I’ll never be big enough to pay your dues
But I keep trying
And you just keep making me jump through hoops
What do I got to do?
I just want you to look at me
And see that I can be worth your love
I just want you to look at me
And see that I can be
On the face of it, these might just be lyrics penned by Jussie Smollett’s Empire character Jamal Lyon in an emotional open letter to his belligerent father Lucious. Dig deeper, though, and the track eloquently captures a dilemma that so many of us face at some point in our lives and an urgent question that I’ve been asking all of mine. Why do black gay men have to try so hard, to be considered just ‘good enough’?
Why do black gay men have to try so hard, to be considered just ‘good enough’?
As the product of Caribbean parents who worked hard enough to retire at 40 while maintaining the ability to bankroll their enviable globetrotting golden years, and the youngest sibling of two high flying experts in their respective fields – it’s safe to say that I’m hard wired for success, ambitious by DNA and in no way short of life goals. From competitive child to unsportsmanlike teenage loser, I grew up to be a fiercely ambitious adult. Those who know me will know that I’m never standing still, and always looking for the next opportunity to better myself across the complicated social, familial and professional spectrum of ‘me’. Yes, most of this can be neatly traced back to my own ego and natural drive, but having recently chopped it up over a bottle of wine with a friend who isn’t afraid to challenge me, things may run a lot deeper than I originally thought.
Last year, Michelle Obama brought the ‘twice as good’ theory back into the mainstream media spotlight during a motivational and moving speech to graduates in Alabama. A couple of years before that, Scandal viewers saw Papa Pope spit the exact same philosophy in an angry monologue blaming Olivia Pope’s failure to be ‘twice as good’ as the reason for her imminent downfall. In yet another example, Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his monumental book Between the World and Me, ponders the need for black children to be twice as good to get half as much. Explicitly or implicitly, either through their words or actions, most black parents have drilled this mantra into their children’s heads from a very early age – as black folks, we’ve got to work twice as hard and be twice as good to get half as far as our white counterparts.
While never actually having the ‘equality’ chat with my parents, it was the constant elephant in the room if ever a bad grade was brought home, attention was not paid or a test was not adequately studied for – and, leading by example, I constantly witnessed them doubling up on efforts and raising the bar my whole life. As with most families, the lesson was quietly handed down to my siblings and then to me before spinning off in different directions to my nieces and nephews.
Though Michelle Obama and Papa Pope no doubt geared the ‘twice as good’ message toward black women, I began to wonder about black gay men, myself in particular. Do the same rules apply? Do I feel that I have to work harder and smarter than not only our white peers but also our straight peers, to be considered merely good enough? Do we actually have to be thrice as good?
Do I feel that I have to work harder and smarter than not only our white peers but also our straight peers, to be considered merely good enough? Do we actually have to be thrice as good?
We’re inundated with images and preconceived notions of black masculinity which feed deeply into our subconscious as gay men; a gay masculinity that is often seen as antithetical to the stereotype of the black man. What follows is a relentless desire to succeed and be good enough to thrive against this well-established heteronormative backdrop, rather than taking the time to carve out our own definition of success. This plays out as a constant need to prove myself again and again in my social, family and professional life – rightly or wrongly, making a mental note of the actions and achievements of my straight peers and thinking of ways to mirror them, and in doing so, shape my life to be better than ‘as good’ in order to avoid any accusation of deviance. Much like Jamal Lyon craving his father’s unconditional love and ultimate validation through being an over-achiever.
This realization has opened my eyes. I can see so many of my friends, other black gay men, that are just running to stand still – bowing to various social and family pressures, striving to break stereotypes and be good enough to keep one step ahead of the Joneses. The Joneses, those ever-present, universally accepted, mostly white, heterosexual markers of ‘success’. Unsurprisingly, I’ve witnessed some of those same friends metaphorically (and on a few unfortunate occasions, literally) crash and drop out of the race.
Thankfully, my wine-fuelled, candid chat with a friend has shown me that rather than looking sideways I should probably slow down, take stock more often and reassure myself that I’m actually doing OK. Though, knowing me and my hard-wired need for validation, it remains to be seen whether I’ll be able to practice what I preach.