by Max S. Gordon
(Speech given at the event, “One Year Later: Writers, Artists & Advocates Respond to Our American Crisis”, First Person Plural Reader Series, November 7, 2017 in Harlem, New York at the Shrine.)
Please allow me to introduce myself.
I’m a black man, I’m gay, I’m an addict. I’ve been a crackhead, I’ve been a drunk.
I don’t remember being sexually abused, but I was a gay boy, now a gay man in a homophobic society that continues to destroy people like me for our sexual orientation – and that’s a kind of abuse, isn’t it?
This week, a father in Nevada killed his 14-year-old child, because he’d “rather have a dead son than a gay one.” In our society, we kill transgender women and men every day for telling the truth about their lives.
Sometimes I feel I’m fighting for my life. These days, I’m not always sure I’m winning.
I was at a gym in a small town I was visiting last month and a man asked me for my phone number. Another man overheard us talking and whispered under his breath something about perverts and how disgusting we were. I was too scared to confront him, so I didn’t say anything.
At night, when a cop car passes by me in Harlem and slows down, I’m frightened. I’ll admit, I’m frightened a lot. My partner is always surprised when I use all the locks in our apartment, even the chain, and sometimes even during the day. I believe our building is secure, but I don’t know how to explain to him that I rarely feel safe. Anywhere.
I come from a family with domestic violence.
One time, my parents got in a fight and my mother told us to get our things, we were going to McDonalds. We stayed for awhile and then we went back home. When we arrived, there were all these little bits of paper everywhere, like confetti, as if someone had thrown a party while we were gone. I looked closer and I saw a tiny picture of my mother in a white dress – her face torn in half. My father had ripped up my parents’ wedding photos.
A few years later, when I was thirteen, I got into a fight with my Dad and ran to my room and locked it. He threatened to rip off my bedroom door. I hid in my closet until my mother calmed him down.
One day he told me, “I will break your spirit, Son.” I was so furious with him that I made a decision. In that moment, I imagined something pouring down into my body, moving through my veins like steel or concrete, and then hardening. I promised myself I would never cry in front of him again, or feel any pain. I would just be numb, like a robot. Yes Dad. No Dad. Goodnight Dad. I imagined myself a soldier, shot on the battlefield, eyes wide open, dead and cold and quiet.
That was the day I became an emotional alcoholic.
I need you to know this about me. Because it influences my relationship to bullies, to Donald Trump, and what I am going to say to you tonight.
Before the election of 2016, I listened to news almost every waking hour, CNN, MSNBC, even those crazy-ass right wing channels on the AM stations – I was saturated with news. And because I knew Hillary was going to win, I’ll admit, I engaged with much of it as entertainment. I loved watching Ana Navaro on CNN letting Trump supporters have it.
On the night of the election, I tried to imagine whom Trump would blame for his devastating loss. I envisioned his concession speech and him saying something “sour-grape-y” like: “Fuck y’all. I didn’t really want this shit anyway.”
I was still, on some level, marveling at the insanity of it all. I thought we couldn’t vote in a president Trump, not after “Mexicans as rapists”, talk of walls and travel bans, and grab them by the -. (It’s such an ugly phrase, you hate to even repeat it.) We could never empower someone like that – we just let him keep going because he was fascinating in a freak show/circus kind of way – a curiosity for our amusement, nothing more. We’d come to our senses as a country on Election Night.
And then when it was over – and it was over so fast – it was like a great big light went out.
A year has passed. These days, I hold on to the news by a fingernail. I read the headlines, but….just the facts, Ma’am. I hear the names, Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates. The names are different, I know, but sometimes it feels as if it’s all the same person. Like another time, when the names were Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rove.
As a child, I used to read under the covers when things got scary. Now another bully is ruling my house and what I want to do is go to my room and shut my door and just read under the covers – for the next three years.
Sometimes I’ll be watching TV and I think, this couldn’t have really happened, could it? I spoke at this event a year ago, and said that seeing Donald Trump in the Oval Office was like watching a press conference from President Jerry Springer. I am unable to shake the vulgarity of this historical moment. I am determined that this never be okay with me.
The other day I was thinking about something I was planning, something that I wanted to do that may take years. Then I thought, what if I don’t have years? What if we only have months, weeks, days, seconds? We’ve reached a point now where people are gunning down congregations, where even going to church isn’t safe. What do time and safety even mean anymore?
It was tempting, for just a second, to give up hope. I’m not usually that guy, but sometimes it creeps around the edges of your thoughts these days. What is going to happen with North Korea and nuclear weapons? Because those motherfuckers are fierce – North Korea is one place on the planet where it seems they don’t give a fuck about whiteness or America. Go on, steal or deface something in North Korea, and cry your little white frat-boy, All-American tears and see what happens. North Korea does not take American Express.
Anyway, I found myself thinking: If they are going to blow our asses up anyway, and we all end up going to war, maybe I should get high one more time, you know, just go out with a bang? I know better, of course, and it won’t happen, but these are dangerous times for an addict. These are dangerous times for all of us.
But what was really going on was this: Some part of me thought, and this is the sad part: is it still worth it now, to dream? And if I feel this way at 47, what are our children feeling?
When I thought about what I wanted to say to you tonight, I knew the theme would be Resist Trump. And I know the images that come up for most people around the word resistance. But then I thought, maybe we need a new paradigm of resistance to go with the old one.
I like horror movies, not the slasher genre, but psychological horror, and especially 70’s horror – Rosemary’s Baby, Omen, Carrie, The Exorcist. There is that amazing scene in The Exorcist where the priest says to the devil who has possessed the young girl, Reagan, “The power of Christ compels you. The power of Christ compels you!”
The other day Donald Trump came up on the screen – and now, I don’t know much about exorcisms, but the shit seemed to work on that devil – and so I thought, why not? So I just blurted out, “The power of Fanny Lou Hamer compels you!”
Now for those who may not know or remember, Fanny Lou Hamer was a black organizer in the Deep South, a civil-rights activist, who fought to exercise her right to vote in a virulently racist Mississippi. She was tortured, her life was threatened, and she even had to battle for the right to be heard within her own political party. Fanny Lou said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” and “Nobody’s free, until everybody’s free.” She had what the old folks call Holy Ghost power.
So I shouted it at the screen over and over, like they did in The Exorcist: “The power of Fanny Lou Hamer compels you! The power of Fanny Lou Hamer compels you!” It felt good, so I tried a few others. “The power of Audre Lorde compels you! The power of Harvey Milk compels you! The power of Eleanor Roosevelt compels you! The power of Sojourner Truth compels you!” Try it at home, it’s fun, and you really do feel better.
And then I thought, if I was a priest with a congregation what would I tell them right now?
I think I would say: Believe in miracles, believe in your power as a sorcerer and sorceress, stir shit up for Good, invoke.
I’d remind them: You don’t have to earn grace. You are already worthy.
I’d say, You are not a commodity. You are not a can of Coke, you are not a pack of cigarettes, you are not a stock option, or a casino, or land purchased for development.
When you go on a date, stop looking at everyone the way you shop for household cleaner, turning it around, figuring out what it can do for you. Resist commodification and resist being commodified.
Listen to someone today. And I don’t mean waiting for the pause before you speak, really listen. Look at someone today – I don’t mean judging how much weight they’ve gained or lost, or what they are wearing. Look into their eyes. Take in the miracle in front of you.
Wear those high heels, work your beautiful yellow dress, shake out that black wig, wear your best red lipstick and dance – I’m talking to the straight men right now.
Deal with your shame about slavery, appreciate your black ancestors, understand the horror of your history and be honest about how it has harmed your beautiful blackness – I’m talking to the white people right now.
If you really want resist Trump, stop whipping your kids.
You’ve been talking about quitting smoking for years. You’ve been going to sleep drunk for years. You won’t give up your meth, your coke, you won’t stop eating sugar even though people in your family have died from diabetes. You sit in your car, in the parking lot, crying, with empty bags of fast food around you. Your life belongs to McDonalds and Burger King and KFC. Your life belongs to corporations with scientists whose job it is to find new and innovative ways to kill you, one delicious happy meal at a time. Realize, lovingly, that they don’t really give a fuck about you, and take your life back. Decide that your life is worth saving. Resist Trump.
“You know I always wanted to go back to school, but there just isn’t enough time.” There is enough time. Go back to school. Resist Trump.
Stand in front of the mirror naked. If you are a woman, gay, or a person of color, consider the peril that body has seen. See yourself on the auction block, burned at the stake for being a witch, bashed after you left the gay bar. Hold your body dearly while it is still your own.
Resist Trump, and finally forgive yourself, for the childhood abuse, for the childhood violence. The abuse that’s been sabotaging your life, that makes you apologize when other people bump into you, that keeps you in torn clothes. End the war with self. Integrate. Reconcile. Emerge into your greatest power. We need you whole. Your life is an ecosystem and you have a right to keep it balanced and to preserve it. Stop all self-harm. Remember: it wasn’t your body that betrayed you. And although you may not always feel like it, despite what happened to you, your beauty remains intact.
Consider: what did it take to make you, what did it take to get here? Think of the parents you had or didn’t have. The mother who died when you were twelve. The father you never knew. Think about the money you had, the money you didn’t have, the marriage that ended, the day you left home…..have you left home?
What did it take to get you here? Did you come over here on the Mayflower, were you dragged here, did you flee? Recall the grandmother who was cooking and you saw the numbers tattooed above her wrist. She promised to tell you a story one day about concentration camps. Think about the grandmother who was cooking when the men arrived on horses with sheets and took her son, the uncle you never met who was carried away in the night. She promised to tell you a story about lynching. What did it take for you to get here?
And understand that no one is going to save us. What is happening right now is more profound than Hillary vs. Bernie vs Trump, it’s deeper than Sarah Huckabee Sanders or the NRA. What we need isn’t going to come from the Democratic National Committee and it won’t be found on WikiLeaks.
Something is definitely coming. And to deal with it we need to be whole. We can’t be fragmented with each other, or within ourselves. The thing that’s coming needs you to hate yourself so you will feel nationalistic pride when they try and build a wall. It needs you afraid at night, hiding behind the shades, so you can be manipulated into a travel ban. The thing that’s coming is counting on you to be a mess, in debt, traumatized, dissociated, drunk, high, angry, racist, lonely, heartbroken, in despair, cynical, it needs you to think Black/White, Palestinian/Jew, Man/Woman, Gay/Straight, Them/Us, Me/Other. The thing that’s coming needs you numb and asleep, so it can organize at night. Then, suddenly, you get up one morning and see the men in the streets with machine guns. Because they know by then it will be too late.
Some people on this earth have nightmares only when they sleep. The majority of us wake up to nightmares.
To deal with the Donald Trump in the White House, we must first face the Donald Trump in ourselves. Despite the way we are being coarsened, made to live a life of staring into phones instead of each other’s eyes, we must return to compassion. It really is all that we have. Study war no more. The real enemy is our belief in enemies.
And finally, my congregation: Never underestimate the power of your kindness in every moment. A friend of mine was in a restaurant several weeks ago and spilled a glass of water across the table. She was mortified. When the waiter came by to clean it up she apologized profusely, but he looked her in the eye and said, “It’s just water, don’t worry,” and smiled. She was so moved by that, and it’s stayed with her and probably always will – that in that moment she was more important than her mistake. No one had ever told her that before. And he has no idea, that man, and probably never will, how his small act of kindness has affected the trajectory of a life.
I was playing with my sister’s dog the other day, I looked at her licking her paw, and at one point she gave me a little “doggy” kiss on the lips, and I thought: she has no idea about Donald Trump. Whatever is going on in the White House, it isn’t her priority. Her priorities are food, taking a shit, and protecting us by barking. I felt jealous for a moment at the simplicity of her life.
Then I looked around at bushes, at trees, at roses and falling leaves, and I thought, You know, we’re so fucking arrogant. Life isn’t asking our permission for any of this shit. Whatever this is, this force, call it God or whatever you want to call it, it’s going to keep making roses, and puppies, and babies, and pine trees for as long as it can. And that’s the common denominator – life wants life. Life wants to grow!
This is our moment. Right here. RIGHT HERE. Because you’d better believe that no matter what happens and however this shit goes down, even if there are only two cockroaches left on this earth they are going to grow. Life is going to always keep doing life. Trust that.
And so that’s what we must do, we have to grow up, even when everything in this culture tells us to stay immature, entitled, greedy, narcissistic, pathological, even when the man in office is really just a teenage boy up in his room surrounded by empty Doritos bags and playing with his X-Box all night – we must insist upon it for ourselves. We must grow up. GROW. Our lives, and maybe even life itself, depends upon it.
. November 7, 2017, New York City
Thanks to Stacy Parker Le Melle for hosting and organizing this event and for being an inspiration to activists everywhere.
Read Max’s Interview with FPP:
Also written by Max S. Gordon
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Faggot As Footnote: On James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, Can I Get A Witness, and Moonlight
Maybe Yesterday, But Not Tonight: A Black Homosexual Speaks To Mike Pence