How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir

Image of How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir
Release Date: 
October 8, 2019
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

Saeed Jones is an award-winning poet, editor, and co-host of BuzzFeed’s AM to PM morning show. His latest book How We Fight for Our Lives is his powerful coming of age memoir.

In it Jones revisits pivotal events of his growing up an isolated sixth grader trying to understand how he will survive as an African American gay boy in the racist, homophobic town of Lewisville, Texas,

He sits at home, waiting for his mother to return from her job at Delta Airlines every afternoon after school. He spends his time staring out the window watching his two neighborhood white boys play catch, but Saeed, shy and not good at sports, keeps to himself.

To escape his stark reality, he reads his mother Carol’s books, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Toni Morrison with sentences he remembers “were like rivers with murky bottoms.” He writes. “They didn’t obey the rules I was learning in school.”  But when he picks up James Baldwin’s Another Country he is further mystified by Baldwin’s stories of multi-racial relationships and gay characters, but also a validating message of his own sense of otherness.

One of the neighbors, Cody, he recognized that he had a crush on and started to look for excuses to hang around him until the brothers tagged him as a “faggot.”

He and his mother have a solid relationship, even, as is typical in families, a lot goes unsaid, and he wasn’t getting many answers from her about what he was feeling. When he found a photograph of a man and asked who he was, she told him a friend who had died, that he had killed himself, and as he coaxed out of her what from, she said AIDS in a way that he knew the conversation was over.

“I could feel the word ‘gay’—or maybe the conspicuous absence of it—vibrating in the air between us,” he writes. Saeed describes how he knew instinctively that he was on his own in finding out what he was feeling. Like so many other queer youth in this country, he squirreled away in a corner of the local library to read any material they had on homosexuality, and found homophobic and antigay propaganda.

In Texas as a gay teen he is forced to stay in the closet and hide his gayness at school and at home. His years in high school were equally confusing as Saeed navigating the homophobic social rules, even as LGBTQ America changes. Saeed felt as oppressed as ever. He was horrified by the brutal hate-crime murders of James Byrd in Texas and Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. He calculated that as a black gay young man he would be a target from all sides.

There was silent acceptance from his mother even as she confronted him after checking his online activity in gay chat rooms, expressing more anger that he would put him at self at risk secretly meeting an older man for sex.

But he eventually starts to fight back. He does not back down from physical fights, and in the case of his previously beloved grandmother, he silently starts to resist her rigid and bullying religious beliefs. His grandmother suspects he is gay and forces him to go to her evangelical church and witness the pastor officially condemning his mother for being a practicing Buddhist. The preacher leads the congregation to pray for her to be struck down until she renounces her Buddhism. After that he refuses to spend any more summers with his grandmother. 

After high school he and his mother are thrilled that he was accepted at NYU, but crushed that they couldn’t secure enough student loans for him to go. Instead, he got a full scholarship at Kentucky State University and was a star debater in the National Debate team Finals. He was academically gifted and goal oriented.

On his own, in a new town while traveling the country on the debate team he wrote of the joys and perils of the gay clubs and looked for love in all the wrong places through social media. He had drinking fueled vacuous hook-ups and consistently got emotionally involved with unavailable men. One relationship with a white man involved consensual racist role-playing that he eventually acknowledges was emotionally devastating and demoralizing.

He had another violent sexual encounter with what turned out to be a disturbed white man he picked up at a straight college party in Phoenix, who lured him to an abandoned apartment and almost killed him.

Meanwhile, despite these personal traumas, he continued to achieve career goals, even as he distanced himself from friend and family. He did well in school and became an educator, taught school in New Jersey, and was leading a more positive, independent life when suddenly his mother became ill.

Jones’ frank and dramatically poetic prose makes How We Fight for Our Lives a personal, inspiring manifesto of self-acceptance as an out, proud, and successful black gay American.

Along with being explicitly frank about sexuality and emotional trauma and repressed anger, the central theme of this memoir is his powerful and loving tribute to his mother Carol and the indelible bonds between his mother and her gay son.