I didn’t feel I belonged in the Black community until the tender age of 29. School was a playground-cum-assault course, and Black boys were quick and consistent in their reminding me that no uppity niggas were welcome to hang out with them. When, at 12, I asked my dad why the Black boys didn’t like me, his response disturbed me so deeply, I stopped trying to belong immediately. Grabbing my wrist and turning it over, he said, “You can see your veins. You’re a house nigger. I’m a field nigger”. As he let my wrist go, I resolved to never engage in a conversation about race again. “How stupid,” I thought, “that they would judge me for something I have no control over.” That decision, forged in disappointment and confusion, would allow me to walk through the world blind to my race — a no-holds-barred ignorance and vicious self-hate that would eat away at me until I came back to and realised I had been ravaged.
At 14, I had my first boyfriend. It was an illicit affair, secret bathroom rendezvous, notes slipped through locker slats, and naked fumbling in my bedroom after school. He was of Mexican descent, but in that space in which we explored each other together, race never came up; it didn’t need to. The sheer terror of what we were doing, against a backdrop of rural Texas, occupied enough of our time together that no space existed between us for anything else. Just desire and terror. Those sloppy and urgent kisses became moments of bliss, moments in which I began to understand myself a little better. It was exciting. It felt natural. A great deal of thought wasn’t required on whether I was gay, though it didn’t make it any easier to reckon with.
My grandfather’s church was in a backwater town called Yoakum, a small church set among skyscraper trees and accessible only by pushing myself through that particularly cloying humidity of Sunday — that very specific midday heat that’s compounded by the weight of God and sin. The soul-shaking echoes of Negro spirituals and women fanning themselves with programs in outfits I never saw them in twice. My grandfather, sweaty and shiny, spitting and screeching from his post. The smell of cherry and almond lotion, my young skin moisturised by my grandmother as if ashiness was an affront to God. This is the Blackness I knew so intimately, but despite my ancestors having been some of the first to hit the blood-filled clay of the South, I didn’t feel Black. I didn’t belong.
Church became the place where I learned that I might somehow claw back my Blackness, if only I could get rid of this affliction. Why God had decided to make me the aberration, why the cross had been cast upon my back, I couldn’t figure out, but it became my responsibility to free myself from it. Raw knees from praying in my bedroom at night clung to my trousers as I winced and minced my way to church, white-knuckling my Bible, as if it were a weapon with which I could protect myself. I tore through its pages trying to figure out where the password to the gates of Heaven was. What was the codeword He needed to hear so this demon of gayness could be cast out of my body? I needed it gone so I could reclaim my Blackness. I couldn’t be both. Right?
The Atlanta air was fresher. The trees were different. It might have been the intoxicating potential of that bustling city, that anonymised space I’d eventually descend into, only to emerge scarred and battered. Sex for money, a sexual assault, and a beating by a boyfriend convinced me that it wouldn’t be here I find my belonging. It was Thursday night, I think, and I had popped two xanax and was in the theatre watching Panic Room. Against the protestations of my friends, I accepted my ex-boyfriend’s invitation to stay with him at the W. He tried to have sex with me, I refused and we got into a fight. He grabbed my throat, threw me onto the floor, scooped up all my clothes and left the hotel room. As I chased after him down the hallway, naked, I thought, “This can’t be it”. I’d look for myself and a life worth pursuing much further afield, in the dreary mist of London. The city would turn out to be its own kind of vicious, but by that point, so would I.
The filmmaker Shikeith has a short film called #blackmendream. In it, he asks his subjects, whose backs are to the camera, “When did you become a Black man?” Goosebumps stretch my skin to its limits, as I think back to the Baltimore riots of 2015. A city ablaze and a global conversation telling these outraged youths that their murder should not be met with destruction. I was shaking and screaming, frantic, agonising. “I hope they raze that motherfucking city to the ground.” I realised that it was by the grace of God Freddie wasn’t me. The blindfold that had led me from my brothers and into dens of white men to be savaged was ripped from my face by the reality that I am Black; that my Blackness is unassailable. That my title to Blackness has been bought and paid for with the blood of the family, by the whip cracks on backs and chitlins and collard greens, by lynching and ‘nigger’, by terror and subjugation and murder. That my Blackness is laser-cut into the fabric of my being by the languished cries of Negro spirituals and long marches, police dogs, and brutality and far too many, too flippant, too easily believed and too easily betrayed I have a dreams. That my Blackness is earned. That my very existence confirms by Blackness.
That specific heat of Sundays, the weight, the expectation, the uncertainty brings me closer to my ancestors. I imagine they take deep breaths and let their lungs fill with the thick and sugary Texas heat. As they wipe their brows on the rough fronts of their shirts, and as the sun sets behind vertiginous and arrogant trees, daring to rise up to a sun that’s trying to kill them, I imagine the fireflies and cicadas, the breeze of dusk carrying the smell of pork, reminding them that tonight, for a moment, there is more than the shackles and the injustice and the death. I imagine them understanding the unbearable lightness of Blackness. That in us live those who lift us up. I imagine that in these rare moments of respite, they reach down and tear up a chunk of earth and crush it in their hands and that the blood in the soil stains their palms red. And they remember: this is home.