A Queer Black Anarchist’s Journey to Find Liberation in America and Abroad
In his memoir "When They Tell You to Be Good," Prince Shakur unravels his father's murder while reckoning with the legacy of toxic masculinity
Prince Shakur’s debut memoir When They Tell You to Be Good starts with an argument between him and his mother which recalls the image of his father’s murder, a man he never got to know. In unflinchingly honest detail Shakur traces his own journey of self actualization as a queer, Black Jamaican man growing up in an environment entrenched in homophobia and the wound caused by the untimely loss of his father.
Shakur, a writer, activist, and organizer attempts to trace his own coming-of-age as a gay Black man in the United States and abroad. Through well-rendered accounts Shakur unpacks the effects of the homophobic reactions to his coming out from family, the sense of alienation and libration he’s felt while traveling abroad, the gritty details of his father’s murder, and coming into his own as an activist through work he’s done in Standing Rock, Fergusson, Ohio, and more. Shakur’s memoir extends beyond his own personal histories to document his family’s, Black theorists and revolutionaries, and even imagined encounters with a father he will never know, creating a deeply layered creative nonfiction work.
I spoke with Prince Shakur over Zoom about When They Tell You to Be Good. We discussed the importance of memoir, how the effects of his father’s murder spread to other aspects of his life, the role of writers in bearing witness, and more.
Phillip Russell: Your memoir is one that stretches, for the most part, the entirety of your life up until this point. Maybe a place for us to start would be asking—in relation to this book taking the form of a memoir—why now, when you’re still so young? And how did this form help you say what you needed to say in ways that maybe a collection of essays wouldn’t?
Prince Shakur: When I started getting the idea for the book, it was 2016. And in the span of that year, I had left Seattle, I went to France, I met my ex, I went to my first riot, I went to Montana for a second summer to work. I came back to Ohio, I got a job in Athens, I quit my job, I went to Standing Rock, I got arrested for weed, then I went to the Philippines. I look at that year as very transformative. There were a lot of different moments of reckoning and being confused and kind of running towards the next thing. It kind of gave me an increased sense of mortality. And it made me think about my father, and it made me think about what would happen if I were to be gone.
And so it started to feel really important to figure out a way to talk about this thing that had mattered to me so much and suddenly felt like it was hanging over my head even more. I knew moving forward that while I was still in my early 20s, I didn’t want certain things hanging over me my whole life, I’d rather confront them.
For me, I think a memoir as a form allows you to dictate themes on a different level. I think it gave me a deeper respect for what I could see as a kind of totality of my life thus far. And gave me a chance to queer some of the forms in it in a way that is interesting and necessary for people of different identities with different kinds of trauma or different notions of memory.
PR: That’s really interesting, and it makes sense—that’s so much to experience in a year or two. A big part this book is the absence of your father who was murdered when you were still an infant. You do a tremendous job showing how that loss has affected so many other aspects of your life, from your connection to your Jamaican roots, to your sexuality, to how you’ve come to formulate your own sense of masculinity.There’s so many layers in thinking about how that wound has rippled out into other aspects of your life. I’m curious if maybe you can just talk about that experience of working through these things in this book?
PS: I knew my grappling with that loss would dictate the form of the book. In a certain way, I wanted this to be a dual memoir. I wanted to write about my life, and then also have large sections be about my Father’s life. And when I learned about my Uncle Cedric (my father’s brother), I thought maybe this was even a triple memoir. I didn’t really pursue that idea very boldly because for me, I knew I just had to write towards the things that mattered on the theme level: How do you miss something that you never really had? How do you contend with coming from these violences, while also trying to live a more liberated life? And how do you love someone that might not love you in the way that you need if they were alive?
And so I think all of those things are really difficult questions. And it’s kind of internal and external. And so, for me, I knew for the younger sections, I definitely had to think about what parts of me existed then, and how those parts of me kind of fed into my ideas about grief and mortality, I knew I had to unpack with my relationship with my mother, how she has colored my idea of gender and my ideas about violence, my ideas, and my guilt around masculinity, and how that shows up in my life as a queer person.
I wanted to pay attention to the parts of my life where it was most intense. So when I’m in Yellowstone, and I get caught underage drinking and I’m upset that my white friends laugh it off. For me it was this deeply embarrassing thing about carcerality and being Black or when I’m in Standing Rock, and I get arrested for weed. Honoring that grief is also honoring when I felt it most sharply, and trying to bring that into focus, and respecting it and also finding the unexpected ways that it showed up, and how the grief also pushed me towards really difficult and powerful things. I think there’s another side to it is that queerness can be challenging, but also liberating.
PR: Another thought that stuck with me through my reading of the book was how often writers in any family ultimately must take up the role of bearing witness. For Black writers especially, there is an added pressure of not only documenting histories that can easily be disappeared, redacted, and erased, but also uncovering histories that have been lost and doing the imaginative work that writers like Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe talk about in their writing of seeing beyond the borders of the archive. This book, in some parts, is so much about that work. Could you talk about that experience?
PS: I believe only including my history would be self indulgent and would be ignoring all of these influences that have impacted my life because if I’m writing a book about how the loss of my father has shaped me, and how I fought to come into myself, then writing about my father’s loss is also writing about how my family has contended with it.
And then writing about how I’ve come into myself is also about these social forces and these forces of gender that have impacted me and how I live and what I fear and how I fear mortality. So to me, the journey of self isn’t just about me, it’s about what people compel you to believe and how you come out of those beliefs. And so writing about my mother felt necessary, in a lot of ways, because I wanted to be measured in some of the trauma that I experienced in my relationship with her. But I also wanted to honor the resilience of what a lot of Black women, Jamaican women go through, and how through all of that loss, they tend to be the people left with the children.
And that’s why I kind of want to also get to the other side, which is writing about masculinity. Through writing this book, I really wanted to look at the way that combining those two histories, how that would affect a narrative. And how would it affect the narrative if the product of that is like a queer, Black versus Black boy.
It felt important to me to be honest about my father and my uncles lives where they maybe sold drugs and went to prison because I feel like there is stigma around talking about that when men are lost in violent ways.
I reached a place where I had to just ask myself, what is the central question that I’m asking of this side of my family’s masculinity. And that question is, if this could happen to them, could it happen to me? I think being true to that allowed me to sidestep some of the easy ways that men romanticize each other because of the patriarchy, and instead go into this other place where I’m contending with the language around masculinity, and beginning to develop my own language around it.
PR: Another key anxiety of yours in this book revolves around the fear of repeating cycles like toxic masculinity, or having to come out to people again and again in your life, or even trying to open yourself up to your mother and other family members. And it makes sense, so much of our society forces queer folks to continually put themselves in vulnerable situations over and over again. Continually pushing yourself to do that work, in my eyes, is a revolutionary act. By the end, however, it feels like you may have finally broken some of these cycles.
PS: Thank you for articulating that in that way, I look at the book and I see the ways that I acted out of desperation, but also out of extremely curious necessity to kind of see what could happen or how far things could go, and to understand my triggers. Sometimes when things went too far, that’s when my trigger is kind of activated, or I go into defense mode or I know I have to flee; and I think it’s a very necessary skill for marginalized people, for queer people.
That’s where the most interesting bits of life are, those anarchic parts of life. I think it’s important to confront that on a personal and political level and define a little bit of humor in it. It’s all about developing a language around Black, queer, and Jamaican experiences so that hopefully my work can help disrupt some of these oppressive systems.The fear of repetition can almost immobilize us to the point that we don’t even try and I think trying and learning is really the only tactic that we have to liberate ourselves on a personal and political level.
PR: Near the end of the book we actually see you imagining an encounter happening with your father, it’s such a striking element to the work, like bringing life to this ghost who is haunting the rest of the book. Why was this important for you to include?
PS: Thank you for that question, you’re the first person that really asked me about it and it’s maybe my favorite part of the book. It’s definitely the part where I felt I’d crossed a threshold as a writer.
I knew I needed to write it for myself. A part that I’m contending with inside and outside of the work is do I embody or believe the parts of my father other people have told me or do I embody and believe in a version of him that is more real and honest to me? And what that question means for someone who has never known their father.
Because of some of my father’s mistakes and the ways that he was violent, I felt on an almost righteous level that it made sense that people didn’t want to talk about him. But I also felt robbed of something that felt really beautiful and necessary.
On a deeper level—of immigration and that a lot of these men in my family were undocumented—there’s also the added political element of being Black, of being Jamaican American, and understanding that so many parts of our record on a historical level aren’t there because we’ve had to be subversive to survive.
So, I think contending with those things left some gaps in a more traditional family history and those gaps created these bigger wounds. I wanted to write this imagined scene and contend with that and to give myself a gift really, because what I wrote, that is something that no one ever can really tell me. And I really believe I had to find it in myself.
I really wanted it on the page to feel like a liberation, but not one based in illusions or idealism. because it felt like I was breaking the fourth wall and thinking about intimacy and men and how men relate to each other which was very important to me.
PR: A moment that sticks with me comes in the form of this quote where you’re talking about your father’s murder, you say:
“At the center of my gravity is this moment. It is the earliest part of my life that involved death without any kind of heroism. It was the first wound that ripped me open and never quite healed. My father’s murder, like some seed at a young age convinced me of the James Baldwin quote, ‘not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
In your memoir you literally, figuratively, and emotionally face the murder of your father and the circumstances that surrounded it through talking with your mother and other family members, visiting Jamaica and talking to people who knew him, and more. This book, in many ways, is a testament to that work. Now that you’ve faced it, I wonder how you feel that you’ve changed?
PS: I wanted to write about what it is like to wonder about something your whole life, and then to get to a moment where you realize, this is the moment where I contend with this or I’m going to be afraid of it for the rest of my life. And as a Black person, as a queer person, I’ve had to confront that on both of those levels. But almost on a primordial level my father’s murder was one of the first curiosities in my life, it compelled me to care about mystery and to devote myself to reading and writing. Confronting that on an interpersonal level gave me a lot of courage and confidence in myself and the willingness to move past fear which is so important in life. So I’m really proud of what that represents and what that means.
PR: By the end of the memoir it feels to me that through all of these experiences you describe and your own searching that you’ve moved beyond trying to embody the writers you aspired to like James Baldwin and have found your own form of self actualization as a queer Black man. For other queer Black men out there, can you speak to what working on this book has opened up for you personally?
PS: I didn’t want to make a book that presented me as a totally realized or powerful being. I felt like it was important for me to look at my moments of weakness in order to portray my moments of strength accurately. I think my advice for other people from different or similar identities and backgrounds trying to contend with these things, I would say to not be afraid of your power in situations where you feel powerless, and if you do, that’s why it’s important to have people that love and remind you of your power and who you are.
I feel that I write to that in different parts of the book. Honor your community and the ways that they lift you up when you need it. Don’t be afraid to say the things that are really hard, that maybe are steeped in stigma and feel shameful. Those parts of you that are probably the most real and can actually illuminate things for you in a way that you couldn’t reach otherwise. Really honor that power.