Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Story of My Life: Too Black? Too Gay?

I guess you could say I found inspiration in a big black penis.

It was the one dangling so freely, in all its oversized glory, in Robert Mapplethorpe's 1980 black and white photograph "Man in a Polyester Suit." I first heard of Mapplethorpe in September of 1989, six months after his death from AIDS complications at age 42, when a nude photo he had taken of Susan Sarandon graced the cover of Esquire magazine, which I subscribed to at the time. I wouldn't become familiar with his work until circa 1992-93 when my first boyfriend, Derek, took me to an exhibition of his work in New York City that featured selections from his series of black and white photographs of black men in various states of undress (usually undressed), highly eroticised and, some (including me) would say, objectified.

I can't say I was impressed. In fact, I was kind of appalled. After nearly two and a half decades of having white beauty shoved down my eyeballs, it was a welcome change to finally see black beauty represented in art, but did it have to presented in such a wild, borderline-animalistic manner? Was that how white people, even the ones who wanted to sleep with black men, saw us? Could we not be beautiful with our clothing on? Back in the '70s I saw a movie in which a black woman (I think it was Diana Ross) described a black man who was harassing her as "a piece of meat with eyes." I kept thinking of that scene as I walked through the exhibit. Was that all we were, pieces of meat with eyes?

Of all the black men I saw that day, I can't recall any being the one in the polyester suit, which is just as well. I doubt I would have been happy to see him. I might never have gotten to see him were it not for my big brother Alexi, who emailed the image to me one morning two years ago while we were brainstorming ideas for the cover of the book I had already been working on for the better part of a year.

I was as uncomfortable with the image as I had been with Mapplethorpe's black nudes in black and white all those years earlier, but I couldn't get this new guy out of my head. It was graphic and crude (objectification at its most anonymous), but it perfectly captured so much of what had been weighing on my mind and grating on my nerves since I left New York City for Buenos Aires in 2006. It was the the title of my book -- Is It True What They Say About Black Men? -- which had been inspired by my most frequently asked question abroad, captured in one photograph.

For a while, I considered using the image for the cover of my book and went so far as to contact Mapplethorpe's estate seeking permission. My request was denied because the estate only grants use of Mapplethorpe's images for pamphlets and fliers promoting exhibitions of the photographer's work. In hindsight, that was probably a good thing. Once I found a Cape Town-based photographer to shoot my then-yet-to-be-decided cover image (I was impressed by the fantastical quality in his work, which looked like an interplay between photography and animation), he concocted a concept that paid homage to Mapplethorpe's classic without copying it while almost perfectly reflecting the title of my book. He nailed the humor in it, pushed the envelope toward the edge, and still left enough to the imagination to avoid being banned for indecent exposure.

Once the cover image was shot, the majority of people I presented it to immediately got the joke (and every single person I showed it to in person laughed), but there was one recurrent concern: "Is it too gay?" Interestingly, the majority of people who asked were gay, which made me wonder. If my presumed primary audience was questioning my good judgment, was everyone else just being too politically correct to say anything?

Was it too gay?

Next question: What exactly is "too gay"? Someone said the cover model's metrosexual attire. Perhaps. Others mentioned the title, as if the black myth that spawned it only applies to gay men. It didn't escape me that they were all bringing their knowledge of the author to their perception of the cover image and the title. I wasn't convinced (and I'm still not) that people who have no idea who I am will immediately see it the same way.

The statement itself has a whiff of internalized homophobia. It's condescending to so-called "gay" things (Does anyone ever accuse anything of being "too straight"?) while underestimating the ability of straight people to think outside of their own box. It's precisely the sort of thinking that led TV and film studios to ignore homosexuality for years, even after it was no longer taboo. "Straight people aren't interested in gay stories," they probably said during pitch meetings. That's as ridiculous as saying that white people don't want to see black people onscreen. If people only wanted entertainment that reflected them, there'd be no such thing as zombies.

And what would be the alternative to "too gay" anyway? Is It True What They Say About Black Men? is a memoir written by a gay black man. Should I try to sell it as a straight memoir so that readers can be surprised in chapter one when I wake up in bed with a handsome lawyer in Buenos Aires? Should I take the Grindr headless torso/no photo approach and just hope that people will buy it without being aware of its contents.

A few friends voiced a more legitimate concern. By offering such a literal visual take on the title, does the fact that it's not just a gay story or a black story but also a love story as well as a travelogue get lost? If people don't bother to read the subtitle -- Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World" -- will they get the breadth of the work? I wasn't 100 percent convinced that they would, but in the end, I decided to take a leap of faith and opt for simplicity rather than a cluttered cover that tries to be so many things that it ends up being nothing at all. If nothing else, I'd get their attention, which might encourage them to investigate further, at the very least.

And who's to say that the gay and black angle aren't strong enough selling points to attract mainstream (i.e., straight and white) readers? Did the movie studio and director Ang Lee try to market the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain as a straight love story? The movie poster accurately reflected both the film and the 1997 Annie Proulx short story on which it was based, and it still went on to gross $178 million worldwide.

Brokeback Mountain proved that if you build it -- an engaging story -- people really will come, regardless of the gender or sexual persuasion of the characters in it. It might not be as easy as creating a straight love story -- say, Romeo and Juliet -- that appeals to gay readers, but that doesn't make an impossible dream.

I'm not saying that my book is Romeo & Juliet, or even Brokeback Mountain. There are a number of reasons why it could fail that have nothing to do with the cover. But doesn't being out and proud include truth in advertisement? How can I say I'm a proud, gay, black man if I'm afraid of being too gay, or too black, if I'm hiding behind a whitewall, trying to pass for straight, trying to pass for white, or trying to be as neutral as possible, and praying that nobody notices what I really am?

In the end, "too gay" could be a turn-off just as easily as "not gay enough" could cause it to get lost in the shuffle. Meanwhile, pushing the travelogue angle to the forefront might mean being lumped into an oversaturated market. Ultimately, it's a crapshoot. I can neither predict nor control how people will react to the cover any more than I can influence how people will react to the contents within. What happens after I send the book out into the world is up to everyone but me.

For now, though, it's "Go big or go home," as my photographer kept saying during our cover shoot. Maybe he was saying it about black men, but it works for the book cover, too.
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