itsct: Faggot & the City: a black queer agitation of gentrification

Faggot & the City: A Black Queer Agitation of Gentrification

by Myles E. Johnson

“Harlem
Sent him home
In a long box-
Too dead
To know why:

The Licker
Was lye.”
– Langston Hughes, “Deceased”

Through my speakers, the whispers of the crowd could be heard. I love listening to live music. Gil Scott-Heron played in my ears. His raspy voice suffocated the soulful lyrics, song after song, and I stopped on his “New York is killing me.” I was on my way to the big city, and even if somber, this song felt appropriate. I was elated about going to New York, but not in a Frank Sinatra way, no, I knew New York was a beast I would never be ready to tame. But there was no other place that I desired to make it in. I wanted to be swallowed by New York City, and made a part of the body. I was born in New York, but I left for Atlanta, GA with my mother much too young to know it how I’d know it during this visit. The plane began to fly.  Gil Scott-Heron’s poem called “The Subject Was Faggots” played in my ears.

In Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Subject Was Faggots,” he describes witnessing queer people on 34th Street and 8th avenue in New York City. He expresses being alarmed, fearful, and disgusted. He conveys a kind of disassociation with the New York that he once knew, the New York that belonged to him, not these faggots. A New York that was stolen and repurposed time and time again, since New York was New Netherlands, and centuries before that.  Heron’s New York, he felt, was being stolen by the people like me and like the people I was intending to visit on my trip to NYC, the queer people, the faggots. The flight was over. I caught the train, and I prepared to be devoured.

I fell in love with New York. I knew her once before, but not how I knew her at twenty-five while visiting. She was once a place of childhood trauma, poverty, and confusion when I knew her as a young child. At twenty-five, New York City was a dancing debutante dedicated to delivering me to a decolonized, Black, queer paradise. Everything I had read about quare theory, the study of the intersection of Blackness and queerness, was here. Not just here in textbooks, but here on my lap and caressing my chin. I thought of Nina Simone speaking about Liberia often. She says about her experiences in Liberia, “I have seen it! I have seen God!” She speaks more about Liberia and how even the lightning was different and hovered over the land. She continues, “And what it does is it electrifies you into complete speechlessness.”  

I, too, met God while in New York City. She was queer. She was Black. And she was my tour guide, but I wasn’t electrified into speechlessness, no, I was given language for the first time.  Words dropped out of my mouth to birth universes, not to explain little towns. This was a first. She took me from Brooklyn to Harlem.  Harlem still felt Black, the Apollo Theatre and Studio Museum, embraced me before pushing me into possibility models for my own Black queer life, theory and practice. I took photographs of the Apollo Theatre sign, and thought of the jazz that used to own this concrete.

In my mind, I remembered the New York I used to know when I was a child on Long Island. It was the ordinary suburbia that could easily be confused for anyone’s smalltown, USA. I felt pushed out because it was obvious I was not invited in, but I broke in. Meaning, this Black boy was not supposed to make it out of Brownseville or Bedstuy, Brooklyn. With not a black hoodie in sight, I felt like Trayvon Martin before Trayvon Martin was born. Long Island was quieter, less Black, and less magical than this New York. That New York felt dead and when my mother revealed to me that we were moving to Atlanta one sweet evening, I rejoiced. Alas, a southern land of sweetness, blackness, and life! A peach grew from the pits of this rotted apple I knew well. I knew nothing about the soil I was standing on. This is to say, I knew nothing about colonialism yet at such a young age. Even then, in my ignorance, I was surrounded by (and dreaming of the escape) of this land to something that felt more like Africa, perhaps. That more African-like place was Atlanta, GA. Unbeknownst to me, on the southeastern shore of Long Island, there was the Shinnecock Indian Nation Reservation. This is to say, much like all of America, this land that I loathed wasn’t even mine to loath. The indigenous people of this land were pushed to the perimeters and the White faces I longed to escape from were symbols of a violent type of erasure and theft. There is a tragic poetry in imperialism. If you intend to make homes and dreams in America, you are certainly destined to make them on top of someone else’s grave and nightmares.

As I walk Langston Hughes’ sidewalk with God, she points and says, “Look! Look at all of these shops. They’re new and white. Gentrification is eating away at Harlem.” I looked around and while there were still bodegas, things native to both Black and Latinx culture, there was also the familiar sprouting of white businesses. She was right; New York was being stolen again. This tour guide and friend I refer to as God, is a trans-feminine, non-binary Black person. During our adventure in New York, there were insults and stares that we both garnered due to our visibility as queer people.  The insults were delivered by Black people. The White people were polite to us, for as long as we were patronizing their business. This left an awkward question on the tip of my tongue for my friend. I asked, “Is there nothing good for the visible queer Black person about gentrification?”

The question dropped on the concrete between us. The arrival to this question, however, took a lifetime of experience and observation. Often Black queer people who face public violence, verbal or physical, can feel our Black community is the worst. The reality is that this experience with Black homophobia is inflated because it is the community we belong to the most intimately. We are also often the people that Black people that practice violent homophobia feel the most comfortable with addressing publicly. These two facts can birth a horrendous relationship with the Black queer person and the Black straight person, which makes various types of violence seem softer and not entirely evil. My friend, or God, replies, “These smiling White people are killing us too.”

Capitalism can be pleasant as long as you agree to lean into your exploitation. I give dollars, they give smiles. I agree to silence, they offer me overpriced ice-cream or rent that pushes me further out. The brutalization that Whiteness is colluding with may not yell at you on the street or touch you, but it still makes you choose between doctor visits and meals. It still makes you choose between a home and an education. It still means to terminate you. For the poor Black queer person, gentrification is a violent homophobia with customer service. God and I exhale, and attempt to find a coffee shop, somewhere where we can discuss the life of Prince and grant writing.

The brief conversation we had on the street, even as we sit in this café never completely left me. We discuss our dreams and the homes we desire. The life we intend to craft out of this queer Black existence we’ve been offered and I remember Gil Scott-Heron’s homophobia-informed grieving of his New York. I remember that this land that I desire to dream and exceed on belongs to Native American people. Some of them are Black and some of them are Black, native, and queer. It became obvious to me, in between sips of tea, that to be in America and to chase a dream or a life worth living means to collude with imperialism, capitalism, and theft. It became obvious to me that to do anything on this land means to perpetuate somebody else’s suffering, even if you are just a faggot going to a ball or a White person trying to start a business. Without critical consciousness of how you are perpetuating these dominating systems, you slide into the machine. Resistance to these interlocking dominations must be awake, aware, and active.

It became obvious that I have to be ahead of the system that wishes to use me in violent ways.  The disturbing thing is, likely, I’ll never be fully detached from these systems. I’ll always be in the belly of this monster and I can hope to upset its digestive system, but I can never destroy it. I fell in love with New York again for a different reason; I fell in love with New York because it allowed me to realize I was in the heart of the dominating beast we call American capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. And it was killing us all.

 

//

 

Myles E. Johnson is a writer and editor located in Atlanta, Georgia. His work spans between critical and personal essays, children’s literature and speculative fiction. Johnson focuses on black and queer identities, and specifically, the intersection of the two. Johnson’s work has been featured in OkayPlayer, BYP100, Bitch Media, NBCBLK, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Afropunk, The Advocate, Out Magazine, The Guardian, & more. Johnson has spoken at The New School and #BlkCreatives panel discussions centered around creativity and identity. He has been cited by MTV, Racebaitr, and The Guardian. He has recently been enlisted to conceptualize a creative writing course for a Texas charter school. Johnson is the author of critically-acclaimed children's book, Large Fears. He recently released his second project, Fairytales For Giovanni, a collection of short stories in the speculative fiction genre centering queer black characters. He is currently working on new projects, including his first novella. Myles E. Johnson is the blog editor for Philadelphia Printworks.

Dawn Wu