By Nicky Reid aka Comrade Hermit
Exile in Happy Valley
“Black power is giving power to people who have not had power to determine their destiny.”
-Huey P. Newton
Growing up as a secretly Queer white kid in a predominantly white conservative community can be a profoundly surreal and downright unsettling experience. You look like everyone you know but from a very young age it becomes frighteningly clear that you’re not one of them. I distinctly remember feeling like a space alien abandoned on a foreign planet. I remember feeling like an existentially unwelcome visitor among family and friends and not knowing why. I didn’t know what Queer was. I had never even heard of words like genderfluid or nonbinary. I grew up under the terrifying assumption that there was no one else out there like me. Whatever the hell I was didn’t exist outside my head but somehow everyone around me seemed to see it.
I remember being treated by adults as if I were somehow a dangerous child. Teachers at my little Catholic school would periodically hold meetings to discuss what should be done with me. Parents stared and whispered when I got anywhere near their children, especially the ones younger than me, as if they could somehow catch whatever it was that made me so unsettling. My skin may have been the same color as theirs, but they made it very clear that whatever I was, was something else. I was something dangerously other. These confusing experiences with childhood alienation and felt stigma made it very hard to maintain anything resembling a self-esteem well into adulthood. Uncoincidentally, my heroes during this frightening time in my life were predominately Black.
The nineties seemed to be a profoundly surreal and downright unsettling time for Blackness as well. During the era of gangsta rap, rural white communities like mine generally saw Black people as being dangerous, but this danger seemed to somehow make them cool. Black pop cultural figures of that era from Eazy-E to Chris Rock seemed to embrace this aura of danger thrust upon them by mainstream white society and threw it back in their faces flamboyantly with middle fingers blazing.
I didn’t really know any famous Queer people like me. I didn’t think they existed. But outrageously outspoken Black figures like Tupac Shakur and Dennis Rodman seemed to give me the strength to embrace my own unique otherness and throw it back in the faces of all the pious adults who seemed so terrified by it. It’s not that I felt or acted Black, I just didn’t feel like I belonged where I grew up any more than these people would have. So, in a very strange way, my first Queer heroes were relatively straight Black people. Grace Jones didn’t look a damn thing like me, but she felt a hell of a lot more familiar than very cis-hetero friendly Queer people like Ellen DeGeneres and Grace got to kick Conan’s ass.
As I grew older and slowly came to terms with my complicated and turbulent sexuality and gender identity, I discovered Queer culture and new paler icons to relate to like David Bowie and Lou Reed, but I also discovered the Black Power Movement of the sixties and seventies through the glossy yellowed time machine of the ancient magazines in my mother’s basement thrift store. I became enamored with the culture and attitude of dangerous Black rebels like Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, and Angela Davis. People who didn’t ask for rights but demanded power from the system that enslaved their ancestors. The Black Panthers marched with loaded shotguns and nappy Afros and announced that they weren’t just dangerous, they were beautiful, and they were willing to blow up the American Empire for their beautiful people and all the beautiful people who struggled against colonialism to be free.
What Malcolm and Huey demanded for their people was precisely what I wanted for mine, not to be assimilated into the nation that abused us but for the autonomy, self-determination, and self-sufficiency to build a stateless nation of our own. The Black Power Movement inspired me to be a stronger Queer person. They inspired me not just to want more for my own maligned minority but to demand it by any means necessary. But to fully understand the magnificent achievements of the Black Power Movement and how it empowered a rainbow of multicolored outlaws across the globe you have to understand the harrowing history of Blackness itself.