A Love Letter to Andre Lancaster from Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko

Under the artificial but highly industrialized canopy that was the D-train running directly over our heads, we stood outside for our first heart-to-heart conversation. It was summer in New York City, distinct in humidity and activity from summers anywhere else in the world, and the workshop process for your Black queer theater group with its five playwrights under fellowship had begun. Monumental was the fact that we were Black writers commissioned for actual pay, read: real money; miraculous describes the dream realized and its impact on our creative lives well into our queer futures; “divinely powerful” is the phrase that comes to mind whenever I think of you, a young gay Black man whose ministry meant creating theater for queer Black playwrights when it wasn’t a thing, wasn’t trendy or an identity-marker to distinguish oneself at parties among the liberal elite or leftist intelligentsia who tend to populate if not dominate theater circles within America’s artistic landscape.

But on that sweltering hotly humid summer afternoon in the city, we stood on that sidewalk like true transplants, non-New Yorkers hands-in-pocket not worried about our future, our relevance, our fragile egos or definite death through denial and Black artistic erasure thanks to White Supremacy, or even that we desperately craved two tall glasses of ice water plus a pair of fold-out beach chairs to shoot-the-shit authentically. Heart-to-heart was our conversation that went something like this:
YOU-2-ME: “What you’re writing is bullshit.”
ME-2-YOU: “Bullshit?!”
YOU: “Is there something I should know? What’s wrong, Beloved? Tell me.”
ME: “Gimme a sec to catch my breath. I’m still stuck on “bullshit.””
Then you quickly followed up with, “This is a safe, affirming space. Here, my trans sibling, you’re free enough to soar. We are your solid anchor, your queer family with wings, don’t you see that? Can’t you feel our feathers rooted to your bones?” The initial tenacity and accompanying paranoia that comes with a new ministry often masks the deep love and fragility of its first founder. I knew then but not like I know now, many years later, that when a Black gay man is pregnant with a vision, and when he finally gives birth to see his vision take its first step, nurturing that dream to maturity instantly makes him a marked man, a target destined to die multiple deaths within one lifetime. For support, for spiritual food, to make sure his vision-child survives this sick, toxic, racist, homophobic world, he must hold that baby tightly to his bosom for Mama milk because it is himself he is holding, himself he is nursing, himself he gently cradle-rocks to sweet silent safety, himself he is raising up from the grave that mark him and his baby wherever they go, whomever they grow up to become, no matter what they manage or are allowed to achieve.

Heart-to-heart conversations among queer folks of color are staple to our diet, not just for purposes of survival that craft heart-shaped solid bedrock into beautiful Black being, but because Loving looks like coming together. You know that moment when witnessing the arching neck on its way back before that burst of laughter painting a sunshine only heartstrings hum to warm Black queerness. Or the dramatically orchestrated giant step into the limelight at a groove party to prove your hairstyle, hot plate, and outfit mean so much more than style, transcend current cultural politics, make mockery of mainstream etiquette, throwback your throw-down. Pockets of conversation that drop truths to soothe you right after your partner, now ex, deadnamed you during otherwise hot sex; the same truths whispered centuries ago among our Queer Ancestors when they gathered together for sustenance, groove-time, funk, gossip, touchy-touchy during their tribal meet-n-greets. So when you told me, “Write whatever the hell you want”, you were giving me permission to reclaim my Black queerness as foundational fabulousness; giving me permission—scratch that—mandating me to live fully free in my beautiful Black body, manifesting the miracle of my queer intersectional intelligence, uplifting my soul on and off the page which, in those days and now, is a miracle. Like you Andre. “Loving is Being” is what you were telling me, “Loving is Being.”

Being Black queerness is nothing short of miraculous, proof? I know Black queers who’ve walked clear across continents to free their dying lovers from homophobic hospitals, ensuring that last breath was taken together in dignity. I know Black queers forced to renounce religion to reclaim themselves divine. I know beautiful dark-skinned Black queers who pill-pop to quiet panic attacks from complex PTSD, massive anxiety and daily trauma just so they can host, perform and moderate events, ensuring the queer gospel’s rawness reaches their community free from coin. I know gay Black men who face emotional isolation for standing tall and unwavering in their complex queer truth, refusing to suffer in silence or fake it in order to “make it”. Kicked out of their homes; denied medical treatment; humiliated by a sick healthcare system that prescribes toxic transphobia wherever they remain boldly Black while trans-identified; sexually, verbally and physically assaulted and abused in homeless shelters; denied passports; violently harassed at borders; euphoric at 30 because it took three agonizing decades to finally, finally see their reflection in the mirror for the first time. Trans men-of-color who can’t rent an apartment without excess documentation; can’t drive a fancy car without police harassment; who walk the streets being misread as “thugs” robbed of their complex identities. Black trans femmes butchered to death by cis male lovers because “real Black men” aren’t queer enough to love trans femmes publicly. Black trans femmes beaten on the streets by cops then wrongfully convicted as whores, not sex workers, in courts with criminal laws, injustice sending them straight to male prisons because they proudly identify as women with penises. I know Black queers who swallow oppression; are medicated and institutionalized for mental illnesses that would not exist if they denied their existence, if they agreed to self-identify as cis and straight instead (of trans). Black queers pronounced demonic by a loving Jesus, their suicidal screams unheard for so long they set up a toll-free lifeline to stem the queer bloodshed, weaving magical unicorns and real rainbow flags out of generational abuse and social stigma. Elders, queer survivors press their ears to the telephone receiver, listening to queer family cry as only the oppressed can. For one pure moment of desire, one moment of unfiltered truth, Black queers whose resistance is resilience is each other because this world, with its racist, toxic, anti-queer culture, wishes us nothing but death. Loving is Being.

You moved with a young, hip, wild, risqué crowd of artists, mostly southern queers who lived loose, free, hard and on the edge of every conceivable border in New York City or along the East coast. Then you disappeared, dropped from their scene. Rumors began. Everybody heard tid-bits of something. They claimed they didn’t but in truth we all knew it just wasn’t right. You relocated: a cheap dump, rats with roaches, recently released convicted criminals for neighbors. By then your vision-child was dead, that theater group for Black queers cut. Lack of funding, plus some “established” theater institution “awarded” yet another “white creative” large sums of grant money for stealing your idea, gave them extra money for killing your baby. You moved twice in three weeks. Folks whispered, something about an addiction, possibly meth, maybe HIV-positive plus backsliding after rehab for the umpteenth time but during this intervention, this time you swore up-n-down you would conquer your demons, kick the curse to the curb for once and for all. Loyal friends kept up the faith, urging the rest of us to go visit, never mind the stench, that you smelled like fresh shit mixed with stale urine living in a tiny, dark coat closet and looked nothing like your former Self. Ex-lovers shook their heads, propped their coat collars upright as shield against wintry winds, walking speedily away from the gritty gossip soon swallowed by the boom, blast and brilliance that is New York City. That same night you took a tiny hit, not much, just a late night shoot to soothe the evening’s nerves. But then the Junky in Room 226 told the Crackhead in Room 225 there’s a strange smell coming from down the hallway in 224. Three days later, when the cops kicked open your door, they found you in bed with your most faithful lover, a meth pipe nestled sweetly between the sheets, smack in the middle of that open palm attached to your cold corpse.

Being Andre meant carrying the burden of other people’s fucked upness. Because racism. Because shame. Because homophobia, biphobia, queerphobia, transphobia, ableism, classism. Because transmisgynoir. Because you were so ahead of your time you gifted everyone else with a future. Because queer masculinity coupled with Black Brilliance like yours is butchered in this toxic society. Because the queer Black body is under siege. Because Black Love is as criminal as poverty is shameful in a hyper-capitalist shithole democratic dumping ground of a country like America. Because there is no such thing as celebrated, safe space for queers-of-color. Because we are forced to use English, a colonial language, to decolonize our dreams. Because being labeled “crazy” when Black and queer is the ultimate compliment. And still, despite what stood between you and (institutionalized) insanity, you claimed your identity, birthing new realities to transcend circumstance, sometimes bigotry. Fabulousness?, you?, yes of course. You dreamed big, dreamed brave, dreamed strong, dreams bound beautifully by queer Black pride.

How many times did they kill you before you died? I guess what I’m really asking is: How many times did they erase you, ignore you, lie to you, manipulate, gaslight you, rape you, shame you, ridicule you into tortured submission until you decided, Why not disappear? When did you notice the distinct difference between being alive and queerness? When was the first time you feared for your life? The first time the community failed you, what did you tell yourself to get up the next morning? When we failed you again, you got up yes, but was your pain floored or could you carry it past the doorpost out into this racist world? At what point did you stop performing to let the mask slip? They killed you after that, I know, but how many times? Did you die when they shouted “faggot” or the word “Art”? T.V. taught me how to love my queer body by hating my Blackness; you? How crazy is too crazy when you’ve never seen yourself? Never ever whole, never ever full, never ever beautiful, never ever man enough or woman enough or cis enough or Black enough or gay enough or queer enough, never ever human, never ever free. When the mirror is your rapist and society can’t stand you long enough to look, you must obsessively wonder if that’s why the future screams stigma. That sliver within Time, that breath between existence and eternity, what broke you Brother? What made it impossible to outlive your pain, Beloved?

Now, transition completed, you are among Queer Ancestry whose sole purpose is the exaltation of life divine as love supreme. Consciousness meeting consciousness, you have no material body. Think: how radical is that? For a queer Black gay man to finally, finally be free of his body, released from gender-based stigma, unbound by racist constructs, bathed by divine love that radiates core being. At the inner sanctum of which is your child, your vision of a theater group for Black queers, still pure, still enduring, now resurrected and alive among our queer Ancestors who live to fully honor their own. Finally, in death you have attained what life viciously robbed from you: significance, space, peace, acclaim, safety, above all, true love. It’s enough to celebrate the fullness of YOU and, in so doing, the Ancestors have nominated another tortured queer Black creative to your theater’s music ministry: Whitney Houston. There she stands, bathed in Black ancestral queerness, ready to crown your arrival with song:

Sacred One
Peaceful stillness is your new home…

Full queer disclosure by way of naked honesty? In truth, we were scared shitless of getting too close to each other. Black touch, moments of intimacy, time and time again, are miracles because they can prove so dangerous, lethal, prove deadly. And, contrary to queer theories that center bodies in white space, no, that fear was not born during the HIV crisis and its ensuing epidemic. And no, that fear is not the organic byproduct of programmed instability during a shifty Digital Age. And no, that fear did not suddenly metastasize after September 11th as the defining apocalyptic event of our generation. Ours is a fear with an umbilical chord stretching back centuries, across numerous lands and oceans, weaving through multiple generations amplified through compounding traumas. When you are Black and queer, your whole Being calls out White Supremacy and anything, anything that does that in this world must die and keep dying multiple times until stamped “dead enough”. To reach out, to touch another Black queer is non-conformity, is affirmation of the unspeakable, is acknowledgement of the denied, is transcendent and transformational of all betrayals. That particular brand of Black intimacy is completely queer in that its focus is not to turn Darkness into Light but Light into Darkness because Beloved only Darkness, on this wretched Earth, only Darkness is powerful enough to contain all things. To contain the pain with the joy. To couple spiritual faith to human horror. To live in peace during the storm. To reach the social heights of Black celebrity while rooted to Almighty God. To manifest contradiction as an inevitable surprise. To push the original sin against Black people to the background of our Love Supreme as foreground. So is my spiritual crisis, and that of my tribal siblings, something like this; somewhere deep down, I knew if I reached out to touch you, I would have to reach for myself? And maybe, after years of trauma, after years of dying multiple deaths, I was scared shitless of where I’d gone and who I’d become to get there? Whenever I stared into the mirror, forced to stare back, to face a reflection that strips all the way to my Ancestors who question what I’ve done to and for my queer family, question how I’ve honored their power through community, question my place on Earth in the name of their precious blood, maybe that reckoning is the ultimate death stamp, the final kill among kills. In short, I never touched you Andre because somewhere deep down I knew I would have to survive myself to reach you.

The paradox is exactly what paradox is, glaringly obvious. Just as there are different types of murder—intentional, unintentional, reactionary, accidental, revenge fantasy, merciful—so too are there different types of death. Meaning what? Love kills. Our great Queer Ancestors intended it to be so. Coming out of the closet means dying to that person who was in the closet; going back into the closet means dying to the Self who is out. And life’s epic sweeping journey involves eternally going in and out of that closet’s revolving door unto the everlasting. As you die to yourself—forever moving through multiple closets, moving from who you were to who you are to who you were to who you are, moving from mask to face to soul combinations—as you do so, you get close to someone. And as you get close to someone, you assume a tremendous amount of power because you realize you can always get close enough to kill them—always. But are you willing to get close enough to love them? Are you willing to leave it all out there for them? Are you willing to be vulnerable to them? Are you willing to be there for them? To share their queer breath? To honor their queer Black body in a racist world? Are you willing to plant kisses that destroy the myth that Black space, our bodies especially, can only house stereotypes of self-destruction? Are you willing to snack on their queer asshole? Are you willing to die to your reality to live within theirs? Their soul music, their sound, their language, swim smack in the middle of their word soup, lose yourself in meaning that is their eternity? Are you willing to let yourself go? Seriously, would you put your Truth to sleep? Are you willing to die to yourself to touch them?

Yes, we died, too many times. But we also lived just as many lives. Not touching you, queerly beloved, robbed me of the many worlds living inside of you.

Dearest Queer Brother, forgive me for robbing the majesty of our connection, dishonoring Black love. It was not alienation but pure murder. Forgive me for running away when you stood tall and strong to claim me. In the name of our Queer Ancestors, please forgive me for labeling you fragile instead of championing the strength and power of your vulnerability. I turned my head to stab you invisible, making me unworthy to be of your tribe. Please forgive me for dishonoring my queerness and yours, and those of our Ancestors who shed their precious blood to hold firmly onto their integrity. Whose ascendance is proof not once did they sell their power to appease oppression. But I foolishly labeled my murder of you survival, believing that I had to deny and destroy my brother to get somewhere safely when Black and queer in America. Comfort is a lie, maybe an even bigger and more dangerous lie than the gender-binary because it’s consumed more communities. However today I give up comfort. surrendering to my grief to uplift you who were so much better than me, so much larger than this world. With love everlasting, I say your name as prayer eternal: Andre Alexander Lancaster, I love you.

Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko

Mourning, unlike grief, is a scripted ritual for a circle of intimates who gather together (usually in all black) as testament in honor of life passed. Grief, by contrast, is neither scripted nor collective in expression, perhaps because it’s invisible twin is love. Like love, grief defies social scripts; like love, grief celebrates transformational chaos; upholds vulnerability, helplessness, and surrender as powerful. This piece not only examines loss of life, but looks at the multiplicity of deaths within a single lifetime the moment one identifies as black and queer. The intimate circle, also a tribe of queers-of-color, anticipate systemic (#cistemic) death by erasure, silencing, racism, hetero-patriarchy, shaming, stigma, self-sabotage, addiction, escapism, lethal doubt, queerphobia, and, because of all this and a lot more, we participate in numbing ourselves to so much oppression, read: are complicit by inclusion. As the forces of White Supremacy feast on Black bodies, queerness is its only cure, but only if fear does not limit its expression. I grieve Andre most whenever I surrender to the truth that I was too afraid to love my Black brother queerly, read: fully, truly.

Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko is queer, NB-trans, Tanzanian-American. Nick is honored to be part of Squawk Back.