By Myles E. Johnson
“What man wants to lay down and watch the world burn in his bedroom?” – Warsan Shire
Often I gaze at myself in the mirror to ensure that I am present, that I recognize the face looking back at me, that I haven’t acquired any new scars, and my face hasn’t gotten any wider. I feel at risk of being a ghost, working and yelling while believing I am resisting, when I am just haunting.
I rarely get opportunities to take a survey of my reflection in ways that are not just ensuring I am alive. When I do, I notice that how I move and stand are survival tactics acquired from my mother who was the first survivor I knew.
These deeper looks into the mirror were inspired by men who have broken my heart and rejected me. We would be in beautiful relationships that would capsize, and I would look in the mirror to understand what I did to contribute to the sinking.
Relationships have never come easy for me. I’m Nikki Giovanni in “Cotton Candy On a Rainy Day”: It seems no matter how I try, I become more difficult to hold. I’m not an easy woman to want. This was my truth.
I have always felt like I carried too much between my ears. I have always felt like there was not enough relief to be found in between my thighs. I am a depressed and anxious person. I have a pessimistic point of view on the status of the world and the availability of justice, peace, and freedom. I write and read about these things daily.
I remember most things that most people have trained their minds to forget. I bring these memories up at times of romance because I am uncomfortable with most joyful things, knowing that they must end. And I am afraid of death. I am also black.
I have always been black and dated black men. When I name my blackness, I am not solely talking about my skin color; I am talking about how I move, talk, and react.
Some may name this differentiation stereotypical, but I name it a home; a home I find solace in made by black femmes with thick thighs, neck rolls, fried things, loud things, too many things on their mind, and just as many things on their shoulders.
There is nothing poetic about screaming “fuck you, nigga” during an argument with my lover, but I am sure I am following the legacy of black, loud femmes not interested in being tamed who came before me–like Nina Simone, my sister, and my mother.
The relationships with these men were hostile and unsustainable. The ending was inevitable. The pain still persists. I wouldn’t compromise and they would not either, and toxicity got mundane, and the relationships would end.
My last relationship ended explosively and the one before ended more reasonably. The one thing the two had in common was whom they chose as their partner after me: they both quickly found white men to love.
I dealt with breakups before, but these two breakups after which my ex-partners found love in white men were the first times I cared about the aftermath. This was the first time I experienced heartbreak because of something that happened outside and after the conclusion of the relationship. I knew subconsciously that these choices weren’t coincidental or just merely about desire, but they were political choices.
I know white supremacy doesn’t just manifest in public spaces, but can show up in interpersonal, even romantic, experiences. We are all socialized to see whiteness as supreme and to see blackness as less than through media and cultural productions. This socialization influences what we think is beautiful and desirable, and this follows us even in dating. I used this fact to gather my own ideas on their choices. They hate themselves and this is internalized anti-blackness, I concluded.
These theories comforted my rage and hurt, but didn’t assuage the sadness. Sadness being a deeper, more spiritual darkness than rage that is fleeting and impulsive.
Once I removed myself from the situation as best as I could, I still was left wondering why these black men would date big, black me and replace my body and mind with a white, smaller one.
Literature on this phenomenon exists in the dozens on the internet and usually folds into the affirmative idea spoken by Joseph Beam that says, “Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act…” What this literature and quote didn’t reckon with is: what about the black men not interested in revolution? The black men interested instead in accomplishing a type of humanity sold to us by white supremacy promising that if you assimilate into whiteness, you’ll transcend race, class, sexuality and gender. Essentially, black men loving white men can be seen as the last yearning to melt into non-marked, white manhood.
When I think of the realities of anti-black violence and all the ways it shows up, not just physically, I understand why this longing and this attempt to melt into white manhood would be desirable consciously and unconsciously. Sleeping with me is sleeping with the poverty you want to outspend, the black parent you lost from systemic violence, and the assumptions around your body and mind you fantasize about transcending.
Even when I think of black radical heroes that I hold dearly to my heart and mind like Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, and Marlon Riggs; I have to recognize their white partners. Romantic partnership for any black person, let alone the artist, activist and/or intellectual, can’t be seen as an apolitical choice that exists outside of the work and theory. How can somebody with scathing critiques on the wickedness of whiteness, later find themselves with the very folks socialized to administer this violence?
I had a complex thought that may be right or wrong, but don’t the ones resisting and dissenting against reality desire fantasy, too? Could these white partners serve as a type of escapism from their work that so heavily centered black identity and white domination? Could these partnerships be an avenue for black folks to ‘transcend’ their abject role in society for something that seems equal or un-raced?
Or is it all about memory? Was the bedroom, the intimate, the erotic a place for these black folks to forget in a world that would always remind them of their color and the contemptible place they had to assume because of being black?
I also know that black people dating interracially, particularly dating white people, is an uneven thing. I am routinely shown more interest in long-term relationships by people outside of my race, usually white people. I’ve never dated interracially, but I’m consistently reminded that I’m read as more desirable, not just when it comes to sex but in the pursuit of long-term partnerships, by people outside of my race.
Because of desirability politics, my options inside of the black gay community are slim. I do not know for sure why this is the truth, mostly because these are subjective experiences that vary, case by case. My theory is that in black gay male relationships, our relationships are also doing the work of more than just sustaining love, but expressing humanity to those that are gazing at us often equipped to strip us of humanity (re: the heterosexual, the anti-black, the cis, and all other combinations).
This performance for this gaze creates the need to create the perfect hetero-normative relationship where partners are of a certain size, gender performance, economic standing and beauty standard. This ‘perfection’ is rarely ever reached, but the aspiration for it excludes a group of people who fail by too large of margins to ever be considered.
It often feels like I am held to a higher standard with other black gay men concerning my size, gender performance, and the host of other combinations that colors someone desirable or undesirable. And these experiences birth a sympathy and understanding for certain black gay men I witness with white partners I previously never had.
I understand that for Tituss Burgess and Jay Alexander, and Jussie Smollett and Frank Ocean, dating does not look the same as each other and options are different. So, holding everyone to the same politic of ‘only dating black men’ conveniently ignores that not everyone has the same freedom and options in the black gay/queer romantic worlds to exclude other races if they find long-term romantic partnership interesting and even necessary for their lives.
These thoughts didn’t adjust my views on black people partnering with white people and how toxic it can be because of uneven power and history, but gave space for empathy for those who choose to love differently. It gave space to the idea that everyone is not interested in revolting and transforming, but some are just interested in escaping and transcending no matter how delusional or fragile or even dangerous the fantasy is.
You have to throttle black people in order to prioritize whiteness. This means black people who prioritize whiteness must perform a violence toward other black people through prioritizing an unattainable ideal that black people are destined to fail in order to perpetuate the idea that whiteness is supreme.
Perhaps black people with this white supremacist motive and fantasy escape to it because they are already a part of the black community, which means they have access and close proximity to black people. This shows up in desire, romance, sex, and dating. The thought returned me back to my mirror and made me wonder if I am not colluding with my own brand of fantasy.
I know that in many ways, as expressed in Ashleigh Shackelford’s Afro-Morbidity theory, I am seen as dead. Afro-Morbidity posits, politically, that even as I am walking down the street, my proximity to death is always closer because of the systemic violences I am always vulnerable to.
More abstractly, Afro-Morbidity suggests the language that created the word ‘black’ already understood blackness (the word and the color), as a symbol for the deeply erotic, anxiety, darkness, sickness, violence, and death before ever racing a people as ‘black’. I can imagine myself as alive, but I know in this current cultural moment I am read as dead even as I walk and my heart beats. The violence that actually physically kills me, be it socioeconomic or state, only confirms the zombie-like role I have in society.
Knowing this to be true of my own understanding of my experience of being black and queer in this world, I wonder if seeing myself as alive despite knowledge of this death-like state isn’t my own type of escapism and fantasy in the American project? And if this is the case, how can I rob black people of the fantasies they cling to or create in order to navigate this strange and relentless position of being black and weary no matter how it manifests and in the case of my ex-partners, how rooted in white domination, the fantasy might be?
Especially, when I have no intention of letting go of my own fantasy, because it remains impossible for me to imagine a man who would want to lay down with a corpse every night, no matter how revolutionary he is told that it is.
Myles E. Johnson is a writer and author of children’s book, “Large Fears.” He cares about all the places pop culture, politics, black feminism, queer theory, and red wine meet. He can be found on twitter (@hausmuva) and his published work is available at hausmuva.com.