“A Punch in the Face” On Brontez Purnell’s Since I Laid My Burden Down
“An honest portrayal of a young man’s reconciliation with the past, possibly the next queer cult classic,” writes J.P. Tamang
When W.E.B. Du Bois reviewed Wallace Thurman’s first novel, The Blacker the Berry (1929), he lamented the author’s “self-despising” attitude and unwillingness to portray black folk in a ubiquitously positive light. Thurman –whose work explored the Harlem Renaissance’s implicit homophobia and bias towards light skinned blacks –was often excluded from Du Bois’ vision of a Talented Tenth, calling into question the criteria through which artists are rendered worthwhile. In consuming material that is deemed #LGBTQ, I have often felt the need for a punch in the face to remember what I was supposed to feel from a gay experience filtered through mainstream media production houses. Brontez Purnell’s Since I Laid My Burden Down (Feminist Press, 2017) has, for me, been that punch in the face. The book is a call to reexamine some of the Harlem Renaissance’s inquiries into the psychic life of racism and the conundrum of conveying the experience of modern black life. At the same time, Purnell queers these themes with a crass, vernacular style, a surreal handling of temporal-narrative form, and a genre bending collusion of fiction and memoir.
The unchecked homophobia of the past and present allows conceptualizations of the Harlem Renaissance that do not center the queerness of Langston Hughes, Ma Rainey, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Alain Locke, Richard Bruce Nugent, Angelina Weld Grimkè, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and so many others. It is that same implicit bias that has shaped a contemporary gay literary landscape saturated with coming out narratives, stories of longing between perfect, white bodies, and saccharine accounts of familial reconciliation. SILMBD is an antidote to the rigamarole of gay lit. Its world, replete with queers as broken as the narrator, allows the reader to cruise the scummy, sexy underbelly of the contemporary Bay Area and rural Alabama. At the same time, it complicates stereotypes of the African American bildungsroman through constructing a protagonist who invokes the spirit of Nirvana and girl goth witchery alongside the Christological imagery of purification of a soul lost to sin.