For a man to live. Authentically and without shame. Is that too much to ask?
Thank you for writing How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, a book that made me feel less alone. Less alone in an America that I have always struggled to feel a part of.
My divorced Jamaican mama married her first love, and kept learning that their American-born children had Jamaican-born siblings who were also created by him. My father has a complicated love for women, and enjoyed smoking his Newports, and hanging out with his friends late at night more than he wanted to be in a three-bedroom, 8th floor apartment. More than he wanted to explain to my beautiful, brown-skinned Mama that, although she brought him to this country, although his move from the country hills of Maypen, Jamaica allowed him to bring his own mama and all of his Jamaican-born siblings to this country, although in her words she taught him how to “care for his hair,” she would not be held up as “beautiful” in conversations with his brethren. And as a Caribbean man he too suffered from the common misuse of mathematics in equating the number of children to long dick inches.
Now, I find myself being 34 years old, on a mission to derail the slow killing of myself and others in America. Do I take my hands off my own throat? Were my hands ever on my throat? Someone’s hands were.
I am no superhero. I have superpowers though. I know this. I know how to live in myth, and how to make crazy look care-free and cute, and (ashamed to say) honorable. It’s real work to take the CD packaging off “the good, black man” to see what it really sounds like. My soul says the linear notes would include “I want my childhood back. I want my humanity back. I want to be given equal space in having room to sort out my feelings in this large, still growing, black male body. I want to thank Father God for making all of this possible.”
I am all black boy, 13 years old in my mom’s doctor’s office in Forest Hills, Queens. People assume I am at least 16 years old, and like to ask me if I play football. I do not like football. I like boys though, men actually. I think of the stages that my ancestors graced; as deals went down on their bodies. I listen as this doctor tells me that I was lucky that the plastic surgeon was in today, and could take a look at my chest. The doctor says “he’s one of the best.”
I thought my mother would produce frustrated eyebrows, and a voice painted in rage, pulling from her Jamaican patois when I told her that “her doctor” and this other white guy with cold hands and no gloves felt up and pressed on my male breasts like they were curious and wanted them to go away. I thought she would think it was the craziest shit ever for them to be bold and scholarly and recommend to “take the breast tissue out” on a routine physical with a 13-year-old black child (and no parents present.)
This part of puberty was not in any of those Judy Blume books, and my childhood friends from my summers in Jamaica were barefoot and played in young bodies at their correct weights. I felt my voice change at this point where my Mom’s quick response affirmed the good doctor’s recommendations. I felt my voice change. I couldn’t hear it.
How could I tell my Mama that one of the older, maintenance men (dark and Jamaican) has been in our house in the daytime and in her bed and showed me how my nipples had feelings? So, placing my powerful nipples on a steel table in a frosty, surgeon’s medical procedure room to remove breast tissue did not excite me. Is this a chance to be like the other boys? Flat-chested and proud. American dreams seem to come with weaponry kits. Knives and such. Fuck it. Cut me. It’s mine — I mean your — body.
Since then and still, I find myself in a pause before taking my shirt off in the gym locker room, in public spaces, in my sharing of nakedness with a new lover who is anxiously awaiting to suck my nipples for the first time. I know that the doctor that worked on my body does not know my name. I wondered what he was able to buy with that insurance money. I wonder if my mother and father ever think about how the “normalization” of their youngest son’s body landed on his confidence.
I sat literally in the middle of conversations, where adults discussed the financing and the healing of my cuts, and the draining of the blood that would have to happen as a gateway to a chest that would never look normal. The doctor could be casual and “honest” with my immigrant parents and tell them that he didn’t know what it would exactly look like, but my chest would look better. I would feel better. I wouldn’t carry shame, and walk with my shoulders hunched over like a young elder with a fresh fade trying to take attention away from his man boobs in high school.
No, I am not bitter. I know my parents were doing their best to protect their Black American son in a land of opportunities and white doctors alien to their childhoods. No, I am not bitter, I am secretly full of rage.
My parents’ whole lives must have felt like an experiment when they arrived at JFK airport. Child-rearing will be different here they must have thought. Our children would have clothes from department stores, not from the sewing table of “Sister Nancy deh up the road sah.” They would not have to pick out fabric and be a part of the process. America believes in urgency as a way of (greedy) life rather than a particular sense.
I wonder what my uncut body would have looked like. I wonder if my body would have been able to show my doctor, my parents, my lovers that have seen me naked that black men with full, protruding breasts are handsome, masculine, and sexy. I wonder if I would have tried on one of my mama’s bras more than that one time. I wonder what else I would have found the power to outgrow.
It took me several months to finish your book, Kiese. A book I thought would take less than a week. I am learning to be patient and kind to myself. I am learning how to tell my reflection and my brothers that what they feel means a lot to me. From American boyz to men.
In brotherhood and love,