Under the artificial but highly industrialized canopy that was the D-train running directly over our heads, we stood outside for our first heart-to-heart conversation. It was summer in New York City, distinct in humidity and activity from summers anywhere else in the world, and the workshop process for your Black queer theater group with its five playwrights under fellowship had begun. Monumental was the fact that we were Black writers commissioned for actual pay, read: real money; miraculous describes the dream realized and its impact on our creative lives well into our queer futures; “divinely powerful” is the phrase that comes to mind whenever I think of you, a young gay Black man whose ministry meant creating theater for queer Black playwrights when it wasn’t a thing, wasn’t trendy or an identity-marker to distinguish oneself at parties among the liberal elite or leftist intelligentsia who tend to populate if not dominate theater circles within America’s artistic landscape. But on that sweltering hotly humid summer afternoon in the city, we stood on that sidewalk like true transplants, non-New Yorkers hands-in-pocket not worried about our future, or relevance, or the fragility of our egos or definite death through denial and Black artistic erasure thanks to White Supremacy, or even that we desperately craved two tall glasses of ice water plus a pair of fold-out beach chairs to shoot-the-shit authentically. Heart-to-heart was our conversation that went something like this:
YOU: “Currently, brah…?
ME: “Mmm, listening…”
YOU: What you’re writing is bullshit. Is there something I should know, Beloved? Tell.”
Then you quickly followed up with, “This is a safe, affirming space. Here, my trans sibling, you’re free to soar. We are your solid anchor, your queer family with wings, don’t you see that? Can’t you feel our feathers rooted to your bones?” The initial tenacity and accompanying paranoia that comes with a new ministry often masks the deep love and fragility of its first founder. I knew then but not like I know now, many years later, that when a Black gay man is pregnant with a vision, and when he finally gives birth to see his vision take its first step, nurturing that dream to maturity instantly makes him a marked man, a target destined to die multiple deaths within one lifetime. For support, for spiritual food, to make sure his vision-child survives this sick, toxic, racist, homophobic world, he must hold that baby tightly to his bosom for Mama’s milk because it is himself he is holding, himself he is nursing, himself he gently cradle-rocks to sweet safety ‘n’ peace, himself he is raising up from the graves that mark him and his baby everywhere they go, no matter who they grow up to become, whatever they manage or are allowed to achieve.
Heart-to-heart conversations among queer folks of color are staple to our diet, not just for purposes of survival that craft heart-shaped solid bedrock into beautiful Black being, but because Loving looks like coming together. You know that moment when witnessing the arching neck on its way back before the burst of laughter painting a sunshine only heartstrings hum to warm Black queerness. Or the dramatically orchestrated giant step into the limelight at a groove party to prove your hairstyle, hot plate, and outfit mean so much more than style, transcend current cultural politics, make mockery of mainstream etiquette, throwback your throw-down. Pockets of conversation that drop truths to soothe you right after your partner, now ex, deadnamed you during otherwise hot sex; the same truths whispered centuries ago among our Queer Ancestors when they gathered together for sustenance, groove-time, funk, gossip, touchy-touchy during their tribal meet-n-greets. So when you told me, “Write whatever the hell you want,” you were giving me permission to reclaim my Black queerness as foundational fabulousness; giving me permission—scratch that—mandating me to live fully free in my beautiful Black body, manifesting the miracle of my queer intersectional intelligence, uplifting my soul on and off the page which, in those days and especially now, is a miracle. Like you Andre. “Loving is Being” is what you were telling me, “Loving is Being.”
Being Black queerness is nothing short of miraculous. Proof? I know Black queers who’ve walked clear across continents to free their dying lovers from homophobic hospitals, ensuring that last breath was taken together in the abundance of dignity. I know Black queers forced to renounce religion to reclaim themselves divine. I know beautiful dark-skinned Black queers who pill-pop to quiet panic attacks from complex PTSD, massive anxiety and daily trauma just so they can host, perform and moderate events, ensuring the queer gospel’s rawness reaches their community free from straight people’s corrupt capitalist coin. I know gay Black men who face emotional isolation for standing tall and unwavering in their complex queer truth, refusing to suffer in silence or fake it in order to “make it.” I know gay Africans never ever spoken to by their own fathers, yeah, verbally blocked then kicked out of their homes; denied medical treatment; humiliated by a sick healthcare system that prescribes toxic transphobia wherever they remain boldly Black while trans-identified; sexually and physically assaulted and abused in makeshift homeless shelters at refugee camps, anally raped on the daily by security guards entrusted with their safety; denied passports; violently harassed at borders; euphoric at 40 because it took four agonizing decades before they could finally, finally look at their reflection in the mirror to whisper the word “survivor.” Trans men-of-color who can’t rent an apartment without proof of birth, life through documentation after documentation; can’t drive a car without facing police brutality; who walk the streets misread as “thugs” despite their rich, complex identities. Black trans femmes butchered to death by cis male lovers because “real Black men” aren’t “queer” enough to love trans femmes in public. Black trans femmes beaten on the streets by cops then wrongfully convicted as whores, not professionals engaging in survival sex so they do not starve to death in the richest democratic country on earth. Black trans femmes judged in court by criminal laws, injustice sending them straight to male prisons because they proudly identify as women with penises. I know Black queers who swallow oppression; are medicated and institutionalized for mental illnesses that would not exist if they denied their existence, if they agreed to self-identify as cis and straight instead (of trans). Black queers pronounced demonic by a loving Jesus, their suicidal screams unheard for so long they set up their own toll-free lifeline to stem the queer bloodshed, weaving magical unicorns and real rainbow flags out of generational abuse and social stigma. Elders, queer survivors press their ears to the telephone receiver, listening to queer family cry as only the oppressed can. For one pure moment of desire, one pure moment of unfiltered truth, Black queers whose resistance is resilience, and resilience is each other because this world, with its racist, toxic, anti-queer culture, wishes us nothing more than suffering and death. Loving is Being.
You moved with a young, hip, wild, risqué crowd of artists, mostly southern queers who lived loose, lived free, lived hard and on the edge of every conceivable border along the East coast or New York City’s margins. You dropped out of their scene, disappeared. Rumors began. Everybody heard tidbits about something. They claimed they didn’t but in truth we all knew something just wasn’t right. You relocated: a cheap dump, rats plus roaches, recently released convicted criminals for neighbors. By then your vision-child was dead, that theater group for Black queers cut. Lack of funding, plus some “established” theater institution “awarded” yet another “white creative” large sums of grant money for stealing your idea, extra cash allotted for killing your baby. You moved twice in three weeks. Folks whispered, something about an addiction, possibly meth, maybe HIV-positive plus backsliding after rehab for the umpteenth time but during this intervention, this time you swore up-n-down you would conquer your demons, kick the curse to the curb for once and for all. Loyal friends kept up the faith, urging the rest of us to go visit, never mind the stench, that you smelled like fresh shit mixed with stale urine living in a tiny, dark coat closet and looked nothing like your former Self. Ex-lovers shook their heads, propped their coat collars upright as shield against wintry winds, walking speedily away from the gritty gossip soon swallowed by the boom, blast and brilliance that is New York City. That same night you took a tiny hit, not much, just a late night shoot to soothe the evening’s nerves. Then the Junky in Room 226 told the Crackhead in Room 225 there’s a strange smell coming from down the hallway in 224. Three days later, when the cops kicked open your door, they found you in bed with your most faithful lover, a meth pipe nestled sweetly between the sheets, smack in the middle of that open palm attached to your cold corpse.
Being Andre meant carrying the burden of other people’s fucked upness. Because racism. Because stigma. Because shame. Because homophobia, biphobia, queerphobia, transphobia, ableism, classism. Because transmisgynoir. Because you were so ahead of your time you gifted everyone else with a future. Because queer masculinity coupled with Black Brilliance like yours is butchered in this toxic society. Because the queer Black body is under siege. Because Black Love is as criminal as poverty is shameful in a hyper-capitalist shithole democratic dumping ground of a country like America. Because there is no such thing as celebrated, safe space for queers-of-color. Because we are forced to use English, a colonial language, to decolonize our dreams. Because patriarchy is a hate crime. Because being labeled “crazy” when Black and queer in a racist world is the ultimate compliment. And still, despite what stood between you and (institutionalized) insanity, you claimed your identity, birthing new realities to transcend circumstance, sometimes bigotry. Fabulousness?, you?, yes of course. You dreamed big, dreamed brave, you dreamed strong, dreams bound beautifully by queer Black pride.
How many times did they kill you before you died? How many times were you erased, ignored, lied to, manipulated, gaslit, raped, shamed, ridiculed into tortured submission until you decided, Why not disappear? When did you know your screams will never be heard? Is that the distinct difference between Black queerness and White queerness or being straight, meaning: alive? Was your first time in drag the first time you feared for your life? The first time the Black community failed you for being queer, what did you tell yourself? The first time the queer community failed you for being Black, what did you tell yourself? That next morning was your pain floored or could you carry it past the doorpost out into a White world? At what point did you stop performing to let the mask slip? They killed you after that, I know, but how many times? Did you die when they shouted “faggot” or the word “Art?” TV taught me how to love my queerness by hating my Blackness; you? How crazy is too crazy when you’ve never seen yourself? Never ever whole, never ever full, never ever beautiful, never ever man enough or woman enough or cis enough or Black enough or gay enough or queer enough, never ever free when never ever human. When the mirror is your rapist and society stands you long enough to stare but never sees you, you must obsessively wonder if that’s why the future screams stigma. That sliver within Time, that breath inside survival, that scream for existence within eternity, what broke you my Brother? What made it impossible to outlive your pain, Beloved?
Now, transition completed, you are among Queer Ancestry whose sole purpose is the exaltation of life divine as love supreme. Consciousness meeting consciousness, you no longer have a material body. Think: how radical is that? A Black gay man is finally, finally not just “his” body: no more stereotype; no more racial constructs; no more labels; no more gender-based stigma; only divine love radiating core being. At the inner sanctum of which is your baby, your vision-child of a theater group for Black queers is still pure, still enduring, now resurrected and more alive among our Queer Ancestors who live to fully honor their own. Finally, in death you have attained what life viciously robbed from you: visibility, significance, meaningfulness, acclaim, space, peace, safety, and above all, true love. Yes, here, among love, you can claim who you are. It’s a celebration of your fullness and, in so doing, the Ancestors have nominated another tortured queer Black creative to your theater’s music ministry: Whitney Houston. There she stands, bathed in Black ancestral queerness, ready to crown your arrival with song. Moving towards the ever-growing spotlight awaiting her at center stage, slightly tipping her head, she acknowledges the other Queer Ancestors in attendance, none of whom require introduction. There’s Audre Lorde in dashiki, eyeglasses resting at the base of her nose; James Baldwin who still goes by Jimmy sitting next to his close queer friend, playwright Lorraine Hansberry; Langston Hughes leans in to listen to South Africa’s closeted lesbian musical queen of 80’s Afro-Pop Brenda Fassie; Ugandan queer activist David Kato is to the left of Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Haitian-American Drag King extraordinaire Dred (Mildred Gerestant). In the box marked “Allies Only”, Nelson Mandela smiles at Bobbi Kristina Brown. And for the most exalted Queers in attendance, all 444 murdered trans women-of-color sit in a special section marked The Holiest of Holies as our most honorable Ancestors for, without the trans femme community of color, without their precious lives and equally precious bloodshed, the Queer kingdom must acknowledge that our movement would not exist.
Whitney moves into the spotlight, takes a deep breath, throws her head back before her music begins:
Peaceful stillness is your new home…
Dearest Queer Brother, forgive me for robbing the majesty of our connection, dishonoring Black love. It was not alienation but pure murder. Forgive me for running away when you stood tall and strong to claim me. In the name of our Queer Ancestors, please forgive me for labeling you fragile instead of championing the strength and power of your vulnerability. Shamefully, I turned my head to stab you invisible, making me unworthy of your trust and tribe. I beg you, please forgive me for dishonoring my queerness and yours, and those of our Ancestors who shed their precious blood to hold firmly onto their integrity. Whose ascendance is proof not once did they sell their power to appease oppression. But I foolishly labeled my murder of you survival, believing that I had to deny and destroy my brother to get somewhere safely when Black and queer in America. Safety is a lie, maybe an even bigger and more dangerous lie than the gender-binary because it’s consumed more communities. However today I give up the myth of safety in a white world, surrendering to my grief to uplift you who were so much better than me, and so much greater than this world. With love everlasting, I say your name as prayer eternal: Andre Alexander Lancaster, I love you.
Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko (pronouns: he-him / they-them / Nick) is a queer, NB trans, Tanzanian-American. Nick’s essay, ‘XXYX Queer Africa: More Invisible’ is in Best American Essays 2020 and Nick’s other queer POC essay is currently nominated for a Pushcart Award (final results currently pending). Nick has published two queer trans POC books, Waafrika (2013) and its sequel Waafrika 1-2-3 (2016). Nick has written a third queer trans POC manuscript and is looking for a publisher and agent. If interested, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. PLEASE NOTE: A larger, more expansive version of Nick’s published essay A Love Letter to Andre Lancaster from Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko is available should you wish to read it. Please feel free to contact Nick directly.
Featured artwork: unnamed Devin Armstrong