By Austin James
Jamming to Lauryn Hill on repeat with my mom is one of my earliest memories. The love of music I share with my mother is deep, so when I saw Ms. Hill on the lineup for Afropunk 2015 with Lion Babe, SZA, and other artists I knew, I had no choice but to go. I listened to all of the performers on Spotify and was in awe of the diverse Black music landscape. Not just rap, hip-hop and R&B, but also rock and alternative and metal. At 24, I was still learning that my culture is multidimensional. How is that?
I walked into the concert and saw a huge banner framing the main stage that read: “No Sexism. No Racism. No Ableism. No Homophobia. No Fatphobia. No Transphobia. No Hatefulness.” In the most important location, a warning stood for everyone that the small-minded, hateful bigotry I experience regularly had no place here.
My outfit for day two of the festival was more me than the first. The $3 shirt from H&M covered in melting popsicles that I cut into a tank top, with shorts that someone left in my apartment after a college party. The bandana and the gold chain. The Timbs. It was me in the most basic way: Black and gay.
I had discovered my own Eden: I was just myself, exposed, with no sin implied. And I was safe.
They have booths at Afropunk for artists and vendors to sell their goods. I remember peeking into a booth with African prints that I wanted to take a closer look at, but feeling like I couldn’t actually go in. I am not African, have never met African relatives — would wearing these beautiful prints count as cultural appropriation? I just wanted to embrace the beauty of a cultural identity stolen from me long before I knew what it was, or even that it could be mine. As I awkwardly leaned into the entrance to see if anyone was there, an African woman walked up and, with a smile on her face, said, “You’re welcome inside!”
“I had discovered my own Eden: I was just myself, exposed, with no sin implied. And I was safe.”
Black, gay and booty-short-wearing me was welcome. I wanted to cry, but I managed to get out a “thank you.” I couldn’t control myself long enough to actually look at anything, so I walked back to the base my friends and I had set up, wiping away the tears that made it past my pride. That’s when I asked my friends to take this picture of me. A picture of the me I didn’t know I was keeping from myself for so long. The me that was still welcome!
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It wasn’t until I graduated from college and began working full-time with young students of color that I realized how much I wish my own upbringing had been different. Eighteen years of small-town Maryland, pick-up trucks and confederate flags whitewashed my Black Magic until it was nearly gone.
When I was accepted to all 13 of the colleges I applied to (including Cornell, Columbia, Northwestern and the University of Chicago), a friend’s mom said, to my face, that it only happened because I was Black.
My childhood was full of disheartening messages around Blackness and Black culture. Among other sad efforts to literally and metaphorically survive, I rarely listened to hip-hop or rap, knew none of the newest dances and never used the slang.
As if that weren’t enough, I also had a blossoming appreciation for my same sex. Now imagine trying to discover who you are when the loudest voices tell you you’re nothing.
Getting into theater in high school was the first real step into self-actualization. Not only did I find my best friends, I was good at it. I had something that I felt proud of.
(Little did I know at the time my love of theater would go bad in college when I was told by esteemed faculty that I would spend my life on tour playing “traditionally Black roles” — a cage I knew I could not live in.)
“I see with my own eyes that what I was made to believe as the norm for Black people is not. I see young Black kids who don’t struggle to fit in the way I had to because the adults around tell them they’re smart and beautiful and talented. They can listen to hip-hop and study chemistry.”
Then, my discomforting experiences with race in college combined with the numerous unjust murders of young Black men gave me a rude awakening. Growing up, I lived in a white world that kept me unaware of the systematic cruelties plaguing my community. I was unaware of the cruelties happening to me. I was laughing at my own expense.
Now, I have a job managing operations at a new high school in the city where I see children of color flourish and love themselves. I see with my own eyes that what I was made to believe as the norm for Black people is not. I see young Black kids who don’t struggle to fit in the way I had to because the adults around tell them they’re smart and beautiful and talented. They can listen to hip-hop and study chemistry. They can speak in colloquialisms and write eloquent essays on feminism. I was never the exception because I was smart — we are Black AND smart.
My students’ Blackness is to be embraced. They help me embrace my Blackness. It took 24 years, but I can now say that I’m happy to just be me. I’ve started to regularly witness what should always be referred to as “Black Magic.” I can take no credit for the phrase, nor can I provide a legitimate definition, but to me it’s the infinite ability Black people have to keep shining in our own ways, despite the roadblocks laid before us at nearly every turn. After 18 years of genuinely believing I had no magic, and six more years of a struggle to find it, turn it on, and keep it on, I can no longer let my beautiful Black Gay Magic shine in secret. The disappearing act is over.
Austin James is terrified to write this post and have his emotional thoughts about his racial awakening misconstrued. A 2013 communication studies graduate, Austin now resides in New York City working as the Business Operations Manager for a growing charter school. In his spare time, he is usually performing with his a cappella group Backtrack Vocals, visiting his family in Maryland or watching Broad City. He is single, so if this article really spoke to you, let us connect you!