BRIAN BROOME grew up in and around Warren, in northeast Ohio. Several years ago he started writing autobiographical short stories and reading them at open mic nights, including the Moth storytelling competition, where he was a finalist. He also won the grand prize in Carnegie Mellon University’s Martin Luther King Writing Awards, and a VANN Award from the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation for journalism. The film Garbage, for which he wrote the script, won the Choice Award at the Cortada Short Film Festival.
A literary agent encouraged Broome to bring some of his stories together for a book. He developed a way of intertwining them with such craft that the result, Punch Me Up to the Gods, has garnered him a New York Times Editor’s Pick and the 2021 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction. His work has also appeared in The Washington Post, Poets & Writers, Medium, and elsewhere. He was a fellow and a writing instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, and this year will be a writer in residence at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California.
I interviewed Brian Broome in two Zoom sessions in December. (Please note that I reviewed Broome’s book in the last issue of this magazine.)
Richard M. Berrong: Punch Me Up to the Gods is about growing up Black, gay, and poor. Is homophobia different in the Black community than in the white community in your eyes?
Brian Broome: I don’t know if it’s different externally. I know that I process it differently because I think that I just care more about what Black people think of me. There’s a debate as to whether Black people are more homophobic than white people. I don’t know that I bother with that question anymore because I just know that Black homophobia feels different to me as a Black man than it does coming from anybody else. That may just be cultural, my cultural connection to the Black community. If a white person calls me a faggot with hatred in their voice, I just kinda shrug because I don’t feel much of a connection with that person anyway. It doesn’t affect me as much as when a Black person calls me a faggot.
Now let me be clear. They’re both horrible things. It’s just that emotionally I process it differently and it feels worse coming from the Black community. It feels like you’re being rejected by your own people. That’s the difference. And then that creates a feeling of “Well, I just don’t belong anywhere.” And that’s a very hurtful thing.
I write in the book that the boys who used to tease me thought for some reason that I represented them in some way. I think it was about creating this united front of strong Black men who the white people couldn’t fuck with. And I was the weak link. So they wanted to make sure that everybody knew that they had nothing to do with me at all. And then your Blackness is called into question. Like “he’s not really Black because he’s not super-masculine.” It all gets twisted up in this weird yarn ball of gender and race, things like that. Who gets to own what. It’s very weird. And I bought it for most of my life.
RMB: You make this point forcefully in your book—the way that homophobia is closely linked to American ideas about masculinity. Why do you think this link is so pronounced in the Black community?
BB: My father and a lot of Black fathers really do believe that they are doing their sons a service by instilling this [hard]form of masculinity into us. For a very good reason. It’s not like they’re just doing this to be mean. They’re doing it because they know that for Black people, and for Black men in a specific way, it’s a rough world out there. So they want to teach you to be resilient. But there has to be a middle ground for teaching resilience and strength without teaching that it means you have to dominate other people, that you have to be unemotional, cold, or that you can’t express your feelings or cry or anything like that.
It’s the weird conflation of vulnerability and weakness. I think that’s the distinction that needs to be made. Somebody who is being vulnerable is not necessarily being weak. At the same time, being domineering is not always strength, either. So it’s much more nuanced than we give it credit for. We have to fight this idea of seeing things in black and white: you’re either this thing or that thing. Because human beings are far too complicated for that. And there are human beings who fall through the cracks and wind up suffering as a result.
RMB: In Punch Me Up to the Gods, you show that this hard Black masculinity is a response to contemporary American racism. Can you elaborate on that?
BB: I was just watching a television show about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and I thought: that’s pretty much par for the course in America. Black Americans live in a society where we are guilty even when we’re innocent and white people are innocent even when they’re guilty.
I was told very early on that you cannot do the same things that your white counterparts do. You cannot go to the same places. It will be viewed differently when you show up. And that was from a very young age, because of white American fear: this idea that Black people are naturally nefarious. Somehow we’re more criminal-minded, we’re more libidinous, we’re more of all the worst things of humanity. We have to carry those loads so that white people can feel safe when we’re not around. They can feel superior about themselves. That is something that I learned and was told very early on in my life.
Black children do not get a very long childhood. Black girls are sexualized far earlier than their white counterparts. Black girls are not seen as innocent. Black boys are not seen as innocent. Tamir Rice. We can name people who have been murdered until the end of the day because of this idea that white people still carry around that we are somehow worth less, that we are less human, that when we do something bad it’s a sign of our natural bad character, but when white people do something bad, there are always mitigating circumstances around it.
So, I think Black parents have felt the responsibility to start telling their children earlier. White people start treating our children differently when they’re very young. And it’s a shame. It’s the core tenet of racism: that somebody else is worth less than you and deserves to be treated accordingly. That’s one of the things I didn’t feel in France. But it runs very deep in this country.
RMB: You’ve said that you hope Punch Me Up to the Gods will help someone. Whom would you like it to help, and how?
BB: I think that one of the themes that runs through the memoir is shame—shame in who you are, where you were born, who your parents are, what you look like physically. We start this process early on of shaming men for looking vulnerable or weak, or for feeling the full range of human emotion. That’s why [needing to be super-masculine]is so ingrained in some men’s heads. This is who I am, this is what I should be. And that’s all there is to it.
I think I would like the book to connect with people who are feeling that sort of shame, as I felt most of my life, of not being born right. To be born right is to be born white in this country, to be born heterosexual, to be born with money, to be born “attractive” in this traditionally kept sort of idea of what is attractive. So, I think I would really like to help people to realize that that’s all bullshit, and that your life is your own. It’s the only life you get, and you may as well live it in a way that makes you as happy as you can be. At the end of the book, I say something like: I’m tired of white people telling me who I am. I’m also tired of Black people telling me who I am. I just want to be who I am.
Richard M. Berrong, professor of French literature at Kent State, is the author of Pierre Loti (Critical Lives, 2018)