“And I’m not gonna sugarcoat it! Even if I am Durham’s cotton candy girl.”

Those are JAC’s (she/they) parting words as they leave me, stepping bravely into the next steps of life after closing Wonderpuff, the cotton candy business they founded in Durham six years ago. 

This is a story about burnout and cotton candy as a symbol of resistance.

When I first meet JAC, I’m wrestling tangled hangers out of my small sedan to build up clothing racks and assemble the day’s inventory. It’s a typical pop-up Saturday.

JAC approaches me with a smile, pink eyebrows, and a joyous hello. She is dressed in the kind of color and frill that’s the hallmark of childhood aspirations. She introduces herself, tells me she is here to spin cotton candy at the market alongside the art and clothes and trinkets of other vendors. This is how I meet Wonderpuff, a world of fluffy white clouds of sugar, neon colors, bright patterns, and decadent whimsy.

That was summer of 2022.

I meet JAC again today on the Golden Belt Campus in the fall of 2023. Wonderpuff has just closed.

JAC is not wearing the colors I always imagine them with. Sunglasses wrap around their head despite the shading clouds. We walk around until we find a place to sit, and we plop down and commiserate about how tired we are.

There is a heavy air. We are both carrying a lot.

Wonderpuff has witnessed an eventful trajectory within Durham’s small business scene. Many small business owners haven’t recovered from the collective exhaustion brought on by the pandemic. Even the consumers are exhausted enough to shop differently.

We reflect on our common connections within the Triangle’s market community. It has changed a lot in six years. Somehow, it has become both more inaccessible and far too expansive. “Community” no longer accurately describes what we used to cherish about the scene. Prices are too high for shoppers who once relied on these outlets for alternative purchases. And the incoming waves of elite, richer vendors have diffused the network beyond meaningful connection.

JAC came to self-employment in an attempt to refute capitalism’s apathetic and abusive demands. She grew up watching her father force himself to work through pain to keep the lights on in a house he didn’t even have time to live in. And as someone who did not want to die working, JAC had to do something that felt contradictory: she had to close Wonderpuff to save herself.

Wonderpuff was born from the belief that spreading necessary joy can be radical. JAC wanted to be “limitless Blackness.” Against the oppressive images that the public projects onto Blackness, Wonderpuff used sparkly rainbow colors to shock past people’s preconceived notions.

“Colors are the most hopeful thing for me,” JAC says. As a kid, they were singled out and called “gay” for wearing bright colors. In response, Wonderpuff was purposely decked out to be “queer as hell,” a place of comfort for the visiting closeted kid. 

“The aesthetic of Wonderpuff is everything I wanted to be as a kid,” JAC says.

JAC knew Durham would be the perfect place for Wonderpuff. The city is filled with people who have “patience and empathy,” something its residents work hard to preserve.

“Thanks to Wonderpuff, I personally know hundreds, if not thousands, of radical, passionate, empathetic motherfuckers,” JAC says. They are people who are fighting to create a reality that cares for those overlooked, that provides for basic needs without asking anything in return, that centers empathy even when it gets hard. People who are “trying to do the work.”

But “doing the work” is burning us out. Trying to dismantle the inherent racial fear the public holds against Blackness is a lot to take on, to personally try and overturn.

“Yes,” JAC says, eyes widening. “It is creating in a world that doesn’t see you.”

The violence of erasure has led JAC to this point. Capitalism doesn’t make room for small business owners, people daring enough to care about the humans that do the work. And being a Black small business owner doubles the barriers JAC faces.

As a small business owner working for yourself, health care becomes a prohibitively expensive commodity. And as a Black person with a uterus, JAC had to navigate an additional racialized lack of access to proper health care. It is the intersection of these struggles that led her to urgently needing time away from Wonderpuff.

“America does not take reproductive health seriously, especially for Black vaginas,” they assert. 

Despite their pleas and insistence that they didn’t feel good and a dozen trips to clinics over two years, JAC says she wasn’t heard. On Instagram, JAC is open about experiencing two miscarriages. According to the CDC, Black women endure an infant mortality rate almost three times the rate of white women. But time off to grieve is not built into capitalism.

In recounting their experience at the clinic, they are taken aback by their own memories of how small they felt in response to the dismissive attitude of the doctor. She tells me about how small she feels conditioned to be in this world.

”You know, one person can’t solve capitalism,” I say. It’s a small reassurance, but it’s true.

JAC pauses and looks at me and slowly nods. “The solution is each other,” they say. “The solution is community.”

JAC tells me about their amble into poetry lately. She attended a retreat at Mariah M.’s Saltwater Sojourn, where Black queer artists are given space to create. JAC says seeing the focus and practice of Black rest inspired her. She has since started journaling and writing poetry as self-care.

They pull out their phone and ask me to listen to something they wrote recently “in solidarity with our people in Gaza.” As a Black, queer Muslim rehabilitating themselves from burnout, watching the suffering of people who look like her and share her faith is traumatic.

“The secret to living is doing it together /

It’s time you decolonize /

Your mind”

For JAC, decolonization means fighting present-day gentrification. Durham has always been for the people, and we will keep it that way by creating a community that supports each other. That means running a business that prioritizes people over profit, choosing yourself, and saving yourself in a world that wants you to sacrifice yourself. It means undoing that fear that people hold against you by providing color so loud it trumps hate.

“The vision is still there. The colors are still bright.

“The rage against white supremacy still lives in and around our sugar.

“‘Liberation for all’ is what I think about when I’m spinning my sugar.”

JAC emphasizes that, despite the load of painful transformation that they are currently shouldering, she is not giving up. Her next step might be the most important one yet in her life. It involves existing without justification, taking up space without paying for it, being gratuitously kind to oneself. They are healing themselves for the sake of the community they believe in.

She is doing something radical; she is choosing to rest.

Elim Lee is a Georgia peach who took a detour in New England and came back to her roots in the South this past year. Her least-in-progress, most-finished project is her children’s book Needle and the Too Big World. Follow her on Twitter at @wellwhatgives and Instagram at @elimscribbles.

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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