Condemning prejudice in all forms, and remembering it too
The 17 essays in “Words to Our Now,” many of which were previously published in literary journals including Callaloo, deal with this vexing identity problem from the standpoints of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Glave, who teaches at the State University of New York at Binghamton, offers many disturbing examples of challenges to and attacks on a person’s or a group’s sense of identity. These attacks have taken the form of torture, rape, lynching, and homophobic murder.
One’s self-worth and self-image, as well as how one moves through the world, are inextricably linked to culture, a social construct composed of customs and beliefs out of which a person’s identity is formed. Historical and social circumstances also have their part to play in further determining how one sees oneself and those inside and outside the group.
Glave’s lead essay, “Baychester: A Memory,” is partly a remembrance of his Bronx childhood. In it he discusses his quiet, reflective Jamaican-born father, who lovingly tends to his vegetable garden. Glave reveals his love and reverence for the older man, but unfortunately he does not explore their relationship in any depth. His father sounds like a fascinating individual, who deserves more attention than is offered here. I wanted to know more about the roots of his tolerance of his son’s sexuality, if he had himself developed a friendship with any gay men in his early life, and how he came to live in the United States. What we get instead is an essay that digresses to a discussion of black gay literature and a trip to Latin America.
Because of Glave’s academic background, the prose is often overly ornate and convoluted. It’s too bad that the notes in the back of the book are more straightforward and reader-friendly than the texts they are linked to. His two essays about gay murder victims, one of them written for a newspaper audience, are more readable, if a bit too graphic for the squeamish. In his tribute to his friend, Brian Williamson, a Jamaican activist and a founding member of J-FLAG, a gay group in the island nation, Glave describes him “as a laughing man: a man with ‘a head of silver coins’ as I sometimes joked with him about his head of curly silver-gray hair.”
Among the most interesting, thought-provoking, and possibly controversial, essays is “Regarding a Black Male Monica Lewinsky, Anal Penetration, and Bill Clinton’s Sacred White Anus,” in which Glave offers a hypothesis, from a gay perspective: “[H] ow would the U.S. public feel about the possibility of a black penis entering President Clinton’s (or president George W. Bush’s, or any president’s white, presumably exclusively heterosexual anus?” What if the White House intern had been a black gay man instead of a white heterosexual female? In Glave’s view, it would have undermined the popular notion of the U.S. presidency as “icon/symbol of white heterosexual maleness ‘unpolluted’ by either blackness (or any other color darker than whiteness) or homosexuality/queerness.”
Throughout “Words to Our Now,” Glave hammers at the insanity of homophobia, in Jamaica and elsewhere. He sees it as fueling gay self-hatred. To persecute and kill gays and lesbians is to attack individuals who are a vital part of society and who daily “serve your food in restaurants, clean your streets, fix your cars, and bury your dead.” In the end, he prophesizes, “[t] he future world will rightly view Jamaica’s hatred of homosexuals as the equivalent of Nazis’ hatred of Jews…”
He also doesn’t mince words when critiquing American foreign policy, which he sees as representing “the vicious neoimperialistic militarism of ‘president’ George W. Bush, a successful election thief and warmongering, would-be despot.”
I share Glave’s disdain for the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, but Glave would have been better off focusing on the lives and concerns of gays and lesbians in Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean region. There is a dearth of material about this population. And Glave, who is also a fiction writer, could have provided us with a book of creative nonfiction, illuminating the lives of gays and lesbians using fictional techniques. That would have made the book much more valuable to general readers and scholars alike.
With that said, the most impressive and memorable essay in this Lammy-winning collection is “Again, the Sea,” which depicts African slaves throwing themselves overboard rather than be in captivity—“they knew once they jumped they would awaken back there, over there again from whence they had been taken/the sea provided them the chance…. We will not live forever in chains…” [Glave’s italics]. The Caribbean Sea “speaks” as the bodies splash into its waters—“One of you bobbed upon me with the strokes of a cruel whip upon your naked back, the scars of manacles on your wrists, and did I not slowly pull you into the nothingness that is utter calmness, the complete tranquility of nonbeing?” If there is ever an anthology celebrating the Caribbean Sea, I believe this would be one of the selections, revealing as it does Glave’s love for and fascination with this part of the world.
Despite the aforementioned flaws, “Words to Our Now,” with some forbearance, yields a gay-positive, uplifting message. And that’s something we can always use in these homophobic times.