Timothy DuWhite: Black, Brave & Beautiful / An In-depth Interview

“Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.” – James Baldwin
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Timothy DuWhite / Courtesy DuWhite’s Facebook Profile Image, 2017

Timothy DuWhite is spoken word poet, writer, activist and a moving force, a wave, a vector; he is also a Black, queer man who is HIV positive; none of these are mutually exclusive. In fact, his existential manifestations as a Black, powerful force are powered by his rich experiences in multiple words and worlds. Material and ephemeral, formed and formless, he arises, he falls, he cracks, and he – like a piece of broken pottery repaired to a state greater than its original, as with the ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi – is brought together more beautifully and beatifically for all of it. Some authors (white, bourgeois) would elide past race, or see DuWhite’s Blackness as a secondary, or – to be ‘polite’ – not a central aspect of an interview. Dear reader, please note: I cannot do that with any degree of honesty; I will not curve around race, sex and HIV, because with DuWhite, even if you wanted to, you can not.

After several failed attempts at arranging an interview, we finally ‘meet.’ DuWhite is walking home through the streets of Brooklyn; he’s on mobile video, breathing in the cold air of winter. I follow his journey, we speak of the last time we spoke; he opens the door; he proudly says, “now you can meet my dog.” A beautiful dog, a white pit-mix to my eye, comes out, greets DuWhite happily coming close to the camera. “Give me ten minutes, I need to take a shower and get my life together,” he says, exasperated from the power walk. Of course, I say, take your time. He comes back, reposed and composed on chair or sofa. It’s nearing Christmas; so he says, “my boss let us leave early today.”

DuWhite asks “Where shall we start?” I say, let’s start from the beginning. Growing up in a military family, DuWhite moved frequently from birth to around the age of 10. From Hawaii to Colorado to Tennessee, his environment, school and friends constantly changed. How did this affect him? “A lot of my early years was me always having to get into new spaces,” he pauses, “this isn’t all negative, because I could redefine who I was in these spaces. I could constantly re-imagine who I wanted to be; in fact, it was useful for me to keep moving; I could keep up the front of being ‘straight;’ I knew I liked boys; yet I also was very cognizant of how powerful words are; I never dared spoke the word (or even thought the word) gay because I was afraid that somehow it would become real.” Moving allowed DuWhite’s alienation to be paired with self re-invention.

“Finally, we landed in New Jersey, and stayed, around the 4th grade. Yet, I must say, the first time I became aware that my feelings towards boys could be something visible, that gayness was something people could see, happened when I was a bit younger, in Tennessee. I was out with a bunch of kids, and some girls were attracted to this guy, but they said ‘see how he walks, he’s not into you, girl.’ This idea that being gay could be visible through your body and mannerisms, really hit me.” DuWhite says he quickly began to, “emulate my father and brother. I intentionally deepened my voice; I did a lot of manipulating of myself during those early years, right up into college, really.”

DuWhite’s first annus horribilis happened shortly after his family settled in New Jersey. “At some point, my father’s job changed, we moved to an all white, well nearly all white city, around the 6th grade.” He says, “this really led me to realizing I am Black in relation to the world. In this school, I was one of two or three Black kids; before I had been surrounded by Black people. And yes, here I first experienced full-blown racism.” Pausing visibly frustrated, through mild frustration discountenancing the experience in retrospect, he continues, “I was a hothead, fighting operated in a similar way to me  as running, which became a big part of my identity later in High School. Anyways, I had white kids, at this almost all white school, calling me a n*****. And the administration saw me as a problem because of I was constantly getting into fights. I wasn’t doing well in school. I was seen as a ‘problematic youth,’ with all the horrible racist meanings that get attached to that. Then, my family actually lost the apartment we were living in during my 7th grade summer. My parents decided we would not to stay in the temporary shelters, so we ended up living in hotels. They were constantly fighting; their relationship was deteriorating; they  sent me off to live with my grandmother in Brooklyn; my brother had just graduated High School, so he stayed.  Eventually my mother found this place in Passaic, New Jersey, which would become my hometown all the way through college.”

In Passaic, he had a teacher, “Ms Tanis, she helped me, she saw something in me. My grades were pretty abysmal. I was extremely dyslexic. I didn’t read my first book until the 8th grade, in her class. She asked me, really the first person to ask this question, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I thought at the time, ‘I want be a writer.’ Tim the writer!” DuWhite makes a point of sounding dramatic here; I can tell he’s excited at reliving these experiences. “I excelled at sports to compensate for my academic failures. But there was this brief moment of light; Ms Tanis had everyone do the poetry competition; very few people took it seriously. Of course, I pretended I didn’t take it seriously, but secretly, at home, I was working on this poem tirelessly. So I submitted it. One day she walked into the class, and said ‘the winner is in this room;’ she made a point to not make eye contact with anyone. I knew my stuff was good, I knew I won, but at the same time I didn’t know for sure. I was so nervous. So I asked Ms Tanis ‘Who won?’ And she said ‘you;’ I lost it! I got this big award. She was the first teacher to see something in my writing. I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou; this book other book, Little House on Mango Street; funnily enough, I stole that Angelou book, and my dad took me to a book signing. She signed it with the ‘property of’ the school stamp on it.”

Throughout High School, DuWhite excelled at track; constantly running, he used the masculinity of the practice of track to protect himself. He also says it allowed a sort of masculine bonding with tacit sexual emanations. Drawing an image of closeness with a particular teammate, who would reluctantly evade, at a key moment, sensual contact, DuWhite says, “Yes, I loved this guy on the track team. He would call me every night. I would sit at my desk waiting for his call. He even said to me, ‘why don’t you call me?’ I was shocked by it, because I hadn’t thought of it. Thinking back, he really did care for me beyond friend-status. This ‘best friend’ situation allowed him to be physically close to me, sit next to me on an empty bus rides to track meets; by saying I was his ‘best friend,’ we could avoid the inevitable homophobia. One night his parents were away, and he invited me over. I thought for sure this would be the night; all I wanted to do was kiss. At the last minute he said a girl from upstairs wanted to come over too. I made up an excuse and left devastated. I knew he seemed ambivalent, but he needed to seem cool to have this girl over.”

Whilst DuWhite’s first love and heartbreak happened through running, his entrance into college was also predicated on track. A coach followed his High School activities closely, and after writing an essay about finding his mother motionless, he received a scholarship, and entrance into Montclair State University. DuWhite says, “It’s really fucked up, my guidance counselor didn’t take me seriously until I wrote about the moment I thought my mother had died. She suffers from alcoholism. She had drunk herself into complete immobility. I was 13, I found my mother on the bed. I stood looking, waiting for an hour, waiting for her to move.” DuWhite, in that moment, “thought she was dead.” The essay’s content was tragic, but opened up financial doors. “However, the summer before I started at Montclair, I injured my knee; obviously, the coach was not happy. I spent so much time not running. The coach threw his hands up and he didn’t want to take the time for me to recover. I lost all the scholarships. My mother had to take out a loan for me. I stopped running.” DuWhite stopped running but started writing, again, a renaissance of his 8th grade self. “At university, in the freshman seminar class: a poet came and did a spoken word poem, when I saw that I thought, now this is amazing, and I knew that I can I could do the same. I fell in love with spoken word poetry. I wrote my first poem about my mother’s alcoholism and the class loved it. I had started off a physical education major, ha! Olympics was the goal, but by my sophomore year I changed my major to English with a Creative Writing Minor, and a focus on fiction.  Continuing, DuWhite recalls, “The intro to fiction teacher reminded me of Ms Tanis; she treated everyone as a writer. Also she saw a lot in my writing and had in-depth comments on my work, the book Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, in particular the short story, Stone Animals, really set me off.”

Deciding I need to read Stone Animals, I set out to get the PDF. Reading the story, I am reminded of DuWhite throughout; clearly because he cites reading it as as ‘a moment,’ and also because there are some uncannily concurrent connections. Parallel lines are present, albeit at a distance. Glimmering white rabbits inhabit the story. Motionless, they sit on the lawn of a family’s new country home. Not the running White Rabbit of Alice and Wonderland, but meditative, thoughtful rabbits. Hauntingly ubiquitous, they frame the story. Demonstrating the absurdity of moving from the urbane sophistication of New York City to a provincial place more upstate, inhabited by white (rabbits), I recall DuWhite’s experiences in the nearly all white part of New Jersey. The banality of living is a theme throughout the short story; Catherine, a pregnant wife and mother is constantly painting her new house; painting obsessively out of boredom, all the time wearing a war-ready gas mask. A bizarre scene. Paint, still wet, is left under newer layers of paint. The walls seem alive to her husband, as he feels them, they bend in and out like skin; he ruminates over this, saying to himself ‘she must stop painting.’ Yet, he is never home, always away at work. Did DuWhite identify with Catherine; she lied to keep her marriage together, a sexual lie — pretending to have an affair with a man to bring something of reconciliation, or need for it, to their relationship — she has to lie, to omit that she didn’t sleep with her erstwhile colleague, to keep everything together. Also she’s a writer, she’s frustrated, and she’s pregnant with a baby and stubborn ideas. DuWhite, it seems, at that point in his life, his college years, was omitting a great deal from those closest to him, especially himself.

DuWhite says of Stone Animals, “Yeah, it’s a really weird story, isn’t it? That was the first time I was introduced to magical realism. After I changed my major, I would continue trying to branch out. Each year experimenting and trying to figure out what to do with my work. Definitely, the first year was quite autobiographical. My mother had told me about a relationship she had with a woman. She was in this relationship for two years. I wrote about that.  Of course, I told everyone it was fiction. I was still closeted in college.” Did he date? DuWhite pauses, looks away and says, “Well, yes I was in a relationship in college, he lived in New York City, and so I could keep that separate. I met him online via the internet at the library. He was five years older than me, I was 18, he was 23. We were together for four years! He is a make-up artist, also sold weed. Puerto Rican, very open and femme. I, of course, was still living this split life, completely split. I wasn’t living on campus. I was living at my father’s apartment. My boyfriend would direct me to a place in Queens, my father thought I was at Montclair. It was dangerous really, no one knew where I was. And it was dangerous because of the drugs; the cops were around. My boyfriend enjoyed and took advantage of the fact that I was closeted. Since I didn’t have anyone to talk to about the fucked up stuff happening in our relationship, he would cheat on me; I had told my mother I was gay at 18. I would go to her and she would give me advice. She was an alcoholic so often I didn’t have access to her. I felt desperate.”

Creating poetry and exploring himself, he was still in while being out, and coming out is a continual process. After his mother threatened — when she was drunk — to tell everyone he was gay because DuWhite wouldn’t give her a bottle of alcohol he’d hidden, he decided to tell his older brother. He came out to his brother at 19. But everything would change on January 9th 2012. The beginning of DuWhite’s second annus horribilis.

“I went to the Emergency Room because I had swollen lymph nodes on the back of my neck. I was really hurting, and the nurse came back, saying that the results were fine. Just that ‘your white blood cells are down a little.’ I asked her, what level do white blood cells need to be at for someone to have HIV? I thought she would say ‘Oh, son I think you are overreacting,’ but she said, ‘That did come to my mind. If you think you are at risk, you should get tested.’ I went to get tested with a five-minute test; the timer went off; the nurse went to look; I said, let’s continue to talk; finally, she went and said ‘it is positive.'” Becoming slightly disassociated here, DuWhite stammers, I give him time to compose his thoughts. He sighs,  “A lot … there is a lot to that moment … I made some large sound … a scream or something; I ran to the door; my mother opened the door; she started yelling at the nurse about a poster that said 1 in 3 Black men will get HIV; she started going off on this nurse.” This fracas is happening while DuWhite is “in the corner crying.” He continues, “Eventually I came to my senses, ‘oh fuck, why did I bring my mother here!’ If anything will make her drink again, she’d been dry for a few months, it is this! I told the nurse this, and the nurse said loudly, ‘Oh no, your mother is not going to drink!’ My mother replied ‘yeah,’ but, of course, she didn’t mean it. We go to my mother’s house, and I tell my brother. He starts crying. I felt terribly guilty. I felt as though I broke the family.”

Not wanting his mother to relapse, DuWhite told her to “call anyone, tell them anything, so you can get support. My mother calls her sister, and tells that I am HIV positive.” Now DuWhite’s aunt is what he describes as “Bible-thumping,” and she proceeds to say, ‘Oh is he gay?”  DuWhite’s mother was reluctant to respond, but eventually answered in the affirmative. Like many conservative Christians, “my aunt said ‘HIV we can get through,  what we need to worry about is the gay.’ This was on loudspeaker,” DuWhite is exasperated, he continues, “she says, ‘HIV we can get pills for, the root is being gay’ and then she compared me being gay to her overeating.” Word spread and “eventually the whole family started to know. Everyone felt that the best way to comfort me was to disclose their own deepest darkest shit.” DuWhite recounts, “I went over to his apartment, and I told my father, he became so angry. Started going on about condoms. He shouted, ‘you think I didn’t know! You don’t bring any girls around here!'” DuWhite says that, “Recently he called, and said he blamed himself for me being HIV positive. I am trying to rebuild a relationship there. Maybe. Anyways, I told my boyfriend at the time, the guy who was cheating on me; I expected him to be afraid or accusatory; he said “Oh, I will help you through this.’ I suspect he knew it because he knew, or intuited he was HIV positive himself. It didn’t seem that far off with him; he was cheating and saying that he was monogamous. I told him early on in the day; later on in the day he kept saying he felt horrible; he told me he wanted to kill himself; I felt very responsible. So I said told my father, ‘I have to go Queens, the guy who I am with is really upset.’ And my father said ‘who is he?’ and my father started to cry and said ‘Are you OK ruining this family?’ And I just hung up the phone on my boyfriend and stayed with my father. I realized that relationship couldn’t work. I broke up with him.”

Ruminating on that day, he says, “the poster, about 1 in 3 gay Black men getting HIV, in the testing room, so blatantly racist, homophobic and problematic, even my mother knew to respond to it, that poster stays with me. I use it a lot in my work. After my diagnosis, I lost year in college; failed all the classes. So it took me 5 years to do my BA. My politicization started after college; I began working at Urban Word, it’s an arts organization, a prominent non-profit located in Manhattan. It promotes critical literacy in youth through spoken word poetry and hip-hop. As a coordinator, I hosted teen-slams in preparation for a national competition called ‘Brave new voices.’ I had been involved with Urban Word before working there, while I was in college. Working there was a dream, and I met my best friend at this organization. In 2010 I started doing work with them, then after graduation in 2013 I got this coveted position. My job was basically to help run workshops out of the office, making sure that the workshop leaders had everything they needed. I loved talking with the youth coming in and out of the HQ in Chelsea.”

DuWhite continues, “when I finally moved to Brooklyn, in Bushwick, I got my own room for $560 a month, unheard of now, I was writing a lot of poetry, I was performing spoken word a lot, I was really, really going hard. Urban Word was great because it was like a nexus of the spoken word art world.” I ask about his emotions during this time? “Well at that point I had never been with anybody [else] because I felt dirty, I felt like I didn’t deserve anyone; for a month after [my diagnosis] I kept myself unkempt. I didn’t want people to even find me attractive; I was making sure that I looked like a mess, ugly.” Eventually he went on “OK Cupid dating application; I did itthis with friends; now, at  that point I never thought about dating a white person. I had never had that moment where I was like ‘oh, I want to date this person.’ But this guy, Richard, was really nice on the application; on my profile I had a whole bunch of nonsense mixed with real stuff, including how I liked Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. He commented on it. Much later on he made sure to tell me that he commented on that so that I knew he was down with the cause, meaning all things Black. It’s fucked up. But anyways, we were talking, and I remember the first time I spent the night at his house; he was kissing me, he got on top of me; I would not let him take my pants off; he was respectful; I felt panic the next morning that I shouldn’t let someone get this close to me without [them] knowing [my HIV status]. I left early that morning. He texted me, and said ‘I am sorry if I am being too forceful.’ I did not respond. But what I did do was write him a long email saying I was HIV positive. Also saying it was completely fine if he didn’t want to be with me. The moment I hit send I started crying. I got an email back from him.  He said ‘you are stupid if you think that will stop me … if anything your candor makes me want to know more about you.’  There were so many different narratives that did not account for someone saying this to me. I thought he was an exceptional person. A lot of me attributed that to white guys. I assumed this ‘white tolerant exceptionalism’ that in a way that was super anti-Black. I was in love. We never officially called each other boyfriends, and this frustrated me. I had this kind of needy thing going on. I was desperate for acceptance in that way.

Ultimately the history of racism, whiteness and anti-Blackness cracked into the seams of this romantic couplet mise en scene, “Recounting two examples of how, well, his whiteness showed up in different ways. There is an event organized by and for Queer People of Color, called Papi Juice in Brooklyn. I told him I was upset because it was being taken over by white people. The last several times I had been there a white woman grabbed my ass, and then another time a white woman actually licked my ear! This is a queer, POC space, and you have white women licking Black men! Anyways, I was telling him about that, I told him this, and he said he’d been there before! Of course, I had an issue with that, and although he ‘agreed’ with me in the moment that white people shouldn’t appropriate this space, later I was at Papi Juice and I was dancing and then I found him there again! He said he understood! Ah, and here is another example: he openly said he didn’t find white people to be attractive; in fact, he said that if he dates a white person people will think he’s racist! So he essentially dates a Black person, me, to not look racist!” DuWhite, rightfully animated here, continues, “and Richard had this student and he said that he loved this student because she wears ‘urban clothing,’ but she is really smart, like he was trying to invert the stereotype but actually reinforcing it. I asked, ‘why is it so surprising that she dresses that way and is brilliant? Did you assume that she wouldn’t be smart because she was dressing this way?’ Basically, it wasn’t working. It couldn’t work with the type of life that I am trying to lead: invested in my politics, living my politics, I can’t bite my lip, I won’t.”

DuWhite’s politicization came during the uprising caused by Eric Garner’s murder at the hands of the New York Police Department. In now famous video footage, Garner repeatedly indicates clearly he is dying, proclaiming, “I Can’t Breath!” as police officers compress his chest and throat, thereby strangling him to death. All of this for the ‘crime’ of selling single cigarettes. Bringing anti-Black violence into stark relief, the Garner case showed the world that, in the United States, the police can murder you for selling cigarettes. Selling loose cigarettes, clearly already oppressed by the economic structure, the police killed Garner for simply trying to earn enough for a simple living. DuWhite, as a “response to the non-indictment of [of the police officer] in Eric Garner case, I organized every night. I slept in the same house with fellow activist friends, while working a day job at Believe Out Loud, an online platform that promotes LGBTQ equality in Christian Communities. I was the online communications specialist. They had a large online presence. The majority of their contacts were white Christian allies. So by day I was affirming a whole bunch of white people online, and then going and protesting against Black death on the streets in the evening. We would hit the streets, do die-ins, meetings; we were always arguing with organizers, always a little more radical than anyone else. For obvious reasons, eventually quit my job at Believe OutLoud and started doing teaching work through Urban Word; I had gigs at High Schools, teaching spoken word poetry. Anyways, I ended up taking in this 16 year old girl who had lived in an abusive household . I did that when I didn’t have a full-time job, so I had to scurry and get a new job. I took a full-time position at the New York Writer’s Coalition. Where I work now.”

Working at the New York Writer’s Coalition, DuWhite “taught at Rikers for five months. Yes, the experience was amazing in the sense that I got to actually interact with the people I want to help. I did a Creative Writing workshop. It was overall a good experience. The biggest issues with the administration.” We bond even deeper for a moment, as I talk about some of my experiences being in prison, and teaching while I was in prison. I feel listening to two interviews, a full four hours of DuWhite’s life over two days, that I have fallen down the rabbit hole. I found myself reading Stone Animals, and now I am Googling to get a quote from Frank Wilderson III about Afro-pessimism. I am encompassed in DuWhite’s world. A land of layered paint, black and white rabbits on the lawn, protesting and living the embodied flesh of a descendant of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. I am from ‘America,’ although I live abroad in Poland, nothing can change the white ‘American’ seeping out. My whiteness is a reflection, his Blackness is a reflection; both are reflections of histories deeper than anything either of us can access. Both reflections are interlinked but they cannot merge. Anti-Blackness is so rooted in prevailing structures that radical solutions are needed to even begin thinking it out. I ask DuWhite about his politics. He’s against voting and reformism. He says that Black Civil Rights Activists didn’t die for the vote, but for liberation and freedom. “The vote was a tool, not the destination,” DuWhite rightly says when I ask him about how voting has been central to much of Black activism since the 1950s and even earlier. He continues, “We must look for the new. Black people are capable of living abundant lives outside of the State and outside of anti-Blackness. There are many ways that Black people lean on anti-Blackness. Yet there is a possibility for Black people living outside anti-Blackness. I know there is place, a time, for this; it’s coming.”

. . .

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