Michael Arceneaux debut book of essays, I Can’t Date Jesus contains multitudes. In fact, I have never deeply enjoyed and been so moved by a book, but yet found it so difficult to describe in a review, as I have this one.
That’s because reading I Can’t Date Jesus is like peeling back the layers of a delicious onion, savoring every bite. You feel the strength of the spice, not enough to knock you over, but enough to give you pause. You hold on to every ounce of flavor, but you welcome the new sensations that each bite brings.
Okay, I’ve really got to quit trying to be artsy with the food metaphors. I hope you get the idea.
This book is not only a collection of poignant, articulate, and not to mention humorous thoughts about being black and gay from a blisteringly intelligent and talented man. No. It is something much more.
I Can’t Date Jesus is important. In fact, I believe, in honor of Pride Month, more straight people, rather than just saying that they support the LGBTQ community, should instead just shut their traps and read this book. Carefully. [I include myself in that. That’s the primary reason I chose to read it]. And really listen to what Arceneaux has to say. Because what he says is not just eye opening, but as entertaining as it is truthful. With razor sharp wit, a precise, critical eye for hypocrisy and camouflaged “acceptance,”years of experience fact checking and working within media, and an explicit eye for detail, he takes us through his upbringing, from discovering his sexuality, to his young adult relationships, to his complex family relationships, to his ardent love for Beyonce.
Through it all his unapologetic, yet rocky journey remains heartfelt, courageous and even, dare I say, sassy. His tone is [somewhat] dark without being sad or depressing, and yet still somehow uplifting without making you feel like your reading an inspirational (vomit- I hate that word, as you know) column. Arceneaux does this with great intentionality.
Yes, there is the fact that his identity intersects several different groups, groups that have continually been marginalized and oppressed in our country. Please know that I mention this only as a statement of fact, not a reason to get you to read this book- or, even more so, a reason for you to think that’s why I want you to read this book.
No. I want you to read this book because what Arceneaux has pointed out through personal narrative will open your eyes (and I hope, for some of you, lift the veil, as it did for me) as to why we are so (rightfully) polarized right now in this country. Over very fundamental rights.
Even if you believe that those said rights don’t apply to you, and therefore you believe that you can use that as a reason to “just sit back” and “opt out of the conversation” or even just “choose not to contribute because it doesn’t really apply to me,” well, welcome to being privileged. Welcome to the EXACT DEFINITION of privilege. While some can choose to ignore the things that don’t impact them or, truthfully, just turn a blind eye to the things don’t shape their identity every day, others do not have that luxury.
Thanks to Arceneaux, I was able to recognize and realize that the hypocrisy of several institutions (ie- churches, and in Michael’s case, specifically the Catholic church) runs deeper than we could even begin to fathom, and this directly affects people every day who are brought up within said institutions. It is, as Arceneaux so cleverly points out, again and again, the guiding force which became somewhat of a catalyst for his identity.
“Such opinions are a reflection of their own lack of will to step outside of themselves and their experiences and see how those on the other side feel. How can you be obedient to dogma you’ve found oppressive? How can you cling to tradition and exalt a vision of God that minimizes you and expects you to suppress what is innate to you?” (Arceneaux 3).
This is just one of the many debates that Arceneaux dissects over and over again in this book. Rarely have I read a memoir that is so refreshingly honest and raw while also being laugh-out-loud funny.
He calls out the irony with many subjects in the black community such as, stated above, those who claim religion is the most important thing to them but fail to be accepting towards family members who are attracted to and love the same sex.
Arceneaux takes us through his Catholic upbringing as a young man. Very early on he knew he was different in terms of to whom he was attracted. The layer I found so interesting is that he remembers a funeral very early on for one of his uncles who died of Aids related causes. His uncle was also the first black gay man that he knew. While his father went on a rant about how angry this made him, Michael Arceneaux first understood the “potential danger” of being gay. Not only that, but he also saw how the black male culture in the South would react. This shaped the way in which he would later, gradually, come out to his parents.
In another fascinating chapter, he discusses at length his quest to find a barber, (having only been “out” for a certain period of time) and how challenging that was. This was difficult, but not simply for the reasons one might expect. Yes, Arceneaux gives us insight into the trials of black hairstyling, but it runs deeper. He describes the homophobic comments and narratives that surprisingly came up around him in the barbershops. He laments,“…deep down I knew much of their musings was intended to make people like me feel less than.” Imagine that- finding someone who cuts your hair and can make you feel confident in yourself is hard enough, but then to find a layer of homophobia on top of it? And, no less, in a space that is traditionally built for black men to air their grievances and discuss their lives. Once again I was shown the many layers that I, as a white woman, know nothing about.
Yes, there are absolutely profound differences between how white men (and people) are brought up versus how black men (and people) are brought up. These factors, these aspects, are a profound part of understanding American culture. And they matter. They matter quite a lot. Arceneaux writes:
“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. I understand that, but as a black man in this world who happens to be gay, my [these] past experiences will never allow me to share their sentiments. I can never allow myself to be completely comfortable in those spaces, because one, I’ve had way too many experiences with bad barbers, and two, I’ve never found those spaces to be welcoming to the sort of man that I am” (Arceneaux 127).
I also appreciated the brutal honesty the author shed on sex in his book, and furthermore, the wide array of intimate experiences one can have that shape us as individuals and make us human. I found this openness not brave, but simply blunt *and* relatable. He doesn’t shy away from the truth that a lack of sex education makes a person insecure at best and in danger at worst. He also doesn’t shy away from sex being a tangible, true, real human need, either. That’s something I’ve found rare, even among comedic memoirs.
Long story long, if you are looking to really understand the experiences of those around you who made not be similar, read this book. If you want tangible insight into what your LGBTQ friends and acquaintences might be facing each day when they walk out the door (which hopefully, you do, not merely during pride month, but every month) then read this book. If you want good laughs and powerful writing, read this book. If you want to be moved and touched on a very human level, and be exposed to empathy, sassiness, hilarious stories, and an intelligent, educated, worldly viewpoint, then read this book.
I Can’t Date Jesus is a thing to behold.