My metal afro pick is confiscated by an older Black man before a younger Black man pats down my arms, groin, and thighs. He tries to make small talk with me as he awkwardly checks my person for any weapons at a conference I am working as staff. I am on the side where men are inspecting men, as opposed to the side where women are inspecting women. Folks who identified as neither man nor woman are not comfortable.
I finally receive the OK to go ahead and grab breakfast before heading into the conference room. Although staff is unaware of these extra precautions and students were not informed prior, everyone is patted down whether they like it or not. We have a special guest and nothing will be unexplored. I grab my breakfast and stand in the back of an overstuffed room in a too-fancy and very-white hotel in Long Beach, California.
I join my comrades at my second conference as Afrikan Black Coalition staff, and third as an attendee. My first year was as an undergraduate student, angry that the gender caucuses were split into “men,” “women,” and “queer,” as if one could not be a queer man, a queer woman, or a non-straight genderqueer person. My second year as an undergraduate student and as a new staff member consisted of damage control after David Banner unleashed a wave of anti-Blackness and misogynoir that half of the audience wanted to hear until completion.
Fruit of Islam and Nation of Islam members surround the ballroom at the Westin this year, filling both the front tables and the surrounding walls. These folks create a chorus of sorts, later echoing the sentiments of the principal speaker at every possible opportunity. 800 Black students file into the room in everything from ripped jeans to formalwear and for awhile my joy keeps me afloat. These students have travelled from all over the state of California and beyond for this three-day long convening. Although the presence of the Nation transforms the students into a mere add-on, rather than the main constituents, such a high number Black faces in one room in the Golden State is an occasion worth celebrating.
Black youth are still arriving for the first official day of the Afrikan Black Coalition conference, titled “Reviving Our Black Nation.” While events were held the night before, today is the day. Our morning keynote speaker on the subject of political consciousness is none other than the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan. I can’t quite make out his face, but I know that that is him on stage. He has that unmistakable smile, reminiscent of my late grandfather. 83 years old, Farrakhan stands at the podium. Beaming.
As a Black queer man who works to uplift Black folks, queer folks, trans folks, women, and similarly marginalized global populations, saying I am nervous is an understatement. I have cognitive dissonance as I familiarize myself with the space. I wonder how I display respect 62 years of service from a man who is also notorious for hateful rhetoric toward queer folks, trans folks, women, and non-Black Jewish folks. Around me there are folks basking in the opportunity to just hear a legend speak, whether it was for the first time in person, or the 100th time through the streaming webcast.
Yet following a previous conversation with ABC’s Executive Director, I try to remain hopeful about what is to come. I thought I had a newfound understanding about the Nation of Islam, the Honorable Minister, and my role in the organization after our conversation. I had already mentally prepared to separate any violent words from useful and well-informed advice on the liberation of Black folks. We do not — and will not — always agree with all those intent on freeing all Black and oppressed peoples, right?
The Minister begins. He speaks in slow, measured statements. He advocates for the freedom of all creatures in this world. Does this include folks who were not heterosexual or cisgender? It does not take him long to answer my question.
He unravels a diatribe about the ‘unfortunate’ events that lead white men to employ Black women, upsetting the ‘natural order’ for their unemployed Black men partners. He continues by chastising higher education as useless for Black folks, noting that while he was in school he observed predatory Black professors sleeping with Black women students and giving them “A’s in Screwology.” He discloses that women are powerful carriers of the wombs from which [male] giants emerge. He dismisses claims of homophobia as tricks to keep us away from his knowledge. The Honorable Minister even says that white Republicans chose “gay rights over our rights,” erasing Black queer folks who seek both rights. His anti-queer statements receive cheers.
Minister Farrakhan on lesbians: “So you’re running, looking for a man, and you can’t find a man, you find another sister,”
As he continues to use women as props — not full human beings with any agency— and formal education as a tool of white supremacy —one area we could agree — shouts of “preach, brother!” reverberate throughout the space. But where I begin to shake, where I cannot remember which door was the proper exit, and where I start to involuntarily cry is when he utters words that inspire a standing ovation from audience members:
“I don’t care what your sexual preference is. I’m your brother, not your judge. I love you. I love you! But I know the enemy doesn’t, and as long as you love each other, you won’t procreate, so that means there’s no more Black people coming. And if he can make us as men love other men, then where are you? Make you as a woman love other women, where is the future of our people headed? We have a nation to build,”
His hateful statements leap and dodge the facts that queer folks helped build the current nation and we have not stopped since. It is as if the rich history of hundreds and thousands of years of sexual identities never existed in the space he created. His words eat up the notion that queer folks can, and in fact do, reproduce children. What is most upsetting, however, is the notion that homosexuality is leading to the extinction of the Black race. Not white supremacy in the form of gentrification, forced displacement, slow death, police murder, socioeconomic-induced poverty, and a host of other reasons. And definitely not an overwhelming lack of emotional, financial, physical, and political support for Black women, Black mothers, Black fathers, and the Black children who already exist.
No, instead the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan preaches that the Black man is being feminized, the male penis is shrinking down, and that the white man is convincing us that we are homosexuals. According to the Minister, our homosexuality is a product of the enemy’s chemical engineering of food. Oh. Well, damn. Who knew?
At this point I am honestly thinking that he has reached his peak and that it cannot get any worse, truly. That is, until he transitions from homosexuality to prison rape. Then pedophilia. He traces an unsubstantiated process of men who are raped in prison by older men who then go out and rape young boys.
I leave the room. A member of the nation has to let me out on the other side of the security. I realize I have left my backpack inside. I don’t really care.
All I can think about is the fact that this man is receiving a standing ovation as I leave the room. Not just from his supporters, but from many of the 18–22 year old Black students in the room. Impressionable Black students who trust the Afrikan Black Coalition staff and their peers to mentor and guide them. I have failed my students by allowing this man to speak, and it is like I am punching myself in the gut by thinking this could have ever turned out any different for Black queer folks, Black trans folks, Black women, and/or Black undocumented folks.
So now I drove four-hundred miles over the course of six hours on a Friday night to be degraded by a national Black leader on a Saturday morning in a white hotel. It is only day one and I have no choice but to stay. I still have three workshops on intersectionality and a men’s caucus that I had agreed to co-facilitate as staff. I have a job to complete, I have friends and chosen family attending that I love, but I just want to disappear. I want to be back in Oakland, CA with my partner. I want to believe that if my grandfather was still alive, he wouldn’t think in the same way. I want it all to be over.
Later that evening, we receive a text that the Black student union chairs and Afrikan Black Coalition staff are to meet with Farrakhan for dinner. My anger, fear, frustration, and anxiety have subsided a bit, but not enough to willingly place myself in the same room with that man. And more importantly, why would it matter if any of my staff and student base feels the same way he did about queer folks, trans folks, women, or immigrants? Despite questions regarding his appearance at the 9th annual Afrikan Black Coalition conference, staff did not publicly oppose him, and in many ways we defended him. So it felt like I had a duty to be in that room to challenge him, but I knew that it would not have been wise or productive on my end.
I had been building since September 2015 with the Afrikan Black Coalition. Organizing, writing, editing, teaching, facilitating, partying, and bonding. I learned a lot about myself, student organizing, and the sacrifices required for Black liberation. I sat in a room with only a few Black folks and the UC’s Chief Investment Officer after a statewide political campaign against private prisons. We successfully convinced the University of California to divest $25 million from private prisons in December 2015. I publicized our win in huge media outlets without any media training. I did a lot for the Afrikan Black Coalition and they did a lot for me. I feel hurt, grateful, and betrayed by an organization that I know can do better, but still has not.
I am still learning how to pick my battles. That means recognizing that people can value you and your work individually while still not loving your whole identity, whatever that may be. Folks can say that they love you while calling you a science experiment. This weekend is the weekend that I finally learn that I have no chance of convincing a 83-year old Black man that he might be wrong about a thing or two. A few years ago I may have thought that I was “special enough,” or that I had some argument strong enough to “prove” to him that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality. My 21-year-old ego would have pushed me to try to convince Farrakhan that it is not the fault of the white man or some Black evil scientist that I like men.
Now? Now I recognize the plasticity of the brain as one ages and the value of my time in assessing with whom I intend to engage and for what reason. Not just Mr. Farrakhan, but even some of my own people. Some battles aren’t worth fighting, and sometimes self-preservation wins. Black organizing saved my life, but that didn’t stop me from quitting the Afrikan Black Coalition on behalf of queer folk, trans folks, and women. We need to learn how to do better for our people or else we will never see true liberation.
If you made it this far, please click the heart. Thank you.