Teaching Black, Living Gay … by Jarrett Neal

For the last six years I have been employed at Aurora University, a small private institution nestled among mid-century homes in Aurora, Illinois, a middle class suburb west of Chicago.  I am the Assistant Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning.  The CTL provides academic support to the entire university, primarily in the form of tutoring in writing, which is my field.  Each day I go to work I sit down with students, either individually or in workshops, enrolled in courses across many different disciplines and guide them through the writing process.  The majority of the students I work with are first generation college freshmen; others are middle aged graduate students primarily in the fields of social work and nursing earning an advanced degree so they can switch careers.  Some seek only “a second pair of eyes” to give them constructive criticism of a writing project, while others require comprehensive tutoring in essential grammar and writing mechanics they failed to receive during their elementary and secondary education.  One of the benefits of my job is that it allows me to read scholarship related to a variety of topics (in a single day I can read papers from courses in literature, sociology, nursing, social work, history and business administration) yet it also affords me the unhappy task of confrontng the many ways the education system in the United States fails.

My contract at Aurora University requires me to teach one course each semester for the General Education department: Introduction to Literary Study in the fall and Culture and Diversity in the spring.  Last year, with the approval of my department chair, I took an alternative approach to the course.  Instead of the usual canonical readings I list on my syllabus—the litany of dead white men from Shakespeare to Hemingway and the handful of women and people of color customarily included in virtually every literature anthology—I devoted this semester’s class to the works of African American writers.

AU’s student population is almost equally divided between African American, Caucasian and Latino students, and a course in black literature, I believed, would be quite successful (African American Literature, as an independent course, hasn’t been taught at AU in five years).  I contacted a textbook distributor and inquired if he could recommend a good textbook for the class.  To my great delight, he sent me a brand new copy of the second edition of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature.  Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay and over two thousand seven hundred pages long, the textbook is the most comprehensive collection of writings from African Americans I’ve ever seen.  This bulky tome contains spirituals, sermons, speeches, slave narratives, short stories, novellas, novel excerpts, poems and plays by the United States’ most noted black authors.  A teacher’s manual and two compact discs, one containing music (gospel, jazz, blues, R&B and hip hop), the other speeches and spoken word poems, were included in the box the distributor sent.

For me, an African American educator and writer, this textbook is a veritable treasure trove.  Never before have I seen or possessed such an extensive collection of literature written by black Americans, full of the breadth of African American experience.  At this particular moment in American history, with the nation’s first African American president leading the nation and the apoplectic ultraconservative fringe making every attempt to delegitimize his presidency and invalidate his citizenship; with select African Americans leading Fortune 500 corporations and shattering the glass ceiling not only in politics and finance but academia, medicine and science as well; with black arts and black artists growing more eclectic with each passing year, now, I believe, is the perfect time to gather a group of eighteen year olds, force them to turn off their beeping, chirping electronic gadgets and engage them in a discussion not only of African American literature but also history, gender, sexuality, class and the politics tethered to each.

This evening my husband asked me how I would respond if one of my students asks, “Why do I have to take this course?”  The short answer is the course is a requirement for degree completion.  Yet this question, despite its obvious narcissism and anti-intellectual subtext, deserves a rich response.  If a student ever posed this question to me I’d be moved to ask her or him, “Why do people write?”  Likely this retort would elicit little more than a shrug or eye-rolling.  Writers write to make sense of the world.  They seek to map the complex psychic terrain of human experience, to make sense of a world that often makes no sense.  Creative writing speaks the unspoken for those who cannot or do not speak, mining the interior life of people to excavate that which is universal.

A criminal justice major was once enrolled in one of my literature courses. Remote and taciturn, he sat in a back corner of the room each day and glowered into his textbook.  His writing was hasty, flat and clunky, typical of the kind of essays that, I knew from years of experience, had been labored over in the dead of night with a genuine hatred of the assignment, the course and me.  At the conclusion of the course, when each student was invited to write an anonymous evaluation, this young man (I recognized his handwriting) wrote that he had always disliked reading but now, after suffering through the course, he absolutely hated it.  He admitted that he only enjoyed watching movies, ones in which “stuff blows up”, and expressed relief that because he was going to become a police officer he’d never have to read or write again.

Confessions like this horrify me.  This young man—hostile and, yes, white—needed to take a literature course more than any other student I had ever encountered.  The idea that I had potentially unleashed another angry white man into the world, one who was determined to enter law enforcement yet had a complete inability to empathize with people different from himself, sends tremors through my body to this day.

He passed the course with a D.

Those ignorant of the ways black Americans have navigated through what bell hooks terms America’s white racist capitalist patriarchy would do well to read the works of black authors.  After reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in an American literature course my freshman year of college, I vowed that I would spend a significant part of each day reading.  A novel, a newspaper, the side of a cereal box—it didn’t matter.  How could I, an African American male, first generation college student from a downscale neighborhood with enough smarts to get into one of the top universities in the nation, shrug off my obligation to become as well-read as I could?

I’m not naive enough to think simply reading an acclaimed novel or a collection of poems by a black writer for thirty minutes a day will solve the problems of poverty, unemployment, racism, homophobia, HIV/AIDS and gang violence among urban black youth.  Yet I know that reading Native Son my senior year of high school and absorbing the poems of Nikki Giovanni and Yusef Komunyakaa, keeping a journal and writing my own poems, stories, novels and essays, has kept me from bloodshed and death.  Once, long ago, in utter despair, my choice in life was made startlingly clear to me—write or die.  I think many black writers, at some point, have faced that same mortal choice.

With each keystroke and every lash of the page, black writers assume the psychic and emotional landscape, however tortured or enraptured, of every black person who has begun or ended his or her life in the United States of America.  We do not claim victimhood.  We write to let the world know, without equivocation, that black literature simultaneously defines the black community and America and critiques both, opens its pages to the pleasures of the culture and its perils, makes room for all who seek its shelter and expels those who endeavor to assail us.

The arc of my life has propelled me toward a career in academia since I was a boy and delighted in reading and writing during playtime.  Living alone with my grandparents forced me to find creative ways to amuse myself, and when I wasn’t romping in my bedroom playing with action figures I read or watched television.  I invented stories, acted out scenes from my favorite cartoons and sitcoms, and from time to time I attempted to some of my playtime hijinks to paper. My grandfather, an angry alcoholic born and bred in the Jim Crow South, never placed much stock in formal education, especially for a boy, and loudly objected to the time I spent holed up in my bedroom reading and writing stories.

I recall sitting at the desk in my bedroom once when I was a small boy simply copying text from a random book in cursive—a skill I learned from my cousin Chanda—and being seized by an irrational fear that I wouldn’t be able to do homework once I grew up. Somehow I believed that once my formal education was over I would no longer have the chance to read or write. I was the only person I knew who derived pleasure from the utter mundane task of writing, from the feel of the pen in my hand as it glided across the stark white page, and I never wanted to lose it (the reality, now, that in our digital society we are moving farther and farther away from writing and that some elementary schools no longer teach cursive writing frightens me). At school I was a nerd, answering my teachers’ questions even when it meant social suicide, completing assignments on time and earning high marks when boys were supposed to excel in athletics. The competing messages from my family—the women encouraging academic success; the men resolved that boys should only play sports—complicated my feelings toward both academics and sports. I could never truly take pride in the good grades I made because as a boy I wasn’t supposed to care about books, yet my failure at sports compounded my feelings of inadequacy, and since academics was the area where I garnered the most praise it was where I focused my attention.

I enjoy working in academia because it is one of the few professions where one is paid to think and write, and frankly I am not qualified to earn a decent living in any other profession.  Teaching is not without its frustrations, however.  Working in the humanities presents challenges from anti-intellectual students and parents who continuously question the relevance of literature, history, philosophy and related disciplines, and pressure from administrators to lower the threshold for passing these courses. There is also competition from for-profit online schools that promise students degrees without the so-called hassles of taking and paying for classes such as these which they feel will have no impact on their lives or, more importantly, their future earning potential.  This full scale assault on the humanities has, in recent years, disrupted pedagogical discourse, forced austerity in graduate admissions, and augmented requirements for tenure.  Nevertheless, despite the ongoing changes, academia remains a field with much to offer people of color seeking to find ways to affect cultural and political change.  Our presence in higher education—especially the presence of African American men, who are underrepresented throughout academia—imparts complex dimensions to every course we teach.

I encounter a range of responses from students when I enter the classroom on the first day of class.  I teach freshman level classes, and depending on what time of day my class is scheduled I can be the very first professor some students encounter in college. Most of the white students who attend Aurora University come from small towns and rural communities.  Their parents on the whole are conservatives who revile academia and intellectuals, despise President Obama and all he stands for, and harbor deep suspicions of racial minorities, especially those in positions of authority.  Although many of these students distance themselves from their families’ opinions their worldview is nonetheless slanted toward a conservative ethos that has imperiled racial and sexual minorities in aggregate ways for generations.  It never ceases to amaze me how these students, simply by virtue of being white, seem to think they are better at assessing their own work than I am.  My white students are typically the ones who complain loudest when they fail to earn high grades, and they proffer abundant excuses when they don’t turn in work or miss too many classes.  If I don’t change their grade—and I never do—they will whine and complain to their advisors, the dean, and even the president of the university until someone gives them what they want, yet no one ever does. It is primarily because of them that my syllabus expands semester after semester, growing with detailed disclaimers and provisos underscored or printed in bold ink regarding attendance, late work, electronic submissions and the like.  This isn’t to suggest that my black students aren’t bratty and narcissistic, but my dynamic with them is markedly different.  Black students have never accounted for more than one third of the students in any course I’ve taught at AU, and when they see me enter class on the first day they take immediate interest, sit up straight and absorb every word I utter.  In one class a small cluster of black students sitting in the back corner of the room actually applauded when I walked into the room on the first day of class and stood behind the podium, some of them exclaiming, “Yes!” and “All right!”  Yet what troubles and saddens me about the black students is their readiness to give up.  They maintain enthusiasm for the course until the first assignment is due, and if they don’t make high marks, rather than seek guidance from me or visit a tutor, they simply stop trying.  Many of them are among the first to drop my course, and some of them bypass the registrar’s office altogether and instead of dropping the course officially merely stop coming to class, vanishing like apparitions with only their names penned in my grade book as evidence they were ever there.

These students haunt me because I was just like them upon entering Northwestern University.  Although I was smart enough to gain admittance to one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, my public school education (though far superior to the education most Aurora University’s students acquire prior to entering college) in no way prepared me for the rigors of a university education.  I went from taking classes where expectations were so low students passed if they regularly came to class to attending lectures with hundreds of students.  As an engineering major with no head for science or higher order mathematics, I flunked out after freshman year but returned to Northwestern several years later committed to learning, and I excelled.  In the midst of failing academically I had to confront my emerging homosexuality.  Away from home from the first time and living among men, I, who had had such limited interactions with males up until then, could no longer deny my sexual attraction to men when I was housed with them, conversed with them, undressed with them, showered with them and slept beside them.  I suffered multiple shocks that year: being black and working class at a school where most students were white and affluent, struggling to adopt proper study habits and test taking skills when I never had to do so before, enduring separation from my family and environment for the first time, longing to express myself sexually with a man when I had been thoroughly convinced for years that I was heterosexual.  At eighteen it was all too much to handle and when the university sent me a letter of dismissal at the end of the academic year subconsciously I knew leaving school was the best thing for me at the time.

My story mimic’s the main character’s struggles in ZZ Packer’s deft short story “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere”.  I’ve taught Introduction to Literary Study every year for the last five years and each year I include “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” on the syllabus.  Without exception it has been my students’ favorite short story each time I’ve taught the course because, like me, they can empathize with Dina’s plight. A black girl from the ghettos of Baltimore, Dina makes her way to Yale, yet from the day she arrives on campus she immediately becomes prickly and misanthropic, hostile toward the entire community expect for a chubby white girl from Canada named Heidi who insinuates herself into the role of Dina’s close friend despite Dina’s initial objections.  They work together in the dining hall, read together, even sleep together in the same bed.  To Dina’s surprise, yet not the reader’s, Heidi eventually comes out as a lesbian and it is implied by other characters in the story that Dina may be gay as well.  But unable to cope with the many stresses in her life, Dina drops out of Yale and returns to the ghetto to live with an aunt she barely knows, squandering her intellectual gifts and, from my perspective, shuddering herself further into the closet.

Packer’s story taps into the insecurity, angst, and flux most people experience as they transition from childhood to adulthood.  Dina’s story is all too common at my university, especially among young men. With each passing year female enrollment at colleges and universities across the nation is increasing while enrollment among men is on the decline and shows no signs of reversing. The high female to male ratio of students I tutor, roughly eight to one, reflects this.  The investment in higher education and the drive to obtain white collar jobs that will lift them into the middle class simply isn’t a priority for many of the first generation college men at my university.  For African American men, simply being admitted to a university is an accomplishment in itself, and if they flunk out or voluntarily choose to drop out they feel they’ve already exceeded the expectations of their family and community by being alive, staying out of jail and not impregnating anyone.  They have achieved much more than any other male in their family has, so for them flunking out of college isn’t a true failure. Yet from experience I know that black male students also carry a tremendous burden to succeed. When I was a freshman at Northwestern I lived every day petrified of failing. I had scores of people counting on my to earn a degree, obtain a high paying job and rescue them from poverty.  Coming from disadvantage and entering an environment of privilege intensifies any strive for success an individual has.  My own dreams and desires, scholastic, personal and professional, had to be sacrificed for my mother’s dream of me becoming a Fortune 500 CEO, motivated by the poverty and desperation that subsumed every moment of our lives. My grandparents and I once lived in a home where we had to fill a paint bucket full of water from the bath tub and pour it into the toilet because it wouldn’t flush.  Before school each morning I had to shake my coat to make sure no roaches had crawled inside. I went from that environment to taking classes in vector calculus and writing critical essays on novels by Nathaniel Hawthorne and James Fenimore Cooper. When I told my mother I wanted to be a writer she gave me a conciliatory smile and said, “Oh, you mean a journalist?” My freshman year in college was never really about me because I was not really present in any decisions I made. The true me had not emerged yet; I had no voice, so others spoke for me and made up my mind for me.  I did what I thought everyone else wanted and expected me to do and because of it I failed in every conceivable way.

Now that I am an educator, as I plan my syllabus for African American Literature, I wonder what taking this same course my freshman year at Northwestern would have done for me.  Upon my return to the university many years later as an English major I had the opportunity to take several courses in African American literature, African American studies, gender studies, and gay and lesbian history.  Three of my professors were black men.  Whether they were gay or not I’ve no idea, but I have assumptions.  They were dynamic instructors who, to me, seemed enamored of their pedagogy and could declaim theories, philosophies, paradigms and histories as if they were reciting nursery rhymes. Unlike some of their white colleagues who would wear ragged, grungy clothes to class, they always attended class stylishly dressed in trousers, a button down shirt and tie, accessorizing with a fedora or a tie pin or silver cufflinks shined to a bright luster. For me, a student who still, at twenty-seven, felt out of place, this time because I was gay and older than most undergraduates, studying black masculinity in a university course taught by a black man helped me come into my own as a black man and made me value and assert my manhood in a way I never had before.  Watching a black man with dark skin and dred locks stand before a roomful of white students and me, the only black student in the class, and masterfully lecture about the myriad themes present in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room squelched any self-reproach I experienced over my interest in British literature.  Learning about the Niagara Convention and the Freedom Riders from a black man not much older than me whose passion for justice and civil rights was so palpable students openly apologized to him when they missed a class helped me chart a new destiny for myself.  If I could be like them, I reasoned as I sat in their classes, I would have it.  And I didn’t even know what “it” was.

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I am not out to my students, and I have several reasons for not disclosing my sexual orientation to them.  First, I believe that in our current age there is entirely too much familiarity and informality, particularly when it comes to the details of one’s private life.  Unlike Baby Boomers who passionately challenged authority on the basis of sound, critical arguments, Millennials will not even acknowledge authority figures, the power they possess, or their own lack of power.  They have been raised to bring everyone in authority down to their level or puff themselves up to the level of authority figures.  Their inflated, unearned self-confidence has spawned an ongoing cultural discussion since the millennium began. Today’s college students, consumed with Facebook, Twitter and texting, readily divulge, to their detriment, the private details of their lives to anyone and expect others to do the same.  Some professors, either out of fear of the impact bad evaluations will have on their chances of gaining tenure or merely out of an emotional need to be accepted, do their best to befriend students and yield to their requests rather than take the strong stance an educator must assume and do the rough work of teaching them and assessing their work in a detached, unbiased manner.  As the head writing tutor for the university I’ve sat with the students of just about every full-time, visiting, or pro-rata professor on campus.  I know their teaching philosophies, their rapport with students both in and out of the classroom and their expectations, to say nothing of the details of their personal lives.  Without question, gay and lesbian professors, and straight professors who have aligned themselves with queer politics or queer theory, set much higher expectations for their students, grade papers meticulously, write and publish more books and articles, attend more conferences, and invest more time planning lectures and serving on committees than their peers. From bell hooks to Dwight McBride, Eve Sedgwick to Michel Foucault, queer/feminist scholars and theorists have reshaped the humanities in the last thirty years. I’ve often wondered if these professors are overcompensating, that the rigorous demands they place on themselves derive from a need to prove themselves; a way of telling colleagues, administrators, students and anyone else who dares to challenge them that their sexual orientation or gender will not be an obstacle to achieving their career ambitions.

If my students knew I was gay suddenly their focus wouldn’t be on their studies; rather, they’d spend all class period thinking about me sucking dick.  That’s a vulgar exaggeration of course, yet when students become preoccupied with their instructors’ private lives, particularly those of us who live alternative lifestyles, learning becomes static and very little can reactivate it.  When I began teaching years ago it became apparent, from my own experiences and those I’ve heard from colleagues at AU and other institutions, that professors who are not straight white men of a certain age must fight for respect and control in their classes, particularly women of color.  As much as I would like to contribute personal experience when gay and lesbian themes present in assigned readings and class discussions, I know doing so would prejudice the discussion and jeopardize my power in the class.  Although I know several gay professors who are out to their students, they teach courses such as psychology or social work, or they teach at other institutions which boast a more liberal-minded student population.  Disclosing their sexual orientation can do them no harm and in some instances it benefits the class and helps prepare students for work in service fields.  I teach freshman who are not English majors; they take my courses as general education requirements.  The business administration, nursing, and physical education majors who fight to stay awake during discussions of “Battle Royal” and “Everyday Use”, like the criminal justice major who authored a screed against me and my literature course, want to “D it out” and move on.  I believe wholeheartedly that all students should be exposed to the full breadth of experience a university education has to offer, even when it comes from encountering individuals unlike themselves. This is among the many gifts of diversity in the classroom. Yet as a black gay professor at a small university where I am not eligible for tenure, where I tutor students who still refer to African Americans as colored people in their essays, and the retired white homeowners who live directly across the street from campus drive cars with bumper stickers that read, “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For the American”, I must carefully weigh the benefit of coming out against the cost it will have on my professional stature.

Complicating all of this is the second reason I will not come out to students: my husband also teaches at the same university.  Tenured, white and fiftysomething, Gerald earned his PhD in history the year we met.  He has been teaching at Aurora University for fifteen years now and currently has the distinction of being one of the longest serving professors at the university.  I seldom think of myself as a true academic in the way Gerald is an academic; rather, I am a creative writer who happens to earn a living within academia. My work responsibilities stop at the end of spring semester and do not resume until fall semester. In the faculty and staff hierarchy at Aurora University my name occupies a space precipitously low on the list, but Gerald ranks among the university’s most valuable employees, and his record speaks for itself. To date he has published two well-received books, countless articles and reviews, coordinated panels and conferences, led committees and even served as dean for a year.  Colleagues and administrators esteem him and students regard him with both admiration and fear.  At least once a semester a student will ask Gerald if he once served in the military, given his drill sergeants’ steely, brusque persona in the classroom and his penchant for regimentation.  In the world of academia my husband is living the dream.  Yet until I came to work for the university he kept his private life strictly guarded.  Our friends and colleagues at work, as far as either of us knows, have not outed us to students, though I’ve no doubt they whisper and question; perhaps they rout the Internet for any morsel of information concerning our private life they can nibble on.  Gerald and I never interact with one another on campus; we work in different departments on opposite ends of the campus, so we seldom run into each other.  If I were to come out to students I would be pulling Gerald out of the closet as well, and like me he simply has no wish to conflate his personal and professional lives any more than they already have been. Our work identities protect our private lives and interests. To chip away at those personages would expose our love to unimagined risk.

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Like most people in their early twenties, my second cousins Jimí and Niecie broadcast the major events of their lives on Facebook.  Typically they comment on the ups and downs of dating in Kansas City complete with relationship triumphs, woes, and a broad scale of ghetto drama.  They hold nothing back, posting challenges to rivals who seek to steal away their lovers while firmly asserting their position as dominant females who will stop at nothing to protect their happy homes. My young cousins never cease to impress me; their candor and self-esteem oppose the wilting docility exemplified by many women in our family. While I, unlike them, customarily save bombasts for my journal, I’m glad they have Facebook as a forum to express themselves in an unabashed, public manner. In my eyes they fear nothing, truly making them products of their generation.

Jimí and Niecie are lesbians.

Having already relocated to Chicago at the time they came out, I wasn’t there to find out our family’s reaction to their sexuality. In an email some time ago Niecie asked me when I knew I was gay, what prompted me to come out and how our family reacted.  I responded with the following:

When did I come out? Well, it happened this way: It was late 1996. I was 22 and I hadn’t been involved with anybody, male or female. I was still trying to figure out whether or not I was gay. I was living with Granny, working full-time at Bartle Hall and part-time at Blockbuster, and my life was pretty much working, coming home and watching movies. Then one day I met a guy (he was older), had sex with him, and then I knew for sure I was gay.

I started going out to gay bars and meeting new people. I don’t know if you remember but at the time my mother and Steve [my stepfather] were living in Iowa. She would phone Granny and ask her how I was doing and Granny told her lots of guys kept calling the house, guys who weren’t the friends who usually called the house. That’s not all–I started dating my first boyfriend, and I’d usually come home on Fridays after work, shower and change, then leave and not come home until Saturday afternoon. Then I’d change clothes, leave again and not come home until Sunday at dinner time. So of course all the women in the family started talking. They guessed that if I was staying out all night I must be spending those nights with a certain someone, yet they assumed it was a woman. Only our cousin Alexis knew the truth, and she wasn’t talking to anybody (she’s still my rock and my homegirl!) One Sunday afternoon, Aunt Shirley rushed into my bedroom and shut the door. She was frantic and on the verge of tears. She asked me if I was gay, and when I told her that I was and showed her a picture of my then boyfriend she was crushed. She said she’d pray for me. She did even more–every morning when I went out to my car I’d find little pamphlets from church under my car windshield like, “God Doesn’t Want You to Be Gay” and “Learn to Live a Christian Life”. Mama called a few days later and, without ever bringing up my sexuality, said that she has always been proud of me, she’ll always be proud of me and all she’s ever wanted for me was to be happy. That was that.

Honestly, I think I was the only person on Earth who didn’t know I was gay. I think most people were just waiting for me to figure things out. From the time I was a kid I’ve always been the weird one in the family, which is a good thing because being the weird gay guy in the family probably saved me from ending up dead or in jail. I mean my parents were 14 and 15 when I was born and I lived with my grandparents; Granddaddy was a drunk and Granny suffered from depression. The men in the family have never disrespected me but they haven’t necessarily gone out of their way to include me. I sometimes feel cheated because all the boys in our family were born after I was all grown up. The only time I really experienced homophobia from the family was when David Allen gave that hateful speech at Shirley and David’s 25th wedding anniversary a few years back. He made a blatantly homophobic comment and I got so mad I walked out. I wrote Shirley a letter about it and she was very apologetic. She told me that she eventually came around and the Dave was young (he had just started seeing Tori at the time and she felt Tori was a bad influence on him) and still trying to find his way in the world. She and David spoke to Dave about the situation but he and I have never been close since. But I think the one thing that has made everyone at ease with my gayness is that fact that #1: I’ve been with Gerald for 15 years and #2: I’m not swishy and queeny. Honestly, I’m a very boring person. But I can’t tell you how much Mama and Lexy have helped me. Their support and yours has really meant so much. My mother and I practically grew up together–remember, she was 14–and without her, and Granny before her, I probably would be dead or in jail. Seriously.

If you and Jimí can learn anything from me I hope you learn that it’s okay to take risks in life and that you have to do what makes you happy. The culture is different now than it was when I came out and the family is much more supportive now than they were back then. We’re all older–I’ll be 40 in 2 years!–and we all realize that life is too short for pettiness. I’m so happy you and Jimí have so much support and that you’re taking care of yourselves. Always take care of yourself, physically, emotionally, and financially. Learn. Read. Express yourself. There is a rich, wonderful history of black lesbian and gay men you both need to learn about. I need to send you some books.

I’m very proud of you! Every day I read one of your posts I feel the whole family has accomplished something extraordinary. Please keep taking risks. Keep learning and keep being who you really are!

The incident I refer to in my letter involving my cousin Dave remains the one and only time homophobia aimed directly at me came from the lips of a family member, one who I had considered a little brother when he was born and I was nine years old.  At an anniversary dinner which should have been a celebration of his parents’ lasting commitment, where family and friends who had supported them and their family over the years should have felt welcome and safe, I and other queers in the room, both out and closeted, suffered a scathing attack.  It occurred in a poem Dave wrote and recited before a crowd of roughly fifty people. While I cannot recall this lines verbatim the sentiment he conveyed was that his parents’ “biblical” marriage had endured for so long because they were living according to God’s plan, not like gays and lesbians who were by their very nature openly defying God’s law.  This incident took place in the summer of 2005, a defining year in Gay Rights.

Only months before, President Bush had begun his second term, skirted into office after a campaign orchestrated by Karl Rove that utilized same-sex marriage as a wedge issue to drive conservatives into the voting booth.  The previous year Massachusetts become the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage, and in pop culture a spate of gay-themed films and television shows, chief among them the landmark film Brokeback Mountain, were about to be released.  Tensions across the nation strained as familial ties and friendships, divided by fanatical political partisanship, ossified.  Dave’s comments were in essence the echo of talking points from Fox News.

But I wasn’t about to let him get away with it.  Thankfully, my aunt and uncle had an open mic at the ceremony so that friends and family could stand up and share their thoughts and feelings about their special wedding anniversary.  After Dave finished his poem (which hurt me all the more since no one in the family had ever begun to write poetry until I did and found success with it) I approached the microphone and, as tactfully as I could, leveled a pointed rejoinder to Dave’s homophobic comments. I told the crowd of family and friends that I was proud to have been included in my aunt and uncle’s anniversary celebration, that deep, abiding love as they have experienced is difficult to achieve and must always be celebrated. I reminisced about my childhood with them, a time before their children were born when they served as surrogate parents for me while my mother grew into womanhood and my father found his manhood in the embrace of a family he began with another woman before he endured a short stint in prison. Then I made my stinging indictment: I informed Dave and all who gathered in the hotel ballroom that in the current cultural climate of intolerance and partisan gamesmanship we shouldn’t forget, in light of my aunt and uncle’s happy marriage, that untold numbers of men and women cannot legally marry because of the intense homophobia which has poisoned our culture. I named no names; I called no one out.

I merely spoke for those who had been wounded by Dave’s ignorant comments, millions of men and women like myself who are so often invited to family gatherings yet are not truly included in the festivities; the ones mailed an invitation to a wedding yet aware that they cannot bring the person who means more to them than anyone else, whispered about behind their backs; the ones who sit alone in the corner of the ballroom while everyone else dances and laughs, the ones who must pretend they don’t hear the drunk uncle or aunt make a joke about fags with gerbils stuck up their ass, dikes getting wherever they need to go “lickety split”, queers flaming into death. I felt only a brief moment of satisfaction after my remarks before one of my aunt and uncle’s friends, a well dressed middle aged black man who I swear was cruising me before dinner, approached the mic when I sat down and echoed Dave’s homophobic stance. It was then I got up from the table and left the hotel. My relationship with Dave has been frosty ever since.

In the years since I relocated to the Chicago area with Gerald, and especially since I became a university instructor, I’ve come to realize that teaching does not end when I leave the classroom.  Not only am I teaching young adults at school what it means to be black, I am teaching blacks and the rest of society what it means to be gay.  Like so many other gays and lesbians my age, when I was coming of age I had no gay role models.  I knew nothing of Stonewall, gay subculture or our community’s prolonged fight for equality. The host of gays and lesbians in pop culture today and the number of gay celebrities who have come out of the closet wasn’t the reality Gen X and older generations of gays lived in.  Living my life as I have with my husband at my side, maintaining a home with him, presenting one another at family gatherings and expanding our circle of friends and acquaintances demonstrates to my family members—those who support my lifestyle and those who rail against it—that gays should not be feared or shunned and that our lives, just as theirs, contribute to the common good of society.  Jimí and Niecie look to me to model a healthy, productive life as a homosexual, something no one did for me when I was discovering my homosexuality.

The toxicity of homophobia in the black community has been a topic of impassioned dialogue for as long as I can remember.  I use the word toxicity here on purpose, for the calumny and sheer malice some blacks direct at gays and lesbians poisons the entire community, manifests in fractures within family, contributes to loss of labor and home and, perhaps more lethal than anything else, accelerates the spread of HIV/AIDS within the community.  The work Harlem Renaissance writers and artists did to expose the invidiousness of homophobia and sexism within the black community has not slowed since the 1920s. Artists and intellectuals from James Baldwin to bell hooks to Keith Boykin and Melissa Harris-Perry have written and spoken at length about the corrosiveness of homophobia, how it can retard and even undo the strides blacks have made since the Civil Rights era.  Yet it seems no matter how many black men and women come out of the closet and loudly proclaim their right to love and equality, regardless of the increasing number of gay and lesbian blacks who populate films and television shows and help relax some of the fear others have of us, and against their better judgment, many African Americans remain adamant and strident in their opposition to gay rights.  Like my cousin Dave, those blacks swathed in Christian fundamentalism, much like their white counterparts on the fringe of the Republican Party, would rather see the entire race obliterated than abandon their hatred and invite us a place at the table.

To live as a dual minority, to belong to two groups constantly under attack in Western culture, gives black gays and lesbians the unique opportunity to educate, for each moment we live our lives, write our stories, protest for just causes and claim space, we prove our power and worth and strengthen our communities. It is impossible for us to avoid teaching moments: instances where we are called upon, whether we want to or not, to correct a misapprehension, right a wrong, give a voice to those who are voiceless and provide safe havens. We harness our mutual reserves of fortitude, endurance, charity and forgiveness, and simply by living honorably, with joy, zeal and pride, we embolden others to claim their own true selves, to love and to heal.

Jarrett Neal earned a BA in English from Northwestern University and an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in The Gay and Lesbian Review, Q Review, On the Rocks, Chelsea Station, Copperfield Review and other publications.  His essay “Guys and Dolls” is featured in the Lambda Literary Award-nominated anthology For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough, edited by Keith Boykin.  He lives in Oak Park, IL. 

 

About Kiese

Kiese Laymon is a fiction writer and essayist who writes frequently on pop culture, hip hop and politics. He is currently teaches English, Africana Studies and Creative Writing at Vassar College.
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5 Responses to Teaching Black, Living Gay … by Jarrett Neal

  1. Mark says:

    Well done, Jarrett. I enjoyed your essay. I agree that many young students have no voice, don’t know it, or don’t know that they should have one. You understand this yourself so well, and I think this offers you a perspective may allow you to reach some of these young people as past profs somehow touched you. You are a gifted writer and teacher.

  2. Lauren says:

    I really enjoyed your essay. Your insights into students, community, and culture are very interesting and I love how you intertwine the struggles of growing up, finding your place, and becoming successful and happy with the ongoing struggles to educate those who don’t want to be educated. Struggles continue and I hope that each new generation can take us a step forward into the future instead of holding us back in the past. Thank you for sharing your story and your thoughts. I really want to take that Freshman English course with you!

  3. Damindra Liyanage says:

    Would it be possible for me to reprint this in my school’s paper (York University’s YUFreePress)

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