Exorcising whiteness from the Black imagination to make sense of my straight Black dad
By Hari Ziyad
September 21, 2017
Imagine you are five-years-old and queer but do not even know what that word means yet. You just know that your body and your white best friend’s body seem to fit well together—not in any sexual way, you don’t know what sex means yet either, but you know that the closeness between two people who love each other heals something inside of you. And you think you love him, so you cuddle with him. You do this without first asking for consent—that’s another word you don’t yet know—and he does not stop you, but later goes and tells his mother that you did something “gay.”
Imagine his white mother tells your Black father what happened. Imagine your Black father knows everything about what boys are and are not supposed to do, just like the white boy you thought you loved. Imagine your father tells you things like you are supposed to “be a man” when you don’t even know how to be a boy, and never truly will. Tells you things like boys showing intimacy to other boys is only what white people do, ignoring the irony that your white friend is the one who wanted you punished for it.
Imagine he beats you “for your own good” after he hears this story, and it’s the only time you can remember being hit by your father like that. It has left a scar on your relationship that still hasn’t healed some twenty years later, and you’re not sure if that’s due to your lack of closeness or lack of love.
In many ways, my father is a typical cisgender straight Black man of his generation. Acknowledging any gods other than Allah is blasphemy in his religion, but he still worships masculinity all the same. He has made our house a temple of it. Has made religious rituals out of what the boys and the girls should do. His own practices include stuffing his emotions deep inside of his body until they can only break out from his bones in spurts of violence against his children and his wife.
I imagine my father believes his embrace of patriarchal ideas of manhood might give him the freedom that white men have.
When he was in high school, my father told his teacher that he wanted to be a scientist, and was told science is only what white people do. So, instead, he became a devotee of manhood, because that was all this anti-Black world allowed him to become. Instead, he tried to make me into a devotee, too, because this anti-Black world was the only world he ever thought possible.
Last week, I asked my friends to imagine what a different world could look like, a world in which only Black people exist, and I was astounded by how their imaginations were limited just like my father’s, but for seemingly different reasons. “Nothing would change,” many queer folks said, “because straight Black men are just as violent as white people.” I wondered if they would say the same if asked to imagine a world with only queer people, because non-Black queer people would still be anti-Black.
I think the answer to that question might be in how those same people flooded an article titled “Straight Black Men Are The White People Of Black People” down my timeline this week. The straight Black man who wrote it claimed that straight Black men’s “relationship to and with black women is not unlike whiteness’s relationship to us.” Put another way, straight Black men are the Black people of the real world, and Black women are the Black people only within the fantasy world, because Blackness has been reduced to something akin to “receiving the most punishment.”
Of course, this ignores that white people already brutalize Black women (and Black queer people too—though “straight” was mentioned in the title, queer realities are not addressed in the piece). It also ignores how Blackness is so much more than trauma, so much more than pain and hurt and oppression, so much more, so much so that Blackness could actually offer a way outside of all of those things completely.
I imagine Black life to be outside of what makes this world turn—forced outside of it because the world can only turn on Black death.
I imagine the life we’ve built within the death we have already been sentenced to as being so beyond what this world allows that it could be just what is necessary to craft a freer world we claim to want. I imagine this new world as imperfect and not without its own violence, but I know it would not rely on that violence to make sense of itself the way whiteness does. And that lack of reliance on anti-Blackness is an important distinction. It’s why a world full of queer people can still exist with anti-Blackness and be “better,” but a world full of Black people cannot still exist with gender troubles and be the same.
In this world, Anti-Blackness is the equilibrium. It is expected and permitted.
But in another world, without the white people who told him he could be nothing more than a worshiper of manhood—that he could not drink at their water fountains, that he could not have the resources necessary to take care of his family—my father might have had a different relationship to the violence of men. And I believe that finding his way out of violent conceptions of manhood is only as impossible as words you haven’t learned yet, like “queer” and “sex” and “consent.”
It is not just “semantics” to point out why this imagination is so important. This is not just taking a tongue-in-cheek article too seriously. This is asking the necessary question: What is the point of a Black imagination if it is always haunted by whiteness?
What is the point of limiting Blackness to “receiving the most punishment?” What is the point of calling the violence or perceived violence we enact the same as what white people do when we know there is nothing that has ever been done on that scale of centuries of global genocide and plunder that we still haven’t escaped from even in our fantasies? What is the point of calling my father the white man of anything, when white men have been killing him since before he was born, right alongside me and my mother, and have often used him to do it?
It is difficult to imagine Blackness without the harm, without whiteness and the anti-Blackness structuring it, because this is the only reality the world has shown us for centuries. But I want to be taken to a place where our dreams aren’t just nightmares white people have already dreamed up for us. When Black imagination is limited to what whiteness has laid out, to the possibilities whiteness allows, what could be is already out of reach.
When I was five, I would imagine my father’s lap disappearing from under me. I was born when he was 52, and I knew we wouldn’t be together forever. My mother tells me I would wake up crying, inconsolable, to nightmares of him dying. I could not imagine the world without my father. I could not imagine being able to make it without the love and the pain he gave to me.
My father is 77 now. When he dies, the most important thing to remember from him, he keeps reminding me, is that I “live [my] name.” And ain’t that just like Blackness, to push for something to live for even in death?
“Hari” means one who takes away bad things, and replaces them with good. Means knowing this white world is a bad thing. Means replacing this world with one without my father’s pain—both given and received. And if I am to live my name, I must learn to imagine that new world beyond what I could as a child.
But this requires an imagination absent of whiteness. It requires conceiving new possibilities for my father, and for my Black straight mother who stopped financially supporting me when I admitted to my queerness, and for the Black queer people who have sexually assaulted me because they hadn’t learned the words. It requires offering new words, new worlds, that aren’t already determined to benefit white people, and giving Black people space to discover them even while holding them accountable. It requires joining into that space myself, because I am still learning wor(l)ds too, still learning how to love Black people better, and the closeness between people who love each other is still healing.
There are things my father has done that I will never forgive. But everything this world and the whiteness that structures it has done are things that can never be forgiven. This difference will always matter.