On the day I turned fourteen my dad told me I was old enough to go to the barbershop on my own, even though every ounce of me wanted to remain hidden behind his broad shoulders and tuck my…
I came across Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider last summer when I went to one of my favorite bookstores near my hometown. I sat on the floor and browsed through the pages until I stopped at “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” While reading the essay there on the floor, I kept coming back to the quote: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” I didn’t know yet how much of a positive impact that quote would have on my writing, how it would be the connective tissue for the body of this narrative, a piece I had already considered finished.
Once I revisited “The Barbershop,” I noticed how the narrator was suffering from the master’s tools, that the simple act of performing straightness for the fear of being othered is the tool many queer kids feel obligated to grab on to. Because homophobia isn’t always what is said but what is left unsaid. What is classified as the standard. The dominant. To write this story was to tap into my own reluctance about going to the barbershop alone when I was younger, to look at all the Black men in the shop and question if my sexual identity was welcomed, if I could ever be as boisterous and opinionated as they were. I wanted to write this piece as a call-to-action, a plea for us to put the master’s tools down and create our own tools that make sexuality and gender inclusion the standard.
This story wasn’t originally a standalone. It comes from a larger piece, a novella that explores the drift between two siblings who are influenced by their hostile upbringing caused by their parents’ constant arguments, and how they build a pathway toward healing. I viewed the one-sentence structure as a way to communicate the repeated isolation the narrator feels, but as I read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street for the fifth time, I was able to articulate why that novel resonates with me as a writer, how each vignette is its own story that adds to the collective story.
It was then that I began to look at this piece as a pocket of a story, one that also deserves to breathe on its own.
J. Isaiah Holbrook holds a BA in English from Saint Francis University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Oregon State University. He’s been published in The Rumpus, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Harvard Review, Stellium Magazine, and The Voyage Journal, where he received third place in their short story writing contest. He is currently the flash fiction editor for Decolonial Passage Literary Magazine and an editorial intern at Beacon Press. Isaiah has also received acceptance into Lambda Literary’s Writer’s Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices and will attend this summer.