Thelathia “Nikki” Young, Bucknell University

Every single breath we take is a miracle

We were not meant to survive

We were meant to die, to be buried, to be trampled underfoot

Every heartbeat is a miracle

We were not meant to survive

We were meant to disappear, to wither into nothing in the soil

Every brain wave is a miracle

We were not meant to survive

We were meant to see only devastation, to bind ourselves with the shackles of someone else’s vision

Every muscle response is a miracle

We were meant to evaporate from history, to never have existed in the first place

We were not meant to survive.

But we did.


That we – people who are marginalized in America – have the audacity and the unction to continue in existence makes people question reality. Constant efforts to snuff out our lives with acute and massive violence, to squelch our spirits with demoralizing policies and laws, to render us hypervisible invisible entities, to dilute our cosmological imaginings with watered down notions of divinity… all this effort means that our survival makes no sense. And yet, even as some among us die, we must remind one another that we are surviving.

When I walked into my Race and Sexuality class on November 9, my students looked downtrodden and demoralized. For some of them, the election was the first realization that we do, in fact, live in a national context where racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and xenophobia are substantiated by violence and threats of further violence. For others in the class, nothing new happened on election night; the country simply confirmed and punctuated its own history of social and political oppression. In both cases, students struggled to articulate their feelings and floundered in the face of the country’s undeniable callous disregard for (social) justice.

I wanted a way to remind them of our collective survival. I needed a way to re-teach them about the power in our resilience, so I reminded them that my people – black people – have been living miraculous lives for a long time. That is, we have persisted in our existence, despite social, political, religious, and economic efforts to eviscerate us. I reminded them that we are science fiction, that our ancestors imagined us into being.

Our job, I suggested, is to remember, analyze, and take note of truths that can be erased, of experiences that can be dismissed, of subjectivities that can be denied, of lives that can be ignored. We have to remember. And in remembering, in recognizing, we have to face the tough complexity that emerges.

After explaining this process of remembering to the students, I led a discussion of Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival.” Students read the poem aloud and reflected on what it would mean for them to break their own silence, lift their own voices of protest and/or rage, in response to social and political realities that they would not longer accept or ignore. We also engaged a slightly altered version of the activity below, which I used during a workshop at a DignityUSA conference.

Out of our Own Mouths – Exercise for Remembering

  1. Have workshop participants do a 2-minute free-write. Ask them to jot down a memory of a time when homophobia/transphobia/heterosexism in the church had informed or shaped their relationship with religion and with their own sexual and gender identities.  (Note: this could also be used for other social identity markers, and it does not have to be connected to religion.)
  1. Then pair participants, preferably with someone they do not know or with whom they are not extremely close. Make one a listener and the other a teller (after having explained the value/virtue in the roles of listening and telling).
  1. Invite the teller to share their story for 2 minutes. Invite the listener to listen actively but silently. Note: it is not a conversation; rather, it is a compassionate communication.
  1. Now, ask them to switch roles for the next 2 minutes.
  1. Now ask each person to share (2 min. each) how this experience affected their sense of self, how it actually impacted their notion of them selves as a sexualized being.
  1. After a moment of break – allow folks to breathe! – ask the first listener to think about how they SURVIVED that experience. That is, what allowed them to get to where they are today? Note: this still works if the experience was not physically traumatic. Get the participants to think about their own capacity for resistance/resilience. (Consider providing an example.) Allow the listener to speak for 2 minutes. Then, invite them two switch roles.
  1. Ask for volunteers to share experiences, retelling the stories from the perspective of their survival/resistance/resilience.
  1. Debrief:
  • What did you notice in one another’s stories? What stood out to you about the stories?
  • How did it feel to share this experience? How did it feel to listen to someone else talk about this?
  • In what way did this exchange impact your own sense of sexuality, etc.?
  • What did the example of resilience/resistance teach you about your own capacity?
  • Why is it important to reframe this story?

Nikki Young teaches undergraduate students about intersectionality, queerness, race, and social justice. Her research focuses on black queer values, particularly in relation to constructions of kinship networks and constructions of liberation. Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) is her first book. She is currently writing a new book, Home Free: A Transnational Ethics of Black Queer Liberation.