The Power and Hurt of Growing Up Young, Black and Gay

By Saeed Jones

Roughly midway through the poet Saeed Jones’s devastating memoir, “How We Fight for Our Lives,” we meet “the Botanist,” who lives in an apartment decorated with tropical trees, lion statuettes and Christmas ornaments dangling from Tiffany lamps. Despite the camp décor, the Botanist advertises himself as “straight-acting” on his online profile, which piques the interest of Jones, then a student at Western Kentucky University. They agree to meet for some meaningless sex, the kind that is scorched with meaning.

This isn’t Jones’s first rodeo. After growing up believing that “being a black gay boy is a death wish,” he takes to openly gay collegiate life with a “ferocity” that alarms his college friends. Jones finds “power in being a spectacle, even a miserable spectacle,” and sex with strangers — “I buried myself in the bodies of other men,” he writes — becomes a sport at which he would surely win championships. Each man offers Jones a chance at validation and reinvention. There are countless roles to play: a college athlete, a preacher’s son, a high school crush finally willing to reciprocate.

When the Botanist asks Jones his name, he lies and says “Cody.” It’s a psychologically salient deception. Cody was the name of the first straight boy Jones ever coveted, and also the first one to call him a “faggot.” Jones was 12 when that happened, and he didn’t take the insult lightly. He beat his fists against a door that separated him from the slender, acne-covered boy who held so much power over him, until he couldn’t feel his hands anymore. “I felt like I’d been split open,” Jones writes. Still, the insult was “almost a relief: Someone had finally said it.”

Like many gay boys before him, Jones eroticized his shame. He dreamed about Cody insulting him as the boy undressed. “‘Faggot’ swallowed him whole and spit him back out as a wet dream,” Jones writes, one of countless sentences in a moving and bracingly honest memoir that reads like fevered poetry.

Years later, in the Botanist’s junglelike bedroom, Jones channels Cody’s indifference and cruelty. He condescendingly scans the Botanist’s body and then tries to “[expletive] my hurt into him.” The Botanist, meanwhile, reciprocates by calling Jones the N-word. “It wasn’t enough to hate myself,” Jones makes clear. “I wanted to hear it.” Jones keeps returning to the jungle, to his antagonist with benefits. “It’s possible,” he writes, “for two men to become addicted to the damage they do to each other.”

Remarkably, sex with the Botanist is not the darkest you’ll read about in this short book long on human failing. That distinction belongs to Jones’s encounter with a supposedly straight college student, Daniel, during a future-themed party. At the end of the night, Daniel has sex with Jones before assaulting him. “You’re already dead,” Daniel says over and over again as he pummels Jones in the stomach and face.

The way Jones writes about the assault might come as a surprise to his many followers on Twitter, where he is a prolific and self-described “caustic” presence who suffers no fools. As a memoirist, though, Jones isn’t interested in score-settling. He portrays Daniel instead as deeply wounded, a man who cries as he assaults him and who “feared and raged against himself.” Jones recognizes “so much more of myself in him than I ever could’ve expected,” and when he looks up at Daniel during the attack, he doesn’t “see a gay basher; I saw a man who thought he was fighting for his life.” It’s a generous and humane take, one that might strike some as politically problematic — and others as a case of Stockholm syndrome.

If there’s surprisingly little blame to go around in a book with so much potential for it, there’s also a curious lack of context. Except for passages about the deaths of James Byrd Jr., a black Texan who was chained to the back of a truck by white supremacists and dragged to his death in 1998, and Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student who was beaten and left to die that same year, Jones’s memoir, which is structured as a series of date-stamped vignettes, exists largely separate from the culture of each time period. That decision keeps the reader in a kind of hypnotic, claustrophobic trance, where all that seems to matter is Jones’s dexterous storytelling.

But I sometimes wanted more. How did he engage with the politics and world outside his immediate family and community? What messages did a young Jones, who would grow up to become a BuzzFeed editor and a leading voice on identity issues, internalize or reject?

That’s not to say that “How We Fight for Our Lives” is devoid of introspection or searing cultural commentary, particularly about race and sexuality. “There should be a hundred words in our language for all the ways a black boy can lie awake at night,” Jones writes early in the book. Later, when explaining his need to sexualize and “shame one straight man after another,” he explains that “if America was going to hate me for being black and gay, then I might as well make a weapon out of myself.”

Jones is fascinated by power (who has it, how and why we deploy it), but he seems equally interested in tenderness and frailty. We wound and save one another, we try our best, we leave too much unsaid. All of that is evident in Jones’s relationship with his single mother, a Buddhist who leaves notes every day in his lunch box, signing them “I love you more than the air I breathe.” Jones’s mother is his champion, and though there’s a distance between them they struggle to resolve, they’re deeply connected — partly by their shared outsider status.

In an especially powerful passage, one that connects the author’s sexuality with his mother’s Buddhism, Jones’s grandmother drags a young Jones to an evangelical Memphis church. Kneeling next to his grandmother at the pulpit, he listens as the preacher announces that “his mother has chosen the path of Satan and decided to pull him down too.” The preacher prays aloud for God to punish Jones’s mother, to make her sick. Jones is stunned into silence. “If only I could grab the fire blazing through me and hold on to it long enough to roar back,” he writes.

It’s one of the last times, it seems, that Jones will keep quiet when he wants to roar.

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