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BLACKLINES: On the Down Low
New book by J.L. King
by Review by Max Smith
2004-05-01

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ON THE DOWN LOW, A Journey Into the Lives of 'Straight' Black Men Who Sleep With Men by J.L. King is described as 'A bold expose of the deadly secret that is fueling a health crisis in many African-American communities.'

After the Chicago Sun-Times published an article about this book in Nov. 2003, local reaction from many Black same-gender-loving (SGL) men has been rather cool. Some expected the book to portray Black SGL men in a negative light. Others dismissed the 'secret,' wives and girlfriends unwittingly caught in the double lives of their DL men, as nothing new enough to warrant a book.

Instead, this is a must-read book to understand the emotionally complex dynamics of being a modern-day great pretender. [Even Oprah had a show on the book, April 16.]

After reading it you may wonder whether J.L. King was at the October 1995 Million Man March. 1,000,000 Black men gathered in Washington, D.C., to acknowledge that a number of social problems are the result of spiritual failures. Rather than blame 'society' or racism, Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan implored men to accept personal responsibility and to create better communities on our own initiative. Oaths, vows, pledges and promises to do so that day surely played a part in declining crime rates and other improvements in the quality of life nationwide.

ON THE DOWN LOW is more than a book, it is a clarion call for honesty.

By page seven King establishes the spiritual link between knowing better and doing better. This book is an intensely personal journey. King puts his own life under a microscope. He repeatedly tells the reader that the numerous slice-of-life stories told are not about closeted gays, but about men whose primary attraction is to women. It is good that such a sharp distinction is drawn. If an out, self-identified gay activist were the writer, this book would be a sad commentary on the current state of Black SGL consciousness. It is not. King makes it plain: he is not gay. His choice of words to describe how homophobia manifests itself is definitely from a heterosexual perspective.

In chapter two, 'But I'm Not Gay,' J.L. King says; 'When I was growing up in Springfield, Ohio, every gay man, as I recall, was sad. Brother Jones, who played the piano at churches around the city, was a flamboyant older man, who even in my youth was wierd to me. Two or three boys in my school were gay. And nobody liked them. Nobody picked them for the basketball or kickball team. No one wanted to be in the locker room or in the showers with them. They were constantly beaten up and called 'fag.' Even today young men who have this sexual confusion hear and see those young men and the ways they're constantly ostracized, and it affects them deeply. If you're gay, people don't want to leave their sons around you, because they're afraid you might molest them. People think gay men want sex all the time wherever they can get it. People look at you like you have AIDS.

'If I admit I'm gay, my son's friends will look at him differently. If I'm gay or bisexual, every time they talk about some gay thing on television, some gay bashing, or some gay issue, you'll think about me. I don't want that. If I say I'm gay, every time I'm in your presence and a brother comes up to us, you'll make those little comments, 'Isn't he cute?' Or something stupid like 'I saw you looking at his ass.' You'll throw me into that whole culture, and I'm not going out like that. I'm not going to let you do that to me. To a lot of men, to admit being gay is to ask for a life of hell and abuse. Who wants that? They would rather stay on the DL.'

It has been years since I've read an author so obviously steeped in the mindset of heterosexist privilige. If you've been to an LGBT pride parade, attended a Black gay pride workshop on self-esteem, or if you've read post-Stonewall LGBT books, magazines and newspapers, then you will have to brace yourself with affirmative thinking to get through chapter two.

That mindset of being accustomed to perks, power and respect makes other parts of ON THE DOWNLOW excellent. The Black Church is called on the carpet for its failure to respond in a meaningful way to the HIV epidemic. The refusal of prisons to give condoms to incarcerated men who have sex with men is shown to be a primary cause of the spread of HIV inside the criminal 'just-us' system, as well as to partners of ex-offenders upon their release.

Jokingly I told J.L. King his book is a great response to HOW TO TELL IF YOUR MAN IS GAY OR BISEXUAL by Sharazad Ali. He didn't even crack a smile. He is very serious about trying to create the social change of encouraging DL men to live honestly.

In recent years African-American women represent more than 65% of newly diagnosed female HIV cases in the USA. While many of them contract HIV from association with IV drug users, this book does not focus on what proportion of that 65%+ were infected that way. He cites so many ways in which people are dishonest about sex, that it may never be possible to know for sure anyway.

What is important is that slogan popularized by ACT UP: Silence = Death. This book's publicity has been on BET, PBS, The Oprah Winfrey Show, in Essence magazine and numerous other media and at personal appearances: J.L. King has generated a serious nationwide discussion. The target audience is Black women. Especially Black women who are in denial or who just do not know about bisexuality.

Black SGL women and men have had many conversations about DL men. Some of us have had sex with them knowing that they were married. I started a sexual affair with a man who was single three years ago. He did not disclose to me that he married one of his girlfriends until several months after he had wed. That experience with a brother on the down low let me understand how the security and enjoyment of a relationship can lead to gray areas. Your pre-conception of this book may or may not include those many gray areas between; full truth and not knowing, or not wanting to know, or telling and not wanting to tell or be told. That is the intrigue and the appeal of this book. Your thinking about the down low will be challenged, because J.L. King's ideas about life on the DL are provacative.

Comments and concerns? Contact me at MaxsonnCS@aol.com


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