by Benji Hart



I’m a teenager, attending the annual Kwanzaa celebration at Amherst College, the small private school where my dad is a professor.

A modest band of Black students and faculty have gathered for dinner in the Octagon. The plaster building, lemon meringue in both color and texture, was reclaimed by students as a memorial for Gerald Penny, a Black freshman who drowned in 1973 during his first week on campus after being made to take the then-mandatory swimming test.

Onawumi Jean Moss, a staff member at the dean’s office and community matriarch, raises herself up on a carved wooden cane. She is about to retire, and this will be her last Kwanzaa after helping to found the event more than two decades prior. She addresses the crowd with her parting words:

“You have to keep loving each other. And I know that’s hard. We are a hard people to love. We’ve had everything done to us. We’ve had everything put on us, and sometimes, we put it on each other. But we have to be the ones to love each other, because no one else is going to do it.”

In the summer of 2019, while my sibling is up from North Carolina for a conference in Chicago where I currently live, we decide to get matching tattoos. The parlor is close to the convention center, nondescript (we find confederate flags while leafing through one of the reference binders), but serves its purpose.

We get the words “we are a hard people to love” tattooed on our left forearms. My tattoo is written in my sibling’s handwriting, while theirs is written in mine. Each is slightly off center, as though our just-visible veins are the lines in a notebook.

Naturally, people who see it often ask me where the words originate. Sometimes, I tell them about the strange privilege of growing up on a college campus in a small town where Black people were sparse, but where our bonds were that much more intentional and fierce as a result. Often, I just cite Onawumi, an elder, a chosen ancestor.

Some people–often white people–respond with surprise when I explain that the quote is about Blackness. Isn’t all love a fraught undertaking? There is a knee jerk reaction to claim universality when Black people assert the singularity of our experience, a liberal miscalculation that by claiming an unearned sameness, we can breach the countless barriers that silo our navigation of a racist country, a collapsing order.

I know Black love is not universal, because Black struggle is not universal. I know that consuming the things a people produce has nothing to do with loving the people who produced them, is, in fact, the extractive dynamic upon which Blackness has always been predicated. I know the number of times I’ve been abandoned to fight alone by the same people who think they can dance with me when the fight is over. I know that loving Black people is a unique commitment, because so few choose to make it.

Our pain is perennially dismissed as an impossible exaggeration (I hear the feigned shock at the mortality rates for Black birthgivers), yet our celebration is too luscious to be ignored. Victory becomes one more thing we are not allowed to claim as our own. Survival, one more thing for which we will never deserve credit.

“I understand,” says another stranger who does not. I cover my forearm, and smile with unparting lips. Some things don’t need to be explained. Some things can’t be stolen, no matter how many times we are robbed of them.


I have just seen a friend onto the red line, and am walking my bike along Cermak, looking for a less congested spot in which to mount it and begin the long ride home. A man approaches, walking in the opposite direction, and begins yelling.

“Move, bitch nigga!”

I am acutely aware of my robin’s egg nails, which I painted myself two nights ago. My shorts are too short.

“I said move, before I knock your bitch ass out!”

He might be drunk. He might be unwell in some other way I can’t now read. He has on a stained orange shirt, a graying beard. Flecks of spit get caught in it as he continues screaming.

I begin the familiar process of surveying my surroundings. I grip my bike’s magenta handlebars, imagining the best ways to weaponize it. I think about the number of times a bicycle has been weaponized against me by the police.

As though summoned by my own racing thoughts, a cop cruiser rounds the corner and passes the two of us, the candy blue stripe along its side a vulgar approximation of my nail polish.

“You lucky the police is here!”

We pass each other. He is still shouting at me from down the block. I dismiss him with a casual toss of a perfectly manicured hand over my right shoulder, but do not speak, do not turn around.

As a Black, queer person of a gender I have no real name for, it can feel like a betrayal to talk openly about anti-queer violence in Black spaces.

The tired claim that Black communities are inherent sites of homophobia and transphobia erases both my existence, and the colonial legacy at the root of all anti-queer sentiment. (“Black people are so religious,” assert outsiders, with no mention of which religion they are referring to, nor who forcibly converted our indigenous ancestors.)

Moreover, it also serves as a regular reminder that white communities will always be allowed to claim innocence, no matter how much material violence they collectively commit. Hundreds of anti-trans and anti-gay bills currently permeate the political mainstream, most of them written by white politicians, rallied around by their white bases in predominately white jurisdictions, with little pushback from the liberal establishment. Yet, none of this is ever offered as proof that white communities are inherent sites of anti-queer violence. White people are as exempt from responsibility for the colonial legacy of the past as they are for its seamless continuation into the present.

A Black man who is decades my senior harasses me on the street in broad daylight. I feel shame for even considering unleashing all my pent up rage on him. I feel gratitude that the police do not respond, do not get involved. I feel guilt at my relief as we all abandon each other.

Even so, I want to shout back at him that his hatred for me will not protect him any more than the police will. I want to tell him he stands in the legacy of the slaves who snitched, who testified before an eager Congress about how grateful they were to have been saved from heathenism, to receive three square meals a day, a place to lay their heads. I want to tell him that Blackness will always be queer in the colonial imagination, that every anti-trans and anti-gay attack is as much a threat to him as it is to me.

Instead, I allow my adrenaline to subside. I am too accustomed to fighting for those who will not fight for me. Abolishing the police also means demanding wellness for those who cannot wish me well. I pray he learns to be as free as I have learned to be.


It’s a few months after a painful breakup, and I’ve just started seeing someone new. I’d been sleeping around prior to meeting them at a Noname concert, so I’m not all that surprised when I start experiencing symptoms of what I believe to be an STI. I’m embarrassed, but do what I think to be the responsible thing and tell them we should get tested. They abruptly grow cold.

We schedule an appointment and go to the clinic together, but the trip is awkward. In the waiting room we don’t speak much. They are distant, and when I attempt to check in, their responses are short. I have to leave for another errand, and we part ways.

Later that evening, they text me and ask if we can talk. They only live a few doors down, so I invite them over. We sit on my bed. They tell me that when I asked to get tested together, they felt like I was accusing them of giving me an STI. Relieved, I clarify that, if anything, I was afraid I might have given them something, that even if it had been the other way around, I accept STIs as a part of being sexually active, and would never judge them for contracting one.

They tell me they grew up being told that gay people were the source of HIV in the Black community, that their deepest desires were dirty and dangerous. They tell me they have been accused by multiple partners of passing on STIs.

We talk late into the night about what it feels like to exist in a Black queer body, to be doubly deviant, doubly perverse, to be alternatingly illness and cure.

Many of my most affirming and most painful memories involve Black queer people. This is also the inherent nature of love. No one has seen me more deeply, betrayed me more thoroughly, made me feel less desirable, more wanted.

There is something about laughing naked in bed, naked laughter, laughter that hides nothing. (Our laughter conceals so much in most other contexts.) There is something about not having to translate any of your references, about being called “nigga” in the most tender way possible. After a long day of teaching, debating, justifying, arguing, deescalating, asserting, there is something about not having to explain. There is something palpable about the intimacy only we can feel, for only we have felt the hurt which precedes it.

Mariame Kaba says that the best organizing is selfish. You do not fight because you feel pity for someone else. You fight because you understand that you will die if you don’t. It’s not a hobby, not a passion, and often not a choice. Charity demands self-sacrifice. Organizing is a refusal to see yourself sacrificed.

Black queer love taught me this: If I truly see myself in you, then your victory is my victory. Every step you take toward your own liberation, your own wholeness, is a step towards mine. Black queer love is selfish, because you are me, and I want to be free. I crave the same protection I know you deserve. I want to be cared for in the same way I care for you.

What does it mean to commit to loving Black people when no one else will–sometimes not even other Black people? What does it mean to insist on being loved, when the world has done its best to render you unloveable? What does it mean to love Black people enough to count yourself among them, to take on the responsibility for healing yourself as an act of protection for those in your care? What are the ways in which that depth of healing can only be found in the love of other Black people?

Onawumi’s words on my left forearm are clearly written, often out in the open, yet to most remain illegible. I like them that way. As hard to read as my laughter. A balm to some, a venom to others. A secret anyone can devour, but by which only we are nourished.