Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

A thousand words, countless silences and the audacity of Black love

By Stephanie Jones-Rogers

"Fruitvale Station" movie poster

TRIGGER WARNING: This article or section, and a page it links to, contains information about sexual assault and abuse, which may be triggering to survivors.

One man put his hand on the head of another, someone took a picture of it, and the image set off a social media frenzy. Yes. An image. This image.

"Fruitvale Station" movie poster

In case you don't know who these two men are: The one on the left is Michael B. Jordan. He has starred in the sensational, long-running HBO series The Wire and in Fruitvale Station, the powerful film in which he played the role of Oscar Grant, III, the young man who was shot dead by a police officer while he sat, unarmed, on the Fruitvale BART Station platform on New Year's day in 2009. And most recently, he's starred in the blockbuster movie Creed, wherein he played Adonis Johnson, the son of Rocky Balboa's nemesis-turned-pal Apollo Creed, alongside none other than Sylvester Stallone.

Jordan has accomplished much in between all of this. You should see this man's IMDB page. As a proud native of Newark, New Jersey and an Arts High School alum, I would be remiss if I did not mention that he spent much of his young life in my hometown and attended my alma mater (Go Jags!).

The man beside him is an equally influential and rising star in Hollywood. Ryan Coogler, an Oakland/Richmond native, wrote the screenplay and directed both Fruitvale Station and Creed. So, as you can imagine, he and Michael grew incredibly close during the making of these moving films. In fact, Ryan and Michael are working on yet another film together. As 29-year-old artists and professionals (yes, they're only 29!), as rising stars in Hollywood, as former athletes, and as black boys who grew up in strong, two-parent households surrounded by love, but also the tragedies that often plague urban communities, there was much in their pasts and presents that wove their stories together from day one.

Recently, though, the image linked above appeared in the March issue of Vanity Fair. Jordan and Coogler were among a number of other game changers who were interviewed for a story about "style disrupters." They are featured because, in their own ways, they are changing Hollywood from the inside out.  But you'd never know that from some of the outcries, which soon proliferated on "Black Twitter," Facebook, and beyond.

Some African-Americans, male and female, were not happy. They argued that this image, of a black man with his hand on another black man's head, was "gay" and was yet another instance of the media's demasculization of black men.  They cited Hollywood's broader obsession with homosexuality, and even theorized that Vanity Fair's editors strategically chose this image in their efforts to portray black men in problematic ways. Others argued that no man should touch another man's head like this, unless he was gay. And on it went.

For most of my 39 years, I have witnessed black men greeting their long unseen male kinfolk and childhood friends in this way. Such a greeting wasn't offensive. It wasn't "gay." And it certainly wasn't new. So imagine my astonishment when this picture, of two black men doing what I had seen black men doing almost all of my life, caused this kind of ruckus.

A deeper look

Well, a lot can be said about this, and a lot is being said about just how problematic the response to this picture has been (here and here are two examples). I agree with much of what journalists have written about the criticism of the Vanity Fair image.

But I'd like to take their analyses even further. To me, the negative response of some African-Americans on Twitter, Facebook and beyond seems to be symptomatic of larger issues and deeper concerns pertaining to love, intimacy, sexuality, and sexual (and domestic) violence within African-American communities, concerns that, some members of black communities hope will remain invisible and kept silent, or, at the very least, will not become known beyond them.

Historian Darlene Clark Hine, a 2013 National Humanities Medal recipient, has described the silences around sexual violence and other "intimate matters" within African-American communities. In a 1989 article, she argued that after the Civil War, many African-American women chose to leave the South and relocate to the Mid-West because of the sexual violence (and threats of sexual violence), which white and black men perpetrated against them.

Furthermore, in the face of this abuse, and white assumptions about black women's hypersexuality and promiscuity, African-American women formed a "culture of dissemblance" in which sexual violence and threats of sexual assault were rarely discussed or made public. This culture, Hine argued, "created the appearance of openness and disclosure but actually shielded the truth of their inner lives and selves from their oppressors."

Some members of black communities continue to uphold this culture of dissemblance. In order to shield themselves from white scrutiny and interference, some African-Americans cloak their intimate relationships in secrecy and deal with acts of sexual, and domestic, abuse and violence by silencing it and discouraging victims from airing the community's "dirty laundry."

Not ‘naturally' LGBTQ?

A relatively recent iteration of this culture of dissemblance is the problematic way that some (not all) African-Americans reckon, or fail to reckon, with LGBTQ people in our communities. I have spoken with people who have told me that white society introduced homosexuality to African-American communities. Others have emphatically stated that African-American lesbians are really bitter heterosexual women who have "sworn off men" after bad relationships with the opposite sex. Even more have argued that gay men and trans-women are fatherless sons, and without fathers around, they naturally associated more with their mothers and female kin as children, and have since assumed "feminine" roles and mannerisms. One woman even told me that gay teachers were colluding to "turn" black boys "gay" within the school system where she worked.

"Madea Goes to Jail" movie poster

I have read Facebook posts in which African-American men and women defended a black man who murdered a local trans-woman for "deceiving him." More than one of the commenters asserted that they would have done the same. In fact, one man proudly stated that if any gay man or trans-woman even looked at him "funny," he would beat them within an inch of their lives. Yet, I knew that some of these very people had openly LGBTQ family members who they loved dearly. Naturally, when I pointed this out, I was told that these family members were "different."

And, ad nauseum, I have heard the allegation that Hollywood and the mainstream media has an agenda in which the "establishment" hopes to emasculate black men in as many ways as they can. These folks often point to female characters played by African-American men such as those that appear in the Big Momma and Madea movie franchises played by Martin Lawrence and Tyler Perry respectively. And, recently, they've pointed to the picture of Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan in Vanity Fair as further evidence of this conspiracy.

Such assertions add up to this: African-Americans are not "naturally" LGBTQ and those who proclaim to be LGBTQ are in fact "broken" heterosexuals. Furthermore, Hollywood's (and the media's) attempts to emasculate black men is a virulent form of sexualized racism. To say that such assumptions are problematic would be an understatement.

To me, all of this is connected to the culture of dissemblance, which Professor Darlene Clark Hine described. In other words, the culture of dissemblance within black communities extends beyond the silences surrounding men's sexual exploitation of African-American females. It also attempts to render LGBTQ African-Americans invisible and forces many of them to live in exile, away from the communities within which they were born and raised. This culture also makes it nearly impossible to reckon with the sexual violation of black boys and men, too.

T.J.'s story

Take the tragic story of Tarence "T.J." Mitchell, an African-American high school boy from Bloomfield, Connecticut. He was a handsome star athlete with a stunning girlfriend, and they became the envy of all their classmates. T.J.'s coaches and community envisaged a career in the pro leagues. He was that good.

The pressure of success and fame weighed heavy on him, but T.J. found comfort and encouragement in a local man, Ronald "City" Taylor, also African-American, who was almost a decade his senior. Ronald offered an ear, ​attended every one of T.J.'s games, ​cheered him on, and opened his home to the younger man. But one day, seemingly out of the blue, T.J. murdered Ronald.

According to T.J., it all started when he was only sixteen. Ronald invited T.J. over to his place, and even though T.J. was underage, Ronald offered him marijuana and alcohol. Once T.J. was in an inebriated state, Ronald sexually abused him and coerced him into silence by threatening to "out" him as a gay male on social media.

For the next two years, Ronald dangled this threat over T.J.'s head and continued to perpetrate acts of sexual violence against him. When T.J. tried to end Ronald's purported sexual abuse, Ronald made good on his promise, posting an image of T.J. in his high school football uniform on Facebook, with a heading that labeled him as gay. T.J. was mortified. He identified as heterosexual and described what was happening between Ronald and himself as coerced and non-consensual.

One day, after Ronald spied T.J. walking out of school with his girlfriend, T.J. received an ominous text demanding that they meet -- a convening that Ronald promised would not "end well." Ronald's prediction proved to be true. Armed with a knife in case things got physical, T.J. met Ronald, and soon after Ronald arrived, he allegedly began to rough T.J. up. That was it. T.J. decided that Ronald would never lay hands on him, or anyone else, again. He stabbed Ronald multiple times. Neighbors heard the ruckus, called the police, and an ambulance soon whisked Ronald off to the hospital. He died en route.

In the aftermath of the stabbing, T.J. contrived a lie to conceal what had really happened that night. Eventually, the police realized that T.J.'s story didn't quite add up. Then they hit the motherlode when they found intimate and erotically charged text messages between Ronald and T.J. on Ronald's cellphone. Confronting T.J. with this new "evidence," police compelled him to come clean. After some prodding, T.J. told the police that this was no gay love affair. Ronald had sexually abused him for two years, ​and he killed him for it.

When asked why he never told anyone, T.J. told police that he was ashamed, that he didn't want people to think he was gay, and that Ronald had threatened to tell everyone that T.J. was gay if he reported the abuse. For all of this, he remained silent. But, with Ronald's death, he couldn't be silent anymore. And now, he's serving twelve years in prison.

I recognize the very real possibility that T.J. may have been so ashamed of being gay or on the "down low" (as more than a few articles on the Internet accused him of being), that he killed Ronald Taylor. But, given T.J.'s age at the time of the abuse (16 to 17) and the state in which he found himself engaged in sexual activity with this man (drugged and drunk), I am willing to take T.J. at his word.

Shame and silence

Although T.J.'s case was unusual because of the way it ended, he is not alone in the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of an adult male within his community.  On at least two occasions, black men have revealed similar accounts of abuse and coerced silence to me. Men who were close to them — one an older brother and the other a neighbor — violated their trust and sexually abused them.

Like T.J., they were hurt and ashamed of what happened to them and they were hesitant about revealing the abuse because they believed people would question their sexuality and deny their victimization, even as young boys. And when they overcame their hesitation and disclosed the abuse to their families, such skepticism proved well founded. Their families hid the sexual abuse or downright ignored it, adding further insult to injury.

A recent study by Lara Stemple and Ilan H. Meyer has shown that this is far from unusual; males of all races under-report sexual violence and abuse for a number of reasons. They and others have argued that mainstream media portrayals simply do not support the idea that men can be sexually victimized, police tend to dismiss their accusations, friends and family diminish the trauma of these acts or question their sexuality, sexual predators extort their victims into silence, and when it involves female perpetrators, our ideas about sex and gender convince us that females cannot sexually violate males.

Within African-American communities, however, additional factors come into play. Long held, racist presumptions about black people's sexual deviance, as well as intense, and in many cases rational, skepticism about the justice system, make many black male victims avoid reporting these crimes. The rampant homophobia, which continues to plague black communities (and our nation), all but guarantees that black male victims of sexual violence will be viewed with suspicion by some, if not many. Furthermore, black men are frequently subjected to unrealistic pressures to perform an emotionally avoidant, misogynistic and violent form of heterosexual masculinity.

All of these things might work to further discourage young black males from revealing acts of victimization to their families, peers, and communities because they fear that people will perceive their trauma as weakness, and frame their abuse as consensual acts of sexual activity. Sexual perpetrators understand all of this and use it to their advantage.

Black love

In the case of Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler's Vanity Fair feature, the old adage, "a picture is worth a thousand words" proves true. Looking beyond the surface and grounding the homophobic response to the image in a historical context, I think I might just see what it all means. Behind the vitriol, the homophobic banter, and the "gay Hollywood" conspiracy theories, lies a profound fear about the vulnerability that inevitably comes when black people love each other and when they reveal that love to the world.

It is no exaggeration to say that, by law and by custom, Black love has long been vulnerable to destruction in the United States. As early as 1662, Virginia enacted a law declaring that children born to enslaved African women would also be enslaved, regardless of whether the children's fathers were free or not.

African American Union soldier with his wife and two children

This was a reversal of English law, wherein children inherited their bound or free condition from their fathers. In an instant, colonial law defined African-descended children as property and commodified one of the most intimate and sacred relationships known to humankind. In a pen stroke, it technically became legal to sell, buy, bequeath and inherit African-descended children, and it became legal to separate them from their mothers forever. What did it mean for a mother to give birth to and to love a child with her everything under these conditions?

Within the broader context and longer history of American slavery, black love and kinship ties were trivialized and routinely broken. Just to keep them "in line," slave-owners constantly threatened to take enslaved African-Americans away from everyone they loved and everything they knew by selling them in distant slave markets. Many slave-owners made good on those threats too and used enslaved people's love for each other as a weapon against them. Historian Steven Deyle estimates that, between 1820-1860, slave-owners sold more than two million enslaved men, women and children in southern slave markets. Two thirds of them were sold locally, while the rest were sold across state lines. (See his book Carry Me Back.)

So you see, it was a matter of course for slave-owners living in Upper South states like Virginia and Maryland, to sell enslaved people to slave traders (buying and selling slaves was so ubiquitous that it called for professionalization), who would then sell them to buyers living in Deep South states like Louisiana and Texas. Such transactions created a distance of over 1,000 miles between them. Under these circumstances, it was nearly impossible for enslaved people to see their loved ones again.

In the face of this, knowing that at any moment, their brothers, sons, fathers, husbands, sisters, daughters, mothers, or wives could be torn from their arms forever, loving those people and revealing that love to their oppressors was dangerous. But openly loving those people, in spite of the emotional costs associated with doing so, was also one of the most audacious things that enslaved people could do. To love another person, and even to express it under these conditions, was a profound, powerful act. Sometimes, this audacious love kept enslaved people alive through the most horrific horrors, even while it caused them the most tremendous pain.

Love was such a precious thing to enslaved people. Not all of them, of course. But it was something that many of them were willing to suffer for, and it was something they would have died for.

So, as we scrutinize this picture of two black men exhibiting a small sign of their fraternal affection for each other, we should ask ourselves how much this simple gesture would have meant to our enslaved ancestors, especially those who lost family members and friends in the slave markets of the Deep South. We should think about what they would give just to touch the heads of those lost friends and loved ones, whom they never saw again.

Let us think about the many 29-year-old enslaved men who, unlike Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler, never got the chance to share a similar moment. They could never be actors or directors, and they could never be featured in magazines because they were placed on auction blocks throughout the South and sold as property. And after auctioneers sold them to the highest bidders, their parents, siblings, spouses and children were denied the right to embrace them one last time, to grieve for them, and to even say goodbye.

1879 newspaper ad of man looking for his brother, a former slave

When slavery was over, one of the first things black people did was to try and reconstruct their families. In the aftermath of the Civil War, newly freed African-Americans sought legal sanction of marital unions, which were legally denied to them in bondage. They roamed the South searching for kin and friends who their owners had sold away from them decades earlier.

And when they couldn't do that, they posted advertisements in newspaper columns entitled "Lost Friends." They described parents, spouses, siblings, children, extended kin and friends. They told subscribers the names of these lost loved ones and they identified the people who once owned them. They told of the moments when they last saw them and described the scenes that unfolded when they were torn apart. Sometimes they were lucky enough to find them, but many times they were not.

In slightly different ways, the vulnerability that shaped our enslaved ancestors' love pervades our relationships with each other today. We continue to recover from the havoc wrought by centuries of enslavement and decades of exclusion. The legacy of this, institutional racism, continues to shape our lives today. The rise of the carceral state, the privatization of American prisons, racially biased drug sentencing policies and the mass incarceration of African-American men and women, which such policies largely brought about, have produced profound ruptures in black families and communal life.

But as we deal with the vulnerability of our own love, I wish that we would take a cue from our enslaved ancestors, who saw a power in love and affection, a power that was denied to them in almost every other dimension of their lives. So many of them prioritized their love for each other over everything else. In the midst of the most formidable circumstances, they continued to love one another and to openly express it.

Let us honor them. Let us exhibit the same audacity to love.