Black Boys and Bird-Chests, or the Racialized Legacy of Body Dysmorphia in African-American Men
The burn in my chest the first and last time a friend’s mom punched me was the final time I allowed myself to be okay with having a “bird-chest” and lanky arms. I remember the thought crossing my mind followed solely by the immediate regret of showing up over this house at all, and I should’ve demanded such a thing the day white friend told me he was blacker than me because he could dunk on a full-sized rim and I couldn’t. However, the catalyst for this sudden change today came somewhere between the push-ups and sit-ups, and everything she thought was a favor to build me into a more suitable image of what she deemed acceptable for a young Black man to be when I realized that anyone speaking of my body or forcing themselves upon my body’s right to exist was not okay. Perhaps if I made such a stance for myself sooner, I would have a prouder self-image that doesn’t equate my body’s lack of athletic hardiness to a failure to live up to my cultural pride.
The world is obsessed with the Black male body image, in a way that often crosses into the gross. Not only in how these bodies can perform as a tool or commodity, as we often find in sports but in how one should conduct itself within parameters of Blackness. In the last year alone, we’ve seen Terry Crews having to defend his body against other high-profile Black men about what he did or didn’t do to protect himself during a sexual assault. The power isn’t with Terry Crews, however, and while it is also with these other celebrities, it speaks to a culture surrounding Black bodies; it’s rooted in a traumatizing experience that many Black men go through in their youth that not only pressures Black boys that dictate Black identity only as an extension of our bodies’ physical worth — and more specifically, only when we abuse it. To be frail in a Black space is to be seen as less than Black. This was the case for me even before that day at my friend’s house in Ohio; it was like this before I was old enough to know, everything I did at a young age was dedicated to hardening my body to the same icy stone that one might expect of Black men.
At six years old, I was expected to know how to play basketball, I was expected to race and run laps, and fight and be struck square in my chest without crying, caving on flinching because I had a ‘bird-chest” and that, in the world of West Philadelphia was not okay. The fantasy of my future involved a sport, and only a sport — and somewhere down the line basketball, and the revulsion of anything feminine, but the over-consumption of anything female. There were even dreams of what my first tattoo might be.
Imagine my mother’s disappointments when despite all of this, I still lacked all repulsion with anything athletic. And honestly, to this day I’ve never had little more than an ear piercing.
It was not my mother’s disappointments that concerned me or continues to do so, but the point of view of my family — both young and old — that somehow I tarnished my sense of Blackness by not dedicating myself to physical achievements. No matter the academic or emotional milestones I hurdle, we can always come back to the failure on my part to end up Strong in this one real way which counts to them — even if I no longer have a “bird-chest”. It always ends with an expectation to hit a gym sooner or later.
And, it wasn’t until that eventful night where a punch took it steps too far that I realized this was not regionally specific behavior — this was behavior canonized across Blackness and where I rebelled against it, it became the basis of my peer’s masculinity to the point it ostracized me from my Blackness and, in truth, there’s no reason for that to have been.
Yet, to this day, when I look upon my own Black form and how it fails to conform to this image I have now grown to expect of myself, I feel an involuntary revulsion. I feel beautiful, but at the same time, I am forced to feel incomplete, because the brownness of my skin is supposedly meant to be accompanied by a hardiness, and not a softness. I’m incapable of seeing even the curves I’ve developed as anything as my own way of escaping the whiteness and weakness my bird-chest once implied.
The history of Black bodies as commodity isn’t unknown to our understanding of what America is and it is ahistorical to discuss Black male bodies and not mention this. Slavery was all about reducing a whole culture’s human spectrum — their emotions, memories, their habits, and happiness — into a disgusting price tag to be tossed out on a wooden chopping block.
The mind held little worth, though it could be marketed as a profitable gift with purchase, and the idea of a greased up mass of muscle who could only react, and never act (and therefore exist) became the model of Black men. Thus, we can note the beginning of the fetishization of Black male bodies.
This legacy continues throughout American fiction. In 1975, the graphic adaptation of Kyle Onstot novel of the same name, Mandingo was released by Paramount Pictures. The film, starring boxer-turned-actor Ken Norton, depicted the sexual victimization of male and female Black slaves and the gross physical exploitation of the Black male form. In the film, Mede (Ken Norton) is a prizefighter forced to physical extremities such as bathing in cauldrons of hot salt water to toughen his skin. His worth is placed solely in the fact that as a Mandingo (of the Mandinka ethnic group) he is of superior physical virtue, and thus more suitable for breeding. The film ends with the murder of Mede after the Woman of the House extorts sex from Mede, culminating in his execution due solely to attracting the unrequited sexual desire due to his biology.
The stakes Black boys face today are nowhere as comparable as these moments of extreme brutality in reality, or fiction, but the line of succession passes itself forward. Today, only the conduct is different; Terry Crews has to defend his choices to not assault his sexual aggressors to other high-profile Black men who in some sense of a world are challenging his sense of Blackness for his decisions to not use his body — which is apparently his physically imposing — to fight.
Some might suggest that this is a case of Machismo, and while it is similar, as both concepts can be attributed to hypermasculinity, the extreme racial fetishization by both Black and White cultures makes the concept feel as unique as the other systematic structures imposed upon Black existence. In any case, Black men are expected to resolve conflict violently or not at all, and this narrative has become a dangerous entity — a caustic cancer that has ended in the routine and systematic execution of Black youths. The narrative of the Black male form as monstrous have followed us further back than the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown or the prolific exposure of social media.
Yet, there is always the expectation to perform our strength and to fit into this idea of our bodies as a vehicle of aggression. It’s not an uncommon part of my day for a stranger to waste sixty whole seconds of my time guessing which sport I play — and it’s never soccer, tennis or track: football, or basketball, only.
And if I were to investigate the effects of this trauma inward onto myself, I find the ways that this trauma manifests itself routinely in my behavior: the sudden pauses and obsession with my image in the mirror, or the peculiar ways my self-image prioritizes the same arms, chest, and torso that alienated me culturally from a sense of Blackness that has no origin within Blackness.
In 2018, Javaugn “Javie’ Young-White (@jyoungwhite) penned a thread which poignantly explored the body dysmorphia suffered by African-American men due to this phenomena. “A lot of Black men struggle with body dysmorphia [because] of the emphasis that is placed on our athleticism [and] physical stature throughout childhood [and] adolescence,” he says. “It’s especially confusing because the body types we’re told to aim for also serve as justification for profiling and unarmed murders”
When our bodies are used to clock the mileage for our race and culture, it becomes the weapon by which others oppress us. How else could in the case of those less than athletic do our forms become synonymous to whiteness, or in cases of racial brutality, our physical intimidation become juxtaposes to the barbaric imagery?
The middle ground between these two ideas speaks only to the extreme ways race factors into our bodies, and the demands expected of these bodies in our youth. It speaks to the false realities we shove onto children to appeal to a standard that is as toxic as it is hypermasculine, and the traumas which haunt these youths — and have for generations
Steven Underwood is an award-winning writer and essayist from Columbus, Ohio. Multifaceted, He has expanded his range deep into the recesses of Black speculative fiction and poetry. In the past, Steven has published essays with MTV News, Essence, Le Reine Noire, Comicsverse and Banango Street on identity and culture. He cites his writing style as the intersection between Toni Morrison and Fredrick Douglass. Follow him on social media @Blaqueword.
Young Ty DuBeau would be a genius if he wasn’t born on his side of the Wall. In the magickal metropolis of Antebellum, Ty has struggled every day to save his mother from eminent death. But when a traumatic attack leaves him without the power to save her, Ty’s hero, Quinto, makes an offer to spare him the greatest loss of his young life — all he must do is betray his People. Out of options, Ty abandons everyone he loves in time to enroll on the wrong side of a rising war at the deadliest school in all of magick: the Orthodoxy. The wealthy students of the Orthodox understand victory is not a question of can you succeed, but a question of what you will kill to do it; and if its them or him, Ty soon learns what little value a Brown boy truly holds in a world on the brink of destruction.
The Letter fell from nowhere, and Ty wished it’d go away. He burned it, he flushed it, he shredded the paper and haggled with spirits of the Old World, America, to whisk it away.
Like the crimes of the nation, however, it never went away for long.
Maybe Black Boy Magic wasn’t that strong. Ty should’ve known better: if he dreamed he had the power to make the impossible real, his mother wouldn’t be on her deathbed.
He had no one to blame, but himself.
Just a few days ago, during his Binding Ceremony, where THEY presented his implement unceremoniously in a paper box bound with a white ribbon. With this, the totemic representation of his Faustian pact with the city-nation, Antebellum, Ty thought he could spare himself the inevitability of the thing set into motion.
Ty spent hours in his kitchen, from sundown to sunup, leafing through stolen books and records. The long nights never bothered him anymore, not since he turned 17 and transitioned from a boy to man. The difference wasn’t just in his attitude, but in his thin blade chin and sunblessed brown skin, and in the crown of carrowed curls that dangled just above his flat forehead.
Ty toyed with his implement — tapped at it with a spoon, performing one-handed sleight tricks: now you see it, now you don’t. It shined indigo and mauve, a sugilite stone, that he had not fashioned into a shape — not into a wand, or a bracelet, anything; what point was there? He’d sacrifice it soon, when he abandoned being a member of Antebellum and gave himself to the Community, to the Browns, for his Mother — always for her.
But, first, he had to at least try to save her.
This implement held his portion of the Tontine. His wealth. His Power. And with it, Ty could spin any spell that he could reasonably afford the cost off.
Maybe if I was Richer, Bluer, I could just pay someone to invent this spell for me, Ty thought. After all, you never see any Blues with this monstrosity of a disease.
Ty wished they’d just die.
No you don’t, Teetee, his grandfather’s voice trembled soft, yet strict. All Life is sacred, to take it is to fail at every possible turn. Do Better.
Still, it was the way of the Blue Bloods, who lived in opulent ease and prosperity across the wall, to remove any and all obstacles they were concerned with through their magic. In just two decades of the City’s history, the Blues cured death itself. Yet, the disease of Taint escaped them?
The wonders of the 21st century were laughable compared to the enchantment of the 23rd, none of these Blue Bloods were free of the smut of their excess and indifference.
Sure, Ty understood spellwork held complexities. Three-times more so for Brown folk who could not sup on generational wealth and education to power spells.
With the Blue Bloods controlling the rules to guide and control magick, waving a wand or whispering a phrase only worked for the most independently powerful of sorcerers. Ty only needed the right series of incantations before the Binding, but now he needed legerdemain: sigil and simulation — he was a Deeper sorcerer.
The Binding Ceremony said difficult magicks required a steep price and it all called for Power in exchange for service. But, Ty didn’t have the time to work: Letter day was coming.
Ty fell into his research, he barely noticed the days after his Binding exhaust themselves. The kitchen became a mess. A different page hung from every cupboard. He failed another practice run of his spell — rendering a cancer cell malignant — when his Letter manifested on his tabletop (it had a habit of doing that if Ty ignored it for too long)
It plopped down on an open page of his Healer’s grimoire, a chapter called the Long Gasp.
It felt dense with a lavender binder. A gravity shimmered around it, an attraction charm of expensive design, twisting a sirenic desire to pull it open: a bad sign. On the back was a wax seal with an ostrich biting a long-rod with two scales on either side with a flame on one side and a skull on the other.
Ty leaned back, and gave a sinister wide eye. He expected this moment, but seeing it in all reality, it made Ty slowly crack. He sat staring at the thing for a few minutes, shivering in his seat, his future on the decision in a pink slip.
The kitchen door swung open behind Ty.
“Ayo, Tee — ” It was Victor.
Ty palmed a steak knife off the table and flicked it through the air at Victor’s head.
“Halt,” Victor’s Presence exploded around him, sending a minor tremor through the room. His eyes fixated upon the knife, slowing it to an abrupt stop as if the kinetic energy was stolen in the batting of an eye. It should’ve been a wasteful display, but Victor’s Presence was supernaturally seismic.
Just as Ty planned. Ty swallowed his burst of jealousy at the ease Victor employed his raw sorcery and jumped, slamming the book closed.
“The fuck, Ty?” Victor asked. He stepped completely into their six-by-six size kitchen, barely larger than a closet, ducking his head to accommodate his height. Six feet of a golden copper brown with spotted freckles peeking from a teal tank and a whole head taller than Ty himself.
A golden jaguar with a coat of shimmering moonlight and red pigmented paws trailed after Victor. It called itself Aeropasti, one of Victor’s Ashe — his spiritual familiars.
Aeropasti growled at Ty, clearly vocalizing something Ty couldn’t understand — probably a threat; Aeropasti hated Ty and he never cared to dig deep enough to ask why a manifested fragment of Victor’s personality hated his so-called best friend: such a weird bit of psychology.
“No Aeropasti, We ain’t doing that,” Victor said, glaring at Ty. “It was an accident.”
Ty shrugged. “You can’t be sneaking up on people on this block, V. You know that.”
Victor’s spell ended, sending the knife along its orchestrated path. The blade pierced the plaster behind Victor’s head several inches deep. Ty took the time to slam the book closed and leapt to his feet.
“What got you going so much that you got that thing prowling around my Mama’s floors?” Ty asked, eying that vicious, tiny demon.
“What? Aeropasti’s a good mouser.”
“Aeropasti probably the reason we got mice.”
“I don’t know about — ”
“Vee, mice aren’t covered in sewer waste and as fat as bread loafs. Those aren’t mice, those are rats. Aeropasti brings rats into the house.”
Victor considered fighting back, but he knew better — Ty didn’t surrender arguments, or battles, easily. Aeropasti sat in the corner, licking his bloody paws.
“My letter came,” Victor shrugged, sauntering to a kitchen counter. He picked up one of his Ma’s old mason jars of ground tobacco — one of her many ingredients. “Seven rejections in a row. No leagues for me.”
“You were trying to go?” Ty smirked, a playful glint on his face. “Brown Blood.”
“Keep talking out the side of yah mouth and we gonna have a problem.”
“You think you can beat me?”
Victor scoffed. They left the problem there. Graham and Quinto took over their training from a young age — drilled them in many of the military tactics of Gang warfare in the Browns. Ty still felt his aching bones as he dragged himself onto the Rail every week. The acrid stench of Graham’s poisons before she spoon-fed Ty a ladle full. He remembered every lie he told his Ma about why he looked so sunken and exhausted.
“I’m saying it’d be a fair fight.” Victor glanced at the grimoire. “Your Letter come?”
Ty shook his head. “Nah.”
“What’re yah going to do? Our Ordeal is coming up in like…soon.”
Ty shrugged. “I can fake it. S’not like anyone expects either of us to fail.”
“But the important part of the test is sacrificing the Letter — removing yahself from the influence of the Blue Bloods — rejecting their ways, their Elegant Art, for the superior pride of the Ancestral Art, of the Browns.” Victor frowned. “Kinda weird for the Blue Bloods to take so long with yah Letter. How’d yah do on your Literacy test?”
Ty tapped the tabletop with his index finger. Even absently, he founds a subtle rhythm to his work. He mauled that question over for a few breathes, despite knowing the answer to Victor’s question.
He did how he always did on tests: phenomenally. There wasn’t a lot of the Elegant Arts Ty didn’t know — despite the active obstacles thrown his way by the Blue Bloods.
And yet, Quinto and the rest of the Allegiance expected Ty to fail it, as all Allegiance have.
For Brownies, like Ty and Victor and everyone else living on this side of the Wall, passing that test meant escape: the only way to leave the world of poverty and death behind you and crossover to the Blues. You’ll never return after that happened. And the Seven Leagues — schools of sorcery and etiquette — would do its very best to help you forget everything on the dark side of the Wall. Victor and Ty knew only a handful of people a year who got that honor — and it all began with the Letter.
Thus, they’d all fail, or be punished as any traitor would…
Ty had every intention of going into that dank, dusty little basement and putting himself on the pyre. But, Quinto didn’t say anything about the delicious enticements in that booklet.
Those who score in the top 10 of the Literacy test will be rewarded with one-free casting. Any spell on the dime of the Tontine and the Senate 66 who control it.
In that moment, staring at that page and all of the odd things he’d need to do as a prerequisite to quality — presenting spittle, blood, and his complete star chart — he knew it was worth it to save her. To save his mother, the woman who woke up late at night and made Ty sandwiches for his day.
She. Was. Worth it.
“I’m gonna go for a walk.” Ty said, rising from his seat.
Victor started to get up, but Ty held his hand up.
“Alone. Maybe they’ll send my Letter faster if they don’t see me surrounded all the time.”
Victor frowned, “Yah think they watching?”
“They wealthy control freaks — they always watching us. “He scooped the grimoire up in his arms.
“And, yah need that?”
“Gotta take it to the vault.” Ty lied. “It’s customary to give an offering before an Ordeal.”
“Ah, damn. I forgot to go poach something from the Grande Marketplace,” Victor groaned. What he meant was Ty forgot — Victor didn’t have the subtlety to get past the Grande Marketplace’s detection spells. Ty was the best Assimilator in the Allegiance, perfecting the art of suppressing himself, his ego and his identity enough to become entirely undetectable to all forms of detection save the detection of the naked eye.
“I’ll make sure to tell the Ancestors it was a joint project.” Ty said calmly. Victor scoffed.
“Like I’ma believe yah’d share credit. We going together, and then we can go straight to the Ordeal. Cool, right?”
Ty frowned. “Great.”
They rushed out the house, darting down the three cement steps leading to their screen door, only after Ty excused himself to check on his Ma in the furthest room in the back. Ty dabbed his finger in lavender and peppermint oil and touched her forehead and she flinched, but Ty persisted. He drew the awakening glyph and blew onto it with a breath of Presence. It fizzed like soda suds and she burst awake, her chest heaving.
Sweat caked across her forehead as her hair cascaded about into a messy distortion of knots and split ends. What was once a crown, was now matted mane?
At first her eyes were disoriented, filled with a creamy fog. Moments passed and her eyes flashed with recognition and she remembered. She licked her lips, flicking a purple tongue.
“Tee-tee,” she said with a smile.
“Ma, I’m going out now.”
She surrendered another smile, consuming what remained of her energy, and fell back into slumber, despite Ty’s every desire to tell her he’d save her.
Outside, the Browns was the same crowded grid of low-rising housing projects his Ma remembered. It was largely built with an exterior of dusty red bricks, and an interior of sad white paint and wooden cabinets. Ty’s part of the Browns, nicknamed the Stocks, was home to the majority Black populace and were usually crawling with families. Many slave mages, men and women who worked in service to another too good to learn the essential domestic magicks, were heading out to their night shifts. Some stopped by to give Victor good fortune, whispering blessings over his head.
Ty got nothing and was thankful, they’d need all their Presence and Power over there in the Blues.
For many of the Brownies, like Ty and Victor, there wasn’t a real reason to cross the Wall outside of work. Quinto worked hard to make their Community self-sufficient. Fishburne grew the community gardens with the aid of her gopher Ashe’s Prosperity Mojo. Quinto even led an initiative of reclaiming the Browns — swapping out all Elegant enchantments for the authority of the Ancestry, the power of the Browns.
There wasn’t a place anyone could walk where he couldn’t find people. No matter where Ty wandered, vivid color flourished — brown, yellow, auburn, red.
Unless, you were heading north. The brown buildings darkened as he went. Soot marks stained the concrete stone and cement. Cold wind whistled into his ears and the buildings — or the pitch skeletal structures that were once tall buildings — a market district with condos above every shop, center and facility.
Ty and Victor approached the line cautiously. A ribbon of black, green and red spray painted veves and prints to dissuade crossing. Apotropaismic mojo, designed to turn malice and evil back whenever it approached. Ty didn’t know if this ward would last forever — not without dedication. He could feel it waning, the collective Presence fortifying the Ancestral Art fading with the steady surrender of the Browns to the Blues.
A shrine of portraits, stuffed animals and burned candles heralded Ty up to the line’s limits. Some men and women only had one candle, whereas celebrities and legends had four or five. Ty stopped by one of the portraits — a yellowing image of a tall, middle aged man cradling a brown baby with a head of hair. Behind him were his two prized treasures: two daggers crossed beneath a large black mask.
One of the daggers matched Ty’s own. A two-foot length of cool spirit metal, a specific alien material that appeared more like glass, with a hilt wrapped in black and indigo electrical tape. Dozens of candles crowded the sidewalk leading to his image. Ty removed his grandfather’s dagger from his back belt hem and narrowed his sight onto the tip of the blade. Carefully, Ty tapped the tip of his finger against the blade and incised a minor cut. The blood swelled to the precipice.
Blood offering, Ty thought, recalling Quinto lessons in rituals and rites. He was kind enough to teach Ty how to do it, after his grandfather passed. With Ty’s affliction, it was necessary. One of the oldest rituals in the book. The most personal of sacrifices for the most personal of magicks.
Ty circled the glass candle container’s rim with his finger over every single candle and fed three drops of blood directly onto the burnt, black wicks. His Presence vibrated in his ears, filling his soul with vigor. “Light,” Tyree whispered.
Nothing. Of course, he wasn’t Victor. It’d never be that easy.
Incantations were all about inviting specific emotional reactions to guide the magick. Ty had something that’d work. He summoned his Presence and felt its sticky aluminum shiver on his tongue.
“Flicker, flicker little bic, come now and dance upon the wick, flicker flicker, writhe and wreath, Flicker Flicker, burning steep,” Ty sketched a sigil into the dirt and exhaled a long breathe into it. Ty could feel the time upon the wicks slowly roll back, as the memories of the world around him enforced themselves upon reality. At once, the candles sucked in the air hungrily until a smoke rolled off their tip until they lit with, of course, a flicker.
This was Deeper sorcery’s thaumaturgy — accessing the re-memory of an object and manifesting its past miracles upon the present. Ty could remind air of being trapped in iron, or liquids of their solid forms. The strongest could even dial back the clock of life — return life upon the departed. Though, most Deepers prioritized the arts of metamagic.
With his candles ablaze, Ty prayed thanks to his Grandfather — to his Ancestors, and imparted that they watch over and protect him. Misdirect the eyes of the Blues, blind the Adversary from his magicks and, most importantly, keep the Coven Marshalls away.
They say the Warrior should always impart the Father and the Sage — in that order. But, Ty didn’t possess a shrine to his father to invoke. They could only be made by people who knew the deceased.
Ty tried to rise, but quickly teetered over to his left. He barely caught himself with his forearm, propping himself up awkwardly. The room was spinning and —
Not worth it…
The voice chattered for half of a second. Ty held his breath and closed his eyes, conjuring memories of the people who mattered to him until, finally, the voice subsided and he could stand.
A candle, Ty thought bitterly. I overextended my Presence lighting a fucking candle…
Ty walked to a different shrine, baring a small Dominican family. The father wore a factory mage’s robe of tanned leather and his wife a fuchsia beautician shawl. A thin Dominican boy sat at a stoop beside them, a petite girl with pink gums where her two front teeth should be cradled in his arms.
There, Victor stood. He snapped his finger. “Light!””
An emerald bell fire leapt up and lit the soft blue candle beneath him in one strong stream. Twirling in the wind. Victor watched them, his strong jaw clenched.
“If they could see me now,” Victor whispered as he watched.
“Better they can’t,” Ty said, loftily.
“We’re about to become gangsters,” Ty offered.
Victor shrugged his shoulders. “Pledges, you mean. We’re a fraternity.”
“I think my dad rather himself a criminal son than a traitor.”
“Better than a dead one.”
Ty’s frown deepened. “Vick,” Ty started. “For the Ordeal…we might have to kill someone.”
Victor gestured at the candles. “THEY started it.”
Together, they crossed the boundary, but as two different people.
Grey particles danced on the window, gathering in gutters and rain spouts. Ty told himself it was only snow, but the lies you tell yourself only go so far, before Truth wares that journey to a complete stop.
It was ashes.
The night hissed at Victor, but left Ty alone.
“Why does it always do that?” Victor frowned.
“I don’t know,” Ty said. “Maybe it just don’t like the way you smell?”
“Everybody like the way I smell,” Victor laughed. “Don’t you.
Ty licked his lips and pushed on. This place was a ghost town, but with literal ghosts. Poltergeists of the defenseless whom the City betrayed. If Ty had the heart — and he had plenty — he could open any door and find scores of corpses, some inanimate, others…
Something dashed in the corner of his eye. Ty’s head twisted to catch it, but it moved too quickly. Another hand reached at him. Ty turned again, and it was gone. Victor growled at the darkness. Another rush of wind. Ty felt their aberrant nature coiling around him, the foul stink of adversity and trauma.
“They’re surrounding us, Vick” Ty hissed. Victor nodded, he knew what Ty meant without his skill for detection.
“Aeropasti!” The jaguar leapt out of Victor’s unfurled hands and padded down the street into the darkness. It leapt up and shoved something. Ty felt unnerved — most people could only access a single Ashe at a time — Victor just left them wide open.
You wouldn’t be wide open if you could conjure one, Trickless, said a voice in the back of Ty’s mind. Ty shook it off — it was just the shadows speaking to him: the nature of the Adversary, peeling back his psyche like a tangerine until it go to the succulent, juicy self-doubt and anguish.
Aeropasti came prancing back to their side, an arm like a wild tree branch clenched in its predatory jaws. The wildcat nuzzled Victor’s leg and flicked a tail at Ty.
The beast earned Ty’s respect again — even if it was a little jackass.
Ty inspected the limb of the dispatched Adversary with a close eye before scrutinizing it with his every critical sense, his Awareness.
“What was it, Tee?”
Fair question. With Adversary, some slithered, some soared — and some lurked in your mind and heart. But they were always dangers: they were always threats to all things mundane and magical. And this one…
“I’m…not sure.” Ty said cautiously. “It must be new, slipped out of the Wall or something because it doesn’t even feel like fire. Most Adversary native at the Back-of-the-Wall smell or taste like soot, or coal, or ash. They’re Fire court, released from the…er,”
“The Great Fire,” Victor frowned.
“Yeah. This seems way too foreign — drenched in terror and fear, like the Redcap or the Tallman,” Ty shivered. He hated the Tall Man, it reminded him of the Goliath Grande Adversary that his Ma would tell him about as a kid. “Anyways, unless Aeropasti has had a change of appetites recently, I don’t think he got the thing 100% dead. We should keep going before it comes back for the limb it lost.”
Victor nodded and they walked on and on and on until their feet got tired and their eyes got heavy, and the very idea of walking another step, another stride, in this ugly world, seemed a violence in itself…
And then…they just weren’t outside anymore. The scene bled away like the existence of those who lived here and perished to the fires. They’re in a lobby with leaning, patchy chairs and sofas, a rustic iron door and a few Tainted jittery and shaking.
One of them, a dazey eyed hag, drools as she watches Ty and Victor walk up to the door.
“Bum a spell?” she slurred.
“Hell no,” Ty hissed.
“Tee!” Victor jumped. He walked over to the woman and pulled out a lump of granite. He summoned his Presence, the warm sonic squeal of it all, and transmuted the material into a cozy warm platinum, stone. He placed it into her hand. “Cast with that, I think it’s good for a few Fifth Degree healing spells.”
Victor mugged Ty as he walked past him to the gate. Ty rolled his eyes and followed. Someone slid the peephole open.
Victor sniffed. “Our chains have a cost.”
The words on his lips were like magic. The bolts in the door unscrewed before bursting open. Ty and Victor stepped through. A thousand colors flashed in Ty’s eyes. It was a basement with shelves lined with mason jars. Scorpions, small rodents, a colorful butterfly, birdlings, and — to Ty’s disgust — spiders, along with dozens of other smaller animals suspended in glass chambers. They made excellent bargaining tools — so many natural beasts were wiped out when America fell. The Browns’ tunneled, however, were flushed with them.
When Ty’s grandfather ran this place, the facility was never empty. Brownies from every culture with a drop of Blackness came to learn the heritage and power of the Ancestral Arts. Ty remembered the fiery hammer of the drums in heated darkness, their hammering rhythm and how it enticed Pawpaw’s spirit dancers to twist upon the air. The shadows of the wall twisted and stretched unnaturally until beasts were thrown upon the wall. The drums dared not stop and the men, women and all in-between or excluded were joined by a manner of fantastical Others.
Their Ashe, given human form.
Ty’s pawpaw carried him home in his rough, tired hands, guarded at either side by his loyal soldiers.
“What were you doing, Pawpaw?” Ty asked.
“A curse,” he said nervously. He didn’t want to tell Ty these things. In his age, kids got to be kids, but Ty was just too curious, and he swore to never lie to his favorite boy.
“They hurt someone they shouldn’t have hurt.”
Ty frowned. “Whose They?”
His pawpaw looked grim. “The Blue Bloods,” he muttered. “And the Coven Marshalls who served them.”
Now, Ty didn’t think there was enough in their numbers to Call the Mysteres — to give the long departed Ancestors limited agency to do earthly things: eat, bullshit, rut, bind negativity: all of the great liberties of life.
Still, the street shaman greeted Ty and Victor with the respect they were owed. Today their drudged rags of denim and fatigues were replaced by scarlet, onyx and forest body paint and straw skirts — for the men and women alike.
Victor smirked at Ty as the men and women took Ty by his hands and led him through a doorless frame.
“Gonna get pretty for me?” Victor asked. Ty didn’t get a chance to respond.
A basin of warm water lined with veves waited for him. Cleansing mojo and Purification mojo gave the water a milky white hue and if one looked close enough, a shimmering koi fish poked its head out. Gross. Ty could’ve replicated the same effect with a few expensive cantrips. Or, maybe not. Ancestry was such a confusing style of sorcery — unlike Elegance, sorcerers didn’t ever even know what they were doing. It was as a miracle to a scientist, or doubt to a bishop.
They scrubbed Ty until the sunkissed brown of his abs were covered in suds and hours of dirt dropped off into the water, tainting the pull to Ty’s chagrin. Another vat of purity sullied by Ty’s own inaction.
Just like her.
They dressed Ty in white robes and led him through a long dark hallway. A constant drumming filled the darkness, invoking a deep danger within Ty.
“Where are we going? I’ve never been this deep.”
They said nothing. The drumming grew louder. Ty frowned, were they really doing the ceremonial silence bullshit? Ty got ritual — if he had a major in anything it’d be that — but this?
“You know I could just sense what’s going on right? Your ominous silence bit is pointless and — ”
“Jeez Trickless, can’t you just go along with the friggin’ ambience for one?”
Ty nodded his head. It was a fair request. They came into a dingy black chamber
The room was a perfect octagon and built of browning bricks. Paper talismans hung from every wall. Eleven other shamans lined the room — each one of them dressed in the same shade of white as Ty. Victor was there, and had been for so long his clothes stuck to the sweat on his chest. A girl, Emilia, kept staring at him, familiarizing herself with his every angle. In the center of the room was a burning copper brazier filled with molten red coal.
Out of the darkness, came a frail old man adorned with a carrowed cloak of warm fur, lined with mudcloth, knitted from the hide of the last known Panther found in the Browns. It was a significantly sized shawl, passed from hand-to-hand through the ages.
The frail, thin old man beneath the costume was the fiery and fierce warlock of the age, Quinto Glover, leader of the Allegiance and the dancing flames made his eyes feel more bloody and ferocious than the beast on his back.
The air was steamy. Ty felt his heart dancing in his throat. There were a lot of contenders this year. That meant bad things. Not only were shamans outside of this room probably taking bets, but they’d definitely sneak the red stone in.
Ty’s grandfather invented the blood sport tradition. Someone would have to die, and for once, it would be someone on the other side of the Wall. The selected could choose to reject this request, but to do so would call into question your commitment to the Allegiance. Still, there were important rules here about accepting an Ordeal. Ty knew his grandfather would never reject someone for saying no. Quinto shared less in common with his grandfather than Ty himself.
And this year, Ty had an inkling on who it’d be. The one hint: a Brown Blood.
When the flame’s heat filled the room finally, Quinto began his tale.
“In the beginning, the Saviors founded Antebellum on the idea that the Old World failed in unity and put a collar on the magic we all need to survive the Adversary. At that time, our people knew we required our own world, and Allegiance linked our chains.” Quinto folded his hands. “As the spear, it’s my duty to strengthen our people here and now with a test of your resolve, and your stability: to prove your strength by surviving the same pain our Ancestors did.”
Quinto eyed the brazier. “The Spirits are here, filling the heat around us. Let them steel you. Reach into the pit and discover your burden to bare.”
Ty looked into the brazier. There were forty-three stones. Theft, stamina, spectacle, courage, intellect. All virtues exhibited by the Ancestors. Ty had his eye on Intellect. But, Victor? Ty could practically hear him praying for the Red Stone.
Everyone took their steps forward. As his bare feet met the hot graphite beneath him, he recalled the letter’s contents. He read it, of course he did, but it was still begging him for a rebuttal.
Today was the final day for an admission request. It was his final day to leave the horrible Browns forever.
Congratulations, Tyree DuBeau! We welcome you to the fold! The Covenant proudly presents you pledge sponsorship amongst the most elite of the Seven Leagues, the Orthodoxy of Magic, Academy for the civics, servitude and the vanquisher’s arts.
Should you accept, we invite you to sign away your service –
Everyone shoved their hands into the fire. Ty sucked his teeth in and fought back the urge to resist the burn. His lips quivered, and spittle flurried from his lips. Victor patiently turned his head to Ty, concerned, but unwilling to snitch on his best friend. No one else seemed to notice Ty’s anguish and agony — then again, what else was new? If he did this right, no one would know Ty didn’t have an Ashe, he’d receive his Ordeal, and he’d —
“Ty,” Quinto observed. “Are you…in pain?”
Everyone turned to Ty as they pulled their hands away from the braziers. Ty pulled his own hand back, scald marks searing him from digit to forearm. Ty’s eyes were bloodshot and filled with salted tears. He tried to blink it back, but to no avail.
Worse, Ty thought he’d grabbed a stone, but it was only his imagination — or the pain.
“Ty… what are you doing?”
“I — ”
“You’ve no Ashe, and you’ve tried to take part in the Ordeal? That was incredible reckless.”
Ty’s eyes flicked about. Everyone clinched a stone: Victor included. Nothing looked close to red.
“I can go back in, I can get my stone.”
“Ty — you should’ve have come if you don’t have one. I’m sorry. Others, give us a moment as we call the soldiers in to escort Ty out. I’m sorry child, I’m declaring this — ”
I think about her when I’m on my back beneath him.
Or on my belly, because of him.
Revered and Beautiful. Rather than a second mat, under my husband– collecting checks just to spend them on a right to keep on breathing.
She has flaws, and she is not the most beautiful. But, millions flock to her virtue and give love to the flawed beauty of this white woman with the brunette hair.
Blacks ain’t even likened to brunettes.
Ain’t that something? So beautiful they find other words to describe her blackness. Raven. Brunette. Onyx.
But Black girls only know Black.
Black knees. Black hair. Black eyes and Black lives.
That’s how ugly they think we are. Liken if Ms. Lisa were ever subject to a Black eye, they’d call it something prettier.
Though, none of that keep me from thinking thoughts no Black girl should. That my skin is like caramel after generations of baring half-milk black babies we never asked for.
Maybe If I avoid the sun, I could be her: take her place: wear her paint chips like lotion.
Ain’t that a sight?
A Black Mona’ Lisa.
Black Art, made manifest.
Dream about it.
Never mind. I’ll do more than dream.
I pack my bags and buy the ticket under the cover of night — the darkness hugging me so close, and flee my husband, hootin’ when I outpace him onto the flight. He call me a mean name: “Black Ugly Cow!” The Ugly part doesn’t make me wince, but how he call me Black… why, it’s as if he ain’t realize he Black himself. His Mama Black, too. Makes me think all his hate he got for me, must be the hate he instead feels for his reflection.
I lay my head low on the flight and swallow my demon-shaped worries. I’ve got a lot to fret about. Barely a nickel to my name, but I’ve a passport. I’ve intent, and that’s more than most Black Women got.
I’ve a dream to be better than a fly on the wall in the Louvre: to be a painting before their eyes. And the Louvre will simply be another place surrounding my greatness.
I land. I make do in the hostels never far from Black-loving white children on a cocaine relay from one conqueror’s nation to another. I stay months too long and –
Well, conquerors have no charity. But I’ve a job; I’ve a dream. Now, I’ve a home too.
And the day I get the key, I get a tiny picture and pin it above my pillow. I gotta be on my tippy toes to kiss it up there, but I do every day: my face cut oval and glued to the Mona’ Lisa’s neck. Mustard neck, Golden-Black face. The Mona’ Lisa never looked so good.
I sway the mop around the porcelain floors, of the porcelain temple to the Porcelain Gods. The Louvre isn’t around me, I’m in it — devoured whole, I sway that mop in my sections and I watch the kids sneak a selfie of Mona’ Lisa and her smile that haunts you.
I smile back and a guard I cannot see shrieks.
He’s pretending: I’m not that ugly. He’s just French, and rude.
I pay them no mine: Mona’ Lisa can’t be ugly.
A Black cherub approaches me. She ain’t got two front teeth to cut with.
“Picture?” Her finger points back to the old Mona’ Lisa.
I smile. Of course dear. I take one with her, holding it up and getting close. I hand it back.
She looks disappointed, but I gave her my best smile.
My teeth radiate. “I’ma be Mona’ Lisa!”
She giggles and hugs me, and as the girl skips off, I keep on smiling. I smile so wide, my cheeks burn!
Mona’ Lisa made me like that, once.
Mona’ Lisa made her like that, now.
Black Art made manifest.
It’s not about showing what you could be — setting a mold for someone else to fit into.
It’s about showing them they can break a mold for themselves.
Black Art ain’t a guideline.
Black Art is an example!
Night fall. The guards are here, but I don’t care.
I stomp through the palace like I run it, because I do.
Land of conquerors — It’s mine!
Little Miss Louvre temple think she impenetrable?
I’ma raid it. This my temple, now. The God ain’t Porcelain! I find the Mona’ Lisa — oh, Girlfriend ugly now.
Guards are coming. The scissors I snuck in my stocking goes snip-snip. I cut a hole where Mona’ Lisa is — the smile and the brunette locks. I shove myself in her place.
A friend of mine from Columbus, OH can’t afford tape for his cleats, let alone new cleats. At home, there is a surplus of duct tape. The shiny material winds immortally down the concrete pavements. It’s trafficked and cherished with more reverence than the familiars of the homeless. It is the holy grail of livelihood. This friend was always wealthy by our standards. His household had two cars, two parents, and shiny smiles that turned out liberal thinkers who never had to worry what drugs would do to them. And he doesn’t. He does cocaine off-handedly, but he doesn’t “do-do” cocaine. Just when he’s at Bars. Just when he’s about to do something athletic. Just anytime he needs a thrill. In the same vein, he is thrilled to be in New York, on the Lower East Side. He can’t afford to tape his cleats, but he is thrilled, because he is poor now too. This inescapable phantom lurking in the Blues — the tearstained muse of every artist, revered for her savagery and the pain and the panic she summons — is now his greatest prize. New York, the grand equalizer of fantasies. Where the rich and white come to play at Poverty. My friend isn’t the first I’ve come across with the bizarre observation of economic struggle as a gilded treasure. In fact, it’s too common. The Nosferatu by the name of Gentrification assures us that it will be here eternally, feeding on the blood of the poor, sustaining itself on a bleeding wheel of oppression. It’ll cast out the weak and broken-backed many and then it’ll dance in our homes. I walk these same streets with people who hold more wealth in their phones than my entire family has sustained for generations. My shoes are well catered and cleaned. I ensure that they are. I scuff them during the day, I polish them during the night. I shine my sneakers bleach white and raw with my washcloth. I’ve been trained by my hood to watch the ground. At first, it was always an attempt at invisibility. And now, it’s to measure Power in strides. New York is filled with such ugly feet. So much money. Such poor feet. I’m surprised that I just walked past a very affluent painter in the Lower East Side. Their shoes are clunky and ugly. In my hood, Sketchers are disgusting. As condemnable as Shaq’s. Balenciaga sold the same designs to wealthy whites, and now they’re everywhere. I can’t tell if they’re well kept or horribly attended. The fact there is now unobtainable price-tag on something I once ran from in my past thanks to a brand is infuriating to me. In Columbus, the Poor are leveraged to companies. We’re the Amazon factory workers that lug boxes so big they set our lifespans back a decade with one lug. How else can we clean our shoes? How else can we shine our own status? Drugs are remedies for mental instability because we can’t afford the actual medication. I’ve met anxious people on Molly and the oddest strands of natural kush mixed with something extra perky. They’re not for fun. They’re for necessity. We’re poor for real. We’re so poor, that the concept of brushing shoulder to shoulder on Public Transport with a millionaire is inconceivable. And yet, in New York City, they make memes about it. The advertisements here market goods and services no one traveling among common-folk should be able to dream of! Luxury is flaunted in front of the un-luxurious. These shoes aren’t the only thing reminded me of this contempt.
Hip Hop Concerts are too expensive for the demographic they once embodied. I’m told Nas’ Illmatic is the best album of all time on Television by a white boy. On Twitter, a YT gatekeeps Caribbean culture. Basquiat hangs in the den of Trump Tower businesses men. A white man in a Café asks me if I’ve ever even heard of Toni Morrison. A white woman rejects me from their Marginalized writer initiatives because my Black work just isn’t literary enough, It’s not speculative enough, I mean, a Black man writing about the magic inherent in Blackness? What? I should be more like Octavia Spencer, that’s a Black who did it! And the Vampires lurk just outside of Harlem, sniffing at my Schomburg Center. They want to raid that temple, trample on Langston’s revered grave. Post-post Modernism is white people loathing their whiteness. They shed it like the cicada sheds its carcass. It flicks its wet wings, soaked in the blood of so many ancestors and dries them with purpose. But, what escapes is only the illusion of a post-racial entity, a chimera. A creature of parts and pieces stolen from so many other worlds that it shouldn’t be its own thing. It is an Anathema, disgusting and unnatural. I wish I could be hopeful. As I write, German barista eyes the Black boy and Dominican teen — discussing nudes and sexual conquest they’ve probably have had but understand very little about — as they walk in. He threatens to throw them out, despite this being an open Café. They’re loud, arrogant and vicious. I like them, they remind me of me and my friends, when we were loud, arrogant and vicious. They’re not Lower East Side, maybe, but certainly New Yorkers. A “Proud to serve the Community” sign hangs just beside a sign discussing the effects of gentrification in New York as he speaks to them. I want to be hopeful. But in New York, the Whites will suck that dry, too.
Being Black and an emerging writer resisting Trump’s America presents interesting challenges. You’re rising in an industry that claims to value your voice, and want to incorporate your narrative in a bid for diversity and rebellion, yet refuses to employ you.
It’s not a secret to Black writers — both radical and tame — that Editorial and Publishing is secretly thrush with covert corporate racism. You can actually count on a single hand how many writers of color at all are discovered before they’ve built their own platforms to an extent they very likely do not need the assistance of publishing houses who knock at their doors for a handout. Black Writers are seldom employed to use our nuance and navigation of our complicated lives and the translation of our bodies across the human experience — we are mitigated to a specific seat on specific staffs, many without more than one or two faces that look like ours.
Recently, many companies have made a bid for individuals to speak on POC and Marginalized Community-related politics, but rather than being a challenge to involve voices that aren’t heard, we find that unless we have a specific following behind us, we cannot even get a seat at the kiddy table, let alone an entry-level position with very little income.
I had the irony of sitting in the backseat of an LYFT with a woman who had the fortune of working for a Big 5 Publishing House, one I’ve recently been rejected from for whatever reason. She had very little to say about her previous place of employment that I have not heard about many similar places who pay crumbs and ashes to the POC working amongst them while glorifying the pursuits and agendas of whiter, straighter counterparts. I didn’t propose that this reflects on the BIG 5 publishing house not employing me, because honestly? It could be that I didn’t fit their no qualifications necessary bylines on the job description, and somehow me — a supposedly radical black queer writer with strong feelings on social justice and politics — didn’t fit their search for a writer who feels strongly about “marginalized communities, politics, and social justice).
However, this conversation on experience in writers is ridiculous in itself, because in a community that voices the problem amongst media being that it doesn’t give POC representation of our narratives or stories in any format, how is it that a Writer of Color is able to have any experience?
How do you have experience when you’re not able to be employed?
Quite easily: by working for free. By allowing yourself to be taken advantage of like this is a greasy Motown recording studio, and you’re looking for sounds that can “Cross-over” without that nasty glorification of the dark-skinned talent who made this art.
Black Writers have not had the opportunity to contribute the substance that we deserve to be able to contribute in this new age of digital content. There are platforms, but it’s limited and niched. And if we audace to self-publish: we are punished fo rit by those same Publishers; called not “good enough” for literary pursuits. That’s not to say that it was any better before — that’s to say that the current environment is just a different head of the hydra.
I wish I was the only writer of color — the only BLACK Writer with this issue, but I have counted 15 peers who have hit the same roadblocks, and we have all found our defeat at the hands of a Starry-Eyed White Girl with the Mid-West with a Sylvia Plath button on her backpack and a can-do spirit she wants to impart to the “Poor Blacks” she’s read all about on her friend’s blog. Your NYU/New School Admission Letter and Democratic Party sticker doesn’t make you better than any of us. It makes you more privileged and it makes you more palatable to the audiences that the Publisher and Editors want money from.
Ergo, it makes you almost as bad as the Gentrification you’re likely contributing to.
And Yes. I do come off as angry or wrathful in this particular piece/excerpt/chapter about the issues of marginalization I encounter. Maybe, it’s because I’m angry and wrathful, Lindsey?
At one point, I had dreams of working for GQ. As a Fashion enthusiast, a menswear advocate and a lover of a good fashion blog, It thrilled me to find a magazine that fit my personality. It became the thing I marked my career trajectory with.
I had dreams of also working for Marvel, and writing for the X-Men gave me hopes of sharing something with my father who gave me my first comic despite losing him to a mutation of his own genes. I had many other aspirations of becoming an editor — or becoming a content creator — or a novelist. So many things, but each and every industry has found its way to slam its doors closed at Black writers!
And the few journals and magazines catering specifically to Black writers, or writers of color, are so congested with writers fighting for their voices to be heard, that it’s a mound of talented individuals clawing at each other to get to the top.
This is not the fault of Black Writers trying to be heard in a world that has silenced us since the Harlem Renaissance: this is the fault of the major companies and corporations who do not want to admit their inherent biases enough to realize that their Diversity initiatives have turned Black writers and creators into TOKENS.
I invite you to prove me wrong: search any of the Big 5 Companies — hell, search any editorial staff that isn’t Blavity or LATINX. Count how many Black Writers are on staff. Expand your search. Count how many Writers of Color are on their board.
Now, look at all “diverse” stories they’ve published. Will you notice a consistent trend among what’s being published? Will you notice that the diversity initiatives by these companies are heavily white washed or place a glorifying eye onto whiteness in a way that makes them seem “troubled, but by golly — they don’t know any better!”
The particular Blackness depicted in all of these stories and narratives are structured counter-culturally against the issues and culture of poverty and class. You will never find a story of ghetto, slum or hood lifestyles, or even symmetrical comparisons — because the elitism being pushed forward heavily leans to drowning specific kinds of blackness and uplifting the more “tolerable” versions of it by the fault of the publications.
Refer to my Motown metaphor, you will notice a recurring theme in the performance.
Diversity is just the newest incarnation of the Mainstream Cross-Over culture of the 1960s — it’s not that original. It’s saying we can only be accepted by an artform when our art matches a certain tone. It’s saying we can’t all make it, so only the ones that they can accept will do it.
It’s troubling, and unless these companies are willing to confront this directly, they are hypocrites.
And there is very little as disgusting asa liberal hypocrite.
Featured Photo courtesy of Don Fonso (@fonzfranc) Stylist , Look Innovator and Fashion Icon for the Digital Age.
Every year, around August 26th, there is a weekend of pure Black joy and happiness: Afropunk.
Afropunk is a festival that is part celebration of the alternative blackness, part exposition of black music in its numerous forms. The life that isn’t paralleled to the commonly understood black experience, but in fact goes perpendicular — actively intersecting with our very life.
Taken from us by a series of heart problems on July 8th, 2017. Lafayette Reynolds was the Femme Icon before people knew they needed one! Remember his legacy by streaming his iconic character on TRUE BLOOD!