The first black man I loved wasn’t an accumulation of white America’s long-held fears. No black man could ever live up to that. He was a body, a human. He was not America’s fabled monstrous buck nor was he an icon of meritocracy.
He was my father. I was his son.
He was a black man whose belly sometimes protruded far beyond his waistline, who spoke in a poetic vernacular that allowed him to communicate in code to the people he encountered on the streets of our black hood in New Jersey, his words holding different meanings to those inside and outside the community. His hands were sometimes scaly and calloused from too much physical labor performed for little pay when he could land jobs, whose split-time between U.S. prisons and a rental home in Camden made him something of an absence to be derided and desired.
He was not always the best at showing care, but when he did his care was generous. He was not always aware of others’ plights to render him invisible, and sometimes he did a good job of discarding himself. He held me in the same hands that were often used to hurt my mother. The beatings he meted out, like the time he twisted my mom’s arm until she cried in my presence when I was a boy because she talked back, were common. But he was the first black man who loved me and I loved him back.
Had he been an imperfect white man, because all men are imperfect, the world may have loved him still. If he were an abusive white man, like Donald Trump, who came from generational wealth, with wealth that means power, he would have been afforded visibility and acclaim. Had he been a white man who failed as much as he excelled, he would have been deemed worthy of love still. He might be alive at 55 and not dead, too young, from heart complications. Any heart that beats overtime to compensate for what it is denied is one sure to break too soon. The fact of America is that black people’s lives and mistakes are individual and collective, the fault always of the man and never the world around him, but those faults are used to pathologize not just the man but those who look like him, too. In my mirror, I saw fault.
The heavy words I used to eulogize him could have been used to describe his wins in a country that bends its love in the direction of white manhood, but I mostly defended his right to be loved. He might have even had a chance to run for president and win, but such luxuries are not afforded to most black men, especially those who refuse to become the trope we are taught to replicate before we are encouraged to love ourselves.
I was expected—by those who knew us both—to rise above his seeming failed humanity. And even though I lived in a city among poor white men who lacked decorum, who were still imagined as having respectability, their white maleness positioned them as better than black boys like me. White men were the idols, allowed to be wiped clean of their mistakes, the ones I was supposed to love. I made a choice to love other black men in my life because I despised the ways our society praised white men, whether imagined in the bed or on the cross, while withholding love from black men like my daddy. Had I believed the lies others believed to be true about black men, white supremacy would have scored a new victory. I believed the lies on occasion. So I loved black men as a form of radical protest.
The second black man I loved was similar to my father in many ways. He was my first boyfriend. He remained intimately close and still distant. He was open to love’s possibilities and also cautious because of the awareness of what happens when love is withheld.
Dae and I met in Camden on Thanksgiving Day in 1997. After we drank and partied at the Nile—a dance club on 13th Street in Philadelphia; black LGBT people frequented before it was closed, before the neighborhood was deemed the city’s “gaybohood.” We walked along a winding pathway at a park not too far from my mother’s house. Before dawn, I listened as he shared his life story. He was so young and so hardened. At 18, he had already been exposed to life’s double-dealing like me, like my father, who bore me at 15, who had been exposed to just the same.
The violence he experienced turned parts of him a bit hard. The guardedness protected him in a country where black boys’ lives are gripped by lovelessness far before we are embraced by love. Imagine the strength it takes to disbelieve a lie. The lie that forms the basis of one’s lack of faith in oneself and forces one to believe in his disposability. Imagine what it takes to love the thing most likely denied love, especially when the thing, the human, is oneself and one’s reflection, one’s father, brother, neighbor, or partner.
Dae loved me through states of profound lovelessness. He was the target of white racism. He was a student in under-resourced schools. Class stratification, political disenfranchisement, poverty, patriarchy, and the collective American disdain of queer intimacy were forms of violence he survived to testify about, but he was no freer from their grip.
Love is not a cheap offering. It is not a deep feeling of goodness without justice. Love is more than one’s heart skipping a beat when an intimate treats him well. Love is not a mere emotional response to stimuli that feeds our ego. It is the tear that falls from the eyes when a wrongdoer says he is sorry. It is the shovel breaking ground, digging deep into parched land out of the hope that with work and sacrifice fruit can grow even under the harshest conditions. Love is work; it is the tearing down of penetrative walls that separate us.
Dae and I found each other, at a black gay club, bruised and ready to give to one another the salve necessary to heal our wounds, the love necessary for our survival.
Dae wasn’t “marriage material,” or the type of young man one brings home to certain families. He, however, found refuge in mine. We welcomed him. He cussed, cheated, lied, bought me gifts, held me when I was sick, wore baggy pants, drank way too much liquor, and protected me when I felt threatened. I hurt him, told him lies, maxed out my credit cards to purchase his gifts, skipped school, judged him as he drank too much liquor, and protected him when he felt threatened. We were in love.
I remember the day I caught him messing around with another guy in his basement. I tried to shatter his car windows. Our love was complicated. But I also remember the day he held me close, the first time any man held me so close in public, on a packed PATH train traveling to Newark from Christopher Street in New York City around 3 a.m.
“I dare a motherfucker to say something,” he said.
My response was short and affirmative, “Dead up.”
Dae loved me even as he attempted to love himself. And hours before he would end up in my arms—his body stretched under or on top of mine—we would embrace each other with whatever energy we had left to offer after so much of it was depleted. And while we fucked, our bodies secreted the sweat that would have otherwise wet our foreheads from exhaustion caused by all the aggressions we encountered in the world beforehand. We were too tired to fight, but never fatigued to the point where love was withheld. Before, or as we embraced, something in us would come alive—the parts of ourselves that were most calcified would soften. We loved despite the barriers separating us even as our bodies locked in the dark of the night.
I love black men on purpose because black men like my dad and Dae loved me out of the haze of lovelessness I learned to wade through; they’ve loved me back to life by seeing in me parts of themselves. And that is the type of love that costs the giver something, our relinquishing to the fact of our own worth in a society that tries to bankrupt our spirits before deposits of love are made.
Sometimes I want to ask white gay couples if they’ve spent an inordinate amount of time brushing off the toxic residue left over from daily anti-black racist aggressions, incessant forms of mundane disrespect, everyday demands to be what one is not, daily performances of innocence to keep oneself from being shot dead by law enforcement or racist vigilantes in our hoods, the tight cage of masculinity, and the agile movements one must make when averting the gaze through which black men are viewed before they kiss, hold one another close, whisper beautiful sentiments or fuck each night.
Sometimes I want people to understand that whether black men arrive home in tailored suits or saggy pants, black men who love black men end up falling asleep next to our reflections. Our love appears as a lens refracting the intense, lingering energy we might discern in one another so we won’t devour our intimates in our quest to love them. That’s love. Or at least it’s the love I’ve chosen, that I choose.
This is what it means to love radically. Black men loving black men is, as the deceased black gay writer Joseph Beam opined in the 1980s, a “revolutionary act” because every moment a black man is transgressive enough to love what he has been socialized to hate he commits an act of insurgency.
It’s easy to love archetypes—images of white men maintained in our collective consciousness as paragons of perfection, life, wellbeing, and prosperity. It is easy to love white Jesus and praise abusive white men who become American presidents like Donald Trump because the love America offers such men is not contingent upon their full and expansive humanity. Inhumane love is that which is showered upon ideas, deities even, and not human beings.
It is not easy to love those imagined as broken, dead, the terror, and the perpetually captured. It is not easy to love black men, men who are not imagined as sites of worthy cultivation. It is easier for some black men to rationalize away our disdain for other black men or intellectualize our thirsts for white men as inherent, rather than a consequence of anti-black socialization and fetish. Fetish isn’t love, although it can be pleasure. Fetish sits on the surface, on the skin, and doesn’t quite dig deep enough to see the human, the man, the black or white man, under the skin we kiss and touch.
Maybe love is more magical than politics. Maybe attraction and connection evade race and love making. But it doesn’t. I know when the roots in black men’s lives run deep and intertwine—when the grounds of our relationships are nurtured—we sometimes survive and find reason to keep loving along the way. Love isn’t colorblind because in America and in 2017 nothing quite is, which is why I tend to think black men who exclusively date white men, black men who refuse to date other black men, do so because they’ve put their faith in a logic of black inferiority. It’s impossible to love your reflection if you don’t discern it when it arrives.
I loved my father, not because he was perfect, but because I finally understood the ways my father had been denied love in a country that has poured love upon white men regardless of their imperfections. I didn’t love Dae because he was always deserving of my grace, but because he was worthy of love despite my desire to give or withhold its power. I saw my full self in my father; I saw it in Dae. I didn’t have to hide. I didn’t have to be a version of myself that I imagined deserved love or pleasure. In their eyes, I could imagine my full self worthy of these things, just as I knew they were—in all their imperfections—worthy of love, too, and more.