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.
Originally Published on NewNowNext.com by Darnell L Moore