Little Black Queer Boys Walk Alone
by Robert Jones, Jr.
The world is unsafe.
James Baldwin said “safety is always necessarily an illusion.” I imagine he was keenly aware of this because he was both Black and what we now call queer, living a world that despises both. This hostile place might settle for our defeat if we chose to remain silent about it.
But we are artists, which is another way of saying “witness,” which means we are compelled, by the very nature of who we are, to testify. We must provide testimony to a world that, if it doesn’t succeed in destroying us, would rather self-destruct before receiving it, accountability being a construct that’s always, forever, for other people and never truly for oneself.
There is a space that we believe is sacred until it is no longer; until a particular word or phrase is uttered and meant. Then, the safety that Baldwin assured us was a fabrication, reveals itself to be exactly such. And what is left is us, stripped bare, vulnerable, in danger.
Almost every institution, almost every community fails the Black queer artist —whether through anti-Blackness, anti-queerness, or both. We are thus left to persevere and make a way out of no way. And the journey is rough terrain only, covered in brush that must be hacked away, from the very first steps to the last; exhausting.
They don’t even know what you are yet, but they sense that whatever it is, it might be something that would rend their illusions and threaten the sanctity of their deceptions. Even before you have the language to name yourself, which is the first act of liberation, those with power name you, which is the first act of subjugation.
That is the revelation. But here is the genesis.
1977. I was six years old the first time I was called a racial slur. My mother and I had just moved from my grandparents’ house in Bushwick in North Brooklyn to a housing project near the border of Gravesend and Bensonhurst in South Brooklyn.
My mother worked full time for a bank, which meant that I would have to go to school and come home on my own, and wait in the drafty project apartment with black mold on the walls until my mother got home at 7 p.m.—unless she was required to do overtime.
The keys to the apartment dangled from a shoestring around my neck; the mark of a latch-key kid, a term that was popular in the 70s, but has since fell out of favor. My mother walked me from the apartment to the school over and over again, watching me navigate the blocks and the streets until she was certain I could do it without her supervision. It was easy: elevator from the seventh floor to the lobby, down the entrance steps, past the playground and the parking lots, along the brick row houses that I longed to live in, under the El, just one stop away from Coney Island, just beyond the corner store where I bought comic books on my own for the very first time, past the pizzeria/bakery with the smells that made poor kids hungrier than they already were, across the street with the help of the crossing guard, and then I would be at the elementary school.
I did it dozens of times without a hitch. I would call my mother as soon as I got home and always remembered to never open the door for anyone unless my mother was home, no matter what.
Once, I took a detour. I turned down a different block because I wanted to avoid a bully on the route. The houses had aluminum facades. Some were pink. Some were green. Some were white. I could see the backyards of some of homes from the sidewalk because of the alleyways between them. In one backyard, white teenagers were playing in one of those blue inflatable pools. I looked as I walked past and caught the eye of one of them.
I’ll never forget what he looked like. He had straight blond hair and his bangs covered his forehead. He wore eyeglasses. He sort of looked like Cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch, but older. He had freckles and was a bit chubby. When he looked at me, I smiled. Then he put up his hand and waved.
“Hey Jigaboo!” he shouted.
Having no idea what that word meant, I waved back.
As I continued to walk home, I could hear the teens laughing uproariously. I don’t know why, but I could tell by the tenor, by the abandon, by the serrated edge of the tone, that they were laughing at me.
When my mother got home that evening, I asked her:
“Ma, what’s a jigaboo?”
She looked at me and tears filled her eyes, but they didn’t run down her cheek.
1979. There was something about Double Dutch that made me love it, which also made me hate myself for it. It could have been the way the girls used to jump: a staccato rhythm made up of telephone wire hitting the ground and quick stepping feet avoiding the possible sting of those cords meeting bare ankle. It could have also been the songs they sang to keep beat:
“K-I-S-S choice!” “One, two!” Before leaping and coming back down without interrupting the two other girls who were turning. It was most important for the two of them to keep the tempo lest they forever be branded “double handed” and never permitted to play again.
They were jumping right in front of my building. I watched as I sat on the step. One of the girls had to leave. Another girl looked at me and asked if I could take her place and turn. I did. And it was glorious. And I wasn’t double handed. Then, it was my turn to jump. After a few tries and a few welts on exposed calves, I got it. Awkward at first, but eventually I found the grove. I was doing pop-ups, criss-crosses, around-the-worlds. I even learned to turn and jump Scotch! I found something I was good at.
When I was done, I took the reins so that the other girl could have her turn. There were teens, Black this time, in front of the building watching. I felt the the snickering before I heard it. The words that came out of their mouths; white kids had used them before, so I knew what they meant. I could dismiss them because they had already proven to me that their kindnesses were rare.
But now, these people who lived with me, who smiled like me and laughed like me, and danced like me; who sang the same songs as me, and only had a dime or a quarter or just lint in their pockets like me, who probably had their own They Called Me a Jigaboo stories to tell.
How these words come out their mouths? At me?
“Homeboy’s a faggot.”
They let their hands fall limp at the wrist.
The girls laughed, too. It hurt because I thought I was helping them. I thought they were helping me.
(Maybe not everybody’s a patriarch. But it seems everybody wants to be.)
When I ran upstairs, I didn’t tell my mother because I was afraid she would agree. I also didn’t cry. My family forbid that I ever. “Men don’t do that.”
(Only difference between white god and Black god is color.)
Boyhood lasts for never.
1983. The white boys were waiting for us at 3 o’clock. To get from the junior high school back to the projects, we had to take one of two paths: the main boulevard or the side street. We didn’t live far enough away to get bus passes from the school and we couldn’t afford the 75 cents it cost to ride. So, we walked.
We chose the side street. We chose wrong.
They were waiting for us, armed with bats, bottles, and chains. White boys. A little older than us. Not old enough to remember how their Italian and Irish ancestry once marked them as “mongrel” and placed them in the “no” category with the rest of us who the nation had either no use for or great animosity towards. (The signs used to read: No Negroes, No Jews, No Irish, No Italians, No Dogs.) But certainly old enough to be fluent in anti-Blackness—the true American language—so that they would never be equated to us ever again.
They waited until we were halfway home before they attacked. All the Black kids started running. If we made it past the El, we would be back on our “own turf” and we would be safe then. I mean…most of the other Black kids would be safe then.
I was walking with Stephanie Cole. She was a grade or two ahead of me. She told me not to run.
“I’m not running nowhere. If you run now, you’ll always be running.”
The option was to run and not be fast enough or take Stephanie’s advice and hope for the best. I walked alongside her. The white boys approached us with bats.
“This one?” one of them said to the others. He had a cut-off shirt on and a DA (duck’s ass) hairstyle like the men on Sha Na Na.
“No. She’s a girl.”
“What about this nigger?” he asked pointing at me.
Ah. Racists-in-training, whose consciences hadn’t been fully purged yet. We were lucky.
We walked back to the projects. Stephanie’s face was defiance. That look, I would come to understand, had a long history, had shown up on plantations and at lunch counters, would return in marches and courtrooms. Would be reflected in mirrors: mine and almost all of the other Black people that I knew.
No one ever called Brooklyn a “sundown town” because the beasts here come out in the broad daylight, when the sun is still high in the sky.
1989. Because I thought turning eighteen meant that racism was no longer menacing, I went to Michael Kaplan’s house deep in Bensonhurst. That was no place for a Black Queer Boy like me. But I went at Michael’s behest. Michael’s family, Jewish and Italian, greeted me warmly, served the best food, overlooked my Blackness because I wasn’t what they imagined (the evening news had ill-prepared them). Instead of “Robert,” Michael’s mother called me “Rawbit.” Her thick Brooklyn accent made me laugh.
Soon, we heard fireworks outside. Michael’s family investigated. They conferred. They talked to a group of kids outside from their window. A few minutes later they said, “Robert, you have to go home.”
I took the B train and made it home only by grace. When I walked in the front door, the 11 o’clock news was saying that Yusuf Hawkins had been shot and killed on 20th Avenue, just a few blocks from Michael’s house.
Yusuf was two years younger than me.
Michael’s family sent me home because they knew what I suppose every white person knows about the bloodlust of their clan: one dead n*gger is never enough.
1991. I thought I had made some friends, finally. Roommates, but it felt like family. A misunderstanding led to them rummaging through my belongings while I was at work. My journals. My poetry. They discovered my secret. A friend—on whom I had a crush that I never planned to reveal because he had a girlfriend—spelled it out for me because he was too embarrassed to say the word out loud:
It’s cliché to say that your life flashed before your eyes, so I won’t say that. Instead, I’ll say that dread filled my heart and something rose up behind me, unseen but there, to haunt my every move, to find fault with my every step, to whisper profane things about me in my ear, to cast doubt on my every dream, to stand in the way of love, especially self-love. An inner critic; an opponent.
Sometimes it shows up, in the form of other people who pretend to be friends long enough to figure out just where to plunge the dagger.
2007. “You’re in danger of becoming a Black writer,” my white classmate in graduate school says to me during workshop.
I had written a short story about Sean Bell, about his joy, about what his bachelor’s party must have been like before he left the club and was murdered by the police. I was the only Black person in the class. Everyone else—if they didn’t look at me with pity, they looked at me with scorn. Eyes that said, unmistakably: “You don’t belong here.”
I wasn’t allowed to speak during the critique, only take notes. But the look on my face must have been Stephanie’s defiance.
If you run….
“Well, you have to understand,” the white student continued, “My mother was raped by a Black guy.”
I looked to the instructor and the other students. Pity. Scorn.
I spoke to the director, who said: “He has a First Amendment right.”
I thought of Dred Scott and the unfortunate decision heaped upon him: “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Felt true.
I walked to the bus stop alone, not wearing the night like a garment, more waving it like a white flag.
Infinity: Nigger in the street. Faggot at home. Nowhere is safe. Not even the arms of another who shares your plight. Societies fixed it so that what should be an embrace is often, instead, a chokehold. “[B]ecause what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.” Baldwin knew. He, like, like so many Little Black Queer Boys, had no choice, if he wanted to survive, but to walk alone.
But I don’t allow solitude go to waste. And I write it down—all of it—for the work.
2021: “Why doesn’t your work have any white saviors in it? I need a white path in order to see the artistic value; to co-sign your existence; to find absolution.”
There is no absolution for you. And there is no absolution for me. Baldwin told us time and time again: innocence is the crime. Therefore, I don’t want to be innocent; I want to be human. Can we? Can we be human together? Put a glorious end to systemic harm together? Or will you continue to diminish your own humanity by pretending mine doesn’t exist?
2022. Whatever the pain, whatever the terror, I write all of this down because that is the nature of testimony, which also calls for witnesses. Because while scars heal, they also leave marks.
But at least now I know:
The night was never a white flag.
The whole time, the night was me.
People be scared of the dark.
Have no fear.
From the dark everything springs.
And to the dark everything must return.
Robert Jones, Jr., is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Prophets, which was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction, and was named one of the top 10 best books of 2021 by Time magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and USA Today, among others. His writings have been featured in The New York Times, Essence, and The Paris Review, as well as the critically acclaimed anthologies Four Hundred Souls and The 1619 Project.
The Prophets is available (or will soon be available) in Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United States, and other territories.