My childhood was spent in a procession of hostile places. At home, I had a severe, distant mother and an alcoholic father to tend with; my sister got into trouble a lot and ran away from home several times, so there was always something terrible going on there. At school I was a poor, shy kid who had no social skills and a meek disposition. I got along with the teachers well enough, but that only made life worse with the students. At my church, I was a “spiritual orphan”, more a pity project for elders in the congregation than a colleague and certainly one of the least popular kids there. I spent most of my life growing up with few friends and a certainty that I didn’t fit in any of the places that surrounded me.
So, when I discovered the Internet and the furry community it was a lifeline for me. There was a whole community of people out there who shared my interests and mindset, no matter how strange it was. After I graduated high school, I worked two mall jobs and spent what little free time that gave me talking to people online. I would often get home after midnight, wake up at 6 or 7 AM and catch the bus to do it all again.
When I went to college, I accepted my sexuality. When I came out to my mother and she rejected me, I knew that was my last link to my community gone. I would absolutely be disfellowshipped from my congregation, and after that my mother would more than likely be encouraged not to speak to me. My sister and I weren’t close at that point, and I hadn’t developed a strong bond with anyone else in my family. I left home in the summer of 1999 and I haven’t been back since.
For a long time, it was hard to think of myself as a black man. I felt thoroughly rejected by my tribe and just as wholeheartedly accepted by a new one. I’d rather think of myself as a geek and a furry because that was the community I had jumped in with. And they’re still a huge part of my life — I love the furry fandom, and I love geeking out with other people who love science-fiction, urban/modern fantasy and post-apocalyptic stories. This is still my tribe, and I feel more comfortable here than I ever have anywhere else.
But over the past year or so, with my discovery of the black geek community online and my slow but steady connection with black geeks through Twitter and the blogosphere, it’s occurred to me that the black part of my identity is still there, will always be there, and continues to wield its influence over me. I’ll see social dynamics differently than most people, and my experiences of being marginalized in both the dominant culture and my little minority tribe will continue to have some bearing on the way I see the world. To deny that would be dishonest to myself, and I can’t do that any more.
I’ve been trying to absorb what that means for myself, but over the past year I’ve found myself making small and hesitant overtures back to at least the part of black culture that overlaps with the tribe I’ve chosen for myself since leaving home. And it’s been a wonderful experience; learning that our shared history and experience can be used to create wildly different stories that are just as vital and interesting and imaginative as a Euro-centric tale is nothing short of a revelation. I’ve been so intrigued by the idea of it, and it’s made me want to dig back into not only my own personal history, but the history of my people to better understand my place in the fringes of it.
So I’ve been dabbling in telling stories borne out of my experience and the way it’s shaped my understanding of the culture I came from. I’ve been seeking out the voices of other intelligent black people who’ve been making a place at the table for themselves within the broader SFF community. I’ve been slowly trying on my blackness, but I’ve had trouble feeling it, had trouble feeling connected to the place where I’ve come from.
That was until I saw The Wiz Live.
For those of you who don’t know, The Wiz is a musical re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz featuring an all-black cast. Most people know it as a somewhat campy 70s movie starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor but it was a surprise hit on Broadway before that, winning seven Tony Awards in its first year (including Best Musical). I had never seen the 70s movie up until now, when NBC decided to put on a live staging of The Wiz as part of its nascent Thanksgiving tradition.
I won’t go into too much detail here, though I can spaz about The Wiz for a really long time. But the musical re-contextualizes everyone’s desires through issues that affect the black community at large in really interesting ways. Dorothy finds herself stuck in a place she doesn’t want to be, though it’s the only home she’s got and she can’t go back to the one she had; the Scarecrow can’t think of a way out of his situation, which is a losing game that he’s forced to play; the Tin Man loved the wrong woman, and now she’s stolen his heart and left him without the ability to feel anything; and the Lion struggles to muster the courage to deal with the very real difficulties he faces in life.
The performances were nothing short of amazing — for the most part. But what really hit home for me were the songs; numbers like “You Can’t Win” and “What I Would Do If I Could Feel” talk about the depression and bitterness that build up through a lifetime of feeling helpless, but “Be A Lion,” the brand-new “We Got It” and “Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day” acknowledges the difficulty of the black struggle while also encouraging us to live the virtues that have gotten us this far — perseverance, fearlessness and compassion for the struggles of others. It’s a uniquely black American story, steeped in our culture and concerns. I’ve never seen a story quite like that before, told so excellently, with such care and such pride, on some a big stage. It was a revelation.
It was the first time I felt connected to the community I had come from, or felt like I had a strong sense of its values, its struggles, its worries. It was the first time I ever saw a story that made me feel like this was something specifically told for me and mine. Seeing all of these immensely talented black people stepping up to tell a story to the best of their considerable abilities was….it made me realize what I could be. And it connected me to where I came from.
So now I feel I have a better grasp of my background — not only of my personal history, but the social and emotional history of my people. I’m sure it wasn’t just The Wiz that did it — I’ve been digging around, learning more and pushing myself to interact more — but it felt like a piece of the puzzle that clicked into place and allowed me to see a much more complete picture than I ever have before.
I’m going into my background and the storytelling around it with much more excitement and confidence now. I have a stronger sense of who I am, and an even greater desire to connect to my culture and its history. The specific troubles I went through are shared by a lot of black geeks like me, who find it difficult to be truly who they are while being a part of a community that encourages sameness for its own protection. I want to go back and rejoin it, while at the same time embracing my individuality. There’s a place at that table for me, even if I have to make it myself. It’s something that black geeks are used to doing at this point, right?
The story that I’m writing to put up on the blog this week is my first attempt at writing a furry story from a black perspective. I’m excited to share it, while at the same time I realize it’s just the first step along a path. My understanding of my own history will continue to deepen and evolve, and hopefully my writing will reflect that over time. But for now, the first bit of that journey.