Issue eight of Riposte has just launched with two bold covers and in between the stories of daring women is Ericka Hart, breast cancer warrior, sex educator and performer. Here – with an introduction written especially for It’s Nice That by editor Danielle Pender – we publish an extract from Tahriah Hairston’s interview with Ericka, where she explains why chronic illness doesn’t look one particular way.
We have featured a lot of powerful women since we started Riposte but Ericka Hart is the literal embodiment of a powerful woman. I first heard about her when I watched her incredible speech at the Women’s March. Even though it was recorded on someone’s phone and the quality is pretty terrible her words, her passion and her anger made me cry.
She called bullshit on the march for a number of reasons and she made me think a lot about things I’d never considered. That alone is pretty special but she also did it topless (in January) and bared her scarred, post breast cancer boobs.
At 28 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo a double mastectomy but when she googled this, all she found were photos of Angelina Jolie and a bunch of white women. She didn’t see anyone who looked like her. When she then found out that black women were more likely to die from breast cancer because they’re diagnosed too late she decided to do something about it and made it her mission to use her body to spread the message that women need to get checked out. For the new issue we talked to her about her experience and also about her work as a sex educator – I told you she was powerful!
Putting Ericka and her bare boobs on our cover made us nervous but if you don’t do things that are scary then what’s the point? I think she looks beautiful and powerful. She’s challenging your expectations of what a breast cancer survivor looks like and what post breast cancer boobs look like – I’d never seen any until Ericka. With this issue and this cover we want to challenge what’s “normal” because breast cancer is normal and it happens to women everywhere – you just never see them.
Tahriah Hairston: You went topless at AfroPunk and that catapulted your platform of creating awareness and visibility for black women. But, how did you get to that point?
I’ve always been the kind of person that wanted to go topless. I would be the first person to take my top off in a yoga studio locker room, I didn’t care, it wasn’t a thing for me. When I started to see that breast cancer adverts weren’t geared towards black women and I started reading about the cancer rates for black women, I was just like: “You know where’s a place that has a lot of queer black people?” AfroPunk. I had gone every year and I wanted to go topless because I wanted to raise awareness. I wanted people to see me and check their boobs, and then it became so much more.
How did your views of sex education change after you were diagnosed with cancer?
I’ve always talked about bodies and how they are different. I’ve always talked about an awareness of bodies that don’t necessarily fall inside the politics of desirability. So much of what I’m doing now is no different than what I was doing before, there’s just more of a platform.
Before going topless at AfroPunk, I was in the midst of writing a curriculum for breast cancer patients who experience sex in new ways with their bodies. The curriculum is called Sexualizing Cancer and it’s bringing awareness to the medical industry conversation around disability and how we view disability like it’s morbid and a problem and not something that can be sexy and is a part of life. It’s challenging people and their concessions about disabilities and chronic illness.
How did breast cancer affect your sex life?
I loved all of my doctors, but none of them talked to me about how my sex life would change. No one was really like, “Ericka, this is what’s going to happen to you.” They said I would get mouth sores, they said I would feel fatigue, but nothing really beyond that.
I started putting two and two together, I didn’t really have people to turn to with regards to talking about it. My body was put in menopause because I wanted to preserve my ovaries, so I started reading about menopause and fatigue and how they impact your sex life. When folks are in menopause they experience decreased libido and I also had fatigue from the chemo, so I was too tired to have sex and I didn’t know that all of those things were the reason it was happening. I just thought something was wrong with me. I didn’t understand why I didn’t want to have sex with my partner.
Many black women aren’t informed about the possibilities of breast cancer and the fact that they are more likely to be diagnosed at an earlier age than white women. Why do you think that?
There’s a systemic racism in this country. If I Google double mastectomy, the images that come up are of Angelina Jolie and some other white woman. That’s problematic when white women are diagnosed more, but black women die faster because they go to the doctor when their cancer is at stage four versus when they could have had it removed pre-emptively.
But if advertisements are not targeted to them, then why the fuck would they go? The medical industry has not done a substantial amount of work to apologise and be accountable and be responsible for the pain and the harm caused to communities of colour, or to make them feel comfortable.
Your mum was also a survivor and died when you were in high school. How did she shape your idea of what a women with breast cancer looked like?
It showed me that breast cancer wasn’t this morbid trajectory or sad experience. Most people when they would talk about my mom and I would tell them she had cancer, they would be like, “No, she doesn’t,” because what was perpetuated in the media was this frail, sad person and my mom was never that. She never left the house bald, she always had a wig on. I think that’s very particular of black women because they always look fly, and that was my mom. Chronic illness doesn’t look a particular way and she was the epitome of that.
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