I received an email yesterday from a friend regarding the death of, yet, another beautiful soul, Mosey Alexander. I didn’t know Mosey; yet, my heart was/is torn.
I am feeling challenged today because it is clear to me that beyond my/our need to truly dig into and deconstruct my/our understandings of suicidality among LGBT youth (and adults)…beyond my/our desire to call out the systems, the ideologies, the theologies, the state practices/regulations and the isms that oft serve as the invisible hands that kill others…beyond my/our need to pontificate and debate, march and testify in this moment…I am left to consider what it is that I/we are possibly being called to interrogate?
I can recall the moments in my own life when I considered suicide and made actual attempts to take my life. In retrospect, it was in those moments when I felt as if I had been wading through violent waves and my cries for help, as silently-loud as they may have been, had often gone unheard. I remember calling friends and literally fumbling over words as I asked for help. Is it that friends were unable to read my cries for “help” when they were coded by statements like: “I don’t know. It has been really hard for me to get pass this heaviness” or “Sometimes, I just want to end it all” or “Yeah, I know it will get better, but when?” or “I can’t take it anymore”? I actually remember sleeping through the most beautiful and sunny of days on a bustling college campus only to wake up at night–after having missed classes, crying and hiding under my blankets, while situated in a dark room where the sun was blocked out by curtains–to walk and talk with others, while in pain, and, yet, feel alone the whole time.
But, what is my point? I think that we are being presented with opportunities to intervene in the life of another. Indeed, we have to consider the big system issues (i.e. intersectional structures of oppression, state practices/laws, media affects, theologies etc.) that weigh down on folk, but we must also consider the mundane practices (i.e. they ways in which we relate to family members, friends, and strangers; our presences-or lack thereof-in the lives of those in need; our willingness to listen when others speak; our desire to help when others cry out for our help; our responses-and our responsibility-to say and do something when others may hint at suicidal ideation, etc.) that order, or dis-orders, our lives daily. In other words, we actually have a responsibility to ensure that we live lives that don’t feed into the systems that we critique as oppressive.
It’s quite basic, what I/we can do:
1). Stop hating! Literally…I am challenging myself to think and utter positive things about other people. We kill with our words and our actions…conversely, we can also give life with our words and our actions. I have to cease the jokes that hurt others…I have to cease the eye rolling, the harmful gesturing, the ignoring, the hubris, the stuff that marks others.
2). Be present! I am challenging myself to not only be by the side of others (beyond moments when they are in need) but to be PRESENT: attending to the spoken and unspoken cues; putting my phone down when we are together-this is difficult for me; empathizing with their situations; answering the phone when others reach out when, in fact, they may be calling out of need (I’ve been there. I’ve called friends many-a-time in pain only to speak to voicemails. I am also guilty of not answering calls when others needed me). Essentially, I am challenging myself to practice what it means to be human, that is, what it means to be a relational being.
3). Take care of SELF! I am challenging myself to get in touch with my own “stuff”…my desires, my ideologies, my prejudices, my dislikes, my joys, my pains, my ish, the negative energy that I might disperse, my vulnerabilities…Not doing so prevents me from being present and possibly perpetuates the kinds of negative energy that harms others. Even more, when I am in touch with self I am better able to be in touch with others.
In sum, our activism doesn’t have to wait. Change, does not have to be imagined as something forward. It starts with us…now! It begins with me/us answering: Who will I love today? Who will I help? Who will I hug? Listen to? Attend to? Whose tears will I wipe? Who needs a smile? Who needs food? What can I do to make someone else’s cloudy day full of light?
“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.
I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing to report on a movement for change, occurring right here, within your borders.
I write to you as an ally of the city’s LGBTIQ community, and someone who has just recently began contributing to its community organizing efforts. I also write to you as an attorney whose intellectual awakening and life’s work is very much informed by the American civil rights movement, and this country’s inherent struggle to live up to both its ideals and fundamental precepts of human rights. Thus, my theory of change is driven by the understanding that real systemic change cannot occur until communities can create a civic infrastructure to translate injustice, injury, and complaint into agendas, coordinated action, and execution.
I believe that this process of translating problems to solutions–or what I call the alchemy of activism–is taking place within Newark’s LGBTIQ community. I write here to share some of my observations.
Please understand that I do not, and would never would, purport to speak for the entire community. Rather, these are the observations of one individual, recorded here as a step in my own process of understanding, and shared so that others may join me in that process. While I try to provide nuance and context to any generalizations contained here, these meta-observations are intended to crystallize abstract and often-unspoken things like value judgments and group norms, not to paint any one community with a single broad brush.
As I write this letter, small groups are meeting over coffee and putting together agendas, drawing up org charts, planning fundraisers, and doing the boring but necessary little things necessary to stitch a civic fabric that will drive this process of activist alchemy for generations. This fabric includes threads of government issue (with the City of Newark’s newly-established LGBTQ Concerns Commission, and a county-level commission being discussed), threads of local, independent origin (with local community activist groups building their capacity according to national best practices and allied small business owners lending their support), and threads of an origin outside the city (with state, regional, and national LGBTIQ groups becoming more involved). This fabric is integrating the strength and wisdom of older generations of threads with the energy and temerity of younger generations.
As this movement focuses on building civic infrastructure, it has entered a process-centric phase, where local discussions around communication (who says what to whom), jurisdiction (where should they say it), and collective decision making processes (the how) predominate. Paradoxically, it is through these debates over process that I have come to a deeper understanding and more profound respect for the values and normative assumptions that undergird this truly organic effort at community organizing. However, I have also become increasingly frustrated by the failure of certain social justice activists from outside the city who, for all of their zealotry for a common cause, evidence a fundamental lack of understanding and thereby lack of respect, for these local values.
Allow me to explain what I mean. Once news broke that an unarmed man named Defarra “Dean” Gaymon was shot and killed by law enforcement in a part of Newark’s Branch Brook Park that is a known for “cruising”, leadership from Newark’s LGBTIQ community and statewide groups convened informally. This diverse group of community activists, social service providers, religious leaders, and their allies decided to embark upon a collaborative and coordinated advocacy effort in response to this tragedy. Some were concerned about improper law enforcement methods and the unjustified use of force, others were concerned about the unspoken public health ramifications of the problem, and still others stressed the need for additional safe social spaces for LGBTIQ individuals. Nevertheless, there was a spirit of chemistry amongst the older and newer leadership of the various organizations at the table, and, for this coalition, it was clear that consensus-building, community engagement, and coordinated communications were the strategies of choice. While never explicitly mentioned by anyone in the group, I thought that this proposed coalition was actually a test as to whether the city’s LGBTIQ community had yet achieved a critical mass whereby their combined efforts could achieve more than what they had previously been able to achieve as individuals or small, ad hoc contingents.
In many ways, this coalition-building exercise embodied the core values that I have observed throughout many of these process discussions in recent months (to the extent that I can generalize on behalf of such a large, diverse group): the community over the individual, consensus over individual prerogative, egalitarianism over paternalism. Lest it appear that I am ascribing any sense of orthodoxy or suppression of the will of the individual to this group, I must observe that these values are buttressed by the type of profound respect for diversity of thought and persuasion that only a collection of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/intersexed/questioning groups can have. It is only within the space created by this respect for diversity that these quasi-collectivist values have gained acceptance.
However, I would later witness that these values are not always respected by organizations from outside the city, eager to release their own statement to the press, or send an email blast to their membership within minutes of an event. This is to be understood, on some level. State and national organizations do not have the same level of interpersonal contact with their constituents that local, community-based organizations do. Ensuring a voice in state or national press, or up-to-the-minute internet updates, can assure a distant and detached membership that their organization is active and engaged. For local organizations, the people know if you’re working or not, because they can knock on your door, or look for you at events. Local groups can afford to take the additional time required for consensus building and coordinated communication, because they do not live and die by the mass media’s 24-hour news cycle. That being said, where the prerogative of state and national groups may conflict with the values of local groups most directly affected by events, it my sense that notions of respect and dignity should compel non-local groups to at least temporarily yield to those of local groups and engage in a process of reconciliation to find a workable compromise. Many non-local groups have not fully embraced this principle, which was made evident to me during the organizing effort described above. Further complicating—and sometimes inhibiting—these mirco/macro, state/local, insider/outsider relationships are the dynamics of race, class, and privilege, which Darnell touched on his prior essay on this subject.
While I must report that this process of reconciling divergent values or methods of non-local groups has indeed been a struggle, I can also report that the local coalition building effort described above has been highly cohesive, and remains intent upon developing an ever more solid infrastructure and deeper coalition building. For all of the frustration with non-local organizations expressed above, it is this hum of activity at the local level that engenders the optimism with which I began this writing.
I started off this letter by referring to these social phenomena as a “movement.” I close by emphasizing the literal sense of that word–that is, something that is in motion, and has not yet reached a destination. What I write here is not a story of triumph, but rather one of potential built upon the tireless work of prior generations. The ultimate test will be whether this new and unique milieu of individuals and groups can deliver on an agenda that is relevant to the community, by standardizing this process of activist alchemy.
I invite you to witness this movement and contribute whenever possible, my dear Newark.