t 17, I snuck into Ego’s — a smoke-filled bar in South Austin, TX — to perform poetry and work on my acting skills. It wasn’t long before I started getting unwanted attention from the mostly white, male patrons; but the come-ons and ass-grabs weren’t enough to make me want to leave the only stage in town that would look the other way when I walked through the door. It didn’t matter that the older white men in the room eyed me for my candy — I was finally, I hoped, on the road to getting “discovered.”

I know now that what I had really been looking for at the time was acceptance, from my family and others. They could learn to accept me if I was talented or successful, and if that meant letting one or two white men snatch me from behind on my way to the stage, I could be cool.

In 2007, a few years and a few mistakes later, I took my friends and my finally-legal self out of town for our first regional spoken word tour. After Austin’s Neo-Soul Poetry Lounge one Thursday night, we pulled out of the city limits, pulled off the long and empty highway, and cut off the car’s lights. Together we stood in silence, watching the stars twist and turn over the Texas desert. We joked about what we’d do if the cops came by. We joked about what we were each running away from, together. One was running away from his dad. One was running away from her divorce.

I was running away from myself.

I could feel that I was starting to suffocate in my heteronormative relationship with a beautiful man. He was perfect — except when he wasn’t. By the time we got to New Orleans for our first show, I’d breathed in some of the road and started to feel like more of myself. Oh. This right here. This is actual freedom. And it was more than the music of Frenchman Street. More than the eclectic textures of the streetlights or the heavy-handed pours of Bourbon.

It was the untying of voices that washed over me again and again throughout the show that night. It was the swallowing echo of a community recently resuscitated after the hurricane. I was the featured act, but these poets were breathing color back into me.

Having spent most of my life in Central Texas, I had never before been surrounded by so many black beauties, so consistently. In them, I saw myself reflected back like light, and I understood that my people were diverse and divergent. I was in the early years of discovering myself as a queer femme and pleasantly surprised to swap poetry slam stories with people whose experiences were as transformative as my own. My previous life, the one in which I never dreamed of stretching myself across the country, seemed to pale and wither away. I knew then, I could spend the rest of my life chasing this sort of affirmation.

By 2011, everything in my life had been upended and I felt the need to get back on the road. I toured 23 cities in three months, alone. For all I knew about the world then, I was not prepared for the reality of my queer, black body being out, unprotected, in the open. I learned quickly that there are counties in Texas, like Vidor and Waller, where someone like me simply does not stop. Not to go to the restroom. Not for a snack. Certainly, not to sleep.

In Indiana, the kind white woman who had booked me for that leg of the tour, drove me to a tiny dive bar outside of Indianapolis for a late night show — but refused to get out of the car. With nothing but a pay-as-you-go cell phone and my little bag of handmade chapbooks, I put on my best I-Wish-You-Would grin and pumped out my set. Later she cried about how scared she had been to go inside. The next morning, I smoked a half-pack of cigarettes, bought a bus ticket, and deleted her number.

Over the course of that trip, I worked on my “nice black lady” persona wherever I went. If I threw a wig on, people held the door open as I walked through. If I showed up in baggy jeans, black men rolled their eyes and shook their heads. By the time I reached New York, my face hurt from smiling. I had been trying to seem more human, more like someone worthy of protection or worthy of respect. I was blending into the backdrop — fading under the responsibility of being acceptable.

I’ve been trying to get free for decades now. Free in my body, in my spirit. I’ve been trying to feel at home in my skin, at home in my brand of love. I’ve been trying to get to a place where I don’t know shame’s name. Where I’m not afraid to share my joy.

I still hold onto these memories of my tours like jewelry, occasionally draping myself in the idea that somewhere, out there, a road full of stories is waiting for me. Somewhere, an audience that needs my face, my voice and my body — just like it is — to come and give them life.

Faylita Hicks is a black queer writer and the Editor of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review. Her debut book, HoodWitch, is forthcoming October 15, 2019, with Acre Books.They are an organizer with social justice group Mano Amiga, a mentor for the 2019 LA Review of Books Publishing Workshop, a 2019 Lambda Literary Arts Writing Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices Non-Fiction Fellow and a 2019 Jack Jones Literary Arts “Culture, Too” Conference Gender/Sexuality Fellow. She was a finalist for Palette Poetry’s 2019 Spotlight Award, the 2018 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellowship.