Interview with Sam Vernon
Have you ever heard that saying?
You know the one that goes, “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice?” It’s complicated and my proximity to it has always fluctuated. Assuming the position of the “blackest berry,” which conjures up an image of the blackberry fruit, has historically been a proposition for Black femininity. As a Black queer womxn, I’ve never been able to identify with the objectification embedded in the presentation of this phrase; I’ve never felt quite complete in my “blackberry-ness.”
My investigation on “Blackberries” continues to evolve as a result of having these conversations with other Black queers. While this project provides a platform for critical thought on the ways we embody queerness, blackness, and femininity, it is also a personal investigation of mine. The process of deconstructing your bodyhood can be a tiring, confusing, and often lonely one. So I document these conversations in hopes to give space for folks to consider and process their “blackberry-ness” on paper and create a web of security for people who don’t have the language or support to do the same. These are the Blackberry Archives, telling the stories that pave a path toward defining the nuances of the Black femme figure, the Black femme figure as anti-structure.
In this latest interview for Blackberry Archives, I sat down with visual artist, Sam Vernon. Sam earned her MFA in Painting/Printmaking from Yale University in 2015 and currently teaches printmaking as an Assistant Professor at California College of the Arts (CCA). Sam and I are studio neighbors at Real Time and Space in Downtown Oakland. We’ve done a collaborative talk for my Black Printed Matter residency project at E.M Wolfman where we geeked out about the ways traditional printmaking has left an imprint on our art practices and moving toward decolonizing that practice. But until now we haven’t had a chance to sit down as friends and chat about the complexities our bodies as Black queer “womxn.”
• • •
SAM: Well, when thinking about your prompt for the interview, I was thinking about the kind of assumptions, not assumptions, because I don't want to think that you were making any assumptions about how I'm presenting in the world, but I was thinking about how you inviting me to participate in something like this is already how I'm perceived. Sometimes I would say I'm more femme-presenting in the world than other days, whether it be, like, wearing a dress and heels and lipstick, or whatever. But that has less to do with how I identify and more to do with how I present. I also think that everything is drag potentially. You know, we're always putting on all kinds of different layers on top of what we are. So, I can't really reduce myself to any one thing that I strongly identify with womanhood.
I would say I strongly identify with blackness but I also sometimes feel more masculine-of-center some days. In terms of how I want to approach living a life that has to do with equity within these binaries that have been created. Like what form does masculinity take? Is it directness? Is it like having the most presence in the room? Is it competency? If that's what being more masculine identified is, I want to throw that out the window. But I also do feel that I embrace those qualities. So it's not so black and white for me. And so there's a lot of gray area there. I have so much that I'm working on; so much that I still want to learn about myself. And I'm sure, like, over time my identity has shifted and changed a lot and it will continue to do so. But I try to do my best to know who I am and be present with that even if it changes day to day and why that happens.
LEILA: Well, part of the reason why I'm doing these interviews is because I have been mis-gendered my whole life. People have called me little boy, young man, and even now, sometimes, I get called Sir. Only difference is now I just don't care and I have also detached myself from any particular pronouns. It doesn't matter to me because I, too, inhabit a variety of gender presentations at any given moment. So, what are your pronouns?
My pronouns are she, her. But I think that has also been open to interpretation as well. Just the other day, because I have my pronouns in my email signature, someone who sent me an email said “Thank you for putting this in because I would've assumed that you were a man.” My name being Sam, this happens to me all the time where people will email saying something like, “I’m interested in your work, we've heard you're really great,” but then, when they find out that I'm a woman, the conversation shifts to that instead. I think there's just a lot of assumptions that are made based on many things, like how you wear your hair, how your name sounds, how you are on paper versus what a person sees in real life. So I think that there's always been this gap between how people see me in my work versus when they meet me.
Wow. I can definitely relate to the “on paper” versus IRL. My name, Leila, is so feminine that it typically functions in the opposite way, being they assume that I'm more feminine than I am and are surprised once they meet me in person. And it's interesting to hear a reversal of that experience, but those small things do impact the relationships that you could potentially have with people.
What do you think of when you hear, “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice?”
I think of so many songs that I love. I think of a certain time period. It feels very retro. It feels maybe like Blacksploitation era, where it's a “black is beautiful” kind of thing. Like, right after the Civil Rights Movement. You know, the kind of glamor around really wanting to celebrate black beauty, and black sexuality, and the sort of voluptuous nature—specifically—of full figured Brown skin women. I think of how Foxy Brown and women within more of a cinematic iconography really defined what a kind of beautiful black woman stands for—and how there's so much sweetness to be found there beyond the sexual acts.
What are three words that come to mind when you think of a blackberry?
Dark, juicy, sticky.
And what are three words that come to mind when you think of a black body?
I would say probably deep or depth, abstract, and cosmic.
And if you combine those concepts, how might you process those in relation to your body?
Well, I've been thinking a lot about how we all have the power to create something. And because of my own spiritual beliefs and us being products of a certain divine intellect, I would think that both those concepts and bodies have a lot to do with creation.
And you kind of answered this earlier, but in what ways do you consider your gender presentation?
Sometimes I just like to fuck with people. I don't really care these days. If I had to define my presentation right now it would probably be like “futch-y”.
When you say, “fuck with people” what do you mean? Like, your goal is to break down their expectations in some ways?
Yeah, I just do whatever I want. Because especially within academia, there's this expectation that you have to dress a certain way, to present a certain way, and if you switch it, whether it be your hair or whatever, and I'm not talking about code switching; I'm just talking simply about having braids versus wearing a wrap or growing my mustache out versus wearing lipstick and having my face be whatever. I just do whatever I feel like.
So in thinking about the Blackberry, as a body, as a fruit, and as something to be consumed, how do you think others have consumed you?
I try to be in charge of that as much as possible, and I think that there has definitely been a refusal within how much access a person can have to my body, but then also wanting to celebrate my own personal beauty, and whether it be via like social media or in my work. The things that I care about have shifted over the years. I think that there's something about the blackberry that's very elegant. But it can also leave a stain, you know, it can leave traces of what it was after it's already been consumed, and I think that that's all that we can really ask for as creators, is that after we're gone, that there's something left of us. And I think that the blackberry is a great metaphor for that. Of course, consuming something can be violent, but I have not had that experience. I feel very lucky that even within very challenging spaces in which I really had to defend my personhood, my femininity, my womanhood, my blackness, etc., that I've been able to preserve the fruit.