Jarrett Neal’s collection of fearless essays explores sexuality and race
What Color is Your Hoodie? Essays on Black Gay Identity by Jarrett Neal (Chelsea Station Editions 2015) $18; 175 pp.
Born to a 14-year-old mother and raised in a household with an alcoholic grandfather, Jarrett Neal was in eighth grade when his gym class accidentally walked in on their coach, showering. It was Neal’s first glimpse of a naked man. It “ended my boyhood,” he writes.
He was well into college when he finally admitted to himself that he was attracted to men; still, the daily taunts from his more athletic and self-confident peers — and the absence of a father — haunted him. To counteract it, Neal joined a gym and worked out tirelessly, until he realized that he’d never have a body like He-Man. He was never going to make a living with his physique.
Instead, Neal knew that he had to write.
It was “write or die,” he says, though he’s been told that his style is “either too black or too gay” and he once assumed that “as a boy I wasn’t supposed to care about books.” Even so, he devoured the works of gay men — particularly those who were black. That voracity for books led to a teaching career.
In the essays compiled in this collection, Neal discusses the dearth of gay black men in films and television, and decries the lack of interest by white readers in the works of black authors. He looks at the sexuality of gay black men who, like most African-American men, live under sexual stereotypes that cause “a tremendous onus… to live up to.”
He writes about black men (some, gay) who have made history and changed perceptions within their neighborhoods or industries. And as a black man with a white husband, he notes that racism within the gay community is as big a problem as it is anywhere else.
Neal isn’t shy. There’s no waffling inside this book, nothing held back. He discusses gay porn as blithely as he does modern literature; he remembers his childhood with the same passion as he does coming out. Such power and force in writing serves to give readers — straight or gay — a solid understanding of the points he tries to make. We might laugh or raise our eyebrows but we also empathize or, as the case may be, sympathize.
What mars this otherwise well-done collection of essays is its sloppiness. What Color is Your Hoodie? is riddled with misspellings and punctuation mistakes which, because of the frequency, almost made me want to quit reading on several occasions. But if you can forgive that distraction, then this unusual book is a good read that may actually change minds. Truthful, blunt and thought-provoking (regretful mistakes aside), this should be read.
— Terri Schlichenmeyer
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 5, 2016.