Do you have a hero? If so, what is it about them that has earned your admiration?
Like most kids, my heroes were big and flashy. They wore capes, they could sing, they could act, and they had the love of millions of fans. I never questioned why I seemed to only look at celebrities and superheroes as the best of us, because their fame spoke for itself. If you’re popular, then you must be perfect. But is that true?
As I began to take better care of myself, a key piece of the journey was coming to terms with my identity, with who I wanted to be. I had a long list of heroes I wanted to emulate, however as celebrities with carefully crafted images, superheroes, and film characters, they represented a type of unattainable perfection that made me feel stuck. So, I began to look at things another way: rather than trying to become a copy of someone with status, power, and control, I decided to explore who I am already, in order to discover my authentic self.
By definition, “authentic” means “of undisputed origin;genuine”.
Distilled down for a regular person like myself, I believe authenticity means existing as you are without regard for the molds others want you to fit in. For example: I’m a survivor. I’m a Black woman, a Kansan, a right-handed singer with allergies. These are all facts, but in between those societal molds are the details and experiences that make me LaKase. I might not be exactly like Brandy (one of my earliest heroes), nor do I have the power she wields, but my authentic self is important and good in its own right.
Nowadays, my admiration is rooted in more abstract concepts: kindness, bravery, and authenticity. There are many ways to define each, whether it be through a cultural lens, a personal preference, or how I might be feeling in the moment. But what remains constant is the work we have to put in to live our lives well. I broadcast who I am to others in the way I dress, how I speak, and in what I value in this world.
When I think about the people I admire now, it rarely has anything to do with the number of friends they have, how much money they make, or how beautiful they are but what they put into the world. The folks who continue to inspire me, and unwittingly push me to better myself, have been decidedly, radically themselves. Being yourself can be difficult, even dangerous depending on where you live or what you look like, but living your truth gives others permission to be who they are as well. That’s the magic of it all.
The videos below feature two women who make me so happy and encouraged about walking my path on my own terms. I hope you enjoy their words as much as I do.
“Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.” – Unknown
I grew up reading DC and Marvel, watching animated series about Batman and the X-Men, and rushing to the theater for each new incarnation of my favorite heroes. I’ve even gone as far as cosplaying with my family at the San Diego Comic Con (which was a blast)! There’s an air of encouragement that comes along with reading about heroes and in many ways they are our modern mythologies; each time they succeed, I feel challenged to find ways to be the heroine of my own story, or to push myself beyond my limits.
The 91st Academy Awards aired last night, and I was elated to see comic book films were able to claim trophies in several categories, with wins in Best Animated Feature (Into the Spider-Verse), as well as Costume Design/Production Design and Best Original Score (Black Panther). The women who won for Black Panther – Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler – were the first Black women to win in their categories, and Peter Ramsey – one of the directors of Spider-Verse – was the first Black director to win in the category.
In honor of the historic wins last night, and of the books I love so much, today I want to honor two people who broke barriers in the field. Enjoy!
Jackie Ormes was the first Black woman to become a comic illustrator. Born in 1911 as Zelda Mavin Jackson, Ormes would become famous for creating the Torchy Brown comic strip and Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger. Jackie initially worked as a journalist for the Black-owned Pittsburgh Courier newspaper before making the transition to comic illustrator and writer in 1937 with the Torchy comic. Jackie was prolific artist, who worked until retirement in 1956.
What I love about Jackie is her dedication to confronting racism, sexuality, and environmental issues. She became so outspoken that she was eventually investigated by the FBI. In 2014, Jackie Ormes was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. She was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Industry Hall of Fame in 2018.
Matt Baker is known today as the first Black man to become a comic book illustrator. He was born ten years after Jackie, in 1921, and eventually moved to her stomping ground of Pittsburgh as well. Baker was sought out and hired for his beautiful drawings of buxom women, who were heroines and adventurers. He is most widely known, however, for Phantom Lady. I love that Baker drew her, and other women, as strong, brave and formidable, within a realm that usually presented women as solely sexual objects.
Additionally, Baker is credited with the creation of the first Black hero in the comic realm, known as Voodah.
Every Wednesday of Black History Month I will be featuring stories of everyday heroism that have helped to reshape the world. Whether they be writers, activists, or people who were just fed up, these icons are people I hope you’ll never forget.
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t learn Marsha P. Johnson’s story until recently. In fact, I hadn’t heard about the Stonewall Riots, nor did I know nearly enough about the battles the LGBTQIA Community has had to fight for the basic rights afforded to straight, cis-gendered society. Yet, now that I know her name and have learned of her work, I will never forget her story.
Marsha P. Johnson was a New York City-based trans woman, drag queen, and sex worker who, in June 1969, fought back against a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a bar where the LGBTQIA community could gather without fear of persecution. At the time is was illegal for them to be served, but the Stonewall Inn became their safe haven. When the police came, they decided to stand their ground and assert their human rights. Marsha infamously shouted “I know my rights!” as she threw a shot glass and shattered a mirror. For two two nights Marsha, her friends, and other bar goers resisted.
Following the riots, Marsha and others led gay liberation demonstrations throughout the city. In honor of their work, Pride Week is celebrated in June.
With the aid of Sylvia Rivera, Marsha founded STAR – Street Transvestite* Action Revolutionaries – to protect and house the trans youth, sex workers, and gender non-conforming youth of lower Manhattan. Johnson’s activism would last until her untimely death in 1992. Her case was originally ruled a suicide without further investigation, but in 2012 her death was re-opened to be investigated as a homicide.
Trans women have an average life expectancy of 35. Thirty-five. That means middle age hits at 17, going on 18. The stakes are even higher if you are a trans woman of color, especially a Black woman. Marsha exceeded the average by 12 years, but I can only imagine what she could have accomplished – beyond the magic she struck in her short life – had she been afforded the same opportunities as the rest of us.
I am not trans. In fact, I am a cis-gendered, straight, able-bodied woman from a middle class family. I went to college. I have privileges that make my life much more comfortable than many others, but I look at Marsha and read her story, and feel a fire. It’s our responsibility as humans to feel that burn, to know her name, to know the struggle and to fight on her behalf. I hope you’ll stand up where you can.
If you would like to learn more about Marsha’s remarkable life and cruel end, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is available to stream on Netflix.
*Transvestite is an out-of-date term, but was included for accuracy. The correct term today is Trans or Transgender.
Yesterday, a huge number of Americans took to the polls for the Midterm Elections. The lines were long and in many cases the machines were down, or not working correctly. Add to the scenario the emotional weight of the event, and you’ve certainly created the perfect storm for an anxiety attack. And yet, we still showed up. We defied voter suppression and all kinds of insane obstacles to be heard. In a few cases, the outcomes weren’t great, but in many we saw change take hold.
As I kept track of the results throughout the evening my mind kept going back to a name: Shirley Chisholm. I learned about this remarkable woman at a fairly young age, but the gravity of her story didn’t hit me until I was an adult. Shirley Chisholm was a barrier smasher, a truth-speaker, a force of righteous forward movement that should inspire us all to stand up to insurmountable odds. In short? Shirley was a badass.
Born in 1924 to immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York, Shirley quickly grew into a bright and talented young woman. She competed on her college debate team and graduated cum laude from Brooklyn College in 1946. In 1951 she earned her master’s degree in early childhood education from Columbia University. Shirley then became active in the NAACP, the Urban League, the League of Women Voters, and the Democratic Party. She joined the State Legislature in 1964, then became the first Black woman in Congress in 1968. She was a fierce politician who fought for gender and racial equality, opposed and sought to end the Vietnam War, and co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. Shirley became the first Black woman and second woman to serve on the House Rules Committee.
In 1972 Shirley Chisholm did what no one thought possible for a Black woman: she decided to run for the Democratic nomination for president. Using the motto “Unbossed and Unbought”, Shirley was determined to be a voice for the ever-marginalized. She didn’t get the nomination, due to rampant racism and misogyny, but Shirley remained a fighter until her retirement from Congress in 1983.
I’m forever inspired by Shirley, because she refused to be pushed aside. She didn’t win the big battle in the end, but she used her voice and her will to triumph in as many skirmishes as possible. As I wrestle with the concepts of success and defeat, I find solace in the story of Shirley. She soldiered on when it might have been wise to sit back. She demanded her due in a world that would rather see her starved out. I remember her in the little skirmishes of my own path, when the end floats undefined on the horizon, and I remember that it is all worth the fight.
Each week we will feature the kind of everyday heroes you can look up to. They come from all walks of life, age groups and beliefs. We hope you’ll learn as much from them as we have!
Do you remember Chappelle’s Show ? It started airing when I was in high school and quickly became the only thing those of us with cable talked about. We pretended to be Tyrone Biggums, quoted Clayton Bigsby, and once DerekDixon showed up for Halloween celebrations painted completely white, as Dave had been in a “wife Swap” episode. I’m still not sure how we all managed to avoid suspension.
Katie Hunerdosse doesn’t look like the kind of person you would expect to quote Dave Chappelle (clap-havin’-Jezebel was the go-to), or spend time in my basement watching his episodes, but that’s part of what makes her so special: you can’t put her into just one box. Artist, mother, singer, dancer, teacher, wife, warrior, friend; the list could go on and on if she let me. Knowing Katie has taught me that life doesn’t have to be a clean line, with every step mapped out from cradle to grave. In fact, we’re all better off for the people who deviate from grid. Her interview, which had me alternating between laughter and tears, is below. I hope you enjoy learning from this remarkable woman!
What is your profession? Technically? I’m a substitute teacher. That’s my main gig, I guess. But, “on the side”, I am a freelance artist. Which means basically anything goes. Illustration for a children’s book? I’m here. Set painting? You got it. Need some nerdy jewelry to sell somewhere? I’m your girl. Also, I’m a mom to a two year old who has an appetite for destruction (mostly of his face), so there’s that too.
How did you break into your position? Well, I have a degree in art, which in itself is not a bad thing at all. However, I live in an extremely small town in Minnesota (we make SPAM here), so while this town does love its arts, getting a quality career off the ground is easier said than done. So, in terms of things that could pay me money and wouldn’t suck my soul out of my head, I decided that working in schools was the best option. I started out right after college as an art paraprofessional in an emotional/behavior disorder residential school, and after that, I figured I could handle ANYTHING. Unfortunately my health wasn’t great throughout my 20s, so I had a hard time finding a consistent job that wouldn’t penalize me for being sick. Being not easily shocked, I discovered that I could work as a substitute teacher whenever I was available to work. It actually has been great for me – I think a part of me loves being challenged by improv. From the freelance angle, I wanted to still be using my degree and doing what I love, so I got involved in community theater, which opened a lot of other doors because the people willing to set aside their dignity and get crazy onstage tend to be people also willing to make a difference in their community.
If you could change your life, what would you do instead?Why? Well, I think there are a few things I would change and most of those involve my proximity to a Target (because ours closed and the nearest one is 45 miles away! SEND HELP.) I do actually love my life and the people in it. There is a part of me – the former theater major – that wishes I would have pursued acting more seriously, but I really don’t mind not living that lifestyle, because I love hiding in my house, playing Skyrim and dancing to Michael Jackson videos with my husband and son every night. Oh, I suppose I would have loved to have taken dance classes. I could always manage to be more graceful and less apt to trip over nothing.
What are some ways you take care of yourself?
I have a lot of things that I need to do for myself, and it took me too long to realize that I shouldn’t come last. I am pretty open about not only having some mental health issues (coupled with very early diagnosed ADHD), so I know what I can handle and what ends up being too much for me. I can tell if I’m starting to slip into a bad place, so I typically keep all of my physicians aware of what’s going on with me. I have two friends from high school who are also parents and we chat all day long about whatever is on our minds and support each other; we even took a “mom trip” to Door County, WI, and drank a lot of really sweet wine and were the youngest people there (shout out to Mandy and Danielle!). Speaking of community, I mentioned the community theatre in this town and just want to express my gratitude for that. I have some amazing friends through that. And they’re all incredibly talented and motivated as well. Participating in theatre really does keep me sane and feeling like myself. Aside from being cognizant of my mental health, I’ve had some struggles with my physical health. I have stage 4 Endometriosis, which so many women unfortunately suffer through. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I 1) couldn’t get pregnant, and 2) was having episode of extreme pain and blackouts. I’ve had a number of surgeries to remove cysts and the like, but all that scar tissue makes my insides feel like I swallowed pea gravel sometimes. Despite living in Spamtown, I gave up eating most meat (other than fish and the occasional chicken, if I’m making pho ga for a bad cold), which seemed to help a lot. I also took up running. I’m not fast, but I wanted to feel like my body could do something powerful. I’ve run two half marathons and I’m hoping to run another one this fall. Although I definitely would not be fast enough to survive a zombie apocalypse.
Can you share a time or event you didn’t think you could survive?
I think a lot of people with mental health issues can jump to any number of bad periods in their lives, but I really struggled with all of the baggage of infertility. It just seemed like an endless, hopeless tunnel. Everyone wanted to talk about babies all the time, everyone was having them, and I just wanted hide in my sweater. I ended up undergoing IVF (thankfully we lived in Illinois, which covered it under insurance), which is EXTREMELY taxing. The drugs you take are intense, you feel super gross, you’re always sweating and foggy, and there’s such high stakes. And, when I actually did get pregnant, I had spent so many years of thinking it wasn’t going to happen, that I couldn’t let myself be happy. My anxiety was relentless, especially at the beginning. Then, once I finally started to feel comfortable with our success, it turns out that I had a possibly life-threatening complication (full placenta previa, for those of you interested). Oh, and we decided to move ourselves and two crazy dogs back to Minnesota during this point. So, before my son was finally born (a month early, which required him to spend his first two weeks of life in the Infant Special Care Nursery), I had two major bleeds, two ambulance rides, and stayed a grand total of three weeks in the antepartum unit. It’s almost like I did everything the absolute hardest way I could.
What/Who pulled you through it?
I really like the guy I married. Jacob’s got a great sense of humor and has really good perspective when it comes to health issues because it runs in his family. He isn’t the type of person to coddle me (which can be frustrating), but when it comes to being a stable presence, he wins all the awards. He supplied me with endless puns and dad jokes until I was distracted from my brain long enough to relax. He spent weeks driving the 50 miles back and forth every evening during the Minnesota winter to visit me in the hospital, then did it again so we could visit our baby. His calm dedication was invaluable. He also is cute, even though he currently has a mustache (which I did not sanction but I won’t yuck his yum.)
How did the event/time shape the way you live now?
I really am not bothered by much anymore when it comes to life events. My son, Jonas, is two and a half now. He’s absolutely bonkers. But I love it. I really do. Everything he does to me is amazing because he’s like a scientific masterpiece, except when he creates his own “scientific masterpieces”, which are both underwhelming and gross. I also realized from this experience that I suffer from a lot more anxiety than I ever realized and that it’s not the way things had to be. It was kind of the point in my life when I stopped caring about what people expected of me and decided to live my life the best way I knew how.
What was the best/ funniest/ most memorable piece of advice you’ve received? My favorite advice is the parenting strategy my husband presented to me: “let’s raise our first kid like our third kid.” It sounds crass, but it’s actually fantastic. After that whole medical mess of getting this kid, we decided to stop sweating the small stuff. Is he growing? Good. Is he pooping? Good. Has he been washed in the last week? Excellent. Obviously he’s getting more undivided attention from all the adults in his life as a first kid, but I don’t panic if he doesn’t hit all of his milestones early or eats things that aren’t perfectly healthy or falls down. A few weeks ago, in fact, he actually broke his nose falling down our front stone stairs. Naturally it was terrible and traumatic, but he actually had a great time sitting in the ER, making friends with nurses and watching Dragonball Z. (His parents were less enthusiastic, but also very hungry). Having been around a lot of kids, I know that having a very panicky parent really affects kids, and I’m hoping that this strategy allows me to hold back some of my anxiety when interacting with my kid. Plus, there’s basically zero mom guilt, because it’s not like my toddler is part of a toddler fight club (although I wouldn’t talk about it if he was.)
When do you feel the most free? I feel free doing all the arts. ALL THE ARTS. I draw and paint and knit and make little polymer clay pendants. It gives me joy and gives me a purpose that’s separate from being a parent. Alas, I love performing on stage, specifically in musicals. I’m a huge musical theater nerd. This town has a pretty great scene for that. On stage, I get to be someone else, with very specific motivations, and I don’t have to recount every single thought I’ve ever had (which is typically how my brain works). It’s like a brain break, and it also challenges me in the best way. I’ve gotten to do things like learn how to use puppets for Avenue Q and moon the entire audience in RENT. Our summer community theater just produced the musical Chicago, and I basically had six weeks to learn how to dance convincingly (and not cause Bob Fosse to roll over in his grave). Pulling that off was a huge accomplishment (and there’s very little a room full of applause won’t fix, right?)
What do you want to be remembered for? Well, I can tell you definitively that I DO NOT WANT TO BE FAMOUS. Being that this is a small town, I’ve had far too many people stop me to talk about the shows I’ve been in, and that’s some that my social anxiety cannot handle. I guess I just like being part of the artistic process, making something that impacts people. I have always loved the concept of heirlooms, lovely things that are passed down in honor of someone who came before. I make a lot of tiny pendants and things because I like to think that they’re going to be what remains of me someday. Nothing earth-shattering, just a little bit of art to remind someone that I was here and tried to make the world a lovelier place.