Michael Arceneaux’s first book is a logical extension of the polemic, confessional style he’s perfected online.
The book begins, “Before that day, I hadn’t been to church in five Beyoncé albums.” Some people measure time in years; others, like Houston-born, Harlem-based culture writer Michael Arceneaux, in musical tectonic shifts.
Arceneaux’s personal essay collection, I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith In Beyoncé, is full of similar intertextual zingers. The topics in the subtitle are pleasingly entangled in almost every paragraph.
The collection is organized into a series of explanations — how Arceneaux was raised Catholic, how he left the church and came to embrace his sexuality, how his parents’ abusive marriage has affected his relationships.
It’s a formula often used in self-help literature, as it ensures that anyone’s story can become a lesson. This structure makes the book accessible to a larger audience, one perhaps unversed in Houston’s black culture or uninterested in the gospel of Beyoncé. It’s also a logical extension of the polemic, confessional style he’s perfected online.
Arceneaux has had a decade-long career “essay hustling,” as he calls it, for outlets like the Guardian, Essence and the New York Times. He’s become adept at parsing his identity and transforming it into a lesson. The strongest essays in the book do so with style.
In “The Place Is No Sanctuary,” Arceneaux details his search for the right barber. The first people to cut his hair, in Houston and in Washington, D.C., are casually sexist and homophobic. The latter ones are sloppy and unreliable. After wading through a sea of toxic masculinity, he settles on a skilled barber who is delicate with his hairline, but also steers clear of talk about sexuality. The essay ends in an uneasy compromise that certain black spaces will always be accepting of some facets of his identity and not others: “There are plenty of straight Black men who have said to me that the barbershop is partially where they learned how to be a Black man in this world,” he concludes, “but as a Black man in this world who happens to be gay, my past experiences will never allow me to share their sentiments.”
The lesson in that is to find a perfect sanctuary, for the time being, elsewhere.
The strongest essay in the book is a paean to Beyoncé Knowles Carter, whom Arceneaux calls “my Lord and gyrator.” Despite his professed obsession with the superstar, Arceneaux’s analysis is sober. He explains how he came to love and survive on affirmational pop (black) culture, figures like T-Boz, Janet Jackson and Mary J Blige, but especially Queen B.
The essay contains the book’s closest thing to a thesis, an unselfconscious defense of popular culture: “For many who lack access financially, emotionally, physically, or some combination of the three, pop culture is how we get to access perspectives outside of our bubbles,” Arceneaux writes. “It helps to inform us of who we are in our present, developing forms and who we ultimately might become.” Far from superficial, the women of hip hop and R&B are a “saving grace,” a solution to cultural alienation and divisiveness. Even the most hardened “Beytheist” would recognize his earnest respect of Beyoncé’s god-like ability to uplift.
Other highlights are “I See A Priest in You,” on how he, like Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, turned down joining the priesthood; “You Will Die Poor,” on how he survived being broke in Los Angeles, one of the best-written essays in the collection and part of the premise of his next book; and “The First Taste,” which contains a stunning description of his uncle’s death from AIDS, his father’s callous response and how the experience shaped his early romantic relationships.
But for roughly half of the 15 short, cleverly titled essays, the high-wire act between fun and serious does not land. The hookups and failed romances in “Learning How to Ho and Date and Failing at Both” and “The First, the Worst” fail to make his usually effortless leap from the personal to the political.
However, a standout essay on sexual racism and interracial dating redeems these false starts. It starts, “I don’t care about white people like that.” Arceneaux explains that because he was raised in a black neighborhood, went to predominantly black and Latino schools and a historically black college, he never elevated whiteness. His mother made sure he went to black physicians and dentists, making certain that when he entered white spaces he did so with pride.
He describes encountering black people in mainstream media who came from very different backgrounds from him, and as a result had a different relation to whiteness. “I’ve learned over time that success in this world,” he writes, “has a lot to do with one’s proximity to whiteness.” It’s a relation that often puts him at odds with mainstream media outlets, looking for Arceneaux to lead with his otherness, to write his identity not just as a perspective but as a spectacle.
I Can’t Date Jesus is an admirable attempt to reverse that dynamic: a little more story and a little less spectacle.
Hear Michael Arceneaux speak at Brazos Bookstore in Houston on Monday, August 6, at 7 p.m.