The first time I tried to end my life my father had just finished brutally pounding my mother. I felt horrified, angry and helpless. I don't remember the specifics of that particular attack, but I do remember my response. Eleven years or so of life had begun to feel like an eternity of pain, and I wanted out quickly. So I moved toward the window in the small bedroom that I shared with my three younger sisters and, with mournful tears in my eyes, announced that I was going to jump. I thought that my leap would distract my father long enough to stop him from punching my mother in her face. I wanted him to stop. And I prayed to God to take him or me. Either way, I wanted out.
I was a dreamer—and remain so—and earnestly dreamt about life after death in a "home" where violence was not a common phenomenon. I was tired of covering my head with pillows at night with the hope of drowning out my mother's cries. I was tired of the tears produced from my own eyes.
A few years later, I sat in a hospital room after being attacked by a group of teenage boys several houses down from my grandparents' place. I was a nerdy Black teenager who preferred playtime with the girls. I was thin and most of the boys my age were developing muscular bodies. I wore glasses and was told that I was ugly and "froggy" because of my dark brown skin, coarse hair, big pinkish-brown lips, astigmatic eyes, long fingers, skinny legs and big feet. The other boys were labeled cute, sexy and hard because of everything that I was not, or at least that's what I thought.
I dressed like a preacher nearly every day of my eighth grade year. I rocked trench coats, dress slacks, and "church shoes" while other boys donned the newest and flyest kicks and clothes. My awkwardness, my particular brand of "book smart"/"choir boy" masculinity, my tastes and hobbies, my body shape, and my bodily movements distinguished me from my Black male peers. I didn't name myself "gay," nor did I think that I was, but I was picked on a lot: faggot, sissy, punk, and bitch were just a few of the epithets hurled at me daily. And I suffered emotional and psychological pain each time a word or punch was thrown.
As I tried to relax in the emergency room—after having been surrounded by five or so boys; after having been hit by ten or so fists; after having been doused with a gallon of kerosene; after having witnessed one of the boys, my neighbor, strike a match that refused to be lit because of the steady force of the wind—I wondered why it was that they were so determined to set me on fire. At fourteen, I just presumed that they were drawn to attack those who they considered weak: the neighborhood "pussies."
I still think the same today. They imaged me as a "pussy": as a feminine and fetishized object to be touched without permission and to be violated, destroyed, wounded by "real men." They wanted to destroy me because I was, to them, a threat: difference materialized, subversive rebelliousness, an affront to Black manhood. My awkward "sissy" ways made them uncomfortable even though a few of the "hard" neighborhood boys tried to cross the boundaries of their heterosexuality with me. In many ways, it was this same force of ideas—what it meant to be a Black boy in the 90s; a Black boy growing up in the hood; a Black gay boy growing up in White straight America—that was pushing me a few years before as I readied myself to leap from my window. By the time I entered my early twenties, suicidal thoughts had become my primary response to pain. In them, I felt a strange comfort in knowing that the pain caused by others and traumatic life circumstances would end.
To get to that end—a space of peace, and freedom from victimization—I came to the wrong conclusion that I needed to sacrifice myself: to die to at once be free. I did not realize that freedom would not come by way of my death—whether imagined or real—but by the radical transformation of spaces: through the dismantling of ideas and the removal of people who created the "hells" in my life that had me longing for "heaven." It wasn't clear to me, like it is today, that by killing myself I would have aided the perpetrators and systems that had been trying to do so for years. I became my own offender, metaphorically preying on myself and carrying the same weapons (not unlike the kerosene and lighter) that some others had used against me years before.
The reality is: I never desired to die.
I wanted to be free from the painful situations that eroded the peace in my life. But I didn't want to die. Hell no! I wanted to live. I was born into a world that was not ready for the arrival of a male- and female-loving, gender-maneuvering, book/dance/music-adoring, economically challenged, urban Black boy. Indeed, the world is not and has never been ready for me and other Black men, especially those of us who love other men.
It is hard to live when others would prefer you dead.
And, dead, as in gone, is the state that a lot of the Black men in my life had existed in during my childhood. My father, for example, who was fifteen when I was born, knew nothing about rearing a little Black son because the streets and the state were competing to rear him. I hated him for what he had become: violent, absent, criminal. And I had failed to consider the conditions that may have distorted the life of a young Black boy with potential. I prayed for God to "take him" without the realization that the devil had already showed up in the form of poverty, environmental blithe, subpar and limited education, skewed media representations of black manhood, racism, peer pressure, drugs and meager adult supports.
While my memories of my father move between him viciously twisting my mother's arm as she cried for help and squeezing worms into cans as we prepared to go fishing, my mother remembers a young Black teenager who was her "hero" in the past. She recalls the days she spent in Camden hungry and my father feeding her. Or the time when she was "damn near raped" and the man who had become the villain in my life standing guard in her yard every night. According to my mom, my father suffered a beating, but that didn't stop him from standing on his post. They were teens. They were friends. He was her hero.
But shit tends to get real bad when heroes fall from grace. Before too long, a young Black boy was tutored on what it meant to be a Black man in the hood growing up in White America. He learned, like so many other Black men in my life, that those who aren't meant to survive have the tendency of becoming experts in the practice of destroying self and others. My mother eventually left my father. My sisters and I are, she still asserts, are "gifts" that she and, yes, my father created together.
But what gifts were bestowed upon him, aside from the gifts of struggle and self-destruction?
This is the paradox that frames our existence and survival as Black men today. We live—some of us—despite the incessant negativity and violence that often surrounds and harms us, contested public policies and problematic state policies that attempt to define and malign us, or the condemnatory words of some faith leaders and families that weaken and kill us.
We die—some of us—because of the same.
But, we fight and have fought—all of us—through states of virulence and violence in communities where others (and we ourselves) have yet to fully see us in our diversity of expression and beauty. We have yet to be imaged beyond others' characterizations of Black men as negations, as problems and as subjects of deficit-focused case studies. Yes, even in these times, Black men exist within structural conditions that literally murder us. And those who are assailed know a thing or two about assailing others.
To live, then, we must commit to the hard work of provoking resurrections in our lives. To live, we must put an end to those things that would otherwise be cause for our own funerals.
If we are to offer eulogies, let them be on behalf of those things that push us toward death: sexism, homophobia, internalized racism, and self-hatred. It is our time to live. Indeed, it has always been. But if we are to live then we must sacrifice those tyrannical parts of self that seek to "murder" difference, however difference appears, in others.
Even if we live amongst those necrophiliacs, attracted to our metaphorical and genuine demise, we have what is needed within us individually and among us communally to push through such desires in the same way we lived (and are living) in spite of the auction block, chains, whips, nooses, firing squads, laws, prisons, street corners, public health office examination rooms, strangers' fists, lovers' arms, and our own hands.
It is easy to live when we can put to death others' thoughts of us. So live. It is our time.
Photo via Getty.
Darnell L. Moore is a writer and activist who grew up in Camden, New Jersey. He is an Editorial Collective Member of The Feminist Wire and his writings have appeared in various outlets including The Huffington Post, Ebony.com, TheRoot.com, Mondoweiss, NewBlackMan (In Exile), Urban Cusp, and Social Text Blog. This essay is modified version of an essay previously published at YoloAkili.com and PrettyQueer.com.