As a frequent essayist in national media and the editor of RaceBaitr, Hari Ziyad is an important voice in the United States’ ongoing racial reckoning. With their début long-form work, Ziyad merges memoir, political commentary, and spiritual meditation.
A semi-linear narrative takes the reader from Ziyad’s childhood to adulthood, and it fades in and out of Ziyad’s recollection of going on a last walk with their grandmother Mother Bhumi who was a cornerstone of spiritual tradition and Black persistence in Ziyad’s family.
Ziyad was raised by a Hindu Hari Krisna mother and a Black, Muslim father, first in a lower income, racially segregated section of Cleveland, Ohio and later in the more racially mixed, middle class neighborhood of Cleveland Heights. Religiosity surrounded Ziyad while growing up. They describe a house filled with neighbors and strangers, welcomed by Mata, their mother, for weekly Krisna prayers and rituals. While Ziyad never became a devout practitioner, the faiths of their mother and their father strongly influenced Ziyad’s beliefs, both spiritually and politically.
Ziyad switches from autobiography to socio-political commentary frequently, and early on, introduces a new lexicon to describe anti-black racism. Their experience as Black and queer provides a unique vantage point for observing the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, and toxic masculinity. Ziyad uses the term misafropedia to describe a powerful weapon of white supremacy: the aversion to and stereotyped treatment of Black children. The author’s observations about a boy from their childhood neighborhood bring the concept into crisp focus. Roberto was a big boy with a high energy level, who was labelled as a “troublemaker” by adults solely because of his appearance and rough-and-tumble temperament. Ziyah reflects on a memory of Roberto “suddenly” no longer being part of neighborhood games, and digging deeper, they illuminate the subtle ways such boys become alienated, excluded, and told who they should be. The connection to poor school outcomes, anti-social activity and incarceration rings painfully true.
In contrast, Ziyad was a likeable enough, high achieving student who benefitted from adult and peer encouragement and went on to college, graduate school and a notable academic career. They tell their story via inflection points that shaped their understanding of what it means to be Black and queer in America. On the death of Mother Bhumi, listed as of natural causes: “When Black folks die, it is never so simple. When Black folks die, it can always be traced to the myriad ways the state has perfected killing us over the last five centuries of colonization.” On drifting away from Mata due to her religious condemnation of Ziyad’s first gay relationship: “My inability to find faith a world where both Michael and my mother could coexist helped spur a perfect storm of avoidance and substance abuse and self-destructive tendencies…that have plagued me ever since.”
This is a book that makes the reader pause, self-reflect, and at times work through one’s own defenses around race and racism. Ziyad facilitates that process by laying bare their own missteps in navigating racism, sexism, and homophobia as well as by acknowledging the essential truth we don’t have all the answers. It’s an important book elucidating the complex manifestations of anti-black racism and its impacts on queer people specifically.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters