Keep Your Hands Out

My childhood involved a great deal of awareness. I learned to be aware of my body—how I moved my hands. Whether they chopped through the Great American Sky, or whether they conveyed the sassy, sissy indoors—pink and lush. Mother made quite certain that we were bathed and perfumed (cologned for me). Body odor, or smelling ‘mouldy’ was tantamount to the ultimate sin. It was simply forbidden. I once teetered on the edge of transgression, and the First Lady of my church informed mother. She ordered my deodorant switched straightaway.

I was aware of my skin color, too—but maybe not in the way that you’re thinking. Unlike many of my Black American counterparts, my parents never remarked that “Black people don’t do [you name it]”. Life was without limit. However, my parents did remind my sisters and I, that our brown skin would cause some people to question our abilities. And that out there, in that ethereal locale, flowing with ink and money, people ultimately look out for their own kind.

But there was another consciousness, from which I could not escape—that of my limbs, my hands, and my fingers when shopping. While making our religious weekend rounds to A&P, Home Depot, and CVS we learned the rigid regulations for our bodies. We were not to put our hands in our pockets. We were not to touch anything unless instructed.

And we were never, under any circumstances, to go into Mother’s purse. Hell, she wouldn’t even go into her purse. My mother did not wait for the employees to follow us. She dispelled their fears of us shoplifting from the beginning.

I think that she was deathly afraid of being humiliated in front of her children. Having her bags and children searched for stolen goods would have accomplished this. These things never leave you.

Many years later, I still feel the heat of the shopkeepers eyes as I move about in their stores. Life has issued me the luxury of shopping in more high-end stores. I am thankful for this. But I still remove my cellphone from my pocket before entering any stores, lest it ring and send me shuffling. The most difficult, though, are probably the antique stores. I live in Cleveland, Tennessee, and I guess that no young Black guys here go strolling into antique shops in search of working typewriters. But I do. And I suffer the anomaly’s curse. The shopkeepers do the ‘nice-nasty’, where they offer to help you time and anon. Or they tell you that they do not have any of what you’re looking for, while standing at the front door.

In those moments, it feels like no one gives a shit about your pedigree, gentility, or the fact that you have the prologue of The Canterbury Tales memorized—in Middle English. This is it: I am judged upon sight. It is then my job to debunk the foolishness people ‘perceive’ about me. But this is tiring work, and really unfair.

I have discussed this with White associates who claim to have the same experience: “People judge me because I have [blonde hair, a beard, pasty-White skin].” But girlfriend, do those judgments assume bone deep characteristics that criminalize you? Like, how often do people follow you around a store, possibly because you are White? In my estimation, it is usually the contrary—people may cast judgments, but in all likelihood they are essentially ‘good’. Like, they might assume that because you are White, you have a college degree, and a good job, and can probably pay for whatever items you stand near. Or, they might presume that your parents can.

I think about these things often, but my body won’t let me change. I still tuck my limbs in whenever I’m in a space of mostly White people. I’m still trained to not make them feel uncomfortable in my presence.

As I walk at nights, these are the words I wish to communicate:

I’ll move. I’ll cross the street. I’ll walk ahead and let you get behind me, so you can see that I’m not a thug. I won’t engage you. Whatever you do, don’t scream. Don’t call the police, because they’ll jump to protect you—and kill me while doing it. The police are here for you, honey, not me. 

—K

 

I Don’t Feel Safe Living in my (Expensive) Neighborhood

I live in the constant fear that one of my White neighbors is going to call the police on me.

My apartment is located in a very gentrified section of Nashville. I pay a hefty sum of money to live within walking distance of Vanderbilt University. Just across the street is a comfy Asian market—the door opens with jangle of wind chimes and the scent of braised garlic. Sometimes when it rains, I put on my forest green raincoat and walk down to the corner coffee shop, wishing I had a loyal greyhound to go with me.

I love my neighborhood. But I know that at any time, the people who live here could strip me of my dignity—all in the name of ‘just making sure’.

I have learned to do my best to avoid such scrutiny. I wear cardigans and loafers. I wear my college hats and sweatshirts to indicate my level of education. If I run at night, it is not in my neighborhood. On the rare occasions that I do take a night stroll down my street, I intentionally phone a friend and discuss something related to literature or the arts.

Yet this is not enough, and it only gives way to respectability politics. The other night, a young lady was walking her dog in my direction. She saw me and immediately began to walk way over into the street. I think of Zora Neale Hurston’s statement of perplexity: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

I had hoped that some of these young White people would be wiser than their parents, but that hope is burning up. It seems that when it comes down to the studs, preservation of investment is given priority of preservation of dignity. What I mean by this is, these young folks who have come to Nashville and purchased homes in up-and-coming neighborhoods may be just as willing as their parents were to oust any threats to the creation of a beautiful white state—even if it means that innocent people get mistreated.

Gentrification is very much like colonization, with Black bodies on the line. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness gives us a useful example of this. The Europeans force their way into the Congo, quickly establishing a center for operating power. It is at this center that they decide who lives and who dies, or in other words, who belongs and who does not. I cannot help but see the parallel between this and the pricey coffee shop that sits in the middle of what used to be the ghetto. The longtime Nashville residents who still live nearby (many of them POCs) cannot afford to patronize these places. Imagine not being able to afford a service that was right in your neighborhood. Or not even knowing if the neighborhood in which you grew up is still ‘yours’.

And this business of ownership is funny stuff. In a recent video, a White woman in St. Louis refused to let her Black neighbor enter their apartment building because she didn’t think that he lived there. She kept referring to their living space as “my building” and demanding that he tell her where he lived. We’re still dealing with public policing of Black people, folks. As it was in the country’s beginning, so it is today. Some Whites still feel the moral responsibility to keep the little Black ones in check—essentially acting as extensions of the police, who will always arrive and reinforce their right to behave in this manner. The issue of gentrification is not only about rent increases, or expensive coffee shops. It’s also about people moving in and taking ownership of everything surrounding them.

Even me.

 

 

 

 

 

The Writer and the Deep

I did not consciously go down to the depths.
Or perhaps, not at first. I do not know anyone, save the über-disciplined student, who would voluntarily engage in a year-long course through the classics, through the Russian writers, through the 1920’s novels of passing, through teetering piles of contemporary memoirs.
I initially went into the water because I was parched. Because life was arid. I only went to dip. Just to feel the lake water on my broad back. I wanted to take refuge in someone else’s words—like the nights I wanted to curl up in Taylor’s bed, regardless of whether or not he was good for me. It was all about the scent of safety in knowing that someone else was there. The warmth of the book; the warmth of the body.
My accidental journey thus began, and began with Go Tell it on the Mountain. The whole damn thing was a thrusting sex-scene. The in-and-out of travailing in prayer until the mighty steaming victory came flowing down from on high. And then John was at last saved. Only he was saved not like the others. We were in Gatlinburg when the tears streamed down my face, as John told his mother that he was finally ready. He went down the long hall.
My peril grew deeper still when someone testified to me of Boy Erased. It was oil, it was sorrow, it was anger. But I read it and knew that the writer was also someone who had read. His words were sweet and charred. Familiar, but nauseating. Brother Nielson was someone that I had known many times. His hand had weighed heavily upon me until my strength was sapped. He drew a living box in red marker and instructed my universe to keep me in it for all of my days. He was form, and I was color. He had dreamed a dream for me that would never come to pass. And he dreamed that same dream for Garrard, who was also saved—but not like the others.
The lake water darkened as in the crepuscular hour. I was going down, down, down, so many leagues beneath the sea. It must have been Let the Great World Spin that was bound to me like an anchor. Or maybe I just could not let it go, that stone work. And as I clasped it, it drew me further to the center of the earth. To a coveted and costly El Dorado. I couldn’t breathe anymore. The pressure of the deep wore against my untrained lungs. I read and read and read about sordid lives. About worthiness and unworthiness. About finding the highest place possible—just to breathe. I read about the funambulist, and I knew that what he really wanted was uncontaminated breath.
And I was lost. The book left my hand. I was left with nothing, and was without form, and was nothing. But this formless one reached again, thrashing like a snake overtaking a live animal.
And into my hands I discovered a thin red volume of Giovanni’s Room. Thin red dagger to my monkey brain. The words repeated upon me both day and night: ‘I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France’. I could see the window, I could see the bed of sin, I could see it all. I was lumpy and sick. Why cannot this business of loving be simple? As I dressed for work the next morning: ‘this great house in the south of France’. My lonely Nashville apartment absorbed, then infused these words into the environment: ‘this great house’ ‘this great house’. And I knew that I was lost forever—that my soul was passing over Jordan. That I was a youth leaving a great revival service, murmuring, ‘I will never be the same.’
And I begin to know that which I must do.
I set to the writing. I am full of words and full of tears. Here in the deep, where my only friends are anglerfish who provide just enough light to survive by, I have made my peace. The anglerfish are frightful, but they swim wordlessly around this desk in the sand.
I have agreed with the deep. And I remember when we were kids at church and after a great shouting I could feel myself glowing. Peace with God and man.
And from down here in this great belly of the ocean or the lake (I can no longer discern which), I know that I am just about to rise. The deep tells me so.
And on that day, which is so tangibly imminent that I can now feel the earth rumbling beneath this desk, I will shoot up through the layers of water. But before I begin my ascent, the anglerfish will wait until I’m off in the distance, and they will consume my desk, and my volumes. And there will be nothing left again. Nothing, but the deep.
I am rising.
Some force of buoyancy launches me upward, lighter and lighter and lighter. I am catching watery glimpses of the above—like swimming through a caramel macchiato. Levels and layers of bitter, of sweet, of memory. I think of the hours in the deep, and the words burst into my brain, ’Time!’ ‘Time!’ ‘Time!’
Praise, God! At last the water births me into the Cherokee sky. My weary arms chop the glass water. I break the surface waving my sacred pages, crying and sobbing and treading water, ‘Eureka! I have found it! Blessed be the name of the Lord, I have found it! Blessed be God and man, I have found the words!’ And I am speaking with celebratory tongues, as God gives the utterance.
I will begin my gentle swim to the burgeoning shore. My arms, my legs, my torso will become primitive and rigid, but I will be kind to the water.
A thought will take advantage of my battle-worn brain: who will be there to receive me?
I’ll notice a leaf floating. I will not have an answer. But I will know that there are two ways.
The first will be as it was in the beginning: I will swim until the assurance of ground—the landing, empty. The elements will sap the moisture from my skin. I will somehow make it home, flanked by my ream of words, condemned to drive the backroads forever. With everything and nothing.
The latter will be inchoate. I will swim until the assurance of ground—the rhythm of frying fish and charcoal to greet me. And on the shore there will be a wealth of people: painters, musicians, carpenters. We will meet again, although we have never known each other. They’ll throw a white towel around my neck, gather behind me, and give me time and room to adjust again to this world—the chromatic terror of the first emergence, now returning to normalcy.
I will know their relief that I survived the test of the deep.

Sexual Attraction ≠ Lifestyle

Over the past few weeks, my journey out has set in place a number of conversations regarding religion and human sexuality. And in many of these [painful] conversations, those engaging with me have slung around the qualifier: ‘the homosexual lifestyle’.

I’ve resisted the persistent urge to say, “Honey, lifestyle is a condom.”

But let’s get on to meaningful discussion. The qualification of homosexuality as a ‘lifestyle’ is an attempt to invalidate this form of healthy sexual expression. It moves to other homosexuals, while keeping heterosexuals in the seat of the normal. I’ll just add that I’ve never heard heterosexuality referred to as a lifestyle.

Whom you are attracted to does not dictate lifestyle. You could identify as homosexual and opt for celibacy. One might be bisexual and lascivious. Some are lesbians and into traditional [same-sex] marriages with clear monogamous boundaries. And what of those straight people who have decided that they’d like to steer clear of relational commitment? Celibacy is a lifestyle. Sexual promiscuity is a lifestyle [No judgement here. Just be safe, people!]. Staying up late every night to watch The Golden Girls is a lifestyle. Being gay is not.

The most difficult thing for me, in terms of reconciling with my sexuality, was that I didn’t see any gay people who were living ‘healthy’ lives. Most of the gay people to which I had been exposed only seemed to be affirmations of my community’s disdain. It’s clear to me now that I was approaching them with a broken lens, but in my mind, gayness was equivalent to the death of a bright future. There was no person in my life like Dr. Julie in Boy Erased (Garrard Conley, 2017). No one to sit across from me and tell me that they knew “plenty of people who’ve accepted this part of themselves, and they’ve managed to make a good life of it.” That is, no one except my high school therapist, whose words I did not have ears to hear.

I needed someone to tell me that God loved me, and created me as I was. In those years, no one told me that—so, I’m telling you: You, honey, are loved and are a well-watered garden. You are a gift. Stay with us.

I’m thankful to have discovered a number of queer Christians to whom I can look. I’m grateful for Matthias Roberts’ Queerology podcast, which snatched me from the cords of death. Listening to his words [although broadcast from 1,000 miles] made me realize that there was someone else like me in the world. Matthias led me to Kevin Garcia, and his A Tiny Revolution. I drove my little white BMW to New York and cried listening to Kevin. I then learned of Broderick Greer, who hosted the Theology Live podcast. In all of this, I discovered Garrard Conley, whom I have already mentioned, and Nick White’s book How to Survive a Summer. It wasn’t just the work that saved me. It was the fact they responded to my emails and messages. It was like a community of gay men pulling me out of the choppy water, “Heave, ho! Heave, ho!

They were the pillars for me. Not the deacons at a local church, as my mother wanted. They were the men [and gender-fluid] of God.

So, standing here in the sun, still drying off, I speak in defense of my community.

These are my words.

Hate Mail

“Don’t come back to church.”

The toughest part of my coming out journey has been disappointing many of the people who have supported me. It is almost unbearable to consider those who now see me as reprobate, and lost. To the faith community of my childhood, I am pariah. The bitter gall is, however, I was once lifted up in their eyes. My mind floats back to Psalm 42, a poem I used to read at my bedroom window: “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise.” I once directed them in worship—arms here, eyes there, mind clear. I struggled to make them satisfied with the leading. I fasted. I prayed. I abstained. 

“You are a sad abomination unto the lord.”

It was because of my commitment to my local Christian community that I decided to pursue a seminary education. I felt that I was destined for the pulpit. Battling with my sexuality in the middle of my seminary career, I began to think that this was out of the question. From the beginning, I have only wanted to do what is right. During my time in Cleveland, I encountered a number of ‘straight’ Christian men who were married, but were having sexual affairs with other men. I decided that I would have no part in that. That’s the abomination, honey.

“Nobody is pleased.”

All of these were messages that I received in the days that followed my coming out. I learned, pretty quickly, that many of my childhood heroes were merely happy with me. They had not reached the depths of blinding joy by way of my existence. My then community was simply pleased by the choices I had made. The smiles were all undone by my expression of truth. I question what was actually there.

“You said you need help. I am here to help.”

Oh, blessed help! But, not that kind of help, sweetie. I am indeed a broken vessel, standing in the line for the Savior’s healing. But I am not broken in the ways that you might think. My sexual identity is not broken. I do not need to be fixed. Like the southern-fried counselor said to me: “Honey, there is nothing wrong with you.” If help and prayer means attempting to bend the individual back toward some sort of heterosexuality, then you’ve missed the point entirely.

Some of my dear friends have made staunch demarcations: if you are not LGBTQIA-affirming, then you are part of the problem. I cannot, with all my experience, state the same. You do not have to agree. Diversity of thought is what it’s all about. What won’t work, though, is to reach across the line to tell people that they are bound for Hell. It won’t work if you say it nicely, and it certainly won’t work when it’s meted into a spit-filled tirade from behind the wooden pulpit. However you dice it, it’s hate mail, and I ain’t here for it. You may disagree, you may call homosexuality a ‘lifestyle’ (very curious that we have the Christian ‘way’ and the homosexual lifestyle, as though these are polar opposites. It is doubtlessly illogical to compare a faith-system and a form of sexual expression; I think, however, that one of the principal reasons for this is a desire to demonstrate the supposed incompatibility of homosexuals and the life of the Church), but you still don’t have the final word.

Christ has the final word. And Christ affirms.

 

Yes. I’m gay.

Dear world,

I’m coming out to-day. Let me get my words out before you crush me with your impending blows. 

A few years ago, I watched an interview with Christian musical artist Tonéx, following his coming-out announcement. I was mortified. I had listened to his 2004 hit song, “Make Me Over” on repeat. I felt that he had given up on the battle for healing from homosexuality. And hopelessness permeated my being. I’m not sure I was able to stomach the entire interview.

Dear world,

Do you know what it was like to be me? Do you know that I drove for miles at night, just to clear my head?

For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with my sexuality. I have always known that I was gay, but there had not yet been the creation of possibility. I mean that there was no way for me (in my mind) to live a healthy and fulfilling life as a gay man. My community taught me that LGBTQIA people were reprobates, and perverted. My heart raced every time my pastor launched into another vitriolic tirade against ‘sissies’ and ‘faggots’. I knew in my heart-of-hearts that he was also talking about me.

Dear world,

Were you there the moment I let myself actually dream of falling in love?

I could launch into the theological implications. I could share with you my readings of the Genesis saga. I could talk about how the scriptures are culturally-conditioned. I could talk about redemptive threads that are woven throughout scripture. I opt out. But I will say this: it is indeed possible, I believe, to be both queer and Christian. While you do not have to affirm LGBTQIA believers, you likewise cannot deny our claim to faith and salvation. Time will reveal the truth.

Many of you will try to call or message me in an attempt to ‘win me back’. Some will issue offensives against me. A number of readers will draw their families away from me, hoping to shield them from ‘infection’. As Christ said, whatever you must do, do it quickly. But do not ask me to engage. This is my cross, and I will carry it. I only hope to have help along the way.

My final rainbow: the Lord bless you richly, and make His face to shine upon you. As it was in the Beginning, now and ever shall be, Word without end, amen. Until the stars align. May Kings rise in your presence. The oil of joy and gladness. Now unto He who able to keep you from falling. Lo, he is with you, even until the end of the age.

Amen.

Exit Interview

In about a week, I’ll be moving to Nashville, Tennessee to enter a new phase in life. I’ve spent the past few days watching and re-watching Oprah’s 1998 Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech. Something about the profound thankfulness in her voice, the vast sense of openness to the Great: “Use me, use me…I don’t know what the future holds.” This resonates with me so deeply, not just because it is wondrous Oprah speaking—but because these were my words, too. As I go back and peruse my journals, there appears the chilling refrain of a young man pleading with the God of the Universe: “Do not forget me. Use me. Use me.” There were some days that I worried myself to the point of exhaustion with concerns about my future.

But my life is taking shape. I just don’t know exactly what that is yet. And I can only continue to walk forward. Knowing this, and considering the newness that lies before me, I feel more optimistic than I have in months. I needs must say that the person I was entering seminary is not the person that I am today. 3 years away from the only home I have ever known have given me grand opportunities for self-discovery. Not everyone likes the things I have had to say. Many were ‘nice’ until I began to express my truth. Then, they carefully ceased liking my posts, and so on. Such fragility is toxic and shocking.

Yet one of the emotions that continues to wash over me during these final episodes is thankfulness. In a life that has had some worst fears realized, I look forward to the periods of reprieve in which the fount of gratitude seems to burst upward into the Heavens. Alright, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. But there are so many moments, especially when driving, that I take verbal note of where I am in life and how I have not gone under. It’s quite possible that this habit derives from a lady I grew up around. During testimony services at church, she would stand up and give an extended treatise about a particular struggle. But she would always begin recounting the story in like manner: “Truly, we thank God, tonight.” I’ve been through this, and had that happen to me, but I have not perished and for that I am thankful.

I cannot hold in contempt those who said evil things about me—I am happier with who I am today, than when I first began. We all have our journeys. You’ll have yours, and I have mine.

Today, I stand at this bridge. But I must admit that I almost missed it in the fog. I almost gave up, believing that I had reached the terminus of the land—that there was no way forward. Yet, I’ve had a number of Guides during my time in Cleveland. I sat with one today over coffee. I love that guy.

I am thankful for these people, and I am thankful for this time. I see the rungs above me, and there is strength in my body to climb them. I stand at a landing in the mountain, but I know I can make it to the peak. In other words, not my own: “The future is so bright, it burns my eyes.”

—K

My Body Is an Object of Fear

In the Bluff View area, a hodgepodge of ‘artsy’, I watched the young White woman glance up at me. The flash of fear in her azure eyes betrayed that well-bred Southern smile. I did what I always did. I took this chunk of brown fear-inspiring flesh, and moved to the side. Once she had passed me, I saw her small shoulders relax. She rounded the artful bend into a brick and mortar oblivion, backlit by the setting sun.

In many conversations with other Black guys over the years, I have understood that this is not my solitary experience. The realization that our bodies are frightening is something that a wealth of young African-American men inevitably confront. Our bodies are seen as capable, more capable than our White counterparts, of rape, murder, and perhaps—physical labor. For this cause, it is so easy for people of darker complexion to be labelled ‘aggressive’ or ‘combative’.

As of late, I’ve embraced the notion of the Bildungsroman in daily life. This term is usually employed to categorize the novel of development. But we also have Bildungsroman moments, in which our eyes are suddenly opened to the pungent cruelty of the world. Or in which we realize that we, too, are complicit in this wickedness somehow.

My coming-of-age moment, in terms of my body, happened while I was running on the Bronx River Pathway one evening. I passed a middle-aged White woman—she epitomized white-collar. Not traditionally ‘stunning’ with looks, yet very well-dressed. I flashed past her, but slowly enough to see her tighten the grip on her purse. Her face was face-lift taut. She did not return my nod. If she would have looked into mine eyes, even ever so briefly, perhaps her heart would have been warmed like hot coffee and breakfast after a very terrible night.

It pained me that people could be scared of me. Around the time of that first encounter, I was reading The Tempest. I could not help but identify with Caliban—whom I imagine with bumpy, scaly skin. I was imprisoned in a brown body that even frightened me.

Subconsciously, I had begun to work out ways to seem less intimidating. Whenever I entered antique shops, I spoke a few notches higher, and put my English degree to work. I made small-talk with the clerks to indicate that I was not a threat, that I had studied Yeats and Keats. I became very aware of the space I was in, and that I ought not to take up too much. I never wore athletic clothing anywhere other than the gym. I felt that the only indicators of my ‘class’ were the business casual attire I consistently donned, and my $400 watch. These things would ward the police off when they glanced in my direction. These things would give credence to my crisp suburban accent. I could not be mistaken for a thug and arrested. I could drive my parents’ Mercedes without fear of being stopped, searched, and sequestered.

To be flatly honest, I fooled myself.

When I came to the South, I experienced a revival of these fetters. Dwelling in towns with an impressively low POC population, I received my own share of infantile questions. But I think the worst were the moments that I could sense the fear in others.

Walking on Cleveland’s Greenway one night, I had a deeply spiritual conversation with myself. We live in one world. If you are afraid of me, and you do nothing to check your fear, then that is on you. I will not coddle. I will not move. I will walk freely.

Hear me clearly: I am still working this out. I just became angry enough to want change. You don’t get to be afraid and then have someone else move out of your way. ‘True Americans’ say that they are afraid and call the police. Police say that they are afraid, and then shoot. I say that I am afraid, and everyone asks why.

 

Featured image: Caliban (Twelve Characters from Shakespeare), John Hamilton Mortimer (1775)