I had an entire other plan for how to open our Black History Month series. It’s my favorite holiday. Maybe it sounds strange to you to call Black History Month a holiday. After all, there’s no Santa Claus coming down the tree or an Easter Bunny bringing baskets. No “day after” sale on candy. No rainbow colored balloon arches like the kind that adorn gayborhoods every June. In fact, Black History Month is probably thought of as stodgy – tired black and white photographs of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson.
Here’s the secret about Black History Month: few people know how to celebrate the way black people know how to celebrate. And we celebrate this month FOR US. We don’t look towards white eyes or ask for white approval. The morning of February 1st social media streams are filled with gifs and memes, well-timed quotes and inside jokes, words of affirmation. Black churches host banquets. Community centers put up billboards draped in red, black, and green. There are talent shows and pageants where little black girls are forced on stage in itchy thick white cotton tights to recite Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise.” Our littlest ones fumble through the words of the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” There are dozens of these traditions happening all across the country this month, and I love each and every one of them. At the 2017 Emmys, actress Issa Rae told a reporter, “I’m Rooting For Everybody Black” and even though it wasn’t technically Black History Month when she said it – nothing better captures the attitude. 28 days that are unapologetically For The Culture.TM
So yes, there’s another version of this post, existing in another timeline of our universe, where I shouted from the rooftops about BLACK EXCELLENCE AND BLACK JOY. For sure those are going to be reoccurring themes in the pieces we’ve curated for Autostraddle’s Black History Month series. But then this week happened, and I scrapped it.
On Tuesday morning, Jussie Smollett, one of the most famous young black gay men in the country, was viciously beaten in a racist, homophobic hate crime in Chicago. He was called a nigger and a faggot. He was left with a noose around his neck. In the days that followed, there was a hollow echo in my chest that I couldn’t shake – something inside of me was cold, broken. Many of our black queer writers were scrambling to make deadlines and put together this series that you’re going to read all month, but we had to stop. We had to hold each other. We had to be angry. We had to mourn.
It’s not solely about Jussie Smollett (it never was; he’s been the first to say that himself). It’s about what’s happening to so many of our sisters, brothers, and gender non-conforming siblings. It’s about black trans women who face violence daily and it goes unchecked. It’s about being afraid to walk your dog at night, dress how you feel most comfortable, or hold your lover’s hand. It’s about how our visibility won’t protect us. It makes us a target, and knowing that but being brave enough to stay visible anyway. It’s about white supremacy that’s alive in 2019 the way it was alive in 1969 or 1869. It’s about the ways that white supremacy is a twin ideology with homophobia. Both exist to rob black queer communities of our very ability to feel safe in our skin. And it’s about how we grab ahold of each other and fight back.
It’s almost cliché, a queer women’s magazine opening its Black History Month series with a meditation on Audre Lorde. Lorde is also my favorite writer, so perhaps it’s most cliché coming from me. (What could be more cliché than a black queer girl with an Afro and big earrings and a back tattoo walking around quoting Audre Lorde? Nothing, I suppose.) Still, when I could no longer feel inside of myself – when everything went numb from anger and grief – this is what snapped back into my clearest focus: “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.”
I am deliberate and afraid of nothing. The first time I read those words, I’m sure I was in a place in my life where I felt safe. Now I’m constantly terrified. I think it’s because it’s the same fight, always the same fight. Hatred is before us, unvarnished and bare. I don’t know how to be “afraid of nothing” when all I can feel is fear about everything. But, I do know how to be deliberate. I know what it means to deliberately get out of bed after spending full day alone under the covers. I know what it means to deliberately force myself to laugh. To brush my teeth and wash my face and walk out of my front door. To love.
It is that resiliency that has seen black queer people through – and it’s that deliberate, stubborn black queer resiliency that I am holding on to with my knuckles and blind faith. This month we’re going to highlight black femmes you can follow, and re-imagine classic black love films with a lesbian lead. We’re going to fantasize about ourselves in superhero and Disney Princess cosplay. There will be space for thoughtful meditation on what it means to be someone like Barbara Jordan, the most famous black woman politician in history, and still struggle with your sexuality in the closet. We are going to talk about food and poetry. Us black queer folk? We’re gonna beat our faces or polish our kicks until we can see ourselves smiling back in them. We’re going to hold on tight and put one foot in front of the other. Nothing pisses the racist homophobes off more.
This morning, on the first day of Black History Month, Jussie Smollett released a public statement: “During times of trauma, grief and pain, there is still a responsibility to lead with love. It’s all I know. And that can’t be kicked out of me.”
If you are looking for actionable ways to help in the fight, consider donating to Affinity Community Services, which serves Chicago’s black LGBTQ community and has a focus on black women. Until then, we’ll be back on Monday with more of our Black History Month content. ✊🏾