Johnny Manzon-Santos: How are you connected to Michael, first of all?
Sheilah Mabry: How am I connected to B.Michael Hunter? I. Am. His. Favorite. Cousin. Until he died.
J: So if we were to interview him somehow, in the Black Gay Beyond, and we asked him, “Who was your favorite cousin?” he would say you [are]?
S: Without a doubt, it would be me. And there might be some people jealous, but they would know it’s true! (laughter)
I am outside the house that he so proudly bought. [He] died less than a year of having it, but this was a very significant place for him. He [would] take pictures as they broke the ground and as they built it.
The day of the opening for this block of houses, Malcolm Shabazz [Gardens], 117th between Lenox and Adam Clayton Powell, my sister Kimmi was with me. [Then Manhattan Borough President] C. Virginia Fields was here, and Aunt Sheila was here. We took a picture.
J: Who was Aunt Sheila?
S: Aunt Sheila was his mother, and my aunt, and my mother Frieda’s favorite sister. And that’s why I was named after her.
J: You’re standing in front of the house where he lived and died on the 23rd minute of the 23rd hour of the 23rd day of January. 1/23, right? And what’s the address of the house?
S: 123 West 117th Street. He specifically chose this house because of its number. He was really into numerology and he chose the 1-2-3 for that reason. I think it’s kind of cra-cra that all of that happened with the numbers when he died.
And that also was a memory of mine. How a lot of us were with him when he died, when he took his last breath. His home attendant was a very religious Christian woman and she “got him ready,” in her language. I waited until they came and picked him up and I watched the car drive him away. They took him to the morgue before he went to the funeral parlor.
J: This project is partly to honor Michael, the writer, and also to invite voices of people who knew him, or were impacted by him. If he were to walk out the door of his house right now after 18 years, and he would say, “Hey Sheilah, my favorite cousin, what I miss?” What would you want to tell him about the life you’ve been living for the last 18 years?
S: Well, it’s really weird to think about him in terms of what he missed because, a lot of times, I actually feel that he’s with me, watching what’s going on. And yet, if I think about what he missed, in my life at least? He missed breakups, and he missed a marriage, and of course, relationship before breakup. He would definitely have been at every kind of transitional graduation type of event that I was in. He was at my graduate school graduation. He was gone by my post-graduate training in 2002. He missed my car accident that I had at the end of 2001. I think he would have missed a lot of my struggles to achieve the things that I achieved because sometimes I have a lot of anxiety doing different things. He would be very proud of my “success” in terms of what I put into it and what has come of it.
I have a way of seeing my responsibility to gift money to causes that matter to me. He missed the National Queer and Trans Therapist of Color Network that was created by Erica Woodland, which is a really wonderful resource that I’m sure he would have been proud of and he would have given money to. He would miss the changes in the Audre Lorde Project. He’d miss the changes in The Center, the changes in Callen-Lorde over time. There’s all these places that we spent time in or utilized. I think of the Community Health Project² when it was at The Center and what that meant. And how there’s [now] some big building that he never set foot in, that I know of. SO many things . . . .
He missed [my nephew] Little Kevin being married to Jillian, and now they have two girls and then they have a boy on the way. He missed [nephew] Darryl’s wedding to Liz. He’d be very happy that Darryl found someone that he loves a lot, that loves him like a real partner in life. And he’d miss my sister Kimmi, [her son] and his godson Travis. And his godson Anthony, and Anthony’s children he’s raising with Sunshine. He’d miss . . . Joey died after Michael, right? . . . I don’t remember the year Joey died. I know he missed Uncle Bert, his dad’s death. He missed the very loving way his dad went out. So many deaths and losses. And also a lot of successes in the family. But I don’t know why I want to name everybody who’s died! It’s terrible. Oh, he missed Obama’s presidency.
J: What would’ve he been like knowing that Obama was president, twice?
S: I think that would have been something special to him. But I also think that the things [Obama] had done around immigration that weren’t good, I don’t think he would have been happy. He would feel it was fabulous that we had a Black president and he would appreciate all the things that he did, that his Administration did, that was good, but I don’t think he would be happy with anything that wasn’t OK. And definitely immigration policies that started then and before, he wouldn’t be happy with.
Because he was someone who not only marched. He loved and taught history, and he wanted the students that he had to be civically-minded. He also put his money in causes that he felt was important. He just cared, he really cared a lot about a lot of things. He was very smart. He would’ve been involved in things that weren’t OK, to try to make a difference.
Oh, I think that he would think it was really special that you had [your goddaughter] Mimi and that you all still have a relationship with her. I think he would love, love, love, LOVE Andrés! I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever. I do know he would appreciate, possibly be a little jealous but manage it, that you have Mickey. He would think it was funny that you went with two Michaels after him.
J: Yeah, prolly. (Sigh) You mentioned Andrés, our son, who’s 7. I see Michael in him.
S: Me too.
J: One thing I’m curious about: Talk about Sheilah, the Artist.
S: Oh my god. That is crazy. I think that he would appreciate that I’ve always been an artist in the sense of enjoying writing, and then later, you know, I performed with him, “Cousins,” that we wrote together. And have been in places reading that he got to watch me in. At The Center [for] “A Page from a Black Child’s Diary” that we were a part of, that Sapphire was a part of and a lot of other writers. That was a wonderful night of writing, of reading, of Black Queer folks.
And later that I liked to do collaging. But, this crazy twist thing that happened in my brain, that I am drawing, when I never learned how before, and producing such beautiful pieces. I think that would blow him away, and he would want one of them. He would be somebody I would give it to without reservation. And I have given some things to people and I’ve only created something specifically for one person in the family. But I haven’t really given away a lot of the work I’ve produced. I think that, in the physical realm, he’s missing it, but then, on some level in the spiritual realm, I feel like he’s getting it.
Because some of the images that come to me feel very African. That was another thing. He encouraged me to go to Operations Crossroads Africa [in] ‘89 and he had gone to Kenya prior. That was such a turning point in my life. I feel that travel, that kind of travel, has made me more sensitive to people who come to the U.S. because I know what it is to be a foreigner in another country and to try to manage through language and all that other kind of stuff. I just think he would appreciate my art, he would appreciate how much I’ve traveled. And he would appreciate that, you and I together, went and dropped [his] ashes in Bondi Beach in the water, and that dog was screaming when we let them go, in [Sydney,] Australia.
J: What’s important to you about the art you’re doing?
S: Well, one thing is, on some level, the art tells me that I can trust myself, because through the process, I don’t always know what I’m gonna end up with. And throughout the process, sometimes, I’m like, What did you do that for? Oh, no, I can’t believe you used that color! Oh, no, I gotta fix that! Oh, no . . . . At a certain point, I’m in a groove and I know it’s going to be wonderful. And there’s something about that perspective. There’s also something about that I appreciate because there are people coming through me. I mean, I rarely draw white people. They don’t come up for me. I think I might have done one person that’s white, maybe a couple. But I’ve even done a South Asian person and I didn’t know that that was gonna come. I’ve done East Asian folks. I don’t know how it happens, because I’m not going, I’m gonna draw this-color person.
There’s something about how I start with the mouth. You know Michael had nice, beautiful, juicy lips (smile), and I loved his nose, and I’m fascinated by our noses. People’s noses in general. I’m definitely fascinated by the noses of people of color, which is a range. And so I start the mouth and the nose generally, and maybe the eyes, and then work my way to a body thing. And I don’t know, it’s just kind of incredible, the stuff coming out of this. So I’m just kind of flowing.
I just think he would appreciate it, because I think that’s how he wrote. All the pieces that you found of his, some started and some finished. When I first started with my art, I had to start and finish pieces. But I’m learning how to leave a piece alone, when it can’t be completed yet, and I think that’s special. And also the expression, using art to deal with what’s good and what’s challenging and also to deal with passion. There’s something about the ways that my art goes through my body, in all parts of my body, depending on the piece. Why I am creating you and who I’m thinking of and how I want to connect and what comes back to me in it. That I think he would appreciate a lot.
Because he was all about the body. He was an artist, he was a writer, he was a lawyer who didn’t pass the bar but, for him, he understood the law a certain kind of way. And he was a dancer. He was a communication kind of person. He chose accounting in undergrad for stability or whatever, right? Just like he chose teaching at a certain point for stability and for tenure and because he loved to teach young people. But if he could do whatever he wanted to do and not worry about money, I think he would have been a dancer. He was a runner. But he had an incredible body and he loved to dance.
He loved to sing too. He wasn’t very good at that (smile). That’s the other thing I learned from him — and it didn’t stick until years later. Basically I was telling him he sounded terrible one time he was singing and he said, “I like singing, Sheilah, it makes me feel good.” Like, “Eff you!” And he was right! He was right because everybody can sing and everybody can do art. So even my process of doing the art has taken me to bring it to team-building exercises in organizations.
J: Like how?
S: Like how they can think about something that’s important to them over the course of their work in a year. And think of the values of what they learned in training, or in their work, or from their community, or what they love or appreciate about community, to be in process about that as individuals and then, collectively, talk about it, and then create pieces of art individually that get put together as a group. They share in what that means, to their respective program or team. For some people who didn’t see themselves as artists, that they can articulate what’s important to them and put it on a panel, on a 4” by 4”, but that becomes a collective thing because it’s in the name of a team. And they’re talking about what’s important to them as a team together and then sharing that in the larger organization with several teams . . . .
I went to a leadership training [and] there was a thing called the Story of My Purpose. To come up with symbols and ideas or phrases that speak to that, and to then narrow it down to one phrase. Then to give them a panel and have them write their purpose — create their purpose panel, their purpose tile. And I’ve done that with coaching clients and with therapy clients, to ground them around their purpose, to be able to bring the art into that. And see how people who say they’re not artists, or they don’t like to draw, and to encourage them to put whatever they need on there and that’s what matters. [It] is really special.
How do you use the things that I have found to be helpful to me, but also see each person, a group that I’m working with, unique to making something that’s their own [and] whatever comes of it is what’s important . . . .
And that’s the other thing. I think he would be really proud of how I’ve taken on leadership in a particular way. How I know there’s a difference between leadership and management and how, through years of experience, but also experience with Leadership that Works with folks primarily from Oakland, and how I learned about power, privilege, rank, and culture a particular kind of way, and how I learned, even though as a social worker and a therapist, I have to deal with clients’ strengths, that I learned in coaching that I must always trust that the person I am working with will collaborate, and that they have what they need. We’re on a journey together, but I’m helping them facilitate a process. But that it’s theirs, not mine, you know? And even being able to do this other leadership training, which is where my art came after working through a trigger, Rockwood. See, this is the thing: Oakland be doin’ it! Even doing that training and working on a trigger, and I think that that is, in fact, what allowed the art to be able to come, because it wasn’t coming before that.
And it’s like I can’t stop! There’s sometimes when I am working with people, or I’m on a train and I’m looking at their faces very intensely, their nose, their eyes. I want to capture that in my soul so that it comes out at some point somewhere. I think he would be really proud of me that I love helping people develop, be the best people they can be, that I can be in a process with people like that and that I appreciate how I grow from it, so I even understand him a little bit more.
J: How so?
S: Because he was a very encouraging person and he was actually impatient, but he was more patient than impatient. He could see the best in people and he could see what struggle was. I think he struggled himself, and I don’t think he always reached out for help. He wanted to be a helper, but he didn’t always take help himself. He would let me help him with certain things, but not just everybody, right? There’s a way he wanted to be seen . . . .
I appreciate about him how he helped in the family. And how he helped people outside the family. How he helped as a leader in community, like with Other Countries and with Gay Men of African Descent. All the places that he showed up for things that were meaningful to him . . . .
Because I see a lot of people who achieve things, but they’re very self-centered and they’re not trying to give anything back. Everything is about what they can get. But most of the people that I am in contact with, that I’m close to, they’re give-back people. And so I just appreciate him more now . . . .
I remember when he got sick, and he was impacted mentally, he said to me one time, [when] we were getting on a train. He lived over here, and the train was at 116th and Lenox, and what comes through there is the number 2 train or the 3, and the 3 is coming pretty much close from the yard, whereas the 2 is coming far from the Bronx. So we were at the station and we were going downtown — I believe he had a medical appointment — and he wanted the 2 train to pass and he wanted to wait for the 3 because there’d be less people on at the time we would get on the train. And I said, “Why don’t you wanna get on another train?”
“Sheilah, you know I don’t like people; you know I don’t really like people.”
As he was losing his mind, the intensity of how he made himself available to so many people in so many ways was weighing on him. And he had no filter for it, but I know in his best mind, he loved people. But with his mind closing in on him, people became too much.
So that’s something I kind of appreciate because I’m in my right mind (and not so my right mind sometimes) in a different way. This self-care piece, the importance of having time and being still — that’s something that he used to do that was very incredible. I remember at one time in his apartment at 528 [East 11th Street, Manhattan], he had yellow sticky notes that said “FOCUS” all over the house. I didn’t really appreciate it then. I thought he was crazy! But as I got older, I’m like, “Wow, he was really centering himself in his way.” (laughter)
I remember one time he told me. You know how you analyze all the movies. You see things with it. He’s like, “You know, sometimes you just gotta go to the movies and watch the movie. You ain’t got time to . . . . (laughter)” [He would] go see some dumb movie that, you know, is so internalized, racially oppressive shit and sexist, and even homophobic, to some degree. I guess because he felt he was doing the work, he could do that. But like, for him, sometimes something like that could have been a relief. “Chill out. People need to chill out with that.” But that’s not how he lived, in terms of causes and stuff. He was like, “I could do that, and this is wrong, and I’m gonna watch this show!”
J: What would you say is your purpose on that 4” x 4” tile, Sheilah?
S: Well, I did one, and it is a little Black person with a little flat belly, arms outstretched, that says over it, “Endless Possibilities,” and sunlight coming in. It had “Family, Blood and Chosen,” on it. It had “Abundance.” I think it had “Health.” But if I think about it now, like if I were to make one right in this moment as you ask that, I would say, “My purpose is to live healthily, to have flexibility, to show love, to be seen in the fullest of who I am and to see others in that way, to never forget the people here and gone who have given me so much, to never think I have to do anything alone, and to gift myself with alone time, something that I need.”
J: Sheilah, is there anything else?
S: The world is not the same without him, but I know people got to go. But my greatest gift from him, besides him and what he gave me, is you. And I know that without a doubt. And I think he would be happy that we love each other the way we do. And that he gave us to each other. Because you’re the only person that really knows the range of who he was to me, and who he was, period. Not just all the fabulousness, but also the challenges, the things he struggled with, but we have a love that he’d have us laugh at those things. Just like he laughed at us too! Loved us and laughed at us too. And was frustrated with us. I miss him really a lot. But he really is a part of who I am, and a lot of what I give is the part that he gave me.
And to not forget what it was like for him to be a Black Gay man in his family, and in our family, and in the world. And to do his best, to bring the best. And to get as much as he could.
He left a legacy to many, and different people have done different things with that. There’s a whole lot of people and probably people we don’t even know ….