By Mia S. Willis with art by Malachi Lily.

In our initial attempts at conceptualizing trans liberation and resilience, my collaborative partner Malachi Lily (they/them) and I were stymied by the fundamental truth that the birth of trans folks (and particularly Black trans folks) defies historicization or canonization because of global colonialism and white supremacy. As a result, I, having been educated as a Classical archaeologist (an admittedly colonial subject area), suggested we approach the origination of Black transcestry as a cultural phenomenon traceable across time and space through material and symbolic remains. This lens allowed for both the poetic and visual construction of an archaized nonlinear trans mythology underpinned by Black collective memory and placemaking.

The poem’s title and formatting speak directly to this intention, as the former is a geological term used to describe the study of rock layers (strata) and layering (stratification) while the latter is modeled after the soil profile maps my team sketched while excavating the temple complex of Apollo Ietros on St. Kirik Island in Sozopol, Bulgaria.

It was of supreme importance to me that the Black word be permitted to address its body in “STRATIGRAPHY.” This is why I turned to African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as a metaphorical bridge between the Black trans body and its communal experience. Too often, transness is hard lined by Black folks as rhetoric exclusive to and in the service of the white elite. This poem’s juxtaposition of objective storytelling and familiar call-and-response seeks to clarify that, to paraphrase Dominique Christina, Black words make Black worlds in the form of self-actualizing Black trans folks.

Black transness is the marriage of two embodied identities, both of which possess their own lexical subversions of the dominant culture. African American Vernacular English, then, is a tool of resilience when employed by a Black trans person; the gender neutrality of the “nigga” pronoun is, to me, evidence of the potential for Black trans liberation through the recontextualization of speech artifacts. As such, “STRATIGRAPHY.” is meant to highlight the ritual uses of the Black word (“in the beginning, there was the word. and that word was black.”) and affirm the power of that ritual to bring about a new liberated existence for Black trans bodies (“new dances for all the dust.”).

for the THEM!HOOD.

“Stratigraphy – The study of the layers (strata) of sediments, soils, and material culture at an archaeological site[.]”

The Archaeological Institute of America


and each time the boi diespour one out for ‘em.
the black word is left to the air againcrywhole hailstorms.
new kindling in every mouth /love harderthan thunder.
new dances for all the dust.all the living done together.

IV. 2013 – 2017

their fingertips cartographers of the landplay the dozens with the devil.
meet red clay in the jaw /flame deathmans be for everybody.
slate lining the ribcage /funny box run right over.
anoint altars with honest touch.

III. 2006 – 2012

throat a cavern of infinitywaterto a whale.
hair of pitch-pine smokenappy as a briar patch.
and hands content with emptinessan appetitefor every breath.
the black word became the boiayyyyyye.

II. 1995 – 2005

and so this black word spoke itself shit.
declared itself a body / a beating fire /go off, nigga.
a burning heart /yo, that’s lit.
a brown skin etiology.

I. 1994

in the beginning there was the word.oh word?
and that word was black.ayyyyyye.
but this primordial black lacked a glyph;
a phoneme with no flesh equivalent.damn, that’s cold.



About the Poet:

Mia S. Willis is a Black performance poet from Charlotte, North Carolina. Their work has been featured by or is forthcoming in Under the Belly of the Beast (Dissonance Press), FreezeRay, Curating Alexandria, WORDPEACE, Peculiar, Foothill, Button Poetry, and Slamfind. Mia’s poem “hecatomb.” won the 2018 Foothill Editors’ Prize, earning nominations for a Pushcart Prize and for inclusion in Best New Poets. In 2019, Mia has been named the first two-time Capturing Fire Slam Champion, a Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry, the Young Artist Fellow at Chashama’s ChaNorth residency, and a performing artist on RADAR Productions’ Sister Spit 2020 Tour. Their debut poetry collection, monster house., was the 2018 winner of the Cave Canem Foundation’s Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize and is available with Jai-Alai Books.

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