Jarrett Neal arrived at my Queer Literature class a few minutes before the arranged time. I was asking my class how Barbara and Jaime acted as a foil for Stephen and Mary in Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. We were discussing the way social class and wealth gave Stephen protection in expressing her sexual inversion. Neal gave me a hug and listened intently to our conversation.
In wrapping up our conversation, I tried to transition between Hall’s book and Neal’s What Color is Your Hoodie: Essays on Black Gay Identity. Hall who created characters who seem only aware of how class and wealth impact men and women differently was in stark contrast to Neal whose perception of his Blackness and Gayness intersect with the poverty he experienced in Kansas City as a child.
The previous week we had discussed “Guys and Dolls,” an essay from What Color is Your Hoodie. This essay is a personal meditation on the body ideals for young black men who lacked fathers. Neal, with great vulnerability, described his gym class catching their coach in the shower. His overlap of various desires—the coach as object of desire, the coach as role model, the coach as proxy father figure, the coach as body ideal—is contrasted to the raucous and jeering reaction of his straight peers.
Similarly, the essay that Neal read to us, “Baldwin Boys and Harris Homies,” revealed the vulnerability that lies in the intersections of Black Gay identity. In both pieces, Neal explores and explicates what could be understood as his own theory of the flesh. In “Entering the Lives of Others,” Moraga and Anzaldúa describe this concept thusly: “A theory in the flesh means one where the physical realities of our lives—our skin color, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings—all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity. Here we attempt to bridge the contradictions in our experience.” Neal’s entire collection explores the complexities of such theories.
In “Baldwin Boys and Harris Homies,” Neal tries to bridge the contradiction in his experience. His attempt is facilitated by personal reflection of a search for a Black Gay writing community. His reflection incorporates a theoretical lens as he blends the personal with the academic. Implicit and explicit in this quest are homophobia and racism in the form of the unnamed white straight graduate student who accuses him of trying to merge Native Son with Will & Grace and Landon, a Black Gay writer who berates him for perceived failures in the discourse of race. Neal recognizes how his response to these two figures was a distancing from them and their discourse. In retrospect, he laments that he did not try to bridge the gap between himself and Landon. His inability to maintain the relationship was a rubbing against his conflicting social roles.
In the essay, he discusses our time in the MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I recognize myself as not only as one of the “few openly gay students” but also one of the white students who had “little cultural engagement with the black community beyond listening to popular hip-hop songs and watching a few openly gay students.” Neal in discussing the essay mentions how I was implicated in these statements, but also expressing our shared connections as Gay men from Missouri who had faced similar types of homophobia that lead to our production of sexually explicit but complicated narrative fiction. Yet Neal’s writing shows how our interest in sexually explicit materials has also been shaped by the intersections of our identities.
In “Let’s Talk About Interracial Porn,” Neal explores how racially complicated and problematic sexually explicit materials can be. Porn for gay men often acts as the first media where they can see gay male sexuality that has not been sanitized for straight audiences. But for gay black men the experience of watching porn is not so simple since as Neal points out, “The black male body historically has served both as a repository of Western culture’s most ardent and prurient desires, and its hatred and disgust of racial and sexual ‘others.'”
The essential narratives and theories of the flesh Neal explores illuminate and explicate the intersections of Black Gay masculinity. They themselves delve the intersection of the vulnerable coming of age memoir and rigorous academic inquiry. These fearless essays reveal Neal’s humor and honesty while revealing the perilous realities of racial and sexual cultures in the US.
What Color Is Your Hoodie?: Essays on Black Gay Identity
By Jarrett Neal
Chelsea Station Editions