My youth and adolescence were fueled by one singular notion, The regurgitation of self through art, to which I coined the term artvomit.
“Oh, he is just so artistic. The things that boy can do by himself. You should see his room...” my mother would say to friends, strangers, sorority sisters, and supermarket clerks.
“ ...All of his clothes are color coordinated with the shoes at the bottom to match! ” she’d boast. All I could do was stand to the side, smile, and play the role of being young, gifted and black. It was quite easy to do. I was, in fact, a very visually expressive kid. As the youngest, with a gap of thirteen plus years between me and my eldest siblings, I was often alone, left only with my imagination.
My attempts at fitting into the norm were at constant odds with my innate originality. I used the pages of J-14 and Tiger Beat as a base for my fashion effort, mixed with serious efforts to look like Christian from Clueless. I spoke with the expected amount of innocence and whimsicality for someone my age, and added elements of more mature vocabulary and social jargon, overhead either from my Baby Boomer parents, my 70’s born siblings and/or the various movies and TV shows I was far too young to watch.
I was a skinny black boy growing up in a world where skinny black boys were only allowed so many options of being and I didn't fit into any of them. I didn't play sports, I felt estranged from the rap music narrative of the late 90’s, and the white t-shirt, blue jeans and Nike uniform that all other males of color in Oakland, CA between the ages of 5-25 had adopted, was lost on me. I was different at a time when being different was the threat, on the playground and in the classroom. I was placed in therapy for a short while after a few regimented play dates with male classmates had gone sour by their parents claiming my difference was homosexuality.
Beginning at seven, my mother would use Barnes & Noble as a surrogate sitter in times of needed breath. With a mountain of books and magazines at my feet, I’d sit on the itchy carpet floor and get lost in any world of my choosing. This sanctuary of books, keeper of magazines, and church of pop culture merchandise became my oasis; a happy place that would welcome me with open arms and pages waiting to be turned. Where fluorescent lighting made halos atop the skyscraper like bookshelves and the smell of day old coffee and lint flooded the atmosphere.
The books never judged me. The glue of their bindings kept my best interests at heart, reminding me time and time again that they knew me, the actual me, the me I was becoming. I would pass through the aisles and, like a shock to the gut, various images and authors would call to my senses something unbeknownst to my desires at the time, leaving curiosity that lingered long after I had left my literary haven. There were the obvious childhood allures that come with the conditioning of the young American market and then there was me. Any social figure or title that appealed to my demographic was ground zero for my infatuations. I never simply liked something, I always had to fucking love it.
My family widely understood and even celebrated this doctrine. It allowed my mother to exhibit how cultured we were in the eyes and ears of anyone who would stop to listen or dare to ask. Much to my confidence, my friends thought it was hella cool that I knew so much about one particular subject, actor, music group or fictional character. If I had the book, then I had the poster to match; the apparel to go with that, and the cutlery to go with that.
My bedroom was an installation art-piece of period-accurate dressings. Not just a few things here or there, no, it was an explosion of every fucking thing I was exposed to and represented by. Posters, consistent in theme but different in size, curated in whatever direction I wanted to steer the eye, and memorabilia on the desk and dresser, matching the two dimensional titles and faces on the wall. Collages hung by a thread from the ceiling, so they moved when you walked in. And, yes, my clothes were organized by article, size, color and fabric–in that order.
At seven, I couldn't have known that I would eventually turn those obsessive and compulsive characteristics into the driving force behind every creative and professional endeavor I would encounter. I was just a kid, who couldn’t help but love to love, and make something of it.
In the Summer of 1996 I had an Oprah style “ah ha!” moment. My adolescent revelation came with the release of Nickelodeon's Harriet the Spy. It starred future Gossip Girl überc**t Georgina Sparks, played by Michelle Trachtenberg aka Harriet M.Welch, self-proclaimed badass and kickass spy. (Spoiler alert) We later find her spying is a rebellious cry for attention during certain infractions within her home base–which is a whole other story that we’ll unpack later.
The film enveloped me. I recognized myself, projected in the opulence of cinema, and my eyes never left the screen. I saw my quirks, idioms, and wayward ways in Harriet, her friends, and, embarrassingly, some of her foes. It was the first time I saw myself (theoretically) on screen. I was, of course, totally obsessed.
I loved the fashion–so grunge, so innocent and candid, functional and playful at the same time. Like a crossbred child of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Nirvana, and Inspector Gadget–in a Gap ad. I loved the jargon, so quick-witted and sarcastic with spouts of hyperbole. Most of all, I fell in love with Harriet–which brought me closer to myself. My mother took me to the bookstore straight after the film to buy the official book read-a-long.
I shared with Harriet a passion, a core instinct–an urge to document my adventurous days and sometimes melancholic nights. Even as a child, I wanted to digest all that I could with the intent of expelling all that I had, in myriads of artistic expression. Harriet the Spy validated this trait; solidified it within me. The film’s portrayal of a kid fascinated with their own place in the world around them amid the disruption of her nuclear foundation resonated hella deep.
An endearing scene between the ever-rambunctious Harriet, and the 90s film version of the mammy character, her caretaker, Ole’ Golly, played by Rosie O’Donnell. Recounted here:
Harriet M. Welsch: I want to remember everything! And I want to know everything!
Ole Golly: Well, you must realize, Harriet, knowing everything won't do you a bit of good unless you use it to put beauty in this world. True or false?
Harriet M. Welsch: True.
Ole Golly: Of course it is.
That was all I needed to hear. Nickelodeon's endorsement of my obsession was the icing on my self-made cherry pie. In the film, Harriet would tote her journal around town, watching everyone and writing down everything. Using her tactics as scripture, I followed suit. My mother bought me my first journal from Barnes & Noble on July 27th, 1996 and my mission was clear. I had to remember everything and had to know everything, so that I could put beauty into this world, just as Golly advised.
I wrote every single day. Sometimes just a sentence and often times a psalm, with fervor and a stream of consciousness style that I would later idolize in the works of Ginsberg and Kerouac. The elementary school years of Volumes I and II chronicled the pangs of schoolyard social structures, temper tantrums, and adolescent felicity. I raved about Aaliyah being my soundtrack to the Louvre and the In-n-Out I demanded we visit on the way down to Los Angeles and on the way back up to Oakland. I wrote about my dark and twisty dreams and how they made me feel. I reflected on the family issues that sat beside me at the dinner table, silent but forceful adversities that no one would introduce in order to protect my sensitive nature…or for the lack of knowing how.
The years went on and my journal entries, like a twin, grew and matured alongside me. Volumes III - V served as the wonder years. Middle School and High school all condensed to three volumes and roughy three hundred leaves. It was a conglomerate of firsts, almost-made-its and never-agains. I testified to the character of my teachers, classmates, and closest confidants. I described in detail who they were, where we sat, what I saw for their future and how they reacted to situations they were given versus the ones they chose for themselves. As I read through the poems and paragraphs of these years I begin to dissect my pubescence into fields of grandeur. It is in these words I trace the transition of my childhood fervor taking its solid form as a teen.
2006 marked my ten-year anniversary in wanting to know everything and remember everything. By giving those explosions of personal history a home inside the pages of my world, I gave myself an outlet to be transparent and free of any opposing forces, distant eyes and the reach of my parents. When Volume V came to a close, I had successfully kept my own promise in writing, yes, but was I telling the whole truth?
I was plagued by another overriding movie moment, one that has never gone unhinged as a plausible outcome in the trial by error of laying testament to all of life’s itty bittys and everyone else's inbetweens. In the later half of Harriet’s journey of being hella cool, she is outed and her journals read aloud for the entire class to hear and feel. All of her entries were factual, innocently leaving no vestige to what lies beneath, without context or explanation. She was faced with immediate ridicule, isolation, and resentment. They humiliated her, tore open her notebook, and shredded its bindings for the pavement to digest.
Confession. The unwavering desire to acknowledge that which you have done, witnessed, longed for or desperately coveted. To see that innocence brought to shame through the art of cinema gave me a shocking and fearful view of confession. That fear of being the topic of schoolhouse disgust and discussion, like Harriet, created in me a style of censorship with journal writing. From first entry on I wrote with the hidden possibility in mind that I might be found out, my entries read aloud by others. In the early volumes it didn't matter. My life wasn't anything to keep secret. My kleptomania would have been the most hot button issue–my biggest score being the Dawson’s Creek Season 1 Soundtrack cassette tape I lifted from Lucky’s Grocery store, or the hundred or so J-14 Magazines I acquired over the years and never paid for.
It wasn't until Volume VI in 2006 that I decided to relinquish the fear of my journal being read out loud by someone other than myself. If my words were to be found and shared, then let it be glorious! I would turn a trip-and-fall on the sidewalk into a dive-and-drape on the ballroom floor. I didn’t change my voice or curb my enthusiasm, rather I found the root of the inspiration and gave it its place in the sun. No longer would I hide the feelings that for me had no name. It was time for them to claim the space on the pages that the nonsense had held before. If I couldn’t be honest with myself about my own life, then how could I expect to grow, as the adage states, older and wiser?
With the acceptance of who I truly was came full autonomy over my life. I clutched as much responsibility as my arms could carry across the road from seventeen to infinity.
These realities came to a head when sex became the topic of everyday inner-discussion. Once that cherry was popped, I relished in its flavor. I lost my virginity to a girl in 2005 at a party, with my friends at the door like members of the high court validating Marie Antoinette’s wedding night. Feeling the weight of my peers, I jumped in head first (pun intended). I could not wait to tell my journal all about it. I had sex with women not solely to mask my homoerotic desires, but also because I wanted to. There were zero allowances for bisexual men when I was in school. It was commonly believed to be a term used by gay men in an attempt to shield themselves from the weight of just being homosexual. I could find very little literature in the aisles of my sanctuary–in secret–to give evidence or context to the array of sexual interests given and denied in this world. I had to learn on my own, as many queer men do. I found what I could and held on.
Queer as Folk on Showtime showed me what gay culture looked like in its full rated M for mature stylings. Most television shows and films with gay characters or narratives were controversial, for their over-saturated and stereotypical portrayal of queer culture, only showcasing stories with white gay men. For me, it offered solace in the illustration of queer happiness, queer friendships, relationships and dynamics. Real Sex 98, Will & Grace, Queer Eye for The Straight Guy, Netscape Navigator chat rooms and message boards, Boys Gone Wild videos, porn sites, and those like it became the only way I could relate, having yet to allow myself the freedom of experiencing queer life first hand.
In the last semester of my senior year of high school my wade into the queer zeitgeist turned full submersion into uncharted territories. I never tiptoed around any situation after accepting its course, I indulged. I entertained conversations with strangers about both ends of the sexual spectrum, flirted with the carnal ideas that lingered when the jocks and more developed boys would pass me by, and even befriended a childhood enemy because my hormones told me to. I documented every single instance, writing with more candor than I could say out loud.
Maybe it was stubbornness or activism, or both, but at the time, I didn’t “come out”, as bisexual or queer, I just lived it. I was too forthright in my intent and unapologetic in my actions to live any other way. I kept aspects of my personal life private, but by writing my truths in plain text for the world to eventually see, I came out to myself in the pages of my journals first. And that is paramount. When others would ask what my sexual natures were, my close friends called me “ the opportunist,” meaning, if I was turned on, available, and even slightly inebriated I was set to play the field, on both sides.
I could have never predicted that the seed I planted would soak up the sun and moon and grow to nourish my spirit, to ignite my imagination. I had figured out a way to live as authentically as possible, unbiased to what the mirror may reflect. With my window open to the world, I welcomed not only the winds that praise the skin but the turbulence that pains the mind. I stood by my words, for the sake of myself. The cord that once tethered re-imagining and re-telling had been severed. I stripped away the filler and took a bite right out of the center. With a mouth full of pulp, my juices flowed from the pen to the page and, presently, to the eyes I cannot bind. I take with me only the thought that I know nothing, and therefore must live everything. These are my confessions, my fables of truth, my love letters to reality. A total recall of my own humanity stretched out for all to see.
These are my Tales from The List