My Government Means to Kill Me Review of Rashid Newson’s Book

3rd Earl Singleton, who prefers to go to Trey, moves to New York City in 1985 for less than $2,500 to his name in Rashid Newson’s vibrant first novel, My Government Means To Kill Me. More precisely, Trey turned his back on his trust fund, in principle, so his money really consisted of what made him work summer jobs as well as “birthday money for life”. Seventeen, black, gay and excited about being in a city where the power of his family and tragic history can’t reach him – or so he thinks – Trey makes his first mistake by staying at the famous Chelsea Hotel, which by the mid-1980s was. It is no longer the star-studded hotspot it was in previous decades.

But there he meets Gregory, a New York native who has been making it on his own since his mother kicked him out at the age of 15 for charging men for his service in the church bathroom. Gregory becomes Trey’s first guide to the city’s opportunities, hustle and, of course, gay scene.

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At the heart of the Tree Experience is Mount Morris Baths, a Harlem bathhouse that caters to predominantly black gay men. Here Trey begins not to discover his sexuality – he was long described as “androgynous” in his childhood in Indianapolis – but rather to enjoy it. At home, he had no real friendships, was bullied by other boys, and couldn’t try dates, parking, or slow dancing in the gym for prom. But in Mount Morris, he’s at the heart of it: “Chasing into a dark corner of a pigeon maze and responding to the physical demands of an aggressive man you never spoke to might seem like a strange alternative to a teenage mating ritual,” Trey tells us, “I missed it, but there was raw drama. Every inch is as sexy as the love of a puppy in the schoolyard.”

As Trey becomes a regular, the pigeon functions as a home away from home, where the intimacy is definitely as good as the physical kind. At Mount Morris he meets the legend of the civil rights movement Bayard Rustin, who becomes a sort of revered tutor as well as a friend—although the courtiers (one of many to come later) deny that “there is no evidence that it was Bayard Rustin (1912– 1987) A customer at the Mt. Morris Baths or any other gay bath or sex club.” Regardless, in the novel Rustin is comfortable with his sexuality and spends several days sitting naked in his towel and teaches Trey queer history and culture through conversation recommendations and books.

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Rustin also opens Tree’s eyes to the AIDS crisis. Some readers will surely wonder how this is possible – weren’t you a gay man in New York City in the 1980s defined by the pandemic? Yes and no; As the majority of Americans can now attest, there is a kind of cognitive dissonance in having a serious illness break out while also being asked to continue living and working, with or without preventive treatment. It’s not that you see he didn’t know about it; He didn’t think much about it: “If the bald gay cashier who never asked me for gum had stopped coming to work at the corner store, I wouldn’t wonder why. If I didn’t cross paths with the cute dog aisle on my way to the Strand book store, I might I thought he changed his path. I was blind to the scale of death and the politics responsible for the loss of so many lives until Rustin taught me.”

Formal or informal education cannot continue yet, and Tre learns its most valuable lessons through trial and error. His enthusiasm, quick-thinking and somewhat youthful naivety led him to lead a successful rent strike in the building owned by Fred Trump. On Rustin’s advice, he decides to get involved in the gay rights movement, and soon volunteers with Angie, a lesbian who runs an informal shelter for men dying of AIDS (a common practice at a time when particularly poor gay men had nowhere else to go for attention). While living openly as a gay man is meaningful to Trey, his slow and steady entry into the activity is what gives him a sense of purpose.

“My Government Means to Kill Me” is written as if Trey was telling or writing his story after many years of experiences described inside, and the chapter titles take the form of lessons, such as “Lesson #1: The boss doesn’t like you” or “Lesson #10: To change the world, you have a selfish goal.” At one point Tree admits that among the books recommended by Rustin, he can absorb biographies but have a hard time dealing with political theory. The book in our hands appears to be the one he wrote for young people like him who may also need to learn even when they throw themselves into active work. It is unclear who provided the annotations so full of historical context; Although useful – primarily for an audience less familiar with black and gay history – they are not used as they might for full meta-text effect. But that’s a small flaw in an otherwise great read.

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The book is also a love letter to activism, which is not to say that it glorifies it – quite the contrary. Trey feels the dubious pleasure of having so many of his elders and mentors who disagree with each other, give him advice from eras past or challenge his moral sense. Newson, who is also a television writer and producer (“The Chi,” “Bel-Air”), beautifully depicts what social activism should be. Without people’s interaction—encouraging each other, caring for one another to avoid burnout, banding together for a cause, and, yes, arguing about means and ends—there would be no social movements at all.

To seasoned with the politics of the age, many of the notable figures Trey meets and the historical events he finds himself in may seem far-fetched, but there is a sense of Newson winking at those who know us, inviting us into that space of questioning what we might have done. Or we failed to do if we had lived in that time and there. For the majority of readers, the book offers a crash course in the history of a pivotal era through a vividly imagined living experience. Much like Trey’s teaching by Rustin “with such a light touch,” readers of “My Government Means To Kill Me” may not realize that they are “getting smarter about gay culture and politics.”

Ilana Massad is a critic and author of All My Mom’s Lovers.

My government means killing me

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