My gender is Black
By Hari Ziyad
July 12, 2017
“Why can’t they be normal boys?” he asked, stopping and staring at me as my head lay upon my boyfriend’s shoulder while we rode the train back to Harlem. At first, I wasn’t quite sure I’d heard him correctly. Just moments earlier I’d been watching as he and what looked like three of his siblings turned the train cart into their jungle gym, and reveling in the sight of their Black joy, so the abrupt change in tone threw me.
He couldn’t have been more than seven, by the looks of it––although looks can be deceiving, especially when it comes to Black folk. According to him, I didn’t “look” like a “normal boy,” a deception he seemed to take as a terrible transgression. Initially, I turned to whom I assumed to be his mother expecting her to chastise him for the outburst, but she just stared at me as well with a slight grimace on her face. “Yes,” she said without saying, “why can’t you be a normal boy?” He had to learn it from somewhere, I realized. But where did she? And where did I learn what I know about my gender? And what do I know?
It’s amazing how Black children seem to have a clearer perception of reality than the rest of us, even when they don’t know what to do with it.
The truth is, I am not a “normal boy.” I stopped forcing myself into the category of “male” which never seemed to fit me long ago, and though “maleness” is the language that most tongues wrap easiest around when I am seen, it is not the language that makes room for my existence in this world.
I used to write about my gender journey all the time––constantly having to re-explain how a person can be non-binary (existing outside of male or female gender identities) without “looking” it, because the way gender “looks,” just like gender itself, is on a spectrum, and the cut-offs we apply are often arbitrary. I thought explaining what was going on in my head might help others make sense of an experience that never made sense for me before.
Recently, however, I’ve taken to discussing my gender much less. Conversations about my pronouns have been more annoying than affirming (use whatever pronouns you like). I have found myself with less and less energy to correct being misgendered. No matter how much I explained, the world never seemed to make enough room for my being.
I am only now realizing that this is because Blackness ruptures the laws of gender just like the laws of the state seem intent on rupturing Black life.
My gender is Black. That is why my Black partner and I can’t just be “normal boys,” and that is why that child found our queer expression of Black gender such an affront to the playground he had created on the train. Black gender and anyone who embraces its margins were never supposed to exist comfortably in this world in the first place, a world this boy was taught to try to become part of just like so many of us were––just like I was––even if he is destined always to fail.
In the groundbreaking essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”, Hortense Spillers argues that how gender has been configured for Black people through slavery and its afterlife is outside of “American grammar.” Calling it “the dehumanizing, ungendering, and defacing project of African persons,” Spillers points out how, historically, Black gender has not been used to indicate a shared womanhood or manhood with people within white society, but to highlight how Black people are out of step with womanhood and manhood. Black gender is always gender done wrong, done dysfunctionally, done in a way that is not “normal.”
Even if we didn’t have the language to describe this experience, all Black people have lived through it. This is why Black boys are hyper-criminalized just as Black girls and other Black non-male children are made invisible when talking about the issues of Black children. But instead of accepting the impossibility of Black gender as reality, and using it to create a different, freer, understandings of Black being, we are pressured to force our way into categories that weren’t just not made for us, but designed specifically for our exclusion.
This pressure to salvage something of this anti-Black world rather than reject it fully is part of why we insist on going out of our way to “prove” a manhood and womanhood that was never ours to have in the first place at the expense of trans, non-binary, and queer Black folks alike.
Any attempt to fulfill gender roles as outlined outside of Blackness is not only ultimately futile in gaining Black people some sort of access to human treatment, but it also reinforces the violence against Black people who are attempting to build worlds that embrace their nonconformity. In the case of the Black boy on the train, this attempt to normalize boyhood translated to violence against my queer existence. But attempting to normalize a queer existence without reckoning with the specific role of Blackness outside of “American grammar” can reinforce anti-Black violence as well. This is why when Black and white queer people come into conflict, the state’s response of protecting the humanity of the white person is always predictable.
To argue that “my gender is Black” is not to ignore our different experiences within Blackness, or to erase the unique struggles of different gender nonconforming individuals.
I am not saying that my experience is the same as a Black woman’s, or a Black trans person’s. I am simply trying to emphasize the importance of recognizing how none of us Black folk can “conform” to manhood and womanhood as those constructs have been formed, nor can we even “conform” to queer, trans and non-binary genders that way either––the way that makes the state recognize us as human.
This is also not a “race first” argument as propelled by hoteps in order to obscure how cisgender, heterosexual Black men commit intra-communal violence against the rest of us. “My gender is Black” is an argument that is rooted in the understanding that Blackness is not a race, and therefore could never be “race first.” In the afterlife of slavery (hat tap to Saidiya Hartman) Blackness is that which is denied access to humanity, and thus Blackness is denied access to human gender/sexuality identities. Because the Black people we read as queer or as women epitomize this lack of access to gender uniquely, fore-fronting Blackness is actually an attempt to bring these realities into the conversation about anti-Blackness in a necessary way.
“My gender is Black” is also not an argument against using terms that dictate gender for Black folk.
We are operating within a language that does not make room for us, and I understand that many times we just have to make do, as we are always “scouring for tools in an empty shed,” as my partner puts it.
But part of creating space that does make room for Black people is acknowledging the way our current conception of gender is limited, and to try not to make a permanent home within this language even as we find it useful for the time being. This requires a (re)discovery of the ways we can relate to our selves and our bodies that are conducive to our freedom.
Gender identity under whiteness is a tool, not an end. How do we get to that end, that world in which all of our genders or lack thereof aren’t used as the basis for our inhuman treatment? That is the question.
“Why can’t they be normal boys?” is the question as well, although the child who offered it on the train didn’t know what to do with it. It’s amazing how Black children seem to have a clearer perception of reality than the rest of us. It would be more amazing if we could protect Black childhood by harnessing such critical perceptions to disrupt rather than idealize this world that calls the subjection of Black people “normal.” Understanding that my gender is Black is just one step toward that aim.