“I’m Zeila, pronounced Zay-luh. I met Jenn at Edinboro University on my beat with the school newspaper, The Spectator; every week, I spotlighted an artist in one of the university’s many art programs. When I interviewed Jenn, I became infected by her passion for her work and was thrilled when she asked me to participate in her graduate thesis show. Her vision included humans of all shapes, colors and sizes and her message, one of sexual empowerment and interruption of the hetero-patriarchal status quo, resonated with me on a personal level. As a bisexual black woman raised in the rural Amish country of Pennsylvania, I found my sexuality and identity stifled by the conservative, christian-centered and overwhelmingly white society that I was rooted in. My black body was often fetishized and encroached upon without my consent, and I found my womanhood challenged by stereotypes regarding the masculinity of black women and what it means to be bisexual.
Despite social pressures to shrink myself down to a more palatable size for white-conservative consumption, I blossomed into an unapologetic feminist and proponent of restorative justice. At Edinboro University, I studied Forensic Psychology, Journalism and Pre-law. As I delved further into the hetero-patriarchy of American power structures and faced the realities of institutional racism in my country, I found that I had already been radicalized by my experiences as a black child, teen and young woman in Edinboro. It was liberating, and sobering, to realize that I was not alone in surviving sexual assault, not the first to struggle with my racial and sexual identities and certainly not the only child in America whose parents were victims of a broken, corrupted criminal justice system. In learning more about my ancestors and the activists who’ve paved the way for my own social justice work, the call to action was too profound to ignore; change is enacted by those willing to do something. Those who march, who protest, who research and write and put their hearts and bodies on the line for a mere chance at an equitable future— they are the warriors of this era, risking stability to fight in the marketplace turned battlefield of ideas and standing firm against the physical threat of a militant police force and the rapidly-growing alt-right militias forming all over America.
When Jenn asked me to wear her work, I again felt a part of something bigger than myself. Not usually shy, I felt fear gather in my stomach at the thought of baring myself for my community. That fear quickly dissipated when I realized that I have already done so. I have come out of the closet. I have stood naked before entire classrooms. I have written and read about the joys and sorrows of American blackness. I have come forward about sexual assault regardless of the consequences. I have felt the sting of the teargas my tax dollars pay for and shouted the names of the unavenged dead until my throat was raw. I have participated in sex work as a Dominant for your Republican brothers and fathers. I have bled monthly for my womanhood and I have bled in the street for my blackness. Now, I have been photographed in a beautiful harness, hand-crafted just for me, to commemorate all of that. In this harness, I felt the reality of my power. In my strength there is only beauty, and in my beauty there is a diverse world. I am a work of art.
I share myself freely to remind Erie that there is no shame inherent to the female nipple, that each body is beautiful in it’s uniqueness and that the lives of people like me matter. The validity of black lives, women’s lives and queer lives is non-negotiable. Sexual empowerment is not sinful or a cry for help, but the closest we get to divinity; it is a vital, natural aspect of the human experience. When the hetero- patriarchy falls, I will be wearing this armor. I hope you will stand with me.”
NICKEL SILVER HARNESS AND CREATIVE DIRECTION BY JENNIFER LAU
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SARAH ARTICE