There’s a saying in many Black circles that trauma makes us who and what we are. A few hundred some years of biological and ancestral pain have made it an expected condition of defining a culture that is as artificial as it is loved. However, as we grow further away from the most severe memories of our trauma and into newer agonies, and joys, the focus on our old identity has become more problematic than beneficial in identifying what Blackness is. It really isn’t healthy to position Black power in Black pain.
My little cousin wears his sister’s boots in full view of a Virginia supermarket thinking nothing of judgment, repression or the challenges such a remark will have on his Blackness and three generations of Black folk who flinch every single time. Largely, this is because it’s as if he is alien to any kind of pain whatsoever, having not yet been hardened like so many before him.
I’m of a different generation, one of “Black Boy Joy” and letting the person choose who they will be for their own mental wellbeing. However, I also exist among the three generations who have flinched, despite my own queerness and past sensitivity, because I recognize that “Black Boy Joy” is not universal.
My Black cis-maleness has always been in conflict with anything that is situated in my joy. As a Black man, anything residually queer or feminine put my position into question. It’s always been a problem of not only sustaining a fictional hierarchy within our community but ensuring my safety in public spaces. The truth is an aggressive Black man is largely avoided, and a queer Black boy is directly confronted. The expectation then becomes to suppress these elements of femininity for the sake of survival.
This is an impossible expectation. A creature that lacks a feminine presence will result in self-destruction. Life cannot be sustained perpetually by force, anger and pride if it’s expected to flourish. Yet, in three generations, the men of my own family have succumbed to suicide or destruction in a race to rid itself of anything we can call weakness. Despite how progressive I perceive myself, my aversions to sensitivity in myself and my own 10-year-old cousin whose flamboyance outweighs even my own is evident.
Today, we benefit from a culture of mental health advocacy. We’ve garnered viral sensations whose attention to mental health have become some of the most profitable brands since FILA became gentrified. Every day, we prove that the traumas we’ve experienced daily have never gone untraceable, and as brave as the Black consciousness is, it can wear down. Black men participate in self-care that once connotated queerness and emotional expressions of love and care. Black women are encouraged to pursue self-satisfaction rather than the “satisfaction” of a familial bond.
However, these principles are not shared with Black folk who are also queer. The concepts and explorations of self-care embraced in Black LGBTQ+ communities ostracized us from Black communities that we’ve always uplifted. Those same principles now embraced by most still condemn us as outsiders in the discourse of “You’re Black first, always” -- as if somehow queerness warranted an allegiance to anything else.
Every day, Black queer folk expressing their truths are perceived as a threat to the image of Black men and masculinity everywhere. Yet, when the coin is flipped and we’re presenting Black heterosexual dynamics, we’ve adopted new terms like “heteroflexible,” “metrosexual” and the latest “Black Boy Joy” -- a wellness sentiment that we now understand is exclusively straight.
When Billy Porter is simply a man in a dress, it’s a controversy, and when Migos is homophobic in a blouse, it’s a subversion. Cardi B asks her audience to be careful with the mental health of her husband, Offset, following his numerous public affairs, but the same care is seldom offered to the victims of her past homophobia and transphobia.
Despite the ever-growing attention that we have for mental health advocacy and the freedom in Black expression, there is still this hunt for an ideal Black experience — one that doesn’t “embarrass” itself by appearing too feminine and too off-kilter to what is perceived as socially standard.
This ideology has existed since the Great Migration, where Black folk urbanized every large metropolis across the North and cultivated what we now embrace as Black “American” culture. We gaze back lovingly to the limelight of the Harlem Renaissance and ignore the flippantly queer subtext of the entire period.
And yet, as a Black man with his own dedication to a mental health journey and joy, I’m expected to acknowledge the growth of the Black community towards wellness and expression despite the movement’s active and violent need to shove me to the side.
Contrary to these beliefs, I do understand how far we’ve come.
Homophobia, to me, wasn’t a problem that people found the same sex attractive, but that they acted on it, rather than suppressing it. When I fell out of practice with the art of suppression, the Black men of Philadelphia would act as the enforcers of these unseen rules. I’ve been jumped for how I walked in a West Philly alley by the people I’ve known all my life before, and I’ve also watched the painful implosions of angst and self-repulsion in every young man who threw a punch or kick that day. These attacks were a request for me to be miserable and contained because that was what was OK and that self-hatred was not so perplexing because it was the normal state of existence.
Many of those men are dead by their deceptions, and even more, are still performing self-delusions to an audience that doesn’t even care if the show ends with another death. We all know how it ends, and though many have leapt off the stage, only a specific group are ordered to return.
I know how far we’ve come in mental health advocacy and open expression in the Black community enough to know that I possess my own similar social complexities. I do not know if my aforementioned aversions are because I’m afraid for my little cousin’s well-being when he finds out the world isn’t welcoming to anything alien, or because I’m now among the things averted to the freedom I cherished in my youth.
However, we have come a far way from what we once were, and among the things we learned is that our traumas do not have to become a regurgitated reality. Our disapproval of the past can end. And the healthy choice we can make, as a Black community, is to encourage each other to express ourselves in ways that do not continue harm -- and go back to running our business.