For Pride weekend, I decided to share some content created by Black gay men whose work really made an impact on me and my experience coming up in my late teen and college years. Today will be a deep dive into three books that left a lasting impression on me. Tomorrow I will cover two tv series, one being a miniseries, and Sunday will cover a few films. I believe it is important for me to share content that really helped me answer questions I had when I had no one to really answer them in my day-to-day life because I didn’t have many people in my life like me. I was also in the closet at the time.
There will be spoilers for the books covered here: Basketball Jones by E. Lynn Harris, I Say A Little Prayer by E. Lynn Harris, and Looker by Stanley Bennett Clay.
How I Came Across This Book and Author
I mean… look at the cover.
I was a kid who loved libraries and bookstores. I lived in comic book sections and I also liked to read novels from time to time. I was walking around the Barnes and Noble in my area, I believe this would have been my senior year of high school, definitely prior to 2011, when I saw this book on display. Clearly I found the cover… intriguing and looked on the back of the book and skimmed a few pages, quickly finding out to my secret delight that it was a story revolving gay Black men. I paid for it, using my poker face as the salesperson rung me up and mercifully didn’t try to make small talk about it or the cover, and read it to my immense delight. I believe this was the very first book I read that revolved primarily around Black gay men.
Long story short, the cover was hot and I was expecting some hot, steamy Black gay scenes with some plot. Previously I had read steamy Black cishet novels that did the same thing. They were smut to me, not much more.
But this book was special. Yes, the steam and the sex was there, and it was hot, but there was so much more. There was craft, witty and snappy dialogue, stakes and tension, mystery and intrigue. But above all else, what grabbed me was the love, the love shared between the main characters. I knew of course that Black gay men were capable of loving each other, but I had never seen it before. There was no one in my family who was out or possibly LGBTQIA+ at all, and it felt like my own gayness was an island I suffered alone. I grew up in a Christian family and heard all the homophobia, anti LGBTQIA+ sentiment, cautionary tales and warnings anyone could and would coming up there. But for me these things hit different. Hit harder, and more personally. Books and various other forms of media were my little escape from it all.
When I bought Basketball Jones, I was looking for something to stoke my young desires, but what I found was much, much deeper.
How the Story Impacted Me Back Then
Once again, I wasn’t prepared for just how good this story actually was, nor for the lessons of love and loss it would provide. These books also, interestingly enough, even had useful tidbits of information that previously eluded me, such as various grooming tips as characters here and there prepare for daily life and also dates and romance. I have never been particularly close to my own dad, for various reasons, and there were only so many specific male grooming tips my mom knew about, let alone could impart upon me.
Aldridge aka AJ is our protagonist and he is involved in a secret long-term relationship with Dray, a pro basketball player. They met and fell in love in college and secretly had been together ever since. Dray comes from a religious and conservative family who would not understand their son being involved with a man, and so Dray asks AJ to help maintain their secret. Dray, having gone pro and being a star player, has become very wealthy and the couple live a very lavish lifestyle. They live in very nice places, AJ of course having to have places of his own. AJ also moves to each city Dray plays at so that they can maintain their relationship. As questions arise of Dray’s love life, he decides he must pursue a woman for appearances. He meets and later marries a woman named Judi, whom he talks up to AJ. AJ is understandably not thrilled with this development, but he agrees to go along with it because he knew Dray was closeted and didn’t want to disappoint his family, particularly his father with whom he is incredibly close.
AJ is a fascinating protagonist who lives well and is deeply in love with Dray. He feels that their relationship is deeper than needing to say or hear “I love you” all the time, and he thinks that it’s women who need to be told all the time. He also implies that same-sex male relationships go beyond words and that he knows Dray loves him without having to say it. I remember being really awe-stricken and inspired by this possibility of a relationship. It was pure fantasy: two very beautiful, Black gay men who were in love and got to live fabulously. And what of having to keep it a secret? Back then I felt that secret relationships were fascinating and thrilling, a la Romeo & Juliet. There was always a sort of je ne sais quoi that often followed forbidden or illicit affairs and romances that made them seem exciting. This story was not short of that. The story was also helped by the immense tension of a hidden extortionist who pressures AJ to give them money and to leave Dray and leave town or else they’ll release video evidence of their sex life and blow up Dray’s life. Keep in mind this story was first published in 2009.
Also fascinating and very compelling was AJ’s best friend, the flamboyantly gay Maurice to whom AJ considered himself the opposite of. And I would later realize that this would be a reoccurring theme with E. Lynn Harris’ stories: often an LGBTQ man who is masculine is the protagonist (also often from the South) often has a best friend who is the effeminate type and generally serves as comic relief and/or a differing perspective and counterpoint to the protagonist. The love interest is also always masculine (even in the instances where the protagonist is a woman, the fiery Yancy Braxton in some of Harris’ books) and is often closeted and DL. This book was no exception. I remember loving Maurice’s character and being blown away by the plot twist towards the end.
As the story goes on, it becomes clear that even the love between AJ and Dray is not as good as either of them think it is. The lies and back and forths, the possessiveness Dray subtly and then overtly displays over AJ and his comings and goings, and Dray’s need to have his cake and eat it too. AJ finds out the hard way that he had to decide what was best for him, for his lover could not see the forest beyond the trees.
Revisiting the Story in 2021
By 2021, I have long by now come out since first buying the book at that Barnes and Noble. I have lived my truth, had some fun and thrilling experiences of my own, and even finally graduated from college which I always wanted to do. My hopeless romantic side and a desire for a long term relationship with a hot guy was now replaced with me playing the field, having fun, and enjoying my personal freedom while also not lying to anyone or leading them on.
But most importantly, by 2021, my already low key womanist thoughts and opinions (being raised by a beautiful and wonderful Black mother who you love and who loves you kind of does that to you without realizing) has grown dramatically and I have become more aware of many issues and isms in our society. That being said, I decided to revisit and reflect on stories that shaped me back then and see how they stack up to my much more critical and analytical mindset now.
Revisiting the earliest chapters of the book where AJ claims that he doesn’t need to be told I love you and how his connection is so much deeper, it became clear to me now that his life, even as he talks it up, is littered with yearning for more. It’s clear that while he has a lot, AJ wants more. He wants Dray to kiss him more and he wants more uninterrupted time with him. It is now far clearer to me now that even in the beginning that AJ is not fully satisfied with the state and nature of his relationship and its limitations. For all the passion, comfort and lavishness Dray gives in spades, AJ still wants more.
Something that struck me now was how AJ, despite being a mostly intelligent person, seemed to lack the foresight to miss rather obvious signs as to who his extortionist was. It was actually quite shocking how easily I saw the clues as I re-read it again. I honestly couldn’t believe I hadn’t realized it the very first time. Also surprising was how naïve AJ came across when it came to his relationship with Dray and how it took so long to realize that everything was on Dray’s terms and almost never his own. AJ would have to make himself available for Dray whenever Dray decided he needed to see his partner. AJ would also have to drop everything at a moment’s notice whenever Dray missed him or made demands. AJ would miss his mother and his little sister and want to visit them and Dray literally would not care so long as Dray wanted and needed AJ. Dray was incredibly selfish and didn’t care about what AJ wanted or needed. And while I don’t think anyone has to come out for anyone else, before they’re ready, or worst of all be outed, I felt like what AJ wanted and needed and what Dray required to maintain his wants, needs and secrets were completely incompatible. They were incompatible. But AJ was so invested and so in love with Dray that he ignored these overt signs to the obvious.
I must not have paid it much mind before, but I was a little taken aback by the way Dray would refer to women as “bitches” and say things like ‘bitches do this’ and ‘bitches do that’, which is not unusual for the time period and the somewhat homo thug culture that a lot of these DL main love interests exhibit. There is unfortunately a lot of casual, if not unconscious, sexism, misogyny, misogynoir and internalized homophobia. There is also quite often a lot of fem-shaming and the more masculine men feeling superior to their effeminate counterparts, while the effeminate men feel superior to women. The word “fag” and its many variations gets thrown around by several characters, including a very unlikable woman character who shall remain nameless.
In the end, I still love this story overall, and despite some rough language and ideals, still feel it is enjoyable and can be enjoyed by many. Hopefully it can help others the way it helped me.
I distinctly remember I Say A Little Prayer being the second of Harris’ books I ever read. By now I was fully aware of Harris’ writing style and how good his stories could be and the title and concept of this book spoke volumes before I even started reading it. It was (and still is) by far my favorite of Harris’ books, is one of my favorite books overall and is one of the most important things I ever read in my life.
How It Impacted Me Back Then
From the title and cover alone and knowing what Harris’ stories tended to be about, I knew this would be by very first Black, gay and Christian storyline. Even though I suffered under the scrutinizing eye of my religious family, especially a particularly overzealous fundamentalist aunt whom I had to spend many weekends summers and breaks with, and some very choice church sermons, I was still (and still am) a believer. Enough things happened to me in my life to show me my faith was real and that it mattered to me. However, stories like these as well as experiences like mine showed me that it was not the faith itself that harmed me and people like me, but people with agendas and bigotries who weaponized it for their own needs. When I had no one to confide in, even my queer high school friends who knew and kept my secret but couldn’t relate to my issues with my faith because they were atheists, this book gave me a lot of insight I sorely needed.
Chauncey Greer is a Black Christian man who also owns his own business. He seems to identify as bisexual early on, but later it becomes clear that he actually identifies as gay. He is closeted and only his ex, his best friend and a fellow queer member of his church knows his sexuality. As it turns out, the first boy he fell in love with in his youth pushed him into sleeping with a girl his first time, despite Chauncey wanting him instead. Of course eventually the two do get together after they grow up a into teenagers and form a boy band with two other Black boys. They have one platinum-selling album before Chauncey and his boyfriend’s relationship is suspected and the boy confesses to sneaking to Chauncey’s room at night to “pray away Chauncey’s homosexual demons”. Chauncey is ousted from the group and the story takes place primarily in present day where Chauncey is turning forty and working on his business while wanting to re-enter the professional music world again, but solo this time, for the boy band long by now had broken up and the members went their separate ways.
Though I couldn’t relate to being in a band (though I was by the time of getting and reading this book around 2011, discovering my own singing voice for the first time in my life after years of not thinking I had the ability), I could relate to feeling betrayed, though in my case by family and not by a lover. Skyler, who is the effeminate best friend of Chauncey, actually does have a backstory wherein he was betrayed by a family member and I found myself relating to that on some level. Like with Maurice in the previous novel, I also loved Skylar and thought he was a lot of fun.
Very different from the previous novel, Chauncey does not have a main romantic or sexual relationship. He casually hooks up with different guys from time to time, pursues something with a man who turns out to be shady, and finds out that his first love with whom he was apart of this music group has become a pastor with an anti-gay platform who is running for state senator. One of the main plots revolves around AJ working with the fellow gay members of their Black church to convince their cishet but kind pastor to not allow Daimon Upchurch (Chauncey’s ex) to speak in their church. Their church is a place where Black LGBTQIA+ folks feel welcome, for many of them had to contend with previous church homes becoming megachurches and spouting more and more LGBTQIA+ hate and intolerance while also flashing money and wealth instead of worshipping their faith. Chauncey, as someone who knows Daimon’s past is now a treat to his rise to the senate and eventually the presidency. Daimon’s wife, Greyson Upchurch, is a horrible homophobic person who wants to convince Chauncey to keep his mouth shut and is willing to use various underhanded means to do so. The story actually starts with Chauncey preparing to tell the world the truth about Bishop Upchurch and expose him, but then being told that the blackout voice disguiser he agreed to would have to be dropped and Chauncey would also have to expose himself.
The stakes were established early on and the intrigue kept going as well questions as to how exactly Chauncey and D got together in the first place, what went wrong in their relationship, the mystery of Skyler and a past lover of his own which he spreads into three parts throughout the story, the rise of the Unchurch threat and its looming towards Chauncey’s new and beloved church home, and Chauncey’s war against Greyson and the conflict of whether or not to expose his own secret sexuality to the world in order to fight discrimination.
How It Holds Up in 2021
The story still hits and hits hard even still, but I found many issues with certain things. For one, Chauncey himself displays an internalized colorist preference. He himself is dark-skinned but very early on mentions preferring “lighter-skinned brothas and sistahs from myself”. He claims to have no issue with anyone darker, but that his tastes tend to go lighter. This definitely annoyed me because I forgot it happened. However, he meets and starts to really take a strong liking towards Griffin, who is dark and very sexy. Also I feel that chapter 10 more or less explains where Chauncey’s preferences as well as his own insecurity with his darkness comes from, where it’s established that Daimon, who he was deeply in love with and thought the world of, was lighter skinned and would subtly highlight the differences between lighter skinned people like him (Vanessa Williams was also the catalyst for the discussion) and darker skinned people. As the story goes on, even though Griffin and Chauncey don’t work out, and though Chauncey still has lingering feelings over seeing Daimon again, Chauncey realizes Daimon was never the one for him. I feel like his interest in Griffin was the start of Chauncey realizing that lighter-skinned is not the only, or even the better, option. I also like to think by the end he started to learn to love himself and his color a lot more.
Perhaps more glaring is how much I realize Skylar, the effeminate character, is quite the misogynist. While simply saying “bitch” is very much a part of Black gay culture and vernacular, the way Skylar uses it and how much he seems to despise a lot of women and think himself superior is really fascinating. In particular there’s a scene where he describes sleeping with a DL man who has a suspicious and ghetto-fabulous baby mama who eventually confronts Skylar over her boyfriend. Skylar admits he threatened physical violence and really would have done it had she not taken the hint and left, after Skylar callously told her he was sleeping with her boyfriend. Obviously this willingness to harm women, despite Skylar’s proximity to femininity, was very disturbing for me. To my delight, Chauncey was also disturbed and taken aback. While I still don’t condone Skylar’s misogynistic sentiments, finding out how his mother outed him in front his boyfriend when they were young and the boyfriend didn’t know Skylar was a boy (he was a very pretty boy and decided to dress in drag, and the boyfriend wasn’t too bright and didn’t realize despite the physical relationship). His mother was really horrible to him and homophobic, but I still think that we don’t have to take out our anger on people who are similar to the people who hurt us.
The story also features lies, deception, a couple of cases of dubious consent, including when Daimon confides in Chauncey about having lost his virginity to an older woman when he was a minor, which he reflects on with pride. Daimon sees nothing wrong with this or with using girls for sex even though later he admits to Chauncey that he is the first person he’s ever loved. Daimon has a calculating manner in which he gets with girls, using them for appearances, and then pushes Chauncey to do the same. He also has a very visceral hatred of effeminate gay men and makes Chauncey promise he’ll never look or behave like one. The internalized homophobia, the colorism, the misogyny, and various other issues like Chauncey being targeted and slept with to figure out what he knew was… very interesting. But I still love the overall message of the book and feel the ending is both satisfying and triumphant.
We love a courtroom drama in this house! This book isn’t solely that, but a courtroom drama does take place for a good chunk of the book and Looker does it well.
Stanley Bennett Clay was the first author after E. Lynn Harris who specialized in Black LGBTQIA+ narratives. This was perhaps the third Black LGBTQIA+ story I ever read and this one in particular featured a very sexually diverse cast, while still all-Black American aside from one mixed character: a gay protagonist, his gay best friend, a lesbian couple, an Afro-Latino gay man, two young cishet women, an older cishet woman, another gay (or possibly bisexual) male character, a definitely bisexual man, a trans woman, a closeted gay man, and a rather horrible cishet man. Not all of these characters have the same amount of focus, but each of them get at least a few narrative chapters and are definitely thoughtfully crafted and serve purposes for the overall story.
How It Impacted Me Back Then
I found the book to be incredibly well-written, very visual, clever and impactful the first time I read it. Clay did a really good job at making each and every character feel distinct and gave them fully fledged personalities that served the story well. He did a great job with pacing as well as with tension and the book was very hard to put down. At the time I had never met a transgender person in real life and as far as any trans representation I had seen up to that point, this was the first time I had seen a trans person really be shown to be both sympathetic and human. Prior to this book my sole familiarity was trashy daytime tv which of course painted trans people in the harshest of lights and treated them like total jokes.
The physical and sexual violence even back then was a lot for me to handle in such explicit detail, but I was no stranger to such material in fiction so I was able to weather that particular storm. Graphic as it was, I felt the violence served a larger purpose and to highlight the evil that people do. The quest for justice, the fight for the truth, and two opposing sides trying to declare whom the victim truly was, was riveting. The tension, the stakes, and even the tedium and tactics of some lines of questioning during the courtroom drama were all very well-handled.
Even though Brando, the protagonist was so different from me, then and now, I found his desire for love and feeling like he wasn’t worthy of it incredibly relatable. Across different characters, though not all of them, I found aspects I found either familiar or completely relatable which really allowed them to resonate with me. Despite the sheer mount of important characters in the story, they all felt unique and I was able to really imagine seeing them all as if being there with them. The messages of love, of justice, and of forgiveness were all very powerful and even long after finishing the story, it all stayed with me. Miss Zara’s (our trans character) words of “God is love, and love is for everyone” in particular have stayed with me.
Looking Back in a 2021 Lens
I would definitely issue a trigger warning for very intense male-on-female domestic violence, violent male-on-female r*pe, homophobia, transphobia (including misgendering and dead-naming), intense misogyny, female-on-male statutory r*pe, a violation of consent (a couple’s sexual activities are filmed without their knowledge or consent to be enjoyed by another character), etc. There are quite a few issues present in the book, as it was published in 2007.
The domestic violence and sexual assault are done by the same character and it is through the actions of the latter that kick off the main plot and conflict of the story and culminates in the courtroom drama. The actual scene of the assault is also motivated by intense misogyny and homophobia, and can thus be extreme triggering. The victim takes immediate bloody revenge, so if the reader if triggered by graphic death, sexual violence or assault, I would suggest skipping chapters 21 and 22. I personally found the chapters very difficult to read as, while I’m again no stranger to sexual violence in my media (particularly crime dramas), most series and films I’ve seen mostly featured implied violence and simulated acts. Here since it was a book, it could be described as explicitly and as viscerally as humanly possible, down to the smallest and most disgusting physical detail. Despite the level of detail, I felt that it wasn’t exploitative or done for shock value, but was rather an honest depiction of how horrible sexual violence can be, especially when motivated by premediated hatred. This helped make the courtroom scenes all the more powerful.
Having also learned much more about trans issues, I was struck by how many times Miss Zara is misgendered, with people thinking of her before her transition and also dead-naming her even in the narrative. It was through this issue that I finally realized that the narrative seems to take on the language and cadences of whichever character is being highlighted at the time. It uses slang and words that they would use if speaking in dialogue.
While originally I remember siding with Shane, the Afro-Latino character against his boyfriend Omar, who is also the best friend of the protagonist Brando, who is fed up with their open relationship and wants monogamy. Omar is relentlessly slut-shamed for being sexual and wanting to sleep with different people. Even Brando judges Omar from time to time. Now, I see that Shane was wrong to try and change Omar and not accepting that they wanted different things and therefore were incompatible. Shane insults Omar publicly and privately, calls him names, and disparages Omar to his own friends to force them to try and make him meet Shane’s demands. It took time for me to realize, but I finally realize now that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to have fun and play their field. No one can or should make you do anything you don’t want to do.
Why I Still Love These Works, Despite Some Issues
Bottom line? These stories is clearly written from a previous time period and not written now, but for me personally it did not hamper my enjoyment too much. For one I experienced it for the first time back then during said time period, but also I feel that while we can and should recognize problematic aspects of society at the times of things we hold dear, that we can still love and find enjoyment and nostalgia in things that shaped us. It’s just important to think about how far (or not) we’ve come along since then and not unfairly judge things created back then by today’s standards when we all have developed and grown and had years to do so. These works are fixed in time, not able to grow, develop and update with us. I especially give grace to works created by Black people in particular, because those works speak to me the most, and even more so when they’re Black and LGBTQIA+.
The craftsmanship in how these writers wrote their books led to reading the rest of Harris’ books except his memoir (which I plan to) and another of Clay’s as well as another I’m preparing to read. Stay tuned for more book content featuring them and other authors!
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