Lupe Fiasco and the Radical Messiness of Black Male Feeling

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I wonder if people – black people especially – really appreciate how beautiful it is to live at a time when black men are allowing themselves to feel so openly, to be emotional in public.

Lupe Fiasco articulates something that black men have been saying for a long time: that black men are dying, killing themselves and each other, that we live in a society where black male life is disposable. And he’s eloquent on the substance of what you see in this clip.

But what is truly remarkable is that he lets himself feel something more than just frustration and anger at the plight of black men. This is a display of profound, deep sadness. It’s love. Pure. Messy.

It takes Lupe Fiasco a minute to find the words. Those precious, awkward moments before he starts to find the words are wonderous, awe-inspiring, and deeply affecting.

And yet, when I watched this I was uncomfortable because I still don’t really know how to respond. This is not my vernacular. My reference is the 90s’ cold, hard grip on “keepin it real,” even as I never felt fully a part of that. My language is 2pac’s righteous indignation and anger, even it left me in so many ways illiterate.

I struggle with deep emotion. Still.

Artists like Drake, J. Cole, Frank Ocean, Kanye West and others are playing in space that is quite new. And while I think they often confuse narcissism for reflection and miss the mark in communicating what they are genuinely feeling, I appreciate so very much that the range of emotion that black men can feel publicly – and be successful and lauded – is so much broader now than it has been in the past.

Millennials have so many more colors to play with than previous generations allowed themselves. We should celebrate that.

Tribute to E. Lynn Harris

E Lynn

Yesterday, I woke up after sleeping most of the day away to find a text on my phone from my friend Randy saying that E. Lynn Harris had died.

E. Lynn is an icon.  For a lot of gay and bisexual men, E. Lynn wrote our lives (or, in his later books, the lives some of us wanted to live).

I discovered his books in 2002 when I was trying to decide what to do about my life having lived the previous years as a celibate man.  Invisible Life‘s cover art, a man caught between a man and a woman, drew me in immediately.  I saw it in a bookstore and I just picked it up and read that two-page prologue right then and there.

I was hooked and I bought it and Just As I Am up right there.

Unlike most, I think, E Lynn’s Invisible Life novels — Invisible Life, Just As I Am, and Abide With Me — confirmed for me that I was bisexual and that that was something that was okay to be.  I thought Raymond’s story was beautiful and it spoke to a tug of war that I was dealing with that I didn’t even know I was dealing with.

Though Raymond decided he was gay in the novels, I knew after reading Raymond’s story that bisexuality was real and that I was bisexual.  As E. Lynn wrote it, I understood perfectly why Raymond would fall in love with Nicole and Quinn and though I understood why the plot unfolded the way it did, for me, I knew that I would never make the choice that Raymond did, choosing one gender over the other.  And I set out to live my life as a bisexual man, of course, having no idea how to even go about doing that (still don’t, by the way).

E. Lynn gave me that.

Over the years, I’ve followed E. Lynn’s career, reading all of his books, attending his readings, and debating with my friends about whether Boris Kodjoe or Rick Fox would make the better Basil Henderson.  Though I haven’t enjoyed his books much since the Invisible Life saga, I appreciated that our stories were being told.

People often criticized E. Lynn’s later work for being simplistic and formulaic, which it was.  And the elements of the earlier work that I liked least — the name dropping and preoccupation with status — eventually overwhelmed his work. But even if he continued to turn out serviceable fiction like his latest, Basketball Jones, nothing he could have done would diminish the beauty, sincerity, and heartbreaking prose in the Invisible Life saga.

Raymond and Nicole were ambitious buppies, but they had deep insecurities and struggled to find a center in their frequently tumultuous lives, all of which made them relatable and human.  And Basil Henderson is probably one of the finest, most fully realized portraits of black male humanity in contemporary Black fiction.  While Raymond eventually receded into the background in later books, Basil’s emergence as the most complex individual in E. Lynn’s world was surprising, rewarding, and frequently quite moving.

E. Lynn apparently used to tell folks that he was no James Baldwin.  He’s wrong.  Invisible Life, Just As I Am, and Abide With Me are still completely unique, incomparable works that should be read every bit as much as Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, and Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone.  Like Baldwin, E. Lynn wrote about black love.  About its redemptive power. Its sometimes frightening intensity.  And its haunting, elusive beauty.

E. Lynn is a hero.  Little confused black boys and girls will pick up his Invisible Life saga for generations to come and get yet another glimpse of the beauty of black humanity and love.

Rest in Peace.

For the record, I still think Rick Fox has the stronger acting chops and would the better choice to play Basil, though Boris is what I see in my head when I think of Basil.

on being a black woman…

A friend of mine sent me a really interesting email a few months ago that reminded me of how fundamentally different it is to be a black woman.  I found this while I was cleaning out my email box.  I meant to post this months ago when I first received it because I think it says more than I could ever say as a black man about the every day experience of being a black woman.  But I got distracted and never got post it.  Check it out:

T, I had a white man encounter today.

You know, on a day to day basis, white men are the least of my concern. Not "the white man" (the entity that has a chokehold on the vehicles of power in this country), but literally white men that I see on the street. Jim and Bobby and Kent…. I actually have fewer degrading, infuriating interactions with them than I do with my own (black men). Now I don’t mistake that lack of attention as respect. Hardly. Its just that they are rarely publicly attracted to the things about me that easily appeal to 9 out of 10 black men that I pass on my way to work or to the grocery store – big lips, thick legs, hips, and booty. Add in the brownskin and I’m usually a Grace Jones-like fantasy for the white man best enjoyed in private – at home where, in their minds, I can be exoticized and accessorized with leopard print. I am usually either the forbidden fruit or the asexual mammy, not worthy of a polite nod hello. Whatever. Who needs white men? I generally go about my business as if they’re just these odd pale aliens walking around – and if I act like they’re not there, they’ll just disappear.

Well not today. A white man at Borders stepped outta his mind and said to me "Has anybody ever told you how beautiful you are?" Alright. I can handle this. Benign. Maybe even sweet. "Aww. Isn’t that nice. Thanks so much." "But no, I mean, really beautiful." he says. Okay, I think to myself. He’s going somewhere with this. "Well thank you very much" I say again and turn back to my book. He then says in a low whisper (and in my mind this came out in slow motion) "I mean its just amazing. You ooze sex without even moving a muscle. You just are sex."


As I’m looking at him like "excuse me?" he says "I don’t usually say things like that, but something about you is so exotic and…primal."

My world stops for a second?

I am sex?


No one’s ever said that to me before. I wonder if its because I remind you of the women that you’re great grandfather raped. You think that has anything to do with it? Or is it because you equate my distinctly African features with the wild, savage, jungle sex that black women all have? And would you say that to a white woman? What in my carriage makes you think that its okay to talk to me like that?

T, my eyes saw flames for a minute.

I saw every film image of massa sneaking into a cabin at night, or reaching his hand under a skirt and got angrier towards white men than I ever had in my life. I just looked at him and sweetly said "you usually don’t say things like that? Well I’d recommend you stick with that pattern – because I’m not flattered by trying to read a book in the middle of my workday and having to be made aware of your personal sexual frustration. If looking at me makes you that primal, maybe you should keep it to yourself, jerk off, wash your hands, and keep it moving. Because I’m not interested in accepting that kind of compliment." I put my book down on the shelf as he protested "Wow…I think you misunderstood me…" and was looking around to see who heard. I marched out of that Borders into what I’m sure will be a month long offense towards Jimmy, Bobby, and Kent, Danny and every other white man (or dudes with names that end in a "y".)

Did I overreact? Probably.

Rarely do I lash out at someone for their unintentional ignorance. He probably just thought he was paying me a compliment and had no idea that I had images of Alex Haley’s Queen running through my mind at the time. Lol. But whatever. I’m still pissed. (And, it just so happens that Sister Toldja’s post today is about interracial relationships. Not all that relevant, but its just adding fuel to my fire….) 

I’m bout to pull out my "for colored girls who thought of committing suicide" and launch into a monologue about how hard it is to be a black woman. And T, you know what? With all of my self-confidence and self-esteem (and thank God that my parents instilled that in me or I’d be a freaking mess!), even I get plain old tired. Tired of dealing with all of the bullshit. The day to day reconciliation of my womanhood and my blackness is such an exertion of effort and constant energy. I mean, I have to suit up like a linebacker just to deal with my daily regimine of esteem-bashing:

One black man disrespecting me and catcalling me down the street. (translation = I’m beautiful because of my ass)
One black man degrading me with his eyes for being too dark and nappy headed. (translation = I’m ugly because of my complexion)

One white man talking inappropriately about my appearance  (translation = I’m the white man’s guilty pleasure)
One white man looking past/through me as if I don’t exist. (translation = I’m invisible because I’m black and/or I’m invisible because I’m a woman)

One black woman hating on me because she thinks I’m pretty.(translation = my sisters don’t love or support me)
One white woman asking me questions about my hair and my body like I’m a zoo animal. (translation = I’m a freak of nature)

One reflection of myself somewhere in the media being a sexual object. (translation = I am eye candy and visual foreplay for the media)

One absence of me in all other media content for the day  (translation = no one that looks like me is desirable/successful/happy)

It’s just insane. And what about the little girls who didn’t have Daddies who love them? And Mamas that showed them how to carry themselves? And faith in a God that loves her fiercly? What about them? And, in the words of Effie, "What about me?". Cuz right now, I’m feeling worn and torn. Strong? Sure. Confident? Yeah. All of the other black warrior princess references? Yep. I’m still me.

But this sister is still just plain old tired. And his one thing I know for sure: Being a black woman is the hardest thing in the world. At least for today.

Think on it…

On Integrity; or You Don’t Know Nearly as Much as You Think You Do.

For the past month or so, I’ve been in a self-imposed exile from any kind of real intense communion with people. What this means is that I haven’t really gone out socially. I’ve minimized any kind of workplace fraternization (which, incidentally, has been difficult as this job is relatively new and I should be getting to know my colleagues). And I’ve not really been talking as regularly to the people in my immediate sphere.

The reason for this is quite simple: Self-critique.

I’m not obsessed with myself to the point of distraction the way that may sound, but I realized when I got my new job and didn’t feel as settled as I had expected to be that there was obviously something else making me relatively unhappy.

Moving to DC was a conscious choice. One that worked one every level except socially. My “career”, if you can call it that, is in a good place. I’m doing work I think is important and I’m nicely, but not disgustingly, compensated for that work. I have ample time and opportunity to finish my personal writing which was something I could not do in Pittsburgh to the same degree.

However, DC is a remarkably harder place to find a niche than in Pittsburgh.  In Pittsburgh, I very much had my circle of friends and people who felt very similar to me. In DC, people have more money, less time, and (at times) no regard for the fact that they are only one of a couple trillion people on the planet. This makes it hard to find outlets socially that allow for the kind of relational interaction that I have found to be most rewarding.

People (or most of the ones I’ve met) tend to want to engage in activity that is not rewarding to me personally and that dilutes any true healthy relational interaction. Shopping is mind-numbingly boring to me and the conversation tends to be equally as banal. Going to the movies is difficult because folks don’t want to see what I want to see and loathe talking about it afterward, which I also find confounding. And to just sit and chill makes most people I’ve met so uncomfortable that they’ve literally left me sitting alone for significant amounts of time.

People I’ve met here either find me to be weird, overly serious, or aggravating. Sometimes all three. At the same time.

So upon realizing that things were not as balanced as I had hoped, I decided to re-evaluate myself. It’s a periodic process I engage in to help me correct the things about myself that contribute to my feelings of inbalance.  I believe that since one has so little control over the actions of others, the least one can do is change the parts of themselves that are problematic and hope that it makes relational interaction easier.

What I found is that sometimes, most times in fact, I overstep my bounds in speaking my truths. While I don’t necessarily believe that what I say is wrong or right, I realized that this is beside the point.  What I didn’t do in the past was give whoever I was talking to the courtesy of deciding whether or not they wanted to hear what I had to say in the first place.

This is unhealthy. It has made getting to know even the most well-meaning, nicest and most compatible (upon first or second glance, of course) of people turn away from building a friendship at all. I always knew that I came off abrasive, but in my head, I told myself that people don’t like the truth.

This is true. But it is truer that people don’t like unsolicited truths. I can probably be quoted by any number of friends and acquaintances as having said that “a true friend doesn’t allow you to enact unhealthy behaviors.”

I still very much believe that.

But I think now it is more important for me to only say certain things when they are requested. Because people don’t hear what you say, they hear what they want to hear. So I should wait to tell them when they are ready to hear it.

Now, of course, this seems like common sense and it is a wonder why it took me so long to get to this place in my life.  But once you learn something, you do often wonder how you never knew it.  Such is life.

A series of events happened that triggered this minor epiphany.

First, I was talking with a friend who was really excited about a date he had. When I asked for information about the guy he was going out with, he rattled off his stats. This struck me as very odd. I wondered almost instantly if my friend would then hold this man to a standard set by his preconceived notions of what those stats represented to him. I felt he was setting himself up for disappointment because he just didn’t seem interested in allowing for the guy to be different, or more accurately, to be more than his stats. It was all about aspects of this person that were very quantifiable and very superficial.

I was offended and I wasn’t even the date. I immediately told my friend that he should not approach his date with a checklist to make sure he wasn’t “lying” or “inconsistent” (to use his terminology) before he even really knew him well enough to know whether or not he was a “liar” or “inconsistent”. How similar someone is to their stats is important, but only so much.

He said, “don’t start.” And I, rather callously, pressed on.

The second instance was an acquaintance that graciously attempted to help me figure out how I could become a mentor here in DC. He mentioned, in his list, a couple of black fraternities. I didn’t have any initial reaction, but when I asked whether or not participation was predicated on being in the frat, I realized that the missions and goals a black fraternity might espouse, even inadvertently, wouldn’t jive with my own principles.

I didn’t say it nearly as nicely to him as I just did here. And I really did offend him. While not intentional in the slightest, it was definitely one of those times when you just don’t hear how you sound.

Integrity is very important to me. I think it is the number one reason why we, black folks, have not progressed nearly as far as we could given our unprecedented access to “the American dream.”

Going through these processes of recognizing the things you do that are detrimental to building healthy relational interactions is a necessary process. It is very much something that I value and it feels good to “make progress” toward becoming the kind of person that I very much would like to be.

When I embarked on my little journey into myself, most of my friends and acquaintances found it very odd and off-putting. People who like you, rarely if ever, think there is anything so wrong with you that would warrant this level of self-analysis. That’s wonderful to know. But it’s not really true. Everyone could stand to re-evaluate themselves more frequently.

I know that. I would love that. But I’m not gonna say that anymore.

It is important to me that my relationships, both platonic and otherwise, be based in interactions of integrity and not be rooted in a heterosexist power dynamic where everyone is trying to see how much the other person is “doing” for them and vice versa. This way of behaving has always struck me as profoundly silly.

But I realize that while I think this is silly, most other people do not. They have no problems with creating relationships that fit their ideal instead of ones that fit who both people as individuals. They have no problem playing games to see if the other person slips up. They have no problem “stacking screw-ups” to use against the other person later instead of stopping in the moment and calling attention to hurtful behavior.

This is socially sanctioned. Relationships are a game. It’s a race to see who wins.

Being alone is frighteningly okay with me. To the point where I do sometimes wonder if I am anti-social. And yet, I do feel lonely. Pervasively so. It is like an underlying emotion in my day-to-day life. Something that is always there. All my closest friends are in other cities and 90% of the people I’ve met here don’t end up making it very long with me (both because of me and because of them).

The willingness to live a life of integrity is always foisted on the other person. Everyone has numerous requirements for their mate and their friends. Look at any personals site. Endless ads listing likes and dislikes.  Very few of these people own up to the things that they do that inhibit healthy relational interactions.  And while I try to do that, this was an aspect of myself I just didn’t see before.  I had to once again figure out how I sabotage relationships.

Ultimately, I realized that while I would like people to have certain qualities and I’m not willing to compromise on a few things, I can’t badger people into such behavior by constantly reminding them of the way they behave. Especially if I’m not asked as much.

Again, why this took me so long…I don’t know.

Originally written on July 26, 2005

The Mechanisms of Intimacy; or “You Don’t Call Me Enough!”

In the new technological age, genuine connections are harder to find, harder to initiate, and harder to maintain and sustain. People are being raised to spend inordinate amounts of time communicating through machinces. None more so than the telephone.

The over-reliance on the telephone, means that understanding how to read a person’s expressions, understanding body language, etc gets lost. People become socialized to speak in flat generalities and trade anecdotes because there can only be so much communicated over the phone when you can’t see how the person is communicating what they are saying. For instance, someone could say “I hate him” and on the phone it can sound sincere, but in person the person might make a facial gesture that lets you know more about the situation.

Particularly, for my generation that was raised on telephones and computers and whatnot, real communication is very difficult. People tend to communicate in socialized familiarities and innuendos that do far more to tell you what media and social circles a person is privy to, but tells you nothing about who they are as an individual. This is true because people often say to me, “He’s so different from when we talked on the phone” or “He is so quiet on the phone.” People mistake phone conversation for the kind of meaningful dialogue that one gets from engaging in face-to-face interactions. And then when they realize this is not the case, they oftentimes think the person was dishonest, not forthcoming, or a liar. More often than not, what that really means is that people just feel less inclined to connect when they know that the other person can’t really tell that it’s not genuine interaction.

We feign complex and meaningful conversations on the phone! And I think we actually know it. I really do!

I’ve been in DC for almost nine months and I have run into so many people who over-rely on phone and internet for communication. And I am not a phone person. I never have been. And so it became very difficult to meet and get to know people because they demanded to be spoken to, by phone, every single day. While I understand that meeting strangers is a risk, for me after a certain point, I needed to interact with a human being.

The people that I talk to on the phone for extended periods of time are people far away who I’ve built a personal connection with prior to engaging in extended phone conversations as the primary means of communicating. My best friend lives in Delaware and we talk one or two times a week, on average. We both live very hectic, different lives and appreciate when the other has time to talk on the phone. We do not demand extraordinary amounts of time on the phone to validate the relationship. We also never assume that what time we do spend on the phone is an adequate substitute for the few times we get to see each other in person.

So many people feel that if they don’t talk to you every day then something is wrong. So many people immediately assume that if a person doesn’t call every day or every other day then that person is doing something wrong, being dishonest. This is absurd. Why don’t we consider the other alternatives, that the person could be tired from a long day, working, or shit, on the phone with someone else? Why assume the worst just because there is no phone communication?

If you require constant communication and you demand that a person call you everyday, a more useful request would be to ask for that person to spend actual time together, face-to-face. If you want them to go out of their way, why not have them go out of their way to spend face-to-face time together?

The answer to this question is our society loves the distance that is inherent in telephone communication. You can talk about everything under the sun and be really emotional about it and feel connected, while knowing that there is a level of communication that you will never get to over the phone. We spend hours listening to ourselves speak on the phone. Are we in love with the sounds of our own voice? Or is it that we are in love with the emotion that we put out even if it’s not received and then reciprocated. Telephones are remarkably one-sided. You can pour out your heart and all the person on the other end can really do is verbally reassure you. The tangible is missing. And I think that is ironically, what we love about it. We can do all the work of connecting without having to deal with it tangibly.

Telephones give a false sense of intimacy. You can wax nostalgic or poetic for hours and bore the tears off of the person on the other line and you’d never really know. Frequently, I find myself saying “mmmhmmm” or “right” just so the other person thinks I’m listening. One might say that this could just be me. But I’ve found this to be the case when I’m doing the talking as well. Telephones are all about hearing your self talk, because there is no one really there in the room with you when you do. A disembodied voice will never be an adequate substitute for a flesh-and-blood person.

We have become a society that loves the false intimacy of technology and is increasingly uncomfortable with real intimacy. It is much easier to hang up the phone than it is to leave someone’s company. It is much easier to give the best of you on the phone than it is in person. It is much easier to lie on the phone than in person.

This comforts us. Because our society does not value real dialogue. There is so much to talk about, really talk about and we spend an inordinate amount of the time (on the phone and in person) talking about everything but ourselves. When you are on the phone you can talk about yourself without having the person there to really react to what you’re saying. It allows for a wall to be placed around you. It’s like visiting a prisoner. You can cry and say “I love you” and kiss the window and it feels real to you, but it’s not real intimacy. The prisoner can never feel or truly interact with you.

I find that my problem with phone conversation is that the minute I get serious (and I know I’m an overly serious person and that is tiresome) people stop listening. The phone is for mindless chitchat. How was your day? Did so and so piss you off at work again? Is your man trippin? Did you hear what so and so did? This is what we talk about. We never talk about what really ails us, what really moves us, what really matters.

We give up agency on the phone. It’s a back and forth thing. One person says something while the person on the other end “Yesses” and “Mmmhmmms” until it’s their turn to speake. The give and take, the spontaneity of reacting to a physical presence is lost. We fall into a pattern.

I find that usually the person that is a phone person is the person that is the hardest to get to know in person. They are accustomed to the behavior of impersonal telephone conversation. So socialized to communicate in broad generalities and anecdotes, when you talk to that person face-to-face, it can often be stilted. In face-to-face communication, there is very little protocol. It is imperative that one listen and then react. We do not do this. In person, body language tells so much and we read it. You become naked in person. Vulnerability is very difficult in a society that lionizes the cold, hard man and the passionless angry woman.

This is not always the case, clearly. But my point is to interrogate why so many people overvalue the phone and then don’t feel the need to spend the quality face-to-face time as well. Frequently, it’s one or the other. I’m all for talking on the phone and doing the initial meet and greet. But it baffles me how people are so unwilling to meet face-to-face and continue from there. A combination of phone conversations and real face-to-face makes so much more sense to me. But I have met people who never intend to meet you or have conversations (unless they are on the phone). It’s odd to me. And very very sad.

Everyone on the planet uses online personals now and I often wonder if the meetings that come from that are more problematic than the old fashion dating before everything moved into cyberspace. Perhaps this merits more investigation by sociologists. I don’t know. But what I do know (from my own experience, that is) is that I never built friendships or relationships based on phone conversations. Everyone I am friends with or dated was someone I spent large amounts of time with in person. None of my really close friends are phone people, but contrary to popular opinion, they are wonderful conversationalists.

Originally written on June 11, 2005