I grew up in Camden, New Jersey, during a time, not unlike the present, when it was well known as one of the state’s and country’s most economically deprived, criminally devastated urban spaces. Poverty was felt and seen. Friends were murdered before the celebration of their eighteenth birthdays. Hopelessness was evidenced on streets where homes sat abandoned along trash-lined streets. And, despite all of this, I was carefully and lovingly nurtured by a young mother who sought to protect her quirky son from the staunch realities of life growing up in a troubled urban space that we both loved and called home.
I considered why it was that they would be so determined to set me on fire.
My mother was a victim of intimate partner violence. My father, who was fifteen when I was born, seemed to know more about hurt than love. And, he demonstrated that knowledge through his actions.
The first time I tried to end my life my father had just finished brutally beating my mother. I felt horrified, angry and helpless. While I do not remember the specifics of that particular attack, I do remember my response. Eleven years of life, or so, had begun to feel like an eternity of pain and I wanted out quickly. So, I moved toward the window in the small bedroom that I shared with my three younger sisters and with mournful tears in my eyes announced that I was about to jump. I thought that my leap would distract my father long enough to stop him from punching my mom in her face and would be cause for my other family member’s intervention in a common occurrence that was wreaking havoc on all of our lives.
I was a dreamer—and remain so until this day—and earnestly dreamt about life after death in a “home” where violence and violation would not be common a phenomenon. I was tired of covering my head with pillows every night attempting to drown out my cries.
A few years later, I sat in a hospital after having been attacked by a group of teenage boys a few houses down from my own. I was a budding black teenage male who preferred playtime with the girls. I was thin and most of the boys my age were developing muscular physiques. I wore glasses and was called a “nerd” even while other boys who wore glasses were called” tough”. I was told that I was ugly and “froggy” because of my dark brown skin, coarse hair, big pinkish-brown lips, astigmatic eyes, long fingers, skinny legs and big feet. The other boys were labeled “sexy” and “hard” because of everything that I was not, at least I thought.
I dressed like a preacher nearly every day of my eighth grade year. I donned trench coats, dress slacks and “church shoes” while other boys rocked the newest and flyest footwear and clothes. My awkwardness, my particular brand of “book smart”/”choir boy” masculinity, my tastes and hobbies, my body shape, and my bodily movements distinguished me from my other black/brown teen males peers. I didn’t name myself “gay”, nor did I think that I was, but I became my school’s and neighborhood’s typified faggot/sissy/punk/bitch. And, I suffered emotional and psychological pain because of this naming and claiming of my identity by others.
As I tried to relax in the emergency room, after having been surrounded by five or so boys, after having been hit by ten or so fists, after having been doused with a gallon of kerosene, after having witnessed one of the boys, my neighbor, strike a match that refused to be lit because of the steady force of the wind. I considered why it was that they would be so determined to set me on fire. At fourteen, I just presumed that they were drawn to attack those who they considered weak, the neighborhood “pussies.”
As an adult, I still think the same: they imaged me as a “pussy”: as a feminized and fetishized object to be touched without permission, violated, destroyed, punctured by real men. They wanted to destroy me because I was, to them, a living sign of difference, subversive rebelliousness, an affront on black masculinity and the sanctity of their presumed heterosexuality (even though a few of the “hard” neighborhood boys tried to cross the boundaries of their heterosexuality with me). In many ways, it was this same force of ideas (i.e. What it means to be a boy/man in the hood? A black boy/man? A black queer boy/man? etc.) that had its hand on my back, pushing me, a few years before as I readied myself to leap from my window.
Death—once again—seemed liked the only conceivable option after my boyfriend repeatedly cheated, verbally abused, physically assaulted, and left me.
By the time I entered my early twenties, suicidal thoughts had become my primary response to relief. In them, I felt a strange comfort in knowing that the traumatic pain caused by others and life circumstances would end.
To get to that end—a space of peace, and freedom from victimization—I came to the wrong conclusion that I needed to sacrifice myself, to die, to at once be free. I did not realize that freedom would not come by way of my death—whether imagined or real—but by the radical transformation of the spaces, dismantling of ideas, and removal of people who created the “hells” in my life that had me longing for “heaven.” It wasn’t clear to me, like it is today, that by killing myself I would have aided the perpetrators and systems that had been trying to do so for years. I became my own offender metaphorically preying on myself and carrying the same weapons (not unlike the kerosene and lighter) that some others had used against me years before.
I thought that I had to ameliorate, or rather destroy altogether, the cause of my problems: me. This was evidenced, particularly, during my first relationship with another brother who happened to be younger than me by a few years, though he was no less wise. I instantly fell in love, at least I thought that was what it was, with a guy whose representation had secretly joined me in my dreams: he was tall, fit like an athlete, “hood”, and sexy. He was the type of guy that I could take home as a platonic friend and kick it with in the bedroom like the fantasy partner I would dream about. He was so perfect, physically, and so wrong for me, in every other way. And, in many ways, I was wrong for me as well. I had a low self-esteem and grabbed hold of anything and anyone to fill in the gaping holes in my heart. I longed for the attentiveness of others, as I always had, and took it in whatever manner it came, good or bad. I wanted badly to not be alone and willingly connected to a brother who communicated in more than one way that (dis)connection was the only route to friendship that he knew.
My internal issues were mine, though. My personality characteristics, disposition and history—the history of a young black boy who lived clandestinely under constant surveillance, policing and threat of victimization—resulted in the formation of a twenty-something in need of community and love in ways that he had yet to fully experience both in his school, home and life world. And, I was all too willing to accept any semblance of either even if they showed up as knock-offs.
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