by Mark Van Streefkerk
This Friday, Dec. 11, the co-editors of The Black Trans Prayer Book (TBTPB), J Mase III and Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi, along with other contributors, will share readings, perform, and connect at a Seattle Public Library online event. A collection over three years in the making, TBTPB was released in April and features poems, stories, rituals, spells, and theology by Black trans people of many faiths and spiritual traditions. At once a tool for reclaiming spirituality and healing from religious trauma, TBTPB is also an important contribution to liberation theology, which views religion as a means of liberation for oppressed people.
J Mase, a Black/trans/queer poet and educator said, “The purpose of the whole book is that any Black trans person from any tradition could open that book right now and use it. … This opens up a whole new realm of liberation theology for current, modern times, for people to reclaim the divinity of Black trans people. … Our default of finding our spiritual center is not whiteness, but we get to have ones that look like us and gods that sound like us, defining and being with us.”
When J Mase and Edidi, a Nigerian, Cuban, Indigenous, American performance artist, choreographer, author, and priestess, started working on the project, they raised funds to compensate contributors and to help host a retreat in Maryland last year. Both were vital to the creation of TBTPB. “We are used to having to write for other people,” J Mase noted. “Then our writing starts from a place of having to explain to other people who we are and what we’re about, instead of being like, ‘Hey, we as Black trans folks have the right to grow and learn, not to be beholden to anybody, just for ourselves.’”
TBTPB reflects diverse faiths from African, Abrahamic, and Eastern religions. Oluseyi Aedbanjo, a Nigerian-born, nonbinary media artist is one contributor who explores Orishas. Edidi examines sacred sexuality and sacred sex work, and J Mase’s work comes from “creating a theology for survivors” of domestic violence and intimate partner violence. The SPL event will feature J Mase, Edidi, and three other contributors reading and performing live.
The book can be a powerful resource for Black trans people who have found themselves pushed out of religion, an experience close to J Mase, whose mother hailed from a Baptist tradition, and whose father was from the Nation of Islam. While his father might not have completely understood J Mase’s identity, he respected his journey. His mother’s Baptist teachings were a lot more inflexible. “I was exorcised as a young person,” J Mase said, noting it’s something that can be common for trans or queer youth raised in religious families.
The harmful effects of transphobic or homophobic attitudes in some religions can lead to lasting trauma. “It’s one thing to say ‘I don’t like you,’ or ‘This person dislikes you.’ It’s a whole different thing to say ‘Not even my god likes you. Not even your god likes you,’” J Mase explained. “Even if I don’t believe in religion, to know if someone believes in their whole being that not even the creator of all things would find worthiness of you — I think that’s a lot of trauma to absorb as a young person. We all have religious-based trauma that we have a right to get rid of and to dissipate.”
J Mase and Edidi’s next plan is to make TBTPB into a documentary to reach even more Black trans people, helping them rediscover their own divinity and historical legacy of spiritual essentiality.
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Featured image: Co-editors of The Black Trans Prayer Book Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi and J Mase III will read live, along with other contributors, at a free online SPL event this Friday. Photo: Michael J. Eckert) by Michael J. Eckert