from What Color Is Your Hoodie?
Baldwin Boys and Harris Homies
Several months ago, desperate to surround myself with black gay writers, who could better relate to my work, I placed an ad online to establish a black gay writers group. My goal was to start a monthly writers circle in which black gay men engaged in any type of writing project could receive helpful criticism from members of their community, the ones who would best comprehend the aesthetics and themes embodied in their work. The idea of creating a community of well-read black gay men who were articulate, witty, creative, disciplined, and skilled in the craft of writing had been on my mind since I earned a masters of fine arts in writing five years earlier. At that time I was the only African American student in the program and one of its few openly gay students. My peers, who were for the most part white middle class young adults, seemed to have very little cultural engagement with the black community beyond listening to popular hip-hop songs and watching a few Will Smith movies. Although some of them took an active interest in my writing, others professed their ignorance of black history and culture and expressed no interest in my work. On one occasion a pedigreed, well-educated classmate who fancied himself the star of the writing program wrote me a three-page letter conveying his disinclination to read the first draft of my novel, which I had submitted to our workshop, only to relay to me that upon hearing our classmates’ encouraging reviews he decided to peruse it after all. Following this admission he provided an exhaustive list of the many ways he believed my novel failed before dismissing it as a weak attempt to fuse Native Son and Will & Grace. Expressions of condescension like this were actually quite common in my workshops, and because of them my experience in the program left me jaded and more self-conscious about my writing than I was before I entered graduate school.
After I earned my MFA and tried to secure agent representation for my novel, the litany of rejections I received sent me into a downward spiral. Agents deemed the novel either too black or too gay. While the shelves of my local bookstores continued to stock one clichéd, poorly written mass market novel after another, my brainchild gathered dust on my desk, all two hundred and twenty-three pages yellowing. Many of the African American novels being published at the time were those deemed street lit: fiction focused on baby mama drama, church girls in love with thugs, and the general hoopla of ghetto life. The only gay novels being published involved eighteen-year-old blond white boys from Nebraska who become models in New York City and end up living fabulous lives with older rich boyfriends while participating in one orgy after another. Finding my style of writing and my personal experiences reflected in both black and gay novels proved futile. Yet I believed whole-heartedly that somewhere in Chicago existed other black gay writers like me who were committed to writing and wanted to make their mark in American letters. When I posted the call for my group on Meetup.com, I described it as a place where black gay men who were serious about writing could gather once a month to workshop each other’s work, trade information on getting published or finding jobs, and perhaps even hold open mic readings. Six men joined; only one showed up.
Landon and I met on a chilly, wet Sunday afternoon in February at a coffee shop in Boystown. Impish, effete, and soft spoken, he shook my hand, sat down at the table with me and soon we began exchanging stories about how we came to be writers, hardships we’ve encountered teaching disinterested undergraduates the finer points of composition, and our challenges getting published. Landon self-published a slim collection of poems a few years ago and presented me with an autographed copy. In exchange I gave him a chapter from a novella I had written a few years ago that I’ve been thinking about expanding into a novel. We got along very well in that first meeting and agreed to meet again the following month to discuss one another’s work and exchange new material. Over the next three months we met at the same coffee shop on the last Sunday of each month and offered insights into each other’s writing, hoping other members would gradually show up and take part. We conversed through text messages and emails and eventually became comfortable enough with each other for Landon to discuss a burgeoning fling that had begun between him and an older man he recently met at a bus stop. I write fiction, essays, and poetry, but Landon only writes poems. I read his book of poems, and although I didn’t think they were the most accomplished or technically proficient poems I’d ever read, they were bold confessional works, stark in presentation, and frank in subject matter. The collection chronicled his ongoing battle with HIV, the physical and psychological toll the virus and its treatment took on his body, and the ups and downs he experienced dating black gay men as a black gay man with HIV. Short, blunt, and esoteric, Landon’s poems privileged subject over style, technique and acuity of language, recalling the hastily written, overemotional knock-offs of better poems that I and virtually every poet wrote at the beginning of his or her career. Landon had a trove of personal experiences, feelings, and opinions he wanted to express, but he still had a long way to go as a poet. I myself had taken a personal vow at the end of my MFA program never to workshop my poems again. For me, fiction and essays are labors of creative expression, and I can withstand criticism of that work in a way I cannot tolerate the butchering of my poems, which I view as labors of love. Good or bad, any critique of my poetry leaves me feeling awkward or, in extreme cases, utterly destroyed.
In April, National Poetry Month, I decided to follow Landon’s lead and attempt to write a poem each day for the entire month. Although I was swamped at work, writing a poem each night became a task I looked forward to, a way to relieve the day’s stress. Before long, several interesting motifs began to emerge in these poems: trains, boxcars, departing for the open road, the conflation of writing and history, eroticism—all figured into these poems, some of the best I felt I had ever written. Landon and I agreed to exchange our poems and discuss them at our next meeting. His new poems departed from confessionals to meditations on African American pop culture. Specifically, his poems made pointed criticisms of Good Times, Sanford and Son, and The Cosby Show. Though his poems conveyed praise and a sense of solidarity with the working class characters of Good Times and Sanford and Son, he lambasted The Cosby Show for what he perceived as the Huxtables’ upper-middle class snobbery and abandonment of the race. The poems both angered and perplexed me, yet I had to put whatever personal feelings I had aside and critique the work on its own merits, or lack thereof. When we met at the coffee shop, I chose my words carefully when I offered my critique of Landon’s verse. As always, I began with the aspects of the collection I admired and felt warranted praise before I shared my critique and misgivings of the poems’ themes and style, which in some cases was quite superficial and solipsistic (he had a habit of purposely leaving his poems untitled then dedicating them to various people). My biggest criticism of Landon’s poems regarded his hostile attitude toward The Cosby Show and its characters. In so many words, he reviled the Huxtables as white folks in black face, sell-outs and race traitors of the worst variety. These were not poems; they were screeds against the black middle class, and I communicated this to Landon as tactfully as I could.
He accepted my opinions calmly and politely, gathered the pages I had scribbled with green ink, and then began to discuss the thirty or so poems I had written. When I glanced down at the pages he had annotated I noticed lots of question marks, but I dismissed them. Landon and I had both endured the rigors of writing workshops, and in spite of my apprehension toward seeking criticism of my poems, I felt with Landon that I was in safe company. I didn’t expect him to praise these rough drafts to the heavens, I had no grand illusions about them, yet I could not have prepared myself for the vituperative comments he was about to make. Initially, he asked me lots of questions about some of the references I made in the poems, those pertaining to Greek mythology (“Who are Zeus and Ganymede?”), food and wine (“What is a gimlet?”) and classic cinema (“Who was Greta Garbo?”) Next, he questioned some of my word choices, confessing that he had to consult his dictionary several times during the process of reading the poems. In general he felt the poems were too “clean;” for example, in the few erotic poems included among my offerings, he suggested a flurry of synonyms I should use for semen, and balked at many of the linguistic flourishes I utilized in the poems. These last criticisms were quite valid and I took them into consideration during the process of revision. Yet after our meeting I flipped through my poems and became enraged as I read his comments, which gradually devolved from constructive criticisms to calumnious personal attacks: Why aren’t you writing about the black experience? Are you still a brutha? You just don’t want to be black. The black aesthetic is beautiful—find it! Landon attacked virtually every poem I had written that wasn’t overtly sexual or didn’t directly address race. The sharp criticisms I received in my writing program were tiny thorns compared to Landon’s poisoned arrows.
My experience with Landon left me reeling for weeks. I consulted a few other black gay writers I know in other parts of the country and asked them how to handle the situation with him. Without exception each man urged me to cut off the relationship. One peer opined that Landon and I come from opposing cultural, political, and ideological spectrums of the African American community, and although each of us was engaged in artistic projects that were worthy and necessary I would never change his ideas, nor he mine. Though I hesitated, I eventually sent Landon an email claiming that due to the shortage of members in our group I felt it was best to shut down the website and go our separate ways.
Until recently American society has been loathed to openly discuss class. This changed at the beginning of the twenty-first century when the Bush-Gore battle over the White House illuminated the red state-blue state divide between Americans, revealing cultural and class tensions that hitherto simmered beneath the surface. Now, in the strangling grip of the Great Recession, Americans’ awareness of class differences and cultural distinctions couldn’t be more obvious. Democrat vs. Republican, wine vs. beer, city vs. country, Smart Cars vs. SUVs, cultural schisms in the United States lay bare for citizens of all regions and demographics to debate, defend, and debunk. Those of us who pride ourselves on being culturally aware recognize that no group is a monolith. Democrats come in many strips, as do Republicans. Black in the South distinguish themselves from Northern blacks through language, dialect, dress, and other regionalisms. The black community in the twenty-first century, more politically and economically powerful now than at any other time in its long history in the United States, continues to expose the nation and the world to its wonderfully rich, diverse culture. Though the nation has been slow to embrace the Gay Rights Movement, in recent years it has gained momentum, evidenced primarily by same-sex marriage victories in seventeen states and the District of Columbia. Gays and lesbians environ every political, economic, and social sphere, yet I believe the dominant culture refuses to view gays as a diverse population. For them, Rosie O’Donnell represents all lesbians and Carson Kressley epitomizes all gay men. In my view, diminishing the scope of homosexuality makes it much easier for homophobes to attack the LGBT community and more difficult for gays and lesbians to break out of stereotypical tropes.
Some place the origins of the black gay male aesthetic in the Harlem Renaissance, where literary luminaries Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, and Richard Bruce Nugent founded a literary and artistic style replicated by today’s authors. In the years following the Second World War in what many consider the most culturally and politically conservative period in US history, there was a shift in black arts, one more stridently political and radical than had been previously celebrated during the Harlem Renaissance. It was during this era that author James Baldwin rose to prominence. Baldwin’s work protests racism, subsumes the full breadth of African American culture, and unapologetically embraces homosexuality. Influenced by the works of Henry James and his own excursions throughout Europe, Baldwin’s work is artful, nuanced, and highly literate. Unlike some authors of the Harlem Renaissance era who discussed sexuality in their work remained coy on the subject of their own sexuality, Baldwin was the first black literary giant who openly disclosed his homosexuality and demanded the world accept him, all parts of him, for who he was. James Baldwin remained America’s most notable black gay writer and since his death in 1987 has had the mantel of black gay elder statesman bestowed upon him by contemporary black gay writers and artists.
In the 1990s, author E. Lynn Harris gained notoriety with his first novel, Invisible Life. Though born in Flint, Michigan, Harris was raised in the South and remained a Southern boy at heart all his life. Like Baldwin his novels candidly explore the lives and struggles of gay and bisexual African American men. Harris’ frank writing style and his willingness to expose previously taboo topics such as homophobia within the black church and down low behavior among straight-identified black men resonated throughout the black community and, like Baldwin, earned him both praise and scorn from African Americans across political, social, and intellectual terrains.
Comparisons between Baldwin and Harris abound, yet a closer look reveals that these two authors couldn’t be more different. While Baldwin’s characters migrate from the Deep South to New York City and various European locals, Harris locates his characters squarely within urban sections of the United States. Baldwin’s heroes engage in sexual relationships with white men and women; Harris’s characters maintain relationships exclusively with other African Americans. As concerns sexual intimacy in his works, Baldwin either hints at it or uses rococo descriptions to convey it to readers. Harris, on the other hand, never shies away from an opportunity to expose his readers to sex, especially same sex couplings; his language and descriptions are graphic and titillating. Perhaps the main difference between these authors is their approach to writing in general. Owing to a childhood in which books became his constant companions, Baldwin’s writing is controlled, elevated, and highly literate. By contrast, Harris’ writing is relaxed: he floods is novels with urban vernacular and crafts characters and plots that are inspired by torrid daytime soap operas. Even some of the titles of his novels (What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, I Say a Little Prayer) are borrowed from popular R&B hits, localizing his work in a black urban sensibility. Though many black and gay readers and scholars celebrate Harris as Baldwin’s twenty-first century scion, this appellation is hastily applied and diminishes the individual contributions of both authors.
I have long held the belief that black gay men can be placed in two general categories: Baldwin boys and Harris homies. While race, gender, and sexual orientation serve as their nexus, each group, like rival fraternities, promotes an ethos and aesthetic in opposition to its counterpart. Baldwin boys are often accused of being race traitors; they use proper English, date outside of their race, travel abroad, read lofty books, watch art house and foreign language films, listen to jazz and classical music and buy their clothes from stores like Banana Republic. Harris homies date black men exclusively, watch BET and Tyler Perry films, attend church regularly, groove to hip hop, gospel, and R&B, wear oversized T-shirts and baggy jeans. Although these designations are by no means rigidly adhered to, they broadly identify the aesthetic cultural markers of black gay men in America. Dissimilarity among black gay men also extends geographically: just as blacks in the South have a cultural ethos distinct from those who live on the East coast or in the Southwest, black gay men differ by region. Brothers in Washington, DC environ either Dupont Circle or northern Virginia. The contrast between brothers in Oakland and San Francisco is quite obvious to those who live in northern California. In Chicago a definite schism exists between black gay men who live in upscale North Side neighborhoods and those who live within the Black Belt on the South Side. The conglomeration of black gay men into two distinct cliques prompts multiple questions among them: Are Harris homies more black than Baldwin boys? Do Baldwin boys have more education and higher income? Do Harris homies have bad credit? Do Baldwin boys hate their race? Are Harris homies really in denial of their homosexuality? Do Baldwin boys consider themselves black first or gay first? Unchallenged, these absurd questions become insults. We call each other wanna-be thugs and stuck-up Oreos, Sambos and Uncle Toms. The epithets we hurl at each other signify not only the insidiousness of racism and homophobia but the self-injury black gay men as a whole suffer and commit each day. Primarily, education and class are the issues that wedge the members of our community. A black gay man’s ability or inability to access one or both of them shapes his cultural identity and his engagement with others. Yet more than any other issue, the question of racial allegiance centralizes the friction between these two groups, with Harris homies casting aspersions on Baldwin boys’ commitment to the black race who, in turn, affirm their right to express blackness in their own way while simultaneously deriding Harris homies for taking such a narrow and, frankly, essentialist position on race. The fact of our common heritage and sexual orientation does little, it seems, to unify black gay men. We are of the same, yet we are not the same.
People are different and cultures are different, but what good does it do to highlight these differences, especially when doing so can potentially broaden the schism between them? The simple answer to this question is that celebrating difference is important, especially in a society that is becoming increasingly homogenous through corporatization. No two people are the same and no two black gay men’s experiences are the same. The United States thrives on difference and brazenly trumpets its singularity across the globe, yet our culture, just like every other culture, hypocritically demands conformity among its citizens in every possible way. We insist immigrants speak fluent English and adopt our individualistic Horatio Alger personal philosophy. The dominant culture regularly punishes citizens who are not white, male, Christian, heterosexual, wealthy, and able bodied. Social movements inspired by women, racial and sexual minorities, and the working class have advanced identity politics in the United States, yet these groups still cope with discrimination. The rise of women into positions of power in politics, academia, finance, and other professions has not eliminated sexism, which still pervades every socioeconomic area of society decades after the first wave of feminism swept the nation. The African American community continues to fight for equality and an end to racial discrimination in spite of Barack Obama’s presidency and the ascension of blacks into the middle and upper economic classes. Those who inhabit the LGBT community enjoy more freedom and acceptance now than ever before, yet in most states anti-gay legislation fails to safeguard gays and lesbians against workplace discrimination, hate crimes, and other abuses. Achievements made by a few members of a group do not erase the brutal reality from which the group as a whole still suffers.
The black gay community, like all groups, mirrors variances in class, and the result is a community as multicultural as the entire US population, steeped in tradition and subject to the same biases as other groups. Black gay men risk internalizing the racist, homophobic ethos of the culture whenever we refuse to support and embrace one another regardless of our differences and choose instead to see each other as pretentious snobs wearing Banana Republic ties or ill-mannered thugs plodding around in Timberland boots. A critical scene in Marlon Rigg’s 1989 documentary Tongues Untied illustrates adversarial relationships among some black gay men. Riggs quotes Joseph Beam’s “Brother to Brother: Words from the Heart” in voice over, recalling walking down Castro Street and encountering another black gay men walking in the opposite direction. The men had previously met and spoken to each other several times at a local gay club, yet when he approached Riggs the other man averted his eyes and passed him as if they were complete strangers. Failing to recognize members of one’s own community (“You ain’t gon speak?) is an unforgivable betrayal among black men regardless of sexual orientation or class. A nod of the head accompanied by a slightly whispered, “‘Sup?” serves as currency among black men more valuable than silver or gold. This gesture—practiced only by African American men and a source of envy and endless fascination among men of other races—informs black men that no matter what our station in life, regardless of our differences, pasts, success, or failures, we belong, flesh and spirit, to this group. United by a history of bondage, lynching, degradation, and disenfranchisement, African American men share a bond so sacrosanct that to openly discuss our tacit codes of identification, even in these pages, is tantamount to heresy. The loss of brotherhood, I know from personal experience, is a common fear among gay youths, as is the feeling that no one else in the world is like them. When I first realized that I was attracted to men (I wasn’t yet prepared to call myself gay, for I believe the term gay connotes alliance with social, political, and historical systems that I, a sheltered adolescent, wasn’t ready to make) one of my biggest fears was that I would be all alone, ostracized from my community and loved ones. In my environment, no one was like me. One of the many wonderful aspects of gay culture is the unyielding support we give to one another, even to gay men we may not know. At the height of the AIDS crisis, which all but decimated an entire generation of gay men, those who suffered from the disease relied on an extensive support network. Scores of men throughout the community took turns feeding, bathing, comforting, and assisting those afflicted with the disease any way they could, whether they were close friends, passing acquaintances, or perfect strangers. In writing this essay I am constantly reminded of a phrase that resounds throughout every region of black gay America: brother to brother. The last thing black gay men should do is make enemies of one another. Racism and homophobia are as widespread and toxic today as they were when Hughes, Nugent, and their contemporaries were forging the black gay male world we all now inhabit. Even as the members of the Harlem Renaissance squabbled among themselves, embarked on their own literary projects, failed or succeed as artists, and faced their own personal demons, they never wavered in their support and acceptance of one another, collaborating on the publication of Fire!! and defending one another publicly in interviews. In the decades following the Harlem Renaissance, when James Baldwin rose to literary prominence, Langston Hughes had become the most recognizable and celebrated member of the Harlem Renaissance and the nation’s most esteemed black poet. Though Hughes and Baldwin occasionally took umbrage with each other’s work, they admired one another because they realized that their individual projects and commitment to civil rights contributed to a much larger project, one surpassing the expansion of civil rights, literature, or identity politics. I like to think that if Baldwin had lived to read E. Lynn Harris’ works he would have embraced Harris in the same way Harris embraced Baldwin’s work and credited both Baldwin and Hughes for paving the way for him as a black gay writer. In the final analysis, the methods employed to gain visibility are not so important. What is important is that black gay men as a group gain visibility and control of our representation to mitigate the struggle for tolerance for not only our brothers but for all people.
When I recount my experiences with Landon, ambivalence weighs heavily upon me. I had been searching for my true literary peers for quite a long time and felt overwhelmingly discouraged that in a city as large as Chicago I could only find one black gay man who shared my devotion to creative writing. Though we weren’t completely simpatico, Landon was one of my own, my contemporary, my ally, my brother. His unwillingness to accept me for who I am and his essentialist view of blackness—limited to ghetto, working class, anti-white African American art and experience—wounded me deeply. But I cannot place all the blame for the demise of our kinship on Landon. I blame myself as much as him for severing our line of communication. Seeking to avoid a potentially ugly confrontation, I summarily cut off all contact with Landon rather than sit down with him brother to brother and have a thorough discussion of our respective poetry collections. We may not have had a meeting of the minds, and we probably would have ended our association anyway, but at least Landon would have been given an opportunity to explain his comments. He could have better articulated his animus toward the black middle-class and black gay men like me. I denied him the chance to explain why he harbors suspicions about us and why he feels abandoned by us. I feel the same way. I didn’t give myself the chance to tell Landon that my allegiance to the black race does not obviate my embrace of other races, cultures, and histories. I should have told him that in my view any experience of a person who considers himself African American is a black experience and that blackness is not a litmus test one must pass based on pigmentation, phenotype, working class status or a legacy of discrimination. I should have told him that I will never allow my race, gender, class, or sexual orientation to define who I am or limit my artistic aims. But instead of dismantling the wall between the regions of black gay culture we represent, Landon and I piled on more bricks. We missed our opportunity to find harmony in our differences and assuage our mutual anger, longing and frustration.
Jarrett Neal is the author of What Color Is Your Hoodie? Essays on Black Gay Identity, recently released from Chelsea Station Editions. He 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 Chelsea Station, The Gay and Lesbian Review, Requited Journal, The Good Men Project, and other publications, including the Lambda Literary Award-nominated anthologies For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Still Not Enough and Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call. He lives in Oak Park, IL.
Copyright © 2015 by Jarrett Neal. Reprinted by permission of author and publisher.