“In 2012, some folks find it more provocative that a black man has loved another man than if he had done violence against one.” ~Dr. Herukhuti
In To Be Young Gifted and Black, Lorraine Hansberry proclaimed, “For some time now—I think since I was a child—I have been possessed of the desire to put down the stuff of my life…. And, I am quite certain, there is only one internal quarrel: how much of the truth to tell? How much, how much, how much! It is brutal in sober uncompromising moments, to reflect on the comedy of concern we all enact when it comes to our precious images!” Telling the truth of one’s life can be a complicated and dangerous endeavor, especially when you are young, gifted, black and queer (in this context I use queer to mean having experienced something other than normative Eros). It may mean that you destroy the hopes, dreams and expectations constructed for you to fulfill—only to have new ones built in their place. This is why the concept of coming out is so limiting as a way to explain what happens when someone puts “down the stuff of [their]life.”
Social media booked, tumbled and tweeted itself into a frenzy last week in response to, R&B and sometime Hip Hop artist, Frank Ocean’s Tumblr posting. Who is Frank Ocean and why should you care? Ocean is set to release his debut studio album this month after seven years of hard work in the music industry including writing for Justin Bieber, John Legend, Brandy, Beyoncé; joining the deliberately provocative Hip Hop collective Odd Future; touring North America and Europe performing and promoting a successful mixtape album; and appearing on Jay Z and Kanye’s most recent album as a writer and featured artist.
In the post of a December 27th 2011 journal entry, written while on a plane ride from his birthplace of NOLA to L.A., Ocean eloquently explores his experience of love toward/with/for an undisclosed man. Travel gives us time to reflect on the things we’ve done, should have done, and wanted to do. The solitude of certain forms of travel, like the anonymity of an airplane with its recycled air and pressurized environment, can bring us closer to the immediacy of our needs—needs like love, unconditional and reciprocated. Media sources have alleged that the self-disclosure was precipitated by a music reviewer noting instances in Ocean’s forthcoming debut studio album in which the singer/songwriter uses male pronouns in expressing love and Eros toward someone.
By the intensity of the widespread clamor, you would have thought that one of the major male figures in black music rumored to have experienced same-sex desire had posted this journal entry online. I will not name any of them but the rumors are out there and truths are waiting to be put down. In fact, unlike these other artists, Ocean is at the early stages of what seems to be a promising career in the music industry, an industry that in recent years has been transformed by changes in technology distribution and access—changes that have given artists and consumers more opportunities to own, control and share music. So what does it mean for Ocean to have both fluidly written homosexual and heterosexual desire into his album and shared with the social media world his experience of a love of a man—his first love and a love that was “malignant” and “hopeless” and yet he gratefully credited with changing his life?
In choosing to communicate through the simile, “I feel like a free man,” rather than saying he was a free man, Ocean provided us with a painful truth for black men in, what Ibrahim Farajajé (formerly Elias Farajajé-Jones) in his essay Holy Fuck called, a “dominating culture [that]expends incredible amounts of time, money, and energy controlling and policing our bodies and the ways we decide to use them.” By not definitively claiming and owning freedom in the journal entry, Ocean acknowledged the task at hand for him and other black queer men, as Farajaje described, “the physical/spiritual/psychological process of making our bodies and our desire our own.” It is a process—rather than a destination to which we arrive and reside—that will not allow for easy definitions of who we are or interpretations of our artistic or life choices.
Supporters and detractors of Ocean have made the themes of his album and his Tumblr post mean much more than Ocean himself may have intended. In 2012, some folks find it more provocative that a black man has loved another man than if he had done violence against one. Joseph Beam once wrote, “black men loving black men is the revolutionary act of the eighties.” Honoring our capacity to love other men and women in a society that makes it more easy to use and abuse others is the work of making our bodies and desires our own. Ocean clearly seeks to put the work into that project, at least for the time being. But one young, gifted black man does not a revolution make, particularly if he is still understanding his relationship to that revolution. Revolutions require many committed others working “in sober uncompromising moments, to reflect on the comedy of concern we all enact when it comes to our precious images!” Where’s your love letter? How much truth does it tell?
Dr. Herukhuti is founder of The Center for Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality, author of the book Conjuring Black Funk: Notes on Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality, co-editor of Sexuality, Religion and the Sacred: Bisexual, Panexual and Polysexual Perspectives, high priest of the Shrine of Sekhmet and Heruhet (Brooklyn, NY), and faculty member at Goddard College (Plainfield, VT) and Fielding Graduate University (Santa Barbara, CA).