when I started out doing gay music. I remember at many of my shows I would say “I don’t know if you noticed or not, but I’m (sing-songy)queer!” I’d sing: “Queer!” I’ve been using that term for a long time. Intermittent with gay. And now, one of my friends has started saying “same gender loving” and I like that, too. I really like that, because it’s a different kind of label.
wolfie: yeah. it seems like we keep creating new labels because, what i see is that people are striving to find the most inclusive that they can find.
Blackberri: I think same gender loving came from both the construct for not using clinical terms or terms that the dominant culture used. That’s where same gender loving came from.
wolfie: when did you first encounter the orisha?‘cause i know they have been your primary path for a while.
Blackberri: I first got turned on to the Orishas in New York by this guy that lived there, he lives in the Bay Area now. His name is Isaac Jackson. He was a curator for a museum. He had a house that had like three floors and two of the floors were museum galleries and he also DJ’d on BMI [Broadway Music Incorporated]. He had a radio show. I was on his show, I know at least once, I want to say twice, but I’m not sure. All my tapes… all my interview tapes got stolen by somebody I let stay here.
wolfie: i can only barely imagine how you felt.
Blackberri: They took everything. They took my whole archive. Anyway, long story short, Isaac had a blue candle on his altar and a cobalt blue glass like this, and it was burning 24/7; it never went out. The altar was all in blue. It was beautiful. I don’t think he wore shoes. It was an altar to Yemaya and I said, “Who is that?” He said she was the patron saint of gay men, and I thought, “A religion that embraces gay people?” and it was African, too! Then I started reading things about the tradition. The stuff I read in the beginning was really scary. It really made me afraid to commit in the way that I wanted to commit. And then as I read more things, I started accepting things. Then I had a reading in the early ‘80’s that blew my mind. Then I really made a commitment. I joined a house that was between the priests that I got read by and my Madrina [spiritual godmother, head of house], but then they parted ways and I kind of stuck with my Madrina. Then, just, you know, just… I learned a lot there and there was a lot of other stuff going on there.
wolfie: yeah. it’s such a rich tradition and very complex. all the internal community politics are very complex.
Blackberri: Yeah, that’s what it was. I ended up getting a reading about whether or not I should stay in the house, and Oshun told me I should leave the house. It was Oshun’s house. I was sad because I had a lot of friends there, but it seemed that after I left my life got really good. (both laugh) And I was told by a priest that I was slotted for initiation, I was scheduled for initiation, but it didn’t have to be soon. So I ran with that for a long long time and then in eighty… maybe ’86 or ’87 I was in Cuba and the Orisha found me. And every time I went to Cuba, the Orisha would find me and show me things or take me on a… sometimes all the people I was with, they would drag them along with me. It was really interesting! And then I met my Padrino[spiritual godfather, head of house]in… ’88. In ’88. And it was up in the mountains and I, uh, I mean, you know, Orisha was already showing me stuff and I knew there was something for me, but I didn’t know where I was going to go or how I was going to do it. And he gave me my guerreros [warrior spirits]. I had an Elegua, but I didn’t have Ogun and Ochossi. He gave me those Orishas and, it was really funny because I didn’t have any money and it started out with my Padrino saying, “I hear you don’t have your Warriors.” And I said, “No, I… I have Elegua.” He said “Well, we have Warriors here, do you want them?” And I said, “I don’t have any money, I’m really broke.” He goes “We have Warriors here, do you want them?” And I said, “Um, I can’t get them right now…” And he says to me, very firmly he says “We. Have. Them. Do you want them?”
wolfie: “i’mnot asking you about money.”
Blackberri: Yeah. Then I said “Oh! Yeah, yeah, I want them.” So he gave me Warriors. He gave me another Elegua and Ogun and Ochossi. And then after that he read me and he said, “What are you waiting for? Your road is so open.” And I said… I knew what he was talking about, and I said, “Well, I’m waiting to get the money.” And he said, “Well, when would you like to do this?” And I said, “Next year.” He goes “When next year?” I said, “Oh, December.” He goes, “December what?!” (both laugh) So I said, “Twenty-first.” I just threw out a number. I said, “December 21st.” He said, “Okay. See you December 21st.”
wolfie: (overlapping)winter solstice it is!
Blackberri: And when I came back, the money for initiation came from everywhere. [In traditions of the African diaspora, initiates pay for food, live music, textiles, and other necessities. This tradition of offering a sacrifice to receive divine gifts is an important part of the practice.] It was so crazy. The money just all came together. I had so much money that I didn’t even need all the money I had. I brought money back home with me after… it was pretty amazing. It was the best thing I’ve ever done, too, I must say that. And then after I did that I thought, “Well, shit.” I was so freaked out I was wondering why didn’t I do this earlier? Then I realized that it wasn’t time. I did it… I did it…
wolfie: you did it at exactly the right time.
Blackberri: At exactly the right time. And I went… before I went to… about a month before I went, I was… I went down to the ocean because I was really… my big fear was that when I became a priest that I would have to give up all of these things, you know. And so I went to Yemaya, ‘cause I thought Yemaya was, was even on my head, I hadn’t gotten my head at the time. [The orisha “on one’s head” is the primary guardian and teacher of the initiate’s spiritual path.] And, uh, I go to Yemaya and I tell her all my, my blues. I tried… I went to Ocean Beach and it was really dark and the tide was up and I couldn’t see. I was walking and walking and walking and walking. I still couldn’t see the water, so I finally said, “Well, fuck, I’m going to stop here. I’m not going to go any further.” So I stopped where I was and I was talking to the ocean, and I told her all this stuff, and she said, “You will get back more than you’ll give up.” And right as that message came, a wave came in. I don’t know where it came from… It came from the ocean, of course, but I couldn’t see the water…
wolfie: it came out of nowhere.
Blackberri: The wave came in and it was warm as bathwater. I shit you not. It came in and went up around my ankles. I felt the warmth of it and I sat down so when the wave came back out I could feel the warm water all over the bottom part of my body as the wave went out. And no more water came in after that, but it was like… after I got up and I thought about it, my mind was totally blown ‘cause I thought, “This is the Pacific Ocean. It’s not warm.” It’s not warm.
wolfie: no, but when she has a clear message for you… there we go.
Blackberri: That blew my mind.
wolfie: i bet!
Blackberri: Yeah. So then I knew everything was going to be all right. And it was true. I got waaaay more than I gave up. Way more.
wolfie: do you feel, or have a perception around, where being queer and your magical life intersect? do you feel like queers have a different relationship to spirit? or that the magic that we do has any sort of magical difference to it?
Blackberri: Well, having never been straight, it’s hard to say, you know? I do feel in my spirituality, in my magic… um, it’s pretty different. And I think, you know, I think everybody’s is… is personal. But I know it’s always there for me. I’m always learning, and my spiritual godparents in Cuba… in fact, my Godfather called me this morning, actually, ‘cause I’m slated to be going out east. He was just touching base to see how I was doing. He told me he saw my pictures on Facebook. “You’re looking very good,” he said. (both chuckle) And he… he’s a trip. Every time I go, he always tries to set me up. Sometimes with people who I’m actually interested in. He always says, “If you see somebody you like, let me know.”
wolfie: i went to a couple bembes [a party for the orishas, usually with Yoruban songs for the spirits] and a misawith raelyn [gallina] when i was training with her, and it seemed to me that everybody at those particular ones were all queer. so i never got to experience being in any of those ceremonies with a predominantly straight crowd. but in the pagan [community], the neo-pagans, the witches, there is kind of a noticeable difference between doing that kind of magic with an all queer crowd or with a straight crowd. that’s part of what prompted me to start this project: is there a substantive difference, a way that we approach it, or something? but it’s also… you’re part of a tradition that holds a place for queers specifically.
Blackberri: (overlapping) Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
wolfie: and a lot of pagan traditions, you know, some of them have that, but they don’t talk about it very much.
Blackberri: But some of that has been erased, too. I know when Catholicism kind of got synthesized into the tradition there was a lot of that sexual guilt that the Catholics go through. But the people… I feel, the people that embraced the Lucumi, the African tradition, were more receptive to the role of gay spirituality in the tradition. And even in Africa, I have never been, but they tell me if you go to the bush the gay people are very different in the bush than they are in the cities where a lot of folks have been converted to Muslims or Christians and are very homophobic and anti-gay. In the bush it’s very different. It’s like what you do in private is your business. Nobody else has a right to tell you not to or to.
wolfie: as long as all parties are consenting, it’s all good.
Blackberri: And then this one priest I know that I went to, he says once a year they have this time where people can do aaaanything they want to. But it’s on that one day a year, so. You know, you have something you want to do and need to do, yeah, here’s your chance.
wolfie: (overlapping) here’s your chance. you have 24 hours.
Blackberri: You know, somebody gave me that opportunity once when I was in Denmark one time, an Ethiopian guy. He gave me a 24 hour… I was really surprised. I was very surprised. I couldn’t believe he said it, you know, I’d known him for a while. And it was a good offer, ‘cause I was attracted to him. He was very very handsome, very pretty. So, I was like, “oh… cool! All right! Let’s go!”
wolfie: how you do you feel like your queerness and your spirituality have informed each other,just within you, not within like other people’s practice or the tradition in general?
Blackberri: How they what?
wolfie: How they have informed each other. What their intersection is like, for you?
Blackberri: Hmm. Well, you know, everything’s a process. Things change. They grow and they change, they change shape, they change form, they even change meaning sometimes. Um, so they would be, really, really hard… because they’re not… they’re not separate things. I don’t see my sexuality being different from my spiritual offering. And even the things I pray for, you know,so…
wolfie: that’s one of the best answers i’ve gotten to that question. i have a theory of my own that one of the things that makes… that creates a difference for me in my magic is that by the level of self-examination it’s taken me to live outside of the binary, it makes it easier for me to see outside of other binary illusions. and that helps me navigate through with magic and spirit. i don’t get stuck in a lot of the either/or rigidity.
Blackberri: Yeah, well, the either/or is really basically a western phenomenon, because a lot of things are not either/or. They’re both/and because it’s a continuum, so how can it be either/or? Because nothing is separate from anything else, so… it’s something, it’s a place on the continuum. It’s all the same, you know? It’s just where are you on the continuum. And, as I say, things change, you know, they…
wolfie: everything shifts.
wolfie: you know, talking with people and balance isn’t a noun, it’s a verb, it’s something that’s in motion. and clyde hall had a very brilliant observation. one of the core tenets within at least the shoshone nation belief structure is that nature doesn’t have straight lines, except for rocks because they’re relative to the thunder beings. everything else is a curve, and so even the spectrum is a curve and everybody flows along it and it’s like a wave pattern.
Blackberri: I heard it was spiral, but… it’s interesting.
Blackberri: Yeah. I had a thing with the rocks when you… the rocks… I was at a river and the river told me the story of the rocks. It was very… very enlightening. She said, “All the rocks and the stones have names.” And I thought, “Woah.” I couldn’t imagine what they would sound like or… or… you know, and I was thinking, “There’s not enough letters in the alphabet—in our alphabet.” And the river said, “The stones have their own language. They don’t even have the same alphabet.” Which made a whole lot of sense. Then you could see how each stone could have a different name if they have a different alphabet. I don’t know how many characters were in… they didn’t give me a manual or anything.
wolfie: (laughs) yeah. there was no beginning grammar for rocks.
Blackberri: Yeah, but they made so much sense.
wolfie: so having been, you know… well, I don’t want to color this too much with my brain, because part of my embracing of the word queer is because it originally meant deviant in some way and I like that part.
Blackberri: I liked it because it meant different. That’s always how I saw queer, was different and not deviant.
wolfie: so, looking at all the thing that have changed so drastically around how we walk in the world, how other people see us as we walk in the world, and also how some regression is going on, at least within the political reality of things: what are the things you would want to communicate to a 14-year-old who is just figuring themselves out? Or a 10-year-old just figuring themselves out? about finding their own connection to spirit through their own path and their own sexuality. what do you wish someone had said to you?
Blackberri: I don’t know, I think people already said things to me.
wolfie: it’s true. you’ve had a pretty supportive life.
Blackberri: Yeah, um… I don’t know. Everybody’s got their own path, so… to give them suggestions may not be useful for them. I guess I would have to meet them and talk with them… um… ‘cause then my spirit could… would have a sense of where they are in their development and then teaching… the teaching could happen from there.
wolfie: have you encountered any kind of homophobia within the tradition since you’ve been in it?
Blackberri: Um… not really. I’ve had people joke about it, but… especially in a ceremony it’s just… the lines just blur or come together… it’s… it’s interesting. Just because it’s a community… it’s a communal thing. I know in Cuba it’s very communal. Everybody knows everyone else and everybody has a job to do, and they do their part. There’s no, you know, I see queer priests doing the same thing as the other priests. Just doing the work. Then afterwards… you know, what people do afterwards is, you know, it’s their own thing.
Blackberri: The only thing about initiation is when you’re doing the initiate work you’re back to celibacy during the whole…
wolfie: during iyawó [novice initiate in the tradition, a one-year period that includes strict rules].
Blackberri: Well, not even iyawó, but even the priests that are working the initiation. It’s usually celibacy during the whole time of the ceremony. After the ceremony you can do whatever you want, but usually when the ceremony’s going on, because it takes days, actually, to have it… and those days you must be free from being sexual.
wolfie: yep. there was an interesting… sequence, um, clyde hall brought the naraya ceremony, which is a basically a two spirit ceremony, to the radical faeries. and one of the standard practices within first nations stuff is you’re celibate from the lighting of the first ceremonial fire until that fire goes out. and it’s just a way of focusing and making sure that everybody’s on the same energetic page. but the faeries got all up in arms and they all were saying, “you’re being sex-negative!” it’s like “no, you’re projecting white cultural assumption onto first nation reality. let’s be clear here.”
Blackberri: Yeah, that’s the way it is, isn’t it?
wolfie: yeah, it is. i had… i kept my mouth shut for the most part, but i had a moment where somebody was being more obnoxious than i could cope with and i was like, “would you put down your white male privilege lens and realize there is a cultural difference here, please. this is not persecuting you.”
Blackberri: (laughs) I know, ‘cause I… I had that conversation with Harry [Hay]… Somebody was interviewing me one time and asked me about Faeries and I said “Faeries are… you know, they’s good. They do their thing.” I said, “But I… would rather embrace my own spirituality. It’s not…” I said, “Well, first of all, Faeries is European. And I was colonized by Europeans.” And I said, “If I didn’t accept their organized religion, why would I accept their Pagan religion?”
wolfie: their disorganized religion!
Blackberri: It’s like, you know, I said, “I need to embrace the spirituality that’s close to my own roots.” And that’s all I said, but then somehow or another it got back to Harry. Harry calls me and says, “Why do you hate the Faeries?” I said, “Harry, I didn’t say that I hate the Faeries. I don’t know where that story came from.”
wolfie: ‘cause the duchess will take things and run with them in her own brain. she would always do that. i mean, there were people who would support that, too, some of the faeries that sort of created the cult of harry hay.
Blackberri: Well, I wasn’t anti-Faery.
wolfie: there’s actually… at the wolf creek gatherings over the last few years there’s been a huge influx of trans people of color and it’s really making a shift happen. and a lot of the older male faeries just stopped coming. part of it is their bodies don’t want to camp out on the ground anymore and we don’t have a whole lot of cabins. but part of it was also, it’s like, no, your privilege in this is going to get challenged a little bit, you know. it’s been interesting and i’m just sort of like keeping an eye on it and watching it play out.
Blackberri: Yeah. The other thing that I notice about the Faeries… we practice in our tradition, especially when it’s feeding, is the elders and the children get fed first before… anybody, and I don’t see that happening in that tradition.
wolfie: um, it has gotten better. it has gotten much better around that.
Blackberri: Well, I don’t know, is that… is that their culture? You know, we do it because that’s the culture, that’s how it’s supposed to be done, you know?
wolfie: well, that’s the thing about faerie culture, is it’s always shifting, and the culture of each gathering is dependent on who’s there. it’s very anarchic in its way. there’s been a lot of emphasis in the past five or six years on…
Blackberri: In our tradition there’s a lot of emphasis on the elder and the children, that’s why they get fed first.
wolfie: yeah, there’s been a lot more emphasis on the elders within the faeries because it’s been pointed out to them, this like… hi, there aren’t as many as there should be, so, be nice to the ones you have.
Blackberri: Yeah. The other thing is, you know, that even priests who are older in their priesthood respect others as they age.
wolfie: yeah, for having survived that long.
Blackberri: You know, it’s really… like, they treat me in Cuba… a lot of those priests are way way older than me… but they give me so much respect, you know. And I’m an elder, you know, so they make sure I have a chair, they make sure I’m fed and I’m comfortable. My Godfather tries to make sure that I’m happy… (both laugh) he calls it that I “sew my wild oats.”
I always meet folks when I go.
wolfie: how often do you go [to cuba]?
Blackberri: Well, I was there the year before last. I was supposed to go this year, but… it’s been… it’s on pause right now. I should be in Cuba right now, but we’re going in September now, so. But it’s still going to happen. It’s definitely getting that haircut… (wolfie laughs) and people are excited, you know. This is my second child that I’m bringing down… the only reason why I’m doing it is because it’s cheaper than trying to do all that stuff here.
wolfie: oh, yeah. there was a woman that was training with raelyn at the same time that i was and she ended up dropping out because she hadn’t realized that she would have to, like, shell out a lot for the initiations to set up the rituals and pay for it. and that they had to be new dishes, they couldn’t be thrift store dishes, and all these things.
Blackberri: Yeah. And the animals are the most expensive part of the ritual. But in Cuba, the animals are cheaper. And there are a lot more of them because people use them. That’s what they use, you know.
wolfie: I was sitting with maria one night after a thing and she’s cleaning up, you know, the area where they’d plucked everything and sweeping up and she’s like “oh yeah, the glamorous life of the santera” (both laugh) that was back when she and toni were still together.
Blackberri: That’s funny. My ibonowas saying, the last time that I was out, he’s goes “I’ve sacrificed so many chickens” he says, “I hope that when I die and go… that illopiis not a chicken!”
Blackberri: Oh, I had to crack up, it’s… just so funny!
wolfie: that’s hilarious!
Blackberri: That is hilarious! But, you know, the prayers that are said over the animals are not… they go in a very different way than slaughterhouses do.
wolfie: it’s always puzzled me why people get so weirded out about blessing the animal before you kill it rather than after. it makes more sense that way, really.
Blackberri: Yeah. Put the ashe on it so that when the elevation comes it takes the ashe… takes your prayers and everything.
wolfie: oh, clarification moment. do you… your spirit that you work with, and the practice that you have, is it santeria or is it lucumi?
Blackberri: It’s Lucumi. But it’s got some African stuff in it. It’s got some Native American stuff in it. I’m kind of… I’m like: good shit is good shit.
Blackberri: You know, that’s kind of where I’m at with it. And Mason… I like what Mason says about Lucumi. He says it’s… that the tradition evolves and needs to evolve. It can’t be a stagnant religion.
wolfie: yeah, it’s a living thing.
Blackberri: Yeah. So. I mean, even some of my… I have Brazilian Orishas, I have African Orishas from Nigeria, I even have some Haitian juju that some Haitian priest gave me… some, uh, I’m trying to think of the name they call the priests… but, anyway. I have some friends who are Vodunpriests who have given me juju. I’ve got… I’ve worked with a lot of different stuff.
There was a big wave through the younger queer community a couple years ago where they all… I think it was mostly born out of American Horror Story’s Coven season, because all of a sudden they all wanted to study Voodoo. I was like “well, it’s Vodun. It’s a little different.” But they were being all over it, I’m like… “You need to be aware of what you’re getting into, and you need to go into it with a lot of respect. And most of you are going to walk away from it. And several of you are going to get scared.”
My friend, who is actually a white boy, went and got initiated in Haiti. He said he came back and Customs went through his pots, they opened a pot and went “Ohhhh!” and immediately didn’t want to see anything else. “Woahhhhh.” It was funny. They said “Woah, I wonder what was in those pots?” So… I was really fortunate when I got initiated because it was a priest in the airport in Cuba who… I flew Aero… we flew Aeroniqua [Airlines] at the time, which flies from LA [Los Angeles] to Cuba so when we came back we landed in LA. Anyway, to make a long story short, the guy saw us, me and my Godbrother, standing in line, he came from behind the counter, had us schlep all our bags and everything to the far end of the counter where there was nobody. He weighed them… he picked up my bag and he goes “my god, what’s in this bag?” And I said “Orisha.” And he said “my Orishas aren’t this heavy!” (both laugh)
wolfie: oh, that’s brilliant!
Blackberri: And then he took us through VIP customs.
Blackberri: And then we were sitting in the… I guess the place where there are people waiting for their flight… we’re sitting in there and everybody else is still in the line. I’m seeing people that I saw in the line slowly trickle in, you know. And then he came to us and he said, “The plane’s going to be a couple hours late.” I said “Okay,” but we were already sitting comfortably. And he said… he came back and he goes “Let me see your tickets.” So we gave him our tickets and he went away. He came back and he gave us new tickets. We had first class tickets, the two front seats, and the seats beside us were empty so nobody could touch us, you know? And there was a delay because the light… the power had gone out and there was no lights on the runway so the plane couldn’t take off. So, there was a lot of stuff going on and I just went to sleep. I went to sleep. I woke up and it was morning. The sun was out and the plane still hadn’t gotten off the ground. In fact, people were boarding the plane because they had taken everybody offboard except us…
wolfie: they had just let you sleep! oh, that’s great…
Blackberri: And then by the time we got off and we got to LA, there was a long Customs line and somebody from Aeroniqua, I guess at the… the priest had passed on the information. They took us out of the Customs line and took us all the way to another Customs at the far end of the airport where we went through. He looked at our passports and he said… he said we’d been to Cuba. He said, “Have you had a good time?” We said “Yeah.” Stamp. Didn’t open one thing. Didn’t touch anything. And we were back, and we were in… it was like… so, that… very, very different. (laughs)
wolfie: i have a sign that i printed out that’s in the inside of my suitcase so when they open it up in airports it says, “many of the items in here are religious articles, please treat them with respect.” and they’ve always been really good about it. i’m not telling them don’t touch it, i’m like, “please be respectful.”
Blackberri: Well, I tell them, “Touch at your own risk.” They go through and they touch, then, well, okay…
Blackberri: Like, it’s on you, whatever, I don’t know…
wolfie: like, in order to open that, there are certain songs that have to be sung, so… (laughs) so, a different tack for a minute. um… racism within the gay and the queer community, which has been there for a long time. what are the changes that you’ve seen, that you’ve noticed? how has it shifted, if it has? (loud laughter from both) so, it hasn’t?
Blackberri: No. It hasn’t. It’s still the same. Especially, you know, being a gay musician and seeing these white gay boys, they form these organizations and give each other awards and… you know, I’ve never gotten any… no recognition in those gay musician’s [inaudible]. You know, it’s really funny, because when I started performing in the Bay Area there were hardly no, no… I was gay liberation music.
wolfie: you were it.
Blackberri: I was it. And then the white boys started coming along. There was even an interview where Romanovskyand Phillipssaid that they were inspired by me, you know. And there were a whole bunch of them that said that I was their inspiration, so.
wolfie: but they still give each other the nifty awards.
Blackberri: Yeah, you know, and they all got… once they started doing it I got pushed further and further back. I think it was… I started working less. And then other communities picked up on what I was doing. Then I got support… I was doing lots of… I was playing for Natives, which I still do, for the Latinos, which I haven’t done for a long time but I used to. African American events, because there’s that element of revolutionaries who think that queers are not revolutionary, but, you know.
I did, you know, I did my thing back in the day. And now I’m doing my thing in a different way. And, uh, my music is getting… it’s well received everywhere, I must say. I spend a lot of time in Cuba and the Cubans really like me and they like my music, so that’s always, uh, it’s always a nice thing, you know, to get that recognition. Even people on the streets in my town, where I was initiated is a small town, many of them know I am a musician because they’ve seen me perform sometime. There’s a community center there, a cultural center, that I performed at several times for different events, and my Godfather, who’s also a musician, is working on… well, it’s already hooked up, it’s just… when I go… the dates, he’s going to arrange the dates for me, but… I’m doing a concert at the College of Jazz in Santiago.
wolfie: ooh, nice!
Blackberri: Yeah, it is nice. So I’m excited about that. The first time, uh, one of the… kind of like a music director who is… I don’t know if they call them directors, I don’t know what they call them… cultural attachéor something, for the whole province of Santiago… he saw me in Palma and got me into the College of Jazz in Santiago. This was over ten years ago. It’ll be eleven years this year, maybe, when I go. So, me returning after eleven years to the Colleges is going to be real interesting. I have a bunch of new songs, too, so.
wolfie: i mean, i… i burned through cassette tapes of your stuff ‘cause i’d listen to them so much. then they’d start to warp just a little bit, so i’d quickly make another copy and then keep the original and just play the copy.
Blackberri: I had one of my tapes stolen that had a new song on it, and I’d recorded it in Denmark… this black musician friend of mine, expatriate, I stayed with him when I was there, and he was a pretty boy. He’s a twin, both of them really cute, twin boys. They’re both expatriates. Anyway, he had this recording equipment and I put four tracks on the… recorded four tracks on a cassette and it was steel. Steel tape. And the tape got stolen. It had a really nice retro song that I had wrote for one of my boyfriends at the time. Now in Cuba we… we have a whole new life. And the boy who wrote keyboards for it is now living in the United States. In Naples. I haven’t talked to him about it yet, but I would love to get him here. But part of it would be to see him again and to… ‘cause he was somebody that I… when I got initiated he, he took care of me, ran errands for me and everybody in the house, when nobody was home he would stay home and hang, just hang with me. We liked each other. He was really so cute. I remember the first night, uh… everybody had gone out. It was New Year’s Eve. We had a bottle of peppermint schnapps and couldn’t get any rum.
I don’t even know where the schnapps came from. It was nasty, but we drank it. He was sitting in a chair; I was sitting some place. I saw him stretch out and all of him was right there and I’m looking at him like, “Oh my god.” He looks over at me and says, “You can’t touch me.” And I said, “I know.” (both laugh) He looks at the screen. He turns back and he goes, “And I can’t touch you.” And I said, “Yeah, I know.” He turned back to the screen and he says, “What a pity.” (both laugh, wolfie groans empathetically) It was so… oh… “What a pity!”
wolfie: oh, that’s adorable!
Blackberri: And I said, I said, “Well, you know… it’s not going to be like that always.” I said, “I’m not going to be in Iyawóforever.” (both laugh) I said, “When I come back… when I come back… we’re going to make up for a whole lot of lost time!”
He was so funny. He said, “What a pity.” And then, there was another, another boyfriend too who was also… I asked him to give me my towel one time. I was in the shower and, uh, so he… he brings the towel and, I don’t know, probably maybe, uh, instinct or whatever, he reached down and pinched my nipples, you know. And I said, “You’re not supposed to touch me.” He goes, “Oh! Oh! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” (both laugh) “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
wolfie: it’s like – it happens. there are things we can do to make this better…
Blackberri: We did end up hooking up many years later, though. It was really funny. We were doing a video, and he was in the video. He was grabbing his stuff and he goes “I love you. I want you” blah, blah, blah. “I love you, I want you a lot.” And he said, um… what did he say? He said something, uh… I think he said, maybe at the end he said, “Do you want to suck my dick?” or something like that. And I said, “Yeah!” He goes, “Yeah? That’s possible!” And we turn off the camera. (both laugh) I just like, he goes, “Yeah? That’s possible!”
wolfie: sounds like a good plan!
Blackberri: Yeah! He was really funny ‘cause when I first met him, any time I put the camera on me he was gonna, like, pull his pants down and I was like, “No… it’s not that kind of video…”
wolfie: “there are other things to document…”
Blackberri: He was so ready. He was so ready. He was so funny. Yeah. One of those crazy boys.
wolfie: can you talk a little bit more about yemaya and her relationship with queers?
Blackberri: Well, there’s a story about Yemaya… Some folks were trying to make sure she wasn’t around, they were trying to kill her. So she went to this island where nothing but gay men lived on this island. It was kind of like the Isle of Lesbos, only it was men who lived there. And they protected her and they fed her and they took care of her, and so it made… she… in her heart she said, “There’s always a space for you in my heart.” So when she returned, she kept her promise.
And then I also found out that her sister, who is Oya—and her sister’s colors are the colors of the gay flag—is also a protector of gay men. I thought, “Wow, this is really interesting.” I didn’t learn about Oya until much much later. I was already… I had already become a priest. I was reading about her ‘cause my, uh, my Godfather’s name is Inle and, uh, my Godbrother has Inle, he has Inle, he has the Orisha Inle, so. He’s also queer. He’s Ochosi’s child.
wolfie: yeah. there was some discussion with the number of women I spent about a year with, they were also all butch lesbians, and they talked about oya being the protector of lesbians and market women.
Blackberri: Yeah. Oshun is too, I’m told.
wolfie: and they always liked the story of chango dressing up like a girl to sneak out.
Blackberri: Yeah, Chango. I mean, even the men this day wear their hair like women, the Chango Priests. I’ve seen pictures of them. And I have a friend that I met online who is a Chango priest, and it’s his hair, too. Actually I’ve met a couple of Chango priests. I’m friends with a couple priests in Africa, in Nigeria. There’s this one guy that… he told me he wanted me to play at his wedding. I said, “Oh, great, I can do that.” (both chuckle) He loves me! He always says good things. His prayers for me are really beautiful. He’s also helping me with, uh, Yoruba things. He’ll write things and I’ll have to ask him the meaning. I try to speak to him in Yoruba as much as… it helps me learn the language. He’s a great guy, I really like him.
wolfie: it seems a little easier to find houses and groups that aren’t as caught up in catholicism as they used to be. but that’s from my very peripheral observation.
Blackberri: It depends on what part of the tradition where people bring their lineage.
wolfie: yeah. there’s a thread in the neo… the white neo-pagan community. this woman went down to brazil and she got her head washed and she somehow interpreted that as getting her head made, so she came back and started her own umbanda house which was not well-received by traditional practitioners. they saw it as appropriation.
Blackberri: Yeah. It’s different when youget your head washed. Or even when you get a wash pot, that’s very different, too. I know somebody, he got a wash pot, and he was trying to tell everybody that he was a Babalawo [a fully-initiated practitioner of Ifa, priest of Orula].
wolfie: uhh… no.
Blackberri: And the Babalawo that gave him the wash pot said, “He’s not a Babalawo. I just gave him a wash pot.” And he’s going to tell everybody he’s a Babalawo now, so… and he… he wanted me to do prescriptions for him and… ‘cause he was reading people. And I said “Oh, I can’t do that.” If I do prescriptions, I have to read them all over again, you know. He goes “Well, there’s a chance we could make money. You can make money on the prescription and I can make money on the reading. We could partner up.” And I said “Eh… it’s not gonna work.” And he got really upset with me. Reallyupset with me. He cussed me out and called me all kinds of names. I said, “Whoa, where is all this coming from? That’s not very priestly!” Not very Babalawo-ly. He even went as far as getting homophobic. He started saying homophobic stuff.
Blackberri: I was a “pre-vert.” I was like, “Okay. I was a pre-vert when you wanted to do this…”
wolfie: yeah, it’s kind of a last resort for people when they run out of other insults.
wolfie: so in the ‘70s when you were hanging out with tim leary and all that, did you call yourself a hippie?
Blackberri: No, I didn’t. No… I was… I was living in an ashram. So, I was whatever they called… whatever we were calling ourselves when we lived there. I’ve forgotten, it’s been so long. It was also… all the people… it was an ashram where most of the people there were all recovering from drugs. All ex… ex-something. You know, I was ex-speed. A lot of them were ex-heroin users. But we were doing Kriya Yoga. That was the Yoga that we practiced. It was selfless service.
wolfie: yeah, my sister took brahmacharyavows for many years. at an ashram in Colorado.
Blackberri: Ashrams are very interesting. There was a living teacher. My teacher always said that the teachings should die with the teacher, ‘cause when the disciples get them they fuck them up.
wolfie: mmhmm. that’s pretty true.
Blackberri: I know. I always loved that wisdom. That was… he was a no-nonsense type of person. Also, he would… a lot of the times we would just sit in the room really quietly. And if you had a question, before you could even say it out loud, he would answer.
wolfie: i love teachers like that.
wolfie: one of my Buddhist… tibetan buddhist teachers. at one point people were asking him questions about the texts, you know, the sacred texts and everything. he’s like, “do not mistake the teachings for the wisdom, and do not mistake the tools for the power.” that was one of the ones that really stuck with me.
Blackberri: I don’t even know who this guy was. He was a swami… he was some Indian guy when I went to… he was in, um, Ojai, California, and he was speaking at the Theosophical Society. And I went there with some people in Tucson. They drove me there. This guy said… I don’t remember anything else he said, but he says, “Light and dark live in the world together.” That’s what I took from that.
wolfie: mmhmm. you can’t have one without the other.
Blackberri: Yeah, exactly.
wolfie: ‘cause you wouldn’t be able to discern one without the other.
Blackberri: It made so much sense. It was an ahamoment for me, you know. And I just heard my phone go ding, and it’s getting toward the time that I was going to go and see a film.
wolfie: all right. well, then, here i shall say we are done!
wolfie: do you need a ride? i ended up borrowing my girlfriend’s van so i have a vehicle.
Blackberri: Oh, cool. Yeah, that would be…
wolfie: well, thank you so much for giving me this much of your day.
Blackberri:Thank you so much! You know if you want to do… if you need anything else.
wolfie: just… where did the name blackberri come from?
Blackberri: Ohh… It came from Tucson when I was living in that feminist community. We all chose names that did not refer to a cis gender. It was a… a dyke musician named, uh, Hummingbird who gave me the name Blackberri. She said it was because I was dark and sweet. I liked it and I kept it.
wolfie: what was the name of that community, again?
Blackberri: It didn’t have a name.
wolfie: didn’t have a name.
Blackberri: Didn’t have a name. It was just a lone community that… kind of… called itself feminist community ‘cause the men that were there were supporting feminist women’s work and the women were doing work and… yeah, that’s what it was.
wolfie: and what year was that again?
Blackberri: It was in the early… seventies… er, no, uh… yeah…
wolfie: early seventies in Tucson.
Blackberri: Early seventies, yeah.
wolfie: i was like, “wait, that’s an important question in this!” (chuckles) yeah. all right.