Black Boys and Bird-Chests: The Racialized Legacy of Body Dysmorphia

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Black Boys and Bird-Chests, or the Racialized Legacy of Body Dysmorphia in African-American Men

Photo by mwangi gatheca on Unsplash

The burn in my chest the first and last time a friend’s mom punched me was the final time I allowed myself to be okay with having a “bird-chest” and lanky arms. I remember the thought crossing my mind followed solely by the immediate regret of showing up over this house at all, and I should’ve demanded such a thing the day white friend told me he was blacker than me because he could dunk on a full-sized rim and I couldn’t.
However, the catalyst for this sudden change today came somewhere between the push-ups and sit-ups, and everything she thought was a favor to build me into a more suitable image of what she deemed acceptable for a young Black man to be when I realized that anyone speaking of my body or forcing themselves upon my body’s right to exist was not okay. Perhaps if I made such a stance for myself sooner, I would have a prouder self-image that doesn’t equate my body’s lack of athletic hardiness to a failure to live up to my cultural pride.

The world is obsessed with the Black male body image, in a way that often crosses into the gross. Not only in how these bodies can perform as a tool or commodity, as we often find in sports but in how one should conduct itself within parameters of Blackness. In the last year alone, we’ve seen Terry Crews having to defend his body against other high-profile Black men about what he did or didn’t do to protect himself during a sexual assault. The power isn’t with Terry Crews, however, and while it is also with these other celebrities, it speaks to a culture surrounding Black bodies; it’s rooted in a traumatizing experience that many Black men go through in their youth that not only pressures Black boys that dictate Black identity only as an extension of our bodies’ physical worth — and more specifically, only when we abuse it.
To be frail in a Black space is to be seen as less than Black. This was the case for me even before that day at my friend’s house in Ohio; it was like this before I was old enough to know, everything I did at a young age was dedicated to hardening my body to the same icy stone that one might expect of Black men.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

At six years old, I was expected to know how to play basketball, I was expected to race and run laps, and fight and be struck square in my chest without crying, caving on flinching because I had a ‘bird-chest” and that, in the world of West Philadelphia was not okay. The fantasy of my future involved a sport, and only a sport — and somewhere down the line basketball, and the revulsion of anything feminine, but the over-consumption of anything female. There were even dreams of what my first tattoo might be.

Imagine my mother’s disappointments when despite all of this, I still lacked all repulsion with anything athletic. And honestly, to this day I’ve never had little more than an ear piercing.

It was not my mother’s disappointments that concerned me or continues to do so, but the point of view of my family — both young and old — that somehow I tarnished my sense of Blackness by not dedicating myself to physical achievements. No matter the academic or emotional milestones I hurdle, we can always come back to the failure on my part to end up Strong in this one real way which counts to them — even if I no longer have a “bird-chest”. It always ends with an expectation to hit a gym sooner or later.

Infamous image of Gordon, or “Whipped Pete” (1863) depicting his scarred back

And, it wasn’t until that eventful night where a punch took it steps too far that I realized this was not regionally specific behavior — this was behavior canonized across Blackness and where I rebelled against it, it became the basis of my peer’s masculinity to the point it ostracized me from my Blackness and, in truth, there’s no reason for that to have been.

Yet, to this day, when I look upon my own Black form and how it fails to conform to this image I have now grown to expect of myself, I feel an involuntary revulsion. I feel beautiful, but at the same time, I am forced to feel incomplete, because the brownness of my skin is supposedly meant to be accompanied by a hardiness, and not a softness. I’m incapable of seeing even the curves I’ve developed as anything as my own way of escaping the whiteness and weakness my bird-chest once implied.

The history of Black bodies as commodity isn’t unknown to our understanding of what America is and it is ahistorical to discuss Black male bodies and not mention this. Slavery was all about reducing a whole culture’s human spectrum — their emotions, memories, their habits, and happiness — into a disgusting price tag to be tossed out on a wooden chopping block.

Ken Norton as Mede posing for slaver inspection, formulating one of the earliest forms of the fetishization of Black male physique.

The mind held little worth, though it could be marketed as a profitable gift with purchase, and the idea of a greased up mass of muscle who could only react, and never act (and therefore exist) became the model of Black men. Thus, we can note the beginning of the fetishization of Black male bodies.

This legacy continues throughout American fiction. In 1975, the graphic adaptation of Kyle Onstot novel of the same name, Mandingo was released by Paramount Pictures. The film, starring boxer-turned-actor Ken Norton, depicted the sexual victimization of male and female Black slaves and the gross physical exploitation of the Black male form. In the film, Mede (Ken Norton) is a prizefighter forced to physical extremities such as bathing in cauldrons of hot salt water to toughen his skin. His worth is placed solely in the fact that as a Mandingo (of the Mandinka ethnic group) he is of superior physical virtue, and thus more suitable for breeding. The film ends with the murder of Mede after the Woman of the House extorts sex from Mede, culminating in his execution due solely to attracting the unrequited sexual desire due to his biology.

The stakes Black boys face today are nowhere as comparable as these moments of extreme brutality in reality, or fiction, but the line of succession passes itself forward. Today, only the conduct is different; Terry Crews has to defend his choices to not assault his sexual aggressors to other high-profile Black men who in some sense of a world are challenging his sense of Blackness for his decisions to not use his body — which is apparently his physically imposing — to fight.

Some might suggest that this is a case of Machismo, and while it is similar, as both concepts can be attributed to hypermasculinity, the extreme racial fetishization by both Black and White cultures makes the concept feel as unique as the other systematic structures imposed upon Black existence.
In any case, Black men are expected to resolve conflict violently or not at all, and this narrative has become a dangerous entity — a caustic cancer that has ended in the routine and systematic execution of Black youths. The narrative of the Black male form as monstrous have followed us further back than the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown or the prolific exposure of social media.

Public Domain Clip Art of Trayvon Martin, black minor executed in 2012

Yet, there is always the expectation to perform our strength and to fit into this idea of our bodies as a vehicle of aggression. It’s not an uncommon part of my day for a stranger to waste sixty whole seconds of my time guessing which sport I play — and it’s never soccer, tennis or track: football, or basketball, only.

And if I were to investigate the effects of this trauma inward onto myself, I find the ways that this trauma manifests itself routinely in my behavior: the sudden pauses and obsession with my image in the mirror, or the peculiar ways my self-image prioritizes the same arms, chest, and torso that alienated me culturally from a sense of Blackness that has no origin within Blackness.

In 2018, Javaugn “Javie’ Young-White (@jyoungwhite) penned a thread which poignantly explored the body dysmorphia suffered by African-American men due to this phenomena. “A lot of Black men struggle with body dysmorphia [because] of the emphasis that is placed on our athleticism [and] physical stature throughout childhood [and] adolescence,” he says. “It’s especially confusing because the body types we’re told to aim for also serve as justification for profiling and unarmed murders”

When our bodies are used to clock the mileage for our race and culture, it becomes the weapon by which others oppress us. How else could in the case of those less than athletic do our forms become synonymous to whiteness, or in cases of racial brutality, our physical intimidation become juxtaposes to the barbaric imagery?

The middle ground between these two ideas speaks only to the extreme ways race factors into our bodies, and the demands expected of these bodies in our youth. It speaks to the false realities we shove onto children to appeal to a standard that is as toxic as it is hypermasculine, and the traumas which haunt these youths — and have for generations

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Steven Underwood is an award-winning writer and essayist from Columbus, Ohio. Multifaceted, He has expanded his range deep into the recesses of Black speculative fiction and poetry. In the past, Steven has published essays with MTV News, Essence, Le Reine Noire, Comicsverse and Banango Street on identity and culture. He cites his writing style as the intersection between Toni Morrison and Fredrick Douglass. Follow him on social media @Blaqueword.

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Ebony Antebellum: First Chapter Excerpt

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Pre-Order Ebony Antebellum on Publishizer for Early Bird incentives

Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash

Young Ty DuBeau would be a genius if he wasn’t born on his side of the Wall. In the magickal metropolis of Antebellum, Ty has struggled every day to save his mother from eminent death. But when a traumatic attack leaves him without the power to save her, Ty’s hero, Quinto, makes an offer to spare him the greatest loss of his young life — all he must do is betray his People. Out of options, Ty abandons everyone he loves in time to enroll on the wrong side of a rising war at the deadliest school in all of magick: the Orthodoxy. The wealthy students of the Orthodox understand victory is not a question of can you succeed, but a question of what you will kill to do it; and if its them or him, Ty soon learns what little value a Brown boy truly holds in a world on the brink of destruction.

ONE: Boy in the Browns

The Letter fell from nowhere, and Ty wished it’d go away. He burned it, he flushed it, he shredded the paper and haggled with spirits of the Old World, America, to whisk it away.

Like the crimes of the nation, however, it never went away for long.

Maybe Black Boy Magic wasn’t that strong. Ty should’ve known better: if he dreamed he had the power to make the impossible real, his mother wouldn’t be on her deathbed.

He had no one to blame, but himself.

Just a few days ago, during his Binding Ceremony, where THEY presented his implement unceremoniously in a paper box bound with a white ribbon. With this, the totemic representation of his Faustian pact with the city-nation, Antebellum, Ty thought he could spare himself the inevitability of the thing set into motion.

Ty spent hours in his kitchen, from sundown to sunup, leafing through stolen books and records. The long nights never bothered him anymore, not since he turned 17 and transitioned from a boy to man. The difference wasn’t just in his attitude, but in his thin blade chin and sunblessed brown skin, and in the crown of carrowed curls that dangled just above his flat forehead.

Ty toyed with his implement — tapped at it with a spoon, performing one-handed sleight tricks: now you see it, now you don’t. It shined indigo and mauve, a sugilite stone, that he had not fashioned into a shape — not into a wand, or a bracelet, anything; what point was there? He’d sacrifice it soon, when he abandoned being a member of Antebellum and gave himself to the Community, to the Browns, for his Mother — always for her.

But, first, he had to at least try to save her.

This implement held his portion of the Tontine. His wealth. His Power. And with it, Ty could spin any spell that he could reasonably afford the cost off.

Maybe if I was Richer, Bluer, I could just pay someone to invent this spell for me, Ty thought. After all, you never see any Blues with this monstrosity of a disease.

Ty wished they’d just die.

No you don’t, Teetee, his grandfather’s voice trembled soft, yet strict. All Life is sacred, to take it is to fail at every possible turn. Do Better.

Still, it was the way of the Blue Bloods, who lived in opulent ease and prosperity across the wall, to remove any and all obstacles they were concerned with through their magic. In just two decades of the City’s history, the Blues cured death itself. Yet, the disease of Taint escaped them?

Trash.

The wonders of the 21st century were laughable compared to the enchantment of the 23rd, none of these Blue Bloods were free of the smut of their excess and indifference.

Sure, Ty understood spellwork held complexities. Three-times more so for Brown folk who could not sup on generational wealth and education to power spells.

With the Blue Bloods controlling the rules to guide and control magick, waving a wand or whispering a phrase only worked for the most independently powerful of sorcerers. Ty only needed the right series of incantations before the Binding, but now he needed legerdemain: sigil and simulation — he was a Deeper sorcerer.

The Binding Ceremony said difficult magicks required a steep price and it all called for Power in exchange for service. But, Ty didn’t have the time to work: Letter day was coming.

Ty fell into his research, he barely noticed the days after his Binding exhaust themselves. The kitchen became a mess. A different page hung from every cupboard. He failed another practice run of his spell — rendering a cancer cell malignant — when his Letter manifested on his tabletop (it had a habit of doing that if Ty ignored it for too long)

It plopped down on an open page of his Healer’s grimoire, a chapter called the Long Gasp.

It felt dense with a lavender binder. A gravity shimmered around it, an attraction charm of expensive design, twisting a sirenic desire to pull it open: a bad sign. On the back was a wax seal with an ostrich biting a long-rod with two scales on either side with a flame on one side and a skull on the other.

Ty leaned back, and gave a sinister wide eye. He expected this moment, but seeing it in all reality, it made Ty slowly crack. He sat staring at the thing for a few minutes, shivering in his seat, his future on the decision in a pink slip.

The kitchen door swung open behind Ty.

“Ayo, Tee — ” It was Victor.

Ty palmed a steak knife off the table and flicked it through the air at Victor’s head.

Halt,” Victor’s Presence exploded around him, sending a minor tremor through the room. His eyes fixated upon the knife, slowing it to an abrupt stop as if the kinetic energy was stolen in the batting of an eye. It should’ve been a wasteful display, but Victor’s Presence was supernaturally seismic.

Just as Ty planned. Ty swallowed his burst of jealousy at the ease Victor employed his raw sorcery and jumped, slamming the book closed.

“The fuck, Ty?” Victor asked. He stepped completely into their six-by-six size kitchen, barely larger than a closet, ducking his head to accommodate his height. Six feet of a golden copper brown with spotted freckles peeking from a teal tank and a whole head taller than Ty himself.

A golden jaguar with a coat of shimmering moonlight and red pigmented paws trailed after Victor. It called itself Aeropasti, one of Victor’s Ashe — his spiritual familiars.

Aeropasti growled at Ty, clearly vocalizing something Ty couldn’t understand — probably a threat; Aeropasti hated Ty and he never cared to dig deep enough to ask why a manifested fragment of Victor’s personality hated his so-called best friend: such a weird bit of psychology.

“No Aeropasti, We ain’t doing that,” Victor said, glaring at Ty. “It was an accident.”

Ty shrugged. “You can’t be sneaking up on people on this block, V. You know that.”

Victor’s spell ended, sending the knife along its orchestrated path. The blade pierced the plaster behind Victor’s head several inches deep. Ty took the time to slam the book closed and leapt to his feet.

“What got you going so much that you got that thing prowling around my Mama’s floors?” Ty asked, eying that vicious, tiny demon.

“What? Aeropasti’s a good mouser.”

“Aeropasti probably the reason we got mice.”

“I don’t know about — ”

“Vee, mice aren’t covered in sewer waste and as fat as bread loafs. Those aren’t mice, those are rats. Aeropasti brings rats into the house.”

Victor considered fighting back, but he knew better — Ty didn’t surrender arguments, or battles, easily. Aeropasti sat in the corner, licking his bloody paws.

“My letter came,” Victor shrugged, sauntering to a kitchen counter. He picked up one of his Ma’s old mason jars of ground tobacco — one of her many ingredients. “Seven rejections in a row. No leagues for me.”

“You were trying to go?” Ty smirked, a playful glint on his face. “Brown Blood.”

“Keep talking out the side of yah mouth and we gonna have a problem.”

“You think you can beat me?”

Victor scoffed. They left the problem there. Graham and Quinto took over their training from a young age — drilled them in many of the military tactics of Gang warfare in the Browns. Ty still felt his aching bones as he dragged himself onto the Rail every week. The acrid stench of Graham’s poisons before she spoon-fed Ty a ladle full. He remembered every lie he told his Ma about why he looked so sunken and exhausted.

“I’m saying it’d be a fair fight.” Victor glanced at the grimoire. “Your Letter come?”

Ty shook his head. “Nah.”

“What’re yah going to do? Our Ordeal is coming up in like…soon.”

Ty shrugged. “I can fake it. S’not like anyone expects either of us to fail.”

“But the important part of the test is sacrificing the Letter — removing yahself from the influence of the Blue Bloods — rejecting their ways, their Elegant Art, for the superior pride of the Ancestral Art, of the Browns.” Victor frowned. “Kinda weird for the Blue Bloods to take so long with yah Letter. How’d yah do on your Literacy test?”

Ty tapped the tabletop with his index finger. Even absently, he founds a subtle rhythm to his work. He mauled that question over for a few breathes, despite knowing the answer to Victor’s question.

He did how he always did on tests: phenomenally. There wasn’t a lot of the Elegant Arts Ty didn’t know — despite the active obstacles thrown his way by the Blue Bloods.

And yet, Quinto and the rest of the Allegiance expected Ty to fail it, as all Allegiance have.

For Brownies, like Ty and Victor and everyone else living on this side of the Wall, passing that test meant escape: the only way to leave the world of poverty and death behind you and crossover to the Blues. You’ll never return after that happened. And the Seven Leagues — schools of sorcery and etiquette — would do its very best to help you forget everything on the dark side of the Wall. Victor and Ty knew only a handful of people a year who got that honor — and it all began with the Letter.

Thus, they’d all fail, or be punished as any traitor would…

Ty had every intention of going into that dank, dusty little basement and putting himself on the pyre. But, Quinto didn’t say anything about the delicious enticements in that booklet.

Those who score in the top 10 of the Literacy test will be rewarded with one-free casting. Any spell on the dime of the Tontine and the Senate 66 who control it.

In that moment, staring at that page and all of the odd things he’d need to do as a prerequisite to quality — presenting spittle, blood, and his complete star chart — he knew it was worth it to save her. To save his mother, the woman who woke up late at night and made Ty sandwiches for his day.

She. Was. Worth it.

“I’m gonna go for a walk.” Ty said, rising from his seat.

Victor started to get up, but Ty held his hand up.

“Alone. Maybe they’ll send my Letter faster if they don’t see me surrounded all the time.”

Victor frowned, “Yah think they watching?”

“They wealthy control freaks — they always watching us. “He scooped the grimoire up in his arms.

“And, yah need that?”

“Gotta take it to the vault.” Ty lied. “It’s customary to give an offering before an Ordeal.”

“Ah, damn. I forgot to go poach something from the Grande Marketplace,” Victor groaned. What he meant was Ty forgot — Victor didn’t have the subtlety to get past the Grande Marketplace’s detection spells. Ty was the best Assimilator in the Allegiance, perfecting the art of suppressing himself, his ego and his identity enough to become entirely undetectable to all forms of detection save the detection of the naked eye.

There wasn’t a lot of people he couldn’t kill.

In the past, when Victor couldn’t muster the Presence, Ty would take the things they needed for the house: cans of vegetables and fruit, blankets, hearth charms, warm boiling https://publishizer.com/ebony-antebellum/?utm_medium=short-links&utm_source=NDLoV&utm_campaign=ebony-antebellum, and, of course, the odd books. Now that Victor had more than enough Presence, and their tasks for Allegiance came with a bit of pocket money, Ty and Victor only stole as a wild statement of discomfort with the way the Grande Market operated.

“I’ll make sure to tell the Ancestors it was a joint project.” Ty said calmly. Victor scoffed.

“Like I’ma believe yah’d share credit. We going together, and then we can go straight to the Ordeal. Cool, right?”

Ty frowned. “Great.”

They rushed out the house, darting down the three cement steps leading to their screen door, only after Ty excused himself to check on his Ma in the furthest room in the back. Ty dabbed his finger in lavender and peppermint oil and touched her forehead and she flinched, but Ty persisted. He drew the awakening glyph and blew onto it with a breath of Presence. It fizzed like soda suds and she burst awake, her chest heaving.

Sweat caked across her forehead as her hair cascaded about into a messy distortion of knots and split ends. What was once a crown, was now matted mane?

At first her eyes were disoriented, filled with a creamy fog. Moments passed and her eyes flashed with recognition and she remembered. She licked her lips, flicking a purple tongue.

“Tee-tee,” she said with a smile.

“Ma, I’m going out now.”

She surrendered another smile, consuming what remained of her energy, and fell back into slumber, despite Ty’s every desire to tell her he’d save her.

Outside, the Browns was the same crowded grid of low-rising housing projects his Ma remembered. It was largely built with an exterior of dusty red bricks, and an interior of sad white paint and wooden cabinets. Ty’s part of the Browns, nicknamed the Stocks, was home to the majority Black populace and were usually crawling with families. Many slave mages, men and women who worked in service to another too good to learn the essential domestic magicks, were heading out to their night shifts. Some stopped by to give Victor good fortune, whispering blessings over his head.

Ty got nothing and was thankful, they’d need all their Presence and Power over there in the Blues.

For many of the Brownies, like Ty and Victor, there wasn’t a real reason to cross the Wall outside of work. Quinto worked hard to make their Community self-sufficient. Fishburne grew the community gardens with the aid of her gopher Ashe’s Prosperity Mojo. Quinto even led an initiative of reclaiming the Browns — swapping out all Elegant enchantments for the authority of the Ancestry, the power of the Browns.

There wasn’t a place anyone could walk where he couldn’t find people. No matter where Ty wandered, vivid color flourished — brown, yellow, auburn, red.

Unless, you were heading north. The brown buildings darkened as he went. Soot marks stained the concrete stone and cement. Cold wind whistled into his ears and the buildings — or the pitch skeletal structures that were once tall buildings — a market district with condos above every shop, center and facility.

Ty and Victor approached the line cautiously. A ribbon of black, green and red spray painted veves and prints to dissuade crossing. Apotropaismic mojo, designed to turn malice and evil back whenever it approached. Ty didn’t know if this ward would last forever — not without dedication. He could feel it waning, the collective Presence fortifying the Ancestral Art fading with the steady surrender of the Browns to the Blues.

A shrine of portraits, stuffed animals and burned candles heralded Ty up to the line’s limits. Some men and women only had one candle, whereas celebrities and legends had four or five. Ty stopped by one of the portraits — a yellowing image of a tall, middle aged man cradling a brown baby with a head of hair. Behind him were his two prized treasures: two daggers crossed beneath a large black mask.

One of the daggers matched Ty’s own. A two-foot length of cool spirit metal, a specific alien material that appeared more like glass, with a hilt wrapped in black and indigo electrical tape. Dozens of candles crowded the sidewalk leading to his image. Ty removed his grandfather’s dagger from his back belt hem and narrowed his sight onto the tip of the blade. Carefully, Ty tapped the tip of his finger against the blade and incised a minor cut. The blood swelled to the precipice.

Blood offering, Ty thought, recalling Quinto lessons in rituals and rites. He was kind enough to teach Ty how to do it, after his grandfather passed. With Ty’s affliction, it was necessary. One of the oldest rituals in the book. The most personal of sacrifices for the most personal of magicks.

Ty circled the glass candle container’s rim with his finger over every single candle and fed three drops of blood directly onto the burnt, black wicks. His Presence vibrated in his ears, filling his soul with vigor. “Light,” Tyree whispered.

Nothing. Of course, he wasn’t Victor. It’d never be that easy.

Incantations were all about inviting specific emotional reactions to guide the magick. Ty had something that’d work. He summoned his Presence and felt its sticky aluminum shiver on his tongue.

“Flicker, flicker little bic, come now and dance upon the wick, flicker flicker, writhe and wreath, Flicker Flicker, burning steep,” Ty sketched a sigil into the dirt and exhaled a long breathe into it. Ty could feel the time upon the wicks slowly roll back, as the memories of the world around him enforced themselves upon reality. At once, the candles sucked in the air hungrily until a smoke rolled off their tip until they lit with, of course, a flicker.

This was Deeper sorcery’s thaumaturgy — accessing the re-memory of an object and manifesting its past miracles upon the present. Ty could remind air of being trapped in iron, or liquids of their solid forms. The strongest could even dial back the clock of life — return life upon the departed. Though, most Deepers prioritized the arts of metamagic.

With his candles ablaze, Ty prayed thanks to his Grandfather — to his Ancestors, and imparted that they watch over and protect him. Misdirect the eyes of the Blues, blind the Adversary from his magicks and, most importantly, keep the Coven Marshalls away.

They say the Warrior should always impart the Father and the Sage — in that order. But, Ty didn’t possess a shrine to his father to invoke. They could only be made by people who knew the deceased.

Ty tried to rise, but quickly teetered over to his left. He barely caught himself with his forearm, propping himself up awkwardly. The room was spinning and —

Not worth it…

The voice chattered for half of a second. Ty held his breath and closed his eyes, conjuring memories of the people who mattered to him until, finally, the voice subsided and he could stand.

A candle, Ty thought bitterly. I overextended my Presence lighting a fucking candle…

Ty walked to a different shrine, baring a small Dominican family. The father wore a factory mage’s robe of tanned leather and his wife a fuchsia beautician shawl. A thin Dominican boy sat at a stoop beside them, a petite girl with pink gums where her two front teeth should be cradled in his arms.

There, Victor stood. He snapped his finger. “Light!””

An emerald bell fire leapt up and lit the soft blue candle beneath him in one strong stream. Twirling in the wind. Victor watched them, his strong jaw clenched.

“If they could see me now,” Victor whispered as he watched.

“Better they can’t,” Ty said, loftily.

“Why?”

“We’re about to become gangsters,” Ty offered.

Victor shrugged his shoulders. “Pledges, you mean. We’re a fraternity.”

“I think my dad rather himself a criminal son than a traitor.”

“Better than a dead one.”

Ty’s frown deepened. “Vick,” Ty started. “For the Ordeal…we might have to kill someone.”

Victor gestured at the candles. “THEY started it.”

Together, they crossed the boundary, but as two different people.

Grey particles danced on the window, gathering in gutters and rain spouts. Ty told himself it was only snow, but the lies you tell yourself only go so far, before Truth wares that journey to a complete stop.

It was ashes.

The night hissed at Victor, but left Ty alone.

“Why does it always do that?” Victor frowned.

“I don’t know,” Ty said. “Maybe it just don’t like the way you smell?”

“Everybody like the way I smell,” Victor laughed. “Don’t you.

Ty licked his lips and pushed on. This place was a ghost town, but with literal ghosts. Poltergeists of the defenseless whom the City betrayed. If Ty had the heart — and he had plenty — he could open any door and find scores of corpses, some inanimate, others…

Something dashed in the corner of his eye. Ty’s head twisted to catch it, but it moved too quickly. Another hand reached at him. Ty turned again, and it was gone. Victor growled at the darkness. Another rush of wind. Ty felt their aberrant nature coiling around him, the foul stink of adversity and trauma.

“They’re surrounding us, Vick” Ty hissed. Victor nodded, he knew what Ty meant without his skill for detection.

“Aeropasti!” The jaguar leapt out of Victor’s unfurled hands and padded down the street into the darkness. It leapt up and shoved something. Ty felt unnerved — most people could only access a single Ashe at a time — Victor just left them wide open.

You wouldn’t be wide open if you could conjure one, Trickless, said a voice in the back of Ty’s mind. Ty shook it off — it was just the shadows speaking to him: the nature of the Adversary, peeling back his psyche like a tangerine until it go to the succulent, juicy self-doubt and anguish.

Aeropasti came prancing back to their side, an arm like a wild tree branch clenched in its predatory jaws. The wildcat nuzzled Victor’s leg and flicked a tail at Ty.

The beast earned Ty’s respect again — even if it was a little jackass.

Ty inspected the limb of the dispatched Adversary with a close eye before scrutinizing it with his every critical sense, his Awareness.

“What was it, Tee?”

Fair question. With Adversary, some slithered, some soared — and some lurked in your mind and heart. But they were always dangers: they were always threats to all things mundane and magical. And this one…

“I’m…not sure.” Ty said cautiously. “It must be new, slipped out of the Wall or something because it doesn’t even feel like fire. Most Adversary native at the Back-of-the-Wall smell or taste like soot, or coal, or ash. They’re Fire court, released from the…er,”

“The Great Fire,” Victor frowned.

“Yeah. This seems way too foreign — drenched in terror and fear, like the Redcap or the Tallman,” Ty shivered. He hated the Tall Man, it reminded him of the Goliath Grande Adversary that his Ma would tell him about as a kid. “Anyways, unless Aeropasti has had a change of appetites recently, I don’t think he got the thing 100% dead. We should keep going before it comes back for the limb it lost.”

Victor nodded and they walked on and on and on until their feet got tired and their eyes got heavy, and the very idea of walking another step, another stride, in this ugly world, seemed a violence in itself…

And then…they just weren’t outside anymore. The scene bled away like the existence of those who lived here and perished to the fires. They’re in a lobby with leaning, patchy chairs and sofas, a rustic iron door and a few Tainted jittery and shaking.

One of them, a dazey eyed hag, drools as she watches Ty and Victor walk up to the door.

“Bum a spell?” she slurred.

“Hell no,” Ty hissed.

“Tee!” Victor jumped. He walked over to the woman and pulled out a lump of granite. He summoned his Presence, the warm sonic squeal of it all, and transmuted the material into a cozy warm platinum, stone. He placed it into her hand. “Cast with that, I think it’s good for a few Fifth Degree healing spells.”

Victor mugged Ty as he walked past him to the gate. Ty rolled his eyes and followed. Someone slid the peephole open.

“What?”

Victor sniffed. “Our chains have a cost.”

The words on his lips were like magic. The bolts in the door unscrewed before bursting open. Ty and Victor stepped through. A thousand colors flashed in Ty’s eyes. It was a basement with shelves lined with mason jars. Scorpions, small rodents, a colorful butterfly, birdlings, and — to Ty’s disgust — spiders, along with dozens of other smaller animals suspended in glass chambers. They made excellent bargaining tools — so many natural beasts were wiped out when America fell. The Browns’ tunneled, however, were flushed with them.

When Ty’s grandfather ran this place, the facility was never empty. Brownies from every culture with a drop of Blackness came to learn the heritage and power of the Ancestral Arts. Ty remembered the fiery hammer of the drums in heated darkness, their hammering rhythm and how it enticed Pawpaw’s spirit dancers to twist upon the air. The shadows of the wall twisted and stretched unnaturally until beasts were thrown upon the wall. The drums dared not stop and the men, women and all in-between or excluded were joined by a manner of fantastical Others.

Their Ashe, given human form.

Ty’s pawpaw carried him home in his rough, tired hands, guarded at either side by his loyal soldiers.

“What were you doing, Pawpaw?” Ty asked.

“A curse,” he said nervously. He didn’t want to tell Ty these things. In his age, kids got to be kids, but Ty was just too curious, and he swore to never lie to his favorite boy.

“Why?”

“They hurt someone they shouldn’t have hurt.”

Ty frowned. “Whose They?”

His pawpaw looked grim. “The Blue Bloods,” he muttered. “And the Coven Marshalls who served them.”

Now, Ty didn’t think there was enough in their numbers to Call the Mysteres — to give the long departed Ancestors limited agency to do earthly things: eat, bullshit, rut, bind negativity: all of the great liberties of life.

Still, the street shaman greeted Ty and Victor with the respect they were owed. Today their drudged rags of denim and fatigues were replaced by scarlet, onyx and forest body paint and straw skirts — for the men and women alike.

Victor smirked at Ty as the men and women took Ty by his hands and led him through a doorless frame.

“Gonna get pretty for me?” Victor asked. Ty didn’t get a chance to respond.

A basin of warm water lined with veves waited for him. Cleansing mojo and Purification mojo gave the water a milky white hue and if one looked close enough, a shimmering koi fish poked its head out. Gross. Ty could’ve replicated the same effect with a few expensive cantrips. Or, maybe not. Ancestry was such a confusing style of sorcery — unlike Elegance, sorcerers didn’t ever even know what they were doing. It was as a miracle to a scientist, or doubt to a bishop.

They scrubbed Ty until the sunkissed brown of his abs were covered in suds and hours of dirt dropped off into the water, tainting the pull to Ty’s chagrin. Another vat of purity sullied by Ty’s own inaction.

Just like her.

They dressed Ty in white robes and led him through a long dark hallway. A constant drumming filled the darkness, invoking a deep danger within Ty.

“Where are we going? I’ve never been this deep.”

They said nothing. The drumming grew louder. Ty frowned, were they really doing the ceremonial silence bullshit? Ty got ritual — if he had a major in anything it’d be that — but this?

“You know I could just sense what’s going on right? Your ominous silence bit is pointless and — ”

“Jeez Trickless, can’t you just go along with the friggin’ ambience for one?”

Ty nodded his head. It was a fair request. They came into a dingy black chamber

The room was a perfect octagon and built of browning bricks. Paper talismans hung from every wall. Eleven other shamans lined the room — each one of them dressed in the same shade of white as Ty. Victor was there, and had been for so long his clothes stuck to the sweat on his chest. A girl, Emilia, kept staring at him, familiarizing herself with his every angle. In the center of the room was a burning copper brazier filled with molten red coal.

Out of the darkness, came a frail old man adorned with a carrowed cloak of warm fur, lined with mudcloth, knitted from the hide of the last known Panther found in the Browns. It was a significantly sized shawl, passed from hand-to-hand through the ages.

The frail, thin old man beneath the costume was the fiery and fierce warlock of the age, Quinto Glover, leader of the Allegiance and the dancing flames made his eyes feel more bloody and ferocious than the beast on his back.

The air was steamy. Ty felt his heart dancing in his throat. There were a lot of contenders this year. That meant bad things. Not only were shamans outside of this room probably taking bets, but they’d definitely sneak the red stone in.

Ty’s grandfather invented the blood sport tradition. Someone would have to die, and for once, it would be someone on the other side of the Wall. The selected could choose to reject this request, but to do so would call into question your commitment to the Allegiance. Still, there were important rules here about accepting an Ordeal. Ty knew his grandfather would never reject someone for saying no. Quinto shared less in common with his grandfather than Ty himself.

And this year, Ty had an inkling on who it’d be. The one hint: a Brown Blood.

When the flame’s heat filled the room finally, Quinto began his tale.

“In the beginning, the Saviors founded Antebellum on the idea that the Old World failed in unity and put a collar on the magic we all need to survive the Adversary. At that time, our people knew we required our own world, and Allegiance linked our chains.” Quinto folded his hands. “As the spear, it’s my duty to strengthen our people here and now with a test of your resolve, and your stability: to prove your strength by surviving the same pain our Ancestors did.”

Quinto eyed the brazier. “The Spirits are here, filling the heat around us. Let them steel you. Reach into the pit and discover your burden to bare.”

Ty looked into the brazier. There were forty-three stones. Theft, stamina, spectacle, courage, intellect. All virtues exhibited by the Ancestors. Ty had his eye on Intellect. But, Victor? Ty could practically hear him praying for the Red Stone.

Everyone took their steps forward. As his bare feet met the hot graphite beneath him, he recalled the letter’s contents. He read it, of course he did, but it was still begging him for a rebuttal.

Today was the final day for an admission request. It was his final day to leave the horrible Browns forever.

Congratulations, Tyree DuBeau! We welcome you to the fold! The Covenant proudly presents you pledge sponsorship amongst the most elite of the Seven Leagues, the Orthodoxy of Magic, Academy for the civics, servitude and the vanquisher’s arts.

Should you accept, we invite you to sign away your service –

Everyone shoved their hands into the fire. Ty sucked his teeth in and fought back the urge to resist the burn. His lips quivered, and spittle flurried from his lips. Victor patiently turned his head to Ty, concerned, but unwilling to snitch on his best friend. No one else seemed to notice Ty’s anguish and agony — then again, what else was new? If he did this right, no one would know Ty didn’t have an Ashe, he’d receive his Ordeal, and he’d —

“Ty,” Quinto observed. “Are you…in pain?”

Everyone turned to Ty as they pulled their hands away from the braziers. Ty pulled his own hand back, scald marks searing him from digit to forearm. Ty’s eyes were bloodshot and filled with salted tears. He tried to blink it back, but to no avail.

Worse, Ty thought he’d grabbed a stone, but it was only his imagination — or the pain.

“Ty… what are you doing?”

“I — ”

“You’ve no Ashe, and you’ve tried to take part in the Ordeal? That was incredible reckless.”

Ty’s eyes flicked about. Everyone clinched a stone: Victor included. Nothing looked close to red.

“I can go back in, I can get my stone.”

“Ty — you should’ve have come if you don’t have one. I’m sorry. Others, give us a moment as we call the soldiers in to escort Ty out. I’m sorry child, I’m declaring this — ”

Ty’s tongue twitched.

“I take the Red Stone!”

***

A Wall

Non-Fiction, Poetry

By Steven Underwood

 

You walk into a black wall and barely recognize that it’s built of brown bodies

And ask if something is the matter with how it is formatted.

There are arms mangled into the body, jabbing into broken ribs and closed mouths and shuttered eyes and pork-rolled tongues.

There is sweat dripping down their body in crimson, mingling with blood in a marriage of decay and debauchery and self-loathing.

You still wonder if something is the matter with how it is formatted.

You turn to the Asian pharmacist around the corner and ask him, and he has no answers and so you ask the Jewish librarian, and he ignores you outright. You ask the Hispanic barber and he does not want to speak your blistering white language on his pink tongue and you ask the Arabic teacher and he is afraid to answer because you wear a red hat. You ask every spectrum and color of the rainbow until the world is a searing maelstrom of every color and every pink, gooey tongue and every shade but black, until you return to the wall and patiently stare.

Then, you ask the wall. You open your mouth and speak.

“Why wall,” You say in a frantic manner. “Why are you joints connected and your foots in mouthes and your heels pressed to throat with the aggression of a boot, or a hammer or a world-smashing, all-ending fist of iron?”

The wall speaks in a powerful manner, in a warm tone that sounds like your father who abandoned, and the mother who sacrificed and the sister went ignored and the brother who protested nothing. “It is because, we cannot untangle from ourselves.”

Black Cat Blues

Art, Non-Fiction, Poetry

 

A Poem for the first day of Black History Month.

by Steven Underwood

 

***

The Black Graymalkin is never free;

Though liberated in city it appears to be;

Its leash, like thread, vanish in the eye;

But still held in chains till feline die.

 

Onyx Graymalkin, your roar is low,

If you are to speak, who would know?

Dense Graymalkin, you are meek,

Though your pelt is velvet, sleek.

Observant Graymalkin, you lurk in shade,

You hide from the daylight that whiteness made.

 

Black Graymalkin, are you me?

How cruel a society do you flee?

From whose ebony Pride are you bred?

From what dark skin do you shed?

 

Toil, Graymalkin, they will fear;

No love for loved ones you hold dear.

This world is black, dark like pitch;

And from your trouble this land grow rich.

Flee, Graymalkin, don’t you stray;

The present is black because you’re black all day.

 

I Should’ve Talked Black

Articles, Essays, Non-Fiction

First Published Here at Bananago Street:

An analysis on racial discourse in America.

By Steven Underwood

As a kindergartner, I came clamoring home to share with my mother a stark belief: I did not like white people. In my adolescent ignorance, I had forgotten my best friend Dylan, who was not only white, but shared my love of imagined worlds of magical wonder, which I still cling to, and true compassion, which has since brittled with age. My mom took the time to remind me of Dylan, to which I replied: “I don’t like white people, but I like him.” I’ve always felt that this was my first direct confrontation with race. Earlier, just shy of ten years old, I had been called a “Nigger” for the first time in my life. I, essentially, had been beaten with a weapon forged against me to prosper.

Of course, I had experienced racial micro-aggressions in my life. That one time, when I was six, when my mom had been arrested by the police because they said she “looked” like she had stolen her Purple Ford Taurus. This other time, when I was seven, when a boy’s father snatched one of my white classmates away from me on the playground in South Jersey and muttered about nappy hair under his breath. I was expected to be the most coordinated in basketball, the fastest in football, but the dumbest in my Reading and Math classes. Or, when my mother cradled me in her arms for the first time, and decided to change my name from the ethnically unique Alante to the more Eurocentric Steven.

In an unnecessary justification of my childhood assailant, I’d say the boy—that boy– was using words he hadn’t completely understood, as children do. He merely knew that this word was designed with malice, that he could hurt me using it. He’d been taught that he had the privilege to hurt others with this weapon, a belief that was reinforced by my teachers, all of whom were white, because when I neglected to properly defend myself, or my culture, with words or actions he was not chastised or reprimanded. Rather than taking up the duty to correct him, this boy would assume that he could always get away with certain hate speech because something in this world made it okay.

I reflect on this day, with the new adult ignorance I have acquired by a decade of wandering aimlessly through life pretending I know what I am doing, and realize that my mother had taken the opportunity to establish my bigotry as inherently wrong and something that should be punished. She took my words and used them against me to show how my hatred and bigotry could effect not just me in the long run, but those I love. She taught me to be ashamed of my prejudices.

My teacher, however, was trusted by parents and administrators to cater to help raise a child and did not ever do the same. Though this event may seem something so minor that an infraction is not necessary, we must understand that the systems of oppression within the country are in the subconscious, the things that we experience, and beliefs that are reinforced by context and action—or lack thereof. Early on, my teacher was offered a chance to discuss race but fled it and failed both of us.

Throughout those subsequent months, spanning a dozen more collied moon phases, my mother had realized I was developing into a black man. She took the time to set me aside and made it clear to me what that meant. Yes, she disclosed I would have to find my own meaning of blackness (which, I chose to define as passion for who I am and respect for those who sacrificed and built for me to be here today), but there was the customary topics of fears, concerns, and troubles that one of a similar background as mine might expect with this: Steven, in a situation with the police your life comes first, and what’s right comes second; Steven, not all of them have your best interest at heart and will pursue you with despite; and Steven, you will always have to try twice as hard to have half of what they have.

I did not believe her. I always remembered Dylan and the impact he had on my life and that I had equally been bullied by black kids as well as white. In my young life, I had experienced the troubles of blackness in this country and knew very well that there was something strange occurring. It was this same instinctual sense that told the children who was the parental favorite, though mom and dad often said they love you all equally. But, more importantly than the white friends I’ve gained in my classes, I had reasonable doubt to my mother’s feelings regarding race in this country.

My mother’s name is Tamara Fluellen. Even now, almost a whole foot smaller than me, she feels taller than me—roughly five feet of honey skin and beautiful weave taller than me. She was the only black person in Willingboro High School in Willingboro, New Jersey and therefore often faced ridicule by her white classmates– as the other. In one particular event, she told me of the day her male classmates attempted to attack her after school. There was a mob of them, but none of them faced punishment for attacking her. Tamara Fluellen had been a victim of a hate crime and had seen the hideousness of anti-blackness in this country. Someone who experienced this kind of hate, could not possibly speak without bias. Someone who was victim to this kind of pain, could not possible understand the good in others when lost in the cold and dark.

Unfortunately, at every possible turn, my mother was proven right. I recall my father once saying every time my mom was infallibly right about something she said as a moral, a heifer lost its spots. I am still worried about the amount of cows in this country who must be absolutely albino.

Blackness is not as celebrated in this country as it should be, at least not unless it is whitewashed and bastardized. Often, it is Cinderella trapped in the cellar. It is she who maintains the beauty and glory of a household built by her ancestry but doesn’t reap any of the benefits. It survives but does not live. It eats but is not nourished. I often find that I cannot talk about my blackness and how I enjoy or love it without someone chiming in that their whiteness is somehow in contrast or conflict with it. That my pride in who I am and my heritage is an attack on their culture.

In my late teens, I’d already learned that black culture was one of the most vital things in America. It is literally American culture, as American as baseball and the apple pie the slaves cooked. To be American, you are required to enjoy something that has either been influenced by or was directly associated with black culture. Music, art, fashion, all of it had its root in African-American influence but are not ever required to value it or its impact or even favor its people. You can always be white and wear cornrows and box braids, listen to rap music, wear African tribal prints or wear black face, but the same cannot be said for actual black people—who originated this culture. We witness an imbalance in privilege so severe that the privilege makes the other edgy and unique when worn in bastardization and appropriation. Yet, this is still often disregarded as myth. “We are all human, and human culture cannot be appropriated.” Or essentially “Cultural appropriation isn’t real.”

Often, when I say “Black Live Matter,” someone must always chime in with “All Lives Matter” and completely derail an entire conversation that could have been productive. When I enter settings that are designed to embrace black beauty in contrast to white beauty standards propagated for almost 500 years, someone must step in and say “White girls do it better.” They see these attempts for “pro-blackness” and see “anti-whiteness” because privilege dictates that anything that isn’t the normative is an attack—much like how pro-white was always supported by white supremacy.

At a distance, I can still sense the awkward shift of my peers in their skins when a discussion on the topic is started and to that I recall my teacher, in her seat, refusing to acknowledge the child who attacked me in class or those men who attacked my mother, all of who went justified in their bigotry. Worst, I recall my own attempts to undermine my mother’s experiences merely because I felt that her pain blinded her to some assumed truth of the world.

This stigma that pain devalues the argument of oppressed bodies needs to die. We must acknowledge that there is a system of privileges—simple things like knowing your life is valued, that justice is absolutely guaranteed, that you will appear non-threatening enough to avoid death, your opinion is always necessary and that anywhere you go you will be free of racial prosecution or othered– set up in this country and anyone who is a victim of it is not a credible advocate for change is harmful to growth. We judge that because they cannot be entirely logical in a situation that they are wrong. As if logical arguments have led to a safer, more pleasant world.

Some of the most valid changes in history have been established not on logic but on emotion. Slavery, in some lights, was in fact the most logical method of exploitation to develop America into a superpower in just under 200 years. However, the most sensible argument provided against it was based on emotion. “These people may look different, but they are human and they experience pain. Abusing them, and harming them, in these ways are wrong both religiously and philosophically”. So, why is it that we feel that we can disregard the pain of black bodies as a reasonable argument to openly acknowledge racial privilege and systems of oppression in this country especially in a discussion on social and societal reform based on race?

Members of the black community have a lot of things to say about this. In the safety of homes, churches, and barbershops—safe zones– we’ve accumulated a number of arguments regarding why we are disbelieved. One theory is that at the end of the day we still seem different on some base-level. So we’ve had those niches of African-Americans who changed themselves to appear more white appealing—non-black spouses for mixed raced children, shunning “black” music, art and culture to appeal to whiter worlds– but they still aren’t believed. Some suggest it has something to do with respectability politics. They think maybe, if they look credible that they will be believed. They peacock in their suits, ties, and clean shaven haircuts cleaned of black curls and naps. They aren’t believed either. Some look to logos for their arguments, and dig deep into calm, calculated answers with strong evidence. They definitely aren’t believed and are in fact often shunned as “preachy”.

An impasse has developed along with an answer: because white privilege in itself describes a system of privileges that is experienced on a micro and macro-level it becomes harder to empathize. When another person has to come up with convoluted analogies about how blackness is experienced in this country and how whiteness benefits, it only further justifies the existence of that said thing.

When someone says it hurt like a wound, you are able to sympathize to an experience of pain you’ve have earlier in your life. When someone says they were hurt by the death of a loved one, everyone understands this profound sense of loss. When someone experiences heartbreak, it is one of the easiest intangible emotions to recall mentally. On the other hand, when I say that I was hurt by being called a Nigger, a Coon, a Thug, or how cultural appropriation affects me emotionally and spiritually, I am forced to paint a picture to justify my emotions and forcefully invoke empathy. I am then also forced to access my credibility on this, and then I am challenged logically. I have to work twice as hard to access a basic human empathy that says believe that I am in pain, and know that you have the ability to end it with just your actions.

A discussion is necessary for many of these stigmas and problems to be adjusted. Systematic Oppression and White Privilege were all built and subsequently woven into the state of imperialized countries with the understanding that it is subconscious and silent yet still obvious. I can’t help but think about what would have happened if my teacher had told that childhood enemy of mine that using those words were wrong and how it would have affected him. In many ways, it justified my blossoming perspective of blackness in this country. There might actually be more cows with spots in this world, if people were willing to discuss race openly—and respectfully to those who are at risk—and consider the idea that maybe they are at an unfair advantage.