Fire & Desire: The Art of Loving (and Hating) Blackness

by D. Grace

I wrote this piece for many reasons, but my hope is that this piece will continue conversations about the importance of loving Blackness, loving queerness and many other things, through art. I ask that if you read this and it resonates with you, please share it with others—not for me, but for us. Discuss it with family and friends, engage with me and others in the comment section, write about it, and make art. This is about so much more than me. Thank you.

I saw Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” on August 8th and have not been the same since. Not long after The Change, I decided that I would write about it, but I was not sure when. I needed to know exactly what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. And I needed to know, most importantly, that I was emotionally ready. As I type this I wonder if anyone is ever really ready for this type of conversation.

I walked out of the theater with a good friend from college. We gathered ourselves together, talked about Trayvon, and moved on to other topics. My mind, however, was fixated on Michael B. Jordan, the 26-year old actor who skillfully portrays Oscar Grant, the 22-year old Oakland, California native gunned down by a transit cop in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009.

For the first 24-48 hours, I was in denial.

“I do not like him. I do not like him. I do not like him. Not like that at least.”

I am 26 years old as well. At this age, sometimes it feels a bit beneath me to have a celebrity crush of any kind. But no, this time it was different and, for several reasons, it took me a few days to admit why: because he is Black.

For some context, I am a Black queer (bisexual) cisgender woman, born and raised in New York. I have medium-brown skin, short, tightly coiled Afro-textured hair, and I am and always have been heavy, with full lips and a wide nose.

In the week following my fated trip to the movies, I was on an emotional roller coaster. I cried almost every night and I had two nightmares—I never have nightmares. I was scared, angry, relieved, confused, smitten, and what sometimes felt like every emotion under the sun.

Most of the time I did not think about it but, since seeing FVS, the burden of my painful, complex relationship to Black men–—and myself—weighed on me heavily. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse; my abusers were young Black men. For me, sexual street harassment began when I was about 14 years old, and continues to this day. As a tween and a teen, I was called “ugly” more than once, to my face, and I even imagined myself as light-skinned until I was approximately 15 or 16 years old. I was ignored, except as a grotesque sexual object.

Seeing that film, and more precisely, seeing MBJ as someone desirable, triggered all of those memories. To be sure, walking down the street and finding random Black men attractive has never been a problem for me, but it has been rare for me to have any real, fixated crush on or interest in Black men over a long period of time. When I returned home after seeing the film, I poured through written interviews of Jordan. I watched Youtube videos of him. In one week, I zipped through seasons four and five of Friday Night Lights (on Netflix) just because he was in it. I Googled his image and stared admiringly at his big brown eyes, full lips, and beautiful brown skin—all like mine. Black like me.

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It has been a wondrous experience—to know that it is okay to feel this way, to know that I can begin to move beyond the pain. To become capable of fully loving Black men, should life lead me down that path, without the baggage. It started with a simple crush, but has become about so much more than the actor or the film—catalysts for a more pertinent and necessary journey

In one of my recent googlings (Google ooglings—you’re welcome), I clicked on a particularly fine picture and decided to visit the page with which the photo was associated. It led me to what I would ultimately discover to be a very sexually explicit and very queer Tumblr dedicated to images of (mostly) young men of color. There were pictures of male genitalia, explicit depictions of queer men having anal sex, as well as more tame headshots, and duck face-like bathroom photos. Among all of that was a small photo collage of tame pictures of Jordan.

Based on the pictures chosen to create the collage, I thought to myself, “Whoever made this has great taste.” Then I thought some more: what would happen if Michael B. Jordan knew that this Tumblr existed? That among all these images of men of color masturbating, having sex with one another—a space presumably for other queer men to admire (mostly) men of color—were images of him? My immediate answer to my own question was an understanding that I don’t actually know what his response would be. For some, an immediate reaction would be to assume the worst about what he thinks simply because he is a young Black man who is presumed to be straight. While I do not think the worst of a hypothetical situation, as a queer woman who has been admiring his looks and his talent for the last 2 ½ months, it immediately pained me to even think of the “worst” being a possibility. In my mind, I hoped that, if he ever found out, Jordan would understand, as explicit as it may be, why this space is so important.

Marlon Riggs, in his documentary “Tongues Untied”, talks about many things, but one of the things that struck a deep personal chord with me (a song I was not ready to play at the time) was his exploration of the creation of identity in the face of pain and oppression. That is, the construction of his identity as a gay Black man oppressed by both straight Black people and white people in various ways. Attacked by Black men in his youth, he later found himself drawn to, and dating, white men. (Sidenote: I highly recommend his work.)

I too had been hurt by Black people, and Black men in particular, at a young age. While I did not purposely seek out white people, I did turn to art as an escape from the pain caused by my experiences as a young Black girl. I listened to copious amounts of music, mostly via MTV, BET, and VH1, and I watched television. A few years ago, I realized just how much of what I consumed then was very white (because invisibility and because privilege) and how consuming whiteness later affected how I thought of myself and others like me. In a time when I most needed validation of who I was, the messages I received from mainstream media only served to underscore the messages that I had already heard loud and clear: there is no space for you here because you are not worthy. As a result, most of my crushes up until high school were light-eyed, sometimes blond-haired white people, or light-skinned people of color, I imagined myself as light-skinned, and I was otherwise saturated in the idea that White/Light Is Right. Even after I somehow miraculously had a change in taste and perspective, my trust in Black men was still too broken to mend overnight, so I continued to suffer silently in that pain and shame. (To this day I cannot recall any specific experience that would have caused me to finally imagine myself as I am and to cause my crushes, both white and people of color, to darken significantly.) In that moment, thinking about that Tumblr page, Marlon Riggs, my ongoing process, and MBJ, I thought about bell hooks’ conception of loving blackness as political resistance.

My particular experience has been a story that has come full circle. Looking for a place to escape as a child, I sought art and entertainment that was not interested in validating my identity. Coupled with the pain I endured, I have long suffered the consequences of art that does not love Blackness—art that in fact rejects Blackness as absurd, dangerous, scandalously sexual, criminal, and intellectually impotent. But it was art that loves Blackness—that chose to humanize a young man so often vilified in the media for being…well, human, as imperfect as we are—that started me on a journey of healing, love, self-love, forgiveness, understanding, and wholeness. My hope is that one day, soon, there will be more of this art and that future generations of people of color can find solace in stories and images that look, sound, and feel like themselves.

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d grace

D. Grace is a 2nd year graduate student at Pace University, studying Adolescent Education. Teacher & storyteller at heart with a love for film. I want to write books & make movies.

 

 

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