I've read the previous essays you've written for Gawker's True Stories series and I just read your collective piece, “Echo” in Kiese’s new book, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. I heard, and really felt, the sinew of pain and joy in your autobiographical offerings and would like to respond with my own.
I was born over 40 years ago in a small African village located in an eastern city on the Atlantic coast of North America called the Bronx. I can’t say that my childhood was idyllic but it certainly didn’t resemble the “bleak childhood fantasy” Baldwin experienced. And I would certainly relive it again. For a child growing up in the 1970s, the Boogie Down was a dangerously magical place. Life was structured around stoops and bodegas, play and penny candies, stickball, basketball, and games like Ringolevio and Hot Beans and Butter.
There was always one Black person whom you played with and whom you just knew was Black like you (of the Negrus americanus variety) and then one day you heard his mom call him in a language you didn’t know—Puerto Rican or Dominican Spanish—and then he would look at you like he was a part of a spy ring and his cover had just been blown, and you would look at him with that look that said without actually saying the Richard Pryor line: “ What kinda n*gga is you?” Eventually there would be some other dude the two of you played ball with and his mother would call him too, but in language that sounded eerily like English but usually was accompanied with some elegant phrase like “Bumboclot.” This had you and your Puerto Rican or Dominican friend (of the Negrus latinus americanus variety) looking at him with that same, “What kinda n*gga is you?” look.
We played often and sometimes we fought. Everyone thought they could scrap until the Jamaicans (we called them West Indians) changed the game with a strange new weapon—the headbutt. In the world of knuckle-up street fighting, the headbutt was the equivalent of the atomic bomb. Needless to say, there weren’t many fights with the Jamaican dudes. Part of still believes that they were the reason guns became the weapon of choice in the South Bronx because once a n*gga headbutted you, you really had few actionable comeback options.
I’m joking of course. Kinda.
My father had a tight grip on the bottle and loose hands when it came to my mom, so she left him for good when I was seven. I never saw him after that. Never really missed him. It is a loss that had a tumultuous and giving beauty. He gave me a five-speed Schwinn, and I am told I have his dimples and charisma, so there is that.
Like most hoods, mine had categories of poverty, there was poor, there was po’, and there was P (pronounced Puh) for all those folks like my family who were so poor they couldn’t even afford the two "o's" and the "r."
I have lived on both coasts. My mom heard Gladys Knight and when she said, "L.A. proved too much for the man," my mom figured she was a woman and what was too much for the man, would be just enough for her, a strong woman.
So we moved to Los Angeles—South Central, Los Angeles, to be precise. When you are from the bottom and you change cities or states, most often you don’t really change your dire circumstances; you simply rearrange them into different categories of despair, which you hope will be more manageable. South Central was also a dangerously magical place, too, but that experience was given motive force.
The automobile introduced a new concept into my ghetto lexicon: drive-bys. I survived the killing streets. Many of my friends did not—including some who are still on top of the ground.
I wouldn't say that I was ever "thugged out" but you won't find me sipping tea with my pinky poked out, either. I would say I am a combination of two types of educational systems—the 'hood and the good. I believe that what defines a person is not what knocks them down, but what they get up from. There is nothing really all that exceptional or outstanding about me. I am not the kind of cat that is going to turn heads, but my being—the way I exist in the world, my sense of style, humor and personality—has opened many doors over the years, and I have tried to hold the door open long enough for another sister or brother to walk through. The echo each of you created in your letters opened a door for me.
Mychal Denzel Smith: As I read your letter, I smiled because I saw in you a wonderful example of the giving beauty of loss. You are 26, the same age as Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X when they stepped onto the national stage. In your story where you saw Kryptonite, I saw the making of Superman. The Martins and Malcolms of our world are hewn out of the bedrock of hurt, self-doubt, loss, and self-discovery. They are not born. Every brother in our society has what I call a Walter Lee moment. As you recall, Walter Lee Young is the character played by Sidney Portier in the film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s generous play A Raisin in the Sun.
There is a moment in which Walter Lee has lost the money they inherited from their fathers life insurance policy. The family is worried about being able to move into the all-white Chicago suburb of Clybourne Park after the neighbor “welcoming committee” has offered to buy them out to prevent them from integrating the neighborhood. At first he agrees to sell out. He'd been broken (or so he thinks). He feels the weight of responsibility and it’s crushing him. And when the moment of truth arrives, he looks at his son, his wife, his sister, and his mother and he finds the strength to stand up and shoulder the weight of manhood. He rejects the offer and tells Mister Charlie, aka Mark Lindner, that he and his family are moving in after all. That’s the Walter Lee moment. Each of us has a Walter Lee moment where we must decide to stand up, shoulder the weight or buckle under it. Manhood is a process that ends in products, though the process never ends.
Try not to give too much energy to arriving at manhood on time; it is far better to be in time. As an elder told me once in my rush to arrive, "All time is real and understanding that is power."
Darnell Moore: I don’t know what its like to be a gay man. Word on the street is that I was trying to holla at the honeys in the nursery on the day I arrived—but I do know what it’s like not be loved fully by those whose purpose should be to love you fully. When I was younger I was one of those dudes that thought that to be gay and a man were antonyms. I was certainly a part of that riptide that pulled a lot of brothers down just trying to keep my head above water.
I am sorry. Truly.
As I got older saw more of the world and saw more of the world in me, I came to understand that what I was pushing back on was the ways in which gay men’s assertion of manhood disturbed my own notions of manhood. Much in the same way that Black agency forces white folks to recalibrate their sense of identity, so too does gay men’s agency force us "straight" Black men to rethink our notions of manhood and gender. I believe the term you used to describe this was "heteronormativity." My dexterity with complex concepts sometimes get the better of me. I hope I didn’t do violence to what you meant.
Let me just say, the loss of the acceptance of ones humanity can be powerfully disabling, if we allow it to be. As I continue to grow up, I have learned from our gay brothers and lesbian sisters that a part of growing into adulthood is about finding the world that welcomes you, all of you—or if you cant find it, having the courage and vision to create it. That, to me, is revolution.
Kiese Laymon: I'm down for you like four flat tires. Thank you for your honesty. Much of our bravado, swagger, and virulent sexism that informs the unstable elements of manhood are as much the result of whom we imagine women to be as they are about whom men actually are. Thank you for reminding me.
Like white supremacy, patriarchal identity is built upon a shared lie, in which we, and many of our sisters, are complicit. You are right when you say to “give up the game” is to tell on ourselves. We protect sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy not just to protect other men, but to protect that part of this shared lie that our own identities rest so unsteadily upon. This palimpsest of manhood needs to be erased in order to rediscover a kind of manhood that is constructed from a sense of personhood rooted in women and men in contact and conversation with the values that animate our best spiritual selves.
I am reaching, I know, but to dream is free. It is the failure to dream that is exorbitantly expensive. Only a fool imagines himself a writer with pen but no ink. And I thank you for reminding me that it is the fool who thinks that only men create and shape other men. We have been quite foolish.
Kai Green: When Kiese asked me to participate in the conversation and to reply to all the letters, I thought “I got this. How hard can it be to respond to brothers talking and thinking about a spectrum of manhood?”—and then I read your letter. A woman who becomes a “transman” and who loves women and men is a book, not a letter. I wanted to know more about what unique insights you might have about men, about women, about life as a transgender person, as a person of African ancestry. I want to know how these multivalent perspectives informed your thinking, being, and doing as a transman.
Reading your letter put me in mind of the work by Lorand Matory’s Sex and the Empire That Is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion and Ifi Amadiume’s Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society. Both examine the intricate ways in which Africans have thought of, conceptualized, understood and inhabited gender and identity within specific cultural context. Stay with me: I also wonder to what extent our investment in Western worldview delimits our ability to understand gender and identity as spiritual realities that have material manifestations.
Is it possible that one could be born with a woman spirit in a man’s form and vice versa? I don’t know. What I do know is that African societies have wrestled with these questions in the past, relying on worldviews that accommodate much more expansive operational notions of gender and identity. Of course, by now you must also be thinking but what about the anti-LGBT sentiments on the continent? I would note the impact of colonialism but also that all societies have their range of complexities and contradictions and that we must examine all of it in the hopes of constructing a more harmonious world, a world that welcomes all of us, or as I said before, the courage to create a new one.
I was educated within a tradition that taught me that the goal of thinkers and scholars is not to produce answers but to ask better questions. Perhaps your courage will yield better questions. I hope you maintain the courage and curiosity to pursue them openly.
Marlon Peterson: Kierkegaard wrote that we live life forward and understand it backwards. I suppose there is a quality of truth in that statement. Looking back offers us the opportunity for reflection that helps us understand our current location. It’s horrible situation to feel like one is in prison whether incarcerated or not. Like you, I have been incarcerated. Twice, actually. Unlike you, I have never been in what you call, “Mister Gilmore’s house.”
I have always been blessed with good women in my life, but I wasn’t always good to them. In fact, I was quite mean at times. I have never raised my hands to a woman, but I wont front and say that its something I never considered. And while I am proud of that I have never physically abused a woman, I know that I have been emotionally abusive. I see infidelity as a form of emotional abuse.
It wasn’t until I decided to confront my own hurt that I began to change and move closer to the man I wanted to be. And brother, confronting that kind of hurt is like ripping duct tape off of a gaping wound and pouring rubbing alcohol on it.
I don’t have to tell you how repressed anger and hurt eat away at the body and soul. I think there is giving wisdom in your suggestion that we not suffocate our spirits by holding in love. My hope for you is the same as my hope for myself that: that we find a good partner and love that partner like s/he is as essential to your life as oxygen. No matter the question, for Black people, literally and figuratively incarcerated, Black Love is always the answer.
Brothers, in looking over my letter I realize that I have violated the most basic rule of an epistolary relationship: brevity.
My hope is that as we build, share, think and live with the kind of humility that acknowledges we not only have a lot of questions, but that we are also willing to live and work our way openly and courageously to the answers. Thank you for your letters. Thank you for your work.
In life, love and liberation,
Àdisà Àjàmú is the Executive Director of the Atunwa Collective, a community development think tank in Los Angeles, California. He is the co-author, along with Thomas Parham and Joseph White, of the fourth edition of The Psychology of Blacks: Centering our perspectives in the African consciousness (2010). Currently, he is completing two books, a collection of short stories and a collection of essays on African (American) life and culture.
[Photo via Getty]