"Something About You", 616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, A Question of Freedom, Blackness, Boyz N The Hood, Coolness, Crush #2, Eclectic Music, Heterosexuality, Level 42, Manhood, Masculinity, Mount Vernon High School, Mount Vernon New York, R. Dwayne Betts, Youth
About this time a quarter-century ago, I received regular reminders from the people in my life as family and classmates that I didn’t fit their definition of how a heterosexual Black male should behave. At least in Mount Vernon, New York. You see, I didn’t have to be a young Barack Obama or Lenny Kravitz to learn at an early age that I wasn’t Black enough, man enough or heterosexual enough for many folks in my life. The fact that I didn’t run around with the other boys skipping school and sniffing skirts was evidence enough of how different I was.
One of the more subtle forms of interrogation I experienced occurred at the end of eleventh grade, going into the summer of ’86. That day I walked into English class, and Crush #2 asked me about that song of the day, which happened to be Level 42’s “Something About You” Something About You. When I told her who it was, she started snapping her fingers to it. LJ, an on-and-off again classmate since third grade at William H. Holmes Elementary, walked by as we were talked. “Are they Black?,” she asked. When I said “No,” LJ shook her head and walked away. The group was White and from the Isle of Wight, no less, a bunch of off-shore British White guys. Somehow I’d violated some kind of code in LJ’s eyes. It was the last conversation we had before we graduated a year later.
I received a far less subtle hint that made LJ’s disgust look like romance by comparison. It was an incident just a week before the start of my senior year at Mount Vernon High School, something I’ve posted about before. By the time I’d gotten a crush on Crush #2, my sexuality was no longer in question, although I’d never seriously questioned it before. My father, though, still had his doubts. I’d hardly seen Jimme most of the summer of ’86, only coming over occasionally to see how he was doing or to bum a few bucks off of him. I found Jimme that last Saturday morning in August, hanging out on the street around the corner from his place, having already drunk his fill.
His mood was especially foul that day, like his body odor. He refused to give me any money. “I don’ give my money to no faggats!” Jimme yelled at me as he came walking and stumbling down his block toward me. He’d seen me come out of the front yard of the house in which he rented a room. I wasn’t in the mood for his crap. “I’m not a faggot and I’m not gay,” I yelled back. When he got closer, I could see that he’d been out too long already. Jimme’s clothes were a mess, and his face was in a twisted rage. He grabbed me by my arm.
“Did you get yo’ dict wet?,” he asked as usual.
“Even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you,” I said.
“YOU’RE A FAGGAT,” he yelled again. (see my “In the Closet, On the Down Low” from June 1, 2009 for the full conversation and incident)
As I saw it then, I was a year away from college, and I was still in the streets dealing with my drunk ass father, my jealous and institutionalized older brother, a sham of a marriage at 616 and four younger siblings who were high on sugar all of the time. I’d done so much to change my life and yet almost everything in my life was the same. Up to this point the only things that had kept my head from exploding were God and school. As my senior year approached, I wondered how much longer I could maintain emotional control before I finally just lost myself in years of growing pain, like a volcano about to super-erupt.
As I see it now, it remains a shame that we as Black males have to run a gauntlet in our communities in order
to become Black men, at least in the eyes of others. We can talk about the K-12-to-prison system that is public education in many a community of color. Or the drug trade. Or the sheer lack of quality public services and interventions in our communities or lives, other than police forces. Or even the daily images that tell so many of us that aspiring to be a rapper, football or basketball player, or just to be cool is so much better than knowing anything. The latest good memoir on this is R. Dwayne Betts‘ A Question of Freedom (2009).
But we must also admit that the people who attempted to raise us — our families, relatives, neighbors and classmates — are just as often at fault for turning out Black males who aren’t ready to be Black men, human adult males with ideas and aspirations outside of the box. Until we get serious about the fact that those closest to us have put such idiotic notions of masculinity, heterosexuality and Black coolness in many a Black male’s head, we get nowhere in helping to transform the lives of people like me when I was a teenager.
For we can’t depend on people like me becoming homeless, embracing solitude, and leaving my community as the best way to learn how to be a man, an adult, a really serious yet compassionate (and goofy) human being.