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AOC Alumni Spotlight

Twan Claiborne '07

We want to celebrate alumni from all walks of life who have interesting experiences to share with the community in their personal, political, and/or professional lives. This Q&A format feature will include both standard questions and questions specific to each featured alum. Want to recommend yourself or a friend for this spotlight? Submit your nomination here.

 

Twan Claiborne ’07 hails from Seattle, Wash. by way of Lake Providence, La. Currently residing in Harlem, they are an edutainer — an educator and entertainer — working as a learning specialist and drag performer. Outside of work, they enjoy seeing the sights of New York City, dancing, drawing, playing recreational sports, and exercising.

Tell me about yourself.
I am currently living in New York. I am teaching and doing drag on the side. There’s a lot that gets me out of bed besides my alarm clock: trying to better the world. I get excited about the opportunity to do that, whether it’s a particular lesson that day or if it's a performance later that day.

Can you tell me about your work in education and how that intersects with your personal identity and drag?
I’ve been an educator for the last eight years. I started off as an admissions counselor for four years, then pursued my master's in special education, and then worked in high school in small groups. It organically fits into who I am as a person. With education, I’m paid to do it, and it’s so laborious and an emotional process — like the intersection of being black and queer. I learn how to adapt to situations that work with different people to provide them what they need and it extends in drag. Drag, as it was founded in the U.S., is a political force. Drag queens became the messengers as the LGBTQ movement started happening because they were on the fringe. That’s a position of educating people within the community and inciting people with knowledge and entertainment. 

Can you tell me more about drag?
My drag name is Kenya Keep Up. I started with Somali Rose, my favorite scent as a child, then it changed to Lala Lingua when I was a linguistics major. I changed to Kenya Keep Up three years ago. When I was a kid, my mom was a snazzy dresser, so I would borrow her heels and wear her pom poms as a wig. Being a man, I challenge how I’m perceived as a male-bodied and male-appearing person. Going against the grain has always been part of my life and feels natural to me. Drag encourages me to be braver than I am in my life. As a person who likes to be comfortable, it’s very scary, but drag makes it less fearful to take those risks and explore my identity. I identify now as non-binary, and that came up because of me being into the drag world. In many aspects of my life, I can educate people. I can dance, sing, and act — things I’ve always done on the side. I want to do [drag] officially as a career. I get to dress up and wear costumes, be precise and intentional about it, and be fantastical about it. That I can’t do at school, and I can’t get up at 4 a.m. and do makeup for two hours. I would get to do everything I’m doing times 10, all in one package. 
 
What keeps you up at night? 
What literally keeps me up at night is watching Survivor. I love Survivor and reality shows. I will also watch YouTube. I love countdowns, like the top 10 craziest food challenges around that world. I’m also a very empathic person. If something happens that day and I haven’t come to the conclusion I needed to, it’ll keep me up at night. Coming back to school after break also keeps me up. 
 
What do you think about when someone says Swarthmore?
Oh my gosh, I think of so much. When I think of Swarthmore, I think of talking. We talk so much. I also think of passion, the passion we have that leads us to talk ad nauseum. I think of discomfort as well. For a space that likes to make us comfortable, there’s a lot of people who like to make us uncomfortable. I’ve been comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. I think of transformation. 
 
What are you nerdy about?
Video games and anime. I’ve been playing video games since childhood. It’s been part of my entire life. For anime, in middle school, we got an opportunity to take a language. Everyone took Spanish but I wanted to be different. I like to be contrarian. I decided to take Japanese, and I watched Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon. I’m very nerdy about languages: the history of languages, how certain sounds are made, and how language evolves. I like using words, I like word play. Dictionaries and thesauruses are my friends. I’m also nerdy about makeup because of drag. The different brushes you can use to paint, the different brands, the different products — highly pigmented, powder, and cream. I’m also nerdy about dance in all of its forms, and chemistry. 
 
What do you think of community at Swarthmore? 
There was conversation (and still ongoing) on campus during my time about creating safe spaces and what that meant. Now, there’s envisioning spaces as brave spaces. With the rebranding about brave spaces, students are pushed against what it means to be safe, outside of that space but also within that space. Kimberly Crenshaw explores the notion of intersectionality. We can be a safe space for Asian students, but with the Asian diaspora enter conflicts between Asian Americans who grew up in the U.S. vs Asians who are first-gen or immigrants, and what does that mean. Language influences culture and identity and who gets to talk about it. Within the community I’m part of now and as I’ve been removed from Swat, we talk about spaces being brave and being whole, as complete people, and not having to shut off parts of yourself or others. We push against that narrative. When I think of community, I now think of its holisticness.