Four black men. All writers and activists. Three straight, one gay. They sit on a stage at Vassar College, talking to each other about love, intimacy, race, sexuality and violence. At one point, Mychal Denzel Smith looked each of his friends and associates in the eye and said "I love you Darnell, I love you Marlon, I love you Kiese."
It was very moving. When do we ever hear men tell each other they love each other--not as a joke, not hidden in a colloquialism ("love ya," "love you man," "got mad love for you"), and not followed by a "no homo" addendum? The love and respect these men had for each other was palpable and the stories they shared were incredible about their fight to survive in a country that has no care for their bodies.
Darnell Moore, visiting scholar at NYU's Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, spoke about how for young black men like themselves, it was a radical act to live. It's radical to resist the societal narratives about black and brown bodies being criminal and meant to die young. Like two others on the panel, Moore shared that he has struggled with suicide ideation, and that part of his passion for writing is that he sees it is a political statement about his right to live and to therefore be able to express himself.
Marlon Peterson works at Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He talked about doing time and finding that writing was the only way he could express any form of emotion. Prison required him to close off from other people, and so he filled journals and journals with the feeling that he had to repress. He works with and speaks to youth all over NYC, and advocates for anti-violence. One of the standard exercises he does in public school classrooms that he visits is ask students to raise their hands if they had witnessed gun violence before the age of 10. Almost always, all the students raise their hands.
Mychal Denzel Smith spoke about self-love, and how that has been so difficult yet so important for him to find. He has struggled with depression and has worked hard to love himself so that he can love others. He also discussed his process of moving from being an advocate of gun control to an advocate of anti-gun, period. He beautifully explained how guns are just a terrible bandaid for problems that our country refuses to address. Why do black and brown young men feel that they have to have guns to feel powerful? Because they are essentially powerless in our society. Why do women feel they have to sleep with guns under their beds? Because it is a real fear that they could be sexually assaulted. Smith called on us to deal with those underlying issues of structural racism and patriarchy that make guns necessary.
Kiese Laymon, the Vassar professor who put together the panel talked about reconceiving what love between black men means. He explained that part of the current code of male friendship is that men always come before women. If your friend is talking about using or manipulating women, you congratulate him or laugh because your allegiance to him is primary, and your allegiance to women in the community always further down the list. He says we need to invert that thinking, and that to be a good friend and to really love someone is to be able to call them out, to say that it's problematic what they are saying or doing to women. He wants to hold his friends accountable and he wants them to hold him accountable to supporting the black community as a whole--a community that of course, includes women.
Panel discussions are frequently so dry and robotic--each person speaks in turn, not necessarily talking to each other, not necessarily listening to each other. This panel felt more like sitting in Kiese's living room, being a fly on the wall and listening to four brilliant people suss out the challenging and beautiful parts of being black and male.