KB Brookins’ Freedom House is an unapologetic, forward-dreaming manifesto for a better, shared future. Based out of Austin, Texas, Brookins writes about growing up queer, Black, and trans in Texas — a state that has long housed anti-trans, anti-queer, and anti-Black legislation and ideologies. Despite this opposition, Texans like Brookins have been engaged in a fight for a future beyond these boundaries. Organized as a tour through the “freedom house” Brookins imagines, their poems take up issues of race, trans-ness, gender, family, gentrification, climate change, Afrofuturism, sexual violence, body politics, and home.
Brookins’ collection opens with “Black Life circa 2029” where the “hood is a small utopia of green grass” and there are “no police.” By imagining a future wherein Black people do not have to “call in Black the next day,” they lay the foundation for a freedom house to be constructed. They ask what a just and free future could actually look like. Using poetry as a tool of exploration and future dreaming, Brookins builds a freedom house, brick by brick by poem.
Section One inhabits the “Foyer.” Here readers are introduced to many of the ongoing themes Brookins’ poems explore. In “Every Building in East Austin is a Ghost,” Brookins criticizes the memory and racial politics of gentrification. They write:
Preservation depends on what is considered good. The city natives know still spills in cracked corners of my local Whole Foods. I’m expected to unsee that resurrection. Does no one else see mummies lost here? The local paper’s business section is an obituary. We’ll be building on top of your memory now. I don’t know much about places, except that history is epistolary & fresh paint is sometimes mixed with blood. Heaven be a Rosewood Park Juneteenth. Hell be a rent increase by property tax.
Deftly using enjambment and italicization for emphasis, tactics Brookins uses throughout, they draw attention to the inextricable links between race and gentrification by drawing attention to the rampant gentrification in East Austin, a historically Black neighborhood. Brookins rightfully points out that “Preservation depends on what is considered / good” and that “fresh paint is sometimes mixed with blood.” The “preservation” and “fresh paint” have increased property taxes for landlords and, subsequently, have raised rent prices, pushing long-time residents out of their neighborhoods and homes to make way for affluent and, often white, developers. The vicious cycle of gentrification Brookins draws attention to is happening across the nation and disproportionately impacts communities of color.
Section Two ushers readers into the “Dining Room.” Brookins’ “Sonic Symbolism” is dedicated to Ma ’Khia Bryant, who was shot by police in April 2021. “S.B. No. 8: Erasure” is “derived from the original text of Texas Senate Bill 8” passed on May 19, 2021, which banned abortion. “Bare Minimum, Or To-Do List for White America,” directs readers not to “kill Black people” or “Asian women.” The poem asks readers to “Get a job — / one that doesn’t make you / a dictator. Take back 400 years / of uncontested leadership” and to “Give thanks to the futures you’ve stolen.”
“Dining Room” also includes a form defying “Curriculum Vitae” for KB Brookins with sections such as Education, Fellowships and Awards, Work Experience, Board and Committee Positions, Skills, and References. According to this CV, Brookins has held positions such as “Co-Chair, Committee of Black people Who Survived, June 2020–November 2021,” has skills such as “Hiding myself,” “Hopping Fences,” “Development, including: / … The ‘helping hands’ of white people ($15,000 from forced allyship donations 2020).” Their references include “God as my witness” and “The gay agenda.” Brookins’ Fellowships and Awards include being “Marked as alive during global embarrassment, 2016–2020” and “Inaugural Fellow, psychiatrist’s office, 2020–2021.” A tongue-in-cheek critique of capitalist, racist, trans-phobic, and exploitative workplace practices and expectations, “Curriculum Vitae” speaks to the core of being a young adult in America today.
Section Three, “Bedroom,” “T Shot #6: A Parallel Universe,” one of many poems with the title T Shot (T for testosterone), explores what life for Brookins may have been like had they been born a boy. Referencing Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy,” Brookins writes:
if i were a boy
is not a phrase I yell only when Beyoncé sings it.
I think heavily on the day the nurse instead said
it’s a boy
on a world I had to will here
with secrets & stinging surprise
injected in a different thigh
every wednesday at 5 pm
If I were a boy
I would know how to pretend better
“Bedroom” also includes “Good Grief,” which is set “after Texas Winter Storm Uri” and critiques both the failings of ERCOT (the organization that runs Texas’ power grid) and the systemic issue of climate change. They write “America is the worst group project” and asks after writing “Ice cold baby, I told you; I’m ice cold,” “who said it first, Frank Ocean or Christopher Columbus?” In doing so, Brookins connects the long histories of dispossession and environmental racism that Winter Storm Uri, by burying Texas in the freezing snow and ice, brought to the surface.
“Living Room,” the final and fourth section, begins with Brookins’ shortest poem, “Ars Poetica for Granny,” which succinctly reads:
This is a poem that I hope hugs you
into a timeline where men
don’t happen to us again
With a particular Afrofuturism and feminist focus, this poem speaks to Brookins’ interest in intergenerational trauma and healing. Mixing and remixing pop culture and historical references, Brookins writes in “I Can Ride My Bike With No Handlebars” about the pull of poetry as a response to and balm for their world. In a particularly apt line, which speaks to much of Brookins’ lyricism and incorporation of musicians in their work, they write: “I’ve never been a gender. / Only a rhythm.” The collection of essays is perhaps best encapsulated by the lines, “The Freedom House is one where you / & me can love with no capitalism / to trick into it” in “Finally, A Slow Weekend.” Written after poet Jericho Brown, the “you” can be understood as a direct address to the reader to enter the freedom house with Brookins.
Freedom House closes with “Freedom House Manifesto” and “ManifestManifestManifest.” These two poems, quite literally, provide readers with a manifesto that Brookins hopes to manifest through their poetry. They see a house, a home for all, wherein there is “leisure for youth,” housing for everyone, “land back — truly & in its truest form,” “no police,” “no prisons,” “no ICE.” For Brookins, “The Freedom House is one we all live in & win.”
By KB Brookins
Deep Vellum Publishing
Published June 6, 2023