Mumble Sauce is a summer and fall 2019 column about how DMV Black communities uplift healing and creativity in the face of gentrification, displacement, policing, and incarceration. This is installment seven of 10.
Bianca Bonita Carter has a name for each of her wigs. That’s 16 names in total.
The unit named Blue Violet is her favorite. It’s a long bob with black roots and green and purple tips—a loose body wave with bouncy curls that Carter loves to flip.
The 22-year-old Afro-Latina poet and activist has her hair in thick dark braids flowing over her shoulders when I meet with her at Calabash, a local Black-owned-and-run tea spot, on a weekend in late August. As much as she loves her braids, she misses her wigs.
“Blue Violet’s awesome as fuck,” Carter says. A deep dimple appears on her cheek as she smiles. “I have one named Bianca, one named Bella, one named Rakim, one named Orange because she’s orange.” She describes each wig and its personality, listing them off one-by-one with her fingers.
“Wigs are like a safety net.”
Safety isn’t often accessible to Carter, so she cultivates it where she can. She loves coming home after a long day and taking off her makeup, putting on a wig, and writing poetry over a cup of tea.
The removal of makeup is an important part of Carter’s self-care ritual. She loves the feeling of her bare skin, and she’d wear makeup less often if she felt she could. But experience has taught Carter to be hyper aware of how she’s perceived. She wants to fall under the radar of people who are out to harm her, and makeup helps.
“You have to make sure your makeup is done, your highlight is right, your body is right,” Carter says. “It’s exhausting. I know what I am.”
This is Carter’s current reality, but she dreams of a world where Black trans women can feel safe no matter how they decide to present themselves on any given day.
Carter fights to actualize these dreams as an activist and a community organizer. With the No Justice No Pride Collective, Carter works alongside other organizers to provide housing and support for trans women, decriminalize sex work, and end transphobia. Her day job is at Casa Ruby, an organization that provides shelter and resources to LGBTQIA+ youth around the D.C. area.
This work plays off of her many strengths. Carter is known among her friends as the caregiver: big-hearted, kind, warm, and understanding. Armed with a natural curiosity for the way the world works and her place in it, Carter challenges herself and the people around her to abandon mainstream ideas of what makes someone “worthy” and “deserving” of safety and support.
“I work for trans women who aren’t heard. The trans women society calls ugly. The trans women that they say look like men. The ones who aren’t ‘cunt’ or ‘undetectable,’” Carter tells me between spoonfuls of Calabash’s chickpea soup.
“Being a woman is about individuality, about being your own self. I met a woman a few days ago who had a mustache and a full beard,” Carter says. “But that’s a woman.”
Carter’s grandmother instilled in her a belief that people should be affirmed and supported in being who they are. She grew up under her grandmother’s watch in Brooklyn while her parents lived in Southeast D.C. Carter loved living with her grandma, a youthful spirit whose playfulness and generosity made her feel loved and protected.
“We’d have a challenge to see who could stay up all night into the morning to see the sun come up,” Carter says. Carter would always win, and later in the day, her grandmother would make homemade lasagna for her as her prize.
This love and support never faltered while Carter transitioned, and Carter wishes this was the norm for all trans women. Having a supportive guardian helped Carter survive.
“If anyone wanted to say anything about me, she would say ‘fuck them,’” Carter says. “Live your life and do what you wanna do.”
Transitioning isn’t easy, and it isn’t linear, either. Carter remembers starting her transition when she was 12 years old, but she paused when she came to D.C. for school, unsure of how accepting people would be. Wigs were an important aspect of Carter’s transition, and the memory of her first time wearing a wig in the District remains etched in her mind.
Carter wore long hair on a day she had a test in one of her classes. The teacher demanded that Carter take her wig off in the middle of the test, claiming that it was distracting other students. Carter refused, and the teacher sent her home. Carter’s father yanked the wig off of her head when she got there. She ended up finishing the school year with a haircut.
Poetry became a refuge from the abuse Carter survived at home and at school. She wrote poems for her friends and teachers, stanzas containing affirmations and well-wishes that she hoped would guide them through hard times. Between doing homework and writing poetry, she barely slept.
Carter remembers the exhaustion clearly. She failed a lot of classes, but poetry made her feel good. “I loved that I could make someone else happy from what they’re going through.”
Contributing to the healing of others through poetry helped Carter find equilibrium during the turbulence of her teenage years. Bouncing between New York and D.C., she saw the size of her friend groups dwindle during each visit. She lost her best friend to suicide. Many of her friends in Brooklyn died, went to jail, or were in prison serving hard time. Carter started timing her visits back to New York to coincide with her friends’ release dates, staying with her grandmother like she did when she was a young child.
Everything changed a few years ago when Carter’s grandmother passed away. At 18, Carter moved to D.C. for good.
“I call D.C. my home, but when I was going through all my bad shit, my trauma,” Carter says, “it was here.”
Carter started growing close with her mother in D.C., but her relationship with her father, who she lived with, remained difficult. He kicked her out not long after she moved in. “He figured out I was escorting. He said that he’d seen me in different cars, said it was disgusting.” She ended up finding shelter at Casa Ruby, the same organization she works for now.
Although she didn’t know her mother for most of her life, they grew close quickly during this time. Carter describes her as her best friend.
“If someone wanted to judge me, they’d have to go through me and her. If someone talked shit about me, she’d fight for me,” Carter says. But her mother passed away a year ago. “She was my shield. I didn’t need wigs as much back then.”
Wigs can be a form of self-defense. In an area where trans women are routinely assaulted and murdered, one of Carter’s tactics for survival is to switch her look up to avoid recognition, experimenting with different hairstyles and makeup frequently. This is the result of several traumatic experiences. Carter has been sexually assaulted multiple times. Her housemates have been jumped over the last few weeks. People have tried to break into their home, thrown rocks at their windows.
Society has directed violence toward trans women, especially Black trans women, for decades. Several Black trans organizers in the DMV, including Carter, say that this violence is on the rise. Ashanti Carmon and Zoe Spears are two Black trans women with experience in the sex trades who lost their lives to gun violence over the last few months. Carter was with Spears at a cookout the day before she was killed. Neither murder has been solved.
“Most of the things that happen in D.C. are never discovered,” Carter says. “You always have to be aware of yourself. What your surroundings are, where you’re at, who you’re with, if the person you’re with is setting you up the whole time.”
“You have to think about everything.”
Carter spends a lot of her time thinking. About her grandmother and her other grandparents, her mother, her best friend, and her relationship with her father. When she has time, she thinks about poetry. She dreams about being a famous poet like Maya Angelou, one of her icons. Carter’s own poetry is about hope, love, joy, and freedom—ideals she hopes will be more widely reflected in the world one day.
She also thinks about her children—other LGBTQIA+ young people who she’s met in D.C. and started to mentor. Carter has three sons and a daughter, and she takes her role as a mother very seriously.
“They’re all trying to do something big with their lives,” Carter says, her eyes sparkling with excitement and pride. “One of them just got an apartment. One of them has a girlfriend. It makes me feel like a champion.”
Carter would love to have her own apartment one day. There isn’t much left in her paycheck after helping out her kids and other LGBTQIA+ organizers, so she’s raising money on PayPal with the hope of filling in the gaps. By following her duty to fight for safer communities for trans women, Carter feels that a breakthrough will come.
The 22-year-old poet knows she’s experienced more than many have in a lifetime. But she chooses to believe in the good in the world, bringing it to life with the glide of her pen.
“My grandmother taught me what I believe in. And what I believe in is right.” Carter nods her head and presses her lips together, signaling there was nothing more to say on the matter. Her braids fall along her face as she turns back to her tea, holding her lost loved ones close in her heart.
They’re safe there.