Robert Jones, Jr. on discovering he was not the only Black, queer member of his family.
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We were sitting at the dining room table at my aunt’s house in Maryland. We hadn’t gathered for Thanksgiving – my family doesn’t celebrate that holiday because of its genocidal underpinnings. We came together, instead, to pay homage to our ancestors.
My aunt hired drummers. They sat in the lavender den wearing Dashikis as they beat the taut skins of their instruments, trying to connect us back to the histories, cultures, and traditions from which we had been mostly cut off. Enslavement can do that: murder lineage and genealogy, hijack family and community, sow seeds of self-hatred and discord, turn people who could have been loved into orphans, giving you no place to return to.
Sometimes, our attempts to reconnect are ridiculed by those with whom we are attempting to reestablish our links. To them, we come off as inexpert, clumsy, ignorant, vulgar. In response, to restore the pride drained from us by their assessments, we return the bitterness and regard them as uncivilised, as much beneath us as they believe we are beneath them.
This endless circle of disunion is the chief goal of enslavement. It keeps us busy in petty disagreement and useless offence while reaping the benefits of our creativity and labor. Still, my family makes attempts to bridge the divide, to call out to those beyond the here and now who have the knowledge that is key to understanding that the flesh of flesh and blood of blood cannot be severed by something as small as an ocean, or as cowardly as slavery.
The ruling castes in a white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy display an extraordinary power to turn our joy into reason for despair. If we dance, they make it a jig. If we eat fried chicken or watermelon, they make it minstrelsy. If we quarrel, they make it pathology. If we love, they make it degeneracy.
My cousin danced to the drums. She did so to make us laugh, but I noticed how her response to the rhythms was also muscle memory, like her body knew what to do even if her mind didn’t exactly. We have been trained to think of anything that might be innately a feature of Blackness – whether it be our dark skin colour; Afrocentric features like thick lips, broad noses, textured hair; our athleticism; our non-Western understandings of existence; even our ability to keep special time to even the most complex of rhythms – as embarrassing. The ruling castes in a white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy display an extraordinary power to turn our joy into reason for despair. If we dance, they make it a jig. If we eat fried chicken or watermelon, they make it minstrelsy. If we quarrel, they make it pathology. If we love, they make it degeneracy. And we internalise these features (sometimes subconsciously, sometimes not) and weaponise them against one another – not with a sense of shame, but with a holy righteousness, largely unaware of the damage done to ourselves as well as others.
The other thing we do is erase. For a long time, the only way a Black person could survive in a society in which they are the minority is by pretending the past was either glorious or that it didn’t exist at all. If we had to reckon with the weight of it all – being Black and conscious – society might not survive, true (we, after all, have legitimate claim to wreaking havoc and destruction upon the descendants of the barbarians who are neither separate nor removed from the sins of their forebears), but, more importantly, we might not survive. Ignorance might not be bliss, but it certainly permitted endurance in these cases.
When the drummers stopped, we fed them: smoked turkey, baked turkey, fried chicken, mixed greens, stuffing, potato salad, salmon cakes, bean pie, more. Then we sent them on their way. They, the drummers, had put us in the mood for danger – which is to say: they put us in the mood for remembering.
We talked about our family elders who had passed on. My grandmother and her best friend, who was my great aunt. My grandfather and his brothers Charlie and Cephas. And then, we talked about his eldest brother, Milton.
Casually, my mother said to the table: ‘You know, Uncle Milton was gay’.
‘Yeah’, one of my aunts said. ‘Daddy told me about that a while back’.
My mouth was ajar, my eyebrows furrowed. I had anticipated that I would feel shock. Instead, I felt anger.
‘What? Why didn’t anyone ever say anything? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?’
Me. The one Black queer person in my family that I knew of, who’d had to navigate and survive all the hostilities that attempted to mould me into something I wasn’t and could never be.
I could only recall meeting my great uncle Milton once or twice when I was a child. He lived in one of those pre-war buildings in Manhattan or the Bronx, I can’t remember which. I do remember that he was a very tall man, brown skinned, slim, with gaunt features. His hair was not grey, but white. He dressed impeccably in the same kind of suits you see leading men wear in Hollywood films from the 40s and 50s. In my memory, I can’t recall the colours he was wearing; everything seems sepia-toned. But I do remember him being incredibly kind and gentlemanly. And I do remember his wife.
My mother continued: ‘I remember Ma going into the kitchen with his wife and his wife was telling her how Uncle Milton would leave the house at night to “go do things in the park”’.
I almost lost my appetite because of the silences, the sly glances and the smirking lips, the humour being found in my great uncle’s shame. They didn’t mean any harm, but this lack of witnessing is intrinsic to people who could never understand (and perhaps don’t care to understand) the horrors of what it must have been like to be a Black queer man born in 1897, living in a world that only had obscene names for what you were, where gentle embraces were, for you, illegal.
I know now where my anger comes from. Beyond it simply being nice to know that I am not some outlier in my family – the sole queer occupant of generations of Black folk, a living ahistorical aberration with no roots – I am in mourning for Uncle Milton because none of us got a chance to know him.
But there is important information lost to time. Had he ever fallen in love? Did he think love was possible, or was he convinced by others that he was incapable of giving or receiving it? Had he ever been loved in a way that made him feel like his full self? Did he love himself in spite of the world that told him he was unlovable? Did it crush him to be a caged bird rather than one who could spread his wings and fly?
Here’s what we do know: My great Uncle Milton was born in 1897 in St. Kitts. It’s disputed as to whether he shared the same father as his brothers. Nevertheless, my great grandfather raised him as his own. He came, along with my great grandparents, to the United States via Ellis Island in 1906, and settled in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City (when it was much more like its name than the gentrified, sought-after spot it is now). He was married to a woman whose name none of us can recall. When she married him, she had two daughters from a previous relationship. We don’t know their names either. But they did live in a showplace apartment in Manhattan or the Bronx. No one can remember what Uncle Milton did for a living, but when he died, he left my mother two lamps made of the finest crystal and painted with 24 karat gold.
But there is important information lost to time. Had he ever fallen in love? Did he think love was possible, or was he convinced by others that he was incapable of giving or receiving it? Had he ever been loved in a way that made him feel like his full self? Did he love himself in spite of the world that told him he was unlovable? Did it crush him to be a caged bird rather than one who could spread his wings and fly? In some family photos, we have pictures of those lamps. But we don’t have any pictures of Uncle Milton.
I imagine there are millions of stories like this. Millions of Black people who were assumed heterosexual (or cisgender, for that matter) because of the compulsory aspects of both; because of how violence guarantees acquiescence and acquiescence guarantees the fiction of the ‘natural’ centrality and ‘superiority’ of straightness.
We will never know if he was happy because, in this country, we mistake productivity for happiness. We will never know if he was valued because, in this country, we mistake one’s ability to provide for one’s worth. We will never know if he got to be human because, in this country, men are required to work and wage wars (wars inside and outside, wars in the house and wars in the world), but are discouraged, by everyone, from displaying the vulnerability of flesh and blood.
Did anyone ever properly eulogise my great-uncle? I don’t remember the funeral or when it took place; I don’t even remember how Uncle Milton died, so I cannot say. But here, now, let me say this:
My great-uncle Milton was a Black queer man who was unable to live his life openly because he was both Black and queer and for some people those two things, especially tethered, inspire others to brutalise or murder you. Thus, he had to live behind a façade of nuclear-family respectability while carrying his heart and his desires out into the night, into the shadows cast by park trees, leaving them in puddles to be dried up by a hot morning sun. We will never know if he was happy because, in this country, we mistake productivity for happiness. We will never know if he was valued because, in this country, we mistake one’s ability to provide for one’s worth. We will never know if he got to be human because, in this country, men are required to work and wage wars (wars inside and outside, wars in the house and wars in the world), but are discouraged, by everyone, from displaying the vulnerability of flesh and blood. Milton was kind to a world that deserved his scorn. But what difference does it make? Kindly or scornful, the world ground him between its teeth anyway. The most we can hope for is that he was bitter going down and caused an upset before being shat out.
I wish I could remember his face better than I do.
But even in his absence, he helped me to remember this: when we do the work of bridging the divides; when we beat the drums, wear our printed cloths, fellowship in the names of those who came before us, imagine a future of connectivity between peoples who have, for all intents and purposes, been shattered and separated by time, space, distance, and opportunity, it cannot only be for the superficial measures that, like our belligerent captors, confirm the false sense of reality that keeps us trapped in endless and sincere misery. We must remember the ones who we tried to forget, the ones whose implicating gazes we’ve tried to shut, whose implicating voices we’ve tried to silence, whose sugary loves we’ve tried to bury – all for the sake of what? Making the Black experience less than what it actually is?
No. This will not do. And it will not save us. We must remember it all. And more than remember, do the thing that love – real, difficult, active, and abiding love – compels us to do: heal.
Robert Jones, Jr. is a writer from New York City. He has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Essence, and The Paris Review. He is the creator of the social justice social media community, Son of Baldwin. Jones was recently featured in T Magazine’s cover story, ‘Black Male Writers of Our Time’. His debut novel, The Prophets, is now available.
Photo credit: Alberto Vargas.