Even in a profession defined by unconventionality, the Chicago dominatrix Mistress Velvet stood out. To the domme’s traditional arsenal of high heels, whips, and spanking paddles, Velvet added a new sort of weapon: critical race theory and Black feminist literature.

Velvet, who was born Danielle Achiaa Boachie and used gender-neutral pronouns, found their calling while a graduate student at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where they focused on women’s and gender studies. Unable to pay their rent, they turned to dominating submissive men for money. In their early days, they instinctively apologized after whipping their clients, the equivalent of a chef spitting in the soup. One “slave” told them, very politely, that they weren’t hitting him hard enough and that perhaps they should hang up the whip and try more traditional sex work. It only made them more determined to succeed.

As Velvet learned how to bludgeon men without qualms, they began to notice something about their clients: the majority were heterosexual, middle-aged white men with secret submissive tendencies who had sought them out specifically because of the color of their skin. The most debased thing they could imagine was to be punished by a Black woman. (Jeremy O. Harris’s 2018 Slave Play involved the opposite premise: inter-racial couples engaging in “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” in which they acted out master-slave dynamics as a cure for impotence.)

One “slave” told them, very politely, that they weren’t hitting him hard enough and that perhaps they should hang up the whip and try more traditional sex work.

Velvet realized that no amount of surface laceration would alter such ingrained racial attitudes, so they began to incorporate their studies into their sex work. After ordering their slaves to lick their boots, they would force them to read Black feminist authors such as Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberlé Crenshaw. They taught their clients that racism is embedded in this country’s institutions and policies, and then assigned them essays to write on the subject.

In addition to the usual flogging, the dominatrix Mistress Velvet often assigned their “slaves” essays on Black feminist literature.

The result was the creation of a meta-kink, a self-referential use of bondage to highlight historical and social power inequities. But it also showed their clients what was going on in their own minds, how deeply embedded conceptions of race had made them seek out a Black dominatrix. They flogged white men and then taught them why they wanted to be flogged by them.

When they were asked if their clients liked the lessons, Velvet responded that they didn’t usually ask them their opinion—that was kind of the point. But they noticed that clients kept coming back for more, and some of them clearly began to take their teachings to heart. One even started an organization for Black single mothers in Chicago.

A ferocious advocate for sex workers and the survivors of sexual violence, Velvet became something of a local celebrity in the L.G.B.T.Q. community. They had married Andy Koch, a high-school classmate, in 2015, and they lived together in an apartment in Chicago’s Hyde Park district, along with their two cats, Zeus and Mistress Fluffy. But all was not well.

On March 17 of this year, Velvet announced on Twitter that they were getting a divorce and suspending all of their dominatrix work. Friends noticed that their mental health was deteriorating. On May 6 their (still active) Instagram account posted a picture of one of their cats, with the caption: “rest in power Mistress Fluffy. you taught me everything I needed to know to be a domme.” The following day, the body of Mistress Velvet was found in their home, dead at 33 by their own hand.

Just as Velvet’s studies infused their sex work, so their sex work infused their studies. Their graduate thesis, “Forbidden Vitalities: Black Femme Sex Work and Possibilities of Resistance,” was focused on sadomasochistic practices as a way for Black sex workers to heal themselves. Indeed, when they lashed their white clients, they may have felt that, with each crack of the whip, a form of reparations was being enacted right there on an individual level.

George Pendle is a Contributing Editor for Air Mail