Ain’t I A Bottom

Welcome to Autostraddle’s 2020 Black History Month Series, a deliberate celebration of black queer clarity of vision and self-determination.

via Bethany Vargas & Keyla Marquez

At the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth delivered the speech that came to be known as “Ain’t I A Woman.” Her remarks briefly juxtapose her observations that both the antislavery and women’s rights movements, in which she participated, overlooked black women. “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?” she asked — demurring only slightly from the more explicitly political and religious overtones of the talk. This refrain remains poignant for Black femmes, because regardless of the dis-likeability of being presumed helpless, we have never had the privilege of opting out of this exposure with the undignified and unsightly: we have never been given any “best place.”

bell hooks notes that unabated since our arrival on American shores, Black women have done “men’s work,” or jobs that were considered too harsh, dirty, or impolite for ladies. (The essay, “sexism and the black female slave experience” is the first in a collection of essays named for, and taking up lines of thought, from Truth’s speech.) The historic struggle for the freedom to do all work that suits us, regardless of gender, figures dissimilarly from the perspective of women who have been forced to do the most harrowing work, on and off working hours.

I’ve been a ringleader and a tomboy for the better part of my life. I was frequently the only girl invited to boys’ birthday parties before puberty. I remember whooping ass in laser tag, relishing the gendered underdog justice of imputing competitive humiliation. In middle school, my father chuckled reminding me, whilst I wept that boys didn’t like me, that I should “stop busting their balls.” Since 4, I’ve been an athlete, eventually becoming competitive enough to serve as a select soccer team striker, and to win the shot put championship in my high school league. I’m a (fairly) charismatic diplomatic type: I was elementary school president, I served on my high school senate, and now, I work as an artist, curator, and host, and programming director for creative communities.

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I’m disgusted by the idea that the power positionality I teach from would be the one I fuck from. There is NOTHING more satiating to me than relinquishing my quotidian responsibilities to a stern, caring, and intense top.

My first job was as a lead kindergarten and first grade “looping” classroom teacher — a turn from my earlier legal aspirations, upon the catalytic learning that prisons use 3rd grade standardized reading test scores to compute likely prison populations when creating their business bids. I anxiously planned literacy minutiae, amidst grim odds: first year school serving a vast majority of students whose family fiscal status qualified them for free lunch in Downtown Los Angeles. Most of my students began school speaking basic conversational English. They’d have to read short chapter books by the end of our 360 instructional days together to be on grade level (sidenote: I did not have an adequate classroom library at any time in my tenure as a primary teacher).

My life feels replete with responsibilities wherein serious outcomes depend on my effort. In community work and conceptual art, I analyze and confront previous learnings, work steadily to destabilize long worn Western (binary) philosophies, and propose novel interactive societal configurations. Even as an artist, I’m typically at the helm of creating and seeing out a vision from inception to final product. People are attracted to this sort of direction, guidance, clarity and levity of authority, and it’s flattering, but give me a break.

I’m disgusted by the idea that the power positionality I teach from would be the one I fuck from. There is NOTHING more satiating to me than relinquishing my quotidian responsibilities to a stern, caring, and intense top; quieting my high stakes planning brain, and becoming liquid, pliable: everything. Best topped, I’m not sure of when we, or where I, begin and end; when I’ll be allowed to cum, what I’ll become, or if I’ll ever come to: infinity.

At a party recently, a friend and I are messy tongue kissing and grinding, when she shouts over the sumptuous, turnt-up Toni Braxton club remix, “you’re such a top!” (Funny! I actually consider earnest and playful humping to be one of my more little girlish qualities.) Generally, I do go a bit more top drag at a party for the entertainment of dance partners, friends, and onlookers, but front grinding, as we were doing in this particular instance, is especially enjoyable, in part, because of its power neutral positionality — a facet I try to be sensitive about, especially, in queer POC party spaces.

I’ve needed to do quite a bit of dirty work to write this very essay, to go into this pain — personal essay is such a power bottom genre. I asked some of these friends, out of too many to recall and too many to bear, why they’d categorized me as such (loudly, and to my face). One friend knew they’d fucked up and it opened up my forgiveness strongly. They were sweet and doting, and admitted: they’re such a bottom, and truthfully, they do want me to top them. This best case was a misunderstanding, nonetheless.

I’d love for people, but friends, especially, to hold space for me to enact a sexual self that is separate from how I show up in public scenarios. Play and fantasy are cardinal spaces where someone might anticipate different behavior from me, from anyone. I enjoy this complexity: interpersonal negotiation that permits surprise, moments that remind me of the novelty and multiplicity of interpersonal content. It’s undistinguished of us (supposedly) critically superior queers to hold so tight to these old ways of knowing (how to fuck and get fucked).

I’m used to, but saddened by, misinterpretations of my identity and position. Black and femme, I’m particularly used to underestimations of my capacity and skill: but actually, I am an immaculately lush and artful bottom. At my last birthday party, near the end of a several hours, somewhat fucked up haze, I straddle one of my closest friends. A vortex appears and we deep kiss and grind, she pulls me closer navigating the precise tilt of my lordosis. I’m sure some of my friends perceive me, here, as a rambunctious, assertive top, but she knows with a seemingly predetermined awareness, not by any archetypal gender performance on either of our behalf, nor previous interaction, that she guides this moment. I feel our closeness, I trust her immensely. She sees me, feels me: baby, (whore), birthday brat, wants a ride, wants a smooch, innocent — small enough that my weight doesn’t make me feel unmanageable. A show of effort from a queer Black femme, bottom oriented, herself, just for my birthday.

Little did I realize at the time, my friend was writing a piece about exploring her topness. She mentioned that our experience, which we often recall with the sweetest fondness, helped her tap in, and it made me feel empowered, to nurture space and encouragement for a friend to understand lesser exercised sexual power. We grew closer knowing she could trust what I would do with that energy and understanding of her: not abuse it or manipulate the positionality of our friendship to see it overextended.

It’s painful but also quite inconvenient that when trying to get off with other queer people, that I should be so frequently misunderstood. I’ve had difficult time understanding my queerness, because I’ve felt othered from predominant (cis, white) queer archetypes. In high school (pre-Tumblr), the time many first explore their queer desire, the women who were positioned as the most desirable, if not viable writ large, were white, thereby giving me a bit of cognitive dissonance about what it meant to be attracted to women.

Through early adulthood, I fucked Black cis boys, and white cis boys who wanted to fuck like they imagined Black men fucked, because they were the only ones who would bend me over and insult me, with no questions asked, and this, too, is because, they suffer raced/gendered archetypal expectations in their sex lives. In as much as these men had already stuck around through the more confrontational aspects of my personality, I felt securely respected each time I got choked; each time one remarked how nasty I behaved, it was in contrast to of my totally noble character otherwise. In queer spaces, this misunderstanding cuts deeper, because it is the less anticipated betrayal. After years of wanting deeper connection with queerness, it’s been a slap in the face (not the good kind) to be reminded that here, too, we respond to dominant desire narratives.

Even if well-meaning, conscription to work is just that: the act of fantasizing about being topped by a black femme is predicated on a fantasy of non-consensual labor. After years of being America’s moral and material mule, all the while providing unimaginably elegant care, and some of the most sensually and spiritually impactful creative work of our time, Black women are imagined as superwomen (see: non-human) and this fantasy leaves us under cared for and overworked for less satisfaction and reward in any space — sexual, erotic, moral, social, political, economic — that has been affected by the ubiquitous history of the trans-atlantic slave trade (see: all).

At a party one fine evening this Black History Month, my lover and I absconded to my bedroom, while my sweetly perverted, slightly younger cohort of friends listened in to our lovemaking. They remarked about my music taste (ugh!), the auditory revelation that I am, indeed, as much of a bottom as I say, and my lover’s apparently fruitful, and enduring efforts. “They’re fucking Mandy for the community,” one young Blacqueer femme remarked in gratitude, moved by the soundtrack of my reaction to my lover’s doting and articulate composition. My lover is a divine top: they do the work, joyfully, dancing, competent, big and strong. And their spirit yearns with the will to work: an assertion of responsibility. They fuck me and it feels like purpose and implicit herein is the notion that I am deserving of work, planning, story, and some of their most sensitive creativities. This gift renews my efforts, stretches my muscles and intelligence, in ways that pay off for those around me.

Bottoming isn’t about womanness: sex, gender, or its presentation. Plenty of women — many of my favorite women, in fact — top, and, plenty of men bottom. But to introduce a binary, and then refuse to examine the archetypes therein implied is irresponsible; especially given that most tops, at least among the Autostraddle community, identify their gender presentation as stud/AG, Butch or masc of center; and most bottoms, identify their gender presentation as high femme, femme, and lazy femme. (The term “lazy femme” strikes me similar to “messy bun,” in that, respectability and desire norms haven’t made space for what it means when Black women are low maintenance.) For this reason, and others foregrounded in this writing, I’m looking forward to seeing the future iteration of this study disaggregated by racial group, or maybe even skin tone — and I’d be curious to know (messy), the rates with which non-Black people perceive Black people’s gender presentation correctly.

(The term “lazy femme” strikes me similar to “messy bun,” in that, respectability and desire norms haven’t made space for what it means when Black women are low maintenance.)

Being perceived as a sexual object, or, as requiring and deserving care, demands time and fiduciary investments that are materially less available to Black femmes. For some in this leather derivative binary schema, indicating position and preference is as easy as switching a handkerchief from one side to the other –– yet another indication, that even in queer spaces, we often default to binaries invented by white men. For me, bottom visibility would involve a feminization I resent having been categorically divested of in the first place. I might be aided by wearing a dress, losing weight, getting breast implants, getting a weave, or wearing heels, but even this stylized femininity, indicated in part by discomfort and prostration, wouldn’t be the most accurate style depiction of my femininity. A more nuanced admirer, however, might register that my wardrobe is strongly indicative of the sex I like to have: I’m nurtured and nurutuing in easy and cozy knitwear sets that skim and hug, things that fit me without additional tailoring costs when few garments adequately hold the contours of my fullness. Ain’t I a bottom?

I savor sexual ease and weightlessness. A quick illustration of how arousing this is for me: most of my recent very serious crushes have at some point in early interactions, usually on a dance floor, picked me up. This unburdening lightness, a less corporeal reality, is too infrequently visited: my body doesn’t read as delicate (or low weight) enough to be swept away, or to be saved, or to be protected. Ain’t I a bottom?

Many Black women are raised to give our apparent struggles the stiff upper lip. We’re told that despite our social, political, and economic realities, we are not to act helpless, or out of control, fearful, or victimized. We’re taught to be loud, and proud, and bigger than the world sees us. And at the end of all of that effort, in my most private and intimate moments, I wish to lay my burdens down. Ain’t I a bottom?

Through patient observation, and comparison among queer peers, I hypothesize that when I’m being conceptualized as a top, it has some to do with my social type, and hometowns, but also lots to do with things which I have little to no access to control. Having been raised in New York City and Massachusetts, where women are fuller bodied, more inclined to wear pants and flat, walking-friendly shoes, and dress more responsively to weather, my gender is differently accented now that I live in LA –– in Angeleno queer spaces, when the temperature drops, and my upbringing reminds me it’s pants season. Growing up in the metropolitan 1990’s, it seemed like most women I knew wore cropped short haircuts, even the Princess of England sported a haircut that might now be seen as fairly queer. I have the option of extending my own kinky-curly hair, and sometimes I do, but the fact that kinky-curls or Black cultural hairstyles aren’t portrayed and perceived as femme, or desirable, at least in the mainstream, just goes to show that we have quite a ways to go in dismantling the anti-Blackness in queer social life.

I am, (currently) short and kinky-curly haired, chubby bellied, small tittied, narrow boned, long, front-to-back voluminous, and limited, timewise, and (to a lesser extent, only recently) financially — and consequently, too invisible in my identity as a femme, and therefore too invisible in my identity as a bottom. Although typically offered in jest, if not lust, I am reminded that I am not adequate or sufficient to deserve care and “best place;” that I am illegible as a femme, as a woman, and it not only insults, badly, it also causes material, social, and economic disprivilege and underprotection. Even most graciously read, marginality aside, the idea that outspoken leader types like myself, should not learn from pain, should not enjoy care, should not find insight in submission, makes for limitations that I do not wish to be governed by.

We must disentangle Blackness from topness. If queer community earnestly aspires towards relief from cis heteropatriarchy cum white supremacy cum hypercapitalism, we must work to provide more holistic and diligent means of care, especially for those who, as a result of those systems, are less likely to be seen, understood, and loved. The conversation that begs disaggregation between gender roles, sex roles, and social performance often halts at personal style and pronouns, but it must go far deeper than that. My actionable here, is that after I finish with this essay, I’ll do some more reading in Black on Both Sides, by C. Riley Snorton. The perils of bottom (or top) believability, the right to determine our sexuality, and the emotional and corporeal dangers of misinterpretation harm many more than I. Queer community is an ecology of care, not a late-phase high school popularity contest: we need new rules or no rules for respectability. The outcome isn’t rank but sustainability.

Most of us could stand to refresh our queer studies and ethics, and this should carry over to who and how we fuck. We must decolonize desire, and therefore, we must disembody desire. We, forward thinking and lusty queers needn’t limit our field of erotic potentiality, because of outdated raced gender presentations and social behaviors, which we, better than anyone, know are premised, at least in part, on the need for survival and access to wealth. When we call up one binary, no matter how playfully, we must answer for them all.

So what are we really saying when I’m categorized as a top? Maybe we’re imagining me in a gleefully dominant act of penetration (although, penetrating lovers doesn’t particularly arouse or get me off, and the dominance/submission in my sex tends to flow in evenly exchanged current). Maybe we’re saying that my gifts of storytelling are so seductive that they imagine it’d be sexually enjoyable for me and my partners if I’d direct sexual encounters, when in reality, I find few things more sexually off-putting, inflagrante, than being asked, or expected, to provide next steps. Not surprisingly, the people who think aloud that I’m a top, aren’t people I’m sexually engaged with. So what is the non-sexual stimulus that leads to this conjecture? Maybe they’re just calling me loud-mouthed and flat chested.

The thing we have to do with binaries is simple, and nuanced. We have to acknowledge that these binaries are limiting, that they limit some more than others and we have to do everything we can to unlearn them, but we cannot be binary blind, all the while reinforcing binaries with queer quips and desire discrimination and refusing to document the harm we enact on the binary’s behalf. We know these binaries fail to reliably predict sexual style or prowess, but we still rely on them to predetermine social outcomes, and prioritize social efforts. It’s not our fault: the canons of Western culture privilege the powerful getting their dicks sucked. But it is our fault: for not problematizing the sociopolitics of our desire. Perhaps we’re so pleased to be at this place in our cultural queer acceptance, that we’d prefer to not disrupt this peace, and perhaps, we have ingratiated ourselves into community we’d imagined to be liberatory, only to once more become hungry for deep and satisfying understanding, connection, and care.

Until this liberation is realized, I’m happy to get a bit switchy during every third Mercury retrograde, but please see this as my formal plea (a stern, yet victimized, proclamation, that is both top and bottom, at once) that when you see me, you see someone who is capable of multiplicity, and softness, and enduring a hard fuck. Ain’t I a bottom? Surely. Either that or nothing at all — I’d find pleasure in the dissolution.

Mandy Harris Williams is a theorist, multimedia conceptual artist, writer, educator, radio host and internet/community academic. She is from New York City and currently lives in Los Angeles. Raised between the Upper West Side and Harlem, Mandy's work focuses on the tensions that unfold between 96th street and 125th. Privilege, dis privilege, and back again in 15 minutes churning underground. Mandy's work seeks to get everybody the love that they deserve. She focuses on desirability privilege as a real and mythological market and political force. She graduated from Harvard, having studied the History of the African Diaspora, as well as the mass incarceration crisis, and other contemporary black issues. She received her MA in Urban Education and worked as a classroom teacher for 7 years in low income communities. She integrates a holistic and didactic style in to her current creative practice. Her creative work has been presented at Paula Cooper Gallery, Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, Art + Practice, Navel, Knockdown Center and Women's Center for Creative Work to name a few. She has a monthly radio show, the #BrownUpYourFeed Radio Hour, on NTS. She has contributed writing work to Dazed Magazine, MEL magazine, ForHarriet, and The Grio and is a frequent radio and podcast guest.

Mandy has written 1 article for us.

11 Comments

  1. WOWWWW!!! This is incredible. I love your voice and style. Really helped ease my annoyance with being at work on a Saturday haha. If I used your website correctly, you probably have an email from me. Definitely gonna read more of your work. Thank you!

    • This is giving me so much to think about. Exploring top/ bottom (and also D/S) dynamics has seemed to me like an interplay between the imagined and the embodied, the desiring and the rub of reality.

      Thank you for this, Mandy, for highlighting the ways in which that interplay functions so vastly differently for black women, for sharing parts of your wondrous multiplicity 💜

  2. Damn!!! From one Black bottom to another, this was something I needed to read. The way that you capture the pleasure and nuance of what it means to be driven by bottoming – whew, that alone would be worth a dissertation. And Sojourner?! And deep analysis of all of the many isms and binaries that affect us all! I am ready for your dissertation, your book, to read everything you write. (The last line even!!! Whew.)

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