It’s a dim day in Dallas when Niecee X turns off the rain-swept streets into the parking lot of Desta, an East Dallas Ethiopian restaurant. The eatery is a typical haunt for the 29-year-old Niecee X, an artist, poet and queer community organizer whose vegan palate is right at home with the restaurant’s mix of bold, flavorful options.
A staff member at the restaurant compliments Niecee’s pink hair, and they (Niecee X is nonbinary, and their pronouns are “they”/”them”) return a hearty “Thank you!” as they settle into a table and begin scanning the menu through circular glasses. They have a full slate of events and engagements in the days ahead and the run-up to Pride, but they exude calm as they eat a veggie combo and sip honey wine.
Good food — and access to good food — is important to them.
“We don’t think enough about how people are feeding their bodies, how they’re feeding their minds,” Niecee X says. “Access to good food has so many implications.”
That is one reason Niecee X Asantewaa, who adopted their moniker from Malcolm X, is leading a movement to launch Revolution Cafe & Bookstore. The cafe is Dallas’ first vegan restaurant and bookstore focused on providing space and access to health food for QTPOC (Queer & Trans People of Color). Opened in 2018, it is currently a pop-up that has hosted several open mic nights and panel discussions, and plans for a permanent physical location are in development.
Niecee X could talk for hours about the project, and does, putting the Ethiopian cuisine on hold and making the manager worry whether the food is inedible. They believe the cafe and bookstore is one of the initiatives needed to affect much-needed change for queer and trans people of color in Dallas.
“Revolution Cafe won’t be the revolution, but it’s a start," Asantewaa says. "We’re building community, because we’re tired of seeing people die.”
Niecee X was born in Oak Cliff. A self-described “artsy kid” from a young age, they were a sibling to four brothers and a child to a conservative father who worked in construction and a politically neutral mother. Niecee vibes with their mom, who may not share their zeal for organizing, the arts and activism, but who supports her child nonetheless.
“She’ll come to the open mic nights, and read her own poetry,” Niecee X says, a beatific smile crossing their face. “It’s cute.”
Niecee X cites their grandmother as their biggest influence. Grandma engaged them in political discussions and instilled a healthy distrust of government institutions.
“She was one of the first people I know who talked about surveillance,” Niecee X says. “She used to say, ‘You know they can watch and listen to you when they want, right?’ and people looked at her like she was crazy. But now look.”
Niecee X first dipped their toes in organizing after Hurricane Katrina, when they took part in a church outreach program. Years later, they would see parallels of how people of color in New Orleans were treated when Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston. Niecee X’s Black Women’s Defense League supported black single mothers in the Houston area.
“You have to be a certain type of broken to become visible. It has to come to death or a hurricane for there to be any sort of resource sharing, and that leads me to this kind of work. That leads me to build sustainability.”
Inspired by their grandmother, Niecee X planned to earn a political science degree at university. They enrolled at North Carolina A&T but found college didn’t appeal to them.
“I’m a little restless, so I like to do a little bit of everything. I was called elsewhere.”
Specifically, Niecee X meant the East Coast. After withdrawing from North Carolina A&T, they spent time organizing in Philadelphia and Baltimore, drawn to the tenable nature of activism in those cities.
“I wanted to see if the grass is greener,” Niecee X says. “It can be frustrating to be working in a community that isn’t grassroots-oriented. It was an opportunity to work with some fresh folks, and the East Coast has these communities where grassroots organizing seemed possible.”
Even so, Niecee X’s travels ended in Dallas, feeling a need to put down their own roots in a place that was once home. Motivated in part by their own experience with domestic violence, Niecee X started the Black Women’s Defense League, a women’s advocacy organization for people of color. The organizer attributed the Black Panthers as a key influence, with self-defense instruction a primary goal. Niecee X and the League’s leadership advocate for transformative justice, a philosophy that believes the community should invest in supporting victims of a crime like domestic violence, while working to help rehabilitate the perpetrator.
“The penal system cannot be our only route,” Niecee X says. “I’ve seen transformative justice work, and I’ve seen it not work. When it does, it’s because the community is in place to support the victim while rehabilitating the perpetrator.”
Early in its existence, Vice produced a video about the group that highlights a day spent at the gun range. Niecee, who appreciated the crux of the video but calls it “sensationalized,” says the group has changed in the years since its inception. They still hold self-defense classes, as they did after L'Daijohnique Lee was brutally assaulted by a white bartender in Deep Ellum, but the organization has broadened its scope.
“It’s now a little more interconnected,” Niecee X says. “It’s a group of people with similar convictions about black women.”
Ivan Dillard, a trans self-defense coach and singer-songwriter who has taught classes for the Black Women’s Defense League, saw this change up close.
“I think as Niecee became more grounded in their queer identity, the organization evolved,” Dillard says. “It’s the same principles, but there’s different practices at play.”
Those practices include town halls, panels and other events that engage the community. The organization rallied around L'Daijohnique Lee’s assault and Muhlaysia Booker’s murder, hosting events that discussed the persecution of trans people of color in Dallas.
As Black Women’s Defense League has changed, so has Niecee.
“Niecee is very balanced as an activist,” their friend Loren Guillory says. “She’s merging this powerful, authoritative voice, this voice that is so in touch with their ancestors, with a kind, nurturing spirit.”
Guillory praises Niecee’s organizing for Dallas’ edition of the Mute R. Kelly campaign but also sees her friend supporting members of the community individually.
“I’ve seen Niecee open up their own space, their own home to people with no home,” she says. “If you need resources, Niecee will find it for you or find someone who can.”
Niecee is now determined to incorporate more voices, to enhance the intersectionality of their approach.
“I’m fixating on work with black trans folk, black LGBT people, and black and brown people as a whole, and building spaces where the ways we intersect are examined and understood.”
They believe that building the kind of community where transformative justice is possible requires spaces like Revolution Cafe & Bookstore. Niecee X hopes the physical location will be based in their home of Oak Cliff, and organizers and artists are at work planning a summertime event inspired by the Harlem Renaissance. Everyone is welcome at the open mics and conversations the pop-up has hosted thus far at places like Deep Vellum Books, but the priority is QTPOC voices, stories and art. For example, the cafe’s quarterly “Books and Breakfast” events offer free vegan food and free books to families, with a focus on books by and for people of color.
“Those are the voices that are not heard,” Niecee X says. “But my hope is that everyone will seek this information. When we go into a regular bookstore, we forget that 70-80% of the titles are written by men. It would be a huge addition to our collective knowledge to have these things readily available.”
Just as the artist and organizer have merged their passions for poetry and activism, Black Women’s Defense League will work in tandem with the cafe. The league will be the organizing arm, while the cafe will be a home base for the community, a place where QTPOC will always have a space, a stage and a platform. Niecee envisions a future for Deep Ellum and Dallas where QTPOC are safe in their own neighborhoods.
“Prejudice rarely survives experiences,” Niecee X says, quoting journalist Eve Zibart. “We don’t have enough face-to-face, enough talking through things, and I want to create spaces where that happens. That’s how we get to liberation.”
The organizer’s profile has risen in recent years. They were featured in Pabst Blue Ribbon’s “America Dreaming” campaign and recently made The Advocate’s list of 104 Champions of Pride for 2019. A few days before the dinner at Desta, Niecee X attended the Dallas Police Department’s LGBT town hall and talked to the detective assigned to Booker’s case, the police chief and the district attorney. They recorded the interactions and published the video to their Facebook page.
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“I am making the effort to keep the focus on our sisters memory till the funeral has passed,” the Facebook post reads. “We all deserve that peace. But afterward, every single person who had anything to do with keeping Muhlaysia safe will be held accountable. I promise.”
After finishing the majority of their veggie combo, Niecee X begins to pack what is left of the Desta dish into a to-go box. They flash a smile at the waiter and the restaurant manager, who appears relieved that the food was, in fact, quite good. His patron just had a lot to say.
“It’s a lot to try to survive, and these goals seem lofty,” Niecee X says. “But it shouldn’t have to be revolution 24/7. There should be more to it. There should be fun, creativity, there should be things to fight for. That’s what the cafe and bookstore is for.”
As another wave of rain threatens this pocket of Dallas, Niecee X slips a backpack over their shoulder and heads back to work.