This Couple Will Make You Rethink the Words “I Love You”

In the same way that two people who are “meant to be” eventually have a way of coming together, so too did this story. I met Jannah Handy and Kiyanna Stewart, founders of BLK MKT Vintage (“a collection comprised of black collectibles, cast-off’s and curiosities, representing the richness of black history and lived experience”), briefly back in February. They supplied the props for the A Different World scene of “Iconic Black Sitcoms of the 90s: A Visual Homage to Their Style and Influence.” Later, during a brainstorm, MR Managing Editor Nora Taylor recommended them for an It’s Kind of a Funny Story — not knowing that they’d suited up the set. But isn’t fate funny like that? So this is the tale of how Jannah Handy and Kiyanna Stewart met and (spoiler, I guess) how they got to this current point in their relationship.

Jannah: We met seven years ago in a social justice training, when we were both administrators at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Of course, just getting to know one another, so we were like, “Where are you from?”

Kiyanna said, “Brooklyn.”

I said, “What part?”

And she said, “East Flatbush.”

I was like, “Oh yeah, me too! East Flatbush.”

She said, “Where in East Flatbush?”

I said my two blocks off of Flatbush, and she said her two blocks, and we come to find out we grew up less than a block and a half away from each other.

Kiyanna: But we didn’t know one another and found each other in New Jersey at a social justice training, of all places.

Jannah: It wasn’t a love-at-first-sight situation. We met; it was cool. But then a mutual friend of ours, Marques, was having foot surgery. We went with him to get this procedure done and both stayed during the whole procedure.

Kiyanna: We bought him food. He was taking care of his niece at the time, so we were picking her up from school, doing homework with her and taking her wherever she needed to go.

Jannah: The day of his procedure, I just remember us having a “long hopes, dreams and goals” type of conversation. I think that really was the spark. That got us going.

Kiyanna: But we didn’t start dating right after that. There was still some time because of where we both were at that point. I was finishing up my graduate program and would be leaving the country for a bit. There were a lot of things that were up in the air for me at that moment.

Jannah: I had just gotten out of a very long-term relationship where we were living together. So I was going through a big transition. I also have a daughter. It wasn’t really an ideal time for a new situation-ship.

Amelia: You guys knew of each other before all this, right? When did you two start noticing one another?

Jannah: I noticed Kiyanna before we officially met. Marques, the same mutual friend who had foot surgery, worked in the same office as me. Kiyanna would win poetry competitions on campus all the time, and I’d tell our friend, “She’s so talented; she’s beautiful. Man, why don’t you introduce me to your friend?”

It’s funny: I would tell Marques, “I’m gonna marry her,” before I knew if she was into women, before we had even really talked. And he would always tell me, “Why don’t you ask her out?” It wasn’t until after his surgery that I thought I was picking up on some vibes, but sometimes straight women like to flirt with gay women, so I wasn’t entirely sure.

Amelia: Did Marques tell you any of the things Jannah said about you, Kiyanna?

Kiyanna: Marques was always bringing information back. He was definitely the bone carrier. I don’t know how much he was telling you, Jannah, but he definitely dropped some hints.

But I was hesitant about jumping into a relationship because of all these other things that were going on for the both of us. There was always an attraction to her — learning about who she was and actually talking to her in depth was just the icing on the cake. I was definitely feeling some energy from her and I was at a point in my life where I was open to leaning in a little closer to my sexual identity. She’s my first queer relationship, but I’ve always held this attraction to women. I was just in a series of hetero relationships with men and hadn’t acted on my queerness.

Eventually I thought, Okay, I’m gonna do this. But I wasn’t thinking, I’m gonna do this and be in a relationship with her. It was more like, I’m gonna just see where this goes. So I asked Marques to send me Jannah’s number.

Jannah: When I got that picture I was like, “Oooooh I’m in there! She’s thinking about me on a random day!” It’s funny because I told all that stuff to Marques like, “She’s so perfect; she wouldn’t wanna date me.” So I wasn’t really checking for her. To be honest, I thought she was out of my league. For me to get a text, I realized there was a chance. That was a baby step, but a significant one.

Kiyanna: After that, I remember Marques was supposed to come over for dinner and then —

Jannah: Marques and I lived on the same campus, so we got dinner together a lot. One night he said, “Get dressed, we’re going to dinner at 8.” It was 7:45. I didn’t know where we were going, but no questions asked. We got in the car, and he was like, “We’re going to Kiyanna’s.” I was like, “I’ve gotta go change! I gotta get cute now. You can’t just spring this on me!” Usually we’d just go to someplace local, so I had sweatpants on or something.

She was cooking when we got there. I was like, AND she knows how to cook??? That was also the first time I had been to her apartment — Kiyanna’s into interior design, so her apartment was breathtaking because she curated it so well.

The seal though, was Marques’ birthday — he goes all out for his birthday celebrations and he did a series of events for it that year. This was December of 2013. There was a big party, then brunch the following day. After two or three days of going to the same events and then back to the same houses, we just started to hang out on our own.

Kiyanna: This was getting into the spring, so I was finishing up my degree and then leaving late May to bring a group of students to Ghana for the summer. Simultaneously, I applied for a position at the University of Ghana and was considering staying to take it. It was a lot, but Jay and I maintained communication. I didn’t know what the internet connection was going to be like — we didn’t have a definitive answer from the program director, who was my boss. So to Jannah, I was just like, “We’ll talk. We’ll make it work.”

Jannah: Yeah, you were like, “We’ll talk a couple times a month,” or something like that. I was like, “Wait, I thought we were gonna try this out. What do you mean talking a couple times a month?”

Kiyanna: We wound up having internet in the house. We made it work and we talked every day, even with the six-hour time difference. I remember the sun rising for me at six or seven and you were just going to bed.

Caring makes you do it.

Jannah: We would talk for hours — we had no business talking for four or five hours, especially with Kiy’s days starting so early with her students. It was like pulling an all-nighter in college, but daily. Caring makes you do it.

Kiyanna: There were like 60 screenshots!

Jannah: And those were the best ones! I probably had hundreds.

Kiyanna: It’s funny because the photos were of me in different places all over the house: I would have a long day and end it talking to Jannah with a bottle of wine in my room. Or I was in the bed with a sinus infection. It was beautiful. She called the book, “Face to FaceTime” and there’s a beautiful poem she wrote at the end.

I also made her a book — before I left — and said I would fill it with poetry while I was away. It’s covered with this map; you can see Ghana on one side and New York on the backside. I calculated the mileage/distance across the ocean and titled it that. So I filled it with poetry while I was away and gave it to her when I got back.

Jannah: I do think you bring out so much creativity in me! I’m a romantic, but I never thought I was a poet. You inspired me to take it to a whole other level. It felt like, “Whoa, I have something to share, and she wants to hear it.” You did that.

Amelia: Did you guys have the “exclusivity” talk?

Kiyanna: It didn’t make sense to be exclusive until I got back. I was away from May to August. We weren’t official and we weren’t acting like we were official either. There were moments where we were both seeing other people in different ways. It wasn’t until August that she asked me and that was that.

Jannah: I was just like, “Are you gonna stop playing and be my girl or what?”

Kiyanna: I’m pretty sure you said that. We have two anniversaries. That day and Marques’ birthday party. So we celebrate every December and August.

Jannah: Since December 2013.

Kiyanna: Our five-year anniversary for Marques’ party in December will be this year, but our four-year anniversary of being exclusive will be in August. It’s complicated every year, especially with the anniversaries being in two different years, 2013 and 2014.

Amelia: Now that we know your romantic story, tell me about how you two started BLK MKT Vintage.

Kiyanna: It was really just a hobby that I picked up from my mom. We’d go to vintage shops, antique shops, pick up stuff off of the side of the street if it was cool and bring it home to decorate our space with it.

Jannah: I wasn’t really into vintage because I thought it was gross. Kiyanna would always go to the thrift store and I was like, “Okay, I like her. A lot. So, I’m gonna go to the thrift store too — I love it! Let’s do it!” So that’s how I got into it, and when Kiy left for Ghana, I would still go to vintage/thrift shops and pick things up. I started my own collection.

When she got back, we’d go to flea markets and thrift stores together. We were like, “We can do this — sell our stuff.” It wasn’t like, “This is going to be a business.” It was a hobby, and we had a lot of stuff. Plus, we figured we could get more stuff if we sold the other stuff. That’s how we got started: first at the Hell’s Kitchen Flea, then Artists and Flea, then Brooklyn Flea. We did that for a couple years. We knew that BLK MKT would be something we enjoyed doing, but didn’t envision how big it could be until a bit later.

Kiyanna: Yeah, there wasn’t a five-year plan when we sat down to talk about what Black Market Vintage could look like. We saw so many couples who did this kind of work together, so it just kind of made sense. We weren’t looking to make a lot of money, but it did seem like we could make some extra money and preserve these really cool things simultaneously.

Jannah: Once we got on that journey, realizing that we would focus on African-American artifacts and realizing they were so few and far between, we started to see that there’s a void in the market in terms of how vintage is defined and whose histories are included, excluded and valued. So we said, “Why don’t we become the collectors that we wished we had and be that source that we wish we could’ve gone to when we first started out?” Once we took on that thinking, the BLK MKT that we know today was born.

Amelia: How do you separate the work stuff from the personal stuff?

Jannah: We’ve grown in that aspect. We’ve realized that BLK MKT is such a poignant vision, and it takes a lot of work behind the scenes to make that vision come out to the world. Our personal stuff shouldn’t be a barrier to the work that we said that we wanted to do with one another.

Communication is important, and so is making sure we’re able to compartmentalize. That’s something we’re working on daily. When we’re not at our best, BLK MKT is not at its best. There are times where we’ve learned the hard way. I think we’ve grown a lot — we haven’t made it to the mountain top yet, but it’s an everyday process for us. We’re evolving.

Kiyanna: The other day over dinner, we were mapping out our summer and what specifically the next few months will look like with all of our travel. We’re popping up at a bunch of summer events, so we have to schedule when we’re going to go to the spa, when we’re gonna have a weekend away and sometimes, when we’re going on a date. Scheduling time for ourselves, downtime and trying to be intentional about our future, is important. If we don’t plan it, it’s easy to say, “Oh, we’re gonna go on a date next week,” or, “We can just go to the spa next month.”

Jannah: I appreciate Kiy for that because that’s something she’s been pushing, making sure that we’re taking time together and practicing self-care.

Amelia: Jannah, you said that you have a daughter. How does having a daughter play a role in your relationship with Kiyanna?

Jannah: My daughter is from a previous relationship. I’m her non-biological mother. She’s seven, turning eight in December. She’s like a real-ass kid. She’s grown. They live 15 minutes from us, so we see her often.

Kiyanna: Definitely the testing stage. And she’s so cute. She’s trying to find language for what our relationship is. As she gets older and has more questions, I think that her seeing that she has a unique family will make space for lots of conversations. Some might be challenging, some not so easy, but I think with time and the amount of love/support she has in her life, it’ll help her make meaning of it all.

While Jannah is an amazing mom and was, like she mentioned, very diligent about deciding on the appropriate time to introduce and bring me into their world, and then also bring her daughter back into our world, I had my trepidations at the beginning. I didn’t know if this was going to be permanent. I was protecting myself and being considerate of Jay and Makayla — but I eventually jumped in.

Amelia: Who said “I love you” first?

Jannah: She asked me if I loved her, and I said yes. Then I said, “Do you love me?”

And she said, “I’m not sure yet.”

And I said, “Okay, I take it back.”

Kiyanna: I was like, “You can’t take it back! It’s mine.” I was just trying to be honest.

Jannah: And I was like, “I’m being honest too. Give me that shit back!!” [Laughs]

Kiyanna: I was just trying to be honest and I really wasn’t [sure]. It was just so great in the beginning. You know how the beginnings are. I was scared as hell because of all the things that were up in the air for me — Is this a honeymoon phase, or is this more than that? Am I just going with the butterflies in my stomach? Are these the butterflies in my stomach, or is this how she makes me feel? Is this the choice? What I now know love to be — the choice to be in a space with someone — I wasn’t sure of at the moment.

Jannah: But then the next day she tells me, “No actually, I do love you, I thought about it.” I was like, “What?”

Naturally I had to undo my take-back and told her that, “I’m sticking with it; I love you and I’m not taking it back.”

Kiyanna: No you didn’t.

The next day she was like, “Alright fine, I thought about it, I love you too.” That back and forth is basically us in a nutshell.

Jannah: I did! And I think you felt guilty. The next day she was like, “Alright fine, I thought about it, I love you too.” That back and forth is basically us in a nutshell.

Kiyanna: And then we were saying it pretty regularly after that.

Jannah: When I say, “I love you,” Kiy asks me, “Why do you love me?” Every time.

Kiyanna: Not every time.

Jannah: I try to come up with unique and meaningful responses each time. Like, “…because you are my person,” or, “…because you accept me flaws and all, including leaving the kitchen light on.” There are so many reasons why I love her, I could speak until eternity.

Kiyanna: People say I love you all the time. It’s become a habit. Just something that we say. I also try to be intentional about asking why we love one another when we are not in our best space, when we’ve been arguing or if we’re just having shitty days. “Why do you love me? Why do you want to be here?” Just to recenter. To ground and anchor both of us in that moment. Like, we’re actively making a choice to be here. I don’t ever want to be in a relationship where someone is staying by inertia. Just because. When I ask that, I’m really just trying to get to the intention behind the decision we’re making to embody love.

Amelia: What’s been a challenge in your relationship?

Kiyanna: For me, I want to say communication, but poor communication is a byproduct of other things. I’ve struggled with anxiety since grad school. For me, that has impacted my communication because sometimes it makes me withdraw and overthink. I used to pull away because I didn’t have the language for it, so it’s hard to tell somebody else when you’re just trying to put together how you’re feeling. It’s something that shows up in a number of ways, both when things are really great and when things are not so great. It’s my personal stuff that I bring to this relationship.

Jannah: And something we talk about a lot is competing needs. You’re a human, you have your emotions, you have your process, you have whatever you’re feeling that day, and it’s not always going to mesh up with the person that you are in the closest proximity with. There are certain realities, and that grounding we were talking about is so important because those competing needs can make you have an attitude, lash out or make you petty, and that impacts different areas of the relationship — including the business.

I think that’s been the most challenging for us — like you said, it’s a byproduct, so it’s not 100 percent communication. But when those things happen, then communication is one of the first things to go. Like, “Ugh, I don’t wanna talk to you,” or we’re beefing: “Damn, I need to be the bigger person right now?” As long as there are two of us, there will always be competing needs, but naming it has been really important for us.

Jannah: I don’t like confrontation and I don’t like conflict. Kiyanna had to explain it to me because I didn’t really know about anxiety or how it shows up — especially in a relationship. She talked about it being colored glasses; it actually colors the way that she sees, interprets and makes meaning of things. At the very beginning, I didn’t understand it. I was like, ”Why is she mad at me?” Now that I understand how hers shows up, it becomes easier. If I came in and had a bad day, I can voice that. I can say, “Babe, I need this from you.” Let’s talk about it, let’s not mince words, let’s get it out there so we can make informed decisions and move forward.

Amelia: What do you love about one another?

Kiyanna: Jannah is so family-oriented. She’s a people person. She’s got jokes for days. She’s got the warmest smile. Whenever we meet people or are in spaces with other people, she’s the life of the party, the loudest one in the room — but also shy at the same time. Sometimes it’s challenging because she’s much more extroverted than I am, so when I need quiet time and she’s ready to mingle, we’ve got to find balance.

[To Jannah] I love how you mother Makayla and parent her. Your relationship is special. I didn’t understand it at the very beginning, but shortly after I did. You’re creative — the ideas, the brilliance! You are smart as shit. Tons of ideas, some of which are untapped and we’re gonna work on that. The willingness to throw it all out there and show up — those are things that I love about you. And you’re really romantic and thoughtful.

Jannah: You are brilliant. You are all of those things that I was talking to Marques about back in the day, those things that attracted me to you. You were a beacon out of all these people at the social justice training because you glow. Not just physically, not just the melanin (that’s on point, too); you glow. Your creativity seeps out from the way you wear your hair to the way you tie your sneakers. I appreciate the way that glow has rubbed off on me. I’m a little cooler now that I’m with you. I love that you make me feel beautiful. That’s something I haven’t had in my previous relationships. I’m a solid seven, but I can talk folks into thinking I’m a twelve, but you make me feel like a fifty every time. When I’m getting dressed you’re like, “Aye, girl. Come here, witcho fine ass.” So, I love that. I love that authenticity is important to you. That is one of the ways that we stumbled upon BLK MKT because you talk about being authentic even when it’s hard work and others don’t understand it. Your relationship with your students is something that also attracted me to you, because they love you. You have that swag that makes people want to be in your presence.

Amelia: One of my favorite things to ask is: If you could give advice to anyone, who would you give it to, and what would your advice be?

If you say you want to be somewhere and be with someone, doing the work to stay there is the biggest thing. Love is a muscle and a verb.

Jannah: My advice is to anyone who is in a loving relationship. I think the driving force behind our little magic is: If you say you want to be somewhere and be with someone, doing the work to stay there is the biggest thing. Love is a muscle and a verb. You have to work at it and do it every day. Do it in small ways and in big ways. If I’m saying I want to be with you for the rest of my life, I want you to be my wife, I want us to have children, I want this business to flourish, I want five stores in the nation and one overseas — if I say I want all of those things, the only way that will happen is in the everyday interactions. The choices. How am I proving that I’m making this choice to choose you every day?

Kiyanna: That’s beautiful. My piece of advice is also for anybody in a loving relationship: Show up in those relationships authentically and speak your truth. If there are things you need from that relationship, you gotta find a way to articulate it. If there are things you don’t want, you also need to make it plain. Showing up authentically is most important, and it takes work because you have to first know who you are. “What is my identity? What are my values? What’s the shit I’m gonna stand for? What’s the shit I’m not gonna stand for? What does compromise look like?” Those are all things that we should be constantly reevaluating.

Check out BLK MKT Vintage’s website here and follow them on Instagram here.

Photos by Edith Young. Book image via Kiyanna and Jannah. 

Amelia Diamond

Amelia Diamond

Amelia Diamond is a writer, creative consultant, and Man Repeller alumnus living in New York City.

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