On Wednesday, 18 March 2020, the eve of the COVID-19 quarantine in New York City, Michael Roberson and Robert Sember, co-founders of the Arbert Santana Ballroom Freedom School, had a conversation with auteur, Yoruba priest, and Ballroom organizer Odu Adamu. In his time as a leader in the community (first in Philadelphia, then in New York City) Odu has created a template for critically engaging Black organizations that in turn bolster the House and Ballroom communities across the United States.
Today, their conversation is more illuminating than ever because Odu’s story is essential to understanding the development of Black gay organizations, their connection to the Ballroom scene, how this all plays out in a “post-Covid” society, and the integration of a deep spiritual component in this work.
Ballroom Freedom School: You spoke on the Health and Human Rights panel in August 2019 during Black Pride. Your statements had profound spiritual and political depth. As you discussed the history of the AIDS crisis, you also gave us a lesson in analysis and exegesis, urging us to look deeper into things so that we might see what is concealed beneath the surface—“The thing beneath the thing,” as you put it.
As the COVID-19 epidemic grows rapidly in New York City, and we move toward a citywide quarantine, this crisis is quite alarming, yet also feels familiar. Because of HIV/AIDS, gay men in their fifties have lived in an epidemic state for close to four decades—for most of their lives. What might they contribute to this moment?
Odu Adamu : I just had a long conversation with a close friend about this. What we are going through has many dimensions. First, there’s the real world responses, what we sit in, what we see, what we take on as the reality of this crisis. Then there’s the spiritual response, which goes beyond what is in front of us. We can tap into what this experience is offering us. This could include creating new circles of relationships and spaces that are supportive as will happen if we reach out and check in on folks.
Let’s also pay attention to the beautiful things that are happening now that weren’t necessarily happening before, at least not at this level or to this extent. This is my time to notice, to learn, and to grow from paying attention to that stuff. I ask myself: “Who do I want to be when this is over?” So, the idea of “the thing beneath the thing,” helps me respond to that question.
“Who do I want to be when this is over?”
In contrast, sometimes when people talk about Ballroom, specifically their Ballroom selves, they start with the day they joined a house. They take on a new name, and work to become that new person. The reality, though, is that we live life before Ballroom. Everything that’s occurred up to that point has created you, and until you look at that, at what occurred before, you can’t really understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Why walk in a ball? Why is it so important to win? Why will you sacrifice your freedom in order to get an outfit to win a trophy that costs $20? That’s “the thing under the thing.” You need to heal the wounds of that time before if you are to become who you were meant to be.
‘’When you don’t own your shit, it comes out in other ways.’’
This issue is also relevant to community work within Ballroom. We have to understand the philosophy and ideology that runs deep. Handing out condoms in the ballroom is cute, but that has nothing to do with anything if we don’t honestly address the shame that still exists regarding sex and HIV status. Because we have not healed, people are still mocked if their situation becomes public. We have to acknowledge and heal those deeper wounds for our service work to make sense.
BFS: So, you’re saying that Ballroom can be paradoxical. That it’s a place to be who you want to be, to manifest your desires and your needs. At the same time, it can also be a place of repression and denial, which leaves wounds unresolved?
Odu: Yes, in this sense it’s true escapism, and that’s not anything different than being human; we get high to escape, but when we come down, it’s all still there. This is interesting to talk about in relation to COVID-19. I am sure we’ll see both healthy approaches to the virus and unhealthy attempts to escape it with most of us doing a bit of both.
But here’s the thing around Ballroom that may make it different. If you were to talk about your life as a professor, you’d talk about your education and the other things that led to your life now. There is a progression. This is true even if you say you were a bad student, because you explain how it led you to this point in your life. What happens sometimes I think in Ballroom is that you don’t get to tell your story. When you do not own your shit it comes out in other ways.
“You have to wake up in the morning knowing you’re already a grand prize winner.”
Odu: We see this in Ballroom when people fight over getting chopped or losing the category. We have to ask why twenty people would turn a place upside down over a plastic trophy. That’s not at all about losing the category. That’s about not feeling good about who you are. You’ve probably been told time and time again how fucked up you are. Losing confirms everything you’ve been told—and now think about yourself. It is not that I lost the category. It’s that I’m already lost.
If you are going to be in Ballroom, you have to wake up in the morning knowing you’re already a grand prize winner. You already have your tens across the board. And then, when things occur, you don’t internalize them. You don’t take them personally. You understand it has nothing to do with you. We can only live this way if we heal.
When I work with formerly incarcerated men, I always say, “What happens to you when you’re released has a lot to do with who you were before. To live forward, you must know your background and make peace with how you were raised and the things you’ve had to endure.”
BFS: So, how did you come to heal and grow to see things in this way? Specifically, how did you grow up and what events shaped your sense of self?
Odu: I came from a family where education was really important. I was, quote unquote, “smart” and got good grades. I only started walking when I was out of college and had my first professional job. Also, some members of my family were in entertainment, so I understood what it meant to want to be on a stage and how to get off the stage when I needed to. I don’t share this to say, “I’m so fabulous.” Rather, it is to indicate that I came into the scene from a different space than many others. I did not come in because my family rejected me or because I didn’t have somewhere to live or because I needed a parental figure. In fact, I came in as a parental figure.
This doesn’t mean that I didn’t come up against some things. When I stepped away from the Ballroom scene and went into the priesthood, it was an opportunity to really examine and heal myself on so many levels.
“You have to be able to honor what you lived.”
When I started walking in Philly, I would get chopped all the time. It was when I came to New York that things changed. All my early trophies were from New York. My first trophy was at the legendary Ronald Pendavis Ball and my second, third and fourth trophies were from the Chanel Ball. Yet, I was getting chopped in Philly all the time. I remember a ball in Philly that was held at a hotel around the Parkway. I walked “Fall Fashion Spectacular,” and Andre Revlon chopped me. I had beat Andre at the Chanel Ball and now he chops me? So Stuart gets on the microphone and turns it out. He says, “No, bring that child back out here. There’s no way you could chop this child.” And I said, “You know, it’s okay. I’m not walking again. There’s always another ball; there’s always another trophy. I know I am good.”
Whatever I tapped into at that moment became my reputation. After that, I won almost every time I walked. I could be myself. And again, when I woke up Monday morning, I had a job to go to where I was running things.
BFS: This is what you mean when you say, “it’s not about you”? Your sense of self was not rooted in the competition?
Odu: Yes. And that grew for me in the ballroom. But let’s also be real, we all like to win.
Yet, sometimes when I see someone who has won 120 or more trophies, I wonder why it still means something to them. Are they stuck there? Have they never gotten to the thing under the thing? I’ll be honest: I’ve never been about quantity; I’ve always been about quality.
I’ve talked about this as if it was just my attitude and approach that mattered. Here’s the thing underneath that thing: I come from an incredible lineage of people. Oh my God, just incredible. I come from a firm Yoruba belief that you choose who you want to enter the world through.
I chose very well.
My father is well known. He worked at BEBASHI (the first Black HIV/AIDS organization in Philadelphia) and knew all the influential gay people in Philly, so by the time I came out, everybody knew him. He was also one of the first Black men to own a store on South Street in Philadelphia. He was an entrepreneur and was very involved with the arts, culture—all of that. In many ways, he was more supportive of my sexuality. And at an earlier point than my mother was.
I had a very different experience of Black men. My father kissed us as we were growing up. He was totally loving, as was my grandfather on my mother’s side. All the men in my family were Black men who were very comfortable expressing love. They dressed well, smelled good, and you never saw them hit a woman or call a woman a “bitch.” We couldn’t say words like “faggot” in our house. This was the foundation for the paternal role I later developed in Ballroom. I never thought I’d be the father of a house; yet, when I became a father, I was really the father of a family.
Your foundations always play a role in your life, and you have to be able to honor what you lived. Yet, let’s be real. I can say you need to look at who you were; it’s easy for me to do or easier than it is for many others. If your foundation is only painful, of course you don’t look at it.
In the Ballroom scene, the choice can be between being the molested child that got kicked out of the house, or the $5,000 Grand Prize winner. Where are you going to go? But you can’t just be one thing: the wounded child or the winner. We see the dangers of this in the Ballroom scene. If you were being beat every day in your household, if you were being called this and called that, and then you join a ballroom house and the father says, “Well, you know you got to suck my dick to be in the house,” you comply because it is better than the home you came from. And so, the wounds get deeper rather than healed. That is why I did not last in the first hour with another parent. There is just no way you can be a leader to me if you act like this. I know what it is to be part of a loving family, and I refuse to take a step down from what I came from. So it was almost inevitable that I would have to have my own house because I really wanted to have a different experience.
“I want to know your beauty and triumph.”
BFS: It seems as if you’re calling for us to support healing by making it possible within a community framework through mentoring.
Odu: People in community services believe they are there to rescue others. However, if you’re from the spiritual space and believe that we’re all created by the same creator, that we walk around with God in us, then that can’t be my job. It may be my job to plant a seed or be a teacher or, actually, be more of a student. I think this framework really supported me in my work.
I am not the grand guru. That’s why I love seeing the young people I’ve worked with later in life. I tell them, “I’ve always seen you as who you are today. I’ve always seen that part of you.” But the dominant paradigm in social service work is to support the tragedy.
When I say, “You need to explore that, you need to understand it, heal it,” I do not make it the reason that you have value. No, I want to know your beauty and triumph. When I work with incarcerated or formerly incarcerated men, I say, “We can’t build your fucked up shit. What do we have to build on? But you have to own it, ‘cause I’m not building your house for you.”
I left that work for a long time because I felt that the systems are not going to support that approach. For example, imagine an RFP (Request for Proposals) that said, “Wow, we know this is an incredible, magical community that’s very talented. We want you to flourish and grow.” That would be amazing. Instead, the RFP requires us to focus on how the community is lacking, how it is underserved and disenfranchised. You can’t tell me that if you constantly live in that language, it doesn’t become real for you. So I excused myself from that.
‘’A spiritual path is required if we are to embrace wholeness and connection rather than lack and isolation.”
BFS: The thing beneath the thing—the not-for-profit world organizes around a lacking and reproducing that lacking not the whole. How does Ballroom create the space for wholeness, to do healing work?
Odu: We think our work is: “I got a new gift and a job, and I paid my bills.” I am not saying that these things don’t need to be done. It’s just that it’s not necessarily living life to the fullest.
A good start is looking at what you have around you. For me, a spiritual path is required if we are to embrace the idea of wholeness and connection rather than lack and isolation. ‘I don’t care what house you’re in because we are a Ballroom community. This sense of community is more and more a reality because of the work of people like Michael Roberson. I like to think that I helped to make this possible because, although I was in the scene and also worked in the not-for-profit sector, I could see that I still needed to grow, and so, I entered the priesthood. At the beginning, it wasn’t really a Ballroom community, but when I see it now it is extremely powerful. This is a different world, one that is close to the fullness I envisioned years ago.
Yet, I think that it’s a personal journey. When you heal stuff, other stuff may come up. And there are always new folks, because it is a Ballroom—and new members are born every day; every three seconds somebody is starting to walk their first ball. This is why programming is most important, because what programming does is it creates documentation, and that can help establish models.
“Knowing how to support someone’s passion is a great moment in building a sense of community.”
BFS: To that point around programming, can you tell us about Colours (the Black LGBTQ community health and wellness organization in Philadelphia) and the Crystal Ball?
Odu: All right. Well. Colors. I always give credit to Michael Hinson (founder of Colours), who wasn’t a Ballroom person. He knew I was, and he hired me and gave me carte blanche around programming with the encouragement that we do something with the Ballroom. We had this idea to do a free ball. This was great, because it was the start of the idea of community. No house in particular threw the ball so no house was in charge. It needed to be fair. I wasn’t walking, so my house wasn’t engaged in that way. Everybody was welcome and I chose the judges from a very fair space. I chose folks who I knew would get up there, be fair. Michael Roberson had joined the house of Gigli in 1995, and had only walked one ball at the time, but I asked him to help write the categories for the Crystal Ball. I did that because the ball had to feel like a community. Michael was working with the youth, which was really important. I knew this work was his passion. As a side note, let me just note that this is crucial—knowing how to support someone’s passion is a great moment in building a sense of community.
The ball was fantastic, but I didn’t anticipate what Michael would carry forward from the process. I did not anticipate that it would be as important as it was. It was just something that made sense to do.
That’s why I talk about working from spirit v ego. Ego would be claiming it as my accomplishment. Spirit is just doing what needs to be done, then allowing what happens to happen, and to be surprised and amazed. So, it was a great ball.
“Our wounds are shadows that walk around with us.”
BFS: There are the Philly women: Taffy (just as real as rain), Kelly Hall (real as rain), and Renee Karan—the Mother of Philadelphia. Every trans woman after her, even if they don’t know it, is Renee. She also created a model, a pedagogy, for how to be authentic in the scene.
What did Renee mean to you?
Odu: Of all the people I experienced in Ballroom, Renee was one of the most connected to self. We had some very interesting, candid conversations. She was spiritually profound, which is why I think so many people feel that her presence is still here. It is not just ‘cause she turned it and she was over. She just had a great understanding of what was available in the universe, but how navigating it was challenging. Yeah, I kind of fan boy out on Renee. I really do. To me, she was like the superstar of Philadelphia.
I always compare Prince and Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson was a superstar, but Prince was for the people. He changed the paradigm, including the dialogue around musicians, ownership of rights, and so on. Renee was like Prince. After Renee, accessibility shifted. You could just come out. She was so young. If she could have seen twenty percent of what we saw in her, I think things would have shifted, and she would have been more confident with her power. I’m reading something right now that talks about how our wounds are shadows that walk around with us. That’s why you have to sit in it and heal, so then you can embrace it all and be glorious. She just didn’t know.
“Eventually, there will be a president who walked balls.”
BFS: Can you share your story of leaving Ballroom and taking up your spiritual work?
Odu: There was nothing more for me to do in Ballroom; there were no more things to win. In my day, you walked, and walked, and walked; and turned it, and turned it, and turned it. And I had done that. It was time for someone else to do it.
Everybody goes to that line in Paris is Burning: “I’m not gonna be known as a drag queen trying to win grand prizes in the ball.” And yet, that’s cool if that’s your vibe. I left before they created Icons, but I’m an icon in my own world. You know, there’s the idea in psychology that you dress the way you did at what you considered the high point in life. That’s where you live. There was no way I could live without knowing there was more.
In Ballroom, you see people who left to go on to careers in entertainment, or whatever the case may be. Awesome. I think of Tyra (A.K.A Pose’s Dominique “Tyra” Jackson). The first, maybe second, time she appeared as Tyra was at my Ferragamo Ball. She walked “Butch Queen Up In Drags, Runway”. The first half was “Butch Queen American Runway”. For the second half, you had to get 10s, and come back in Drag European—and Tyra did. It was over, a done deal. I vividly remember that moment.
So, then fast forward to when I moved to New York, I bumped into her on the train, and I knew from that conversation that she was going to be much more than anyone was thinking was possible. Even though Pose is about Ballroom, all of that wasn’t going to happen because she was Ballroom. It was going to happen because she was Tyra. There are folk who say clearly, “Yes, I am in Ballroom,” just like they might say, “I’m in college,” or “I work at the movie theater.” But, do I act like my career is necessarily going to be at the movie theaters?
BFS: Although, Ballroom has transitioned into a career for some…
Odu: And that’s what I’m saying. You have people who are looking at it like it’s college not retirement. These are the people who are looking for more than what they’re seeing. Even if somebody says, “Oh my God, I can be on Pose now,” somebody else is probably thinking, “No, you know what, I’ve always wanted to be a producer…” Eventually, there’ll be a president who walked balls.
BFS: So, what was that moment where you went, “The priesthood is the next step in my journey”?
Odu: Being called into priesthood was a divine thing. And I followed it. My life completely changed. But typically, the stories of how something happened are not that interesting. What’s interesting is what happens when I get there. Getting there is very matter-of-fact. But the ride—that’s the shit, honey.