I recently completed an amazing biography of Darryl Stephens that is one of the few that I related to like none other—Darryl Stephens’ autobiography called Required Reading: How to Get Your Life For Good. He makes a sincere attempt to develop himself and not to see himself the way the imperialist world wants us, Black gay men, to be seen. He writes: “we have centuries of institutionalized self loathing to dismantle” (70).
He ends this autobiography talking about “othering” which he calls “an imperialist act of emphasizing the perceived weakness of marginalized groups as a way of stressing the alleged strength of those in positions of power.” I don’t think its coincidental that I am reading about “othering” as I am teaching at Howard Toni Morrison’s latest nonfiction collection called The Origin of Others where she critiques the process of othering led by an imperialist narrative.
Throughout his life, Darryl makes sincere attempts at not looking at himself the way imperialist “othering” wants us to look at ourselves. It is simply astounding.
I have never been so compelled reading an autobiography.
Darryl has a certain urgency to achieving his development that I have never read in any narrator before. This made him a very trustworthy and reliable narrator to me. He was very clear about where he needed to improve which happens to be areas where I needed to improve. He writes: “I cannot deny that I have some work to do when it comes to how I go about selecting suitors and maintaining relationships… my habit of getting too involved quickly with men who don’t necessarily reflect my long term goals for a partner is tied up in this contradiction (59, 61).
Reading this reminded me of Brandy Norwood’s 2002 interview with Ms. Oprah Winfrey who told her: “when you grow up and you don’t think very much of yourself, you end up attracting to yourself people who treat you that way.” Darryl was clear that he was responsible for attracting particular kind of relationships in his life and went so far as to say: “I can actually be cunning and imaginative enough to fabricate chemistry when it suits my needs for companionship” (58). I thought this was a very very powerful introspection.
I don’t think I have read another narrator in my life who was this introspective. As a Christian, I agree very much with his point that “today’s common incarnation of Christianity is geared to uphold the dominant, white supremacist, patriarchal heterosexist culture’s concept of morality” (65). We see this today in the inability of most US churches to critique the prison industrial complex and our war economy. I appreciate Darryl putting Christianity as we see it in its colonial context, as John Brown, David Walker and Nat Turner did before the Civil War. I appreciated the lessons Darryl says he learns from previous relationships. He talked about being in a relationship with a guy, and seeing another guy who he assumed the guy he was dating was with, and consequently rushing to conclusions and losing this relationship. From this experience, Darryl wrote: “If I wanted to know about his dating life outside of what we were doing, instead of investigating him covertly, I should have just asked him” (96). Very much like me, Darryl said: “no matter how I try to spin it, I am not cut out for casual sex” (99).
This was something I realized about myself later than I wanted to, and once I realized it, it took some time for me to embrace because of course, from the othering gaze, as a tall, dark skin Black man, I am supposed to have experience with sex and for most of my life, I hated myself on so many levels for not being more experienced. Darryl’s revelation was or is also true for me up to this day. He later talked about his most popular work performing as Noah on the LOGO series Noah’s Arc and said that “the deluge of messages from people either struggling with being gay or trying to fix a gay person contributed significantly to my deciding to come out publicly as a gay man” (129). He writes later that he hopes that with each gay character he is asked to play, someone in Hollywood is inspired to expand the parameters of what Black men are allowed to do on screen, thereby empowering Black men in real life to feel more free to be themselves. Since this book was published, the film Fences was released. I think Scott Rudin supporting Denzel Washington in his direction of the 2016 Paramount Pictures film Fences is an example of the parameters expanding for Black male characters. And Denzel came from the theater which we as a people we should make sure we do not lose. Darryl talked about working with Larry Kennar on Spokane and getting Executive Producer credit, but barely getting paid for his time and talent. This experience he said however was important in acting and expanding as an artist. As artists we have to strike a careful balance between our energy expenditure and our compensation which speaks to what he said about how “gay Black men are required to read our surroundings at an exponentially higher frequency.”
We must always be reading” so that we are not perceived as threatening (197). However we have to be careful with too much reading so that we don’t obey this imperialist gaze. Darryl writes: “if we get too comfortable compartmentalizing the multiple facets of our existence, we will never live to our full potential” (199). I am writing a lot about development according to an African worldview, which according to Black Psychologist Kobi Kambon, is a worldview that, simply, assumes interdependence rather than the European worldview which assumes linear ordinal ranking with the European ranked higher than non-Europeans. Darryl’s autobiography affirmed my frequency and my vibration seeking development according to an African worldview and I am grateful I read someone on this frequency. This autobiography is A MUST READ. –RF.