Know your past live your future

Karamo Brown by Timothy DuWhite

Karamo Brown by Timothy DuWhite

Illustration by Sam Russell Walker

Timothy DuWhite is a writer, poet, playwright, performer, freelance journalist, advocate, thinker, believer, lover, friend, son, brother, and Black! Their work focuses specifically on love, racial & gender justice and the state of black health. Currently DuWhite is obsessed with teaching their community about the connections of the state and the violence inflected on the black body through their writing workshop “HIV & The State: Coalition Building Beyond The Condom."

It is 2005, and I am in love with Gustavo, who is either too cute or too stupid to admit that he is in love with me as well. I am fifteen-years-old. I am a sophomore in high school and I have just broken 4:50 in the mile—a feat which has taken Gustavo until senior year to accomplish.

Everyone is praising me for what I can do with my body, while I’m only interested in what Gustavo could do to it. When he pats me on the back to congratulate me, the warm imprint his palm leaves on my shoulder is where I wish to die, or build a church. I tell him “thank you,” to which he nods. I’m sure he assumes it’s in response to his words of congratulations, but I’m really thanking him for the extra layer of heat I now get to take home to bed with me.

Eventually he says, “Damn Tim! You keep this up, by senior year you’re going to have every girl in the school on your dick.” I smile, reluctantly, and nod. Tell him, “thank you,” again. This time, I don’t mean it though. Instead of heat, the words send a shiver through my body that I now have to take home with me.

Later that night, my brother and I are awaiting the season premiere of The Real World. This season takes place in Philadelphia, a city neither one of us have ever been to but heard much about. They are showing clips of audition tapes. There is Landon, a typical-looking white boy, and my brother and I both assume he is from somewhere weird like Idaho and has only seen black people in movies or the news. We instantly take bets on how many episodes it will take for him to say “nigger.” I say five, my brother says three. There is Shavonda, a black girl. Before watching the rest of the tapes we already know that she is the only one.

Then comes Willie, the gay one, I assume Mexican or Puerto Rican. It is Willie I secretly bind myself too while my brother isn’t looking. It is Willie I wish has the most scenes. I want to see Willie kiss a boy in the house, or at the club. I want to see Willie grab Gustavo by the neck, shove his tongue down his throat, and make him say “thank you” after.

Finally there is Karamo, the black man. My brother perks up when his tape begins to roll. Karamo is showing his muscles, laughing, playing a game of basketball. Karamo is athletic, handsome, black, and ours—well, at least he’s suppose to be. My brother says, “They always only give us one brother, and keep all these white boys. They stay trying to play us.” And I know I’m suppose to be included in that “us,” but I struggle to feel it. Up until this point, Karamo is the standard that has always left me invisible. Karamo is why a reward for my athletic prowess is always “every girl in school on your dick,” opposed to a longer embrace from the boy I want inside of me.

Perhaps a week passed, and we’re on to the second episode. Perhaps it all took place on the season premiere—I can’t quite remember the timeline. But what I do remember is Karamo, Landon, and another white boy at some point all go out to dinner—or maybe for drinks? I remember watching this scene fully prepared for it to be as straight as the cameramans shot. However, something different happened. Again, the details are hazy given its twelve year distance—but I never forgot the feeling that washed over me.

Landon may have said something about an ex back home. The other white boy may have looked at a girl’s ass in the bar. But Karamo, what he said was clear. Untethered by any lapse in memory, his words from that day sing to me like a song so familiar I think I may have written it, “I’m gay.” My brother and I both gasp, the air escaping our bodies for the exact same reason. We are both in awe of seeing ourselves, gay, on national television.

My brother rolls his eyes and says, “I kind of knew it.” He begins to reference how effeminate Karamo’s lay up looked when he was playing basketball, and I get it. He must prove he saw it coming—to know things beforehand is the antithesis of being gay, after all. We never know anything ahead of time. Our own sexuality is just something we eventually discover then come-out with, and our heterosexual friends/family members tell us about how they, “already knew.”

But at fifteen, I am not straight, and so I did not know Karamo was gay. I did not know that in a life (or series) defined by stock characters the black man and the gay one could live within the same body. I did not know that a boy could be both skilled in sports, and in blowjobs. I did not know what “representation” really meant—just a place I have never been to but heard much about. Who would’ve thought it would feel this warm?

My brother stopped watching the season after Karamo’s reveal. Which I doubt it had much to do with Karamo’s sexuality, and more to do with his disinterest in reality television. But I kept watching, faithfully. Episode after episode I felt my bind towards Willie unravel, and reach towards Karamo. It was clear that they represented two different kind of gays. Willie, a quick-witted New Yorker, unafraid of a bend in wrist or twitch in hip, and Karamo, the Houston boy, who carries his masculinity like a pile of bricks weighing down his name. It was the latter that I knew so well. It was the latter that I needed to see.

I am now older, and know much more about this place we call “representation.” How it is a faux flood light in a sea of fog, trying to convince me that it is my only way home. But I know now that this is not true. I know now that I am not Karamo—and that is okay. That I can still exist even if I never see myself on any television screen. I know this because many of the black & brown queers I now call family have never seen themselves on anyone’s network, but still managed to survive. I now know that I do not have to pick between being either Willie type gay, or Karamo type gay, despite the binary MTV fed me. But even with this knowledge, I am still thankful for the comfort Karamo’s image gave me while later interacting with Gustavo around the track.

So cheers to you Karamo, my own six-foot brown skin fun house mirror. Karamo, patron-saint of every black boys dirty closet. Karamo, the first openly black gay man on reality TV, my Obama three years before Barack and without Michelle. Karamo, president of hoops and bottoming. Karamo, the one who reflected to me what it meant to “appear straight” but still speak your true self into existence. Thank you, from both the fifteen year old me, and the twenty-seven year old me. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Sam Russell Walker is an Illustrator based in Glasgow. He graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2015 and his work is inspired by film, pop culture, the human form, plants and fashion. His process is also heavily influenced by the act of mark making and creating textures through this process.

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