The following was, in part, inspired by Homeboy Sandman’s piece, Black People Are Cowards.
In light of the recent revelations that Donald Sterling, an obnoxiously rich white man who owns real estate property and the Clippers NBA team, has been known to target and mistreat Black tenants for years and no one said squat until TMZ broadcast a recording that shows he apparently thinks of his majority-Black players in the same twisted, self-justifying way that slave owners thought of their African slaves, I have decided that white people are cowards and I do not want them at any of my events.
It’s not for the same deluded, disgusting reasons Sterling doesn’t want to be seen with Black folks in public. In fact, society looks at me and sees a white person. Some of my best friends are white. But if we are going to talk about courage or lack thereof, intellectual originality and dangerous pioneering in the face of death to better your plight and the plight of your compatriots, let’s take a moment to reflect on who is courageous and who the cowards are.
What happened to the likes of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton and Medgar Evers when they at relatively young ages took on the weight of the world and stood up to a massive institutional wall of hate at the cost of their lives? Oh right, they were assassinated.
What exactly does the wholesale slaughter of the brightest and bravest people spearheading radical social change in the name of justice say, white America, about you? About us?
Back in the (not that long ago) day, Europeans came over to what is now the United States and somehow decided, “Fuck it. We want this shit. Let’s just take it. But how do we take it? It’s already settled.”
They divined that if they make everyone believe the people who have been living here are worth less as human beings, they could do literally anything to them. Voila! Genocide, bloody, gruesome and sadistic, soon followed. To devalue an entire group of people is to pave the way for mass murder, James Baldwin once said much more eloquently.
But that wasn’t enough, because these early Americans also needed human labor to build their shit for them. So they figured out that you could easily divide working people by treating one group better than others. What easier way to do that than divide them along ethnic lines, darker against lighter so there could be no mistake what group was which? Thus was born slavery and the modern incarnation of institutional racism.
The fact that the United States and American infrastructure both are built on genocide, slavery and racism are unavoidable as they are written into primary historical sources and the mass graves of American Indians that, throughout the country to this day, continue to be desecrated to make way for luxury home developments or highway extensions.
But how often do you hear this discussed at length, publicly, by the white mainstream? You don’t. You hear people talking about founding fathers, the American colonists, the Boston tea party, the American “frontier” and pioneers, and all kinds of sanitized, historically unsound mythological bullshit. The unwillingness to face what American settlers really did to the indigenous inhabitants of this country, or really did to African slaves in their custody, and the desire to “move on” from the past without ever coping with it honestly is big time, prime time, exhibit-A white cowardice.
Racism is now visible in the permutation of mass incarceration, iniquitous policing practices, subprime mortgages, unemployment inequality and education stratification. It is visible in the neglect, forgetfulness and squalor of Indian reservations like Pine Ridge, where the suicide rate is stratospheric, and economic neglect of Black neighborhoods and schools.
In the 1960s, Black people in this country put their lives on the line to end segregation. They got shot, they got beat up, they got thrown in prison, they got killed, the leaders got assassinated. Their movements were infiltrated and torn asunder by our own government. But in the end they won the Civil Rights Act, a stunning achievement that outlawed de jure segregation, thanks to mass involvement, demonstrations, outrage and action at great personal risk.
Since that time, with the greatest among us killed off, we have regressed. Every statistical metric shows that we are back to levels of segregation in schools not seen since Brown v. Board of Education, we have segregated neighborhoods, Blacks have unemployment rates that are at Depression-era levels while whites do not, Black and Native American children are disciplined in school at far higher rates than whites, migrants from beyond the US/Mexico border are treated in outrageous ways that wouldn’t be tolerated for dogs by animal activists, our prisons and jails are disproportionately populated with people of color, police stop people of color at far higher rates… in other words, everything is a fucking mess and who is suffering the most? Whites? No. So here’s the question. If (clearly) people of color are suffering the most from a crappy system of gross social inequality, it would seem the ones hogging the up-side of the seesaw are the whites.
Obviously this is unjust. So why aren’t whites protesting this in mass numbers?
Because they are cowards. The true cowards. Who would want to get up in the morning with the subliminal understanding that this could be your last day of freedom, or your last day alive, just because fate rolled the dice and you were born with dark skin or in the wrong country?
On the other hand, who wants to get up in the morning and feel pretty secure that you will go to bed that night in your own bed? That some life-altering disaster will not befall you today because you woke up and the policeman driving behind your car saw a white arm hanging out the window?
So why do white people keep pretending like racism is a thing of the past? Why don’t they want to talk about it? Are they afraid of something?
The essay “White People Are Cowards” has been written in various forms by better authors in the past of far higher stature and talent than me. Let us turn to one of them for insight. Baldwin, in the essay Stranger in the Village, writes:
“The black man insists by whatever means he finds at his disposal, that the white man cease to regard him as an exotic rarity and recognize him as a human being. This is a very charged and difficult moment, for there is a great deal of will power involved in the white man’s naiveté….He is inescapably aware, nevertheless, that he is in a better position in the world than black men are, nor can he quite put to death the suspicion that he is hated by black men therefore. He does not wish to be hated, neither does he wish to change places…”
Nothing like forced naiveté when it serves your purposes. I believe whites implicitly know, whether they will admit it or not, that their lives are valued far more than their black counterparts. Comedian Dave Chappelle once mad a joke about it on the David Letterman show. The audience laughed. Jokes like that are funny because they are drawn from the unflattering truth.
The most common form I’ve seen for today’s cowardice is to basically play the naiveté card to its fullest extent. White people like to act like racism no longer exists, or act like they have nothing to do with it when they accept it does. They will move into neighborhoods that were once populated by people of color, and play their role in gentrification schemes. They will stay silent when the local jurisdiction creates a gang injunction for their new neighborhood to force out the original inhabitants and make the new whites feel comfortable in their new surroundings.
The worst, though, is when they support “tough on crime” politicians or policies, which is basically code for “throw people of color in prison so we don’t have to deal with their reality.”
Prisons in this country are the biggest expression of whites being cowards I can think of. Because a huge part of white cowardice is denial that racism as a system of enforced inequality exists, and insistence that society is governed solely by individual choices. That social forces don’t exist, only good or bad decisions at the personal level. This is a big, fat lie. It doesn’t take much of a mental stretch to see the flaw in it.
Resting on the belief that the prison population is made up of bad decision makers or bad people, with the coexisting knowledge that prisons are full disproportionately of Black and brown people means you have accepted that there is a racial component to “bad decisions” and “bad people.” Guess what that is. The assumption that a certain flaw genetically befalls an entire group of people is RACISM. All people are genetically identical except for the fact they have different parents. It is social forces that have created the situation we are in, and it is with our consent that these social forces are allowed to exist. Have I hammered it in enough yet?
The problem is, white people, the world can’t afford for us to live like this anymore. I mean, how many countries are we dropping bombs on right now? Do you even know? Hint: it’s more than one. It’s more than two. Are we dropping bombs on any countries with predominantly white inhabitants? Hmmm. No.
No one denies that there is a very active and expanding state of inequality, not just in the US but in the world. Inequality implies people have less so others can have more. So if we have more, it’s because someone else is suffering. Here’s a good example. Look at your feet. The ground they are on, that’s probably ground that was the home of an indigenous family, maybe 200, 300, 500 years ago. Now it’s your house. Here’s another example. The clothes you are wearing were probably made by someone in South Asia who works in a horrible factory for a horrible wage and your smartphone was manufactured in an Asian factory where workers have been rioting over working conditions. These are just examples to demonstrate how some people have to sacrifice so others can have a certain quality of life.
Likewise, we have a very large, involved prison system in this country. It is its own infrastructure. It has its own economy. It was built to accommodate the “tough on crime” politicians and laws, and the war on drugs, and mandatory minimum sentencing. It was built for a huge prison population – the biggest in the world, and a correspondingly huge number of employees and contractors. That’s not to mention all the police, prosecutors, probation officers, et cetera, that go into the criminal justice system surrounding the prison system.
In other words, someone needs to fill up those prisons. And who will that be? It’s certainly not going to be the favored demographic. You create consent for unspoken racism by doing things like treating Blacks as criminals in the media while you feign outrage over Donald Sterling’s remarks. That way, people can go about their lives merrily benefiting from systemic racism while not coping with their racist assumptions that prop it up. That’s the funny thing these days. The way to be a racist in modern times is to be a racist the same way you would in the 1950s, but just SAY you are not a racist. The striking thing about both Sterling and Cliven Bundy is that both men did not like to be called the word “racist,” despite their obviously racist statements. Likewise, it’s pretty comically obvious that the United States houses a racist society. But our politicians that write the laws for it are quick to give lip service denouncing the Sterlings and Bundys when they inevitably pop up haplessly in some recording.
Let’s step it up, white people. If there’s anyone that should, it’s us. Do we really want this? What kind of people are we, exactly? Let’s not go along with it. What would happen if the whites in this country underwent a sudden moral, existential crisis and discovered what John Donne meant when he wrote, “No man is an island… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
What would happen if suddenly whites en masse “put their bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels” of the machine, as student activist Mario Savio said at UC Berkeley in 1964? What if we stood behind the Black activists today who are fighting against mass incarceration and racial profiling, or the activists who are fighting for immigrant rights, or the Native Americans who are still campaigning to be treated with human dignity? What if we just stopped going along with the way things are now? How powerful would a call to boycott be if the threat that whites would join it? What if sit-ins for social and racial justice were populated with white faces too?
I am not denying the existence of white poverty. In fact, working class and impoverished whites would best be served if they realized their struggles are part and parcel to those of people of color. But Fox News and the mass mis-information conservative media juggernaut have been employed to divide the working class and poor whites from their Black and brown counterparts. Divide and conquer. Hate groups are preying on the lack of education. Whose job is it to help them see through the Bill O’Reilly crap storm and put blame where blame is due? Racial and economic justice go hand-in-hand.
When the whites in this country start to see through the injustices that are done to people simply for not looking like them, when they start to make the connections between this country’s war machine, racism and inequality like they did in the 60s, the veil will be pulled off, the emperor will be seen to have no clothes, and the whole system will be revealed to be invalid. That’s dangerous for us. It means scary things will come to us, if we take this up. It means we will not be treated with soft gloves like we have throughout most of our lives. We will be hurt, maybe killed. We will have to reevaluate, personally, who we are, are place in the world, and will have to learn to shut up and listen. That our thoughts and perspectives are not as important as we have been made to believe. A lot of white kids got a taste of this during Occupy. For the first time, they saw the state for what it was, and they saw what people of color have always seen.
It’s scary and it’s going to hurt. The truth is, the powers that be in this country have never wanted true equality among all races. Racism is good for inequality. Inequality is great for the people who are on the top end of it. Guess who controls your government.
I don’t want to end this with some sentimental kumbaya “we are all one” bullshit, but for fuck’s sake, white people. You really should care that entire races of people are suffering unjustly in this country (and beyond it) for the silly reason that they have certain physical features. So really, let’s step it up. You’re not fooling anyone. I just told you, so if you didn’t know before, now you do.
For those of you who don’t want to step it up, do me a favor and at least shave your head and join your local skinhead group.
Bethania Palma Markus is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist.
February 10, 2014 12:45AM
Thank you. Thank you for committing to becoming you. Struggles and all. I spent the better part of the last 48 hours reading your story at any moment I could, even if that meant re-reading a few pages as I found myself snoozing on the subway. Since finding out about you sometime last year, I’ve called you one of my Sheroes. One of my favorite people in the world taught me not to idolize others, he taught me not to put people on pedestals because it detaches them from their very real flaws, fuck-ups and humanness.
Ironically, in some ways idolization dehumanizes the humans we admire most. I call you Sheroe not to place you on a pedestal, but rather to acknowledge one of my favorite traits in most of the people I love and admire: their unabashed willingness to be themselves (constantly and consistently). I am not a transwoman of color, but as a young man of Dominican-descent that loves men I couldn’t help but relate to the countless stories I read about in your book that spoke to that constant assessment of those around you and how you measured against your perception of their real and not-so-real expectations of you.
I’m writing to you as well from knowing that I’m entering a moment right now, that I imagine you felt in those earlier years of your development and presumably still today, of having a fuller and happier experience within my skin because of the acceptance and love of who I am. I’m saddened to know that for some reason I still do not have the strength to disclose my sexuality to some of my family. I find myself coming out easier and easier these days, but its not in every circumstance or environment. I find myself heightening my awareness of whom I am when I am in spaces of cis-gendered, heterosexual men. Perhaps from spending many years in my adolescence critiqued for my failure of performing masculinity as expected by peers often masked in jokes and laughter, I have found it difficult to authentically be myself in those spaces, now as someone who is increasingly stepping into who he is. Thank you for being so detailed about your story and consistently showing humility as well as giving reminders that your story is yours and not representative of all. I appreciated your acknowledging that all of these conversations are nuanced and messy.
This afternoon I spent a few hours at Ikea in Red Hook with my twin brother and mom buying a few things as we prepared for our first apartment in New York (BX stand up!). Throughout our gazing at all the possibilities of domestic spaces, I wondered to myself what it meant for me to redefine realness. I thought back to those scenes in Paris is Burning you referred to throughout parts of your story and began to think about what realness was within the context of my own story. I began thinking about the scenes of “realness” competitions in that documentary and questioned the realness I was competing for. If I were to take away anything from your book, perhaps it is the importance of committing oneself to oneself—for every part of the journey (failures and all). What I am realizing now as I am writing to you is how I must redefine my own realness in a way that wholly, constantly and consistently honors who I am. A few weeks ago, I had dinner with one of your friends, Darnell, and we talked about understanding that we are gifts. Our love is to be received as much as it is given.
I have so much of my story left to unpack and make sense of and truthfully parts of which I have promised myself to never talk to anyone about, even though there were times I burned to get them off my chest. As a person who loves and lives outside of some of the norms of this society I am grateful to have read your story. It made me feel a little less alone and more a part of a community of people that are love, give it and receive it (though we may not always be well-equipped to do that work).
As an identical twin, I have often felt trapped in terms of expressing myself because of the constant comparison to my brother most often from people outside of our family (my mom was intense about not comparing us as children). Around 6th grade when my brother and I found ourselves expressing who we were in different ways in social spaces like the yard during lunch time, I learned quickly what was acceptable and what was not. Playing cards with girls was not acceptable. Playing baseball was acceptable. Not playing basketball was unacceptable. Reading was unacceptable. The constant name-calling and labeling was enough to close me as an emotional being and just be sarcastic. I found comfort and protection in sarcasm because it made it easier to deflect hurtful words and actions; at its best I roused a laugh from a few people.
Looking back at my life, I knew I liked boys since about first grade. Since I had an infatuation of sorts with Miguel and his Durango boots, but I chalked it up to having a great friend. I knew since discovering porn with two men in it in 7th grade or that same summer when my heart skipped a little every time my counselor smiled. I knew when I had a gut feeling that something was off a few times I found myself intimate with a girl, but finished the act any ways. I knew when I finally fell in love with another man and was certain that good feeling was meant to be shared with other men.
There are lot more nuances to the stories and depth for that matter, but I spent a long time living in denial because I was so wrapped up in acceptance, in being as liked by others as my brother, in getting into a great high school and going to college. I spent so long chasing after all the external shit that I believed at some point or other would lead to a happier life, when the journey I should have embarked on long before was that of self love and acceptance.
This past summer, I went on a Dream Quest in the woods of Upstate NY- a journey that entailed 1 gallon of water, 1 roll of toilet paper, a shovel, bug spray, a tarp, sleeping bag, a notebook and 24 hours by myself. The journey was framed around a larger spiritual experience informed by cards each participant pulled from a deck the night before. My card was a bat and it called for re-birth.
During those 24 hours, I carved a moment to host a rebirth ceremony (with brief instructions from the professor leading the experience) and to acknowledge all those that I have wronged as well as those that have wronged me. I summoned their spirits to my corner of nature in order to prepare them and myself for my rebirth. As I envisioned each of these spirits taking a seat around the circle, made from fallen twigs and soil, I got nervous. I fell back into my internal dialogue that questioned the certainty of any of this and whether it was worth the time. I decided that it wasn’t worth forcing the experience and so I stepped out the circle with a commitment to completing the ceremony before leaving the space.
The next morning I was proud of myself for having made it through the night. I was at peace amongst bugs, soil, leaves and sunlight filtered through trees. After some stretching and being with nature, I began to pack up my site. Once everything was in its order and place, I sat back down in the circle I had created the day before. As I closed my eyes to envision my guests, I suddenly felt it was the right moment to release something. Eventually, I realized it was to time to let go of my old self in order to make room for the real me. With enough tears welled up in my closed eyes, I opened them to bury the still green acorn at the center of the circle chosen to represent me. It was a burial of who I formerly was, forever and always. I’m not sure how to explain it, but that burial felt real. Since that morning, I have had a deeper (though sometimes wavering) commitment to fully being myself and loving every part of me.
Your story will stay with me Janet. As someone who loves and needs words to fully articulate myself, I’m grateful to have a few more to better understand and describe the world we are in.
If there is any way I can continue to support you, please let me know.
–  Name has been changed for protection of privacy
The following is Darnell Moore’s response to the passing of Amiri Baraka. Darnell L. Moore interviewed poets Amiri Baraka and Cheryl Clarke at Baraka’s home in 2010. He was inspired to engage the two luminaries in dialogue after reading Clarke’s slamming critique of Black Nationalism’s homoantagonistic impulses in her now classic essay, “The Failure to Transform: Homophobia in the Black Community” (1983). Moore eventually came across Clarke and Baraka at Newark City Hall in 2008 on the same day, and facilitated a dialogue between the two in Newark two decades after Clarke’s essay. A brief video segment of the conversation can be viewed here.
So much will be written about Amiri Baraka moving forward. We both called the New Arc home. I want to remember the courage Amiri possessed that allowed him to speak and write his truth. Honestly, I wasn’t ready for that truth sometimes. His was the kind of truth spoken compellingly and beautifully in a society that, as he said, praises ugliness and lies.
Amiri was an artist who was vulnerable and brave enough to allow others to watch him shift, bend and break over time. Some critics begrudged him for that. I can recount the number of times some White queer friends, for instance, would ask, “Well, is he still homophobic?” after I mentioned how blessed I felt to live in close proximity to him or when I expressed excitement about bumping into him at a rally or hearing at Newark City Hall.
I wanted to respond,”Well, are you still racist?”
I never responded with that question because I am not as courageous and honest as Amiri was, or his wife, Amina, is for that matter. Amiri knew the world, and knew the strength it takes to survive in a world that teaches most of us to despise ourselves.
I am fortunate for the memories I have of Amiri Baraka, our beloved, outspoken leader in my hometown of Newark, NJ. Whether he was boycotting folk in city hall for backing a plan to privatize the water or letting it be known his disapproval of the Mayor, the brother was unafraid.
The day we sat in Amiri Baraka’s living room while he testified and talked to us about the Black arts movement, Newark, politics, and revolution, it was clear that his was a life lived and tried. I thought about the questions I’d heard about homophobia until I realized that next to him was Cheryl Clarke, a black lesbian poet whom he deeply admired. I thought about the charges of sexism in his past and considered the many ways he spoke of Amina Baraka challenging him to be better.
I then looked across at the two sisters (Aimee and Fayemi) and young people who shared the room with us and the ways his words about anti-racism and anti-sexism moved them.
I thought about what it means to live a life–to believe and disbelieve and change belief many times. And I was reminded that we are all the same-with-a-difference in that room: black, though, differently so, within a system that would eat us all alive if we let it. That’s what Amiri wanted us to know.
Amiri Baraka was a carrier of history, protest and movement. He was truly a literary force. The only thing that makes him a “controversial” writer, as one many media outlets stated, is the fact that unlike writers who speak from, and see though their places of power and privilege, Amiri warned us that the “truths” told by such writers were lies. Not half-truths. Lies That type of truth-telling will always guarantee enemies. Yet, truth always wins in the end. That’s why he can now rest. Peace to his family, and all of those who loved him in New Arc.
Darnell Moore was appointed the inaugural chair of the city of Newark’s LGBTQ Advisory Concerns Commission by Mayor Cory A. Booker and served as co-chair of the Queer Newark Oral History initiative. He was awarded the Visionary of the Future Award from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Humanitarian Award from the Essex County Chapter of American Conference on Diversity.
“We had to sound civilized in public, he told us; we had to speak English.”
-Adichie, Purple Hibiscus
I was the third seed planted that sprouted one February Sunday evening in a giant hospital at the heart of Ibadan, the largest city in Old Oyo, a restless and unplanned place where life is rushed, growing up is fast and easy, and wounds are unmasked; everything is in the open–from the street-side, open-roof stores that sell your groceries, to the hustlers hawking burnt tapes, CDs and knock-off brands, to the black markets that hide in the day and shine at night, to the girls who flock like disciples, bundle together and talk in professional English mixed with pidgin, on any given street at the right time of the day, some in front of their college dorms, others a half mile from your neighborhood, waiting the next Big Man* who can buy them out for the semester; Ibadan is the sort of town that carries dust in the eyes of strangers: you have to know people to get around and you have to know yourself to survive; you should know yourself by now if you’re old enough to be tear gassed by officers whose duty is to quell the monthly riots that take place on the main streets connecting home to school: this is primary school and most parents know those days ahead: the ones usually summoned by university unions and students to protest everything from low salaries to unpaid labor to hikes in school fees to faculty strikes that help stretch out a bachelor’s into a 6-yr project; but the violence is indiscriminate, and should hit anyone, and the young thugs flashing palm tree leaves and banging on cars, burning others, smashing windows with driving mothers and nervous children are just as passionate about education as the chancellor; somehow of course, and maybe out of necessity, their disposition is tolerated and respected, enough to send an early morning school rush into a near-death experience involving riot-gear police, holdups and U-turns once the action starts heating up; the aim is not to surround the reader with malady and madness, although that was custom, as with the bare woman who roamed the streets endlessly, baby strapped to her back, and could walk into any store with the guarantee of not having to pay; Ibadan is also the land that birthed Sade, so we have a deeper sense of beauty yet unexplored with the decency it deserves, as pioneer of some of Africa’s leading technological advances; we still carry the memories of old, in a land hot 11 months of the year, simmering the sand with desire; in truth, it is known more for its people than its places: sightseeing is rare here; maybe the unimpressive gaze of a cramped oversized parlor puts the red dot over the city: land is lush with gardens, botanical and wild, forests and evergreen bushes and trees that cast a glance over the neighborhoods, tempering the canvass of an otherwise sandy, dusty, tidy and cluttered geography; death is as sudden as a Danfo conductor refusing to pay a policeman, and politics is a sport only the skilled and powerful are allowed to play; I arrived into a world of humans and animals, spirits walking and talking between belches of Yoruba, a land close to rivers and lakes that stream energy, vibrant life, into this Alexander of African towns.
My birth, they say, was a harrowing one involving blood loss, prayer, patience, a Jehovah’s Witness moment and the threat of death to mother and fetus. Somehow the stars willed it and we made it through.
Our story is simple, we know what we want of life: nuclear families that extend into the wilderness, procreate like machines and spread out, creating forests and adding back to the source of creation. The Yoruba culture swivels between past and present like a pendulum, acquiring codes, messages and wisdom from its origin, which is believed divine, a contract between deity and man, to further destiny with community. What we don’t know we ask–through divination or prayer; what we’re told we hold onto as Mother’s Milk to a baby’s mouth. Whether out of practice or tradition we are consoled into believing a sovereign watcher guards over our affairs, is aware of our deepest concerns and can intervene when called upon. This belief is strong enough to send everyday men and women into fits of terror or hysteria if the sought out answer isn’t confirmed. The people are dangerous in love with their God, whatever the name given, and are swift to defend his honor: as gods go, gender is still a far walk from perfection; Patriarchy is King, male sons are prized, and daughters are crafted gems jealously controlled to protect their innocence.
The truths we hold to be self-evident confirm purpose and destiny as keys to the good life, the path all must walk to keep the divine connection alive; disobedience is often an unforgivable affront, easily adopted into Patriarchal infallibility: what the Father wants he gets, and children, as with worshippers before a short-tempered God, must comply to keep blessings flowing and stave off promises of unchained suffering. The home is structured in apocalyptic grace that can only serve those under its will: this is why parents are able to wave the flag of disownment over the heads of wayward or Western-minded children who think they’ve seen the light and can confirm existence of other norms beyond the preferred and prescribed domains of official thought. Culture, we know, moves with time and like tides rolls through changing current, swapping movement and form, pushing people and places into new frontiers; we know, too, that tradition walks holding its cane tight, checking for deviants along the way.
Pressure builds and busts pipes, taking into its hands the souls of those unsure their place in life–a child born is believed predestined and should be nurtured into the light of its purpose to allay the devices of an Evil One, who we are told, as with the Sovereign God, lurks close seeking recruitment into a path of no return. This Evil One, Esu (Satan), has a defined purpose for the child, helping delineate right from wrong, Good from Bad; the binary paradigm is a microcosmic understanding of the world beyond, defining discipline as the bar code for salvation, itself an amalgamation of authority: the saved soul belongs to, is judged by, and acquires authentication from, the divine order, or its designate in the home: unruly kids need more discipline and the good ones protection from the snatching hands of a cunning trickster who with a treasure bag hopes to ensnare the imagination into possibilities unrevealed by a stifling God.
If your parents are Christian, the story of Adam and Eve takes on supreme meaning: beyond an allegorical or anecdotal rendering of creation, becomes the epicenter of a polarized world; Eve bit the apple given by an alluring snake who hoped to open her eyes to the unseen, and Adam shared in the sin, angered the Patriarch God, forcing banishment from a good, promised, unknown existence: it’s a sort of razorblade salvation that cuts off the curious or the unfaithful. God said what was good and human intelligence should bow down to divine instruction. Adam, a straight, traditional man, fell to temptation at the lustful demands of his wife, and was punished with revelations of his nakedness, his wife’s sexuality, a hard-working life, and the unplanned gift of childbirth.
While our stories have their distinct tints and shades we share one common with all Africans, that of erasal, reversal and uprootment. When the Europeans came with their God, Bible and teachings, they came too with a plan for the people, one which deviated from would spell, well, as with the Patriach God, a vastless unknown. The first stage of dehumanization is to convince the people they have no culture; the second is to strip them of their right to know; the third stage that of offering an alternative, inferior to that of the colonizers but symmetrical enough to convey similarity; the fourth is a genuine guarantee that the entire process is one of good, righteous even, divinely destined. The intelligence of the conquered peoples is never called into question, it is simply discarded. Their knowledge of self is a forgiven error: that, of course, they think they know what they’re doing but really all effort to reclaim memory and language is the meandering and confused strivings of a primitive people.
The British, in Nigeria’s story, believed their language, governing structure, and social systems were not only fit for the colonized people–a given with the logic that language is the heart of a society and conditions culture–but should prevail way into the future, with each new generation supplanted into a foreign matrix: this is how you own a land and its people for thousands of years. Music was of lesser priority, as it might stir up spiritual wells calling for revolution but would fall largely on the diluted ears of the captured.
The story of Africa and its colonization seems simple enough: that a people who’d been learned from, traded with, and had traveled extensively had to be schooled on the rules of modernity. The same people with established empires in Mali, dynasties in Egypt, and Kingdoms in Old Oyo, needed to be brought into the New World through force, inspection and coercion. To think Africans accepted their inferiority seamlessly is to dismiss the countless revolts, bloody and boundless, that swept the continent once its people realized the game being played on them. The fight, we now know, had less to do with resistance and more with protecting the last vestiges of indigenous wealth under attack. Missionaries were proxy to a larger enterprise whose sole mission was extraction: whether of bodies, cultures or resources. In this sense it is clear what they came for: not the souls of the sinners but the life they had; in some cases, then, death was the inevitable transaction. Convincing Africans to believe in and pray to a different God had to involve a feat of construction and reconstruction, specifically determining capital distribution based on acceptance. This is why many, even after conversion, retained their indigenous rituals and spiritual systems, masking what they could with worship and praise the foreigners found strange. You could call on Shango and Ogun in your own way, or offer to Osun without the flourishes of old. What was lost was never recovered but simply evolved into the existing structure–divination became prophecy and praise offering testimony.
We all kno say Africa na the richest continent
We all come kno say we come be one of the poorest people as well…
Na we get the gold, the diamond, cocoa and rubber
We come kno say na we get the oil and many other resources too…
You better ask yourself how the richest continent get the poorest people
You better ask yourself why everybody dey rush for the resources of Africa
You better ask yourself how many more years we go wait before the savior go come save us
You better ask yourself why as we dey wait other nations dey get richer…
They came for wealth, they came for culture, they came to learn–in a word they came to steal. Who would really think, and truly believe, that a people for thousands of years well-advanced in technological fronts, textiles, stone and wood carvings, metal wielding, agriculture, education, infrastructure and cultural institutions were all a sudden hapless and helpless, unable to breathe right without European handling? This is, of course, the arrogance and ignorance of the colonizer, who has to believe his own lies before the conquered people can.
Before the lies we knew the truth of our founding, told and passed on through generations, oracles that scripted the paths to destiny, tales of ropes handed from the sky, dribbling into the earth new life for man. The conquering of a continent, like the breaking of Okonkwo, had to dissolve the power of these narratives, enough to hazard their legitimacy: priests were punished, diviners destroyed, women worshippers denounced as witches, and so went the tale…like that of the lion and the hunter.
When written about, here is the sort of arrogance that wields the pen, far back as 1894:
Although as we know from Dalzel’s History, Oyo, or Yoruba, was a powerful kingdom at least as early as 1724, Yoruba traditional history carries us back no further than the end of the eighteenth century, a fact which shows what little reliance can be placed upon the traditions of nations who are unacquainted with the art of -writing.+
You can smell the frustrations of ancestors wondering why an elaborate narrative had to be generated of a benevolent God, his Son and Holy Spirit in the name of genocide and plunder. Might as well have been upfront: we want your land, people and culture and we don’t have to buy them. There seemed even no need to impose a foreign culture: history shows those with the bigger guns holding their share of treasure. We can blitz the sole claim of White Supremacy with the line tracing Greece to Jersey Shore. And still, the transplanting of culture, purely a marketing move, is the magic that bewilders every generation post-colonization: the unquestioned assumptions that paralyze indigenous understanding into acceptance of the default dominant frame: in our case, growing up, that of the Europeans. There’s a hint in Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus when the White priest, Father Benedict, “had changed things in the parish such as insisting that the Credo and kyrie be recited only in Latin; Igbo was not acceptable. Also hand clapping was to be kept at a minimum, lest the solemnity of Mass be compromised.”
Through nursery, primary and secondary school, we lived our days believing our own inferiority, measured against Standard English and civilized cultures, hardly questioning the barbarity that confounded this thought. Having a dictator as president, with multiple coups and mandatory post-election riots helped confirm our unyielding aspirations toward democracy with the hope that perhaps with more time, education and prayer we can someday grow up into the light of our founding father, Lord Lugard. We never had the encouragement to see beyond the smokescreen of tribal war, supposedly innate, genetically coded through the divide and confuse scripts played out upon once-compatible societies. The restlessness of life was blamed upon an unfruitful distinction between rural and urban ways: the people have yet to come out of it; give them time though.
So we grew up boy-men, charged with rage at any perceived injustice, comfortable in blaming ourselves and distrustful of our own wisdom: Nigeria is like this because of Nigerians. We imitated the gangs that ruled our cities–some clothed officers, others fringe political mobs. We became the monsters we hated and, now grown up, could stage our own riots when we wanted, which sometimes became the daily bread: the one release from a force so furious, yet unsourced, that in turn confirmed our beastliness. We were angry, always angry and always fighting, puritanized and hyper-sexualized, an unarousing contradiction. For most of us, therapy was found in the urbanscapes of N. American, Caribbean and S. American music that brought context to the suffering.
We walked a lot, in groups like troops, thinking we were cliques, naming ourselves after famous brands like Harlem’s World and Y2k Boyz. Everyone was part of a clique, some of us more than one. Naturally I crossed borders, here and there, always secure.
When we parked ourselves, it was parliament. Usually at the seat of a tree not too far from the class block. It became the giant Iroko-like tree that nursed our adolescence. It must have been a tree so old: its roots stood above the red-dusty ground, wrapped and spread spherical – rough, angular, timber-strong. This was one of our many makeshift classrooms, where conversation was curriculum.
It was where body met body in heated solidarity against everything we hated about classroom time. It was where you could escape into endless debates, knockout fights, petty conspiracies, and shelter from the Soul Death Sessions of a droning teacher who hates his job, you, but you more than his job. You are his job, and he hates you more. Because of this he hates himself, you know it: so you don’t bother building bridges over still waters: there are none. You wait till he turns his back to the blackboard and you dash out the door. He might see you, throw a chalk in your direction, curse you and confirm you’ll never make it in life. But you keep running and don’t look back.
It was where culural studies could take place, unannounced, like the Monday afternoon before a decisive Arsenal v. Manchester United game–Superbowl to Nigerians. As with all major games, we’d lay out the scenarios, pick apart strikers and defenders, reroute formation, contest knowledge, and basically bullshit to keep the juice going like a rising tide that would climax right before the game starts, peak through the night and only resolve the next morning when we got back to school and the same tree. And then let loose. Between all the jostling, yelling, spitting, the sweaty and veiny foreheads, Ibrahim, a muslim friend, asked why Dikio, an Abuja boy who was down (he liked everything normal: girls, music, fights and brands), kept shifting away from the conversation. I’d noticed him too, tilting off the more we talked about it.
“What, wetin u dey front for?”
“I no be wit all dat soccer yan**”
“I say I no dey with all dat soccer yan.”
“Oh u kno support Man U or Arsenal, which team u dey support?”
“I no support any team.”
“Wetin u mean?”
“I’m Nas’ fan.” (emphasis on the s’)
While everyone moved on without pause, like a sacrilegious comment forgiven but not forgotten, the cultural significance of that moment weighed strong on me.
I knew even then as an early teen we–as a collective, 150 million strong inter-tribal community–loved colonial teams, symbols and people (more than ourselves). A love that was painful, as we had no control, let alone ownership, over it. Taught and trained to appeal to the lightest and whitest of our character, we adored and defended them passionately: their teams, styles, tones and textures was paradigm (dark-skinned girls had to look like Vanessa Williams); I’d been to enough vendors selling stockpiles of bleach and seen enough eczema scars on necks and watched that whiteface ritual up close enough times in open markets to know what we thought of their skin color vis-a-vis ours. Whether or not serious, his pun seemed to me subversion or salvation–a reclaiming of passions coveted by young Naija boys who’d never come to question why their allegiance seemed tied, intractably, with the cultural derivatives of their former colonizers.
The music that inspired us was sponsored by Ronald Reagan and the crack epidemic, itself a well-constructed version of what the colonized people of America had been taught to believe of themselves. The greatest lie told of course is that the descendants of slaves, those who built the capital of this country, were lazy, good for nothing, satisfied with wasting their lives in needles and vials, unproductive and content with welfare cheques. This is a good lie, but as with any other must be believed to be effective. Nas moved me growing up because he was intelligent, also because he moved between worlds I was comfortable in. He explained social struggle within the context of a nightmare we were living.
I’d stopped going to class at 9, skipping the majority of the terms, working my time between blocks kids were chased from, territories controlled by stick-up kids who really did it and frat boys who mentored us, most with a seasoned temperament that embodied cool.
I was ultimately held back at 13 for a year, for academic reasons, after 4 narrow escapes by the grace of crib notes smuggled into exam halls: the penalty was repeating a school year, a risk most of us willingly took, and when friends were caught we cried with them too.
What we saw in Urban American culture was validation, what we didn’t was the context that produced it. We missed the pain that made the music possible and glorified the attractive lure of a lifestyle we didn’t fully understand. We overlooked the horror every Black kid growing up in America is subjected to: one of being traced to roots that are unfair and untrue. This is what the Afro-futurism movement is all about: one that says, the more you try to drag us to an impure past, the more we bring the future to you. It is a nuanced, complex strategy of liberation and redemption only the careful eye can detect. Growing up boogie man is hard, like the Mos Def song says:
The most beautiful boogie man
The most beautiful boogie man
Let me be your
Close your eyes and
I’ll be right there
As young people in society we were denied our own history, taught to hate and fear each other, and reveled only in the sonic jolt of the culture and its musical forms. What we lacked in understanding we made for in interpretation and moved on. Most aspired to leave home and find freedom in the land of milk and honey only to arrive and face the same questions their brothers, sisters and cousins have had to answer for decades: Do you have cars where you come from? I have a South African friend, do you know him? Who taught you how to speak English? Do you still live on trees? When did you start wearing clothes? How easy was it adjusting to Our culture?
You can see the nostrils flaring when they say “our culture,” proud of what they have, wallowing in the ignorance of their stand in history, and happy to teach you about pizza and the NFL. We were taught, we soon realize, to chase a dream that never was, to gravitate to useless ideals and believe in false gods. We would have to peel back all the layers of memory to remember who we were and, for the future work, were called to be.
*Big Man = Politician
*Yan = Talk
+ A. B. Ellis. Yoruba-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa: Their Religion, Manners, Customs, Laws, Language, Etc. 1894.
Tolu Olorunda is a writer and author of The Substance of Truth, a collection of essays. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
The yellows and greens and browns and blues still ooze, but Rachel Jeantel and Trayvon Martin are getting closer to the edge of that Samford subdivision.
Even though they’re walking side by side, they’re texting each other.
And dying laughing.
Rachel is asking Trayvon, “But I’m saying how come it’s so hard for black boys to love black girls but so easy for y’all to lean up on us when y’all need love and everything else?”
Trayvon looks like he’s thinking when a creepy ass cracker approaches. His mouth won’t stop moving. “They always killing somebody vibe,” Rachel says.
Right before Rachel’s vibe was killed by the creepy ass cracker, she was wondering about an essay she has to turn in for 12th grade English tomorrow. Rachel thinks Ms. Shivers means well but she wishes she would commit to teaching and learning with her instead of trying to saving her from her community. Ms. Shivers wants Rachel to write an essay in one of those short blue notebooks about the consequences of reasonable love in The Bluest Eye. Rachel knows what she wants to write but wonders if it’s unreasonable to start a short blue essay about the nation’s lack of love for black children with a dream.
“Wait,” Trayvon tells her. “What the fuck is he doing now? Why he steady watching us like that?”
“Uh, because that was creepy ass crackers do,” Rachel tells him. ”Why you acting so brand new?”
Rachel watches Trayvon’s eyes. She’s waiting on him to blink. She’s waiting on him to blink.
She’s waiting on him to blink.
“You a creepy ass cracker and you getting on my nerves,” she tells him. “How come loving us is so hard?”
“Why you talking about love?” Trayvon asks her. “I don’t want them to love me. I just want them to leave us alone.”
“Stop lying,” she says. “You want them to love you.”
When the creepy ass cracker gets closer and reaches in his pocket, Trayvon throws his phone in the bridge of his creepy cracker nose puts him in a sleeper hold.
Rachel is dying laughing.
The creepy ass cracker manages to elbow Trayvon in the sternum. Rachel walks up to him and scratches the skin off his cheeks. She kicks him over and over again in the ribs while Trayvon hold him. A Kel Tec PF9 handgun falls to the sidewalk and Rachel says again, “You see us walking with nothing but a drank, minding our own business and you step to us knowing you got a gun on you? That’s why you bleeding now. Next time, you gon’ love us? You gon’ learn to see?”
Trayvon picks up his phone and takes a picture of the creepy ass cracker balled up on the sidewalk.
Next to his Kel Tec PF9 handgun.
With blood and grit and that creepy-ass cracker’s sweat beneath both of their fingernails, Rachel and Trayvon manage to take the bullets out the Kel Tec PF9 handgun and throw it in some sticker bushes.
They walk closer to the edge of the Samford subdivision. All the eyes of creepy ass crackers are peering out of their windows. “They always looking,” Rachel says, “but they can’t see us. You think they all got guns? White folks are the worst see-ers ever.”
Trayvon is dying laughing.
“What you laughing at?”
“What you just said,” Trayvon says. “They so sure we ain’t shit. But look how they look, and how they be acting. Over some kids walking home!? It’s just so funny to me. The worst see-ers ever!”
“Yeah,” Rachel says. “Creepy.”
Rachel remembers a quote from this Lucille Clifton poem she learned in Ms. Shivers class the final quarter of last year. She tells herself she’s going to start her essay for Ms. Shivers with this quote: “Come celebrate with me and Trayvon that everyday something has tried to kill us and failed.”
She types the sentence in her phone. She texts it to Trayvon.
“I don’t know,” Trayvon finally says.
“You don’t know what?”
“What you said earlier,” he tells her. “I don’t know why it’s so hard for black boys to love black girls but so easy for us to lean up on y’all for love and everything else. I guess it’s hard for us to love each other, if that matters.”
“It’s hard for us to love us, too, though” she says. “Knowing we pretty much can’t count on y’all makes it harder too. Y’all just do shit to us we wouldn’t do to y’all. But we working.”
“Yeah,” Trayvon tells Rachel. “It’s bad, but we working. We working, right? Right?”
Rachel feels Trayvon Martin looking at her. She’s feel him blinking.
They keep on walking home where Rachel hopes they will both be held, felt, and celebrated for unreasonably loving each other enough to fight.
Rachel Jeantel is ready to work on her essay.
Inside, she is dying. Laughing.
This last summer, a straight male friend and I cozied up on his sofa with his laptop and, to sate my nosiness, perused his OkCupid account. My friend received a graduate degree in gender studies and is intimidatingly informed about both theoretical and pop feminism, which was invariably conveyed on his dating profile. In his inbox, women responded positively to his profile’s reference of the ”manic pixie dream girl” trope (http://www.youtube.com/
Flash back a year, and I’m cozy on my own sofa with my own laptop, watching a video in which social commentator Jay Smooth speaks out (http://vimeo.com/44117178
In a different tab on my browser, I’d pulled up an interview with novelist Junot Diaz, whose The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao I was engrossed with at the time. In this interview (http://www.
Here I witnessed two men behaving in what to me were very radical and admirable ways, defending women who had received sexist backlash from other men. I rarely saw straight men raise a skeptical brow at sexism, much less spoke out against it to other men. Like many others of their audience, I felt affirmed, supported, and grateful to have them as advocates. I felt full of conviction. These are real men. These men are how all men should be.
If you frequent the same nook of media as I do, it’s likely you know and love these men, too. Salon crowned Jay Smooth as one of the sexiest men of 2008, and between my circles and what I’ve observed on his Twitter and Instagram, there appears to be plenty of those open to the prospect of being “Mrs. Jay Smooth”. Junot Diaz, although more controversial, has also received praise for his feminist-oriented writing, and at the Facing Race conference in 2012 where Diaz spoke the keynote, the first (and second) question of his Q & A was an emboldened “Are you single?” These male feminists get a lot of love in the minds and hearts of straight women. We love them, and not in the way we love our Uncle Rays.
While they both are replete with admirable qualities, being outspokenly pro-woman is a giant, glossy cherry. They, too, are diamonds in a mineshaft. When most men I encounter at bars, on television, and in the news make remarks about women that make my insides feel grimy, a man who attempts to veer off the sexist path will lower my guard. Of course I greet the change of pace with relief, ease, and even a bit of sexual attraction.
Back then I would read and watch Smooth and Diaz, wish to the plush stuff above that more men would be like them, then close my laptop, leave my apartment, and in my own small life, meet, become intimate with, and perpetually get bamboozled by disingenuous men. During my last year of undergrad, as I upheld Smooth and Diaz as acmes of good men, I would meet a man who led a feminism reading group and become involved with the women, pissing them off to vision-blurring rage. I would meet a man who writes his thesis on Audre Lorde’s idea of a lesbian consciousness but was always the last to leave a party, eyes darting around for inebriated women, prospective bedmates. I would meet countless self-proclaimed feminists whose mouths would ask, “Have you read Gender Troubles?” while their body language asks, “Is that the passcode to your pants?” And I would pardon these men over and over again, because they behaved, at least initially, like my male feminist role models. They, too, presented themselves as advocates for women, and they, too, all sounded like I thought “anti-sexist” men should sound.
As I observe the public appraisal of two men I don’t know and the bad behavior of the men I do, I can’t help but make loose connections between the two. The men I know who behave disingenuously, the nominal feminists, seem to have had their acts reinforced somehow. And I worry that the appraisal of men who can articulate a feminist critique begets scheming imitators, men who file “feminist” in their rolodex of pick-up artistry because they’ve seen it result positively. Lack game? Try this formula: mention x feminist theorist, y lamentation about political issue that attacks women’s rights, z assertion about sexual consent. That tactic alone may work on someone, and that’s utterly scary.
I attended a large university in Seattle, and one drawback of being surrounded by educated and well-read people is that, if there’s a benefit, they can be magicians with language, chameleons about who they are through the use of words. With issues as intimate as dating and feminism, it’s not only ironic to be deceived by empty sentiments of anti-sexism, it’s dangerous. What troubles me is that for many women I know, sexual assault and date rape remain a common experience, despite “male feminism” becoming more fashionable over the years.
In my ideal world, the misogynists would be ultra-detectable, with facial pocks and sulfury odors and grunt “wiggle your glazed donut ass for me.” I would even take the world as I thought it a few years ago, where misogynists talk like Tucker Max and live in Greek houses and call women “biddies.” But confusingly, misogynists are sometimes men who speak softly and eat vegan and say “a woman’s sexual freedom is an essential component to her liberation. So come here.” It’s a tricky world out there. And while I’d prefer a critical approach to gender from men I elect, read, and even bed, in my experience, the so-called feminist men I’ve met deep down have not been less antagonistic or bigoted toward women. What I see over and over again is misogyny in sheep’s clothing, and at this point, I would rather see wolves as wolves.
Given the dearth of men who acknowledge, much less pretend to care about, sexism, my words may seem as salty as twice-brined pickles. But as my friends and I joke, we don’t have to be grateful for the crumbs of lazy and fraudulent feminism men give us. And in seriousness, I don’t want to get duped anymore. I don’t want to let my guard down in the company of a man who received a graduate degree in gender studies, deny his sexual advances, and hear from a mutual friend about how angry and baffled he was at my refusal, because he was “expecting it.” I no longer want this sort of surprise-in-hindsight, but I also don’t want to relinquish all hope, and that is going to require extreme critical flexing toward so-called straight male allies.
My wish to the plush stuff above is no longer for men to imitate Smooth and Diaz on a cursory level, but to make efforts toward more personal reflections of sexism without ulterior motives of appearing more desirable to women. My revised wish, as well, is for me and other women seeking relationships with men to get better at detecting and calling out insincere male feminism, discourage and endanger it, rather than allowing it to continue to flourish through positive reinforcement. My wish is that when we do let our guards down again, that we will be safe in doing so.
Minh Nguyen is a miniature quiet storm brewing in Seattle, WA. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In order to survive adolescence, you must force yourself to sell-out. Bite down on your tongue, harden your jaw, clench your teeth, and learn to join the league of the invisible minority. Trick your white classmates; they must not realize that you’ve infiltrated their tight-knit ranks. Learn to take history as gospel, never look beyond the pages. Act as the sole representation of your race. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. You are like the cockroach in Audra Lorde’s poem; you may be detested and despised, but you cannot be killed.
You’re not like other black people.
You sound white.
Are you a mulatto?
Is your hair real? Can I touch it?
You’re black; you must know how to dance!
Where are you from? No, really, where are you from?
I want to have mulatto babies!
But you didn’t grow up in a ghetto, so you’re not really black.
But he didn’t MEAN to be racist….
I wish black people would stop talking about racism.
What are you?
The fact that these sentiments flowed from the mouths of both friends and foes alike makes you feel very, very small and useless and naïve and you wish that you had clung to your dignity with the ironclad determination of a captain about to sink with his beloved ship.
Your identity was never fully yours. They claimed it and twisted it and warped it and defaced it like the crypt robbers who ransacked the Egyptian tombs. You refused to accept the realities of double-speak, of coded-language, of words that harbored mild apathy to condescending disdain. They tried to make you crazy, to convince you that you were shadowboxing. At first, it was much easier to submit, to slip into your token role, to open your mouth, take on water and drown. Your mother moved through life like an eel, maneuvering through society with the flash of white teeth and a slickness only known to outsiders who have served so long as a punching bag that they are numb to the onslaught of brass-knuckled blows. On the other hand, your father was not afraid to tell you what it meant to be black in this version of America, this vision constructed from the indulgence of privilege, what it meant to be a member of a race of people whose skin color came with baggage, a history that was simultaneously American and “Other.”
Railing against your rationale, you carved these banners of ignorance between the inner cracks and crevices of your subconscious, absorbed the toxins like ink into your skin, tried to acquire the same kind of blindness that they professed as moral hymns. At times, living in a staggering display of whiteness heightened your depression. The authenticity of your identity was dependent upon an adherence to stereotypes. When you were twelve, you composed a life plan which would begin when and not if you escaped to New York City. You now realize that you were confused all those years because you were looking to fit into a crowd that would rather hoard and eat your culture and spit you back out until you were nothing but bones picked-clean.
You were not searching for tolerance, but unequivocal equality.
You are so tired of being the token minority, the stand-in for the exotic and strange. You are tired of trying to educate and explain to deaf ears. You are tired of expecting compassion and receiving indifference. You are tired of being a pillar of indomitable strength for people who do not have strength of their own.
You are tired of the world’s definitions.
Bloodletting is an ancient medical procedure that was commonly practiced in order to cleanse the afflicted body of the illness—or rather the evil spirit that had attacked the patient. According to PBS, “bloodletting [has a] 3,000 year history [and] began with the Egyptians of the River Nile one thousand years B.C., and the tradition spread to the Greeks and Romans.”
Some people will keep friends, no matter how broken the relationship, no matter how tired the loyalties, because they need to be lost in a crowd to feel secure. Some people will keep friends that are toxic because they afraid to be alone. They are convinced that being alone is synonymous with loneliness. Some people will honor the ghost of childhood friendships past because alliances cemented in early adolescence carry a weight that mimics the intensity of a life debt. These people have stuck by you through your growing pains, through the awkward fumbling towards adulthood. But does such allegiance matter when these friends view you as a non-threatening exception to their stereotypes? Does it matter when your friendship is an excuse to assuage white guilt? To consent to the powerless role of the model minority?
In order to cure the soul, you must let the bloodletting begin.
Vanessa Willoughby is a graduate of The New School