PUNCH ME UP TO THE GODS
By Brian Broome
In the 1990s, during the peak of the AIDS crisis, the writer Daniel Garrett founded Other Countries, a workshop for Black queer writers that would publish three anthologies of poetry, essays and visual art focused on the complex lived experiences of Black queer people. In his introduction to the collective’s second volume, “Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS,” Garrett noted that the collective’s works were of critical importance because they were creating culture. Garrett continued with a striking assertion: “We are experiencing ourselves as a people, and shaping the consciousness of ourselves as a people. We are creating ourselves.” Nearly three decades later, Brian Broome’s debut memoir, “Punch Me Up to the Gods,” continues that Black, queer, writerly work of self-creation.
“Punch Me Up to the Gods” is a coming-of-age story that explores Black manhood and queerness in the Rust Belt. The title of the book is a reference to the ways that Black boys are often socialized into rigid conceptions of manhood — sometimes by the use of violence. “Any Black boy who did not signify how manly he was at all times deserved to be punched back up to God to be remade, reshaped,” Broome writes. With this book, Broome hopes to counter the force of that punch by exploring the beauty of queer Black manhood, while offering a new way to write about that beauty.
“Punch Me Up to the Gods” opens with, and is framed around, Gwendolyn Brooks’s nod to Black manhood, “We Real Cool,” but Broome ultimately resists what the poem says about masculinity. “Whatever it was, I already knew by 10 years old that I didn’t have it,” Broome laments. Instead, he argues that whatever “it” is — be it coolness or masculinity or manhood — ain’t worth our devotion.
Broome, who is a Pittsburgh-based poet and screenwriter, refuses to pare down his interrogation of manhood, and he offers up his own life as a window, writing with lyricism, vividness and unflinching honesty as he ushers readers through the stages of his becoming. But he is not the only character in his memoir. He places the story of his past coming-of-age with a present-day scene that he witnesses of a young Black child named Tuan being berated by his father. “As Tuan’s father’s voice becomes louder, demanding that the boy stop crying, all I want to do is pick the boy up to make sure he’s all right.” As chapters shift from past Broome to present Tuan, the book establishes a metanarrative about the routes some Black boys must travel to reach self-realization, to reach freedom.
The book examines themes that are also explored in contemporary memoirs by Black gay writers, like Casey Gerald’s “There Will Be No Miracles Here” and Saeed Jones’s “How We Fight for Our Lives,” themes of escape, journeying and self-discovery. Broome is writing, however, from the perspective of a Black gay man who came up in the generation before Jones and Gerald. And his writing is as lucid, heart-rending and, on occasion, hilarious, as it is necessary.
Broome exposes with elegiac detail the malaise that eats away at Black boys because of the pressures they face to become the ideal image of manhood — even if the consequence of that refashioning is the annihilation of Black boys’ spirits. Broome describes that angst as an “unaddressed ache,” and with “Punch Me Up to the Gods,” he sets out to document and, ultimately, heal that pain.
He ends the book at the conclusion of a trip to France, where he pays homage to James Baldwin, who died in the country in 1987. Broome admits, “I am no James Baldwin.” And he is right. He is no Baldwin. He is Brian Broome, and he has arrived on the page by way of an act of self-invention.
“Punch Me Up to the Gods” feels like a gift. There will come a day when some Black child like Tuan will have read Broome’s masterwork and possibly commit to staying alive because of Broome’s words. They will tell him that “Punch Me Up to the Gods” is a testament to the insurgent and ineradicable power of Black queer being. That it reveals that Black queer men are our own best creations.