Nina Simone, a paragon of wokeness, whose personal and professional life suffered due to her dedication to calling out the racism black people faced, offered a collage of black female experiences – the Four Women – whose very existence, voices and stories formed a sense of protest. Inspired by Nina Simone’s Four Women, I contemplate what it might mean to be a ‘woke’ or ‘woke enough’ black gay man.
Saturday night: East Dulwich, London. Four black gay men sit, arms and bodies draped, entangled in each other. Tones of deep mocha, thick molasses, decadent caramel and rich Manuka honey, fill the living room. Snuggled on the leather couch with wine glasses in hand, we debate, laugh loud, clap hands, break bread, share, call each other out and love. Tonight is about Todrick. In my signature style of blurting out what I thought to be harmless, I admit to having never heard of Todrick Hall and certainly had never seen him perform. “Girl, where you been?” they ask, in disbelief at my faux pas, minutes away from demanding the return of my black/gay card. Tonight would be my education. I just HAD to witness Mr. Hall in all his amped-up glory. And yet, as I would soon learn, this viewing wasn’t just about the costuming, music and the fierceness of his documentary, Straight Outta Oz. The air is rich with questions: How is he received by OUR community? What do you make of his white boyfriend? What’s the deal with his ease with all these white celebrities? What do you think about his level of wokeness? But, what did it mean for us to be woke, as black gay men?
One of us leans forward, the honey-hued one, with brilliant, quizzical eyes, Colgate smile, mane of locs swept up under a bright green headscarf. What do we call him? His name is Poet. “I wonder if there’s enough space for us to each discover what being woke means, on our own terms, without being attacked by the woke police?” This brother has a way with words, born out of a lifetime of introspection, good education and church. “Hmmmmm”, we all murmur in agreement. We’ve all thought about this. We’d seen and, in our own ways, been at the centre of the burgeoning politics; the hashtags; the urgent social media captions; the imagery of melanin-poppin’; the kneeling protests; the Becky takedowns and white supremacist clapbacks. Yet, despite, at times, being in exclusive relationships with black men, we also have/have had/might still go on to have intimate relationships with white lovers. Some of us suit-and-tie to work in largely white corporate worlds; we travel the world in a manner that only our middle-class privilege can afford; some of us feel shielded from institutionalised police brutality; not all of us have experienced sexual violence or the constant threat from our surroundings, though some of us have.
“How do I participate in this conversation? This moment feels so alive with possibility and pride. How do I celebrate all that it means for me to be black and gay, while co-existing in a world that tells me that I’m only good enough because I ‘made it’?” I think about my place in a world where I’m one of the few. It’s a world where my peers, managers and clients are predominantly white, cis-gendered, hetero males, who have the attitudes and behaviours to match. Is my presence, evidence (to them anyway) of black exceptionalism? Am I fooling myself by believing that I can change things from the inside out? My existence seems like a split personality. In that world, I don’t shout too loudly about my experiences as a black, gay man, for fear of alienation and regression in a place that generally rewards conformity and singleness of purpose. Outside of work, I feel like a bit of a fraud, longing to be part of the movement but realising that I haven’t faced the same degree of adversity that I feel necessary to earn my woke credentials. I’d only heard the term ‘woke’, as it’s understood in its current-day vernacular, about three years ago. As it turns out, I don’t even have the language to be part of the movement, which in and of itself produces a mini-existential crisis. What do they call me? My name is Philosopher.
I don’t shout too loudly about my experiences as a black, gay man, for fear of alienation and regression in a place that generally rewards conformity and singleness of purpose.
My brothers-on-the-couch give me that ‘side-eye’ look, which suggests that perhaps I’d overthought things again. And, it’s not that they don’t feel me. It’s just that this line of questioning is too deep for the matter at hand. Todrick and his journey to Oz. Did I say that his talent was in question? I retract that with the quickness. The brother has talent to spare; perhaps not to everyone’s taste. But, he certainly understands his lane and pushes to the extremes. I’m particularly struck by how ubiquitous his presence seems in the production. He writes, produces, sings, designs, choreos, plans, schedules, films his entire production – almost as if the singular role of his impressively large entourage is to merely fill the gaps that he’d somehow missed, simply because there weren’t enough hours in the day. I wonder about how I would’ve been able to fully express my creativity and passion for performance, had I enjoyed the same degree of nurturing and validation that Todrick seemed to have received from his caregivers, mostly his mother but also his teachers and other adults.
“I know what it’s like to be rejected by family” chimes in the smouldering one, skin like smooth and buttery molasses. What do we call him? His name is Explorer. This creature of first-class travel, decadent culinary escapes and dreamlike, faraway destinations, begins to gesture and paint the air with beautiful long arms that retell a childhood coloured by turmoil, non-acceptance, pain and self-discovery. We all raise our palms to the sky, in ‘praise-and-worship’ unison, confirming the realness and relatability of his experience. What would it have been like to receive the validation we desperately craved in our boyhood? What would it have been like to have had the space to understand our queerness, supported by the thoughtfulness, understanding and compassion of our loved ones? We drift off, each of us momentarily re-imagining a different upbringing, at times as fantasy-like as the story being told right before our very eyes, whilst simultaneously recognising the soul stirring, in this very moment, that offers us the space that we have longed for.
A scene in the documentary jolts us (mostly me) back to reality. At one of Todrick’s concerts, he facilitates/witnesses a gay marriage proposal. A white partner drops to his knee and pops the big question to his similarly dressed black boyfriend. I am incensed, affronted even, wine-glass forcefully tabled for added drama. “No man should even THINK about dropping to his knee and proposing to me!” I offer, with self-righteous conviction. “We’re both men, what gives him the right, the power to propose? Why do we seek heteronormative (a word that I now use too liberally, since discovering it) validation by adopting one of THEIR patriarchal rituals? The “aggression/control” of the proposer, the “passiveness/obedience” of the proposee, the power imbalance that it represents, is what troubles me most”, I say to my perplexed brothers, feebly defending my stubborn position. “What’s wrong with being taken care of or being passive?” are the questions I now face. I’m forced to consider my own fears of relinquishing control, past experiences of being dominated and latent hostility towards my own vulnerabilities. They laugh when I tell them that such a proposal would be a relationship silver-bullet. I laugh at my ridiculous intransigence.
And, so we go on…reacting and responding to the fabulousness of what is unfolding before us: a ‘sheer-force-of-will’ and artistic creation by one of our brothers (albeit a more famous and glowed up brother). Are those his eyes? You think they really happy (him and the Ken-doll perfect boyfriend)? How much you think he’s worth? Frivolous questions, yes, but they belied real inquisition. Is he representing, though? Is he, by his very presence as an unapologetic black, queer man fighting for his place in the unforgiving world of entertainment, a reflection of us? Perhaps we all saw a bit of us in him: the black boy, bursting with talent and possibility, who pressed onwards and OUTwards – a modern day, queer Dorothy. Or, perhaps we don’t see enough of us in him, with his perfectly curated persona, the non-threatening black boy, worthy of a Taylor Swift cameo. “I think he’s really exceptional,” says our host, the loveable teddy bear of the group. If a teddy bear were dipped in fine West African cocoa and blessed with an Aqua fresh-perfect smile, this would be him. Tonight’s sitting was his idea. In previous weeks, we’d had an Insecure-athon, where the main objective was to marinate in Issa Rae’s thirst-inducing visuals of beautiful black bodies, sumptuous asses, sinewy arms and those good strong thighs. That time, we revelled in the characters’ everyday stories, presented in exceptional lighting (how does their skin look so gorgeous?), highlighting the exceptionalism of seeing ourselves on screen: our brothers and sisters, friends and lovers. Somehow they seemed necessarily beautiful, reminding us of our unbounded desires and inherent desirability. Like a dream, our host seemed to get lost in these plotlines and beckoned us to deepen into melanin infused fairy tales. What do we call him? His name is Storyteller.
Somehow they seemed necessarily beautiful, reminding us of our unbounded desires and inherent desirability
But on this night, the story is more about us: a woven together, beautiful tapestry from threads spun in looms of turmoil, self-denial, rejection and pain. Todrick presents us with a narrative of doing just that: claiming one’s visibility and redemption in a whirlwind of glitter, stage drama and vocal runs. How privileged he is to even have the opportunity and the space to do so. We think of those who’ve charted the course for us, for whom the fight to be seen, to be visible, to even exist in this world, isn’t a passing fancy, but an ongoing journey that is theirs and our life’s struggle. Do I, sitting on this couch, even have the right to be part of the same conversation as these luminaries and freedom fighters, who’ve battled and who continue to carve out new lanes where no obvious paths existed? Perhaps I can. What if what we’re doing, by the very act of being on this couch, basking in each other’s energies, is part of the resistance? Isn’t this, as Joseph Beam taught, the revolutionary act? We are black men, loving each other – perhaps this is our woke protest, Perhaps, along with the visibility and the struggle, woke means an openness to take loving care of each other; to find joy in the true reflection of who we are; to be honest and protect each other; to nurture and promote our blackness/gayness; to show up and to be at ease; to argue and come to agreement and respect our disagreement. Perhaps, tonight, we personify the revolutionary act. I cherish these moments, with my brothers. I exhale. My body feels cradled in the warmth of their collective embrace. My soul is nourished by their love and affection. My limitations feel challenged by their perspectives. My dreams are supported by their hopefulness.
As I conclude, I think of heartwood, a tree whose sweet, seductive aroma of oud is only produced and released when the wood itself comes under parasitic attack. In response, a dense, dark resin, highly prized over millennia by great civilizations, pours into the wounded parts of the tree, turning them brown and black. What a perfect analogy for us as black gay men. In response to early trauma, a lifetime of micro-aggressions and macro-oppressions, we produce sweet, intoxicating, pungent, exceptional forms of expression, which are highly favoured, highly valued, consistently appropriated, oftentimes perverted – but really, for us, they exist for the purpose of self-healing, for elevation, for redemption. As I sit, I inadvertently ‘aha’ my way to the realisation that we are uniquely positioned to exemplify our own brand of excellence (in other words, no one else can do what we do as black gay men). Perhaps being woke is about being good enough for ourselves, pouring that healing resin into each other’s wounds. As black gay men, we can be each other’s heartwood, drawing out the beauty from the pain, mirroring one another. Just like Nina’s Four Women, our diverse, nuanced, shaded (and shady), entangled stories come together in a strange, poignant, and bittersweet, life-affirming portrait.
We are Four Wo(ke)men. And, what do they call us?
Our name is Self-Love.