“Get out the street you fag!” The words drifted on the warm spring waft like a dandelion seed. My grandmother always told me that if you can catch a dandelion’s seed with one hand you would be granted a wish. I grabbed his words with my hopeful fist and held them to my heart. Necks rolled and horns honked in this discordant urban musical, as I was suspended in an animated silence. It had occurred to me that the carnivorous driver waiting irately at the red light had just cursed me with the most unforgivable word, and yet while my brain informed me that I should be welling with fury, I was instead strangely roused with electricity. In the middle of West Market Street I pivoted on the heels of my patent-leather oxfords, and now facing my blasphemer, blew him a kiss. After my grand display I did what RuPaul had taught me and sashayed away…
Hours later while retelling the event to a friend I began to think deeply about the exchange. My “kill-em-with-kindness” reaction was accompanied with a sincere gesture of my appreciation. Why was I thanking someone who had just called me a fag? In spite of the malicious intent of his words, that angry driver acknowledged and affirmed my sexual identity where previously internal and external forces attempted to refute its existence. After years of self-denial and repression, this milestone signified to the world and myself that I was happily queer. To a greater extent, and what I realized a year later in retrospect, the thirty-second exchange between the driver and myself represented a victory in another major internal battle between my identities. That day I remembered why I was a Newarker.
Growing up in the Bricks I’ve always felt like a deviant. Not a gun-totting, drug-selling deviant, but a book-reading, double-dutch-jumping deviant. The hyper-masculine archetype worn by men (of color) from my community was always too baggy to fit my waist. I tried with much effort (and with some success) to perform the black masculinity I observed daily: I chilled on the corner with pants to my ankles squawking at passing women, and on countless occasions defended my ‘manhood’ and feigned heterosexuality. Eventually I realized that my beliefs and actions did not have to be confined to the race, gender, and class specific social scripts that defined the lives of most men I knew; however, I now had no other model to which I could construct my identity. I began to perceive myself as the antithesis to the black, heterosexual men of Newark whom I encountered, and thus concluded that Newark represented everything that I was not. With this attitude I could accept all of my eccentricities and queerness. Ironically, through the process of mentally liberating myself from the under/working-class schema that quelled my sexual and intellectual being, I was simultaneously denying my very existence: I had distanced myself from the world that I observed daily with the belief that the real people I encountered as I navigated the city and the very real place that is Newark was not connected to who I was.
It was not until I left Newark that I could truly begin to reconcile my clashing identities and resolve my existential conundrum. While living, working, and attending school in Washington D.C. for a year, my blackness, queerness, and working-class upbringing never felt so salient. My wealthy, white peers would bombard me with questions about gang-violence and car-jackings when they became aware of my origins. I quickly learned to avoid the shame I felt from associating myself with Newark by identifying ‘North Jersey’ or ‘Essex County’ as my home, although doing so failed to subdue my internalized sense of otherness induced by my new environment. During lunch one day I divulged my angst to a friend, “black is associated with crime, drugs, violence, poverty, and ignorance. That’s what people think of when they see me, and that’s just not me”. My friend, a white suburbanite, responded, “well, the black people I know are pretty intelligent; are rich, not from selling drugs; and don’t have guns—except to go deer hunting.” Her words made me realize that my ideas of an essentialized identity—informed largely by commercial hip hop, prevailing public opinion, news media, and my subjective experiences—placed me in a state of ideological and moral dissonance. Hence began the point where I reinterpreted blackness and queerness not as conflicting modalities in the human experience, but as a charming couple that dances salsa and bachata to a soft, melodic guitar. Their nimble steps to the passionate rhythm of life blend into each other, until they spin and dip into an inseparable whirl. My romantic desires, scholarship, and love for jumping rope did not clash with the color of my skin or the place I was born and raised; they were rooted in them.
On that spring day as I meandered down West Market Street I recognized the smiling eyes and hopeful hearts that passed me. The sun was peering sneakily between the clouds to catch a glimpse of the liveliness of the city. After my dance with homophobia, I stood suspended in time, gazing afar at the animated miniature figures marching downtown. My spirit was a high as the cityscape, my rust-brick eyes stern but compassionate. After years of navigating the rugged thoroughfares of the Bricks, I could traverse any street unabashedly. That’s when it him me; I’m not only from Newark, I am Newark.
About the Author:
Kiyan Williams is a Newark-bred intellectual and activist. He is 2009 graduate of Science Park High School, Newark, NJ. He is currently doing his undergraduate work at Stanford University, where he serves as the co-chair of Black and Queer at Stanford (BLaQS), a support network and student organization that strives to increase the political awareness and social acceptance of issues surrounding race, gender, and sexuality. Kiyan is hopeful for the future of Newark, and more so excited to be a part of that future.