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Shayla Lawson And Their Journey to Liberation Through Travel

Shayla Lawson, Courtesy of Shayla Lawson

Black, disabled, nonbinary author, poet, journalist, professor and Third Culture Adult Shayla Lawson, author of “This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope” (Harper Perennial, 2020), released a new must-read text: “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World: A Decolonial Memoir” (2024, Tiny Reparations Books). What started as a survival guide-type international travel book for women became a true tale of physical and cultural survival that unfolds for the reader in real time.

How To Live Free In A Dangerous World, Book Cover
How To Live Free In A Dangerous World, Book Cover

Lawson takes us on a global travel adventure — everywhere from Harare, Zimbabwe, Kyoto, Japan, Hoensbroek, the Netherlands and more. However, the real journey is as inward as outward – told in a technicolor language, with strobe lights of vulnerability and humanity. Lawson’s willingness to intimately share their authentic experiences with self-liberation changes the tone of this travel memoir from confessional to conversational.

THE INWARD JOURNEY OF TRAVEL

“Our story starts in an airplane with the sound of long acrylic nails tapping on laptop keys, the sound of black femme poetics,” Lawson wrote in “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World: A Decolonial Memoir.”

From page 1, Lawson and the reader are row mates on a flight.

Their love of story first inspired Lawson’s love of travel.

“I started traveling because I’m such a reader,” Lawson says. “I really loved journeying through the page and going to all these places, for instance, seeing the Harlem Renaissance with Josephine Baker and Langston Hughes. As I got older, it became my dream to see these places and be involved in the larger world.”

As a culturally fluid traveler and writer, Lawson saw an opportunity to explore how their unique travel experiences shed light on hidden aspects of their identity.

I started traveling because I’m such a reader.

“Having a book that was dealing in a transcultural voice felt like a really monumental thing to do. There’s something very liberating and revolutionary about looking at the ways that being in the world is not just about being an observer – it’s also about being an active participant. It’s humbling, yet it also makes your world so vast,” Lawson says.

On ‘blackness’ and ‘Blackness’

Blackness is a complex identity that, as Lawson often says, “doesn’t travel well.” In other words, people worldwide define and understand blackness differently. This realization became clear to Lawson as they heard the crack of a beer can from the backseat of a high-speed car ride in Zimbabwe. When the driver noticed their fear, he had this to say:

“‘We’re used to this,’ he says, ‘the freedom. The reason why you were having such a hard time adjusting to driving this fast on an empty road on this night is because you still think of yourself as Black — because you’re still expecting repercussions for your Blackness. Here, there are no white police. Worst-case scenario, we get stopped by a cop who knows one friend of ours or another, we pay a fine, we move on.’ Farai’s words were direct, horrifying, and truthful. Blackness in America was rarely something from which I could ‘move on.’” Lawson says.

Shayla Lawson, Photo by Nicholas Nichols
Shayla Lawson, Photo by Nicholas Nichols

Lawson continues: “He was right. I hadn’t been scared for my life because the car ride was dangerous; I was scared of the car ride and my Blackness. I had never just been me. A Black man driving and dancing in a car full of us in the dark was a death sentence in America. I knew it. I was used to living in the margins, not in a country, and I had succumbed to the likelihood of my death by the most ordinary but unnecessary means.”

Lawson explains the contrast in their experience as a Black person in the United States and a black person worldwide.

I hadn’t been scared for my life because the car ride was dangerous; I was scared of the car ride and my Blackness.

“The difference between Blackness and blackness is the difference between a shout and a whisper,” Lawson says, “The uppercase B represents what has been aggregated into African American identity. When I began traveling as a ‘Black person,’ I assumed that that was an identity that traveled. When we start looking at the idea of what is lowercase black culture, we are everywhere. You can start looking at roots in Southeast Asia, the Middle East — you can start broadening your definition.”

Lawson continues: “When it comes to the Blackness that is based on African Americanness, we relegate that to ideas of sports, movie stars, music and key figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Black people around the world “are sharing culture and skin tone in ways African Americans are alien to,” Lawson says.

They continue: “I really like the idea of returning to that lowercase b as a way to talk about all of us in aggregate.”

Otherwise, Lawson says culturally fluid black people “are often seen as black but not Black because African-Americanness has been taken as black.”

They continue: “I understand that a lot of people have fought for a capital B identity, but it’s also kind of punk rock that the lowercase b is always the undercurrent. And that’s the one, in my mind, that is going to survive because it’s not built on this idea that you have to be something specific. We joke about the idea that you can take away somebody’s ‘Black Card,’ but you can only do that with the capital B. Blackness (lowercase b) becomes a much more cross-cultural idea.”

TRANSGRESSING GENDER IDENTITY

Those who travel understand the profound impact the experience can have on one’s sense of identity. How one sees oneself has so much to do with context, so when the geographic or cultural context shifts, the opportunity to see a new side of oneself emerges.

Not surprisingly, Lawson experienced a shift in their self-identity through travel – and this journey continues.

I understand that a lot of people have fought for a capital B identity, but it’s also kind of punk rock that the lowercase b is always the undercurrent.

“The biggest journey I’m experiencing right now is crossing over into the definitions of nonbinary identity,” Lawson says. “This is definitely my Malcolm X juncture — in between Malcolm Little and el-Shabazz. Using the pronouns they/them is very much similar to the X that Malcolm used as a way to mark the end of the identity that was taken away. My travels, my inner work and the time I’ve spent with many different people have helped me understand the ways that the gender binary is one of those last frontiers.”

Cultivating nonbinary gender expression in publics does not “travel well – not in the ways we’d think in Americanized or Western culture,” Lawson says.

They continue: “I think about my friends from the Philippines, Rwanda and even Scandinavia — there are so many languages people are generally referred to as they/them, which allows all people to express who they are.”

Through this autobiography, Lawson paves a revolutionary path of their own.

“My biggest revolutionary stance at the moment is trying to maintain the balance I find in that divine feminine and sacred masculine,” Lawson says. “I still very deeply identify as a Black woman. Yet, as a Black woman, I’ve never fit into the binary to begin with. We need to reframe this in Western culture. I like thinking of it as not a new thing but a really ancient thing. Renaissance men used to wear a lot of pink and stockings. These things we think of as fixed are incredibly mutable from one generation to another.”

Author Shayla Lawson in a pool wearing an eye patch and neck brace
Adaptive Fashion, Courtesy of Shayla Lawson

A Hidden Disability

In the fall of 2021, Lawson’s eye threatened to fall out of their head. After many doctor visits, they were diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), an autoimmune illness that attacks joint and connective tissue. It was unclear whether or not they would survive.

Rather than hide their struggle, Lawson leveraged autobiography as a powerful tool for liberation and self-determination, especially as a person with a tapestry of historically marginalized identities.

“Originally, the book was meant to be like a ‘girl’s guide to putting your backpack on and going,’” Lawson says. “But, there was a moment I wrote about, which was happening in real time when I was standing in a pool in my bikini looking fabulous, but I’ve got this phone to my ear, and a doctor is telling me I have a very finite amount of time left to live. That changed for me what it meant to be writing a book. It shifted from being a travelog to being a survival guide for misfits and people who have been discounted and discredited by the system.”

They continue: “How could I make this book empowering and meaningful if it would be the last book that I wrote? I’m so proud that juncture happened within me. If I had remained healthy, I don’t think it would have even crossed my mind.”

EDS is often a hidden disability, which can cause others to wonder why a seemingly able-bodied person would struggle to walk upstairs or get out of bed. In this book, Lawson reflects on how radical acceptance of disability affected their experience of freedom and self-liberation.

It shifted from being a travelog to being a survival guide for misfits and people who have been discounted and discredited by the system.

“If there’s one quote I’d want people to leave the book with, it’s this one: ‘Disability is really just a measure of time.’” Lawson says. “With time, all of us will be different than we are right now. In sickness, we all become time travelers. Disability will happen to all of us, in one capacity or another, whether it comes through pregnancy, an injury or just old age. It’s such a social death. I’m experiencing old age and youth simultaneously. I have never been more vulnerable.”

Shayla Lawson, Courtesy of Shayla Lawson
Shayla Lawson, Courtesy of Shayla Lawson

Lawson’s experience as an identity time traveler, primarily through multiple geographic and cultural contexts, inspired the book’s title.

“I really loved coming to the moment of the title, How to Live Free in a Dangerous World,” Lawson says. “The perilousness of being in a physical body — I think all of us have come to notice more since COVID-19. We’re not machines. Pre-COVID-19, so many of us were living like we were invincible. I think the title fits where we are at this moment. The world is dangerous, but I want to live the most liberated life that I can within that space.”

Disability is really just a measure of time.

Lawson has managed to write a travel memoir with such intimacy and generosity that the notion of exotic disappears. They are present, free (yet not exhibitioner) and create no artificial boundaries between their lived experience and yours, the reader. They invite you in — shifting the blanket across their lap to drape it over yours.

You’re in it together, and it’s an extraordinary ride.

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