Category Archives: My Inspiration
“We all know nations that can be identified by the flight of writers from their shores. These are regimes whose fear of unmonitored writing is justified because truth is trouble. It is trouble for the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system, and for a comatose public. Unpersecuted, unjailed, unharassed writers are trouble for the ignorant bully, the sly racist, and the predators feeding off the world’s resources. The alarm, the disquiet, writers raise is instructive because it is open and vulnerable, because if unpoliced it is threatening. Therefore the historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow. The history of persecuted writers is as long as the history of literature itself. And the efforts to censor, starve, regulate, and annihilate us are clear signs that something important has taken place. Cultural and political forces can sweep clean all but the “safe,” all but state-approved art.” – Toni Morrison
Vernacular: The commonly spoken language or dialect of a particular people or place.
I begin this essay with the full understanding that definitions do not tell the whole story. I chose to define vernacular because I feel it offers an entry-level understanding of what I mean when I talk about the language of Black gay people. There is much more to the languages spoken by Black gays, but I do think the definition is a useful starting point.
I believe that I have always known of Black Gay Vernacular, to some extent, but my full awareness of, and entrance into, the language came when I created an account on a site titled Black Gay Chat. This site, populated mostly by Black gay men, provided me with an entrance into Black gay culture. It was in the forums of this site that I began to dialogue with Black gay people from all over the world. Reading the profiles of members, conversing with members in chat rooms, and reading message boards, were some of the ways that I began to access a language that I would come to learn and love. I would begin to learn all about “the tea,” and “shade,” on this site, but it would take another experience to truly familiarize with Black Gay Vernacular.
Growing up in a small, predominately White, town did not provide me with much access to Black gay life. The only openly gay person that I knew of in my immediate surrounding was a drag queen named “Punk Jerry.” I always found Punk Jerry to be thrillingly entertaining, if not a little misguided and the subject of constant taunting, but he carried himself with a confidence that anyone could appreciate. As far as small town life goes, Punk Jerry was a Polar Bear in a desert, but insisting on his right to exist there, none the less.
So, in the fall of 2006 I entered college as a freshmen student at Florida A&M University. It would be in this environment that I would come to fully integrate myself into Black Gay Vernacular. In college, I came into contact with a host of words and expressions that I had never heard of. The Black gays in this college town had a language all their own, one separate from the language used by the heterosexual environment of my youth. In the settings I found myself in college, “shade” “the tea,” “miss girl,” “yes ma’am,” “stud,” “femme,” “paid it,”, “kiki,” “read,” “Alice,” “sick’ning,” “trade,” and “late” were the words commonly and affectionately used. Learning this language was like learning any other language, it took work and familiarity with those who spoke it. I would become familiar with this language by my continued embracing of the Black gay culture of Tallahassee.
I’d like to share some examples of Black Gay Vernacular in action. If you’re not familiar with Black gay culture, you likely won’t understand a word of what I am saying, but for those who are familiar it will be like talking to an old friend.
“The real T is that mama couldn’t get her coins up so she boosted that store and trade called Alice.”
“That performance last night was sick’ning. He cleared it, and the late kids couldn’t take.”
“The kids are going to gag when I tip through the bar.”
“Shade comes from reading.” – Dorian Corey (Got to know my history)
“That gave me my life.”
“The kids cleared it, last night. They did not have it!”
These are but a few examples of Black Gay Vernacular, in action, and I could honestly go on all day with colorful examples of the language. I could explain what it all means, but I think an understanding of the language should come with access to the group that uses the language. As the saying goes, to know there you have to go there.
The conditions that make a Black gay vernacular necessary are the same as those that underlie the development of all languages. There has been, and remains, a need for Black gay people to communicate with each other, removed from the gaze of heterosexual gaze. The vernacular employed by Black gays does not need to be validated by outsiders because our participation in it, and continued invention of it, is all the validation that is needed.
Like all languages, there are certain issues that pop up in Black Gay Vernacular. There are many within the Black Gay Community who rightfully contest the usage of certain words and expressions, I being one such person. I have called into question the use of popular word “fish,” and many others take issue with the use of “girl.” I do, however, feel that these words can be used among familiars, such as a group of friends, but the issue comes into play when people use the word with those they are not familiar with.
In my opinion, the future of Black Gay Vernacular is bright. New words, phrases, and expressions are being created every day. Somewhere, a creative young gay is crafting term to express themselves and their friends, and this act represents the vitality of language.
Toni Morrison once wrote, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” The language of the Black gay community remains one of the greatest measures of our lives, a reminder of our creativity, our insistence on expressing ourselves in a racist and homophobic society.
Many have contributed to the creation of a Black gay vernacular, but I would like to close by paying homage to one of the legendary queens of the Black gay community– Dorian Corey, of Paris Is Burning fame. I’ll never forget Dorian Corey sharing the etymology of the term “shade.” I celebrate you Dorian as I celebrate the Black Gay Vernacular that I so love.
I am more than the lowered expectations patriarchy sets for me.
I am more than the lowered expectations homophobia sets for me.
I am more than the lowered expectations religious fundamentalism sets for me.
“I screamed to the heavens….loudly screamed….
Trying to change our nightmares into dreams…” – Maya Angelou
It’s unlikely that Maya Angelou had the struggles of gays and lesbians in mind when she wrote the poem “In & Out of Time,” but I feel the lines quoted above speak to the experiences of many gays and lesbians.
Much has been said about Lisa Lings latest documentary for the Oprah Winfrey Network titled “Pray The Gay Away?” which explored differing perspectives on whether or not one could be gay and Christian. I chose not to watch the documentary, and I probably won’t, because I have lived what it seeks to explore, but I have paid close attention to the conversations taking place because of the documentary.
I have heard people refer to the attempt to “pray the gay away” as sad, pitiful, and stupid. My own thinking tends to agree with those assessments, but I turn my comments towards the society and culture that makes someone feel they need to pray away their sexual orientation. Yes, heterosexism and homophobia are sad, pitiful, stupid, and a lot of other horrible words.
I believe that those who seek to “pray the gay away” are as the quote states, screaming to the heavens, loudly screaming, trying to change their nightmares into dreams. My own attempts to “pray the gay away,” were ultimately attempts to change my nightmare (homosexuality), into my dream (heterosexuality).
It’s important to understand that I, like many people who are told that they are inferior, less than, or abnormal because of who they are, had no choice in whether or not I saw homosexuality as a nightmare. I was raised to believe that being gay was a sin and everywhere I looked in society there were confirmations of this teaching. TV shows, movies, songs, and playground culture all reinforced the gay as nightmare message.
Like others who are told by society they are not “normal,” I searched for a way to be normal. How could I cleanse myself of the stigmas of being gay to become and benefit from the privilege of heterosexuality? As a gay teen I used the tools I had, and that involved turning to the god I had been raised to believe answered all prayers. I wanted to be what the dominant group said I should be, I wanted to be heterosexual like everyone else, and so I prayed, prayed and cried, prayed and cried.
I never became straight but I did learn to love myself unconditionally. It wasn’t an easy journey, but it’s one that I am proud of having walked. I have come to realize that the nightmare is not my sexuality; the nightmare is the homophobic society that I live in, and the rigid religious belief system I had been indoctrinated in. The dream for me, and perhaps for many others, lie in accepting myself, no longer internalizing homophobia, and no longer being a slave to mythical belief systems.
I have the utmost sympathy for the gays and lesbians who are trying to turn their nightmares into dreams. I hope and know that many of them will avoid trying fit snugly into the nightmare. I also know that many won’t, and will continue to miss out on the dream that is self acceptance and self love.
My advice to gays and lesbians, who are praying to become straight or anyone else struggling with self-hatred, is to remember that we have to be taught to hate ourselves. None of us emerge from the womb ashamed of who we are. We must remember that anything that is learned can be unlearned, and self-acceptance starts with unlearning the self-hate that we have been taught.
Active self love, not prayer, will help us change our nightmares into dreams.
This essay allows me to merge my two loves, history and English, and provide a window into the life of a black gay male living in a heterosexist society. As I look back on my life, I can appreciate the role that literature, and great literature at that, played in giving me the keys to unlock the mental cage I was being held captive within, setting me on the path to freedom. The Bluest Eye by Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison is a book about freedom, and it was integral in helping me release my mind from the shackles of mental slavery and self hate. The first time I read The Bluest Eye, like most student’s I appreciated the message of the story, but it didn’t resonate with me as it today, as a grown adult man, growing up in a society that seemed eerily similar to the one Pecola lived in. As a feminist, one of my core beliefs is “the intersection of oppression.” The “intersectionality of oppression,” is an outgrowth of the “intersectional theory,” created by feminist Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 and brought to prominence in the 1990′s by Patricia Hill Collins. According to Susanne Knudsen, “Intersectionality holds that the classical models of oppression within society, such as those based on race/ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, class, or disability do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.” It is through that lens that I was able to find my voice in the story of Pecola Breedlove. For most people, the thought of white supremacy and homophobia being connected, never crosses their mind. As the descendants of the civil rights movement, many of us are raised to believe that it is racism and racism alone that impacts the lives of persons of color on a day to day basis. Little attention is paid to the way sexism, homophobia, or ableism are thrust upon the black community, both inside and out, and the consequences of those forms of oppression. If Pecola’s story is about the consequences of a little black girl growing up in a society dominated by white supremacy, then my story is of a black boy growing up in a society dominated by heterosexism. Readers of The Bluest Eye are familiar with the consequences of white supremacy, and this too is often the case with heterosexism in a society, the end result can literally alter the mind of those trying to live within such an unattainable system.
“In our work and in our living, we must recognize that difference is a reason for celebration and growth, rather than a reason for destruction.” – Audre Lorde
Who is Pecola Breedlove? Who am I?
Pecola Breedlove is the protagonist of the novel The Bluest Eye written by Toni Morrison in 1970. In the novel Pecola Breedlove receives messages from the dominant society that white is the standard of beauty, and thus feels that she is ugly. All around her the message is being reinforced that to be beautiful she must embody the white ideal, which was blonde hair and blue eyes. In her quest for this ideal, Pecola loses her mind in the process, only acquiring the eyes she so desperately wants at the expense of her sanity.
I am not a fictional character, but the similarities between me and Pecola Breedlove are numerous. Where Pecola Breedlove thought herself ugly for not living up to the white supremacist ideal of beauty, I thought myself ugly and abnormal, for not living up to the heterosexist ideal. Like Pecola, all around me the message was straight was the way, and anything other than that was not only wrong, but even worse, sinful. Like Pecola I knew all too well growing up what it felt like to be an outsider, one who failed to live up to the ideal put forth by the dominant culture.
Absorbing the Message
The pressure to conform to the dominant ideal in a given society is one that many of us struggle with on a day to day basis. For Pecola Breedlove, it was trying to fit herself into a white ideal that was impossible for a little black girl like herself, but in spite of that Pecola longed desperately to be normal, to fit into what society had deemed normal. ” It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights–if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say beautiful, she herself would be different” (Morrison 46). Reading that passage still brings back painful memories for me. I can remember being a young boy desperately wanting to be normal or what I thought was normal. I had learned early on, much like Pecola did, that I wasn’t exhibiting what I should be. For Pecola it was eyes, but for me it was the gender identity and sexual orientation that is required of young black men in the United States. As Pecola longed for her eyes to be different, I longed for my mannerisms to be different. If only I could prevent myself from switching, if only I could hold my hands in a fist, if only I were different, more masculine like the other guys who were revered for their masculinity, I too would be changed! Where Pecola longed for blue eyes, I longed to rid myself of the “sugar in the tank,” that seemed to be the source of my discontent. Sometimes the message is so strong that the receiver longing to be normal turns to a higher power for consolation. Before becoming the atheist that I am now, I was everything a well brought up Christian boy should be, despite raging internally of course. Pecola, like me, turned to prayer, “Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes. Fervently, for a year she prayed” (Morrison 46). Looking back, I have to laugh to stop from crying at the state that I was in as a young gay boy, hoping desperately to fit into a heterosexist ideal. I too said the prayers, sending up enough “Dear God’s” to equal a mega church worth of prayers, but to no avail. Each morning I woke up and I was the same ole me, the prayer hadn’t worked, and I was forced to live another day in torment, failing to live up to the masculine and heterosexist ideal being forced on me. There’s something very tragic about a child longing to be normal, but that is the way our society is organized, and that is what most parents unfortunately instill in their children, to strive to be normal, as opposed to appreciating the abnormality or difference.
“A group of boys was circling and holing at bay a victim, Pecola Breedlove. Heady with the smell of their own musk, thrilled by the easy power of a majority, they gaily harassed her” (Morrison 65).
To survive a childhood on the wrong side of patriarchal masculinity is something remarkable in and of itself. Obviously all children are teased in school, as school children will no doubt find any fault to dwell on, but being the “faggot,” is a unique experience, if not a traumatic one. The thing about numbers is that it makes people who would otherwise not act turn into invincible monsters. Where a single person might overlook certain things, the group is sure to tap into their collective disgust, and produce something terrible for their victim. Being the recipient of harassment was something that Pecola and I both shared. I can remember otherwise happy days turning from bad to worse all because some idiot or idiots decided to bring me down for being “different.” Of all the names a young boy can be called, faggot is perhaps the worst. While other words like “nerd,” “poor,” “dumb,” etc left a young boys manhood intact, faggot cut right through to the bone, and severed the recipient of his manhood, a fine cut from a metaphorical Samurai sword. As insults go, on playgrounds around the country, none is quite as effective on debilitating the confidence of young men as “faggot.” The fact that I was smarter than them, better dressed, wealthier, and more popular meant nothing, being labeled a faggot reduced me to the lowest of the low. My straight A’s and my perfect attendance meant nothing that that point. All that I had built my reputation on crumbled in that instant, I was the butt of the cruel joke. Fortunately trouble doesn’t last always, and the moments of being shown the worst side of patriarchal masculinity would end. Although for Carl Joseph Walker and Jaheem Herrera, there only refuge from anti-gay bullying, would lie in suicide.
Pecola Goes Insane, I Go Into the Closet
In one last desperate attempt to be normal, Pecola forfeits her sanity, and only then achieves the blue eyes she so covets. “A little black girl yearns for the blue eyes of a little white girl and the horror at the heart of hear yearning is exceeded only but the evil of fulfillment” (Morrison 204). The road Pecola traveled on ended in delusion and in many ways that was the path that I was one. I didn’t lose my mind like Pecola did, but I did begin to delude myself. There would be the time in middle school when I convinced myself that my sexual orientation was just a phase, something I could abstain from by no longer visiting the gay chartrooms on Yahoo and AIM. I’d stop talking to the guys I had met, I would finally give in to the girl in my class who wanted me to be her boyfriend, and I would emerge a heterosexual. That delusion I set up for myself lasted for about three months the first time around, and I would try it on and off throughout school until I came to terms with whom I was in the 10th grade. I could have ended up like Pecola though, as many gay men and women in this country so often do. They are those who project a heterosexual image to the world, despite being homosexual. They’re delusion becomes a coping mechanism for the heterosexist society they are forced to live in and unable to deal with. I was on that path but fortunately I got off and found my own truth, but for many gay men and women, they end up like Pecola, never finding their own truth. They get their blue eyes, there’s being heterosexuality, but it comes at the expense of their self worth and self respect, being true to themselves.
If the product of white supremacy is a black community torn apart by colorism and other forms of racial self loathing, the product of heterosexism, is generation after generation of black gays and lesbians who hate themselves, loath themselves, and detest themselves for being that which they are. Pecola Breedlove is causality of white supremacy, and for the thousands of gays and lesbians who suffer under homophobia, they become casualties of heterosexism. Our inability to recognize or respect the differences and variety of humanity are all guilty of promoting and reinforcing the very ideology that drives the Pecola’s and I pray to be “normal,” whatever that means. One of the resonating quotes from The Bluest Eye that sticks with me comes on the second to last page. “All of our waste we dumped on her and which she absorbed” (Morrison 205). We can strive to put an end to the racism, the homophobia, the sexism, the ableism, and the classism, that we dump on our fellow human beings, and which they absorb.
“We are wrong, of course, but it doesn’t matter. It’s too late”(Morrison 206).
Unlike, the narrators of the The Bluest Eye, we have the power to prevent it from being too late. We have the power to recognize the intersectionality of oppression, and correct our wrongness when it comes to rejecting and fighting against white supremacy and heterosexism. It doesn’t have to be too late for us.
The Master Narrative
I don’t think words can begin to express the love that I have for Toni Morrison. In terms of living authors, I would gladly put her at number one, and leave a considerable amount of space before the next slot. In terms of developing my worldview, her works have been instrumental in allowing me to broaden my worldview to a scope that I could have never imagined. From Song of Solomon, to Paradise, her work has given me the words to articulate the pain and pride that I experience in my life. As a black, gay, atheist, and feminist her work, especially her articulation of the “master narrative,” have been fundamental in me becoming the freethinker that I am. What exactly is the “master narrative?” Toni Morrison states that the master narrative is, “whatever ideological script that is being imposed by the people in authority on everybody else” (feministteacher.com). Finding the strength to liberate myself from the master narrative was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life and continues to be a rewarding process with each new step that I take on my journey of personal autonomy. Living a life of one’s own choosing is the first step to rejecting the master narrative and something I have found to be very cathartic on my journey. Society will prescribe what is standard and normal, but it is not an obligation for us to accept this. Just like society told Pecola that she should covet white features and attributes, society tells gays and lesbians like me that the only acceptable way to be is heterosexual, despite bisexuality and homosexuality both being legitimate sexual orientations as well. Severing my allegiance to the master narrative is ultimately the act that separates me from Pecola Breedlove, but is the very factor that links so many of our generation to Pecola Breedlove. We may not be trying to fit into white supremacy, but there are certainly many of us trying to follow the master narrative at all costs. We only hang out with those who the master narrative tells us to hang with, we only follow the Christian religion, prescribed by the master narrative, we only major in the area of study prescribed by the master narrative, we think it necessary to fit into the sexual orientation as prescribed by the master narrative, and we even think it worthwhile to subscribe to and reinforce the outdated gender roles and expectations assigned by the master narrative. Do we realize that reinforcing the master narrative is often the key ingredient in our own marginalization? Or are we too busy in our praise of the master narrative to take notice of the consequences of such an act. There are many Pecola’s in the world, which have fallen victim to the master narrative, and speaking as someone who was a victim of the master narrative but now a survivor, I can attest that it is possible to move beyond the master narrative, to begin to live a life of your own choosing, just as I now do. You may not be like everyone else, and you may not be normal, but at least you are free! As I always say, slavery ended and I serve no master, especially not the master narrative. Demanding that element of freedom is an important lesson that I took away from The Bluest Eye and other works by Toni Morrison.
“If you are free, you are not predictable and you are not controllable.” – June Jordan
Feminist Teacher. “Exposing the Master Narrative: Teaching Toni Morrison’s
The Bluest Eye.” FeministTeacher. FeministTeacher, 13 April. 2010. Web. 20 Sept. 2010.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Plume Books, April 2000.
It’s amazing the way inspiration can creep up on you. Tonight while talking to a friend on ooVoo, the friend inquired about my user name and what it meant. I revealed that my user name “Sweat” was inspired by a short story of the same name by novelist Zora Neale Hurston. This person inquired about the story and I took to Google to find an online version of the story to share. What my Google search led me to was a book titled Sweat by Zora Neale Hurston and edited by Cheryl A. Wall who also provides an introduction. Most people know that Zora Neale Hurston is my favorite author of all time and I never pass up the chance to learn more about the prolific woman and writer who has inspired me in so many ways already. Reading the introduction by Cheryl A. Wall really provided me with some new insights about Zora Neale Hurston. Cheryl A. Wall writes, “Zora Neale Hurston was a writer who respected the complex language and lives of the people she wrote about.” In a time when most black writers were trying to distance themselves from black folk language Zora Neale Hurston took it and molded it into something beautiful and poetic. A testament to her skills as both writer and anthropologist. Zora Neale Hurston understood that the black folk language was poetic and instead of running from it she ran to it. Another aspect of the introduction that really touched me was the revelation that Zora Neale Hurston had done extensive fieldwork in Polk County, Florida. As someone raised in that neck of the woods I know that she found rich examples of black folk life in that citrus belt.
I never underestimate the ability of my thirst for hunger to take me to new,and exciting places, and to reveal greater insights into the world around me and the beautiful people who make up this world. One of the things that I hope all people realizes is that knowledge is at our fingertips and it is up to us to seek it out. We do not have to wait for a classroom or a teacher to pursue the acquisition of knowledge. It’s out there and sometimes it’s only a Google search away. Zora Neale Hurston found books in trash piles to quench her thirst for knowledge, we have Google at our fingertips and should utilize such a resource as much as possible.
People often ask me why I am so vocal about my atheist beliefs. They ask me why do I feel the need to let the world know that I don’t believe in mythical beings. I usually just point out to them that theist and in particular christians in the United States are also vocal and that in my own little way I am balancing out the equation.
But on a serious note, there seems to be this notion amongst theist that they alone have the right to express their views in public. That by virtue of them believing in whatever deity that it is they believe in they can profess and proclaim their faith to society unchecked.
Take for instance the situation that took place in Charlotte, N.C., where a local atheist group erected a billboard with the words “One nation indivisible,” alluding to of course the way the Pledge of Allegiance was recited prior to the 1954 inclusion of “Under God.”
Someone, who we can only assume was a theist, or an atheist with a weird sense of humor, took it upon themselves to deface the billboard and remind secular humanist that when they choose to erect a billboard that’s crossing the line. It’s as if theist feel that they alone have the right to profess their mythical beliefs. That their belief in a magical being gives them the right to erect billboard after billboard promoting whatever religious belief they are promoting and also using those beliefs to scare women out of getting abortions.
I suppose we’re suppose to accept that its perfectly fine for theist to use their mythical beliefs to attack things like a woman’s autonomy over her body, but how dare those evil secular humanist erect a billboard!
I’m not going to back down from my secular humanist beliefs and I am not going to sit idly by while religious fundamentalist try to create a climate where in which only they are allowed to exercise their beliefs and all others should just know their place.
The defacing of that billboard in North Carolina just inspired me to go harder!
Atheist billboard defaced: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ynews/ynews_ts2936