Ph.D. Student Jah Elyse Sayers On How Trans People of Color Establish Their Sense of Place in NYC

Jah Elyse Sayers (Photo courtesy of Sayers)

Graduate Center Ph.D. student Jah Elyse Sayers (Environmental Psychology) is a Black, mixed-race, and trans masculine researcher, organizer, artist, and farmer who is studying the ways that queer and trans people of color make and maintain their place in neighborhoods and public areas. 

From 2016 to 2017, Sayers was the inaugural Equitable Public Space Fellow at the Design Trust for Public Space, which has been a partner in planning a number of public spaces, including the High Line. Sayers is now an active member of the Audre Lorde Project, a community center in New York for queer people of color, and serves on the board of the New Village Press, which focuses on grassroots community building. 

As part of a Pride Month series, The Graduate Center’s Director of Media Relations, Tanya Domi, interviewed Sayers, while her weekly podcast, The Thought Project, is temporarily on hold. 

Domi: Tell me about your research and how you developed your ideas.

Sayers: One of the beautiful things about geography, which is central to both urban studies (my undergraduate major at Columbia University) and environmental psychology (my discipline at The Graduate Center), is that getting spatial requires a multidisciplinary approach. As I’ve always had a hard time narrowing down my interests, a spatial approach makes it easy to find an entry point and go from there. 

My undergraduate thesis focused on patterns of displacement enacted on Black and brown, queer, and trans people in the West Village/Christopher Street Piers and the resilience of our survival in this space. 

What now is often flouted as a colorblind gayborhood was home to Sappokanikan, a Lenape village, displaced by the Dutch West India company in the 17th century; the first legally emancipated Black community in North America made up of people formerly enslaved by the Dutch West India Company (1640s); NYC’s first Black church; Billie Holiday’s first public performance of “Strange Fruit;” the NAACP’s former headquarters; Lorraine Hansberry; James Baldwin; the Black trans femme and Black butch-led Stonewall Uprising; a lively Black and brown queer and trans ballroom scene; a rally at Stonewall earlier this month to honor the lives of Nina Pop, Tony McDade, and other Black trans lives lost. 

Greenwich Village, despite aggressive gentrification and displacement, is built on and with Black and indigenous history, labor, and life. 

My tracing of a non-residential Black and queer and trans community laying claim to the beach at Jacob Riis Park and all the attempts to close that public space off to them brought me to an understanding that Black and queer geographies evade the logics of property ownership and demographic data the state uses to determine who belongs where. Now, when I conduct research Riis Park, I’m certainly interested in the immediate spatial context, but I’m more interested in the stories about the space, community, the world, and themselves that people bring there and leave with. 

Domi: As a trans masculine, Black, and mixed-race person, how do you feel about the Black Lives Matter demonstrations? 

Sayers: To see life ripped from people over and over again is exhausting, rage-inducing, heartbreaking. That rage also comes from deep love, so my experience of the recent surge in Black and Black solidarity uprisings has been one of grief, rage, and radical love and hope. This moment — and its multiple highly publicized state-sanctioned murders of Black people and Black queer people and Black trans people and Black disabled people and Black women and Black elders at the hands of the police or at hands of a broken health system during this pandemic — is more an unveiling of what’s been than a whole new set of conditions; and every tough conversation, every chant, every flame is also a declaration of hope that we will shift the death-dealing conditions of racial capitalism in favor of more livable futures. 

Domi: How does the art you create contribute to your life and day-to-day living? 

Sayers: I make performance and sculptures. I use art as a way to dive into uncertainties, tensions, overlapping metaphors, and affects that I don’t quite know how to express solely verbally or textually. This takes some pressure off of my writing because I’m less worried about trying to express everything in words when I know I can turn to other mediums both for exploration and expression of ideas and affects. I think it’s all the same project of deepening learning and inviting other people in to build ideas and whole worlds together. Learning fabrication skills is something that came out of pursuing metalwork as an art medium, and I use those skills now to help build gardens. My sculpture practice comes out of trash-picking, and helps me look at old furniture and other would-be trash a little differently such that an old loft bed or some broken up pallets can become a garden bed or some scrap metal can become a clock. Art and making bring me joy and the physical practices help calm my mind and focus my thoughts.

Domi: The Audre Lorde Project also appears to complement the research and your interests. What activities are you engaged with in this community organization for queer people of color?

Sayers: Going through the "Daring to be Powerful" series as a participant and, later, as a facilitator really oriented my relationship to power in that power was once something I was afraid of and rejected and now it’s something I know can be utilized with accountability and attention to form and distribution. I’ve also learned a lot about alternatives to the police by putting them into action while working on community safety teams and wellness teams during events and actions.  It’s a place where I’ve built relationships and learned lessons that take precedent over the organization, especially when engaging with the limits of the nonprofit industrial system.

Submitted on: JUN 26, 2020

Category: Diversity, Environmental Psychology, GCstories, General GC News, Student News, Voices of the GC