On a beautiful, breezy, lush green evening in Crown Heights, Keasha Houston has a spring in her step as she enters the Brooklyn Community Pride Center. Hair coiffed, face beat, and donning her signature jacket that looks like the flag of the United States of America, she bursts into the back room, dancing. “Happy birthday, ey! Happy birthday, ey,” she proclaims to herself, amid cheers and “Happy Birthday’s” from her peers.
It’s April 14, 2022, and Keasha has turned 39 years old. For the next hour and a half, she’s geared up to conquer some mathematics.
“I’m going to school b—-, I don’t care. Like even if it is my birthday, I came to this today because I know we’re doing long division, and I need to learn how to do long division,” Keasha says, taking out her pencil box and notebook, as her Black trans instructor patiently waits for her.
“Alright, I gotta get my s— together,” Keasha says, inciting laughs in the room.
She’s sitting in a twice-a-week, unique trans-led GED class designed for Black and Brown trans people. The GED class is one of the life-saving services offered by the Brooklyn GHOST Project, GHOST standing for Guiding and Helping Others Survive Transition. The founder of the nonprofit, LaTravious Collins, is herself a 39-year-old Black trans matriarch, but for her chosen daughters like Keasha, she’s Mother LaTravious.
In the GHOST Project community, Mother LaTravious puts a unique emphasis on education. As a young Black trans woman who escaped Florida to make it in New York City—considered a safe haven in trans communities of color because of dedicated public resources—she had lived multiple lives before she found her calling. First, a sex worker, then a scammer doing check fraud, then a rapper who founded her own label but eventually was pushed out of the scene for being a fat trans artist.
Then one day, she found herself in the hospital with acute kidney failure, where she had an epiphany: “I’m me. I’m destined for greatness.” When she took stock of her life, she realized she couldn’t die knowing she didn’t help her community. As soon as she was released from the hospital, she enrolled in college. Upon getting her associate’s degree in business, she started the Brooklyn GHOST Project. Now, she’s an advocate, an activist, and, a role she prizes above all else, a mother to her community.
“Education was a lifesaver for me,” she says. “Too often, as people of the colored experience, we have doors closed in our face, not because we can’t do the job, not because we’re not great or talented, it’s just we don’t have the educational background.”
Mother LaTravious’ goal is to push her chosen family into academic excellence, so they can learn to fight for their own liberation, and in the process, get degrees that can lead to easier, safer jobs.
In the GED class, the lesson plan has changed to triangles, as the instructor is still trying to figure out how to teach long division. As Keasha agonizes over isosceles triangles, she echoes Mother LaTravious’ goal. “Certain jobs that I really wanted that were comfortable for me, sitting down where there’s not too many people coming in—you know, I don’t like too much drama—and I really wanted the job but I got turned away for the GED, so I said, you know what? It’s time for me to get this s— together.”
The GED instructor, also a Black trans woman, is asking Keasha to calculate the value of an angle in a right angle triangle. “So, what do we do next?” she asks, as Keasha stifles a yawn. “We minus 180 from 150 …,” Keasha says, her sentence trailing off in a question. “Remember,” the instructor interjects, “if you do that, then the top …”
“No,” Keasha interrupts. “Minus 150 from 180, because the top has to be greater than the bottom,” she says, with a cheeky grin on her face. “Period,” another GED student says from across the study table. “This is math, this is math,” Keasha warns, as the room bursts into laughter. The space transforms from an uptight room of learning into a safe, community haven, where Black and Brown trans people are given the freedom to be themselves, make sense of a textbook that was not written for them, and reckon with learning high school-level information through the lens of their lived expertise.
The average life expectancy of Black women in the United States is 78 years. According to LGBTQIA+ organizations, the life expectancy for Black trans women is less than half, at 33-35 years old. They’re either killed by people they know or die as a result of socio-economic factors such as poverty, lack of access to medical care, drug use, and survival sex work. People in the Black trans community sit at the nexus of being Black, combating racism, and being trans while combating homophobia and transphobia.
Grassroots organizations and collectives run by queer and trans people of color continue to serve these communities in ways that other organizations cannot: by fully centering trans people of color in their care, services, and programs.
Education is seen as a way to better one’s circumstances by many in the community. Many older trans people may not have their high school diploma or GED due to being driven out of schooling by discrimination. Those who graduate with a diploma face problems with the universities, where they spend energy having to inform the faculty and administration of their correct name and pronouns. This is enough for them to decide that education is not for them, as the process can impact their physical and mental health. Trans students also have to contend with the same housing, job, healthcare, and food insecurities in an academic setting as in larger society. Safe community spaces become a haven for trans people of color to feel safe and flourish, and reinvigorate their interest in academics.
Mother Wit is the story of a Black trans matriarch who saw futures for her children that they weren’t necessarily dreaming for themselves. It’s a multi-character verité narrative of a Black trans community’s pursuit of education—in books, in community, in academic institutions, and in their own history. “Mother wit” is ancestral and generational, meaning it centers the collective knowledge of survival acquired and passed down by Black matriarchs to future generations trying to fight for their liberation. “Mother wit” is community-driven, found in safe spaces, and one of the only survival tools in the arsenal of Black trans communities in a hostile world.