by Beverly Aarons
Some birds aren’t meant to be caged — not by tiny steel bars and not by tiny forced narratives woven around their lives like intricate vines with pointy sharp thorns. As I listened to multidisciplinary artist Shontina Vernon tell me about her art — and by extension her life — during our telephone interview, I thought about how society’s carefully woven metastories threaten to confine us all like beautiful but trapped birds with very few of us daring an escape. Shontina Vernon is the one who got away.
It’s March 2017, Vernon stands on a stage, and behind her a large projection of her 10-year-old self is plastered onto a wanted poster — the kind you might find in a wild west movie. There’s a stool there but she doesn’t sit. There are four mic stands but the microphone remains firmly within her grasp. She tells her story — her way and with confidence. She was adopted by a great-great-aunt and uncle after her birth mother left her under a tree at a family reunion. Her parents couldn’t read or write, so Vernon became the family “translator,” much like some Mexican kids with parents who don’t speak English in her small, segregated hometown, Lamesa, Texas. Her father was born in 1894, only 29 years after the end of slavery. In the 1980s he worked as a gardener on the wealthy, white side of town, and when Vernon was 8 years old, she often watched him kneel before his white employer to receive his paycheck. She picked cotton with her 64-year-old mother in 90 degree heat, and even as a little girl who didn’t fully understand the ways of the world, Vernon knew that she could not live that kind of life — she and her family had to escape, somehow.
“[These] were in fact some of my very first acts of resistance, my very first acts of bravery, my very first acts of bona fide creativity,” Vernon said during our interview. She was 8 years old back then, but she had concocted a plan to steal the checkbook of her father’s employer and mail forged checks to her parents. She wanted them to believe they had won the sweepstakes just like on TV. It worked — for months. Then she got caught. She received one year probation, but she did it again and was sent to a juvenile detention center for six months when she was 10 years old. After her incarceration, she was sent to a children’s home for a year and a half while the prosecuting attorney argued that she be confined to a youth prison until she was 18 years old. She was labeled: the bad kid.
But in those early years, Vernon’s personal story wasn’t completely submerged by the “bad kid” narrative — she had dreams of being a singer, just like Whitney Houston. She wanted out of Lamesa, Texas, but that dream slowly “went quiet” as she faced nearly a decade of imprisonment.
“My story wasn’t necessarily unique in the small little town that I grew up in,” Vernon said. “This was the thing that was happening to a lot of Black and Brown young folks in that town and in so many others that we’re learning about since then. But it had a real impact — the trauma was real.” Vernon explores the impact of youth incarceration in her stage play Wanted, a semi-autobiographical one-woman show that first premiered in 2009 at the Hip Hop Theatre Festival reading series in Manhattan.
According to a study conducted in King County, the recidivism rate amongst incarcerated youth is as high as 79%, and formerly incarcerated youth rarely finish high school. Young Shontina Vernon’s future was at risk; going to prison would have almost guaranteed that her dream would go quiet forever. But something happened: Her older sister living in Dallas, Texas found an attorney who was willing to take on Vernon’s criminal case pro bono. And that little girl with two illiterate parents living in a small segregated town fought the Texas juvenile justice system and won. Vernon did not go to prison — instead she moved to Dallas with her older sister and eventually enrolled in a performing arts high school where she honed her skills to become the singer, filmmaker, and theatre artist she is today. But escaping the physical grasp of youth incarceration was only the beginning of her battle.
“I could really feel the impact of that early story on my life for a significant portion of my young adult life,” Vernon said. “And I think it was because I had really internalized some of the myths about what it means to be a young Person of Color engaged in the criminal justice system — if you can call it that.” She talked about the “danger of a single story” and the risk of allowing another person to “name and define and create the defining narrative around your life.”
“I think the impact of just being engaged with the criminal justice system so early [in life] meant that it was a seed that really was wedged in there. My young adult life was just impacted by that seed in terms of my ability to take certain kinds of risks, my ability to trust my own sense of myself, and my own sense of agency in the world.”
But Vernon wanted to break free from the myths that were binding her, so she did take a risk: She became a full-time artist. She lived in New York and Los Angeles and Atlanta, and she went to graduate school at UW and lived in Seattle for nine years. She took a creative risk by telling the story of her incarceration so that she would not “be afraid of it and rendered powerless by it.” There was fear. She feared being misunderstood and being defined by the story in such a way that she wouldn’t have “the space to branch out to try anything else.”
Vernon’s film Grrrl Justice, which was produced in Seattle, explores the impact of youth incarceration on young women: What it means when girls aren’t fully seen or believed, and what happens when false narratives direct how the world interacts with them. Vernon understands the power of story to expand or constrain a person’s life, and she has no plans of allowing others to reshape her story into a caricature of itself.
“I have learned to really trust those spidey senses and make myself very scarce.” Vernon said, adding that she doesn’t accept every invitation to share her story especially if she senses someone is trying to turn her into a token. “My mother was very private too. … You know what I mean? Guarded in a healthy way, you know, real boundaries. I think that’s sort of how I do it. And I’m also okay with being a little bit disruptive. If it feels like people are asking me to kind of [bow down] to an idea or a definition that doesn’t originate with me, I’m okay with disrupting that and making others a little bit uncomfortable until they understand that they are misguided.”
Vernon is quick to point out that her new story would not have been possible without the mentorship of her elders, especially older Black women — her elder parents, their friends, and the professors who guided her as a young woman from high school and onward.
“I could have been just a misguided, lost, wandering soul,” Vernon said of what her life might have been without Black women mentors. “My journey could have taken a lot longer.”
She spoke of her undergrad professor at Clark Atlanta University, Joan Lewis, who Vernon described as “strange and eccentric but in the best way.” She laughed as she continued, noting that her former professor was heterosexual and might not like being described with the word “queer” but that in fact “She sort of queered my theater world in a sense. Do you know what I mean? And queered my eyes to this idea that normalcy is what? What is normal, right? And so by virtue of her eccentricities and being willing to stand in those things, she really made me less afraid of the things about myself that didn’t sort of fit.”
Vernon makes it clear that her journey hasn’t been as easy as the rags-to-riches tales so many Americans love to hear.
“We Americans just love a really good success story, right? We love shiny rags-to-riches [stories]: One day it was all bad and the next day was just, like, glorious and then I was in this really great space from then on. But it’s not really like that,” Vernon said. Explaining how her mentors helped her confront and shape her internal narrative, she added, “They just sort of helped me understand how my emotional wounding could land me in really compromised and interesting places if I didn’t sit with it, look at it, and be willing to shift and change or be in a state of acceptance about those things. … It takes a wise person to look at you and be willing to let you know the ways in which you’re not the cat’s meow.”
And it’s this wellspring of elder wisdom that Vernon calls on when she needs guidance as she pens the next chapter of her personal story. When I asked her about her TEDx Berkeley Talk, “Mining The Generational Divide,” Vernon (who is a Generation Xer) said that the cultural wisdom she would like to share with the next generation is that “not all traditions are bad … some of them are meant to ground us in a deeper understanding of who we are in the continuum.”
In terms of her legacy as an artist, Vernon says that she’s not interested in the “cult of personality.” If she’s remembered for anything, she wants to be remembered for the things that helped the community move to the next level. The Visionary Justice StoryLab, a collective and film production hub where Shontina Vernon serves as the creative director, is launching a 3-year Women of Color narrative initiative which Vernon says will center “intersectional narratives from the standpoint of Black women [and] queer and trans Women of Color.”
“We have these rich interiorities that are never really broken open and explored. When I think of that work through the lab, that’s what is exciting to me. … If a hundred years from now we have so many rich and wonderful films that people can go back to and reference and draw from, and there’s a new crop of filmmakers that are being bold and risk-taking and telling these sort of rich, complex, multi-dimensional stories, then to me that is the work and that would be how I would want to be remembered.”
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.
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