When I was 15 years old, I went on a class trip to Washington, D.C. A few months later, I kissed a boy for the first time — and by boy I mean man, but that’s another story for another column. Before you judge me for leaping too fast, I can only say that in my defense I was precocious. I guess that’s not really a defense, but so what.
Being a good Southern church boy, my sexuality was the only rebellion I ever staged. And it was glorious. I had never even gotten detention before, so I savored that rebellion fully and completely. No longer conflicted, I put away my bible and brought an unceremonious end to my tortured church-boy phase. If kissing boys was a sin, call me a sinner.
On this particular class trip, I carried a copy of E. Lynn Harris’s novel And This Too Shall Pass. The women in my family were the ones who introduced me to Harris’s work, my mother among them. They read and discussed his novels in hushed voices usually reserved for gossip and conspiracy. I overheard them (and they let me overhear them). This was when I first began to associate books with trust and friendship.
I carried the novel in my backpack with a journal, textbooks, and worn magazines. After making the rounds on the charter bus through the various factions of kids who comprised the loosely knit coalition of friends I ruled with an iron fist, I sat toward the back and read silently but hungrily. Everyone else was asleep or pretending to be asleep so they could gossip or scheme.
I don’t remember wanting to be a writer before I read And This Too Shall Pass, nor do I remember wanting to be in a relationship with another man. But by the time I finished that book, both were within my grasp. E. Lynn Harris gave me hope, something I’d never had before.
Before you stone me for committing literary heresy, yes, I know of Harris’s work and how he depicts Black sexuality as problematic. I won’t even try to defend him by making an argument about historical context. I am not advocating for what those novels stood for, or anything he ever said on the record or off. I can only tell you my truth as I know it, and that is for a Black gay boy growing up in the 1990s Deep South, Harris helped me to see that romantic love between Black men was possible.
I would later discover other writers who fed me in a similar way. Saturday mornings, home alone, I would read Baldwin’s Just Above My Head, lingering on the gorgeously written scene between Crunch and Arthur where they made love in Atlanta. There was also If Only for One Nite, my favorite James Earl Hardy novel. There was Joseph Beam and his masterpiece In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology where I first saw the words: “Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act.”
That quote would become my anthem and mantra, culminating in me founding an organization built almost as a temple to Beam and his legacy. There were also the Essex Hemphill poems “Black Beans” and “Now We Think,” teaching Black men how to love each other despite being surrounded by structural violence.
These Black men mentored me through the pages of their books. Their words nourished me. They did the work no other adult would have dared and gave me advice about boys, sex, love, and heartache. Every affirmation by these writers undid — piece by piece, word by word — the damage inflicted upon me by bible passages in Leviticus and Romans.
One of these days I might publish a book of Black gay love stories. Those that come after us, Black gay boys especially, need to see representations of their validity in the written word. Yes there are shows like Empire and Pose that have broken so much ground in the visual representations of Black LGBTQ love, and there is an endless list of web series also committed to this pursuit. But I still believe there is something magical about being able to use your imagination, to be inspired enough to conjure up your own images in your mind, about what love should look and feel like — for you.
Contributing editor CHARLES STEPHENS is an Atlanta-based writer and activist. He is the executive director of the Counter Narrative Project. (@CharlesDotSteph)