Barack Obama’s presidency has brought a number of changes, regardless of how you look at it. Perhaps the most important is bringing racial dialogue back to the country’s collective consciousness (assuming one exists). It’s never really been away, but the focus seems to be sharpening exponentially in Obama’s second term. Although the voices on both sides are many, Jarrett Neal’s is particularly interesting due to his perspective as a black gay man. His collection of thirteen essays, What Color Is Your Hoodie?, provides a quiet common sense as he tries to fit together the pieces of the puzzle that matter most to him. And us.
Neal starts out strong with “Guys and Dolls/Weights and Measures.” Though they appear as separate essays, they’re linked in my head due to their similarity in structure. Neal’s powerful recollections of his childhood and early influences alternate with analysis from the man he’s become, giving the reader an excellent baseline understanding of both Neal and his views. This leads into Neal’s exploration of the homo-thug trope in “Let’s Talk About Interracial Porn.” He delves into popular culture, and even porn again, in other chapters (“Film Studies for Black Gay Men,” “Real Compared to What”), but “Let’s Talk About Interracial Porn” certainly gave me some things to think about and titles to search out. Purely for intellectual purposes, you understand.
Neal deals with current(ish) topics like Barack Obama (“My Last Love Affair”) and the furor surrounding out football player Michael Sam (“Sam I Am”) as well as Trayvon Martin in the title piece. For my money, however, the most winning of the entries were “Baldwin Boys and Harris Homies” and “Peewee’s Peepee.” The former is an account of the relationship between Neal and a gay writer friend named Langdon, but it’s also Neal’s statement about where he stands between James Baldwin (intellectual, literary) and E. Lynn Harris (neither–but that’s my assessment, not Neal’s).
But “Peewee’s Peepee,” the account of Neal’s adult elective circumcision, is the most involving and engaging piece in the book. It deals with the Neal’s major themes of body image issues as well as the masculine ideal and the many factors both subtle and overt that play into why and how we buy into that ideal. Personal in ways that many of the other essays are not (yes, in part because it deals with genitalia), this piece is the one I remember a month after having read the book. It’s worth the price of admission alone.
However, there’s much to love and think about in What Color is Your Hoodie? from an academic perspective as well as the street view. And one is as valid as the other, because if we can’t grasp both, we really can’t get a handle on either.
© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler