Kidada speaks with writer, poet and social commentator Saeed Jones about the many facets of Black masculinity, how it has been shaped and reshaped over the years, and the challenges that have arisen around cultural expectations for the type of Black man you should be in order to be a credit to the race.
They dig into the role of white supremacy in establishing and upholding these cultural norms and discuss how the system is operating and iterating and wreaking havoc even without active involvement from white people.
They also discuss “doing the work” of dismantling harmful ideas about gender and masculinity, the relationship between safety and freedom, cultivating freedom by helping to liberate others, and finding joy by transforming pain into love.
Kidada E. Williams: This is Seizing Freedom: the show where we dig into archives to bring you stories about how African Americans freed themselves during the Civil War and built new lives in Reconstruction and beyond. And where we talk with artists, thinkers, and activists who followed that quest for freedom to the present and future. I’m Kidada Williams.
Saeed Jones: “A few months and many deaths ago, I woke up exhausted, again. Every morning, I felt like I was rebuilding myself from the ground up. Waking up was hard. Getting to my desk to write was hard. Taking care of my body was hard. Remembering the point of it all was hard.“
KEW: Today, a conversation with writer, poet, and insightful social commentator Saeed Jones.
SJ: “On this particular morning, as I lay in bed too tired to turn the alarm on my phone off, my exhaustion morphed into anger. I was angry that, three and a half decades into my life, living had only gotten more difficult. And then my anger did something to me. It’s difficult to explain. And—to be clear—in the moment, it didn’t feel like a revelation. But my anger brought me to myself, a mirror: yes, Saeed, you do have to rebuild yourself every single day. No, it will never get any easier. This is the work.”
KEW: Saeed is the author of the award-winning memoir How We Fight for Our Lives, and the Substack newsletter, Werk-in-Progress, where the essay he’s reading is from. It’s called: “What does it mean to be creative at the end of the world?”
In my conversation with Saeed, we talk about growing up Black and queer in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas; the construction of Black masculinity; doing “the work” of interrupting and dismantling harmful ideas about gender in his own life and community; and his vision of collective liberation for all Black people. And we consider just throwing out masculinity altogether. Saeed started to understand how race, sexuality and gender interact at an early age.
SJ: My mother was fiercely political and astute about culture. I always tell people she read three newspapers every day— Dallas Morning News, USA Today and, I think, The New York Times—and, you know…and we were always talking about the world we were living in and the forces kind of acting upon us, as a Black single mother and her son. And then also, she practiced nature and Buddhism, which really infused our home with a sense of understanding that everything has a cause and effect, that there was a oneness of self and environment—not just natural environment, but our communities our people environment that everything is related and connected—and then meanwhile, I’m a baby gay, starting to step into my understanding of my sexuality.
And then also, we were living in the suburbs of north Texas, just north of Dallas. And so, I was also having those experiences of increasingly being the only Black kid in AP English, in AP European History, you know, as I got further and further into my education. And so, yeah, I think it all came together that I felt that tension. I felt like…like the onus was on me from my mother to understand that how I live in the world impacts the world, vice versa.
But then also because I was coming of age as a Black queer man, felt how the world was acting upon me, you know? And so I think now, I think one of the joys of my life is that I’ve been able to transform a lot of that hurt and fear into what I think is an ethos of love.
“Yes, we do have to rebuild ourselves from the ground up every single day. No, I do not believe life, as we understand it, will get any easier. But we are worthy of our process. We are the work.”
KEW: Did you have a sense, or an awareness, early on of what the world pressing on you sort of looked like and felt like?
SJ: You know, when I was entering puberty and entering my early teens, I remember watching the public conversation about Matthew Shepard. People being like, “Well, that’s what you get!” You know, “What did he think was going to happen? He’s a gay guy and he was talking to people in a bar?”
And then, around that same time, James Byrd, Jr.—a Black man—was killed by three white supremacists in a horrific way, just like four hours from where we were living. So yeah. I mean, those are big experiences for me in terms of just seeing, peril and understanding that how I look and how I present myself has an impact.
KEW: So, I feel like coming up in that same era, like I had similar pivotal moments. Like, so I was older, but I remember James Byrd. I remember the horror in my school about the reaction to what happened to Matthew Shepard. And the Black men, with respect to James Byrd’s killing. So I wanted to ask—the title of your memoir is “How We Fight For Our Lives.” What kind of life were you fighting for, and do you feel like you’re winning?
SJ: I do feel like I’m winning. I, you know, I’m 35; I turn 36 later this month. It’s statistically phenomenal, which is pretty incredible, you know, but yeah, Black queer people—ooh, do we make it to our third, fourth decade? We’ll see. But yeah, I do feel like I’m winning and I feel like I’ve tapped into the joy now.
But I would say, especially for probably well into my twenties, I was just trying to survive. I felt that I was fighting for my life in a literal way. Because the violence, I think, that I was trying to outrun—and sometimes literally collided with—it wasn’t always visible and often wasn’t literal. It was existential. It was systemic. It felt like getting beat up by a ghost or a phantom which, you know, is already bewildering.
But I think the thing that was even worse about it is that it felt like people saw me. You know, I remember for a long time, my worst fear would be…fainting in front of people. Like, I remember all through high school, I remember my worst fear was that on graduation day when it came time to walk across the stage, I would slip and fall. And it took me a long time to understand. I was like, oh, it’s this idea of total vulnerability in front of people—surrounded by people—who in that moment can’t or won’t help me…and what I realized, I was like, oh my God, that’s the whole thing.
That’s really what it felt like. So fighting for my life was like trying to change how I felt inside and the environment, the culture in which I lived. Though I didn’t always realize it, I look back now and God it’s like, did I ever catch my breath? You know, I think I was so…I was either exhausted or like, kind of manic because I was so angry. So I would have these moments where I felt like I wanted to inflict all of that hurt on the world as almost like a preemptive strike, you know? And then I was just scared a lot. It was an exhausting time.
KEW: The experience Saeed is describing is shared by Black men through various historical eras, as they navigated a world that saw them differently than they saw themselves. Over the years, Black masculinity has been shaped and reshaped by Black men, as well as the many forces acting on them—including the difficulties of finding dignified housing and work, or the white backlash they faced when they succeeded. These are the same forces Saeed described becoming aware of at an early age. And I wanted to know how Saeed defines masculinity for himself.
SJ: I am a work in progress and we all are, and I think that probably the healthiest way to approach gender and identity…I was talking to an indigenous activist earlier this week—their name is Indigo Gonzales, I believe—and Indigo said, “Trying to make something permanent, that is the most colonial thing you can do.” And I was like, “Oh!” [laughs] That hit me in a way, you know, where “Wow. Okay!” You know, for whatever reason, it really spoke to my understanding of gender because as…particularly as a young Black man—and especially when I was in the closet or making my way out of that space—there was such a rigidity.
I think the men in my life—my uncles, my cousins—who present as a more traditional kind of man. I’m thinking of my uncle, Albert, for example. You know, he’s a church deacon, father of four or five, company man, very dependable and consistent. And there are aspects of that that I admire, you know? His understanding of responsibility, for example, is an aspect of masculinity that I’ve tried to remember: that you need to show up for people. You don’t need to wait for people to ask you to do things. [laughs] You’re supposed to do things because that’s valuable.
But then there are aspects of that kind of masculinity where I see him almost imprisoned by some of those same ideas. I remember feeling imprisoned in my body as a Black man—moments where my mom would be sitting right next to me as an adult woman raising a child on her own, and people would turn to me and call me the man of the house. I’m 14. What are you talking about?
KEW: I am the baby here! I am a child!
SJ: I am quite literally the baby, and if I’m the man of the house we’re in trouble because I’m not bringing in any income. I’m not putting food on the table. I’m not taking her to the doctor. It’s just so wild, you know? But that was really true. And then, the one other thing I would add—and I think we’re seeing this a lot more now, too, which is interesting—but, this idea that you have to be a proud Black man with that kind of bass in your voice, not just for yourself, but because you’re in America and because of truly racist, white supremacist ideas.
I don’t disagree that those ideas exist, but there’s often this idea that—on top of everything else, as if it’s not hard enough to figure out what it means to be a Black man—you’re also supposed to be a certain kind of Black man so that you’re not an embarrassment to the race? And it did come up when I with a kid, and I think, to go back to Matthew Shepard, part of what was going on there that was a bit of a mind trip was—and it took me years to understand this—this idea that being gay meant to be white. And so to be gay, then, was implicitly coded as a double betrayal; it’s both that betrayal of gender and a betrayal of this idea of raced masculinity.
KEW: How would you characterize the difference in terms of the pressure from white folks or Black folks when it comes to being more or less masculine? Like, who do you think is responsible for the prison that you described?
SJ: I mean, you know, this is like…what’s that Lorraine O’Grady says, like “In the future, white supremacy won’t even need white people.” I think we’re in that future. I think we’ve been living in that future for some time in a lot of ways. And so yes, I do feel at the end of the day, white supremacy is the culprit. It’s like there’s a violent, chaotic catalyst. And then the fallout is also violent and chaotic, and it leads to more violence and chaos. I feel like that’s a lot of, kind of, how race and gender kind of works. But it starts with white supremacy.
I would say something that complicates this—I’ve always been a very good social performer. I always have, you know…it got to the point where I was almost too good at it. And it was like, “damn, like how many masks do I got?”, like, “what’s going on?” You know what I mean? Like it was, “Who am I? What do I actually care about?” You know, I go to school or I’m hanging out with friends, I’m in the suburbs. I quickly became aware of the importance of a kind of gender fluidity sometimes to make friends, sometimes to appear less threatening.
I mean, I’m a happy person [laughs], but I noticed, like, white people would treat me well because I was smiling all the time. And I remember in college, I had a best friend who was darker complected and he doesn’t smile a lot. [laughs] But It was incredible because people would come talk to me and ask me to tell him things because they were scared of him. It was like, no matter what he did, was perceived as both angrier, threatening, more menacing than me. It’s kind of like you’re in a prison, but the reason you’re in the prison is not visible, because white supremacy is so sneaky it becomes the very atmosphere.
KEW: So if white supremacy and patriarchy are the culprit, how can Black folks ever truly define masculinity in a way that’s not a cage maintained by anyone—white, Black, or otherwise?
SJ: I mean, [laughs] I laugh because it’s like, well, shit. I mean, how do we…I mean, I think…What is masculinity for? Like, I don’t—obviously I think about gender constantly. I think about how it feels to be in my body. I think about…you know. I was at a queer, femme burlesque show earlier this week and as I was watching the performers dance—and most of them were femme-identified women of color and it’s like “Oh!” you know—so I’m watching them and thinking about what it means to see them present their bodies in a way that’s sexy, but not objectified, and what it means for me to enjoy the performance.
But of course I’m enjoying it for different reasons. I saw some…there were a couple of straight men at the back of the room and I’m like, we’re having a very different experience, [laughs] you know? And I say all that to say, I have access to all of that because I’m not obsessed with that rigidity; I’m not obsessed with the kind of man I am or the kind of man whoever out there thinks I’m supposed to be. And thus, I’m able to access all of that. You know what I mean?
I’m not closing any of those doors. I think that’s what Black people have to do; that’s what anyone has to do. But I think we have to…if not burn it down, laugh at it. [laughs] It’s ridiculous. It’s utterly ridiculous, but it’s wreaking havoc. People are dying because of it. I see people—Black people in particular—suffering because of these retrograde ideas of gender and it’s like, get free! So I guess, what do Black people need to do? I guess we need to abandon masculinity. It was never ours.
The most substantive ideas about freedom I’ve learned have come from Black women, from femmes, trans people…duh! You know, sex workers, duh! Those are the people we need to pay attention to. I mean, any man who’s had anything interesting to say about gender, within a few sentences they admit that they basically learned it from the women and femmes in their lives. [laughs] You know what I mean?
Like, it’s just true. Like, if you want to understand white supremacy, talk to Black people, duh! If you want to understand patriarchy, talk to the people under patriarchy’s boot, you know? And so it’s almost like, listen, learn, and then go do the work. Then go do the work. And that’s what men have to do.
KEW: This is Seizing Freedom, I’m Kidada Williams. I’ve been speaking with writer Saeed Jones about the many facets of Black masculinity, and how we can all work towards collective liberation. In last week’s companion episode, we met Barron Wilkins and Julius William Miller. They were a part of the mass migration of African Americans out of the South that took place a century ago. They both headed to New York, scraping by, seizing a new kind of freedom for themselves that included rebelling against traditional norms of upright, respectable Black masculinity and manhood.
They lived “free-er” lives. But it cost them. Saeed often writes about his own experiences navigating the world as a Black queer man. Like Barron and Julius, Saeed moved to New York in search of a type of freedom. But after living there for almost a decade, in the fall of 2019 Saeed chose to leave New York behind and move to Columbus, Ohio.
SJ: I mean, when I was in high school and college, I just thought I would die—and I probably would have, you know, like a soul death—if I didn’t eventually make it to New York as a writer. It was so important. And then I got there and I was like, if I don’t live in Harlem, y’all ain’t gonna hear peace from me until—you know what I mean?
I had to move to Harlem and it was actually incredibly inconvenient and impractical. I should tell you, I definitely should have gotten an apartment in Brooklyn. [laughs] Like, someone was like, “Why Harlem?” and I realized, I was like, oh my God, I literally moved here because of the fucking Harlem Renaissance. Like, what? [laughs] Who makes a housing decision based on literary history? But I did.
KEW: Tell me more about Columbus, you know, like how you ended up there and why you jumped right in? I mean, and what I mean by that is when you moved there, you didn’t appear to hold the kind of bias that Midwesterners sometimes see from folks who move from the big city. I mean, you jump right in, finding and making community—including in football culture and even in Columbus and Ohio politics. And so I guess, I’m wondering, was there something about Columbus—or something in you, in Columbus in that moment—that informed what you did when you got there?
SJ: I think now almost three years into living in Columbus—and it’s wild that it’s already been that long. To me, It feels like a year, but the pandemic, I guess, has distorted time—I think moving to Columbus, in part, was informed…I didn’t realize it at first, but now I realize…I realized I didn’t need New York anymore to be who I am. You know, I realized, I was like, oh, I’m going to be Saeed Jones, the critically acclaimed writer, wherever I live and I will be okay.
I’m going to be my loud, fierce, artistic, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah self, wherever I am. And I happen to really like it! I love it here. I think it was also important to model, you can be somewhere else. I think it’s going to be important for us to model how queer people and artists can live in other places because a lot of these coastal cities, for various reasons, are becoming unsustainable—if they aren’t already. Life is so hard. I think when we stumble upon a joy, we owe it to ourselves and frankly, each other, to spread the word.
KEW: So, I want to pick up on that statement of joy because one of the stories you tell is about encountering what you describe as Negro sunshine at the McDonald’s. And so what I wondered is whether or not you found men like them in other places, or had you become your own version of the men, in your own kind of way, reflecting your own version of that sunshine on to others?
SJ: I love that. Yeah, and it was a group of old Black men who clearly meet like, if not every morning, at least once or twice a week at this McDonald’s in their neighborhood and all read the newspaper together. And to happen upon them you feel like you’ve stepped into someone’s living room, you know what I mean? It was church for them and everyone respected it. It was incredible. I mean, I’ll never forget. I walked in and I was listening to music. And the first thing I did was I took my air pods out because it felt rude for me to be listening to my music in there. You know, you wouldn’t be in someone’s living room, listening to you—you’d be like, “Hello, how are you?” It was incredible. I immediately responded to that.
The thing about Negro sunshine is all you care about is the connection you’re making in that moment. You know, those men were nice enough—they were like kings—they were nice enough to look at me and they nod like, “Hello, young man” and then they went on. But it was like no one else was there, in a way. America did not exist in that moment. That’s really what it felt like. I think that ‘Negro sunshine’ isn’t a title you can appoint. I think it’s just a way of being, and you probably don’t even notice when you’ve kind of embodied it, but I hope I do. I hope I do.
KEW: One aspect of your memoir seemed to be a search for safety; safety to be your whole unapologetic self, and protect yourself from harm. And it got me thinking that it’s what many Black men—probably all men—want, even though our society doesn’t recognize, honor or validate that desire and need. Do you think there’s a relationship between safety and freedom?
SJ: I don’t think you could be free without safety. I’ll say that. I don’t think you could be free without some component of safety, for sure. Isn’t it interesting how much, as we were kids, we were bullying ourselves? I was kind of beating myself up, in different ways. And yeah, I think there’s a phase where you reach a sanctuary and you still have your sword up. And I think I was like that for a while, and I think you have to be, because you’re kind of like, “I’ve seen what can happen,” you know?
And so you just refuse to put your weapon down, and that’s trauma. It’s impacting your freedom. Like you’re holding yourself back because you’re in this defensive pose. And so then, yeah, I hope if you’re able to experience safety in a consistent, long-term way then I think you move into true freedom. You know, you put the sword down and then you pick up the fan or the umbrella or whatever, you know what I mean?
KEW: I’m wondering, do you think we can build a safe world and have it not be a toxic, zero-sum game where we don’t glorify achieving our own safety or security at the expense of others?
SJ: I don’t think you are safe if you are still operating under a scarcity model; you’re not safe. You know what I mean? Like if you, if your idea of having made it—and I’ve been there. I have been there; might be there later. This is fluid, it’s not linear—if your idea of success or freedom or liberation or privilege is predicated on and defined by what other people don’t have, you don’t have anything, you know what I mean? Like I just don’t…that math doesn’t add up to me.
And so I only believe that freedom is about liberation. I truly believe that the only people who are actually free are people who are also freeing others. They’re not the people hoarding whatever they’re hoarding in the corner. That doesn’t…that looks awful to me. But you see it a lot, you know, and that’s to go back to the idea of like, you know, “be a proud Black man for the race.” I am a proud Black man. I am a credit to the race, and it has nothing to do with my gender performance.
And in fact, my pride and my credit are almost antithetical, you know, to that gender. That is why I’m liberated and why I think I’m able to liberate other people. That’s why I do…I mean, it’s incredible. Like I did a book event just a couple of nights ago, and it was at a college and a young person came up to me and said their sibling had outed them to their parents two weeks ago. Oh my God! And I jumped up and I hugged them. That is the kind of relationship I’m able to have with people. And it would not be possible if people didn’t feel that I’m someone they can trust. I’m someone invested in them. I’m doing this for them too, you know? And that’s how I know I’m doing something right.
KEW: Saeed’s vision for collective freedom is one where we all have the resources we need to live, and where we can openly share love for ourselves, our partners, and our communities. But Saeed is not waiting for the future. He is cultivating those kinds of relationships in his own life—especially with other Black men—every day.
SJ: We ask for help. We ask for advice. One of us is having a bad day, we say we’re having a bad day and maybe that’s it. Maybe we try to problem solve. Or maybe we say, “Bitch, I’m having a bad day, too. What’s going on?” You know what I mean? We, um, celebrate each other’s wins without reservation. No negging, no underhand. None of that. No, no, just, “I am happy for you, because you deserve that.” You know? These are all very simple things. I mean, it’s so incredible. Like, I’ve been thinking a lot about…Like if a lot of us actually listened to simple things that we’re taught to us in kindergarten about how to live, you know what I mean? [laughs]
Like, the golden rule actually does kind of come back to gender in a way in my mind, you know? And I want to make it clear: I see Black men doing stuff like this all the time. I see Black men loving and celebrating and hugging, touching, crying together all the time. All the time. And I know the hurt and danger—understandably it draws our focus because we’ve got to address it. It’s an infected wound that we have to heal. But I want to make it clear: I see it all the time and that’s how I keep learning.
At the end of the day, patriarchy’s whole game is “don’t question me; whatever I do it’s the right thing,” right? That is patriarchy. And what I see, and what we need to see more of from Black men—and from everyone, but for Black men in particular, because I think whether it’s because Black men are in combat mode and they’re holding that sword, because they’re scared, they think…I don’t know what they think…that the roof is going to cave in if they breathe, if they cry, if they admit they don’t have all the answers.
When I see people erupting into violence, that doesn’t make sense to me. The only answer is that I think they’ve been walking around holding in all of that for who knows how long, and then chaos, you know?
KEW: We’re asking a number of our guests what they think and hope free Black futures look like. Do you have a vision, an idea of how we get there? Your role in it? I know that’s a lot! Sorry, not sorry.
SJ: [laughs] Do I have a vision? Do I have a role? I mean, I hope I’m doing the work. I hope I’m doing the work, and I hope the other artists and creative people and political minds and intellectuals I’m paying attention to are doing the work, too. So I think we’re going to get there together. I feel that I’m on the right path. I don’t think there’s a destination, but I feel I’m on the right path. I like the way I’m walking, I guess is what I’m trying to say.
What does that freedom look like? I mean, something I have to accept, too, is that white supremacy is a part of this. We can love each other loudly, up, down, as the day is long, but maybe if the system in which we live…if people can’t pay their bills, if people can’t feed themselves and their children—and so many can’t. So many can’t—freedom isn’t possible. You know what I mean?
So I really do have to accept that and I mean this is…I am so fortunate that my freedom as a person and as an artist has amazingly been entangled with increasing privilege. So of course it’s like to a certain extent, like, of course it’s easy for me to do what I’m doing, because I’m not beholden to anyone else. You know, that is a rare privilege. Period.
And so, yeah, I mean…it’s like there’s a conversation that needs to happen and a dialogue, but that dialogue has to work hand in hand with actions to address policing, housing, food scarcity, the environmental racism—which is something that…hoohoohoo…I mean, it’s not talked about enough and it’s only getting worse, right?
All of that needs to happen because again, like I said, white supremacy no longer needs white people in the room. It’s like the system is running on autopilot and weirdly it’s only getting better, you know, in the way it’s iterating. And so yes, there is a culture that needs to change. It does. You know, Black people…and we know where it comes from. It is generational trauma that’s been passed down and, because of systemic violence and the fight to survive, how can you stand up and just walk away? You’re literally entangled, you know?
And any future of freedom—I don’t know if we will ever solve the problem, but I would like to believe it gets better—it will only get better by learning how to address that.
KEW: That was Saeed Jones. You can read (and listen!) to more of his work and subscribe to his newsletter, Werk-In-Progress, at saeedjones.substack.com.