This was the night he had chosen to remind me that I was a woman.
“Remember on the right night and under the right light any idea can seem like a good one and love . . . love is mostly ill advised but always brave.”
— Excerpt from “Artichokes” by Yrsa Daley-Ward
i. My love is political
“When will you get over this ‘men thing’?” he asked, sitting on my bed, back against the wall, a sheepish smile atop his lips. As if my feminism sat cross-armed and pouting in direct opposition to his masculinity rather than holding the promise of our mutual release. My eyes held his as I took a deep breath, steadying the stream of words flooding me. “When will I get over ‘MY THING’ with men?” I lobbed back in a piercing exhale.
I recently read Wade Davis’ Ebony article — “Why More Black Men Must Be Feminists” — and was reminded of this conversation. (Along with my most recent social experiment that had reminded me of the limitations of love.) As America’s body count continued to run amok — leaving Black mothers with sons too young to bury — I had avowed to love Black men as I never had before. If this society couldn’t hold dear their aspirations and freedom, I would love them twice as fiercely. It didn’t matter that it had been years since I had held any man in that warm place between belly and breath; loving Black men was second nature. As natural as loving my brother, the father who tortured my present, the cousins who were now men holding shadows of the little boys I had known, the uncles who’d made sure to give me equal amounts of grief and love, and the other Black men of the world.
As America’s body count continued to run amok, I had avowed to love Black men as I never had before.
What is half a decade when you find your political and personal impossibly intertwined? I had once set aside 22 good years of training, taking a leave of heteronormativity when the men of the world had ceased to move me as lyrically as the women I found myself loving did. The term “lesbian” had found itself floating in my consciousness as I learned that you could love in more ways than the Bible had revealed. Another three years later, I had traded “lesbian” for “queer,” swapping the limitations of gender and sexuality for the unknown. The radical. The political. Learning that my love could be — was — political.
As my thoughts and fears became preoccupied with the Black boys and men of this country, my skin held on to the dreams it thought it could read. My tongue tasting intimately their black names — replacing A’s with Q’s, I’s with Y’s, C’s with S’s — determining to love them in contrast to the hate this country poured into their bodies, riddling them with averted eyes, enclosing them behind metal and concrete, in crossed streets on empty sidewalks, and bullets and broken bones where fear needed a new verb, a new means of expression. I would cosset the sons with mothers to go home to, and those without, in a shroud that said, “You are worthy of love and protection. Our liberation is tied to each other.”
The Realities Of Being Black In America
You learn anti-Blackness as a protective measure and hope it doesn’t become your norm.
And so I spent a year and a half watching them rise before my eyes as caricatures of the things they should be. And crumble amidst my words at the things they assumed I was. I sat in temples of Black love awaiting a sign from the Gods on our shared divinity only to find, instead, that there is a special kind of violence reserved for women like me.
Women who are Black. Women who are queer. Women who are immigrant. Women who are femme. Women who hold revolutions in their tightly raised fists. For us, even when we have managed to break through the first of glass ceilings and found instruments through which to mold the world into ours — cushioning our fears and emboldening our thoughts — there are deep incisions meant to remind us of our societal worth.
Love can heal, but it can also break the unbroken. And politics, while personal, must learn where to breathe, so that you don’t confuse love with politics. Or the political for the personal.
My love was political sophistry refined.
ii. It’s a man’s world.
There had been other nights when I had sensed flaws in my one-woman love crusade. Months before this Black man in my bed had asked about “my thing with men” and we cried together understanding that something in me and us had been irrevocably damaged, there had been another Black man. I was trying to love him, too, though he didn’t know how to love me — he didn’t know I could be loved wholly or without the fissures he wanted to inspire in exaggeration of the one thing he could control and his greatest fault: his Black body.
There are many things to tell, but who tells them all? Who even lives up to their truth?
On that night, the trees had been perfectly green with envy as he and I jostled beneath them in a mad race to unvarnished truth. A rare thing to find. The sort of thing that makes you confuse fogged-over bays with romance as numbers fall off hidden clocks and tumble somewhere beyond your reach. He was the Black Man I wanted to love. Alarmingly beautiful, muscular, dripping in charm and equal parts free thought, and with that God-given confidence men everywhere receive as their birthright, the world caressing soft whispers in their ear, “It’s a man’s world.”
I met him at a lesbian bar in one of those cities that sit on the Gulf of Mexico. “Are you into girls?” he asked. I said I was queer. “Have you ever been with a man?” I asked. He said he had thought about it, “but what if his head’s so good that I can’t go back?” A pact forged, we poured ourselves into each other — each accepting, the other holding. His words were soft vulnerability, the dreams of a Black boy who’d never pictured trading secrets on humid nights with a queer Kenyan who also knew of failed winters in the Midwest. All the while, the gulf in the distance was blanketing itself in fog, lulling itself to sleep against the night earth.
A pact forged, we poured ourselves into each other — each accepting, the other holding.
He asked about Africa, that other blackness. I asked about his blackness, the impenetrable side that I cannot reach because I have been Kenyan longer than I have been Black. In my mind, I am buying us both a solitary ticket to someplace else. Someplace where we are perfect, freed of any reminders of what it means to be defined in this world. Of the violence our bodies are forced to endure.
But this was the night he had also chosen to remind me that I was a woman — a thing I tend to forget when the moon holds dalliance over the sound of softly crashing waves — and that he, with the heavy lids, that brilliant smile, and that curved back that held more secrets than he could tell, was a man raised on misogyny and patriarchy.
“The young men who’d transmuted their fear into rage, were the greatest danger.” — Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
iii. Don’t think about it.
The bay had been his idea.
“Do you want to see something?” he asked. With that sense of adventure that leads me to the unfamiliar, I had breathed a “Yes.” The fog had come in search of us as soon as we veered off the highway, caring little for our vision or the safe operation of machinery as it led us to the water. I leaned forward with nervous excitement, rolling and unrolling my window as his headlights cut a path through the heavy air. In the silence of the car doors shutting behind us, I could hear the water rocking itself against the darkened bay. It was a scene for lovers — the earth and the gulf in an ancient dance as his hand guided mine to the landmarks he knew would be there.
I caught the edge of the waves as we made our way, tracing their course along the shore line, the ghosts of trees framing our night. It was illicit, taking this slice of the world for ourselves while everyone else snoozed away in full and queen sized beds. The moonlight stretched over the night as my feet slid into the sand and his hand on my lower back stretched me into new shapes. We could have been lovers for eternity, or in one of those 1–800-Sandals commercials. Failing at sight in the darkened night, but offering up each of our other senses. Giving. But on that most romantic of bays — the air consumed by the kinetic energy of so many bodies; his, mine, the water, the north American earth, the moon, the heat — he had wanted to take what I wasn’t giving.
I resisted. “Stop.”
He insisted. No longer asking. “Come on.”
I resisted. Hands speaking as a rift larger than the bay before us formed in the distance between two breaths.
His eyes had left mine to scan the night, making a cold calculation of the scene, weighing its risks against the pregnant darkness. With that ancient birthright passed down to women that whispers, “You are never safe,” I had quickly surveyed the scene alongside him. My eyes rested in the blurry distance on the two fishermen on the dock as I enlarged the rift between two bodies. “If I scream, they’ll hear me,” I thought.
Our eyes locked again. I exhaled. He inhaled.
There was no longer romance in the night as we stood by his car. It was after 3 am now as he held my cheek in his hand, my jaw clenching as his eyes spun lies.
“Don’t think about it,” he said. I lowered his hand from my face, my eyes meeting the misshapen rocks at my feet.
How could I not? How could I not “think about” the women who hadn’t said “no” when I did? And, “no,” again when my first “no” became lost in the fog? Or the ones who had repeated that same incantation, “Don’t think about it,” as they learned to distill fear into day and night? Who had learned the hard way to mistrust the most bewitching of foggy nights and the men they want to love so consummately? How could I not think of them?
‘Don’t think about it,’ he said. How could I not?
In the weeks after, I took his advice — tried not to think about it. Which is why I never wrote about the way the moon romances the bay after midnight, or how the fog over the Gulf of Mexico is different from the fog that sits over the San Francisco Bay. I never told anyone about that lonely tree sitting in a sliver of moonlight too large for it as it kissed the water. And why, most importantly, I never spoke a word of the sound the waves make as they greet the night earth. Instead I kept trying to love the other Black men of the world, emptying and filling warm breaths. Confusing my political for personal.
iiii. Love is always brave.
I misread an oft-cited Sarah Kay quote on love and imagined the opposite of romance, the ugly side of passion: “Because there’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s sent away.” To keep trying to love a thing that is pushing you away is insufferable. At some point you are meant to give up the illusion of a shared love, one that while believable for a time is only so because you have cultivated, nurtured, and born the fruit of its truth.
My love as politics was incongruous with the world in which I live daily to see myself reborn in — at the very least, a misguided attempt at something greater. Or more correctly as Yasmin Nair warned, “the revolution will not come on the tidal wave of your next multiple orgasm,” and I had wrongly presumed that I could bind the two — as I had before. Seeking a revolutionary, sacred, Black love that would tie our bodies in sun kissed bows where we were freed from the systemic violence that plagued our bodies as Black and woman. But politics while personal must learn where to breathe, so that you don’t confuse love with politics, “and love, love is mostly ill advised but always brave.”