Near the end of the seventeenth year in the third Gregorian millennium, a girl child returned to her birth home. She traveled north to a place where her Mama and Aunt would periodically talk about about how some president in the ’80s left blackfolks all but the Christian God and liquor. “Yeah, it trickled alright. Just not in our pockets,” Mama said. “Yea, he was no joke! It ain’t do us no good,” her Aunt added.
The girl child did not understand their righteous anger then. Unbeknownst to her people and those with colder blood, the girl child would begin to understand and do keen studies for her survival, which was acceptable to some. She also began practicing a vivid imagination of unthought foundations for growth, which shockingly scared most. The latter many worried could destroy it all–the rotten and the sacred.
Before her quarter life came, the girl child would later go on to read whole books on how her home came to be a ghost town. She connected large swaths of words about the world, reading theories of a pale-skinned Smith (he believed something called free markets had magic wands, she recalled), another named Marx (he said Smith’s wand was actually just another instrument to keep the working man down), and another called Du Bois, a man many considered black but looked closer to caramel. She remembered him telling both of them other men that their theories lacked a little color and spoke sparsely about the Negro.
The girl child took note. She filed the information under the most fitting of titles: the judgmental, yet descriptive phrase, unassauged insecurity, a loaded and messy word, greed, and the last moniker which angered her the most because it described acts that she knew to be routine and seemingly destined, mundane and profoundly deadly, willful neglect.
The books nor her Mama or Aunt, however, could tell the girl child how heavy it would feel to not only see but sense the public abandonment. Nor could they lie and tell her that it would be the only kind of death she would experience or need to live through. Black death, yes, would indeed be something the girl child would need to know to deal with–to know like basic arithmetic, expect like the rising sun, and witness like Mary. Black death, yes, would indeed be something the girl child would need to know to speak on, write on, throw her rage against. What they didn’t say was how death could come from within.
Thinking of E.G.
On the third day of her journey the girl child heard news of another girl child’s suffering. Upon reading the details, she told her closest blood kin what happened. “Did you hear what happened to Erica Garner?”
“No, who is that?”
“The daughter of Eric Garner. She in the hospital. They can’t get her to wake up.”
“It wasn’t from force was it? Or anything like that?”
“No, she had a heart attack and asthma and just gave birth. She in a coma now.”
“That’s messed up.”
The girl child read few mentions of the other. She remembered a campaign that calls for speaking the names of the dead. Could the girl child named Erica get a hashtag, a rally, a riot? Perhaps her death was too complex, too shrouded in unthought things. Or maybe it was just too common and natural?
No, no blunt force struck her neck or chest. No, there is no record, visual or written, of a man choking or restraining her. No, there is no record of her struggling to breath from some unjust violence people can commonly see and oft name brutality.
The living girl child was hungry for a desired syntax. In her search, she found that the few that did talk about the dead girl child blamed her death on the police and others on the strain from fighting them. The girl child wondered that but also thought much differently.
The girl child began throwing her heart into the matter, thinking of when the other’s death began long before the phrase tireless advocate became attached to the daughter’s name. The girl child did not know the dead one, but that did not stop her from wondering how the other’s shortened lifespan soon began when blood and fluid collided to make another life branch. Not knowing just drove her more. The girl child thought hard and felt harder about the other’s premature death, considering the hastening clock when two beings grew inside and then splintered the other’s body, callously re-membering the first struggles to breathe and be free when proclaimed black and marked girl.
In the end, the living girl did not find much in her search. But she happened upon reports about the other girl child’s enlarged heart. That piece of information stuck to her like a puzzle piece finding its match. It felt like it made all the sense to her body but language escaped her. “How poetic!” she thought.
She did not think the other girl child’s death romantic. No, the living girl child claimed it poetic to mark the death a responsibility for response and action. She claimed it poetic to transform the girl child’s death into a duty to care.
The living girl began to imagine her own heart and lungs expanding and contracting, rising and falling, their working hard to keep her alive. She soon began thinking of when her own body split to push another being into the world and how that almost cost her her life during and after. There were so many connections and not much time and not much language. The girl child begged for a grammar of the death of E.G. and for dialects for the many more with breathe and those without.
The living one would have to piece together the language. She would soon create her own lingua franca. A poetry from within would be the living girl child’s first act, giving voice to the unnamed and unthought things.
A Grammar Named Woman and Colored Black, Series No. 1
A December Gift
Note: All images were taken from the author’s archive. For use and permissions, please contact Candice J. Merritt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This piece is part of a series of meditations on race, gender, and sexuality called “Reparative (Re)membering.” It encompasses personal and public memory at the intersection of prose and poetry. This piece is about process and a journey towards a more reparative sense of self and community. It may be disjointed here and there, but the words all connect. You’ll sense it.
“I knew I was fat before I was black. I was black before I knew I was queer. But one thing’s for certain—I have always been fat and not the one that fits.” ~Candice Merritt, journal excerpt, unknown date
“I tell myself stories—all the time, whether I want to or not, whether the body listens or sinks them—the self tells in some way or form. One story is old. It has fallen onto pages, material and imagined ones, in the past months. It’s the story of beauty, of feeling, of desire, of the wishes for it—the craving, the envy, the lack. This is a story of rejection—of self—but not by choice. It’s a story of stories—about the ones we get told, whether we want to hear them or not, rooted in the stories we think we forgot—but the scar remembers anyway. It’s a story about being told you are different, that your body is too hefty, too wide, too dark, too light, too fleshy, too big to fit—not right. It’s the story of being told you are cute, but only in the face or for your kind. It’s the story about expecting to not be chosen, to be let down, to be told nicely (hopefully). It’s the story of not being selected—desired.” ~Candice Merritt, scrap paper excerpt, 06/14/2016
I begin this piece with excerpts of writings that barely get penned and rarely get shared. These scraps of memory, of expression, often get stuffed and enveloped into an old journal, later to be boxed into the closet.
Sometimes I dream that these collected pages will be an archive material for public use. Perhaps, out of a sense of loneliness and desire to be known, I fantasize that I will become an important figure or voice and my papers will be cataloged, accessed, and read. For now, I utilize my memory as a resource and material for self.
These writings reflect some of my deepest insecurities, often shrouded in silence and buried in shame. I have not shared in a while. Thoughts and feelings have been so personal that I have opted to relocate them to a “figure out later” place inside myself, but the body calls—the heart begs to be heard. I must listen. I must tell.
Memory, Desire, and Selection: An Early Encounter
This evening I revisit older, maybe some of my oldest memories. These are memories around bodies—mine and others’—color and shape—but also something around desire and beauty, which applied to all children regardless of assumed genitalia.
Over the past few years, I have come to realize how young I was when a sense of who and what was desirable. By my first year of formal schooling, I could tell you now that I was not considered the pretty type or the attractive mold. I had a keen sense of what kind of a body and color could make the cut.
I remember my first crush. I was about six and his name was Jaron Leak. He shared his first name with my oldest brother—the coolest person around in those days, I thought.
Jaron spelled his first name differently from my brother’s name, but I did not hold that against him. In fact, it fascinated me that his name sounded the same but consisted of different lettering. What made him even more unique was that he had two older brothers with names that began with the letter J.
The naming practice resembled my family’s in which my brothers’ and father’s first name also began with the letter J. I diverged. My J came in the middle.
Jaron and his brothers also resembled each other, and each were light skin like caramel—with tinges of milk and pink. He also had an earring. He was pretty.
I liked him so much. Jaron and I sat at the same table in Ms. Hill’s kindergarten class, and I wanted him to pay attention to me—badly so. I wanted his attention so much that I once deliberately disobeyed my teacher.
Instead of quietly placing my green mini-kangaroo pieces into the bucket after a counting lesson, I threw mine in while looking into Ms. Hill’s eyes after she requested again to not throw the pieces. It was exhilarating and scary to break the rules. I might have smirked at her while I threw.
That move for attention got me put in the corner, and I learned the order of the days of the week fairly quickly. The only visual stimulation on the wall was a colorful poster of the days in vertical order, beginning with Sunday on top. I still think of my days this way.
I quickly ended the get-in-trouble strategy for attention. The best way I could get closer to my crush was through helping him with school work, like practicing numbers, patterns, and spelling.
Helping him was not necessarily what I wanted to do nor did it really accomplish my goals. I do not exactly know what I really wanted to transpire between Jaron and I, but I do remember a strong sense of wanting to be liked in a way that confirmed me pretty and wantable.
Overall, I found the helping strategy kind of boring since I would basically give the answers to him after he did not understand my kindergarten-brilliant explanations. The circumstances I recall is what I would now label “settling.” It was not what I really wanted, but I engaged in the relationship anyway because it was the only way I could feel valuable to him and important enough to get spoken to. This route was also better that staring at the corner of the classroom—isolated, not engaged, and missing my lessons.
I thought the perfect opportunity came to actually get close to Jaron when it came time for the annual school play which told the story of the birth of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
I remember wanting to be selected to be Mary since she was so important and seemed like a beautiful, perfect figure—all dressed in white, smooth, and soft. I also recall many teachers and students talking about Jaron playing the role of Jesus. It felt almost natural that he would be selected. The cutest boy getting the most popular role.
I coveted the role of Mary. The role had to go to a lucky girl, a special one. That girl would get to hold Jaron for all to watch. It would have been bliss in my six year-old mind.
My chances of getting the role were slim. Older kids in the school did not help my cause. Not that older kids were privy to my wishes, but their chatter over who was who and who should be with whom was quite loud in school.
I remember older kids pairing the younger ones in boy-girl couple fashion. Older kids played with us younger ones like dolls, taking us in as play-daughters and play-sons—socializing us early, so that we knew that boys and girls went together to later become husbands and wives and then daddies and mommies. And, of course, the pretty boys only went with the pretty girls. If you were lucky enough, you would have gotten paired with the “leftover” boys—maybe the ones that were too dark or too chubby themselves to get selected by the pretty girls.
My dream to be recognized became just that—a fantasy—an immaterial wish. The role of Mary ended up going to a girl named Michaela, the prettiest girl in the kindergarten class. She was pretty in my mind, and in others’.
She had a beautiful soprano voice all while having pigtails that were always on point. My plats were usually lopsided since I was too tinder-headed to let my mother even get a straight part. My mother would give in quickly to whipping my hair together before the school week began—a practice my aunt Georgia, her young sister, would consistently chastise my mother about—“Dee Dee, why don’t you comb from the roots?!,” she would argue.
In the end, Michaela was perfectly girl—skinny, light, and good hair. She was picked—chosen—while I coveted, wished—envied.
I learned a formative lesson then around bodies. I learned that some bodies do not belong and certainly do not pair with others. I also learned that some girls’ bodies may not physically attract, but what’s “inside”—intelligence, compassion, humor—may have their uses—but are still, certainly not wantable, desirable, nor what we now consider fuckable.
It is a painful lesson and body-story to recall, but the body tells anyway, whether you want to listen to or not.
Thinking Fatness, Race, and Beauty
Decades ago, black folks loudly proclaimed “Black is Beautiful.” But did we really mean fat, too?
I grew up in a household that valued Afrocentric beauty. My mother filled our home with black art and my father filled our ears with black funk and our halls with Parliament sound.
My young self would sometimes stare at the sculptures of women my mother kept around. I would notice the sculptures’ contours, the lines and length. Necks were long; heads were tall; torsos were small; waists were slim. Skin—dark, sometimes ebony.
Paintings of women were brown; faces were smooth; noses, at times, were wide; cheek bones—always well defined. They were Nefertitis—thin black queens.
The other images of desirable black women came from sneaking peaks at my father’s Parliament album covers which were stored in red milk crates. The album covers were “dirty,” and I was not allowed to look at them, but I did anyway until my parents would catch me.
I did not fully understand what I saw in some of those albums. There were aliens, tentacles, ships, feathers, and smoke. I did, however, notice naked bodies. In particular, naked women—black women with legs spread, with larges breasts and wide thighs that stretched beyond the waist line—it was hourglass thickness I saw.
Confronted with these images of black beauty—the respectable and not-so respectable ones—I rarely found me within them even as my body changed over the years.
My body diverged in skin tone, shape, and size. I was lighter than the Afrocentric pictures and my body did not conform to the lines I saw in paintings and sculptures. My arms and torso were wider and I felt that my butt and legs protruded a little too much than what black cultural imaginings desired. I was fat.
As I look back, I value both my mother and father’s choices to premise black beauty and culture in our household. I also understand the necessity of wider movements that call for the recognition of black beauty. Growing up in the United States, I respect attempts that challenge our culture of white racial normalcy. Yet, I, and many others, have still struggled to recognize the intersection of blackness, beauty, and fatness as a critical juncture to contest.
Honestly, I have not thought of fatness as a social category that regulates being as much as I have thought about blackness or queerness. And it has not been until the last few years or so that I have started calling myself fat as a matter of neutral description and/or positive affirmation. My late reclamation has its reasons, and those reasons are embedded in pain.
I grew up fat, and I grew up rejecting the label. Probably not until my freshman year in college, I was explicitly called fat, fatty, fatso, big, biggie, big girl, big mama, big boned, chub, chubby, elephant, hippo, whale, and for some reason—Bertha.
It was not until I dated a woman who considered herself fat, feminist, and versed in fat-activism, that I encountered a connection to my body that I had not before.
There we were, lying in bed, thinking of possibilities and discussing our insecurities in life. It was my first year out of college, and I had no direct sense of what I wanted to do next. I would often joke around about joining the military since I figured that the institution was desperate to take anyone who volunteered to serve during times of indefinite war.
My partner at the time, in an honest response that I considered rude then, but funny now, simply stated “Babe, you are fat.”
I think this would have crushed many of folk, and the word made me cringe, but it did not break me in the ways the word previously had.
Perhaps it was because her hands were holding me and our bodies—flesh, soft, and muscled by time—were touching. Perhaps because her voice was sweet and I knew she loved me.
I did not cry. I did not walk away bleeding and aching like before. I thought maybe she was right—I was fat and that was okay. And maybe, just maybe, my body could be amazing to inhabit and to share with others of my choosing.
Not all moments since then have been as liberating. Images of black beauty remain narrow. We still have thin black queen archetypes and the thick hourglass shapes to confront. Articulations of black beauty (both commercially and in art) have limits, and those limits are painful to confront on the regular.
A fat, black girl struggles to find her color and/or size even when campaigns and artistic productions call for general body and self-acceptance. Corporations will either tokenize our color while only offering certain shapes (mostly white and hourglass style), and our popular black publications and black artists just won’t take beauty to certain places—to bodies deemed too large, excessive, unhealthy, and/or ugly. As such, we are still only rocking thin black queen imagery and/or thicker hourglasses.
Queering Beauty: “Yes, Eat the Cake and Go to the Fucking Beach, Fat Girl!”
I want to end this piece with my struggle—to inject myself with the reality of my fat body and others’ fat bodies. And of all “off” bodies—or just not quite right bodies.
I want to end this piece thinking of bodies that have fleshy wrinkles at the cusps of arms, dimples in our thighs, in the back of our legs—bodies that have varying shades all on one canvas—mixed genitalia—hairy here and smooth there—bodies that have stretched skin near the navel, that have stomachs that rest on the pelvis—material bodies that may use metal to travel—bodies with three limbs, maybe two, or none. Scarred bodies—burned and/or cut. Bodies filled with blood.
We are all queer. Queer, in the sense that we diverge(d). All considered non-normative. Perhaps freakish. Or, in scientific terms—the statistical outlier, anomaly, pathology. Or perhaps the piecemeal ideal—a fetish.
We are all queer—the unimagined, the targeted—the unwanted.
Yet, in the face of a culture that wants to destroy us entirely or devour us for its own means, I struggle to love and inhabit my body. To visit my knees, my calves, my thighs. To make place in my breasts that fall to my sides. To touch and roll my neck and feel the sweat that slides. To love and to pride.
So I end, thinking of myself and others. So I end, thinking of you, Gaborey Sidibe—in your lingerie. I end thinking of you, Mzznaki Tetteh, full and jumping with glee with your partner. I end thinking of you, #BeyondBeauty Campaign, with your visual multiplicity.
I end with the struggle to connect to my own self and its physicality and to those bodies that push the boundaries and/or fuck them up entirely, whether they want to or not.
Raising Black children—female and male—in the mouth of a racist, sexist, suicidal dragon is perilous and chancy. If they cannot love and resist at the same time, they will probably not survive. And in order to survive they must let go. This is what mothers teach—love, survival—that is, self-definition and letting go. For each of these, the ability to feel strongly and to recognize those feelings is central: how to feel love, how to neither discount fear nor be overwhelmed by it, how to enjoy feeling deeply. ~Audre Lorde
How to be –in this world–/…Multiple. Petal/to/petal-Bending. Velvety- /a Dripping Bloom/
How is presence (in this world)…Limited. Metal-to-metal. Wrist bound/Twined- a thirsting bud
“The strongest lesson I can teach my son is the same lesson I teach my daughter: how to be who he wishes to be for himself. And the best way I can do this is to be who I am and hope that he will learn from this not how to be me, which is not possible, but how to be himself” (77).
I return to this essay today for solace and guidance as I think through the social and political conditions my son, a growing young black man, must sift through and navigate without me doing it for him. Like many black mothers and women, I too, carry the fear of my child’s survival in a world seemingly designed to crush his difference should he deter from proscribed paths and/or rigged to destroy his existence entirely should he stimulate a threat just for being perceived as young, black, and male.
Since coming back from travelling to my home for the holidays, I have reflected on my son’s maturation and several family conversations over the years. In doing so, I have become acquainted again with the expectations around my son from both public and intimate spheres. In particular, I have come to realize how much I am invested in trying to protect him from the demands placed upon his body. Here, I am thinking of his body in terms of not only its physicality but also as a larger metaphor for self-expression of his personhood.
I am thinking of the possibilities of how my son can decide to comport, dress, adorn, and shape his body to his desires and/or others. This essay is about how my son’s body, a perceived black and male body, is imagined publicly and intimately. It is about what modes of being are sanctioned and embraced while others must be torn out from silence and reclaimed.
“Man, a cat?! Y’all better get that boy a pitbull!”
When I think of my son, I think of a seven year old boy with sparkling, large brown eyes and wild black hair. I think of a boy who loved helping his grandmother garden and plant elephant ears outside our old, red brick home. He had a green thumb for sure then. I think of a boy with creativity that enjoyed painting and drawing favorite cartoon characters. I think of a boy with curiosity and interest in the greater world around him since he loved to go to the Science Center and see all the new animal exhibits. Overall, I envision a boy with a kind sweetness—one who picked a flower and gifted it to his aunt.
These days, I must remember that my son is no longer seven and now approaches the age of sixteen. He is now taller than me (some say that this is not that hard to accomplish). He has hairy shadows on his neck and face. His voice has deepened, and his chest has somehow expanded. He is also more independent than ever. I try to not take it personally that he no longer wants to spend every waking moment with me. Years ago, I was shocked that he chose to play his game online with friends rather than watch a movie on the couch with me even after not seeing me for a few months. I had to remember as well than I did the same at his age, and also—I still do not want to spend every waking moment with my parents either.
Though my son is not the young boy I often remember him to be, he has not changed too much. These days, I imagine a young man with dreams of becoming a world champion gamer in first person shooters while making sure his cat and gecko lizard share in the glory (he loves his animals). His green thumb may now be trained for the left and right analog sticks, but he will still be up for a family adventure in gardening if we decided to do so. He is also still dazzled and fascinated by fictional worlds of fantastic beasts (and so am I). In the end, my son continues to exhibit the kindness and love of his young self; and I am proud of his growing quirks and his quiet nerdiness which believes that Disney has ruined the Star Wars canon since it no longer includes the extended universe.
I do not want the world to take my son away.
Of course, I am thinking of the physical threats to my child’s existence, but I am also incredibly anxious over the psychic and social ones that he must and will endure throughout his lifetime.
In American public discourses, we often hear of the state violence enacted upon black men and boys which sometimes comes at the expense of obfuscating the queer lives that have been taken by state violence as well. I am not here to pen more to this conversation which I know applies to my son. I write this today to etch a more explicit space to consider how black boys and men are narrowly imagined in the first place—imagined narrowly not just by the majority white society that my son and I find ourselves to occupy but also within our own communities we call “home,” such as our families, neighborhoods, churches, and schools. In short, I am not just afraid of the bullets etched by histories of American racism that could pierce my son’s body; I am also afraid of what might get destroyed within his self as he navigates meanings of blackness and manhood by those closest to him and me.
What are the ideal images of black manhood? What does it really mean to be black and a man?
These are the questions that I find tenuous to answer. The answers are contentious—some are irrevocable—others, incredibly deadly.
The answers to these questions play out often between my family and I; and the racial, sexual, and gendered meanings between us are so important that even the smallest minutiae of life choices come to matter, such as the choice of a family pet. My son has had a vast gamut of pets over the years—from hermit crabs, hamsters, fish, and now cats. One of my brothers believes that my son should not have a cat and that the family needs to get him a pitbull—a kind of symbol of masculine power, protection, sometimes aggression, and also loyalty. The cat, unfortunately, does not make the cut. The cat, a feline, has been cemented as feminine, the one to be chased—passive, finicky, and even untrustworthy. A kind of physical epitome of “These Hoes Ain’t Loyal” sentiment I guess.
My son adores his cat and his cat the same. We got her for his birthday years ago and he chose her because her name was Oreo, a favorite cookie of his, and because she was also black and white. I have had to defend this choice of a pet over the years. For practical reasons, the dog takes more maintenance and we do not have an enclosed yard at home nor at the time did my family and I want to take too much time caring for a dog anyways. Besides this, it is just a cat—a pet that can still teach him responsibility and bonding.
But, I know too well that the association of a cat fails to perpetuate ideas of proper masculinity. For instance, I have had one family member tell me that she would find a grown man “suspicious” if he owned a cat for a pet and would not date him out of fear that he could be “that way.” I find such meanings incredulous and comical, but also feel fatigue at trying to explain that the cat and the dog does not inherently mean masculine and feminine. Culturally, we have assigned meanings to these living creatures and imagined their existence in particular ways. What is threatened when a black man or boy exhibits attachment to this animal rather than others? As such, I cannot muster the energy every time to tell my relatives that if owning a cat means a boy or man is gay, then so what. So, I just tell my brother to just leave him be—if the boy wants a cat, let him have a cat.
After thinking through these conversations, I recently came across a picture of civil rights leader and American Congressman, John Lewis, with his cats during the holiday season. According to his Facebook page, Louis posted a new year’s greeting and wished everyone a safe holiday break. In doing so, he also shared the following photo (seen on the right) of how he spent his break playing with his cats.
I felt joyed when I saw this photograph. The picture reminds me of my son playing in crunchy leaves outside when he was little and also of moments in which he has found joy in the care and company of his pets. I also felt relieved when I gazed at the photograph given my history of conversations and defense of my son’s choice for a pet.
Congressman Lewis is a well-respected, black man. He has historically fought for black civil rights, showing his commitment to black community life; is in a heterosexual marriage; educated; and has been decorated with various honors over the years. I felt relief because a “traditional” black man was seen playing with his cats, and no one questioned his masculinity or sexuality (yet) over the picture.
Although I am not here to push for calls of respectability, I was delighted to witness a respected black male so openly share a moment of play with his feline critters. To me, it reflects a moment of expanding bounds of black manhood. Although my feelings of relief does not question notions of “respect” and “tradition,” the picture provides a kind of visual consolation to my family. The picture, to me, says: “See! A respectable black man can have a cat! The cat doesn’t mean he is gay!”
“No man should be caught dancing like that, nephew”
The question of which pet is appropriate for a black boy to keep remains a historic one in my family. A more recent debate arose at home during this holiday season about the proper way black men and boys should physically express themselves. The conversation centered around professional football and NFL player, Odell Beckham Jr. and a series of videos that show him dancing for fans and with male friends.
Admittedly, football is an important sport in my family. Both of my brothers played it—each did in high school and one did it in college. My oldest brother has had all three of his sons play the sport and has also done coaching. My other brother currently coaches a local little league team. From my perspective, the game is a “proper” sport to socialize young boys and men. The sport values appropriate male-bonding (competition, loyalty, and friendship) and also expressions of aggression and strength for what many consider goals for ideal male body development.
I must also state that I know that the sport to both of my brothers also represents a “ticket out” the “hood” in which my family and son lives. Thus, the question of whether or not my son should or should not play high school football became a heated and complex one when the time came to decide which high school he should attend. Since playing football is not solely about “correct” gender and sexual formation for black boys, the discussion also heavily intertwined with desires about which social avenues should young black boys take in order to achieve safety from poverty and racism in larger society.
I have told each of my brothers that football will not be my son’s only avenue out of poverty and that we should also value his intellect, curiosity, and creativity as well. He currently goes to a high school that does not have a football team and is known for its academics. This comes as a disappointment to both of my brothers, but I am dedicated to valuing my son’s body in a different way. We permit my son to play the sports that are available to him at the school since he does like to be active and does find a way to channel his emotions in the competition and in the physical practices required by the sports themselves. This, of course, still does not stop my oldest brother for finding football teams at other schools for my son to play at since he considers my son’s body as a “football body.”
This kind of looking and interpretation of my son’s body—a forming, black body, coded male—I find limiting in some respects. This narrow view of black male bodies became incredibly clear to me during a holiday conversation between my brothers, my father, and oldest nephew. Traditionally, during Christmas season, my family and I all gather around the television. When both brothers are in the house, sports become the show of choice and my brothers and dad begin to talk shop.
This Christmas, they and my nephew began to talk about playoff scenarios. During the conversation, the recent suspension of the New York Giants player Odell Beckham Jr. flashed across the television. I had no idea of who Beckham was. I heard that he began a fight during a game because another player called him a gay slur. Instead of calling out the homophobic remarks pelted at Beckham, my brother began to verbally confess that he found Odell Beckham Jr. “suspect.” He showed me a video of him dancing in a club with “no females” and another with him and his friend that someone re-posted on YouTube with their written disapproval.
I looked upon the first video and felt elated at the sheer joy and fun that I thought Beckham to exhibit. Of course, I yelled, “YASSSSS!” when I saw it since I thought Beckham was, what I term,”gettin’ it.” The dancing itself looks like a mix of popular ones (Whip and Nae Nae) and Odell is front and center with sparkling silver shoes!
While watching, I felt an instant desire to join, imitate, and celebrate. My brothers, however, felt otherwise. My brothers instead focused on the men present in the video and the one that joins Beckham towards the end. One of my brothers was afraid that he was “backing up” on some dude, and I could not help but feel his disgust and disapproval.
My oldest nephew was present and defended Beckham. He retorted that just because a man dances does not mean he is gay. I agreed with my nephew, but my nephew’s defense came with the unquestioned assumption that any sexual expression outside of a heterosexual arrangement is unacceptable. I concurred and added, “Well, if he is gay though, that is okay.” My brother, however, could only say, “Nephew, no man, especially an NFL player, should be seen dancing like that.”
Reflecting back on this moment, I cannot help but feel my sadness at the constraints around black bodies, especially those around my son, his cousins, and my brothers. Black being continues to be policed quite literally in the broader culture and streets. Yet, communities we call “home” engage in all kinds of policing of black self-expression. In the end, I am left asking: Why do we confine black bodies to certain comportment, sounds, and expressions when we continue to seek freedom in the broadest senses?
“This generation right here today”: Envisioning Masculinities and Plural Expressions
When I think of the elation experienced by Beckham and his pleasure in movement with himself and others, I cannot help but think of black joy and the collective histories of our bodies enjoying rhythm and music. Historically, black bodily expression such as dancing, singing, and hairstyling has been castigated as “evil” and/or “excessive” by dominant white culture even while dominant culture has simultaneously taken pleasure in black cultural aesthetics. White fear and anxiety over the growing popularity of rock-n-roll and hip hop suffices as evidence. American cultural history should make us think further over why white parents worried over Elvis gyrating or over Eminem flipping the bird. Such cultural aesthetics and practices were transgressive of racial, gender, and sexual expectations of which groups of people engaged in low, dirty acts of the body and which did not. Regardless of those who privileged repression and constriction of the body, the fact remains—the body can be a site of pleasure, and many of us across cultural groups have found joy and expression with/in our bodies and with other bodies as well.
My brothers may suspect that men who dance in a “feminine” way reflect a new day and age where black folk are “suddenly gay.” Arguably, gay and queer visibility has increased today, but Beckham’s expression of dance reflects a much longer history of black individuals who have choreographed rhythms and dancing forms with one another and have loved doing so. I do not know why many do not make this historic connection. After all, Soul Train was not that long ago.
Many in my son and I’s intimate spheres must begin to think of masculinity as non-singular and as an ever-changing way of shaping, carrying, dressing, and adorning the body. Cultural critic, Rinaldo Walcott writes that discussions of “black masculinity in the public sphere…assume not only heterosexuality,” but the popular way we talk about black masculinity also assumes one “…coherent black masculinity as well” (76).
This kind of coherency, or recognition of a “true” and only “one” black masculinity, heavily relies on a historic narrative of the emasculation of black manhood usually beginning with American slavery. The story goes: the black man could not be a man since he was another man’s property. He was a victim and now he needs to become a victor.
I write this not to diminish the brutality of American chattel slavery that black beings were subjected to. I problematize this particular narrative of black manhood in history and current day America because it begs the question of how does black masculinity become victorious if we do not challenge what cultural ideas of power and masculinity look like in the first place. What does “fixing” black men and boys look like? What gets excised on the way to establishing the one idea of proper black manhood? Such a question calls us to dig further to untangle notions of manhood from conflations of masculinity with aggression, property, and domination.
As I begin to untangle masculinity with traditional notions of power, I am left with Audre Lorde’s vision for her son, Jonathan. She shares:
“I wish to raise a Black man who will not be destroyed by, nor settle for, those corruptions called power by the white fathers who mean his destruction as surely as they mean mine. I wish to raise a Black man who will recognize that the legitimate objects of his hostility are not women, but the particulars of a structure that programs him to fear and despise women as well as his own Black self” (74).
As my son matures and considers expressions of manhood and sexuality, I want him to know that to be a man means to embrace all parts of himself even when others tell him to hide or repress those traits deemed “undesirable.” I want him to value kindness and the vast expressions of human emotions (not just anger, happiness, or desire, but also sadness, fear, and more).
I want him to know that should he choose to explore his sexuality with another being, that it be done safely (both in the physical and emotional senses) and in full honest communication with one another. And should he decide to make more permanent intimate relationships, he should know that he must question notions of powerful/powerless and popular representations of human interaction. In doing so, he must practice feeling, connection, openness, and trust—all practices that I work on as an adult in relationships that I value.
Some have said that Will and Jada Pinkett Smith should “get their son” and should not let a boy wear a dress as I heard on a local radio morning talk show the other day. Clearly, “womenswear” serves as a mismatch for the idea of respectable black manhood. Perhaps Jaden will “get away” with this since he has access to more social and economic capital than many other black males, and his body has not been seen being “inappropriate” with bodies considered male. Regardless, many are still confused at Jaden’s fashion expression. Just listen to the conversation about the matter on the The View.
Similarly, the image of Morehouse College alum, Jamal Lewis, also challenges singular notions of black manhood as well. Lewis identifies outside of traditional ways of thinking of gender as simply man or woman. Lewis uses he and she pronouns and does not seek to have a “proper” or recognizable gender definition. As a result, Lewis has faced strange looks, institutional attire bans (women’s attire donned by students was banned in 2009 at Morehouse along with other “undesirable” garb), and probably some verbal scolding for his/her way of expression. I am not going to share the comments I have seen in regards to the Buzzfeed article that featured the photographs and story of Jamal Lewis’ experience at Morehouse College. I will just say that many black voices concluded that Lewis just did not belong at a historically black, all male, institution.
Considering the historic and literal constraints on black bodies and the current narrow holds on how we imagine black men and boys to be, I choose to read Smith and Lewis’ photographs against the grain. As I gaze upon their pictures, I tell myself that there is no one way to be black and/or a man. I choose to see black freedom and expression.
For Jaden, I see a kind of quirkiness in the high fashion getup itself. For Lewis, I am reading “fierce.” In each, I am thinking of blackness as multiplicity, beautiful, fluid, and deliberate. I choose to read these black bodies as being in a particular time and moment and not bound by the frames in which they appear then and there. I choose to remember that black bodies have always been monitored, policed, and shackled, and we have always tried to get our being free. As such, I choose to read Smith and Lewis’ expression as just being and as representative of a much larger possibility for multiple types of pleasures and self-fashioning with/in black bodies.
As a black queer mother, I affirm these self-expressions. I do not hold these images as the only representations of black male bodies for my son, other boys, and men to aspire to. I affirm these photographs because I want to let my son know that being in this world is multiplicity and complex. It is about bending and resisting that which tries to dry us of our joy and detain our magic. I affirm plural expressions of black being and the various ways many of us have come to name and carry ourselves. In the end, I do it for freedom—for my son’s sake, and my own.
This piece is part of a series of meditations on race, gender, and sexuality. It encompasses personal and public memory at the intersection of prose and poetry. This piece is about process and a journey towards a more reparative sense of self and community. It may be disjointed here and there, but the words all connect. You’ll sense it.
Black Matters: Reparative (Re)membering, No. 1
When I think of blackness, I see images—
historic ones shaped by
in History Books
We were ugly, I thought. I felt.
We had large lips. Odd heads. Wool-ed hair.
We were chained. We were bare.
We looked dirty.
We had no gloss. No airbrush.
We had no brightness. No illumination.
We were rough.
And our words always sounded funny or incomprehensible.
–we were animal.
In elementary school, there was a black history border around the classrooms and in hallways. It showcased our best, most notable—our brightest and most famed. The Named Ones.
There was King, Douglas, Carver, Robinson, and Marshall. Great men. I always, however, purposely searched for the women that sprinkled the timelines.
I only liked one or two images of the women. One was a real time photo of Mae Carol Jemison and the other, a painted face of Marian Anderson.
Mae’s picture I liked best because it was more “modern.” She looked lighter and more colorful like the pictures in other books. Anderson’s photo stuck out as well. She was not as light as I wanted her to be, but she shared my birthday—February 27.
I inspected these pictures daily. They etched in my mind and I dissected them meticulously. I looked at all of their noses (were they too wide or just right); their lips (were they full or narrow); their hair (was it straight or patchy); their teeth (were they clean or crooked), their color (too dark or light enough); and their skin (wrinkled or smooth).
This was a rigorous test of race, desire, and femininity. I did not have those words then. So, Truth, Tubman, Wells, and Bethune always landed on the bottom.
There was another test, however. One that did not rely on notions of desired body parts and bad ones. Perhaps this test wasn’t as painful to administer, but all the sense of immediacy and necessity still went into it.
This test ensued from a sense of magic and numbers. Anderson shared my birthday. The twenty seventh day of the second month in the calendar year. Maybe people born on or around this day were special and important no matter how they looked. Maybe they had something that the others didn’t have and that’s how they got on the wall. For all I knew, Anderson had a photo, and if we shared a birthday, then perhaps I was special, too.
I focused in on this concrete detail. Twos and sevens became added, subtracted, and multiplied to make ones and threes. Letters in names became numbers, and digits began to have connections. Maybe my father’s commitment to the “numbers” played a role in this assessment since he engaged in predictive modeling of the daily lottery using pocket calendars and the backs of spiraled notebooks and legal pads. Whatever the influence, I could create a cosmic connection to the Named Ones.
I admit. It wasn’t a perfect connection, but it was something.
The cosmic connection did not tell me to embrace all black flesh. It did allow me to consider my birth and others a unique event that may warrant recognition on a historic timeline.
A part of myself would like to erase these memories of Little Black Girl Me. They come with a number of affect—among them shame, sadness, and numbness. Today, however, I make use of these memories. I choose not to lay them to waste. Today, I engage in reparative re-membering.
Reparative re-membering is about cataloging, experiencing, and analyzing memories. It is process-driven and may lead to unexpected connections and emotions. It can revive or revise historic narratives in service of a vision to create new narratives of self and place. Reparative re-membering is about making use of memory and making peace with them for self, and if deemed necessary (by you), for others as well.
In a time in which we cry out the value of black life, I think it no less essential that I begin to ruminate on blackness and its varied meanings for Little Black Girl Me and Black Grown Woman Me. Without re-membering, I will never truly be able to unhinge Truth, Tubman, Wells, and Bethune from the bottom, and historic images will continue their silent haunting.
As a starting point, I would like to re-member Little Black Girl Me as more than a point of pain. I would like to also re-member her as a source of creation and expansion of new meanings for blackness and black girlness.
As such, I re-member her and her cosmic connection to the past not as failure—but rather as the work of a creative mathematician. An astrological dabbler. Magic believer and cosmos dreamer.
She is joy.
This is the work of reparative re-membering and it is only the beginning.