The other day I remembered something I’ve spent almost two decades trying to forget. When I was 11 years old, my grandmother told me to stop holding the books I was carrying “like a girl.” We were walking out of the Southland Mall in Memphis. I can’t remember why I even had the books with me, but there they were, three slim books pressed against my chest, secured by my crossed arms.
“Well, tell me how boys carry their books,” I spat. And, without turning to look at me or pausing in her stride, my grandmother slapped me across the face with the back of her hand. I remember feeling the air whir between us. The automatic doors ahead of us opened, buzzing with the sudden mix of the mall’s air-conditioning and the sticky heat outside. She walked through, then paused on the edge of the sidewalk, waiting. Lit by sunlight that wasn’t hitting me, my grandmother looked like she was standing on the surface of another planet, perhaps a different reality altogether.
I was still standing inside the mall entranceway where I had been struck, my mouth agape, books still pressed against my chest. Speechless, for once. I was always talking back, perpetually rolling my eyes. The slap had been so sudden, so unlike my grandmother who I tended to think of as being too quiet for her own good. But what else could explain the stinging on the left side of my face? I raised a hand, touched my cheek, and smiled faintly — like a lunatic.
Realizing, finally, that she wasn’t going to say anything about what had just happened and that we could only stand like this, encased in invisible lightning, for a few seconds longer before people started staring, I started walking again. She did too. The automatic doors opened and I passed through, out into the heat.
That’s where the memory ends and the wish to forget begins. I want to believe that this memory is not who we were. Sometimes we have to forget in order to keep loving the people we need to love.
My grandmother and I are two very different people now. For one thing, we love each other warmly again, and better this time. We have also shared the recent loss of my mother, her youngest child. I cannot say enough how much grief has reminded us how much we need each other.
“I miss that woman,” my grandmother confessed to me on the phone a few weeks after the funeral. She exhaled loudly. On the other end of the phone line, I was in Harlem, missing that woman too, differently but just as intensely. My eyes stung with tears. There was so much love and hurt in my grandmother’s voice I wanted to reach through the phone and, for once, hold her. I can’t remember the last time I held my grandmother as tightly as I used to hold my books.
“It takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both,” James Baldwin wrote in his novel Giovanni’s Room. I am a grandson, not a hero. I am a writer, not a hero. I am a black gay man in America, not a hero. But I understand more now than I did then. I understand now how often our families hurt us in the very act of trying to love us. When a grandmother tells her 11-year-old grandson not to hold his books “like a girl,” she is trying to prepare him for a world she believes is dangerous for men who don’t act “like men.”
The act of gendering — or, rather, teaching someone how to conform to gender expectations — is as common and banal as evil. But it’s also a way we misguidedly convince ourselves we are being good parents, good teachers, good shepherds. I’m doing this to you for your own good.
Raising a black boy in this country is damn hard work. And, as we are reminded again and again, even when the work pays off, all too often the reward — a long, promising life — is struck down. And the fear of that danger can poison the way we love each other. I’m doing this to you because I’m scared for you. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.
I forgive my grandmother because I see her as being just as human as myself. We were both wrong that day, as loved ones so often are with one another. It took time and, admittedly, a great deal of distance for me to both remember and understand why we love. A few weeks ago, she called to see how I was doing and, to my surprised, asked what I was writing these days. She never asks about my writing; I never raise the subject. Why bother?
“I’m working on an essay about gay nightclubs,” I said, without thinking about the fact that I’ve never actually told my grandmother I’m gay.
“Oh,” she said, simply. “You know, I just saw on the news a young man out here got fired for being…you know.”
“For being gay?” I offered.
“Yeah, I saw it on the news. I’m pretty sure that’s what they said, he was fired for being…you know.”
I did know. I knew that somewhere in America another young man had been wronged for being himself and that in this moment, on the phone with my grandmother, she was trying her best to meet me at the crossroads. Our love is made of silences and repeated sentences and blanks that have to be filled in. This is how our love works.
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