Fighting Words: Personal Essays by Black Gay Men

Fighting Words: Personal Essays by Black Gay Men

by Charles M. Smith, Charles Michael Smith

A boy discovers his sexuality in the shadow of a murder spree in Atlanta. A U.S. marine writes of his fierce, tragic love for a fellow marine. A man is forced to do a thing he dreads-play basketball-or risk losing face to the youngster for whom he is trying to provide a role model.

These and twenty-seven other illuminating essays reveal a world of double barriers


A boy discovers his sexuality in the shadow of a murder spree in Atlanta. A U.S. marine writes of his fierce, tragic love for a fellow marine. A man is forced to do a thing he dreads-play basketball-or risk losing face to the youngster for whom he is trying to provide a role model.

These and twenty-seven other illuminating essays reveal a world of double barriers and two-fold prejudices-a world of men looking for love and careers, companionship and mentors, rough trade and gentle understanding among those who alone can know what it means to be African-American and gay. Writings that range fromthe street-smart to the erudite, from the erotic to the political and the spiritual, this collection explores the vicious crosscurrents of pressures that black gay men face, and the ways they have coped with them-or failed to.

A vivid, candid and provocative portrait of a diverse community, Fighting Words is a remarkable anthology of individual journeys experienced by African-American gay men.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In putting together a volume that emphasizes the urgency of subjective experience, freelance journalist Smith has grouped 28 personal essays in familiar categories: Identity, Relationships, AIDS, Racism and Homophobia, Legacy. Among the best pieces is poet Reginald Shepherd's "Coloring Outside the Lines," which shows considerable subtlety in reconciling the often clashing demands of black and gay identities. Kevin McGruder's "I Hate Basketball" is both playful and earnest as it tackles similar themes and expresses insights gained from mentoring young black boys as a Big Brother. "As an African-American male," he writes, "I admit this with a certain hesitancy, a slight feeling that I have let down the race, and as a gay man, I admit this with the feeling that I'm confirming a stereotype of non-athletic `sissies.' But I love to play most sports. I just don't like playing basketball." With less clarity, G. Winston James's "Closets" traces a problematic genealogy from the safety of children's closets to the claustrophobic spaces of peep shows in "safer-sex clubs" that were "not unlike the pantry in my parents' house." Other of the essays, however, traffic in stereotypes about both race and homosexuality. And the emphasis on personal experience is relentless and ultimately comes at the expense of more considered insight and elegance of expression. (June) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


* * *

by Mark Simmons

After almost a year of sending out résumés wrapped in twenty-nine-cent wrappers, job interviews that lasted less than sixty seconds, two-day temp jobs, and unemployment checks twice a month, I stared at myself in a mirror, my dreadlocks beginning to touch my shoulders, and picked them up, one by one, until they covered the bottom of the sink, shorn. I knew that the rejection that slid off my skin like sweat was, in part, because of my hairstyle. With it a college degree carried absolutely no credibility. That same lack of credibility would be faced with a look of "I don't believe you." Through this experience I had learned that load after load of racism, letter-shaped gravel, is still being dumped, steadily and without hesitation, upon African Americans, hitting our heads and shoulders like the weight of wet concrete. Dreadlocks, for me, provided an armor of self-love and pride that steeled my thoughts, where the racism ran like water onto the ground.

    Cutting my dreadlocks combined with an "it's-who-you-know" advantage propelled me into the realm of a Hollywood dream factory. I agreed to work as a six-dollar-an-hour page at a major Hollywood studio. I was in. For six months, interviews led me to this unexpected chance. During that time, I had calculated that I probably had sent more than one hundred résumés and handwritten applications to this studio's human resources department. They sent me a letter informing me that they kept résumésand applications on file for six months.

    One afternoon, full of brazen self-confidence, I planted myself into their reception area for an hour before they politely asked me to leave. From a friend I learned about frequent openings in the mailroom. I found out who was the manager and gave him my résumé. I bugged him a bit every so often until he told me to go deliver my résumé to the Guest Relations Department. A couple of weeks later, I got a call for an interview, after which I was hired with twenty other applicants. Looking back, as I directed a studio tour group into a soundstage, watched them pull down their sunglasses and peer at the expansive space, I concluded that I never would have gotten this job with a head full of dreadlocks. This is the place where stereotypes are manufactured like candy. Enough racism to fit into your mouth, formed in bite-sized pieces.

    Once half a year of indentured servitude was completed, the opportunity to find other employment on the lot was encouraged. Surely if I had cut my hair early on, the numerous interviews that I bounced from like a restless basketball would have garnered a position in the homogenizing advertising field.

    Throughout the two-week training period, former pages were paraded before us like royalty. Their success stories, blowing around the lot, symbolized tumbleweeds of opportunities we had the chance to seize. Yet, for me, as an African-American gay man, I would be afforded these same chances, for three times the amount of work as a white person. This department interviewed more than fifty people for twenty part-time jobs. At the initial interview process I counted to see how many African Americans were at the audition/job interview. There were three of us. Surprisingly, we were all hired. At the end of our training, we shared brunch at my house in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles. Inevitably, talk centered on the reality of few hours at ridiculously low wages.

    Dreadlocks, when I wore them, afforded me the luxury of being very ethnic without doing anything. African Americans—on the streets, in the restaurants—always gave me looks that said, Go, brother. Wearing dreadlocks made me feel like a New York boho, even though I was an Arkansan by birth. I felt special when I received the attention of strangers, both brothers and sisters, who would touch the locks, their fingers holding the hair I'd grown, coarsened, and kinked by the ritual twisting.

    By the time my dreadlocks, hanging in neat rows, had grown past my ears, it would take me almost an hour to "do" them. After washing them, which I did three times a week, I would put a dollop of Vaseline in the center of my palm and coat my dreads to help retain the moisture of the water. Dreadlocks are very easy to dry out and Vaseline acts as a shield. For me, this was the true drag of wearing dreadlocks. Of course, you could go without washing them for a while, but they tend to get matted less attractively. Even though my dreadlocks were pristinely neat and clean, they still did not go over well at the time of my unemployment. I remember an interviewer's remark that dreadlocks and suits didn't go together. "It's because it's a concept that you had never thought of," I wanted to say, but I smiled and counted the seconds until I would be ushered out to the elevators.

    After bouncing around the job market in Los Angeles at numerous advertising and public relations agencies, I still lacked the qualities of "fitting in." In fact, one of the reasons I left my last job was primarily because they felt dreadlocks conveyed the wrong impression. Yet the idea of a multicultural American twentysomething ideal vision clouded my eyes and ears. Almost an endless supply of weekly interviews, gleaned from my answering machine, began with raised eyebrows and befuddled expressions. Instinctively, I knew that it was my appearance, not my skills or qualifications. That realization hit me like the last punch before a fighter is knocked out. "So that's it," I said to myself one day as I drove on the Hollywood 101 Freeway. White folks are scared of brothers in dreadlocks. This fear stems from the fact that by wearing dreadlocks we are embracing our entire culture, slave history included, in a subtle, yet celebratory manner. As black leather jackets and Afros epitomized the fiery Black panther Party segment of the civil rights movement, dreadlocks and kufis symbolize the 1990s version of recognizing our history and building from there.

    Wearing dreadlocks gave me a sense of freedom, of self, primarily, that remains elusive in their absence. I loved my dreadlocks. I loved the way the wind teased them as I drove my car on the clogged streets. I loved them as I stared at their shadow outlined on the paper I read outside my house in Silverlake, the grass crushed under my weight. I loved inspecting the imprints, left the night before, on my face in the bathroom mirror the next morning. I loved the way they smelled after I bathed them in apple mint shampoo. I loved the ten-second conversations held at intersections with African-American women driving Rabbit convertibles asking me where I had my hair done. I loved the way people managed to say "Hello," especially in L.A., silently mouthed. I loved the way they tore through the air as I danced at a disco, strobe lights illuminating them for milliseconds. And I loved the way they felt as they wiped the sweat from my face as I worked out at the gym. I loved them because they made me feel more accepted in American culture than I've felt at any other time. Only four years out of twenty-eight years can be a long time to be able to feel something that is our race's undeniable rights.

    Homogenized to fit into the mainstream, conservative dominant society, I walk my journey and view life through the eyes of an African-American gay man. Dreadlocks gave me the pride, unleashed, that I carry with me every day. And, yes, it's my duty to make sure it's noticed daily.

    As I led the group through the door at the end of the two-hour tour, I waited until a brother with dreadlocks passed. "Wait a second, brother," I said to him. "I like your dreadlocks." "Thanks, man," he replied, his glistening teeth catching sunlight that drenched his honey-colored face. I nervously pulled my wallet out and said, "Look." Just one reminder of my time with dreadlocks, stamped on a California driver's license. "That's cool, brother," he said, taking off his sunglasses, his eyes much more animated than before. "Why'd you cut them?" I smiled, and told him it would take another two hours. "Keep them as long as you can," I advised.

Beneath the Veneer

* * *

by Kheven L. LaGrone

"When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his `proper place' and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit."


"Any colored man gains unquestioned admission into innumerable places the moment he appears as the menial attendant of some white person, where he could not cross the threshold in his own right as a well-dressed and well-behaved master of himself."


"Is that black man wearing a leash?" I asked a friend at a party in San Francisco, the "gay mecca." The host was a white artist showcasing his portraits of black men. Almost all the guests were black.

    "That's right," answered my friend, verifying what I thought I saw. "The white man's the master, the black man's his slave." I looked in anguish as this average-looking white man strutted in, surveyed the room commandingly, flaunted his beautiful black buck. So shocked by this symbol of defeated black masculinity, I forgot which politically correct mask to hide behind. Seeking solace, I turned to the brothers sitting next to me.

    "But that's just the S and M scene ... this is the Castro," one offered.

    "I think it's beautiful, it took a lot of guts to be who he is," rationalized another—defending the black "slave."

    "Freedom of expression ... freedom of choice," one argued.

    I looked up to see the white man grinning smugly at me. The black man fetched him a plate of food.

    That night, I felt hurt, anger, and disgust for black men. Since that party, I have read a personal ad by a black man asking, "Are you white man enough to ride this plantation?" Another self-defined "colored boy" sought "natural white male domination." At San Francisco's notorious Dore Street Fair, a black man danced with a Confederate flag hanging from his back pocket and a huge penis bulging from his ripped jeans.

    I told three white gay liberals about the black man on the leash; they argued that "It was just a fantasy." One even added, "It's just a personal taste—like preferring strawberry ice cream over rainbow sherbet." Appalled, I wondered how many white men had ever smiled at me with a taste for leashing me.

    The black man on a leash was allegorical. If a black man was to be accepted into the "gay mecca," he must wear his leash: a white lover "proved" he was not "bitter and angry"; affected speech and feigned hair tosses "showed" he was not "too black." Black men themselves "bragged about "being exposed to white people" and "knowing how to act 'round white folks"—sounding like wild black beasts "bragging" about being successfully raised and trained in captivity. So at the party, the Great White Hunter paraded his captured black beast—his noble savage, wild African savage, spear-chucker, spook, ape, porch monkey, jigaboo, playful primitive, spade, nigra, brute, jungle bunny, buck, coon, or nigger. For that black man wearing the leash, did reality follow fantasy or did fantasy follow reality?

    That white man smiled smugly at me. Was he confident enough to offer his leash to me, a black man and total stranger? Did he assume black men craved his leash? Perhaps he was baiting me, an anguished black man: "Look, niggah, I got one of your homeboys on a leash."

    How should I have reacted? Should I have shrugged my shoulders; should I have giggled and feigned a hair toss so not to be branded "too militant" or "too angry and bitter"?

    How many white men have accused me of being a black racist, or have accused me of exhibiting "that (angry black) attitude," when they were really accusing me of not being their nigger-on-a-leash?

    White supremacy greatly influenced American history and culture; yet too few white men openly admit harboring white supremacist notions. Most choose to believe that such notions are the domain of a few ignorant individuals. Many white gay men have argued that their own repression has enlightened them and made them more sensitive to the oppression of black men. Ironically, these same white men often eroticized their white supremacist images of the beastly black male. Their claim: "It's just a fantasy."

    The white gay media often reflected this white supremacist attitude. More than one white gay publication listed "black men" as a sexual fetish. Other fetishes listed included feet, bondage, dildoes, and homoerotic suicide. I never saw white men listed as a fetish.

    But sadly, black men were often the most staunch and callous white supremacists. In the "gay mecca," black men sneered invectives like "nigger-ish" and "ghetto girl" at each other. Black men "bragged" that they did not date black men. Black men described very handsome white men as "Nordic Gods." It was fashionable for black men in the "gay mecca" to say, "I don't see color, I see people"; but it was more common for black men to avert their eyes when passing other black men on the street.

    Their white supremacy was their business. I could have ignored these black men; but I believe we black men ignore, deny too much already.

    I opened this essay with a quotation from the black historian Carter G. Woodson. I wonder if these black men had ever read it before. Who controlled their thinking? I listened to black men "brag" that their sleeping with white men breaks racial barriers by "proving" to white men that they are human. I listened to a black man make an excuse for the many, many white men who slept with him only to see if black men really are animals in bed. He was hurt that the white men never called him again.

    A black man regularly complained about white men being "racist" dogs and pigs, but he continued to sleep with them. I listened to a black poet read a piece in which he complained about his many white sex partners' "Gorilla Fantasy." Who held these black men's leashes? They complained, but stayed in their "proper place."

    I too have the right to wear leashes; someone called it freedom of choice. But if I CHOOSE to perch white men on pedestals, then I place them in a position where they must look down to see me. If I CHOOSE to deify whiteness, then I have no right to be angry when a white man shows human frailties. If I CHOOSE to glorify white skin, I cannot blame white men for MY self-hatred.

Fear of a Gay Identity:
A Personal Account on
Internalizing Heterosexism

* * *

by Geoffrey Giddings

"... where is my reflection? I am most often rendered invisible, perceived as a threat to the family, or am tolerated if I am silent and inconspicuous. I cannot go home as who I am and that hurts me deeply."

—JOSEPH BEAM, In the Life

My recent coming out to some friends and family members has caused me to think seriously about an important issue in my life and, I suspect, an issue that most homosexual men and women confront every day. Why is it so often painful to come out to straight people, even those who profess love for us. For me, dealing with this issue has taken a few years of fierce internal struggle before landing me at a place where my soul, mind, and conscience rest somewhat peacefully.

    The first revelation of my sexuality to a straight person was my female best friend, Angela. I had been out of college one year and was about to begin teaching. Encouraged by a friend who was a tremendous source of inspiration, I felt that I should be more honest about my life to people I cared about. And, of course, close friends served as a good warm-up before I would let my family in on the big secret.

    I was petrified to reveal my deepest, darkest secret, even to one of my best friends. I was certain that Angela would be repulsed and would want to end our friendship. I actually looked forward to this reaction as an easy way out of the shame I imagined I would feel when discussing my sexuality with straight people. To my surprise she was open and understanding. She said she had suspected I was gay and that she had been afraid I would be offended if she asked. She was right; I would have been offended because I believed being thought of as gay meant I was being considered less than whole. I even felt ashamed that she had suspected me of being gay. I thought, Gee, what did I do to give myself away?

    Angela's acceptance was no relief to me. Her acceptance meant that now I would have to deal with her knowing my secret. I thought this might mean she would always have thoughts of my being some sort of freak. Feelings of fear, guilt, and shame would always surface when hopeful but dejected female suitors asked if I were gay or when family members would pointedly inquire as to why I didn't have a girlfriend. So before coming out to other close friends and family members, I had to find some way of feeling more comfortable with my homosexuality.

    After much thought, I began to realize that this confusion resulted from internalized heterosexism. Coming out to straight friends and family members was forcing me to reflect on a heated tension flaming within me, a tension ignited by the belief among many people of African descent that African and homosexual identities do not rightly coexist. It was only after my good friend nurtured my gay pride by introducing me to the works of Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam that I worked up enough courage to reveal my sexuality to my two male college buddies after graduation. But the fact that I was not even in the same region of the country as they were helped me deal with the fear that they might lose respect for me, despite their outward acceptance.

    As a child my psyche had taken quite a beating. I received much teasing from my peers because of an early childhood skin disease. I held what I now view as a strange reverence for white cultural aesthetics and was attracted to only the lightest-skinned members of my community. The first attraction I had for a man was a light-skinned friend of my older brother. This preference for whiteness during early childhood years is fairly common among black children who are not taught to love themselves. In class I hear my students call their dark-skinned classmates "black" with utter disgust in their voices. This phenomenon is just one manifestation of European cultural hegemony upon people of African descent.

    I came to the States in 1980. My self-esteem was slowly strengthening as I began to excel academically. But strangely enough, this is the time I became aware that I was emotionally and sexually attracted to males. Throughout secondary school I secretly fantasized about males but did not have the confidence nor the encouragement to partake of the forbidden fruit. That didn't happen until well into my college career.

    Five years at a predominantly white university forced me to seek self-affirmation from the few sisters and brothers on campus. It was in college that I learned just how intractable racism is in our society. In fact, my growing interest in my heritage inspired me to major in African and African-American history. The small nucleus of support made me comfortable. We all learned that knowledge is the key to overcoming the white cultural hegemony that made us unhappy on, and sometimes off, campus. Although I was well aware of my sexuality at this point, I believed nobody would understand, not even the openly gay folks, who were mostly white.

    I refused to seek support from the white gay organization on campus. Despite the fact that this gay and lesbian organization was very popular and accepted by the entire campus community, I felt that whites could not help any African-American dealing with race issues, and certainly not a person of African descent who is struggling against the unique heterosexism found in the African/Caribbean-American communities.

    So I locked myself up in the campus's microcosmic African-American community. It was there that I sought affirmation as a man of African descent to heal the scars I suffered when I was much younger. I realized I needed to build my self-esteem and what better way of doing that than by becoming proud of my African roots. This idea of acquiring positive self-esteem through knowledge of self and race pride is encouraged by such African-American social theorists as Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu and Dr. Molefi Kete Asante. By the end of my college years, I had come to see the benefits of this philosophy.

    I became so in love with "blackness" that whenever I came down from school, family members teased me about always doing, reading, and talking about "black stuff." But when they finally realized my passion was not just a phase, the teasing stopped. I am proud that I have been able to encourage many people, including my older brothers, to seek out knowledge on the great legacy our forebears have left.

    All this notwithstanding, I was becoming incredibly miserable. To Be Continued...

Meet the Author

Charles Michael Smith is a freelance journalist who has written for such publications as USA Today, the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, the Baltimore Evening Sun, the Manhattan Spirit, QW magazine, the New York Amsterdam News, the New York Native, the Philadelphia Gay News, and the Lambda Book Report. He was a contributor to In the life: A Black Gay Anthology, edited by Joseph Beam(Alyson, 1986). He live in New York City.

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