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Not Even That: A Reflection on Joseph Beam’s Brother to Brother

As part of a recent slate of classwork, I read Joseph Beam’s 1991 Brother to Brother: Words from the Heart. Beam (1954-1988) was an African-American writer, poet, and activist who wrote extensively about the difficulties he faced being a Black gay man in America during the AIDS epidemic. In Brother to Brother, Beam discusses what it is like to be a Black gay man, and expresses the desire for a future where Black masculinity can be reconstructed to allow for Black men to share emotional intimacy and vulnerability with one another. 

What interested me most about Beam’s work were his explorations of the erasure he felt in America as a Black gay man. I was particularly struck by the image of glass, which appears when Beam describes a man who stopped acknowledging him in public upon realizing Beam’s sexual identity:  

“He no longer speaks, instead looks disdainfully through me as if I were glass. But glass reflects, so I am not even that. He sees no part of himself in me...I do not expect his approval—only his acknowledgement.” 

Though Beam and I exist in different identities and contexts, the continuing relevance of this quote instantly resonated with me as a Black woman who strives to claim subjecthood in American society, which loves to objectify.




Not Even That


what does it mean to be made of glass?


shining


A web that catches Sun’s rays,

stained stained by the very the light it holds, 

forged by heat and passion and force followed by

a soft cooling.

Allowing glimmers and prisms entry into the home,

The House which neglects it, which lets it grow dusty and streaked

The House which takes it for granted, 

The House which only recognizes The Sun

The House which thinks the Sun exists solely to shine upon

It


fragile


Smoothness slips through skin,

shatters seamlessly on a stark stagnant surface.

Who in America hasn’t broken glass before?

Gunshots streak through the sky — spontaneously splintering.

They say it is bad luck to break a mirror — seven years worth of it

they say to break a mirror splits the soul into shards

and leaves its owner 

unprotected

from karmic retribution.


reflective


Passing a storefront window

Delaying, looking, examining, thinking, adjusting

Lest he forgets that he is human

Passing a glass person

Speeding up, averting, ignoring, denying, unchanging

Lest the cast-back image reveal an unattractive truth


transparent


Dark and translucent transgressions of nature,

transported at a moment’s notice from here to beyond,

transformed from breathing beings to bloodless bones.

What has transpired to make you so transitory?

In order to transcend,

They say you must transfuse.


what does it mean to be not even that?