The first time I saw Gioncarlo Valentine, what I felt was jealousy. It was in a photograph, a nearly nude self-portrait, showing Valentine spread out on a bed. The look on his face awed and terrified me—I’d never seen someone with a big, beautiful black body like mine look so content to be naked in a photograph. What shocked me was not simply how Valentine must have conquered a fear by appearing naked and comfortable in that bed; it was how the image seemed to capture the expansive contours of our fears—the shared fears of black men—in a photo that was uniquely and absolutely him.
The next day, I looked him up online and found every photograph of his that I could. I learned that he was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1990, and grew up as a queer kid in a family and community that didn’t know how to accept him. The photographs I discovered—like the ones in his series “The Soft Fence,” which feature other young black men from Baltimore—catalogue the damn-near infinite ways that we ritualize fear in our bodies.
All of the subjects in “The Soft Fence” move, walk, pose, stunt, and style like they’re afraid. Valentine understands that, when asked to pose for pictures, most black men, regardless of where we’re from, move from smile to ice-grill in the span of a second, from fingers stretched or freely dangling to fingers clenched or in the shape of some sign that connects us to a group, a region, a culture, a state, a state of peace. Our schools, churches, and sometimes families try to discipline the fear out of our bodies; often, they end up giving us more and more reasons to be afraid. We go to all lengths to show the world that we aren’t afraid, or alone. Only terrified people go to all lengths to show that they aren’t afraid. “I’m always afraid, but people assume I’m fearless,” Valentine told me recently.
I’ve spent the past few months on a book tour, promoting my memoir, “Heavy.” The book explores, among other things, what we do with the weight we carry and the weight we inherit in a nation obsessed with progress but horrified by liberation. “Why aren’t black men vulnerable?” I’ve been asked in some form at nearly every stop of the tour. I respond that I don’t know any black men who aren’t vulnerable, but I do know a lot of men who don’t know how to talk about why we are vulnerable, and how a failure to accept our vulnerability makes us harmful to ourselves and to folks around us. I wish I could just show my audiences “The Soft Fence.” Valentine has allowed us space to occupy photographs in the way we actually occupy life: fearfully stylized. I’m thankful to his work for reminding me that we are afraid, and that the acceptance of fear, in all its shades, colors, codes, and consequences, is how we will prevail.
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This text was drawn from an essay in “The Soft Fence,” by Gioncarlo Valentine, which is out now from Blue Sky Books.