By Steven Underwood
FX’s Pose did the thing I knew it was capable of from the pilot episode, when I saw Black Queens being great while messy. It collected its things: two Golden Globe nominations, including a Best Actor nod for Billy Porter, an AFL Award, and two Critics’ Choice nominations. To receive this recognition, Pose does many things right; yet, my emotional resonance with it didn’t come until I watched sweet Blanca — a scion of merciful affection and stern temperament, portrayed by the incomparable MJ Rodriguez — pick up the lost children of New York City, and teach them how to love themselves.
Pose is a family drama set during the rise of drag ballroom culture, the fight for gay rights, and the height of the HIV/AIDs epidemic of the 1980s. The show depicts families outside of the typical themes of blood and breeding, instead built from the ground up by the often abandoned gay, bi, and trans souls in New York City. Despite the show reflecting an era 30 years into our recent past, Pose’s conversation on family, themes of love and loss and, most important, the instinctual paternalism that can be inspired for a young stranger clearly resonates with us today.
Despite being bisexual, Black, and belligerently aware of dangers around every corner — those who are jealous that I can manage to be fly in spite of animosity — I’ve found the voice of mentorship and guidance depicted in Pose to be the reason why I kept coming back to the show. My circumstances might not have been as large or compelling as Mother Blanca building a home for forsaken children like Damon (how sis afforded a huge three-bedroom like that in New York’s real estate is surreal) but I did it with my own chosen family, and I’ve never found the words to describe this compulsion to give paternal love despite my circumstances until I saw the same impulse in Blanca.
It was a love that is extremely hard to put into words if one doesn’t understand why it’s so important to give that love to someone who has done nothing to earn it other than enter your life. And, as a man of color, I can only speak from my own perspectives.
Many men of color aren’t instinctually fluent in their emotional languages. Blame society or biological urge to resist “weakness,” but it’s self-destructive in the most heartbreaking of ways. Black men, in particular, hunger for father figures to assuage this pain — often molding them from any toxic bit of clay in their short reach. It’s not until it’s too late that you realize that what you’ve been afflicted with is hereditary. The only way you can stop it is to reinforce this toxicity or to teach others the opposite of whatever you’ve been swallowing unquestionably — even if it choked you — from the moment you were old enough to sit in a barbershop alone.
At that moment, what you must learn to love in those chosen children, as Mother Blanca does, is born within you — and you don’t even know it yet. That yearning for a champion, not a cheerleader, not an applause in victory or a hand to hold and tote your trophies — that voice that spots you, loves you, and reminds you that all you gotta do is try, and they’ll love you for it.
“Do you know what the greatest pain a person can feel is?” asks Blanca Evangelista, in Pose’s pilot. “…It is having the truth inside of you and you not being able to share it. It’s having a great beauty and no one being able to see it… It’s like a cancer, it’s going to eat at him [Damon] until he starts to resent even the best parts of himself.”
In my youth, I was taught cold silence, isolation, and to hold secrets close to my chest. You don’t believe in another man, lest they betray you. It’s no wonder I became a writer: I grew so angry at being silenced for what amounted to me at the time, as nothing. But, as Blanca herself finds from the pain inflicted on her — by her born family’s rejection of her as a teenager for being a transwoman, from her chosen mother Elektra Abundance’s brutal emotional abuse, and her HIV diagnosis at the start of the series (then a largely misunderstood sickness often labeled as a death sentence) — taught me: My pain has a utility whether intended or not. It fortified me to save others.
In my twenties, when my twins, two of my chosen children, first enrolled at Centenary University in northern New Jersey, I could sense the gradual pressures most of us feel. High-needs students from places of significant poverty who are also coupled with the blessing of Blackness find specific burdens in higher education: the gradual, but eventual othering from the things that made you Other — particularly, your hood energy as your words and manners are remodeled by academia; the sudden loss of your safety-net, the parents and guardians you now work hard to honor, whose own foreignness to academia leaves you unprepared and isolated with some behaviors that really aren’t applicable in college; and the dehumanization of your culture, which has now been inaccurately oversimplified into a bullet point by some Ph.D. rather than reflected as a reality you’ve experienced. Most marginalized people who’ve taken a Criminal Justice course or seen a Sociology class message board can sympathize.
My inherited coldness told me to let them sink or swim, like I did. I had survived a vast drop-out of students of color and also the percentage who just did not return to higher education. If I had to do it, then they should, too. They weren’t my responsibility. However, every day, between my own duties as an upperclassmen, I could spy the burden building in them through subtle acts of rebellion to a system they could sense was against them.
Eventually, I made the effort to ask some students about these twins to get an impression of what I knew was happening, and I wasn’t surprised to find out they weren’t attending class. Worse, the vultures were already flying around them: the men unburdened by their racial, economic, or familial status at the school. The kind of men who didn’t care what poverty was and what it meant to bring it to college.
Faced with the possibility of not their failure, but their desperation, I didn’t wait for anyone’s permission to care about them anymore. I took their cell numbers, and expected a weekly update on their emotional wellbeing and growth — along with a plan to better their repulsive studying habits. I made sure to corner them in the cafeteria when I could, and ask about their friendships. And, far weirder for my introverted nature, I told other people about them, their interests, and why they should see something in these twins that I saw as clear as day.
A few months later, a non-black friend asked me what I, a broke 23-year-old, could teach someone. He was foreign to the stakes of the racialized poverty we’d survived — the fears of falling back into it that overwhelm us — and had the privilege of not seeing how experiencing such hardship could continue to follow you. It was a joke, of course, but his humor underlined what a Black child can lose in a world that won’t see their truth, as I did for my children. Say I had graduated before meeting them and such an interception were left to my friend. If he didn’t know the stakes, how far would my friend walk with them? This world won’t strut through a campus with you and tell a powerful woman about her business for the sake “some child” you randomly rescued, as Mother Blanca did for Damien. It’s a thing you have to know to do, because they, your children, won’t know to ask you.
Besides, what did Blanca have to offer Damon? What does any parent have to offer other than an experience and willingness to champion their child? And in the same way that Blanca fights for her chosen children to be seen, I find myself fighting tooth-and-nail for those I steward to see themselves. Because I love them enough to refuse to allow them to exist without their beauty as I once did.
“I’d be dead if it weren’t for you,” Damon tells Blanca early in the season, just after she pushes Damon past mere survival and into his potential within the New School’s Dance program. “Another day in the park, I would’ve went with anyone for some food — done anything!”
So, like Mother Blanca leaping out of the nest of House of Abundance in search of children to love, I love these flawed kids because they taught me that, in truth, my scars meant something and still do, as my chosen children go choose children of their own.