“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 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 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 of 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.
Black and white weren’t always concrete facts in this country, they were carefully manufactured social constructs designed to preserve the foul integrity of western colonialism. In the early days of the American colonies, nobody considered themselves white. Status was defined largely by class and Christianity. There were African slaves and European indentured servants, and neither was thought to be much more human than the other by the English aristocracy. Whether you were from Ireland or the Ivory Coast, you were generally seen as dogs but still afforded some chance of upward mobility provided that you assimilated to Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture.
It wasn’t totally unheard of to see an African landowner with European servants. Cruelty was strangely diverse. This all changed after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. What had started as a squabble between genocidal oligarchs very quickly turned into an open rebellion against the authority of the aristocracy itself with African slaves and European peasants uniting to burn Jamestown to the fucking ground.
The Crown back home in England was horrified by this spectacle of diverse working-class solidarity. Their bloody little experiment had quite simply fucked over too many people to build a cohesive kingdom of death upon and all the people they fucked were realizing the power they had in numbers. They had to be divided. So, the British invented the concept of race. Unlike ethnicity, which depended on more fluid cultural and historical traditions, race was a purely cosmetic social construction designed to divide and conquer.
Most but not all people of European descent were declared white and afforded the privilege of not being slaughtered and identifying with the superiority of their masters. Our former African comrades were designated Black and became human property. Through the newly racialized slave trade these new Blacks lost everything. Not just what few rights they once had but their entire culture. Whole languages, religions, and ethnicities were erased in what can only be accurately described as a holocaust and one that white peasants became tragically complicit in.
This should have been the tragic end of a very sad story but something strange and revolutionary happened. From the ashes of chattel slavery, Black people created a new tribe. They transformed an ambiguous label designed to dehumanize them into a race defined by its collective resistance to colonial tyranny. This tradition stretched from the slave rebellions of Nat Turner to the renegade free colonies of the Maroons to the radical philosophies of WEB Dubois. This rich culture crystallized into a modern movement that set fire to the world when renegades like Robert F. Williams, Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X abandoned national inclusion in favor of the global revolution. What made Black Power truly dangerous is that it was defined by its solidarity with all those oppressed by white supremacy, from Watts to the Congo to Vietnam and beyond.
Black Power inspired an entire generation of diverse revolutionaries to embrace their own unique outlaw cultures from the Puerto Ricans of the Young Lords to the Indigenous peoples of the American Indian Movement to the Hillbillies of the Young Patriots Organization to the Queers of the Gay Liberation Front. This is why J. Edgar Hoover described the Black Panther Party as, “Without question, the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and devoted decades to murdering and falsely imprisoning their leaders through the FBI’s white supremacist jihad known as Cointelpro, not just because renegades like the Panthers empowered Black people but because they empowered us all to stand proud in our otherness and tell the empire to suffer while they burn.
It’s this magnificent and often whitewashed history, the history of a people who invented a new race to liberate themselves from oppression against impossible odds that inspires me to this day to build an autonomous Queer nation to liberate my own people. Purged from the various tribes who once embraced and revered our individuality by the puritanical sexual tyranny of Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, we were forced to come together in the shadows to build our own traditions from the ashes of our lost pagan cultures.
We are a race unto ourselves built by the furious hands of many ethnicities including Black and brown sisters like Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major, Sylvia Rivera, and Storme DeLarverie and we owe it to them as well as to ourselves not just to reject white supremacy but to reject whiteness itself. These petty privileges should be viewed by all of us for what they truly are- hush money, thirty pieces of silver to sell our dark-skinned comrades down the river so we can live in the finished basement of a master race. I spit on white privilege. It is worthless to my people.
The sanitized hagiographers who have turned Black History Month into a jingoistic celebration of assimilation tell us all the time that Black history is American history. Well, I don’t give a flying fuck about America but the sacrifices of real Black history, the kind not fit for government textbooks and cable television, saved my life. Human mountains like Huey P. Newton and Fred Hampton taught a traumatized genderfuck white child in hick country to be proud of what made me other, and I fully intend to return the favor by getting revenge on the empire that slayed them because Black power is people power and the people who burned down Jamestown are still here.