Austin Monroe is one of those people. One of those people who will have things like 50 year retrospectives and honorary degrees from institutions who use his theories as their approach. He’s one of those people whose name will turn into a verb. Who young people will be shamed—by other young people—for not knowing. What I meant to say is: Austin is going to change the world. I know this, because he already is.
Living in this Black/woman body compels me to acknowledge the fact that I understand what it means to occupy that which does not belong to you. I imagine, in the way one imagines something they have already seen, that living in a Black/man body is to know this un-belonging.
Austin is one of those people who occupies a body that neither belongs nor belongs to you. One of those people who knows it, and is trying to make it untrue.
Austin is the brains and heart behind North York, a socio-creative [ad]venture intended to create spaces that serve to inspire and empower people to function as their truest and best selves. Established in the Fall of 2010, North York is a Brooklyn based collective of radical dreamers/subversives/queers&queens, many of whom have migrated from the South. The North York manifesto reads, “We’re a tribe of people who see value in all cultures and seek to celebrate creative expression in various forms. We reject the notions of high or low culture; we are as inspired by music as we are by food as we are by fashion as we are by nightlife as we are by art. North York exists to make cool shit happen. We are forward-thinkers who make the spaces we want to see exist now. We want to create spaces that inspire you and make you feel at home. North York honors our diverse and at times disparate histories and identities. North York is home. North York is about who we are now.”
I spoke with Austin about what it means to create space, the heart of Black American Culture, and how road trips through the Carolinas were the first journeys in a place we always knew we were leaving.
Oh, and Beyoncé. Of course.
JAMILA: What does it mean to create space?
AUSTIN: Creating space is, in a way, self-explanatory. It can both be a physical or mental space wherein a person, a group of people, a theory, or an idea is allowed to be. So more than thinking about what it means to create space, I’m interested in the implications of creating space—what hat the intentionality behind creating a certain space—or a creating a certain vibe—is.
J: What was the genesis of the idea to create North York?
A: It was a culmination of years and years engaging with media culture and events and everyday people and just not seeing certain images being shown and certain ideals being represented. I was talking to a friend of mine who helped found a start up, and he was talking about entrepreneurship, and the baseline is: you’re someone who has located a gap, and your product or service or company should exist to fill that gap—to fill that void. So the genesis of the idea was bridging those gaps that exist.
J: So what is the gap that you want to fill?
A: On a selfish level, it’s the desire to have ownership over my experience—to put something into the world that I think is good. It’s about making creative space for myself and for other people.
J: Talk to me about your move to New York. You moved to New York from North Carolina. Why?
A: That was a lifelong dream. It was always going to happen at some point, and the stars just aligned—a job worked out, and then an apartment worked out, and then three weeks later, I was moved. So that’s how that went down.
J: What was that dream? I’ve always dreamed of moving across the country. In my mind, California was the farthest place from home. If I had to look at a map and pick a place, I was like, “this is as far as I can get.”
A: Why did you want to go so far?
J: It’s not even that I was trying to escape from what I knew or anything like that—it really wasn’t even that serious. It was just a place that I thought would be most different. I felt really different growing up, so it was a place I felt was aligned with my identity. I was like, “I feel different, and this place that is so far must be different, too, by virtue of its distance.” My mom moved to California in her twenties, and there are all these Out West narratives… I just sort of romanticized it. I still sort of feel that way. And I knew that there wasn’t slavery. Won’t no plantations in California.
A: I think that’s relevant, because I always identified with the narrative of migration and the people who are pursuing a new dream—a new identity. So yeah, that’s absolutely a part of it.
J: That’s so true—migration is all about the pursuit of a new identity. That’s what it’s about. For me, I idealized the West, not because I wanted to pursue a new identity, necessarily, but because I wanted the environment to be more integral to my identity. I wanted there to be integrity between my identity and environment, and I felt like where I was, I did not have that. So the dream wasn’t to find a new identity, it was to find a new place for my current identity to exist.
A: As far as I’m concerned, New York is the center of the world. This is where any and all things can and do happen. I feel like it’s good a place as any to come and try to live out some dreams and goals and to create a little world for myself as much as possible.
J: Word. So if that’s always been a childhood dream, why now? You said the stars aligned, but did it feel urgent? Or was it just the natural flow?
A: A little bit of both. I had spent two years or so after college just kind of learning—on n a personal level—learning about myself and spirituality. I spent that time doing a lot of personal work to let go of fear narratives that I had. When I started to get really comfortable with a lot of the new stuff I was learning, I was no longer comfortable standing still, or doing what I felt like was standing still. And so I knew I had to move –both physically and spiritually/mentally—So I moved.
J: What about the South do you embrace, and what do you reject?
A: I like the South. I really like the pleasantries and the politeness, there’s something very cute and inviting and intentional about that. And I think Southerners tend to coexist with nature in an interesting way, because there’s so much of it, specifically in the Southeast. I feel like it’s a very Black space. It’s where Black American culture started and came to be. So I feel at home with all of that—the food, the music, the slang—it all feels really good. I was going to say I reject the small-mindedness and the idea that there is a proper way to be, but I feel like you kind of encounter that everywhere. Now, living outside of the South, I can’t honestly say that that’s endemic to the South.
J: To respond to what you said about Black culture, I feel like I have always been like, “is this a Black thing, or a Southern thing?” So much of what I experience, I don’t know if it’s a Black thing or a Southern thing. And for the small-mindedness thing, I find that I do sort of believe that about the South, but I wonder if that’s because I’ve believed the narratives that have been put out about the South. But all the homies—all my friends from the South—are not that.
A: I think it’s kind of misguided to suggest that some super-progressive utopia exists in this country. I haven’t seen it, in the South or otherwise. But the people who I have personal relationships with absolutely reflect an actual progressive worldview. Most of the people I know from the South are excellent.
J: What are some personal ways—if at all—you experienced the legacy of slavery in the South? In terms of culture or general experience or energy?
A: That’s a really big question.
J: It is. It’s huge.
A: Everything is the legacy of slavery. Honestly, everything. So of course, I have. Be more specific.
J: Okay, that’s fair.
A: Because it’s everywhere.
J: What made me ask this question was – part of the reason I felt I wanted to move out of the South was because I wanted to experience place that wasn’t marked—as marked—by this huge traumatic thing that, to me, feels like it’s very much in the ground. In North Carolina, there are all of these farms and plantations. Its literally in the Earth there; its in the infrastructure. It’s everywhere. I felt like I was standing on graves of people who were… you know? I just felt like I was walking on it. Like slavery was under my feet. I just wanted to be in a place that didn’t have that same presence.
A: The legacy of it is there. For sure. There’s something. I don’t know if I can name it. But it’s there. There is a difference.
J: There is a difference. But why is it so hard to name?
A: My mom is from Cabarrus county. And in Cabarrus county there are some very rural areas. If you go into some of those houses, they straight up still looks like slave shacks. I don’t know that they are, but for some people, the standard of living is still that. My great aunt and uncle, they had this house made of wooden slats, and there were gaps in the slats, and they had a rusted tin roof. They didn’t have running water, they didn’t have any heat or AC, they had a woodfire stove. They both passed away between 2007 and 2010. That kind of experience was still there in 2010.
J: That’s nuts. How do you not have running water?
A: They had electricity, but the whole house was made out of wood and a tin roof. On this back gravel road, 30 minutes outside of Charlotte. I grew up going to that house. That’s an experience.
J: Oh my god. That’s so nuts.
A: So yeah, the access is right there. These structures are still standing.
J: That’s so interesting. There were a lot of reminders for me in the South. There were a lot of reminders that we weren’t so far removed from being slaves. And I think that was reason for being like, “All right. I gotta go.” I remember driving to the beach and we would stop in gas stations and be terrified. Terrified. Absolutely terrified. And I feel like the unspoken fear was “these white people think we should be slaves.” These white people in these gas stations, selling confederate flags… they’re everywhere. I feel like there was a resentment that I felt from these white people.
A: For sure.
J: The memory of slavery was still something that felt sweet, instead of something that felt like a place of shame.
A: It felt like something they had lost.
J: Totally. It felt like something that they had lost.
A: I remember that we were driving back from Florida or Georgia or something, and we stopped at this restaurant, it looked like a well-lit, modern restaurant, and we were the only Black people in there. I might be dramatizing this, but I feel like the whole place got silent when we walked in. And we were seated eventually, and then we were not served. We waited. We sat there for 45 minutes. And eventually we were like, “Alright.”
J: You can only have so many experiences of blatant racism that you can call coincidence.
A: Yeah. It’s crazy. We were not served. This was in the 2000s. So yeah, the legacy is real there.
J: Yeah. All of those little reminders that you’re not welcome… I just feel like they were too abundant. I had to roll out.
A: Too abundant for sure.
J: So where do you feel like your home is? What does home feel like?
A: I don’t know. In my hometown and state and region there are so many feelings of home-ness and safety but also so many feelings of dispossession—feeling like I didn’t really belong. So I guess a more full definition or a more full understanding of home, for me, is that it isn’t necessary a physical place. I think as long have people who I love and support me, then I can rock anywhere. Honestly. I think New York is starting to feel like home. When I went to visit over the holidays, I was definitely glad to be back. But it felt distinctly different. It didn’t feel like a space that was my own, or a place that was my own.
J: Do you mean your house? Or North Carolina?
A: Both. It’s like, I love this place, and I love these people. But this isn’t my place.
These Other Southerners:
Austin Monroe is a curator, event planner and student living in New York.
Visit North York’s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/NorthYorkCreative?pnref=about.overview
Jamila Reddy is a writer, director, and facilitator of dreams based currently in Brooklyn (but always in pursuit of magic wherever it may be). She spends her days exploring, reflecting, and trying to get free. As a queer/Black/Southern woman, Jamila is thankful for language and the light it shines on the dark corners of transformation. She received BAs in Sociology and Dramatic Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She recently completed and self-published her collection of poems, the consequence of silence.
© Copyright Jamila Reddy 2015