Be­cause be­ing re­silient isn’t enough

Charles Stephens is the Di­rec­tor of Counter Nar­ra­tive and co-editor of ‘Black Gay Ge­nius: An­swer­ing Joseph Beam’s Call.’

GA Voice - - Outspoken - By Charles Stephens

Late last week, I had the op­por­tu­nity to lead a dis­cus­sion with a group of young black gay men in Dal­las, Texas. Though the con­ver­sa­tion was fo­cused on HIV crim­i­nal­iza­tion, we also landed on the sub­ject of re­silience. I made the point, a point I of­ten make, that any black boy who makes it to adult­hood has al­ready been re­silient, and is prob­a­bly in fact an ex­pert on re­silience, so dis­cus­sions should fo­cus less on de­vel­op­ing re­silience and more on heal­ing from its in­escapable con­se­quences. When I think about my own re­silience and its costs, I think about my early ac­tivist years.

In my third se­mes­ter of col­lege, I didn’t owe a bunch of money, maybe about $700 or so, but to me at that time it might as well had been a mil­lion or a tril­lion. I didn’t have the money and

Oc­to­ber 2, 2015

had no way of get­ting it be­fore it was due, which was in a few days, and not pay­ing my tu­ition bal­ance would mean I’d be dropped from my classes. This fact had not been com­mu­ni­cated to me, or I don’t re­mem­ber it be­ing com­mu­ni­cated over the sum­mer, so it came as a sur­prise that I owed so much and had to pay up in a mat­ter of days or risk be­ing cast out.

My fa­ther didn’t have any money and strug­gled to keep him­self to­gether while en­dur­ing the stalk­ing grief of my mother’s death two sum­mers be­fore. To even ask him, and I had asked him for money be­fore, would mean sub­ject­ing my­self to his judg­ment. He was one of those self-made black men from the South who had been on his own since he was 13 or some­thing, and though my ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was not nec­es­sar- ily wor­thy of his con­dem­na­tion, beg­ging for money was, so I re­sisted, know­ing that he prob­a­bly couldn’t help any­way.

Re­silience, when you have to ex­er­cise it, feels like drag­ging your­self across bro­ken glass. And of­ten, par­tic­u­larly when en­coun­ter­ing in­sti­tu­tions from health care to le­gal to aca­demic, you al­ways feel like you’re drag­ging your­self across bro­ken glass, and that’s just get­ting from the en­trance to the el­e­va­tor. The glass is racism and ho­mo­pho­bia and clas­sism and the pa­rade of mi­cro-ag­gres­sions that we as black gay men are faced with and must tri­umph over daily.

But what of this no­tion of re­silience? I share this story be­cause it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been able to re­flect back to that pe­riod in my late teens and early 20s when I was the most vul­ner­a­ble, struc­tur- ally and per­son­ally, that I had ever been. That daily pa­rade of mi­cro-ag­gres­sions cou­pled with never hav­ing enough money, never be­ing quite sure how food was go­ing to hap­pen, the feel­ing that I could at any mo­ment get blown away into noth­ing­ness and never ever feel a sense of self-pos­ses­sion or agency.

And so, for those of us who sur­vive our 20s and make it to our 30s, who have been what one might de­scribe as re­silient, we some­times find our­selves bro­ken and look­ing for mean­ing or col­laps­ing un­der the weight of the shield we de­velop to pro­tect our­selves from white folks, straight folks, cops, STDs, preach­ers, preda­tors, and our­selves. Thus, re­silience tells us noth­ing about who we are and what we need. We must turn our at­ten­tion to per­sonal and col­lec­tive restora­tion.

“Re­silience, when you have to ex­er­cise it, feels like drag­ging your­self across bro­ken glass. And of­ten, par­tic­u­larly when en­coun­ter­ing in­sti­tu­tions from health care to le­gal to aca­demic, you al­ways feel like you’re drag­ging your­self across bro­ken glass, and that’s just get­ting from the en­trance to the el­e­va­tor.”

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