A little Sugar in My Tank: My Black, Queer Agenda

By A. Bradshaw

This past year I had the incredible opportunity to teach sociology at a rather fine school to a rather eclectic group of students. Before this experience, I hadn’t had any experience teaching sociology. I studied International Relations in undergrad and only had a couple of experiences teaching high school students. So, it was a bit of a challenge to create a course on a subject I had little experience in, for an age group I also had little experience in teaching. 

Well, throughout my time teaching at this high school I learned a lot about the subject itself—as well as how to effectively conduct the course for my students. But the greatest fulfillment from teaching this course came from my newfound understanding of my culture and how it cultivated me into the person I am today. 

So, what is culture? 

Is it musical instruments not being played at the church you go to on Sundays with your family? Is it going to family reunions where family members all wear matching t-shirts, with the family’s surname in a tree? Or is it being afraid to tell your family who you truly are out of fear of being ostracized by the people you love? Well for me, culture encompasses all of these things.

“In order to rise
From its own ashes
A phoenix
― Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents

Culture refers to the group’s shared practices, values, and beliefs. So how could, maybe say, a gay boy from the south hiding who he is from his family be a part of a shared belief or practice?

Well, for many boys raised in Christian southern households like myself, it was common practice to avoid showing you had “a little sugar in your tank” out of fear of eternal damnation. 

My family is from the two most religious states in the U.S.- Texas, and Louisiana. According to a Pew Research, 46 percent of adults in Louisiana attend church services once a week, while in Texas 42 percent of adults attend church services once a week. So much of family interaction was centered on the Christian faith. As I grew up, I slowly turned away from the church in search of a group of people who accepted me for me. 

People have asked me on several occasions “Why did you move to China?” 

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”
― Octavia Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories

While searching for where I belonged, I was presented with the opportunity to live and work in Beijing. I leaped at it. During my time studying in undergrad, I had hoped that there was a chance for me to teach aboard but I was never presented with such an opportunity. So, for a couple of years after graduating, I worked a couple of dead-end jobs till I was presented with a teaching job in China. 

Another reason I wanted to move to China is from what I read in my history textbooks and from literature about China, the nation was encapsulated in rational thought and logic. That through the ideas of Confucianism and “cosmic harmony” people treated each other equally. I believed that without the prominence of religion, people could be more tolerant. Now are these things actually a part of Chinese culture? I’d say it’s debatable from my observation. While much of Chinese society is based on the ideas of Confucianism, there do seem to be quite a few similarities between China and its Western “Yankee” counterpart in the realm of ideology. 

During my time teaching sociology, I came to realize how many of the “culturalisms” I was averse to in my southern upbringing were the exact parts of me that I was most familiar and comfortable with. Things that made me who I am. 

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Long, winding road

While working at the high school I’d taught at previously, a colleague of mine, who was also American, told me countlessly times to ‘avoid identity politics.’ Just don’t discuss them, at all. He had once been reprimanded by a fellow teacher who was Chinese because he used China as an example in his Comparative Politics class one day. The teacher had told him “He shouldn’t be talking about China; only Chinese teachers can discuss Chinese politics in their class.” To me, that was almost inescapable. My course was basically about identity politics, among other things. 

In the students’ textbooks, there was a chapter solely dedicated to “race and ethnicity.” To avoid the chapter would be doing a disservice to my students and the class. While I did fear the repercussions of the administration at my school—l felt it was my duty to empower my students and help them understand these fundamental social concepts. 

“People have the right to call themselves whatever they like. That doesn’t bother me. It’s other people doing the calling that bothers me.”
― Octavia E. Butler

While writing the lesson plan for this chapter. I couldn’t help but sprinkle a bit of myself into my outline. Thinking about how during these past few years living abroad, my skin color has been politized more than ever before. Being black wasn’t just an ethnic identity but a political agenda, one that sought acceptance from others. One that demanded the same respect that its fairer-skinned counterparts denied it. 

Let me elaborate on what I am on about “never have I felt that my skin color is more politized.” I lived in America for 26 years of my life before moving to China, and I was well aware that I was black. Sometimes I would be delusional and say to people that, “Oh but my ancestry has some white and native American in it” to seem more exotic, which was such a shameful and blatant disregard of my black ancestors looking back. But both of my parents were black. The idea I was anything else was just sad. But aside from the frequent feeling of being inferior to my white classmates and feeling out of place with my black peers, I was treated pretty fairly. 

Now, were there incidents of obvious racial prejudice? Of course! It’s the United States. If we have been taught about anything from recent news reports and research is that the country was built on racism. Especially since I lived in the southern portion of the United States with its “charming racism.” 

But moving to China was a different beast in itself. 

“All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change.”
― Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower

Judging a book by its cover

While going through the sociology course I identified several times where I was openly excluded or made to feel inferior because I was the minority group. But not only that, I was the “hei yang guǐzi” or “black foreign devil.” 

To add to the discussion, it had been 8 months since the death of George Floyd. There were so many things swirling in my mind. So many different ways I wanted to discuss the matter but also discuss issues that they could relate to. I made the conscious decision to not only incorporate things I related to but also things that they were curious about as well. I included different stories related to the recent violence against Asians in the U.S. and the Stop Asian Hate incitive. This chapter, by the way, was very dense. So, it took close to three weeks to cover. 

One day during our discussion a student asked, “Why do black lives matter only? Why don’t all lives matter?” This was a dreaded topic I didn’t want to get into but I thought I needed to. I carefully asserted to the student that of course all lives matter, but particularly when those who are supposed to protect and serve citizens are taking their lives then it’s fair to say that their lives never truly mattered to them. To that, the student rebutted “Well, black people can be racist.” Then I looked carefully into my student’s eyes, and I could see a bit of hurt, even anguish in his face. Like this paradox had been troubling him for a while. I told him that of course, black people can be racist, but that doesn’t define a group of people. I saw that he had more to add but I told him we didn’t have the time. 

“I have a huge and savage conscience that won’t let me get away with things.”
― Octavia E. Butler

See, to me, one of the biggest internal struggles that I had with black people in the U.S. is that we talked a lot about how oppressed we were from other ethnicities, especially white people but I saw, growing up, several times where black people were plainly racist or discriminated against other ethnicities, especially other minorities. From name-calling to violence. In my mind minorities should be more empathetic towards other minorities because we know what It feels like to be the out-group. How it feels to be stripped away of all that you had. But what I failed to realize was how US society conditioned minority groups to compete with one another. How politically divided the system is and how it enforces the ideas of a culture of prejudice. How we would rather reinforce negative stereotypes that we have of each other instead of building communities together. How, instead of tearing each other down, we could push for real progress in a unified coalition. 

I think that being black, gay, Texan/Louisianan, and being a former church of Christ member has led me to where I am today. It has given me the capability to see things from many perspectives and develop my views on the world. In realizing that I am not a monolith or stereotype that my heritage and background are vast and multifaceted. I feel that with every willow tree there is some rot, but does make it any less beautiful and complex?

Photos: Unsplash

4 thoughts on “A little Sugar in My Tank: My Black, Queer Agenda

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