Why Won’t Black Men in Hollywood Stand Up for Black Trans Lives, Too?
Like the cop in your head or the racist in your bones, there’s the looming question of the anti-Black misogynist and transphobe in the chests of our idols, even our Black ones.
This summer, Black people have begun to demand—in larger numbers and more forthright language than we’ve ever seen—that all non-Black people, especially white people, do their own anti-racist work within themselves, and more importantly, within their communities. Black women, trans women and cis women alike have been at the forefront of this activism, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a cis Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police. And in the midst of this upheaval, on social media, regular Black people have looked to Black celebrities to see who’s down with the cause and who’s happy to sit with their money. It’s become clear that a deeper trend within historical Black activist movements has recurred in entertainment’s mainstream: cis Black men, particularly straight ones, largely fail or refuse to show up for Black women across the board. Like the cop in your head or the racist in your bones, there’s the looming question of the anti-Black misogynist and transphobe that rages in the chests of our idols, even our Black ones.
While it’s usually not a good idea to look to celebrities for existential guidance, it’s a persistent reality that the most conventionally successful and popular people will be followed. And many celebrities have stepped out of their holes to address the current situation and even join protests. Star Wars actor John Boyega has marched with the crowds, megaphone in hand, saying he’s willing to compromise his career to speak his truth (Get Out filmmaker Jordan Peele tweeted, “We got you, John” in response). Boyega’s speech to the crowd mentioned Sandra Bland and three Black men including Floyd, while his Instagram is peppered with clips of Martin Luther King Jr. and Tupac. Comedian Dave Chappelle, who’s revealed his own transphobia through his most recent stand-up specials, recently released an emotional stand-up set on Instagram where he spoke about Floyd’s murder and the resulting protests. His set exclusively addressed and named cis Black men as Chappelle related his own personal history to their present significance. The performance was praised by liberal media figures, other celebrities, and by my own friends and acquaintances. But while I found it moving in many ways (and Black women are taught and expected to be moved by Black men in this way), I also found its empathy extremely limited.
It’s not that I imagined Chappelle, Snoop Dogg (who has been vocal about the murders of cis Black men at the hands of police, and not too long ago pulled his mask off to eviscerate Gayle King for asking Lisa Leslie about the late Kobe Bryant’s legacy in the face of the rape allegations against him), or even Boyega would speak to the murders of recently murdered Black trans women like Rem’mie Fells and Nina Pop or Black trans man Tony McDade, who was killed by police. But I had a weak thought that there might have been, at the very barebones least, the possibility of mentioning Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, and Aiyana Jones, the latter of whom was just a little girl when she was murdered by police while sleeping during a raid on her home. I was grasping at the incisive Dave Chappelle that lived in my head, not the one that was there, carefully pledging his allegiances on stage.
When I learned not long after watching Chappelle’s set that Oluwatoyin Salau, a 19-year-old cis Black woman and Black Lives Matter activist, had been killed, and likely by a cis Black man, I felt a resurgence of anger. Toyin’s friends also allege she was abused by her own family, who then sought to collect donations on a now-defunct GoFundMe. Like Kadir Nelson’s New Yorker cover—which slipped McDade into a towering George Floyd’s neck and peppered a Bland and Taylor on his ribs, outnumbered by African violets and the bodies of enslaved African men—the lives of cis Black men loom large over us, and to do our duty, we are supposed to keep quiet.
In thinking through my and many other Black women’s lingering resentment, sadness, and rage toward cis Black male silence about, and often direct involvement in, Black trans and cis women’s death, a question kept coming up. What exactly am I asking of them? As we might learn from our own anti-racism books, listicles, and guides, the work begins within. It’s often in lyrical and rigorous texts by Black radical thinkers, writers, and activists from Christina Sharpe to Aimé Césaire to Ceyenne Doroshow to Saidiya Hartman, that I’ve found the basis for this work. And a few months ago I received a newsletter from the poet Momtaza Mehri titled “Bluffing, Still,” with a quote from Toni Cade Bambara’s essay “On the Issue of Roles” that reads,
Hopping on a plane to rap to someone else’s ‘community’ while your son struggles alone with the Junior Scholastic assignment on ‘The Dark Continent’ is not revolutionary. Sitting around murder-mouthing incorrect niggers while your father goes upside your mother’s head is not revolutionary. Mapping out a building takeover when your term paper is overdue and your scholarship is under review is not revolutionary. Talking about moving against the Maﬁa while your nephew takes off old ladies at the subway stop is not revolutionary. If your house ain’t in order, you ain’t in order. It is so much easier to be out there than right here. The revolution ain’t out there. Yet. But it is here.
In the newsletter, Mehri allows Bambara to put her on blast, internalizing the wisdom for herself rather than—or before—teasing out the millions of ways it might apply to others. It’s a strong and admirable move coming from Mehri, a cultural worker who at a young age has dedicated her talent to community, to the kind of work that stitches us together and challenges us to be better; it would’ve been easy for her to send a newsletter instructing the rest of the world to catch up—instead, she brings us along. This is what I believe Black women writers, scholars, and activists have been asking of cis Black men for decades—don’t just take to the streets, but stand by us with humility.
The work of solidarity is all of our work—cis Black women can do much more to support our trans sisters and brothers as we all continue to demand that cis Black men, white people, and non-Black POC dig themselves out of the darkness and join us. As our brightest talents have told us again and again, revolutionary work—which is certainly happening far beyond the mansion gates of our favorite problematic Black celebrities—has to happen here if it is to truly take place out there.