The Unlit Lamp

September swelled on the vine and for its entire last week I found my feet deviating from the usual walking route onto Grove Street. To the large brick building in particular, that would not draw attention to itself if not for the large grey sign and the bold red EMERGENCY affixed to it. Retreat Hospital, a crude joke unto itself that anyone, ill or otherwise, could fantasize a sick house as an ideal invocation of “withdrawal” or “flight” – but there I was, caught dead for the fifth time that week before it; enveloped in the wet Virginia heat, the very breath escaping my lungs sweating, caught in a trench between the war zones of memory and fear.

Three months had passed. I was, or seemed to be, doing well: gym membership (a first), attending six days a week, sixteen pounds already lost; celebrating four months as a vegetarian, or pescatarian if the person asking was familiar with the word; sex life a million-petaled flower of queer adventure and possibility (August in particular, which presented me with a surprise Sedaris-esque threesome in the Midlothian Days Inn). I prayed fervently that the laurels of my present could not be divined or betray me by look or careless gesture that I was here, at Retreat Hospital, June 2019, as an in-patient resident for attempting to take my life one unremarkable Tuesday morning.

Even now, when I lay awake in bed or rest my head in my hand at my desk, it all unfolds before my vision, a dye dispersing and branching in a glass of water. A triptych done in magnificent watercolor, impressionistic in composition. Didactic in tone.

 First Panel • Baby-blue swirls and blocks of artificial yellow woven around a body the color of almond skin, sat upright on a cold linoleum floor. A bathroom done quick in bold brushstrokes. The body is almost indiscernible, shrunk in a corner, but he is there; face shadowed between the brow and crooked nose. Hand outstretched, pills the size of ladybugs spilling from the palm onto the edge of the wet canvas.

Second Panel • A ward dressed in sterile green, partied by faceless patients varying in size and color. There are nurses whose turquoise and lavender scrubs give the false impression of tutelary spirits offering aid to Homeric, weather-beaten soldiers. From either the angular dimensions of the room or some other trick of the brush, restlessness and timelessness are married here. Step back from the piece and you can almost swear it was a genre scene.

Third Panel • Self-portrait in wild red, orange, and violet. Eyes, cheekbones, mouth carved in sharp Cubist shapes. A violent asymmetry stretched taunt across the canvas, jarringly. But it is the eyes in particular that enchant; two blazing rubies of such intense warmth that the body betrays current orientation. The viewer is neither here nor there, but engulfed in an inferno.

I have titled it, The Unlit Lamp (2019). For months I starved myself, willfully neglecting the corner of the stomach that is the seat of desire and want. The same source where spring love for others and self; ambition, dreams, self-worth, value, identity, sufficiency, forgiveness. A complete inability to make eye contact with my reflection, where I knew all I would see were sunken eyes and gaunt cheeks. Now, after the tempest, I know the importance, the gnawing necessity, of feeding oneself – every minute of every hour. For the wages of surviving one’s own suicide is facing the incontrovertible hard truth:

I am the Alpha and Omega of my own existence. The burning lamp by which all of my reality is lit. No other self.

But therein lies the real challenge and terror, because surviving oneself, different from the daily task of surviving the anti-blackness or homophobia of a hostile world, means surviving each and every prior version of myself. I can not yield to the me of yesterday anymore than I can resist the me of tomorrow. The lamp must stay lit, and while there is terror in keeping sleepless watch over it, lest forces external or internal (like fear or doubt) snuff out its light, there is promise in protecting a spark that shines solely for me.

 

 

…I still find my feet guiding me, waking somnambulist, to Grove Street on certain evenings. My mind all the while haunting the museum of memory, searching for another glance of The Unlit Lamp.

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[Image: Astronomer by Candlelight, Gerrit Dou (1650)]

Searching for Chocolate in Sodom and Gomorrah.

This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.
                                                                                                                    —W. E. B. Du Bois

I am an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort. This, for me, was a truth first understood in the visceral impressions of my Southern childhood, before the time of concrete words and language I later pinned my adult survival on. Instinctively, almost from the first spark of consciousness, I knew I was different. As a first-grader, in the small rose-scented library, asking the class genius of forbidden adult knowledge could a boy like another boy in the same way a boy likes a girl, I knew. In the hard, guttural “faggot” that left my grandmother’s lips in reference to the hair stylist (who looked like me, sounded like me) who worked at the salon she frequented, as I walked beside her shadow through the parking lot, I knew. In the middle school and high school locker rooms, where my eyes could not help but stare and trace the budding, elegant musculature and curves bulging from gym shorts and sweaty shirts, I knew. This was my great secret, and for twenty-four years I kept it close like a talisman or charm that I believed, if ever given the chance to open, would release a power so terrible it would destroy every cell and particle of my existence. And keep it I did, for two decades, in favor of navigating a territory and inheritance more threatening to my body within the America of Liberty and Justice for all: the color of my skin.

Often I am embarrassed and enraged at how foolish I was to believe the fact of my sexuality could save me from the pain and burden that came as a consequence of possessing a black body in this country. Finally, I told myself, I have found a people who understood the trauma of silence, oppression, and loss of identity (discriminated even among our own racial and ethnic groups). Finally, I cried, I have found and understand the necessity of community. Then it became apparent, very early on, that I could never escape the careful planning and design of a 242-year-old conspiracy made to erode the bodies and minds of those who look like me. How easily I had forgotten that to be black in this country is to be assigned the role of stagehand, no matter the other common denominators that tied me to groups beyond my race.

In living my truth as a gay black man, I constantly observe, exhaustively, a great hurt and fear that haunts the LGBTQ+ community: the blunt erasure of lesbian, queer, transgender, bisexual, and colored voices in favor of championing white, fit homosexual men as our ambassadors and national representatives. Will and Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Queer as Folk—though never showing us, these were made to speak for us—all of us—in the early 2000s, a bizarre time when our experiences began to be slowly unveiled and lightly considered in mainstream media. The first year of my observation was beyond challenging: wandering in the hall of mirrors that was Grindr and Scruff, either outright rejected in the bios of men that proclaimed “no chocolate” (willfully blind to the ghosts of Jim Crow) or cast in the fantasies of men who saw my body as nothing but a means to fulfill a wild and violent fetish premised on the mythology of black sexual aggression; the fear and trembling that accompanied my first experience at a gay bar, as I watched, in awe, the incredible fury of free, homosexual bodies grinding and twirling before abruptly noticing that the majority were white while, spectating from the perimeter of the dance floor, groups of two or three or five black and Latino men watched from a distance; or, above all, in my feeling the acute, alienating phenomenon of diaspora anytime I found myself as the only minority within a gathering of white gay men, no matter how kind or well-meaning. I was alone, that is to say I found myself on the island of being a minority within a minority. And yet I wasn’t alone. I had the words and life of James Baldwin, the kinetic poetry of Saeed Jones and Danez Smith, the electric lyricism of Frank Ocean—all teaching me that while my pain was my own, there were thousands with a shared vocabulary. I now felt armed to not only continue my studies in observation over the next three years (and counting), but to secure my sanity that this was actually happening, and to be responsible for speaking on it.

Long overdue, I attended my first Pride this June. What I experienced can only be summed up thus: that I felt, in the 72 hours spent in our nation’s capital, an immense surge of joy and empowerment, as well as immense pain and grief. Never before have I felt entirely, non-apologetically, welcome. We were everywhere, of all shapes and sizes. On the streets we were making out fiercely with our partners or strangers, and in the bars, we danced and sweat as if Gabriel’s trumpet was only minutes away from announcing apocalypse. All throughout the city, day and night, we were a choir of bright bodies and voices, laughing and celebrating in a kiki that felt pure, heavenly. But that was just the surface, and as much as I would have liked to dwell in that dream, the price of my skin reminded me that I could not afford the privilege of sleep. The illusion could only be held for so long before it became painfully clear that we, for the most part, were white. The possibility was strong, as it is in every corner of American life, that those privileged in our community had no idea that this phenomena was anything but commonplace.

Power, whether we acknowledge it or not, is a safety net. It is a guarantee of our security, a reminder that our existence is valid and important; to be aware that there is a great machine and that we, as individuals, are an essential cog within its anatomy, is a comfort. So who, in their right mind, would give up such an inheritance? White Supremacy poisons the American mind by shucking such a question, deluding us from facing the dire consequences of relentlessly refusing to disown that power—the very power that blinds us to the voicelessness and starvation of our brothers and sisters who fail to benefit from a machine that was not designed with them in mind. The wages of that sin were clear to me, as I witnessed (and participated in) the spreading cancer of self-segregation within one of the most diverse communities on the entire planet.

In the attempt to create a world of our own, separate from the heteronormative structure that limited and bound us from a very early age, we also brought with us remnants and artifacts from the Old World: internalized homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, and racism. Examples abound within our world, from the toxic rhetoric found in our dating apps (think “No fats, no fems, no Asians” and “Masc4Masc”) to our most celebrated forms and sources of entertainment in Pop Culture (e.g. the problem of representation and exclusivity in Ru Paul’s Drag Race). Pride was not exempt from the firmament. Although, not all was lost on me. The Pride Festival that marked the end of the weekend was a symphony of every voice and narrative known to humanity. Magazines, recreational sports leagues, interest groups, clothing companies, and non-profit charities and organizations flooded Pennsylvania Avenue advocating for every corner of the LGBTQ+ universe, brown bodies included. It was then that I saw family and community in its fullest display for all to come, ask questions, and engage in both the familiar and new.

Though I could not help but wonder, where were they the night before? Where did they spend the previous days at Pride? What events did they attend? Were they invited, and for that matter, did they even feel invited? And where were all the white gay men who were so eager for everything else that Pride had to offer, especially here, among this holy and complete congregation?

According to the 2017 population estimates recorded by the United States Census Bureau, the District of Colombia is roughly 47% Black. If this is the case, then simple deduction of population numbers would have us believe that black gays match the visible quantity of white gays. This is, of course, not the case, even with the existence of bars that market themselves exclusively to black gay clientele or specialize in ‘Black Night’ events. Lesbian and queer spaces for women fare even worse, with cities known as meccas of LGBTQ+ activity (e.g. San Francisco and New York) significantly diminishing, or no longer existing at all. What could gay bars, or those who claim these spaces are for everyone, gain by producing more events, paired with advocacy groups or organizations, to encourage the attendance of our trans brothers and sisters? For the sake of family, the answer is everything.

I am not oblivious to the fact that I benefit from certain privileges. I am a cisgender male, and race aside, I am a homosexual male, which provides me with certain platforms that allow me to be seen and heard. These are luxuries that queer women and transgender individuals do not have. I wish to be a better student and a better brother to these siblings. I wish to listen and be held accountable. Pride is ironic, in a distinctly American way, in that its genesis, the 1969 Stonewall Riots, began with transwomen and QPOC fighting tooth-and-nail against institutionalized brutality, with the successors to its legacy being a predominate branch of individuals who can reap those rewards without an inkling of that knowledge. We do not know our own history.

We can do better. We must do better. I believe, wholeheartedly, that if any group of people in this country can be a leading example of inclusivity, of turning to the voiceless and learning that we are only as strong as our weakest link, it is us. It begins with reassessing where our values and powers lie. Reassessing our social circles, the pornography we watch, the media and entertainment we consume, scrutinizing the very machine that grants us certain freedoms while denying others a seat at the table. Our makeup is undeniable; we represent every nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, and religious faith that exists in the world. All that is asked of us is to make a conscious choice.

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[Imagine: Scène d’été (Summer Scene) by Frédéric Bazille, 1869]

 

 

 

Our New Renaissance.

Ask any scholar, writer, instructor, or general member of the literati where we are in our current collective Western Literary History and most will, undoubtedly, answer (or stutter, sputter, give a general esoteric clearing-of-the-throat): Postmodernism. This answer may give way to unasked for explanations on themes, motifs, general topics most commons readers don’t care for (i.e. Postmodernism’s traits of authenticity v. inauthenticity, marriage of high-low culture, existential paranoia, bending and playing with time, authority, truth, &etc.), but beyond the flood comes with what is never said, yet always unspoken, always assumed, always avoided–Postmodernism is a white boys’ club.

Yes, Postmodernism does have its share of non-white/male writers (i.e. Morrison, Winterson, Walker, Plath) but its titans, its pillars, the voices who are credited as having the largest impact in its shaping and founding are, for American literature anyway, Nabokov, Pynchon, Vonnegut, and DeLillo. The Modernism before it had its own boys’ club (Eliot, Lewis, Pound, Joyce), and even Romanticism had a gentleman’s club to call its own (Whitman, Emerson, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley). But what, exactly, is Postmodernism in the age of social media, dating apps, #Metoo, Black Lives Matter, Trump?

Easy. This is not your parents’ Postmodernism. This is (well I’m not entirely sure what, exactly) something incredibly new, something remarkably different. Critics and literary historians won’t know either until we are well into old age perhaps, but our current times are living proof that the hands molding–right now, at this very instant–our current state-of-things are conducting a very different kind of symphony. One that is louder, composed of every tongue, mouth, breast, and breath imaginable. This is a symphony haunted by a new form of literacy: film and television. Or, for the sake of this post, let us refer to it as, The Visual Novel.

Yes, it does sound pretentious (and confusing, considering the “Visual Novel” is also known as a genre of Japanese video games). Yes, film and television have been an artistic medium in their own right for decades already. And yes, literature and film/TV are entirely different creatures, just as music and painting are different fingers on the hand of the Humanities. Are you done? May I speak now? Because I believe that film and television, with each passing year, are becoming more–if I may dare–literary.

I enjoy going to the movies. I enjoy the passive experience of watching Hollywood’s sexiest men and women fight bad guys and villains whose absolute evil (and sometimes wardrobe) seem to be borrowed straight from The Old Testament; or being a spectator in whatever new hilarious-comedian-turned-hilarious-actor-dropped-into-hilarious-plot-for-the-pure-sake-of-hilarity movie is out for what the producers hope will make me laugh for two solid hours (while also watching Will Ferrell age horribly). This is candy, something to be relished without reservation; no more, no less.

But film (and here I tread carefully to avoid waxing poetic) demands what literature has demanded since the days of Odysseus’s seafaring adventures. Viewing a film asks more of the audience; film, and authentic television, asks the viewer to not passively spectate–oh no honey–they demand, they position, the viewer to instead play the role of witness.

Literature (whose very definition and ambiguous designation must be argued in a separate blog post) has special responsibilities to the individual who seek it out. Literature, in fact, has two roles:

  1. As Harold Bloom states, literature teaches the individual how to be alone with one’s thoughts; it cultivates a Buddhist-like existential function of allowing the individual to develop a healthy state of solitude (I mean, at the end of the day, we are the only ones in our own minds, no matter what distractions we use to avoid that inevitable fact).
  2. The novel, essay, or poem posits the reader in an active state of investigation. The last page or line blooms into the reader’s mind a garden of clarity, giving them the tools to ask questions and interrogate ourselves, the society/world around us, and our function/role within it. As my undergraduate mentor once taught me: literature serves to assist the reader to read the world as well as the word.

Contemporary film and television can do this. In fact it has done so before, and yet we are currently experiencing a different, bolder evolution within the medium. While literature transforms the individual from the inside towards the outside (the individual’s challenged cognition being guided to bloom outwardly), The Visual Novel is inverted– using the theater or living room itself as a didactic, communal space in which multiple viewpoints, cognition, voices, experiences, &etc are rubbing together to look inwardly at our human condition.

This is better explained by the phenomena we are currently experiencing in Hollywood. Enter, Our New (aka, Black) Renaissance. It is no mere coincidence that in the past four years we have been blessed with works such as Dear White People, Atlanta, Get Out, Moonlight, Black Panther, The Chi, and Insecure during both the Obama and Trump administrations. These “texts” have deliberately brought together black, white, and in-between in spaces which have forced us to crack open the sealed chest buried deep within our American soil and sift through its booty: mythology, supreme fiction, (author)ity, historiography, performance, power–and, above all, our individual roles within such grand systems.

Heh, I can see it. The Academy. I can only picture it as a young gentleman and lady seated on the terrace of a Parisian-inspired cafe in Manhattan or L.A. The sky is a striking blue, with the sun hanging high like a golden apple, shooting edenic rays across their legs, their plates, their madeleine cakes. They are both well-educated, with seasoned palates for cinematic aesthetics (being quoted in this month’s New York Times or last week’s issue of The Paris Review). They are both white, but not one of those whites, they joke to themselves, as they each order a cocktail. They begin to talk of Justin Simien or Lena Waithe, or Issa Rae; they give these black artists praise for their works, but treat them as isolated incidents. Happy accidents, the gentleman says. They cannot be working together, the lady posits. I imagine that there is an irony lost to both the gentleman and the lady as they talk of Donald Glover and Ryan Coogler and Barry Jenkins as nothing more than Hollywood’s Nigga du jour.

The theater, the living room, the screen. Sitting in a space and rubbing elbows beside people you know, don’t know, cannot know, laying bare all prejudices, preconceived notions, misunderstandings, vulnerabilities, past experiences; all woven together into a heteroglossic quilt for the benefit of seeing narratives that hold a mirror to our world, to our national discourses on race, sexuality, power, gender, class, &etc. Leave mad, or leave glad, we are, regardless, exposed to the eerie, supernatural event of walking out of a dark theater, or turning off our television screens, to re-enter a world that is slightly different than the one we left when the opening credits began. The is the potential of The Visual Novel.

Sure, I could go on and on about the artistic qualities of Atlanta‘s experimental form and its erratic structure that’s akin to Zadie Smith’s NW; or Moonlight‘s rough verisimilitude that mimics the nitty-gritty queer poetics of Danez Smith’s collection Don’t Call Us Dead; or Get Out‘s elastic hysteria that cannot help but align itself with Wildean satire. But reader, I am no qualified aesthete. My purpose on this blog is not to convince or persuade you to follow the labyrinth of my mind. We can all make those decisions ourselves. However, I am here to tell you that Postmodernism is dead; as dead as Woody Allen’s artistic credibility, as dead as MTV or VH1’s role as pop culture’s high priests, as dead as American acquiesce to jingoistic rhetoric and ideology (for the most part). There is a storm brewing in our literature, our music, our film, our television that will be remembered for generations to come. Welcome, reader, to the new artistic school of thought and art. The Black Renaissance.

Welcome, reader, to our new movement. Welcome to our new titans.

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Difficult Mother(s): Madonna without Child

It was the summer of ’01 at the Gordonsville Dix Memorial Pool. The sun was harsh, drying the thin film of sweat and water from our backs and legs as my friends and I laid on our towels. In the grassy patch by the side of the pool we had formed a neat circle around a pile of snacks bought from the food stand, frozen Reese’s Cups and Snickers, like we did every Friday afternoon. Eyelashes knitted tight with water and bodies smelling like hot chlorine. It was the summer I turned ten. It was the summer that Janet Jackson’s “Someone to Call My Lover” from her album All for You reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100, gracing the radios with its sweet, warm melodious twang. I was obsessed, both with the music video (Janet driving on a bright country highway, her skin shining like gold between scenes of her singing on the road and scenes of her swaying her hips in a small rustic bar filled with dancing black folk in straw hats and durags worn like crowns) and with the song itself, the opening guitar rift, a sampling of America’s 1972 song “Ventura Highway”, unraveling to Ms. Jackson’s journey to loving and longing. I didn’t know why I clung to the song so desperately, I was ten and had no concept of either. But I did know. Janet Jackson had written a jukebox bop about my mother. My absent, difficult mother.


Back on the road again 
Feeling kinda lonely… 

From the few pieces I have been able to gather from family members through my childhood, I have created a poor tessellation of her as a traveler. Not in the sense that she owned a well-worn passport or was well-versed on where to go in certain seasons or times of the year, but in the sense that adolescents are natural travelers; an excellent explorer of changing identity, a navigator of desire, a body made up of bones trapped by a certain restlessness, that if held too close to a fire, can evolve into inevitable recklessness. The rebellious daughter, the Ms. Steal-Your-Man in the hallways or football bleachers, the mother-not-mother who would send a letter from one city but months later call from another. Even more than a decade after her death she travels in my fiction, my terrible poetry, this goddamned blog.

Illustration of a Difficult Mother: She’s beautiful, and you don’t need to be told this because there are photos of her at different stages of her life throughout her parents’ house, the grandparents who raised you. She’s no stranger to the road. Her parents once sent her to West Virginia to continue school in a place where she could be less difficult. She loves men as fiercely as you do, with the whole body, which makes it hard when the father of her unborn child dissolves from the picture entirely before you are born (but there was a navy man, once, who loved her and promised to marry her, and you wonder from time-to-time what came of that man). She tries to raise you with a strange man you do not like for maybe a year or two before she breaks down. She cannot raise you. She cannot raise a child, and so her parents do. She’s in and out of your earliest memories, when she leaves after visiting for a week and you’re five, wailing and screaming and fighting for her to take you with her; or swinging next to you on a porch swing at a family cookout one summer night when you’re eight and you don’t recognize her for possibly hours, until she identities herself, It’s me, your mamma; before you cease to hear from her completely, you and a nice man who loved her, though she did not return his love, drive to New Jersey to visit her (you are nine, and ignorant for too long that the place you are visiting her is a rehabilitation center and she looks hollow, incomplete). She’s been everywhere and nowhere, and no map of the U.S. will do because the last you heard from her came in the form of a Valentine’s Day card to her parents wishing them Happy Anniversary, with no mention or postscript of your name anywhere; as if you are of no consequence, not even an inkling of hindsight. Until the phone rings. It is the summer of ’04 and it is shortly after you have turned thirteen, inhabiting a new body, alone in the house when the phone rings and a voice from Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia tells you that she is dying.

And looking for the right guy… 

What do we do with Difficult Mothers? Or better, what do we do with women who, voluntarily or involuntarily, sacrifice everything, first their bodies then their whole person, yet still hunger? Women whose appetites crave for love, completeness, humanity, beyond the birthing and raising of a child? We punish them. We demand that it is enough for them to be a mother, and for those who dare resist (fall short of the ideal), a reminder is in order of the highest judgment: the wages of sin are death. I punished my mother-not-mother in my childhood by hating her, by pouring onto an alter made of mud and sticks falsities and pain. I still do. I lie to her, tell acquaintances and friends that she was present when she wasn’t; that, together with my grandparents, she raised me until she got sick and died, which is a half-truth. I do this for the temporary sense of normality and pale comfort. I have striped her of her humanity to force her into a mold of rigid convention, to make her less difficult, less complicated. I have perverted her memory, her truth. We punish Difficult Mothers to erase hurt.

Art has no short supply of Difficult Mothers. I know this firsthand because I seek them out, obsessed and fascinated with these women, their humanity raw and tangled; women who force us to dwell on their contradictions, their multitudes. Madonna before child, with(out) child, beyond child.

Jenny Curran in Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump, Paula in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Olivia Evens in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood each struggle to reach a place of forgiveness and redemption, meeting an end in death or isolation, but not before pitting us in a space of intense empathy when otherwise we’d want nothing more than to see them punished for their neglect, their selfishness. In literature, the representatives are abundant: Emma Bovary in Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, Nora Helmer in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Caddy Compson in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Cathy Ames in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Sarah in Tom Perotta’s Little Children, the mother of the unnamed protagonist in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, Odette de Crécy in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the titular mother in Euripides’s Medea. Women who ask for no more than what we all ask for–love, ambition, justice, success, wholeness, the world. To be flawed and praised and human. For Life. And yet.

To be mine. 

Then last month Jesmyn Ward published Sing, Unburied, Sing. It became a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award. And I read review after review after review in hesitation and trembling for fear that if I picked up a copy I would find something terrifying. And I did. There she was, in a different body, with a different name, in a different story. There she was: drugged, neglectful, difficult, desperate, lonely, difficult, afraid, unsure, difficult, awkward, human.

Looking for someone to call her lover.

Unlike the rest of my family, I cannot claim my mother. She plays no role in my memory, save as a reminder that life for some of us is more difficult than others, that the decisions we make long before we die are still of consequence to the living. However, I can claim her death.

Every October is different, but the same. My mother-not-mother dies every October, from 2004 to now, but in new ways, in ways that evolve with me the older and wiser I become. She is no longer my difficult secret. She is a human–conflicted, unknowable–before she is the woman who abandoned her son; she, alive, is capable of reflecting all of humanity in one smile, before her ghost is shaded by my frustration, my confusion, my pain.

I have learned–am learning–to look for a fuller picture. History knows what it did. It could not have been easy, to look at the world and say, What you ask of me, I cannot do.


The Old Masters hold no interest to me when they imitate, again and again, the Virgin Mary; her soft eyes cast down in adoration of baby Christ, her treasure. Their bodies enveloped in a divine, yellow sfumato. I much rather turn to the mothers of my friends for that sweet, longing look that both makes me hungry with envy, and desperate to do whatever it takes to be held in their eyes the same way.

Give me an artist who can paint her stressed, harried, hungry. An artist who can place her on the edge of her seat, as if to run from her child. Give me someone who can tilt her head toward a crowd of lovers, toward a never-ending country road, a bar, a club, toward a place where she remembers who she is, who she can be. Find me an artist who can make her human. Difficult.

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Juneteenth.

My mind is a map of misunderstanding. Often it can take me two to three minutes longer to connect one piece of information to another in an attempt to draw a comprehensive constellation of whatever it is I am talking about or listening to, than other people; what are you reading? inevitably morphs onto whole discourses on the literary history of Modernism; what’re your summer plans? into my idea of a perfect meal consisting of a cheeseburger (lettuce, grilled onions, cheddar cheese so sharp it can cut my tongue, accompanied with a great lake of ketchup), fries, and a coke; what’s your type? into my regaling the traumatic first time I watched internet porn at age fourteen, that ended with me hunched over my keyboard, clutching myself, and crying to God to forgive me for a full hour and a half before bed (masturbation and guilt would be married in my imagination for another two years). In short, I give too much information. I miss details. Sometimes answering the questions posed to me, sometimes starting several topics that are irrelevant to the conversation at hand. The exception, of course, being when I’m reading and writing. I’m twenty-six and the youngest Don Quixote to possibly have existed–sane/coherent in the world of books, insane/incoherent in the world outside.

This, of course, is an exaggeration–hell, I’m a writer with a flair for the melodramatic! But the older I get, the more I can’t help but to worry about my sense of the world around me; the less opinionated I sometimes am about my convictions, or the more I catch myself zoning out into outer space after the first two words answered when I ask someone how their day was. This world is so loud. How I can quiet my mind and listen, with clarity. How can I decide my stance on issues or topics that so many are quick to dig their heels in the dry earth and yell out into the void.

Trump. LGBTQ Rights. Black Lives Matter. Police Brutality. Feminism. I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Racism (aka the Alt-Right/White Nationalism). Toxic Masculinity. White Fragility. Etc, etc, etc. We live in a world that cannot sigh in self-expression, cannot stretch in skepticism or doubt, without sparking a wildfire of vehement shouting or finger pointing. This paralyzes me. This keeps me up at night, the idea that I do not have a complete fleshed-out opinion on some of these topics, or worst, that the opinions I do have are subject to question, to doubt…

I’m terrified, shaken to my very core, that my indecision will lead to silence; that my silence, to consent; my consent, my inability to be an ally to justice; that my sum will result in a dead soul in a cold body.

A poet saved me. How silly that sounds aloud or in a blog post, but he truly did. After graduating from college I kept up with several professors who were, and still are, the titans of my social, intellectual, and creative education. And he, that professor-poet, came down like the Holy Spirit in the form (more interesting than a dove) of a dirty-blonde Apollo several years my senior and reminded me of something important: I know where I stand. I know my convictions. I know what is important. I know what is right and most certainly, incontrovertibly, what is wrong.

And all it took was for him to share with me George Saunders’s essay, “The Braindead Megaphone.” Take my hand reader, follow with me:

     Imagine a party. The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, own businesses, have real areas of expertise. They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction. Certain submerged concerns are coming to the surface and–surprise, pleasant surprise–being confirmed and seconded and assuaged by other people who’ve been feeling the same way.
Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate.
But he’s got that megaphone.

You’ve seen this, yes? Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr? The news, perhaps? Then that ominous moment, the danger. The fall:

Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing–but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they. If he continually uses the phrase “at the end of the day,” they start using it too. If he weaves into his arguments the assumption that the west side of the room is preferable to the east, a slow westward drift will begin.

There it is! Right at the center of my anxiety! Everyone has a megaphone! Everyone cranks up their dials to max volume and booms down unto their enemies the voice of God before listening!

And They said: Shout unto others before they shout unto you. 

But alas, volume does not sway those who bump comically into those who share their residence in darkness, in ignorance. Volume encourages them to vindicate their sins by retreating further and deeper into their cave, cutting and bruising themselves as their bloodied bodies grind against the rock. How can we remind ourselves of this? How can we remember to listen to their faulty logic in patience and pity and speak in love first, before making room for interrogation and reflection, understanding that here there is history, and that history can be undone if, instead of speaking to them like children, we instead take their hand (if they will have us at all) and lead them through the history of their hate, their fear, their misunderstanding–the forces they don’t see at all that are so woven deeply into the fabric of their DNA. Not in loud, paralyzing hostility, but in communal, dialogic cooperation.

If I am to share with you my light, I must first be a candle before I can be the sun.


Juneteenth is approaching. I never would have known what it even is if it had not been for the fact that it’s the title of Ralph Ellison’s second novel (published posthumously in 1999) or a title episode (season 1, episode 9) of Donald Glover’s television series, Atlanta. Wikipedia defines Juneteenth as, “a holiday that commemorates the June 19, 1865 announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas, and more generally the emancipation of African-Americans slaves throughout the Confederate South.”

I have never seen nor heard of a Juneteenth celebration. I have never been invited to a Juneteenth cookout as a boy or adolescent. I have never seen, marked three days after my birthday, in tiny script, “Juneteenth” on a calendar. I have never been turned away from a closed public library or local business on the basis of Juneteenth observation.

I was a boy of the American South. I grew up in a town of cows, tractors, country music, and bonfires in humid Summer nights. I grew up in a state of the Confederate South. I grew up black, among other things. I grew up in a family who remember seeing members of the Klu Klux Klan in the grocery store, PTC meetings, their children’s graduations. I grew up in a town where I could not take a white classmate to Prom because of her mother. I grew up in a town that said, you may not be separate, but you are most certainly not equal. 

I am a man of the American South. I grow up in a state where, in most cities and counties, three days before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is Lee-Jackson Day…

Richmond, Virginia is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to, partially because I live there; partially because this city, with all of its juxtaposition and duality, feels like the perfect Post-Modern setting for a Zadie Smith novel. Both old and young, conventional and bohemian, historic and artistic, this city leaves a blossoming image in my mind taken straight out of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd: New wine in old bottles.

Richmond is a mecca for an urban contemporary art scene and culture.

Richmond is also, historically and genetically, the capital of the Confederacy.

About a block from my apartment I get a gorgeous view from my balcony of Monument Avenue, a Victorian street lavished with sublime mansions reminiscent of The Great Gatsby’s East Egg, and punctuated by a tree-lined grassy mall sometimes peopled, in yellow Summertime, with couples sunbathing or groups of friends playing Cornhole or Frisbee. Breathtaking in the golden hour of sunrise and sunset, in flaming Autumn and pale Winter, Monument is also inhabited by the cold, bronze statues of J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson (not to mention, the Tower of Babel that is Jefferson Davis’s pillar). On weekends and weeknights I walk past Lee, on the way to a friend’s apartment, mostly without notice or thought that here, within this black body, I walk by a man that fought for “states’ rights” or, more appropriately, for the continuing institution of slavery (I care not for the arguments that he fought for the protection of his home, at least in this present moment).

I often ignored these monuments, but it seems that I cannot any longer. Not in good faith. On May 17th the statue of Robert E. Lee was removed in the city of New Orleans, the last of four Confederate-related monuments taken down in the area. Shortly after, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh told the Baltimore Sun that the city of Baltimore “will take a closer look at how we go about following in the footsteps of New Orleans.” And here, in Richmond, the time is inevitable when our own historic energies will be put to the test as well.

Old and young.

Historic and artistic.

White and Black.

There’s a fear, tale as old as time in the mouths of certain white folk, that the removal of Confederate monuments is an offensive removal of memory and history. But does removing these monuments erase the obvious (and still visible) fact that Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy? We still have museums, for one. Some have argued that these monuments are stepping-stones in the conversation of slavery and race-relations post-Civil War. But if that is the case, then why aren’t there plaques alongside these shrines? I have to admit I’m surprised that there hasn’t been an art student who has created reactionary statues (in the vein of Wall Street’s Fearless Girl) of blacks alongside the lawns of Lee, Stuart, Jackson, or Davis. Let’s be honest, these monuments do nothing to educate or propel any conversations outside of the problematic issue that they stand proudly, in Yeatsian symbolism, for the history of a city that fought for rebellion. Directly or indirectly, a rebellion that took under its cause a continuing system of slavery.

Yet here we are, screaming. Shouting and pointing fingers. We are presently at the cacophonous crescendo of a Harper Lee plot. In the face of black concern, white fear and trembling has taken center-stage. We have stopped listening to one another, we have forgotten that issues are never seen in either/or, but the uncomfortable marriage bed of both.

YOU’RE RACIST IF YOU KEEP THEM!

YOU’RE IGNORANT IF YOU REMOVE THEM! 

So what of the man with the megaphone?

     We consider speech to be the result of thought (we have a thought, then select a sentence with which to express it), but thought also results from speech (as we grope, in words, toward meaning, we discover what we think). This yammering guy has, by forcibly putting his restricted language into the heads of the guests, affected the quality and coloration of the thoughts going on in there.
He has, in effect, put an intelligence-ceiling on the party.


What does a city lose when it decides to remove statues and monuments that arguably shouldn’t have been there in the first place? What does it gain once they are removed and conversations can begin with “what was once here, is here no longer. This is why…”?

All I know is that I know nothing. I try not to speak authoritatively. Remember, my mind is a map of misunderstanding.

But I am an American of the South.

All I know is that Juneteenth is approaching. There will be no celebrations. There will be no closing of local businesses to observe the holiday. There will be no monuments erected in honor of its history and memory.

I must sit still and listen. I must be a candle before I can be the sun.

Bedtime Stories: The Dream of Black Excellence, The Nightmare of Uncle Tom (Scientific Name: Nigro-Albus Americanus)

When Langston Hughes published his 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” illustrating the poetics that haunted American black writers of the early 20th century, he reflected on an unusual history that, still to this day, embedded the imagination of the black psyche since the dawn of emancipation: the narrative of black excellence and the sacrifices associated with achieving it; in short, the crucifixion of the black body to attain American success and recognition, a.k.a. White Acceptance. The essay begins:

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.

When I first read this, after first applauding Hughes for articulating what I once thought inarticulable for the black aesthete, I laughed; first, condescendingly at the imaginary white reader in my head who turned inquisitively to me and asked curiously, “What does he mean?” and second, nervously, for here was a crippling reminder of what once was, and still is. If there are any who read this with the false, preconceived notion that every single black American shares the exact same list of experiences down-to-a-tee, then it is my misfortune to type and publish the following statement: While the black experience is vast and filled with multitudes as unique and varied as there are stars in the sky, there is a shared and common narrative that we are subjected to since the day we are old enough to be read to before sleep…

legree

—–

When an African American is born, crying and wailing into the unknown known, we come ignorant of who are are; we come without any inherent knowledge of our blackness, and are subjected to a plethora of voices (mostly based on such sensitive variables such as where we live or where our families come from, both geographically and socioeconomically) instructing us on how to “correctly” express our new-found identity. For some it is their parents, or family, who provide a mode and model of black ontology, or being; for most, it is a paradoxical, conflicting combination of family, media (television, newspapers, film, music), and, more often than not, White America–drawing an anxiety-inducing line on “acceptable” forms of blackness. How arbitrary and absolutely silly that I am not black simply by eating or breathing or shitting, but that my country expects extra, demands extra where others can live without any conscious doubt of how they can move within it (this country is never straightforward and insists on placing faith in supreme fictions and damning mythologies). The role is cast, the part is played; while we come into this world not initially knowing what we are, we most certainly are taught what we must absolutely not be.

Uncle Tom (Nigro-Albus Americanus) / ‘ʌŋkəl ˈtɑm/ (n.)

1. A passive or subservient black man/woman who participates in the oppression of their own race by avoiding conflict or intimidation by pandering to white acceptance, whether knowingly or not, while concealing their own opinions, feelings, or behavior in hopes of appeasement and/or assimilation.

2. An “Oreo” or “Not Really Black” American that sacrifices self-reliance or confidence in their racial identity to gain position (socially, professionally, romantically, spiritually, artistically, sexually, academically, fraternally, culturally, nationally, comically, educationally, ontologically, metaphysically, existentially, &etc) in order to temporarily gain a safe or secure place within the American “dream.”

3. A type of African American, or phase in one’s ever-developing black experience, where the coping mechanism of “keeping the peace” is much more important than expressing oneself unapologetically.

(synonyms: Betrayer, House Negro, Eunuch,  Oreo, Traitor, Sell-Out, Absolute Fool)

The Cultural Ameri-Zoologist responsible for giving form and substance to this particular kind of black existence was none other than the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of the 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Coined by Abraham Lincoln as “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” Stowe would be credited for both drawing sympathies from white audiences in regards to the topic of slavery that would eventually lead to the Civil War, and for indirectly establishing a caricatured, problematic image of martyrdom and servility in the collective black imagination. Whether or not the novel can be found in their homes or searched in their literary memories, every black American has read Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

—–

The Uncle Tom of Stowe’s novel is nothing of what his name would embody as it slowly evolved into a cultural epithet. He is religious, gentle, Christ-like in his refusal to obey his master when ordered to beat other slaves or betray the whereabouts of those who have runaway. But he is also passive, submissive, forgiving of the overseers who beat, and ultimately kill, him; he is stripped of his masculinity, agency, and autonomy, becoming the asexual, pandering “Uncle Tom” that would boil him down to a type, rather than a character. In trying to subvert racist stereotypes associated with the American negro, Stowe further complicated the discourse of race in America. In just 165 years, her Prometheus metamorphosed into an exhausted Sisyphus. Indeed, sometimes the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

But what, or who, is the Uncle Tom of today? What does he look like? How does he behave?

At thirteen, after I was told that the neighbor of my Godfather’s mother had a large confederate flag displayed in the front window of her house, I defended said neighbor, claimed that flags, like symbols, often change and do not hold the same historical or complicated weight. That the flag bore only her Southern pride and heritage rather than her hate.

At sixteen, a white friend called a black peer a Nigger. He looked at me, explained matter-of-factly that our classmate’s baggy jeans, erratic lean in his gait, and chosen rhythm of speech made him a Nigger, while my form-fitted clothes, inclination to books, and similar diction to his made me something else. I was his Nigga, his friend, while our peer was a Nigger, his inferior. I felt uncomfortable. I bit my tongue.

At seventeen, while waiting for a class to begin, the classmate in front of me overheard me talking to a friend about my after-school activities (Student Government, tennis, finishing whichever book I was reading at the time, and dinner with some friends before attending a bonfire later that night) and called me an Uncle Tom. Said I was white. Teaching me that my interests were in conflict with my identity. Reading and intellectual pursuits were white. She was black, and so I took her word as gospel.

I laughed and joined others when they called me an Oreo, that I wasn’t really black at all, that the white, upper-middle-class classmates who listened to Lil’ Wayne and T-Pain were blacker than I was. I would later learn from this that everybody wants to be black, but nobody wants to be black.

I unconsciously made all of my customizable video game characters (i.e. The Sims) white, or acceptably “tan” before I felt that they were prepared and agreeable enough to enter their adventure.

I wrote every protagonist in every childhood story of my juvenilia as white.

I believed and advocated for individuals who were “colorblind.”

I called myself an American all throughout High School. Just an American. To be an African American would be to embrace difference, to reject unity.

I believed that to not acknowledge the color of my skin would be the cure to forsake the troubled past of this land, in hopes of building a better future; hand-in-hand, I would stand by my white counterparts and watch this country bloom into a post-racial utopia. At the cost of my own existence. My own voice. That they would ask such a sacrifice of me, and that I would give so willingly.

I was a child. I was a moral monster and a goddamn fool. I know this now and abhor–vehemently rebuke–myself, not so much for what I did, though that alone causes me great grief even in my twenties, than for what I was capable of. That an individual could grow up and learn from their country to do that. Unspeakable. My fingers tremble above this keyboard.

—–

When Langston Hughes mentioned that “young Negro poet” (was it indeed Countee Cullen? Could it be Jean Toomer, like I assumed? Does it matter?)  who was so willing to sacrifice their blackness for the fruition of their own ambition and success, he called out to a kink and lapse in the American dream; that black success was no success at all unless one could willfully negate that dark adjective. But he knew better. Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston knew better. John Coltrane, Billy Holiday, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Ralph Ellison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Dave Chapelle, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Justin Simien, Keegan Key and Jordan Peele, Beyonce, Toni Morrison, Chance the Rapper, Kehinde Wiley, Barry Jenkins and Tarell McCraney, Roxane Gay, Octavia Bulter, and many black men and women knew better and continue to know better. I know better.

If identifying as a black artist is to fall short of the American standard, then I don’t wish to be an artist at all. If identifying as an African American is to fall short of the American standard, then I don’t wish to be an American at all.

My blackness is my excellence. Anything else is but the fleeting fancy of a dream.

To Gays & Be Gazed Upon: A Vindication on the Rights to Look (And with Permission, Touch) in an Ever Queerer America

I saw it. And although I had no idea what it was exactly what I was seeing, the adults around me saw it as their duty to do most of the work for me. An aunt of mine, who worked within the school system of my rural, one-horse county, put it best when discussing the infamous elementary school music teacher: “There are children. It’s not appropriate for him to be doing that.” She wasn’t disagreeing with the music teacher’s existence or even his mode of living, per se, but she was calling to question the ethics of his public display of affection with his partner. Now this was a man who was a phenomenal music teacher (memory and hindsight as default, faulty filter) who lived quietly with his partner–the only flamboyant detail being his dark blue truck with the license plate that read Pooh Dad and his partner’s that read Pooh Cub–and who was the first individual to, indirectly, introduce to me to the concept of homosexuality (a six-year-old’s imagination isn’t that good); this was a man who one day simply parked his truck in the much frequented Sheetz parking lot, got out with his partner, and kissed him on the cheek, tenderly and gingerly. This kiss was no different from the plethora of times I had seen my grandparents kiss, or the parents of friends. But my aunt was teaching me a vital lesson when she recited from the Gospel of Small Southern Towns: “It’s not appropriate for him to be doing that.” Forever and ever, amen.

Same-sex desire is supposed to be something heard of, not seen. Same-sex desire is a concern of privates spaces, not public. There is an appropriate time for queerness, and an inappropriate time. Rinse and repeat.

—–

Unbeknownst to a majority of her readers, Their Eyes Were Watching God‘s Zora Neale Hurston was a lover and scholar of anthropological and folkloric fieldwork, traveling through the Caribbean and American South with a 16mm camera and a carnivorous appetite to film the “trivial” and “mundane” daily lives of black people.

No please, after you….

What’s magical, and overwhelmingly powerful about Hurston’s footage–the very images that causes the synapses in my brain to ignite and fire off throughout the dome of my imagination–is the pure expression and freedom of the people filmed; these are animated black bodies, completely free from and uninhibited by the nonexistence of a white presence. The white gaze is absent, therefore these black bodies can move, dance, bounce, and breathe without restraint, pressure, or even anxiety. The children (3:25-4:56), linked together in a game of skipping and dancing around and between one another, seems to be Hurston (the mother of the Black Arts Movement several decades before its founding) posing a critical observation for what was then an early 20th century concern of race-politics: See how the body moves and behaves, unconsciously and unhesitatingly, without the discomfort of oppression; how elegant and flexible each limb can demonstrate itself and stretch itself to the outermost limit when unburdened by a missing, ever-prejudiced eye; how natural a body can be a body once it forgets it is a body.

The first time I occupied space in a predominantly male gay bar was last Winter in D.C. Play the scene in your head when Harry first experiences Diagon Alley or Hogwarts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, or Samwell Tarly’s entrance into the grand library of the Citadel in Season 6, episode 10 of George R.R. Martin/HBO’s A Game of Thrones. This may well be me waxing poetic in comparing the feeling, but there I was, caught in absolute wonder; there were bodies here, mostly beaded in tight constellations of sweat, that moved unbound, unquestioned. They were free; no one had to ask, and it would be irrelevant, even redundant, to tell. As my friends (all heterosexual save one) talked and laughed and drank away in the hour or so that we were there, I was caught in a dream, half listening to them in favor of something more that caught my attention. I pressed my back against the couch where we were sitting, and gazed.

(Yet there it was, the voice of America: “It’s not appropriate for him to be doing that.”)

—–

I started with a question: what does the body want? And ended with: it wants. 
–Elizabeth Hall, “Research”

In the 1970s and 80s, before the devastating AIDS crisis, several cities throughout the U.S. served as sanctuaries and Meccas for American homosexuals, i.e. San Francisco and New York City. These places provided areas where the gay or queer body could walk, talk, and live in freedom via public spaces. “Bath Houses” or “Brothels” were environments where men were invited, and often encouraged, to place their bodies on display and, in turn, enjoy the bodies of others. An individual could allow oneself to stare, to gaze unabashed, to let the eyes linger longingly at the musculature of the chest or arms, to trace the lines of the abs or bicep or crotch. Though still one of the unspoken acts in the totaling list of American taboos, the queer body found a way to resist in what, for most, is a commonplace expression in human intimacy, enacted since the dawn of our existence: to look, to touch.

I talk too much because I have been made so miserable by what you are keeping hushed.
–Djuna Barnes, Nightwood 

In the middle school locker room, I learned that it was not appropriate to look.

On camping trips planned for our adolescent, all-male church class, I learned that it was not appropriate to look.

During bus rides, or practice, with the high school tennis team, I learned that it was not appropriate to look.

Sleepovers, lock-ins, Fraternity events, at the beach/pool; in my dreams, my fears, my total absence of thought: it was not appropriate to look.

No one had to tell me, re-educate me. I learned from my aunt, I learned from others. I found this truth to be self-evident. It was not appropriate for me to be doing that, here or anywhere.

But reader, am I wrong to think that the queer body should be taught, however young or old, that it can gaze, look with sexual liberation, without consequence? Does the queer gaze, itself, inherently limit the movements of the non-queer body? Does the boy, or girl, who yearns visually at the opposite sex gain something divine, or even something more worthy, than the boy or girl who wishes to look upon the boy or girl in same-sex curiosity? Reader, if they cannot look, they cannot articulate the want to touch; if they cannot touch, they cannot know the outside of their cage. They cannot exist, simply because we will not allow them.

Walls protect and walls limit. It is in the nature of walls that they should fall. That walls should fall is the consequence of blowing your own trumpet.
–Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Sure, it’s 2017 (however many times we ambiguously or vaguely state the current year, our hands just as empty as before the statement was made), and homosexuals can marry; add this to your withering list of reasons why the LGBTQ community can “breathe more easily”–but the law does nothing to forgive us our trespasses when children are still called “faggots” or “dykes” in the hallway, or beaten up for exercising a look that many boys/girls their very age give to their female/male peers year-in, year-out. Manipulation, friends, begins not so often with what it is you hear, but with what you see. Or don’t.

How can the body, this physical container of flesh and blood, passion and logic, ever be considered grotesque when all it wants is to want? (How timid, how frail the body that fears to be looked upon.)

There’s the divine! There’s the superiority over all things that cannot; that the human body, no matter gender, sex, race, class, religion, or what-have-you, can bloom at any given second into a vivid, burning bouquet of want. I need no other thesis than that.

—–

In the 16th century, an Italian anatomist named Renaldus Columbus claimed to have discovered the clitoris while studying the bodies of living and dead females. He would be one of the first to put pen to paper in describing, in detail, the organ, but be corrected a century later by anatomists who would laugh at his claims: humans have known about the clitoris for centuries! This is no new discovery.

Gesturing toward this in her essay collection, I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris, Elizabeth Hall muses on what I find to be of greater significance, a moment of exigency that escapes the pages of the past to educate to present:

“Columbus’s account, however, is significant: it assumes that looking and touching will reveal different truths about bodies.”

……that looking and touching will reveal different truths about bodies. I pray.

kehinde-wiley-dogone-couple-630pxDogon Couple, Kehinde Wiley, 2008