Reading came first: how I journeyed from hotep to Black queer feminist
By Myles E. Johnson
“Solitude can be a must-be-desired condition. In silence, we listen to ourselves, and in the quietude we may even hear the voice of God.” – Maya Angelou
The search, as it were, began in wanting to deep-dive into something that was about me, and it began early. I wanted a nappy-headed God. I wanted a history dipped in tar, baby, and I wanted to know about political leaders with Jackson 5 nostrils. This history was not being served to me anywhere, so I reimagined my middle-school classes as spaces for me to find this new world where I was the sun, where I was centered. While my teacher taught the day’s arithmetic, I was slowly, quietly being radicalized by the contents of books. With each page turn, a bomb exploded, and a window was being opened, and nobody was any the wiser.
The authors that I discovered–including Alex Haley, Frederick Douglass, and WEB Dubois–are part of what guided my 13 year-old brain into the place it is currently, and where it is developing into. However, I had a desire for something that made sense of the world I was occupying the way religion does for a new initiate.
But searching for Gods on Earth is embarrassing. I find myself constantly looking for the immaterial in materials; papers from scholars, books, the bottom of a bottle, the filter of a cigarette, and men. I was futilely hoping to find the infinite while on Earth.
In this search, I came across Dr. Cress Welsing. Specifically, her groundbreaking book, The Isis Papers, in which she theorizes about how the mundane inventions of modern culture are also symbols of a phallic-centric, white supremacist society. This book blew my young mind. Not only was I reading someone willing to challenge the anti-black culture I had began to feel so alienated by, but she offered the idea that the black person–me–was something to cherish and exalt. This was the God I was looking for. I read her work and works like it, and my body felt like my own, and finally I was the sun.
But it wasn’t too shortly before high-school that I came to terms with my own queerness. The older I got, the more I began to understand how my body, desires, and performance did not fit into the binary and standard supplied to me by the patriarchy. This birthed an anxiety that most young queer people know when they are maturing into themselves but are being told by media and societal standards that who they are and what they are feeling is inherently wrong.
Because of the anti-queer world I was inhabiting and how I had internalized self-hate, it was easy for me to consume writing that hated me before I came to terms with queerness. It was just another thing the literature and I had in common. My gender performance and sexuality didn’t align with the world I was forced into or the ones I was uncovering in select afrocentric literature. In fact, it was in The Isis Papers that I discovered the most homophobic and transphobic texts–texts that declared my romantic orientation and performance of self as weapons against the very blackness I was desperate to sink my teeth into. I did not want to bite into blackness in order to devour or harm it, but for it to be in my belly and be apart of me, but this book said the sharp opposite; I was an enemy.
Through the growth that comes with maturing, I was able to evolve into and love what my body and mind was birthing me to be. The days I’d skip class and go into the city where there was a LGBT bookstore, I dug and found worlds that were truly made for the entirety of myself. I found books made by queer, black men. I found queer theory and literature including Essex Hemphill, Samuel R. Delany, Joseph Beam, and Marlon Riggs that was waiting and made a space for me.
Reading these books that were talking directly to me and shaming none of me made me push back on the radical writing I had began to enjoy at 13. The text that had began radicalizing me in middle school and had me interrogating the world I was in was now the enemy. It wanted to destroy me and delegitimize who I was. It wanted to take me away from the heartbeat of my life. I left it alone and quickly found writers like Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Toni Morrison that engaged the world just as critically and fascinatingly, but who also had an air of the truth, not just the truth I wanted to hear or hoped for. The literature loved me, and I switched religions.
I didn’t put these books or the authors on the altar next to other deities and ritualistic materials, like I did in exalting the hotep literature of my youth. I let the authors be human, like me. I let the books be byproducts of humans, meaning they may have flaws and I may grow out of them. And I let that be okay. And they let me be okay with being okay.
I learned to embrace thought leaders and artists who would allow me to push them, and ran away from those who tried to silence me when I dissented. Knowledge is seasonal and may not illuminate your life in the same way all the time. I used to just trust anything printed on paper and being told to me by a well-articulated, black person. I now listen for the love and truth in the words before trusting the text. I grew a spirit of discernment, as Christians may refer to it. I keep that new tool with me in all spaces I go into, and it has served me. It helps me make sure the only idol I worship is myself and my journey, not false intellectuals more interested in domination than illumination.
It is embarrassing to meditate on the thin threads that keep you together because you have to come to terms with how easy you can be taken apart. This is a lesson I learned through my search for something special, call it God or just a good idea. But a search for something powerful, infinite, and permanent will never arrive to in the pages of a book, no matter how brilliant the writer or the work. The God–or good idea–I was looking for would not appear in the search, but in the silent moments where I simply waited for it. Once I realized this, my search became more about finding peaceful moments instead of looking for what has lived in between my ears, underneath my ribcage, and has been in my sky the whole time. All I needed to do was look in the mirror and look up.
Myles E. Johnson is a writer and author of children’s book, “Large Fears.” He cares about all the places pop culture, politics, black feminism, queer theory, and red wine meet. He can be found on twitter (@hausmuva) and his published work is available at hausmuva.com.