Bringing The World Home To You

© 2024 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Opened Up: Transcript

Omisade Burney-Scott 0:00
I understand and deeply know the profound power of women in my lineage. I have firsthand experience with the love, security, intimacy, healing and friendship between Black women and femmes who are both blood and chosen family. I remember witnessing women's laughter, arguments, tears, hugs, prayers and dancing as I grew up. When I became the mother of two Black boys, I initially thought, "How will I do this? How will I raise my sons with their fathers to become Black men who are intelligent, curious, kind, empathetic and emotionally secure in a world that is constantly countering their humanity and offering them patriarchy as an antidote? How will the culture of demonstrative care extended to me by my mother, aunties, sisters and best friends, inform my mothering of Black boys?" And then I remembered that I needed to see their humanity too, beyond gender, and offer them a roadmap and safe, intimate spaces to express their emotions and grow in their fullest potential. I get to bear witness to their beautiful relationships with family and friends. And I think about what they get to experience that my grandfather, father, uncles and older brothers did not because of their generational realities, society, culture, steeped with racism and patriarchy.

This is Embodied, our show tackling sex, relationships and your health. I'm Omisade Burney-Scott, sitting in for Anita Rao. Today we are exploring the complexity, realities and hopefulness of friendship, intimacy, care and healing between Black men and masc-presenting people. Through raising my sons and watching them form their own community, I have thought a lot about what it means to be a friend to them, who are differently gender than I am and in different generations. It's something you know when you see it, but I'm still left with many questions, as I witness the evolution of their relationships. When does an acquaintance metamorphosize into a friendship? What role does intimacy play in their friendships, especially between two Black men or masc-presenting people? Someone who's thought a lot about these questions and how he defines friendship as a Black man is Derrick Beasley. Derrick is here with me today. Derrick, welcome to Embodied.

Derrick Beasley 2:39
What's up?

Omisade Burney-Scott 2:39
Hello, how are you?

Derrick Beasley 2:42
I'm doing alright, doing alright today.

Omisade Burney-Scott 2:43
Very good. Very good. I'm gonna start off with a little bit of an introduction of who you are and then we'll get into our first question. You are an artist who explores the themes of masculinity, collective care and climate change in your work. Your latest exhibition, "Surviving the Burn: Black Water Vernacular," dives deep into these topics and seeks to reimagine them for a better future. Can you take me into the world of "Surviving the Burn" and your inspiration behind the exhibition?

Derrick Beasley 3:12
There are so many inspirations. I'll give you the top three: Octavia Butler's "Parable of the Sower;" a nonfiction work by Modibo Kadalie -- which I've never said his name out loud, but I've only read it -- it's called "Intimate Direct Democracy;" and then Henry Dumas, and a short story of his called "Ark of Bones." So those were some of the core texts that really informed the artwork from this, this collection.

Omisade Burney-Scott 3:42
And reading those three different texts, can you elevate for folks who are not familiar with the texts what were core pieces that kind of came out of that, that inspired you for this exhibition?

Derrick Beasley 3:52
Well, they all deal with Black folks. And not all but mostly deal with Southern Black folks, or -- and or ideas of fugitivity. And to me, that's really compelling. Like, how are we thinking about building new worlds where we are more free, and where we are in better relationship with each other and the environment?

Omisade Burney-Scott 4:14
Yeah. I had an opportunity to check out "Surviving the Burn" and "Black Water Vernacular," which are very, like, potent and emotional exhibitions to experience. And one of the facets of "Surviving the Burn" is the "Swamp Talks." And you describe these as adult field trips to the marshlands, you know, you're going out on the water and during these trips with your close friends, you gather in nature to discuss and record important but sometimes difficult conversations. The audio and the video of these talks are featured prominently in "Surviving the Burn," allowing viewers to be fully submerged in the swamps with you. And we have a recording from one of the "Swamp Talks," um, a trip that you made with your friends to the Great Dismal Swamp.

Derrick Beasley 5:04
Maybe in the future, my daddy can heal his daddy wounds. I wonder if he knows they're there. And I can heal mine, and we can play basketball and tennis and golf and baseball. We can race down the hallways and catch frogs and feed them crickets. We can walk the same, and sit on the kitchen counter the same, and eat sweets and corn dogs. I can learn things about where I got all this stuff from.

Omisade Burney-Scott 5:36
That was a clip from "Swamp Talks." Derrick, could you tell us a little bit more about why you chose to host these trips and these conversations about masculinity and, and healing father wounds in the swamp specifically?

Derrick Beasley 5:53
Yeah. So in the "Intimate Direct Democracy" text, I learned a lot about the Great Dismal Swamp and formerly enslaved folks who sought freedom in those wetlands. I started with my own field trip, my own kind of pilgrimage to these places, to these wetlands around North Carolina. And there's a, just a heavy energy there. And in my own kind of musings and imaginings around what it means to seek freedom in a place that is from the outside in maybe uninhabitable. That was inspirational as well. And so when I think about like, where we are, in terms of climate change, and what feels like some inevitability in terms of how we will need to be as human beings in relationship to the planet, that also feels like, like a new world, almost an uninhabitable place that we'll need to figure out how to be free in. And so, I saw it as an opportunity to be in conversation with that history, energetically and, like, geographically. And, you know, inviting my friends, my people that I'm having these conversations with about building new worlds, about how we're trying to wrestle and manage masculinity and patriarchy for ourselves and in our own relationships, like, alright, look, now let's take this into a new context. And maybe something good will come out of those conversations. And I just want to make sure that I shout out Alan Thompson, who produced the sound for "Black Water Vernacular," the short, because his work was incredible.

Omisade Burney-Scott 7:24
His work is always incredible. And he's a huge friend of WUNC I know. You often prepare questions for these "Swamp Talks." And I'm curious if there was a particular question or topic that sparked an interesting conversation that you didn't anticipate.

Derrick Beasley 7:41
You know, the idea of field trips, that was one of those conversations where, you know, nobody that I went on these trips with, when I asked like, "When's the last time you got invited on a field trip?" And nobody could really remember, other than being a child. And so something about that invitation to play and to just kind of be, you know, in our bodies in this new environment, in an adventure state, with an adventurous disposition -- that really opened folks up.

Omisade Burney-Scott 8:13
The curiosity of it all and what it could be. In addition to the audio recordings, you also incorporate painting, video, photography, sculpture, installation and self-portraiture into your work. So how do each of these mediums allow you to look at the themes of intimacy, friendship differently or similarly?

Derrick Beasley 8:36
You know, how when you have an idea, you just got to get it out, however, you can get it out. And nothing feels sufficient to hold the -- all of the nuance and all of the, like the depth of your emotion or what you're feeling or what you're hearing from another person. And so, for me, you know, the moving through different mediums is really just a moving through -- it's just an attempt to capture the nuance of all the things that I feel. And whether that be like, by myself, or the things I'm doing with others in community, or the spaces that I'm creating, or, um, you know.

Omisade Burney-Scott 9:13
Yeah, it's a lot of complexity and nuance kind of woven in and out of all of those mediums. You know, we mentioned earlier that one throughline running throughout a lot of your pieces is this very deep connection to the environment in the climate crisis. While climate can invoke a lot of hopelessness, your art actually aims to see the possibilities for the future. And you've coined the term "ecopossibilities." I would love it if you could expand upon this idea and how they can connect to the relationship between humanity, the environment and Black men.

Derrick Beasley 9:48
Mmhmm. Yeah, well, one, I'm hesitant to say that I coined that term. I feel like I had to have heard it or read it somewhere.

Omisade Burney-Scott 9:58
Maybe you popularized it.

Derrick Beasley 9:59
If you want to put that on me I'll take it. But, you know, so, but um, I think like, like I was saying before, I think, you know, all of this stuff is connected and when we think about, like, where we are with the state of affairs with our environment, and it's an opportunity for us to reimagine not just our relationship with the environment, but our relationship with each other. And I think this -- what feels like catastrophe could also be catalytic for, for these new possibilities. And in another corner of my life, I work with farmers and I tried growing vegetables in the yard at one point. And I realized that's not, that's not mine to grow.

Omisade Burney-Scott 10:39
That's not your ministry.

Derrick Beasley
That's not my ministry. I like to grow other things though. I like -- I enjoy growing trees and vining things and grasses. And so I think this work specifically, this corner of, like, the new world that I, that I want to see and that I want to be a part of building, that's what I'm discovering is my work to do. And so I think we will all be thrust in, into different pockets of the new world, whether we want it or not. And so, for me, this is just trying to be as intentional as possible about discovering what's mine to grow.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Derrick's artistic exploration of the possibilities to build a better world have profoundly shifted how he shows up in personal relationships. We're going to take a quick break, but when we come back, we'll learn more about how Derrick is applying this knowledge to his friendships and friendship breakups. Plus, we'll meet someone who is queering masculinity and learn what it means for his relationships with other cis and trans men.

This is Embodied. I'm Omisade Burney-Scott. Movies have portrayed a variety of complex relationships between Black men, from feuding frenemies to intimate lovers.

William Buster 12:01
A special relationship that I liked, that I seen on the big screen was the relationship between Denzel Washington's character and Wesley Snipe's character in "Mo' Better Blues."

Clip from "Mo' Better Blues" 12:01
Are you coming out?

What'd I tell ya about that stuff?

Are you coming out or not?

When I'm done.

Done what?

Finish my lesson!

Forget him. We're going.

I said I'll see you later!

William Buster 12:31
They were rivals, but ultimately they leaned on each other, they pushed each other. But ultimately they needed each other. These antagonistic -- what appear to be antagonistic relationships between Black men and these and these characters where they, in the movies, where they seem to be going against each other, but ultimately, they see themselves in each other. And they make themselves better. I love that.

Jesse Huddleston 12:58
One cultural representation of friendship between Black men that speaks to me is in the film "Moonlight." It features the protagonist Chiron and his friend from childhood Kevin.

Clip from "Moonlight" 13:14
You're the only man that's ever touched me. You're the only one. I haven't really touched anyone since.

Jesse Huddleston 13:25
We're actually able to better understand who Chiron is, why he performs Blackness and masculinity in certain ways, what's actually happening underneath the surface, behind the curtain. I appreciate it because I think the film, it humanizes what it means to be a Black man, what it means to have such a complex friendship that can hold so much.

Omisade Burney-Scott 14:10
Black masculine friendships depicted on the silver screen can spark conversation about intimacy experienced and identify places to grow. Activist Tiq Milan has a lot of experience questioning masculinity and starting those conversations.

Tiq Milan Clip 14:25
People aren't ready to really put masculinity and the violence that is associated with heteronormative masculine particularly under a microscope. And I feel like trying to bring that up, people feel like we're derailing the conversation, like, "Oh, this toxic masculinity thing," and "Oh, we're picking on Black men." Yeah, if you're perpetrating the violence, yes. And it's not to call you out, it's to call you in and say, "We need you to be better." Because if you are better to us, you can be better to yourself.

Omisade Burney-Scott 14:52
Tiq joins me here today. Welcome, Tiq.

Tiq Milan 14:55
Hi, thanks for having me.

Omisade Burney-Scott 14:57
You are so welcome. I'm glad for you to be here. You know, we want to start off with the beginning of your journey. You came out as a lesbian to your mother, Mary, when you were 14. And then later you came out as trans and queer at 25. And now you're 44. So can you take us through the turning points of your life and how you have deconstructed and reconstructed what masculinity means to you?

Tiq Milan 15:28
Yeah, so I came out as 14 as a lesbian. And then, you know, as I got older, became more masculine-presenting, particularly when I came to New York City. And I was away from my family. I'm originally from Buffalo, New York. But I moved to New York City about 22 years ago, so moved here, and I saw such a variety of masculine presentation here in the early 2000s. Now, the early 2000s, we didn't have the language yet. And so when I moved here is when I started to see models of possibility that informed me that I could be, cuz I wasn't just utterly destroyed in my lesbian identity, or in my butch identity. What happened was, it was just it became something that I started to evolve away from, right. There was like this incongruence, and I just couldn't put my finger on it. You know, it's kind of like having like a pebble in my shoe. This is how I framed it in my TED talk, right? So it wasn't like I hated it. But I was like, something just isn't right. So when I moved here to New York, I met other trans men, it was like a light bulb went off, and I said that's it, that's, that's who I am. So that was my first like, understanding of my possibility to exist was through role modeling, was through the fact that I actually saw people who looked like me. And so, you know, I transitioned. And I went through my ups and downs through my transition. But I think one of the, one of the turning points is, after I've, you know, legally transitioned and medically transitioned, and I'm in this world as a man, I don't get read as trans at all, no one knows I'm transgender unless I tell them. So I walk into this world, basically, as a cis-assumed, heterosexual Black man -- what does that mean? So I can legally transition, I've medically transitioned but what does it mean for me to socially transition in this world? What is it that I have to carry?

Omisade Burney-Scott 17:10
Right, what are you carrying, and you have been very transparent and vulnerable in the public space around your, your relationships and your understanding. And you've described a culture of lovelessness that society has built around trans people. And this is further complicated by race, especially evident in the current political landscape where there are hundreds of bills that have been introduced that restrict the rights of trans people, and kind of given the prevalence of all of this anti-trans rhetoric, did you ever see this internalized by other Black men, either cis or masc-presenting in your social circles? And how did you work through that?

Tiq Milan 17:49
Did I see any transphobia amongst Black...

Omisade Burney-Scott 17:52
Transphobia and also probably some of the vestiges of patriarchy and misogynoir?

Tiq Milan 17:57
Oh, my God, yes. Yeah, it was all around me, you know. And as I was trying to figure out how to be a good man in this world, I was looking for those blueprints, right, looking for those blueprints of masculinity. Who can I turn to to show me? So what I thought I needed to do was look for those blueprints in cisgender heterosexual men, because they were supposed to be the blueprint, but the messages that I was getting was, wasn't working for me. Why the messages that I was getting about how my masculinity had to be so reductive -- I can only feel like anger and lust, like I couldn't be full of joy, that I couldn't not have the answer, if I showed any vulnerability, that meant that I was less than a man, less than Black. These were a lot of the messages that I were getting directly and indirectly. So I think of my queer experience and idea of queering masculinity as a way of being free and creating your own blueprint for a better future. So I had to start to create these blueprints, this like organic masculinity. And also, what I also had to start to do was look at the blueprints of masculinities within queer community and not drink the Kool-Aid and thinking that the most valuable ideas of masculinity had to come from the community that has othered me.

Omisade Burney-Scott 19:09
You know, you use the language of blueprint and drinking the Kool-Aid. I think of the cartography, being a map-maker and being able to construct your own way. And I know that in the queer community, it is very common to have familial kinship with people who are not related to you by blood, but they're chosen. And I know that you have formed your own chosen family. And I would love for you to talk about how you've done that and how you relate to your sons.

Tiq Milan 19:36
Yeah, for sure. So I definitely have a chosen family. I have sons. I have daughters in community. You know, a lot, a lot of folks in queer community have lost their biological family or not aligned with their biological family for many reasons. And you know, when it comes to the idea of family, you know, they always say that the blood is thicker than water, right? But like the whole verse is that the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb. So it's the promises that we make to each other that makes us family. I have trans men, young trans men in community who look to me as a father and as an uncle. And that's the role that I play. And I, and I take it seriously, I really try to be a model of possibility and a blueprint, because so often young Black trans men, and just I think young Black men period, don't get to see a lot of other Black men who are happy, who are healthy and successful, and who are whole or at least trying to be whole, right, aren't afraid of their own emotions. So I tried to give that blueprint to the young men around me whether they are nonbinary, masc folks, trans men, cis men, all of them.

Omisade Burney-Scott 20:35
All of them, all of them. You know, we mentioned at the beginning of your segment that you are now 44, and you've been living in New York now for 22 years. And so you would, you know, be considered a trans elder, you know, you've been on T for a number of years, and you came out as trans, almost, you know, 20 years ago, and now that you are in this position in this role, what has it been like connecting with these younger Black trans men? And what do you feel like you are modeling for them and the advice that you're explicitly giving them about their journey?

Tiq Milan 21:09
Yeah, that's great. First of all, I want to say, it just blows my mind that they call me an elder.

Omisade Burney-Scott 21:13
I feel like that's happening for a lot of older millennials, they're like, "Wait a minute, what?"

Tiq Milan 21:18
"Wait, what are you talking about?" Well, yes, but you know, I love it. And I do it with some grace. The one thing I really try to model to these young guys who are coming up is to be patient with themselves and with the process. And to really give some grace to the people around them. You know, I know it can be really frustrating when folks aren't getting your name right and your pronouns right. And that is going to happen. But I tell everybody, just give them some grace, have your own boundaries. But to understand that you are not the only person that had to transition. Everybody around you did too. You know, and I talked about that in my in my TED talk, and I talk about that my story is how I went from being, you know, the little sister to the baby brother. I went from being the daughter to the son, you know, everybody kind of had to get on board with that. So giving people some grace, giving yourself some grace with your transition, with your physical transition. You know, dating, there's just so many different things. And I try to impart as much wisdom as I can on these young guys. But I think the biggest thing to take away is to have some patience with yourself, and also hold your boundaries, and know that you're valuable, despite the losses that are going to happen, because loss is going to happen. Disappointment is going to happen. And just do deal with it with as much patience for yourself as you can and kindness to yourself as you can.

Omisade Burney-Scott 21:18
Those sound like excellent elder advice for the young people in your life. I am talking with activist Tiq Milan, and I'd like to bring artist Derrick Beasley back into this conversation with us. And we can talk a little bit more together. So I'm going to pose this question to you, Derrick, you know, for the majority of the show, we've been discussing friendships that have gone well, but we know that friendships can also make transition and even breakup. And you have recently had a friend breakup with another man that was quite meaningful to you. What did you take away from that experience?

Derrick Beasley 23:11
Well one, we made up and we back together, but, you know, one of the big things I've learned is that, you know, there's just not a lot of room in the culture for Black men to grow. A lot of that is reinforced by other Black men and other men and, but also by everyone around us. It feels like there's just little space for us to grow and be different versions of ourselves. And sometimes when we're trying to stretch into those new versions of ourselves, there's not a lot of tolerance. So similar to kind of what Tiq was saying about everybody around you transitioning and you know, when we've transitioned into new versions of ourselves, they might not be as complex as those, but, you know, it's still hard for other people around us, particularly those who have known us for a long time, people we've loved and been in relationship with for a long time to like, be able to hold like, "Look bro, I ain't the same version of myself that I was at 12 or 13," you know.

Omisade Burney-Scott 24:12
Or 20 or 30 or 40 or 50.

Derrick Beasley 24:13
Yeah, exactly, yeah.

Omisade Burney-Scott 24:15
And navigating that grief and the stretching of yourself in that relationship, I want to kind of pull you into this piece Tiq, and you know, there's another phase of relationship that I would like to talk about which is repair and reconciliation. And I'm glad for Derrick that that relationship that came apart was able to knit itself back together. What has been your experience Tiq with rebuilding relationships or conflict that has also helped you stretch your notions of, like, how I should show up as a Black man?

Tiq Milan 24:46
You know, what I've learned about myself is that I can play the victim. And for me when I try to define masculinity, I think that masculinity is about holding space for people who are more vulnerable to you and being accountable. Being accountable to the things that you say, being accountable to how you show up. So what I've learned in the conflicts that I've had, is to really take a step back and to say, "How have I contributed to this?" You know, because I think often times, particularly as men, we don't necessarily have to be accountable to how we show up in our relationships, right? People make so many excuses for Black men in our relationships, in our friendships, in our romantic relationships, or, you know, even growing up, "Boys will be boys." No, no, no, no, no, no. So for me, the first thing I've had to do was really just reflect and say, "What did I do here? What did I -- you know, how have I contributed to this?" And that's a hard conversation to have with yourself. It's a hard conversation to have with other people. But what I do know is that when it comes to friendships and the makeup and the breakup, it's never a one-sided thing.

Omisade Burney-Scott 25:47
You know, I want to bring both you together to talk about this nature of intergenerational relationships -- in particular, the relationship that you each have with older Black men in your life. And so Derrick, I would love for you to share if the if there are older Black men you have in your life, and what that relationship feels like for you. And then Tiq, I would love for you to be able to expand on what that's like for you as well.

Derrick Beasley 26:12
There are a few, and honestly, most of them are new, and largely in the arts community here in Durham, and some adopted uncles from other relationships. But I think for me, those relationships, what's made them work is the intentionality and like the explicit nature of them. And so for each of the three that are coming to mind, these are people that I've said, "Hey, like -- I don't know exactly what I said, but you know -- I want to be in relationship with you" in, more or less and expressing that I liked them as as people that are older than me, and I want to learn from them. And what's made it fruitful is that they have reciprocated that, and see that they have something to be gained from like, from me, from the relationship. And so if there's a mutuality that I think, sometimes, historically, for me has been missing in relationships with older men. It's like, if you're not here, taking everything I say as gold or accepting me as like the authority in this relationship, then it's hard to, for us to navigate that. And so, yeah, that that mutuality and reciprocal kind of learning and growing has been the most valuable part about relationships with with older men.

Omisade Burney-Scott 27:28
Sounds like a new sweet spot that you're exploring. Tiq, I know that you are a member of the the Middle Collegiate Church of New York City. And this is a Christian church dedicated to welcoming LGBTQ plus parishioners, and I'm wondering if finding this spiritual community that has affirmed your queerness and your trans identity has also assisted you in connecting with older Black men who you are in friendship with, or developing deeper relationships with?

Tiq Milan 27:58
Yeah, definitely. I'm in the process of building more deeper relationships with older Black men. The one older Black man in my life who I talk to all the time is my father. But being a part of Middle Church has been really affirming me as a Christian and really spiritually centered person. And being able to find that place where it aligns with my queer identity, understanding that my queer identity is divine. And that, you know, me being able to take the steps and the risks, all the things I have needed to do to be my best self is me being what God wants me to be, which I think that what God calls all of us to do is to be our best and brightest self. And I feel closer to God as his son than I ever did as anything else, you know. So it's been a really beautiful thing to be a part of this community. And there are so many older Black men who are there. And it's also nice to build queer and Black community in a spiritual space. Because so often we're told as queer people that we don't belong in spiritual spaces, we don't belong in congregations, that if for some reason, because we are queer, trans, that, you know, God doesn't love us, which is so far from the truth. So being able to be in these spaces and build community has been has been a real blessing for me.

Omisade Burney-Scott 29:04
I love that. You know, vulnerability is a core tenet of any friendship, and it can be hard for men for so many reasons that we've lifted earlier, to achieve this in intimate relationships. Derrick, I know that you have a Tuesday Meetup group that comes together to address a lot of different issues. And I'm wondering if there has been a particular subject that you have explored with the group that has been in service to expanding notions of vulnerability for you all.

Derrick Beasley 29:33
Grief has come up in some of the most recent conversations, losing loved ones and losing relationships, whether it's intimate partner relationships or other friendships or parents. And so, really trying to provide a space where we can just be in support of one another without shaming each other around the grief that we're feeling or the transitions of the relationships with ourselves as we -- you know, when we lose someone or when a relationship changes, we lose a part of ourselves in that. But we also gain things. And so there's like, the grief of that part of ourselves that we lost. And so I think grief has been one of the most powerful kind of subjects. It's, it's...

Omisade Burney-Scott 30:19
Yeah, grief as a powerful instructor. Tiq, I'm going to let you have the last word here around any offerings that you would lift up in terms of how Black men and masc-presenting people can move closer to that vulnerability to achieve more closing meaningful relationships.

Tiq Milan 30:39
Yeah, how can we move forward to more close and meaningful relationships, I think, be open, be open to be different, be open to be changed. To give ourselves some grace and be patient. I think it's important for us to ask questions that don't invalidate other people's truths, but can shake up our own ideas of the truth. And listen to that inner voice, listen to that man you are inside. Like, I think about organic masculinity, the masculinity that is tethered to your soul, not necessarily what people think that you are supposed to be in this world, and to listen to that and to not be afraid and to lean into it.

Omisade Burney-Scott 31:20
Opening yourself up to a friend can be an intimidating act, but it can also forge a stronger bond. Just ahead, we'll meet two teenagers who are putting vulnerability into practice in their own friendship. And we'll hear how they lean on each other for support as they navigate high school and prepare for college. We'll get into that in just a moment.

This is Embodied. I'm Omisade Burney-Scott and you're listening to our conversation today about friendship and intimacy between Black men and masc-presenting people. All friendships are sacred, but some are particularly impactful. Three men shared with us about one relationship that has greatly shaped their lives.

William Buster 32:06
A special friendship that I have, and it's meant everything to me, is -- and I consider it a friendship -- but it's the relationship I have with my uncle. He's not that much older than me. And he's always been influential in my life. He's absolutely hilarious, wise beyond his years, always telling me exactly what I needed to hear, not exactly what I wanted to hear, but giving it to me, with flair, with humor, but, but with reality. And always willing to give it to me and my friends. I think that's the other thing. He was also the cool uncle.

Jesse Huddleston 32:48
We call each other brother friends. We've known each other for over a decade. I introduced him to his wife. They now have a child of which I am a godparent. So we're more like family at this point. Our friendship really has been a container for us to be who we are and not be performing some idea of Blackness or some superficial version of what it means to be masculine or Southern or Christian or whatever. We're really able to just be ourselves and show up hold for one another.

Anonymous 33:37
All these elders that I have the opportunity to chat with across North Carolina, they all stick out to me because they have this wisdom and this this knowledge that they are eager to share. And those relationships, when people can just look at you and they know what you're thinking, because they've been there. And they can help you navigate through things. Sometimes they, they give you step-by-step analysis on how to work through something. And then sometimes, sometimes it's just about laughing and enjoying life. And in those moments, they are also teaching because they're teaching that you can come back from anything.

Omisade Burney-Scott 34:37
As William, Jesse, an anonymous listener noted, close friendships can be a touchstone that take you from one phase of life to the next. Throughout infancy to pre-K to high school, my son Taj has been best friends with his cousin Zachary. Taj and Zack are here with me today to discuss their deep connection. Thank you both for being on Embodied.

Taj Cullen Scott 35:01
Excited to be here.

Zachary Headen 35:02
Thanks for having me.

Omisade Burney-Scott 35:03
You're very welcome. So I'm gonna start this conversation off with you, Zack. Earlier in the show, we talked a lot about how different Black men conceptualize friendship. And I was really curious about how you both define your friendship for yourself, especially for folks I consider Gen Z. So Zack, we're gonna start with you. What does it mean to be someone's friend?

Zachary Headen 35:27
I think it's situational, because me and Taj are friends. But then I have people who I go to school with, like, that I consider to be like, if in their face were friends, but we're more like acquaintances, I think there's different levels of it.

Omisade Burney-Scott 35:40
So it's kind of on a spectrum of relationships. Yeah,

Zachary Headen 35:43
Yeah, there's a spectrum of it, but in, on anybody who's a friend is anybody who you connect with in some way, or shape or fashion.

Omisade Burney-Scott 35:52
Okay. Taj, how do you define friendship?

Taj Cullen Scott 35:55
I would define friendship as just the quality between two people of having a mutual respect and care for each other. And I feel the respect is a very important part of that. Because like, you can love somebody. That doesn't mean you gotta like him.

Omisade Burney-Scott 36:16
Right. Right. So friendship is equal parts of like and love?

Taj Cullen Scott 36:21
I would say so. Yes.

Omisade Burney-Scott 36:22
Okay, I want to stay with you for a little bit touch on that. I want you to think back to the earlier years of your friendship with Zach. And what do you think initially bonded you all, at the start of your relationship that moved from not only being cousins, but really to being best friends?

Taj Cullen Scott 36:41
Something that initially are really connected me and Zach is having a pal to hang out with during family functions. I feel like that brought us closer together. Because you know, being like the youngest, were often separated from the adults. And oftentimes, like that can get pretty lonely. So having someone to bond with over that, and other things like common interest in pop culture, like comics, such as DC and Marvel, video games, that I would say really brought us closer together.

Omisade Burney-Scott 37:20
I love that. Zack, you and Taj have maintained your friendship throughout a number of life changes and transitions. And I'm wondering what you would consider that has kept you close to Taj over the years, even though you always can't be physically with each other.

Zachary Headen 37:37
Like he said, having things in common and just even like, though now, like, we don't see each other a lot, we still find ways to bond, like we always playing games together. And also just experiences. I know, sometimes I'll reach out to Taj to just talk to him about other parts of my life, like oven to him about stuff that's going on at school, and he, he does the same. I think that's what like keeps us bonded together more so than anything else. And then on top of that, if I'm being honest, I see your relationship with my mom, and I'm like, "I want that." And so not just because of blood or anything like that, but I see you guys' relationship and me and Taj's relationship all the time. You guys are always there for each other regardless, like it's always gonna be there for each other. And I know me and Taj are always going to be there for each other. And I know mom has mentioned she'd be like, "It doesn't matter if we agree, we're always going to show up for each other no matter what. We might say later that we don't agree but." And I love that about the relationship because I know there's a lot of relationships where people will, like, leave you out to dry. But overall, I think that's the thing that I really like to see is like, oh, you're going to have your back no matter what. And I know I'm like that for Taj and I know Taj is like that for me, even when we disagree.

Omisade Burney-Scott 38:51
Indeed, indeed. So Taj, I know that you're going to be starting your, your junior year of high school at the Middle College Program at Durham Tech next semester, and Zach has already been a part of a similar program for a number of years at Robeson Community College. So you mentioned that you reached out to Zach for advice on how to navigate Middle College. How did that conversation go? And what did you learn from Zach to prepare you for this upcoming school year?

Taj Cullen Scott 39:19
Well, when I first got the notification from my dad that I was getting in, I was bouncing all over the place. I was on a trip with him in, I think, Maryland, and all of a sudden, boom, I'm in. So I'm texting everybody. I text Zack, and he like calls me up immediately and of course he starts off as like, "Yeah, that's awesome. I'm so proud. So cool. Yeah. Oh my god. Yeah." And then he gets into the advice portion, some of which, I'm not sure I'm legally allowed to mention.

Omisade Burney-Scott 39:55
Okay, so we will mention what we can., What are some nuggets of wisdom that your older cousin gave you to prepare you for Middle College next year?

Taj Cullen Scott 40:05
This is gonna sound basic, but don't procrastinate. He also gave me a warning that the professors will not, will not take it easy on you because you're a middle or early college student. They're going to treat you like you're a college student, no matter what. And another thing I gotta like, make sure to manage my time, because time is going to be just a very important factor when it comes to my education at the Durham Technical College.

Omisade Burney-Scott 40:40
Yeah. Zachary, I'm wondering if you can think about a time where you needed support or closeness with someone and you confided in Taj that you feel comfortable sharing with us?

Zachary Headen 40:49
Oh, easily, easily. It's recent. And I'm still confiding in Taj about it, because it's still something that bothers me. Like you mentioned earlier, I did have -- I also had a friend breakup with a friend from early college. And I took it harshly because I didn't understand. I understand it in like an intellectual level, but on an emotional level, I'm still hurt and don't understand it. There's been many Saturdays that I've just called Taj. And I'm like, even if we're not playing games, I'll just like, vent to him about it, because I get annoyed, like, just thinking about it. Because he like, aside from that person, Taj is the only person who I'm like, tight with like that, like, to talk about it with, in a certain way, who I know will understand where I'm coming from. And I think another aspect about me and Taj's relationship is, I know that he understands me better than other people do. And I feel I understand him better than other people do sometimes as well. Like, I'll peep something about him or like how he reacts to a situation that other people might not.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Because of the closeness and because you all around each other so much. I know that both of you are active in theater and performing arts at school. So I'm going to start with Taj and then I'll go back to you, Zachary. How do you think theatre has allowed you to express and explore yourself in ways that you may not get to express yourself in other parts of your life?

Taj Cullen Scott 42:14
I would say in theater, you get, I mean, this is gonna sound basic again, but you get to take on the role of many different people and through those different roles, you can discover portions of yourself that you haven't even, like, realized were part of you beforehand. Now, I haven't had a quote unquote, major role in a theatric experience in a while. But I still like to dip my toes in the water of theater, just to have some fun, express myself, be able to talk to people, form new relationships with people who are also in whatever play or act I'm in. Theater just allows you to discover who you are.

Omisade Burney-Scott 43:06
Yeah. What about for you, Zack?

Zachary Headen 43:09
I think theater allows me to -- I express myself, but also it's an escape. Because when you're acting as that character that you're playing, you just get to escape. You're that character. And when you're acting, you're, you're you're you're still you, like it's not in like a, you know, completely mind shift from one person to another. But like, you get to have fun with it if you let yourself. I know some people will find it more stressful to do than anything. But if you let yourself have fun with it and things like that, then I think it's much more enjoyable.

Omisade Burney-Scott 43:41
Yeah, it seems like a pathway to explore vulnerability and intimacy, and Taj earlier, you know, we touched on potential barriers that a lot of Black men face when trying to connect with one another. Why do you think it can be hard for young Black men to have deep friendships?

Taj Cullen Scott 44:01
We have grown up in a culture which has -- I'm trying to figure out the opposite word for romanticize -- just makes it seem that expressing your emotions deeply, especially to another man, is a sign of weakness. Not something you should do under any circumstance. Something that people will be weirded out or not like you because you express your emotions. This also has a deeprooted history in homophobia, because people didn't want to be seen as homosexual, gay, because at the time, those were not things you wanted to be seen as. And that's thought process has come forth today. Even in our more progressive era, these thought processes continue forward.

Omisade Burney-Scott 44:55
What do you think are some of the ways that you can disrupt that romanticizing of not expressing yourself?

Taj Cullen Scott 45:04
Simply by expressing yourself, like putting yourself out there and letting people know that it's okay to express yourself through the simple act of expressing yourself. Just doing the thing you're told you're not supposed to do and make more people do the thing they're supposedly not supposed to do.

Omisade Burney-Scott 45:22
I love that. Zach, you are nearing the end of your time in high school, my friend. And I know that you are interested in attending a historically Black college and university or HBCU. What's driving that decision for you?

Zachary Headen 45:38
Somebody who's gone to majority white schools, like most of my life, for major schooling, don't get me wrong, I love my white friends, but I'm sick [of it]. I want to be around my culture more. I feel that it'll just be an enriching experience. I feel like I can connect with people who have similar experiences to me, because the main part about being a Black man, especially in today's era, like especially, I feel like it's even more different than for like us, as Gen Zers, then like from older generations, because for us, you don't even just have to be Black enough for the people -- or not just Black enough, or like manly enough for the people who you see on your day-to-day life -- if you have a social media presence, then you gotta be manly enough or Black enough for those people too. And then you turn around and go back to your school, there's nobody to talk to you about that. And then you can't -- it's not like you can talk to your elders, or you can but you can't about your elders about it, because they don't understand it either. Like, I want to go to a HBCU just purely for the fact that I want to connect with my culture so much more on a deeper level. And even if I don't go to HBCU, I still plan to pledge to a Divine Nine fraternity. So if I can't connect on the school level, at least I can get in, get it in there on the fraternal level. Yeah, on a fraternal level. Yeah.

Omisade Burney-Scott 46:54
So Taj, I want to close out with you in terms of when considering colleges and friendships, what are priorities for you for your future?

Taj Cullen Scott 47:03
Priorities for me when considering schools and colleges that I plan to or wish to go to in the future -- they do include things like being an HBCU, or PWI. But they also include things like where my friends might be going, because I'm already gonna be -- I wouldn't say leave it behind, but I won't be able to see a majority of my friends as much as I want to after this school year because of my going to Durham Tech Middle College. So I just want to be able to keep in touch. Where they might be going or applying to is going to have some influence on where I might be going or applying to.

Omisade Burney-Scott 47:45
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast, consider a contribution at now. This episode is a tribute to my male ancestor who sought freedom and left South Carolina, taking on a new identity and starting a new life in North Carolina. This episode is also a tribute to the men in our family trees, who were more than just their job or social status. Their complete humanity and emotional needs were often concealed, silenced or ignored. Special thanks to Jesse Huddleston and William Buster and the anonymous listener for contributing to this week's show. We appreciate you. This episode was produced by Paige Miranda and edited by Amanda Magnus. Kaia Findlay also produces for our show. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer. Quilla wrote our theme music. Until next time, I'm Omisade Burney-Scott, in for Anita Rao.

More Stories