We Are Family?
Text and Illustrations by Juba Kalamka
The day my father returned from the October 1995 Million Man March was the turning point in our previously tenuous relationship.
Recently estranged from my family, I was confronting some heavy psychological and emotional issues regarding identity. Over a space of 18 months, I had married, become a father, quit a teaching job for an arts career, started divorce proceedings, and begun a live-in relationship with a woman 18 years my senior. The proactive manner in which I dealt with these events was extremely unsettling to my family, as it upset very long-standing traditions of unspoken parental control. My father was particularly shaken, as the life decisions I was making went against his very old-school expectations for his eldest son.
As a result, I was keenly aware of the sociological implications of "The March"; most immediately the patriarchal, heterosexist values it was attempting to engender. At the time, the prevailing notion in the Black community was that I, as a black man, had a cultural, spiritual and moral obligation to, in the words of Nation of Islam leader and March figurehead Minister Louis Farrakhan, "atone". I was supposed to admit my sin of "abandoning the black woman and child", and thus reclaim my position as figurehead and pillar of the black family unit.
"Is this the Million Straight Man March?" I asked friends, relatives and colleagues, knowing full well the antagonistic responses I was soliciting. By verbalizing my discontent, I made it apparent that at least one man took issue with the event. It made me even angrier that the only conversations anyone wanted to have were variations on the "save the family" theme and rarely based in their own ideas or opinions.
My father was the exception, and I enjoyed conversations with him intensely during this time. These were the few times I could get him to step outside his divorced-father-trying-so-hard-to-be-the-good-dad posturing and tell me what he was really thinking.
"This is something that we need to do!" he would rail, speaking passionately of the black man's need to reclaim his role as a leader of the family and community. It frustrated him terribly that he could not persuade me to join up with the "right" side.
Never did we discuss my feelings. I knew deeply how unwelcome I was to the festivities he so wanted to share -- at the pre-March rally, co-organizer Rev. George Stallings asked the crowd, "Do you want some sissified faggot leading you into the promised land?"
Nevertheless, it became obvious that despite their extreme ignorance of the March's sociopolitical implications, the vast majority of participants were incredibly genuine in their intent. I reluctantly assured my father that I would support him in spirit even though I refused to attend it myself.
Feeling a need to be the first person my father spoke to after this pilgrimage, I contacted him immediately upon his return.
I had never encountered him this excited about anything. "Aww, man, it was so wonderful. I wish you could have been there!" I could almost see him through the receiver. He was crying and smiling and laughing with pride as he spoke of meeting men from across the country, engendered with this like spirit of brother/father/familyhood.
For the first time, I was able to step outside of myself and truly feel what he was saying.
At that moment, I understood him.
I understood the meaning of those few days in Washington. They were defining for a 60-year-old black man raised in a "colored-only" coal mining camp in West Virginia. He had escaped to the city, earned a degree, become a professional and raised a family; had come full circle, and was attempting to "pass the torch" to his son. The major irony of existence in black America became apparent to me: The very sociopolitical notions of "community" and "family" propagated by the March are what serve to keep many families apart.
Most of my early identity, as well as my notions of family and reality, were shaped by the "Post-Pantherist" era of 1970s Chicago, characterized by a burgeoning African-centered educational and literary movement. The movement reiterated much of the Black Panther Party's rhetoric with regard to cultural, political and economic self-determination.
The major difference came in its creation of a quasi-African culture, the central thrust of which was the strident edification of the black (read: hetero) family unit, as well as the building of a "black nation." These, in turn, contributed to a monolithic notion of African-American middle class values and identity politics.
It was at first extremely difficult to reconcile the anger I felt when, as an adult, I was directly able to identify and confront the dichotomies existing within this family/community framework.
There was a strong unspoken pressure to conform to the cultural norm, which is typical of marginalized, culturally oppressed communities new to the opportunity to create their own identities. Central to Africentrist/Black Nationalist rhetoric was, and is, the reclamation of community and the "nuclear family," which had been institutionally suppressed or destroyed by the American slavery experience. The notions of patriarchy engendered by this politic, most exemplified by the desire to replace the Great White Father with the Greater Black Father, force people who do not fit neatly into the ready-made roles to hide within themselves or leave the community completely.
This "Black = good/White = evil" world-view, taught to me as a child, left very little room for the development of a personal identity. Ironically, my badge of "black manhood" didn't hamper my endeavors in the world at large, but rather predictably I was at a loss when relating to "my own," especially when they didn't live up to my self-imposed romantic ideals that encouraged me to ignore my instincts. Had I followed my instincts, many of my friends' and family's very human idiosyncrasies would have been apparent.
For example, the belief that black people were by nature more compassionate than any other race came into conflict with the cruelty I experienced at the hands of my family, classmates and "friends" for being "African boy," "black and ugly," "faggot" or simply not "cool" enough.
Dealing with allegedly more compassionate black women became particularly problematic as harsh reality came into direct conflict with the idyllic notions of black womanhood that were part of my daily indoctrination. As I understood, it was my responsibility as a black man (for no one else was worthy or capable) to uplift and edify the black woman and create a new "African nation" at any cost -- "my total devotion, my total resources, and the total power of my mortal life," I recited daily in my schoolday pledge.
The development of a proto-sexist "save-a-hoe" mentality fostered the belief that the emotionally violent women I had dated behaved so because of my deficiencies as a black man.
A lecture received after I and a classmate were caught with our hands down each others' pants burned into my six-year old brain that black male sexuality was a potentially destructive force of galactic proportions. It was counterrevolutionary, I was told, to use my dick for anything other than making more young warriors for "the struggle."
Sexual identity issues were never discussed, though we existed in a familial construct in which membership depended on specific sexual behaviors. Broaching the subject was deemed unimportant or even detrimental to the goals of the community. Sexual identities -- or, more accurately, concepts of sexual identities -- were referred to in a manner indicative of the deep, painful cultural legacies attached to them, particularly in relationship to the sexual denigration that was central to American slavery.
I've actually had people tell me my sexual, political, spiritual and artistic sensibilities were developed by "hanging around too many white people." To this day there exists a strong intra-cultural notion that blacks have learned how to be queer, polyamorous, and so forth from "imitating" the behavior of whites.
These stereotypes contribute to the notion that black people are more homophobic than other cultures. It would be more accurate to say that our vociferousness is a by-product of our inability to behave prejudicially on an institutional level. Despite most posturing to the contrary, much of American black culture centers around being accepted and validated by the mainstream. More often than not, this means divorcing yourself from anything that the prevailing culture says is abnormal -- in this case, anything not heterosexual.
"I can't understand how black people can be so prejudiced when they've gone through so much as a community," a colleague said to me several years ago. "You'd think they'd be more sensitive."
I've jokingly referred to this behavioral phenomenon as Dennis Rodman Syndrome. Rodman has spoken publicly of his typically awkward adolescence, and his penchant for unusual self-expression; his life struggle for true self-determination in the context of defining "family" embodies that of so many people, who have been forced to choose one or the other.
"Ahhh, shit!" My father would moan disgustedly whenever "The Worm" skied across the television tube for a kazillionth rebound. "He's an embarrassment to us. He's not a good example of Black manhood! Would you want your son seeing a man wearing a dress like that?"
"I dress like that, Dad," goes the comic thought balloon over my head. "Rodman is me."
It took months of general arguments over coffee before we had a real conversation about my sexuality. When we did, I learned he'd long suspected I was gay or bisexual. I in turn realized that he was much more cognizant of Black intracultural issues regarding gender and sexuality than he'd previously let on. He related stories about the significant gay and bisexual membership of black Greek-letter fraternities during his college days, and the many sexually diverse educators, scholars and political figures in our history.
Most interesting, though, was how the concern he articulated for my safety within the "gay lifestyle" was really about how he'd be perceived by his colleagues once they knew the truth about his "white-rocentric" son. "Please Juba, be careful, and look out for unscrupulous characters," was his standard warning when I mentioned any sex-related program or function I'd be attending.
"I'm that unscrupulous character you're talking about, Dad! I'll tell Dennis you said, `What's up!' if I see him!"
"Ahhh, shit!" He waves me out the door, barely stifling a chuckle. "Both of you motherfuckers are crazy as hell."
Though the discomfort black people articulate at first seems connected to Rodman's "eccentric" aesthetic notions, it is actually more related to his perceived sexual ambiguity. He rather stylishly skewers the stereotypical image of the black male athlete who, through his fast-twitch muscle-driven hetero manpower, has been "accepted" -- albeit uncomfortably so, and only as marketable icon -- into the American mainstream.
Rodman is the proverbial "Bad Nigga," fucking up the image of normalcy that so many black Americans strive to maintain. After James Byrd was dragged to death behind a pickup truck outside of Rodman's hometown of Dallas, TX, Rodman sent significant financial aid to Byrd's family. The major black media failed to acknowledge it. After a number of conversations, I concluded that most people would have been more comfortable had one of Rodman's more famous "straight-acting" teammates made the donation.
"Well, he's redeemed himself a little," my father says now.
Yet and still, it would be disingenuous to suggest that these notions are entirely heterosexist. Though greatly rooted in external forces, internalized bi-trans-homo-eroto-phobia has led many people to zealously protect the dark corners of the community we are allowed to occupy in "the 'hood." Musicians, visual artists, dancers and writers are expected to be "freaky," and are tolerated as such as long as they aren't too obvious in their behavior. The "church sissy" can reserve his space through anchoring the choir or teaching Sunday school.
This dynamic makes all the typical issues faced when coming to terms with one's sexual identity even more difficult. People are not only viewed as socially deviant, but as a relative of mine once put it, "traitors to race, gender and culture."
So where does this leave us? How do we deal with these issues in the context of "family?"
In the late Marlon Riggs' 1995 video work Black Is, Black Ain't, cultural essayist bell hooks speaks to a desire to see people change the concept of "community" to "communion" in hopes of creating a space in which dialogue can take place and difference is respected. To do so requires us to honestly examine the foundations of our concepts of family, and those individual life events and greater social phenomena which have shaped our world view.
My first inclination when asked to write this article was to attempt to come up with some practical, catch-all solution that would neatly address all the issues present, as well as the ones that were sure to be generated as I talked to more people. I reflexively began looking outward for answers, when the simplest was the most apparent. Rather than asking ourselves "how do I fit into family?" we should begin to challenge and redefine our notions of family, broadening it to include the spaces in which our true, complete and evolving selves are nurtured, enriched and encouraged.
Advances in technology have made it quick, inexpensive and more convenient to communicate. The potential for individuals to create or join families is only limited by the number of people who have found that space and are willing to provide inspiration and encouragement. I hope to continue having the opportunities to provoke thought, and more important, self-actualization at the very least.
"Come back over here sometime so you can talk some more of that bullshit," my father says without a hint of irony, laughing while giving me a hug and one of those Black Man Soul Brother handshakes. "Now I know we disagree about a lot of stuff, but we're two intelligent men, and we can do that. And I don't want you to forget that I love you, son."
"I love you too dad."
Hope is alive.
Juba Kalamka is a multimedia freakydeek who wants you to do it, do it, do it 'til you're satisfied. Massage him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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