Who can really protect Black children in an anti-Black world? That is a question that Hari Ziyad reflects on as they begin writing about their experiences of growing up Black and queer in America. Ziyad, who uses they/them pronouns, is a seasoned writer and editor and in their memoir, Black Boy Out of Time, Ziyad offers an intimate examination of how policing and prison-based ideologies affect interpersonal relationships and the fight for Black liberation.
Ziyad, a powerful and necessary voice on the rise, a social and cultural critic, a screenwriter, and the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitr, takes readers on a journey of their formative years and in doing so investigates how policing and prison-based ideologies affect interpersonal relationships and the fight for Black liberation
The Seattle Times said: “Ziyad, who grew up in a large, mixed-faith family, gets very personal with themself, their family and the carceral state. A large part of this reckoning has to do with medical racism and the demonization and adultification of Black children under carceral logics. This is a book to move us forward, within and beyond the pandemic. There is going to be an after. If we want it to be better than the before, ideas and stories like Ziyad’s are crucial.”
As one of nineteen children in a blended family, Ziyad was raised by a Hindu Hare Kṛṣṇa mother and a Muslim father in Cleveland, Ohio and eventually navigated the equally complex path toward finding their true self in New York City. Along the way Ziyad examines childhood, gender, race, prison abolition, and the trust that is built, broken, and repaired through generations. Exploring what it means to live beyond the limited narratives Black children are given, Ziyad challenges the irreconcilable binaries that restrict them.
Heartwarming and heart-wrenching, radical and reflective, Black Boy Out of Time, is for the outcast, the unheard, the unborn, and the dead. Ziyad offers us a new way to think about survival and the necessary disruption of social norms. They look back in tenderness as well as justified rage, force us to address where we are now, and, born out of hope, illuminate the possibilities for the future. As Ziyad writes to their younger self, “I know that there is still a long, long journey left to truly heal from all of this, but I also know that the destination is where you came from. I know that it is not a destination at all in the colonial sense of the word…You did not come from an unchanging world of capture. I know that the end is out of time as I thought I knew it, and into time as my ancestors do. Some parts of these relationships will never be mended in this life—but I can, and I will.”
#GAYNRD spoke to Ziyad by phone.
What’s the reception been to the book so far? Due to the pandemic, we didn’t do like a traditional book tour where everything was set up ahead of time. We’re actually still setting up dates for our future engagements now. I’ve actually just responded to an email. So, what we did in the first week is have events and readings, but we just kind of continued those as they come up. And it’s been great so far. I can’t complain too much. I don’t really love the talking about the work aspect that much, but I’ve been learning to love it a lot more. And it’s definitely been like a crash course in that.
I have social anxiety, so that all is heightened when I think about things. I think it’s just it takes a different neural pathway to talk about the work than write your art out. And it just feels like a different thing that I hadn’t really practiced as much as I practiced the writing, but I’m getting better at it, I think.
What’s the most commonly asked question you get? People ask a lot about what the process was like of writing these intimate stories and what the conversations look like behind the scenes with family. There’s always the conversation about the inner child work and writing directly to my younger self and the self of history chapters. Those always come up. And yeah, I think those are like the two main things that I’ve been asked at every single conversation about the book, which is great because those are two of the things that I think are the most important topics to talk about.
One of the most powerful parts of the book are the letters to yourself. How did that come about? I touch a little bit upon that in the book. I was doing inner child work in my therapy sessions. I was in therapy at the time of writing the book. I’m still in therapy. I’m glad that I was in therapy during the process of writing this book. And I hope that most people who write memoirs, I hope they have access to therapy because it can bring up a lot.
But during my sessions, we explored inner child work, especially because so much of what was coming up was related to childhood traumas. I was already well into the book by the time that this came up. But when we started to do that work and like talking to my inner child in sessions, I realized that it paralleled so much of what I was already attempting to do in the book. And so, I was like, why not just bring this to the book?
I love epistolary narratives.
And I really just loved how that brought out the intimacy in the conversations there. I was trying to bring some of that to the work as well. And so, much of the book became about healing through this relationship with my younger self instead of just documenting the traumas or the experiences that I’ve had. And so, it became important to include that process of healing in the book in that way as well.
What was the most powerful thing you got from that process? There are so many things that came up that were surprising. I don’t know; I guess the thing that comes to mind is just how much is that part of you is communicating back to you as well. Like when I was thinking about inner child work before even having any experience of doing it, I was just thinking about it. And I read about this in the book as well but like for me, talking to that part of me, trying to explain things, and parent that part of myself.
But it was just surprising not just how that process required me to just sit and listen to what I was getting in return but how often those messages had been showing up in my life before I even started doing that process. And I just didn’t have the skills or wasn’t really attuned to listen to them. And so, I guess what was most surprising is that like all of what I was learning in, there were messages that I’ve been receiving for my whole life. And it’s kind of wild that, like only in this moment was I opening myself up to paying attention to them. What I probably would have been really important and had helped me out of a lot of binds if I had known how to listen to that earlier.
So, yeah, that was one of the more surprising things. It was like, oh, I’ve had this feeling before, or I’ve had this thought before I just dismissed it because I didn’t know what it was. And this process of therapy allowed me to like, name it and recognize it and legitimize these thoughts and feelings as something that I could wrestle with. And so, yes, it’s kind of amazing how many things, how much our bodies are telling us all the time that we don’t always have access to because we’re just trying to get to the next thing.
Were there any memories that you uncovered during this process? Yeah, there definitely were parts of that that came up. There’s a section in the book where I’m talking about my first experience of sexual violence and non-consensual sex. Yeah, and so in the recalling of that, there are so many fun things about that time, and for so long, I used, or I interpreted rather my lack of being able to pin those details down to question myself and basically like driving myself crazy.
But it didn’t bother me. I don’t know; I’ve removed myself so much from that situation that re-exploring it didn’t really feel like triggering or like re-traumatizing me. After a point, I was just like, okay, this is what I remember, and it felt like I was talking about someone else’s life, especially because I didn’t have those details like that. But the process of trying to engage with my younger self around that that brought up all of these other things because I had to engage myself as if like; I had to see myself as an actual child going through these experiences.
And not just any child, but a child that I cared for and loved, which brought a whole new level of anger and frustration and sadness around the whole process that I didn’t really carry with me before because it was just like this thing that happened. But, yeah, it took the inner child, and that’s why initially, that chapter came earlier in the book. But I’m so glad we moved it down because there was a lot of work I needed to be able to engage that as what it actually was and to think through the actual effect that that might have had on me and still have on me just because I’ve been so removed from it for such a long time.
So, I think I’m still working through what that means and the effects that it has on me. And maybe I’ll be working through that for the rest of my life. But yeah, it’s a process that’s going to continue to be a process. And I think looking at it as a process instead of like this fixed thing that happened in the past that now, I’m away from, is the only reason that I can start to do some healing towards it.
Your ancestry plays a huge role. And there are all these different levels to your identity and how you engage with the world. Is there anything that sticks out in your mind about that? Yeah, I mean, for me, it was the responses that have been the most impactful. Everybody who responded to the book is going to feel impacted, especially if you’re Black and gay and like to help you work through your own traumas. But one of the things that, like I said earlier, I shared a lot of this with my family first.
Yeah, one of the experiences that I write about in the book was sharing this with my little brother, who is straight. And we’ve had very dissimilar experiences because of that. But what we had to reckon with is the fact that like; especially because after I told my parents that I was queer and left the house, there was all this tension around my queerness. I kind of removed myself from my family, and that included my little brother. And what he told me that was really powerful that I hadn’t really thought about it because I was always thinking about myself and my need to remove myself from that situation was that he felt abandoned.
Even though he understood as a queer person why I left, he was like I was going through a lot of things that I felt were very similar, and you just left. Which really helped me to reposition how I think about our childhood experiences and how it’s going to impact that, particularly with my family. Like, I could see how the ways that he and anyone in our family who was considered to be a boy, or a man were forced into a very strict gender category. And that felt like violence to them too. And so, sharing that part with my little brother allowed me to see just how many parallels that we both have in our story even though they’re different.
And, of course, shaded by the fact that I’m queer and he’s not. But it showed me just how much of the shared experiences Black children have regardless of where they end up in the future because we all have lived through these households where we’re not allowed to be fully ourselves. Especially as a queer person, what does that mean to want to leave that? And I think that’s great and necessary for a lot of us. But it’s also interesting to consider who do we leave behind and what that means for the other black children in our lives. So, yeah, that’s been something I’ve been working through consistently since then.
But it was great to be able to share that with my brother and talk about the impacts of my queerness and what that means for him as a straight person in this world where no Black gender has made it really legible.
But yeah, we talk about it, especially because we have to acknowledge that a big part of the violence that queer people, in particular queer Black people and trans people, experience it at the hands of straight men in their community. And that’s not going to be erased, and it doesn’t have to be erased by acknowledging that so much of that violence that they learn is something that is learned from experiencing gender in a way that was violent for them as well. And so, what does it mean to hold them accountable for perpetuating that system while also recognizing that they are part of that system?
I think it is really, really important, especially if we’re going to be talking about community building. Community includes, or at least my community includes my brother. It includes men even outside of my family, and so it also must include recognizing how gender has failed as a concept for all children. Because it doesn’t allow children to be their full free selves, which I think also doesn’t allow them to grow up into adults that can have space to not be violent towards other people who don’t express gender in that way. And so, I think a big part of it is just rooting this in childhood.
Like when we start to talk about gender and where it becomes an issue, we can see very clearly that it doesn’t benefit any children. There’s a certain point where we become locked into the system and become just as much of a perpetrator of it. But with children, you can see how with boys, with girls, with non-binary children because they exist too, they’re all affected by this thing that they may not opt into and they didn’t consent to that says that they can only be one way and exist in the world in that way and if they don’t, they’ll be punished. And so, how do we start there and prevent that from carrying over to the next generation? I think it is really important.
Do you feel like you’re part of a movement right now? Yeah, I mean, there’s definitely an excitement. I feel two types of ways about it, especially as I’ve seen how my book is received. I think what’s happening in the literary world is just seeing that they can capitalize on this story in a very new way.
And there’s a lot of danger with that also. But most of us who are in the space we’re aware of that, and we’re pushing back against that in a lot of ways. But I think we have to always talk about this time and name that when it comes up because there’s a lot of also like just putting these stories out there and not recognizing what they mean and how does that affect the editing process? How does that affect the marketing process? It’s like you’re not really doing justice to the story if you’re not really engaging with it as a whole story.
And I think a lot of that is happening. It’s unfortunate. I think it’s detrimental to a lot of writers who could have spent more time with work because they’re just pushing it out there to capitalize. So, there’s that.
But at the same time, I think what’s been really great is that we’ve been able to build these communities. And we’ve been doing this for a long time, and so we don’t have to succumb to that. We also have our own institutions that we built. Black Bookstagram is like a thriving community that has literally been the key to the success of folks when white institutions might not have even received it in the same way. And so, I think as long as we also focus on building up our own frameworks at the same time where we’re able to get more platforms in the mainstream, then it’s totally exciting.
But I think the danger is when we’re only focusing on the platforms and only focusing on this representation and not really about the structures that the platforms are built on. And so, that’s something that I just try to reemphasize whenever this question comes up.
Hari Ziyad is a cultural critic, a screenwriter, and the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitr. They are a 2021 Lambda Literary Fellow, and their writing has been featured in BuzzFeed, Out, the Guardian, Paste magazine, and the academic journal Critical Ethnic Studies, among other publications. Previously they were the managing editor of the Black Youth Project and a script consultant on the television series David Makes Man. Hari spends their all-too-rare free time trying to get their friends to give the latest generation of R & B starlets a chance and attempting to entertain their always very unbothered pit bull mix, Khione. For more information about the author, visit www.hariziyad.com.