TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Michael Arceneaux has written a new book whose title will give you an idea of his sense of humor. It's called "I Can't Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, And Other Reasons I've Put My Faith In Beyonce." It's a collection of personal essays about his early years growing up in Houston black, Catholic and gay. Arceneaux abandoned the Catholic Church about 16 years ago, in what he describes as an act of self-preservation after deciding he was no longer willing to be part of an institution that condemned him for who he was. Over time, he says he's tried to unlearn every damaging thing he's seen and heard about his identity. He writes for The Root and Essence and has an advice column on Into, which describes itself as a digital magazine for the modern queer world.
Michael Arceneaux, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you were raised Catholic, and you say the traditions associated with the black church were different from the church traditions you grew up with. What were some of the differences?
MICHAEL ARCENEAUX: One thing I will say about the Catholic Church that I actually enjoyed was kind of the pageantry of it. It's a beautiful service. But, you know, it can be boring when most of your friends - well, I'm black. I'm around black people. They go to Baptist churches. They have gospel choir. They have the singing, and they have the praise dancing. They have all this celebration, which I wasn't really familiar with. It's just different dynamics because the Catholic Church, to me, is far more formal than any other kind of Christian sect there is. And, yeah, it was boring (laughter).
GROSS: Do you feel like you were left out of what is often considered to be a key part of the black experience in America?
ARCENEAUX: I actually don't. I understand why a lot of people who kind of maybe miss certain parts maybe have that - they feel like they don't get all the blackness. But I've never struggled with being black. I come from a very black family - a very southern black family. I just think that strain that my family is from - like French Creole, like the Louisiana-type stuff. Like, a lot of them were traditionally raised Catholic. I think that was the only difference that I really had from most people. But, you know, my dad is very black. My mom is very black. I grew up working class, to say the least. My high schools were predominantly black - very sometimes school-to-prison-pipeline-type black. So I didn't feel foreign to blackness. I just think that was just one aspect that I couldn't really relate to. And it was fine. That actually didn't bother me as much. I think some people - the only thing, I've had to sometimes convince people that I don't worship the Virgin Mary or something - like some stereotype associated with Catholic. But other than that, it was fine. I've never questioned my blackness.
GROSS: So you write that, you know, you struggle with what it is that you do believe in, but you know you're not an atheist. Why - if you've given up basically on your religion, what's the difference between that and being an atheist?
ARCENEAUX: If I ever reached what I think my lowest point with religion - at least struggling with organized religion, it was probably maybe an embracement of being agnostic. But I do believe there is something. And I personally call it God. And one thing I wanted to do with the book was kind of allow sometimes grayness and to not have a definitive answer because frankly I still don't know. You know, I write about the first time I had been to church in all those years - well over a decade. And I like the idea of Christianity. But I don't frankly believe in it. So that's actually a very good question, Terry Gross. I'm trying to - I'm clearly still wrestling with it.
But I wouldn't call myself an atheist because I do believe in something. I still actively pray. I believe in a god. And I just don't think I believe in maybe necessarily the Christian God I was raised to believe in. But I do like the idea of Christians who actually practice the teachings of Christ. I think Jesus is like a swell guy. I would love to be friends with him. But the rest, I'm a little bit distant from. But, yes, you're going to have - I don't want to call myself an atheist though. I think my mom would hit me with a Bible. But, yeah, I believe in something. I'm still wrestling with that, Terry Gross.
GROSS: So when you realized you were gay, which was like really early on even though you didn't have the language for it, did you know early on like, OK, that means you'd be considered an outcast in the Catholic Church? Like, how old were you when you realized that your sexual orientation would not be accepted in your church?
ARCENEAUX: Oh, I picked it up very early from my mom. Again, I love my mom so much. But she - I remember the Catholic Leaven - I believe those newsletters that would come to our house. So I would see the language about gay people then. Or they were more blunt. I think it was just like homosexual. It was very communicated very early - like, being gay is wrong. I knew very quickly. When I write about the issue with my uncle dying of AIDS - but on the religious front, it was just very clear through the literature my mom had around the house, the things that she watched or even just casual comments made by the people around me - it was very clear that all around, be it my community, non-religious community, religious community, people felt that way about you being gay, particularly at that time.
GROSS: Your first exposure to what it meant to be a gay man was when your uncle died of AIDS. You were still very young. And your father told you he died of AIDS because he was gay. Your mother told you he died of AIDS because he shot heroin. Who did you believe?
ARCENEAUX: So my dad didn't necessarily directly tell me. He just yelled a slur. And it's interesting. Thankfully, while I was writing, I had a very honest conversation with my sister. I later learned that that was particularly just my dad's way of communicating his hurt and that my dad actually probably didn't have as big an issue maybe as I thought. But at the time, all I heard was the word faggot. That's all I heard repeatedly so - and a lot of gay bashing. So in the heat of the moment, his anger, however he chose to handle it - I believed him. I just believed him because he was so angry.
And one thing that I will say about my parents, particularly my father, is I found so much about them largely through their fights. When my dad is his angriest and when he would drink, that is when the truth would come out about a lot of things - and not to say that my mom is a liar. She's usually very direct and blunt. But she was always more protective. So like, it wasn't that difficult a decision to figure out who's telling the truth. I'm like, when he's mad, he's going off. That's what he does. And so I believed him. And that's when my paranoia about AIDS started and being gay.
GROSS: Yeah. Oh, one more thing about your mother - when she told you that your uncle actually died because he shot heroin, do you think she already knew that you were gay and wanted to protect you from the fear of AIDS? Or do you think that she thought like being gay was worse than shooting heroin, and she wanted to protect you from the fact that your uncle was gay?
ARCENEAUX: Well, it's interesting about my mom. I don't think she did the false equivalence. But I do think her belief in her religion steers so much of her thought process on things like this. So I think she let that drive her. As far as my mom knowing, in hindsight - actually, not in hindsight - I knew as a child. My mom clocked me. I remember one time we were driving home from school. And out of nowhere, my mom just, in her gray Impala, was like, yeah, Michael, I know some people probably make fun of the way you walk and talk. And I'm in the back of a car like, girl, no, they don't. I mean, maybe a few people, but it's not like a thing - not like you seem to think.
But, you know, as I got older, I'm like, oh, she probably saw very early - like, oh, here we go. I got a gay child. Like, she's been around a lot of gay people in spite of all this. Like, I'm sure she clocked me very early. But we didn't - we never talked about it. It wasn't until I brought it to her attention that she addressed it directly. But there were little hints along the way that I think she put - she picked up what I was putting down.
GROSS: But the thing is she picked up really early that you were probably gay. But when you actually came out to her - and you did this after writing, you know, an article that you were pretty sure she would see - she didn't accept it. So how do you kind of reconcile that she knew and was able to articulate it - although she withheld it from you, she knew really early on that you were gay, that that was just your nature. At the same time, she couldn't accept it.
ARCENEAUX: That initial revelation and her reaction was very painful to me. As to why she didn't bring it up sooner, I think - my mom comes from - it's a very kind of very older black, particularly Southern kind of way where you don't really dive into the personal like that. You keep your business to yourself. You particularly keep your business if you think it's something like being gay, which she thinks is an affliction of God or whatever. So I don't think she wanted to tackle it directly because it wasn't something that she wanted to address. And I don't think it's something that she wanted to address particularly because, if I run my mouth about it, then that might be a reflection of her. And maybe that makes her feel a way. I do know she loves me. I do know she doesn't approve. And to be honest, I'm not sure how this book will go over.
GROSS: I've been wondering that too.
ARCENEAUX: Yeah, so...
GROSS: How your parents will deal with your book.
ARCENEAUX: My dad is not going to read it. I know that he's not going to read it. He might hear something. And at best, he'll go through my sister to maybe communicate a concern. For me and my dad now, we've kind of reached a peace accord as much as humanly possible. I've learned to forgive him for things. I reach out to him when I can. On that front, I've done the best that I can do. My mother is a bit trickier. I actually didn't tell her the title of the book until I turned in the first draft. And she didn't react that well. I just need to like - it's not - I'm not making fun of Jesus. And she's like OK. And she said, well, you know how I feel. And I just - I couldn't do it.
And then there was something earlier in the year where I was really excited about something like that's related to the book - like another dream that I have, a part of this. And her response was, well, if that's how you want to live your life. And after that, I just decided that I'm not talking to her about this anymore. And it's not like I'm afraid of her. I'm just - I've been wanting to have a conversation with her for years. I've wanted to have, like, a theological conversation. I've wanted to like maybe have people come in and maybe talk to us. Like, I've really tried to make some real efforts in trying to find some kind of resolution. But I don't think one is available. And I think with her I'm worried how she will react, but I knew I needed to write this. And I knew I needed to do this because one thing I wanted to do was kind of like break the cycle of silence that both my parents have perpetuated. And it's not something I wanted to continue because it brought us all so much pain. So why would I continue to be silent? Why would I allow you to let me feel like something is wrong with me?
GROSS: So you mentioned your mother really hates the title of your book. The title of your book is "I Can't Date Jesus." Why did you give it that title? What does that title mean to you?
ARCENEAUX: The title's about her (laughter). So that's the thing. Like, despite my own kind of misgivings or concerns, like, doubts about religion, I really do respect the role that faith plays in people. I think that's one reason why so many Christians still like me. I really - like, for my mom, my mom is the strongest person I know. Her faith is what has kept her alive. And I respect that, and I admire that. But what she doesn't seem to understand is that the faith that she was raising may keep her alive, but it makes me want to die or, at the very least, not lead a full life. And what point is living if you can't lead a complete, full life? And so the chapter is named after an exchange that we had. So I had already told her previously that I was gay. And then we left it alone, and then it came up again. And we had this conversation where she says, I know that you're born gay. I know that you can't help it. But if you have sex and get hit by a bus, I don't know where you're going to go.
My mom can be morbid. Bless her heart. And my mom - when I was going on, I was like, well, girl, I can't date Jesus. And so that is when the title happened. Like, I think the thing about religion sometimes that does bother me is that I find my mom to be such a smart person, such a very thoughtful person. Like, I wouldn't be as analytical as I tend to be, and critical, if not for her. But I think in order for her and for her faith to keep her going, she has to kind of suppress, maybe, her better urges. I mean, like, it's like you know that I'm gay. You know that I can't help it. But you don't want me to act on my natural urges on the basis of a maybe - that if - I don't know - a bus hits me or some - I don't know. A bike might take me out in New York...
ARCENEAUX: ...That I might die and maybe go to hell, which is just - I mean, I'm sure that makes all the sense in the world to her and quite a few people. But it just sounds so ridiculous to me. So I'm like, so I should just let all of that area down there just turn into, like, I don't know the cold, whatever, and not have a full life? Like, why would I do that? What sense does that make to me? And so, yeah, I can't date Jesus. I would love to kick it with him maybe at a bar. But other than that, we're good.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Arceneaux, and he's a writer and advice columnist. And now he has a new memoir, called, "I Can't Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, And Other Reasons I've Put My Faith In Beyonce." We're going to take a short break, and we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIO ADNET'S "EXCERTO NO. 1")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Arceneaux. He's a writer who contributes to The Root and Essence. He's an advice columnist for the site Into. And he has a new memoir called "I Can't Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, And Other Reasons I've Put My Faith In Beyonce."
Beyonce means a lot to you...
ARCENEAUX: Yes, she does.
GROSS: ...And, you know, kind of always has since the Destiny's Child era. So you know, at the risk of stating the obvious, what does she mean to you? And what did she mean to you when you were young and trying to figure out who you were and to understand your own sexuality?
ARCENEAUX: Oh, Terry, I'm about to testify. Beyonce is, as I write in the book, my lord and gyrator - the end, the beginning, the body roll. She's everything to me. Initially, what I just loved about Beyonce was that in Destiny's Child - but specifically Beyonce. Like for me, it was like love at first south side. And that's the dance that they were doing at the beginning at the "No, No, No" video. They were from Houston, Texas. And they looked like people that I knew. I had just missed Beyonce. We went to the same middle school. But she was like one grade out. And then they got that label deal. So you know, that was my chance to be her bestie, and it didn't happen.
But one thing I initially just loved about them is that they were from Houston. So we didn't have groups like that blow up from Houston, Texas. And then now - I got to make sure I don't sound like Yolanda Saldivar. But there's just always been something about Beyonce that I've been drawn to. I love the way she talks. And also I love the fact that, you know, she and her family is from Louisiana, moved to Houston. So we have that shared thing. Just the way she sounds makes me happy. But specifically with my sexuality and me being at most comfortable myself, there was this album - the "B'Day" album.
And one thing about Beyonce now is that, in recent years, everyone talks about how pro-black she is and what that means. And I think that's more so because it was, I guess, outwardly intellectual. But what pro-black often means to me too is that this is a Southern black girl who was very country - like country as hell. And she owns every bit of that. She is very much from Houston, Texas. Like even if you don't necessarily get the references, as someone from Houston, I do. So to me, she's always been subversively sneaking a lot of subcultures into the mainstream. Like for "B'Day," for example, those are queer black men who are choreographing the stuff. There's like slang in there. Like, there's a New Orleans bounce record that she made into an R&B song.
One thing that I've always wanted to do - and even actually in the journey in trying to get this book sold, that there was this idea that because I was both black and gay that I was niche, that I was very limited, that I didn't have as much appeal as someone else and that I often would have to dilute myself to be able to reach the masses. When the biggest pop star in the world is a country black girl named Beyonce from Houston, Texas, who outside of maybe the first half of the "I Am... Sasha Fierce" album where she did that kind of, like, Sarah McLaughlin thing, which is fine, just not my - you know, I want to bop to Beyonce usually - but she's pulled the masses to her being exactly who she is this entire time. And for me, that has just been so inspirational.
And, again, with the "B'Day" album - you know, this is around the time that I came out, and I was starting to go to clubs. I felt a little out of place 'cause people were clearly more advanced than me, more comfortable with their bodies. But that album was a very big hit in the gay black clubs. And I remember actually going to the bar, and I was like, just have another drink, and chill out, and have fun. Stop worrying so much about how you dance, how you look, how you talk, your mannerisms. Just enjoy the moment. And through that album and just dancing to it, particularly, like, the bonus tracks that they kept playing at the gay club specifically, I just felt freer.
And so for so many reasons, but I feel, like, connection to her. Like, she makes me feel really good about myself. And I know that might sound whatever to certain people, but, you know, there's always someone in your life that is influencing you. And even if I don't know her, she's been very impactful in my life. She let me know that I could be myself, and she let me know that being myself could reach as many people as possible, that you don't have to dilute, again, who you are to reach everyone, that you can just be yourself and be very good at what you do, and then the people will come to you. And that's a lesson I'm going to carry with me for the rest of my life.
GROSS: Well, I think you've not only testified to the importance of Beyonce in your life but also to the importance of popular culture in the lives of a lot of us in helping us understand ourselves and the world we live in. So thanks for that.
ARCENEAUX: Thank you.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Arceneaux, author of the new memoir "I Can't Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, And Other Reasons I've Put My Faith In Beyonce." After a break, we'll talk about how coming of age during the AIDS epidemic left him afraid of sex and why it took him a long time to get over that fear. And we'll listen back to an interview with Adrian Cronauer, who Robin Williams portrayed in the film "Good Morning, Vietnam." Cronauer died last week. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEYONCE SONG, "GET ME BODIED")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Michael Arceneaux, author of the new book "I Can't Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, And Other Reasons I've Put My Faith In Beyonce." It's a collection of personal essays about his early years growing up in Houston black, Catholic, and gay. He left the church about 16 years ago, unwilling to remain in an institution that didn't accept him for who he was. He writes for The Root and Essence and has an advice column on the site INTO, which describes itself as a digital magazine for the modern queer world.
So we've talked about how when you were young, realizing you were gay, not having people you could really talk to about it, you turned to popular culture for, you know, images of gay men and for a better understanding of that and for - just for things you could really just connect to on some deep level. You came of age during the era of HIV. Your uncle, the first person who you knew of who was gay, died of AIDS, so you just grew up naturally scared of what consequences sex could have for you. You had an article a few years ago, from, like, 2014, that you've incorporated into your book that was headlined then, "At 30, I'm Finally Tackling My Intense Fear Of Sex." Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to grow up with the specter of AIDS as you were coming of age sexually and wanting to connect with people?
ARCENEAUX: I just immediately saw sex as something that could kill you. And the inconvenient truth is if - as a queer black male, there's still very much an HIV/AIDS crisis for people who look like me. So it's something I've had to really wrestle with. I think - I just think there came a point that I couldn't deny myself pleasure anymore. And there were always methods of safe sex. I think I just kind of develop some early trauma and never really tackled it. And it controlled my life far longer than it should have because the reality is it hasn't changed as a queer black man. Like, there's still a problem, but now I'm just safer and less afraid, or at least I really, really try, Terry.
GROSS: So did you have anybody to tell you about safe sex when you were coming of age sexually?
ARCENEAUX: My mom at 12, as I was casually walking into the kitchen to grab something to eat and I think - was it - it wasn't "Donahue" - "Oprah" - one of those - she's just like, yeah, you know, she was explaining how to put on a condom on a banana. And I was like, girl, I'm 12, and I just started getting breasts and I'm chubby. Who am I having sex with?
ARCENEAUX: But yes, she definitely let me know how to have sex. I just - I think we just both knew it wasn't with the person she wanted me to have sex with eventually.
GROSS: Was she telling you about condoms for safety or for birth control?
ARCENEAUX: My mom isn't...
GROSS: Well, she's Catholic. Maybe that was not for birth control.
ARCENEAUX: Well, my mom is also an RN who takes care of new mothers, so she sees plenty of moms of all ages, so that's always on her mind - no grandbabies around her house, at least not from a teenage boy.
GROSS: So what do you think her motives were in showing you the condom?
ARCENEAUX: I think she just wanted me to be safe. My mom told me about sex when I was, like, 3. I remember - she had to remind me of that because I was like - because I just always knew. I was like, oh, I knew where babies came from and I was like, why do I know this? And she was like, oh, because I told you at 3. Then I reminded you again at some other age, and I was like, OK, girl, yes (laughter).
GROSS: So coming of age and being scared to engage in sex initially because of your fear - your understandable fear - of AIDS, did that also prevent you from being intimate with people you wanted to be intimate with emotionally?
ARCENEAUX: Yes. So one thing I've really realized, like, particularly around the age of 30, 31, is that I kept attracting unattainable people because I myself was unattainable. I was saying that I wanted to be with someone - I was verbalizing it, but I wasn't doing the work, and I wasn't truly allowing people in to allow myself that level of intimacy, which actually, if I had attained it sooner, would have helped me kind of get over my fears about physical intimacy. But I have had to take responsibility for what I was not doing or not allowing and how that impacted my lack of relationships.
GROSS: So when you did start having intimate relationships with other gay men, you write that you lost your virginity after drinking a lot.
GROSS: And you lost it in a way that you felt you were, you know, manipulated or forced into. I'm not sure which word to use. And I think it's fair to say you felt a little violated. Correct me if I'm wrong.
ARCENEAUX: I definitely felt violated. I think that's an accurate description. I've actually seen the guy in New York, and I'm pleasant, but I will say about two years ago, there was a moment where he touched me and I, like, immediately balled my fists up. And I had, like, a flashback to, like, what it - like I - like the immediate feeling I felt, like, kind of, like, later, like, wait, this wasn't how it was supposed to be. I didn't enjoy it for many reasons, but for the - because I felt in hindsight a bit coerced, and I wasn't really of the right mind. And that just wasn't how I wanted to lose my virginity.
GROSS: But, you know, it's just so sad, you know, that you were so afraid of sex, and then you lose your virginity after - you know, OK, you did some drinking, but this man was not sensitive to what you wanted. And so this was your first time, and you felt violated and you felt like it wasn't safe either.
ARCENEAUX: Yeah. It was very anticlimactic, to say the least. And it actually kind of delayed my journey into kind of fully embracing pleasure and sex and - for at least a couple more years. It kind of mangled what was already there. It's unfortunate that it happened, but it did happen, and I've learned what I could from it.
GROSS: In June of 2015, you wrote an essay that was titled "I'm A Black Gay Man Learning To Be Okay With Dating People Who Don't Look Like Me." And you write about that as well in your new memoir, "I Can't Date Jesus." Can you elaborate on what you mean when you say dating people who don't look like me?
ARCENEAUX: I'm very adamant about improving the image of queer black men and probably to a fault in that - well, for the most part, I was only social - I was really around black people, so that's all I saw. That's all that I was around, so that's all that typically attracted. And then when I moved to New York five years ago, something different happened where I wasn't really - because I'll usually have to approach people. Everyone says I have resting bitch face, so I usually do the approaching. And the only people that really were receptive to me were not black men, not necessarily white men because white men typically don't go for me either. Maybe, like, European white men you might hit on me, but for the most part, literally, my demo has been mostly, like, just black guys. And then Latinx men were kind of more responsive; Asian men were.
And so I was thinking in my mind, like, let's say, you know, God willing, Beyonce willing, I make it, make it big and I finally get me a boo thang and he not black and then people are going to, like, oh, here we go. Another black man that ain't got - ain't with a black man. So I'm kind of put that pressure on myself. And, you know, there was this part of me that kind of just wanted to date someone that - I find every type of man attractive, so I just like attractive men. But in terms of, you know - sometimes I thought, you know, especially in this period that we're living in, you want someone that understands your experiences and that you don't have to overly explain yourself because particularly a lot of my work is having to explain my perspective and sometimes having to defend it. So I didn't want to have to have, like, in my personal life deal with that.
But at the same time, you know, what I want is a connection. And whatever, you know, package the bae comes in, I'm fine with it. But it did take me a second to be like, it'll be OK if you don't date a black guy all the time. Like, allow yourself to just be open, you know? Don't worry about what people think. And that was actually one thing I picked up from my mom, caring too much about what people think in that respect. So yeah, I'm over it now. If you fine and you single, you won't give me no problems, I am very single, so what's up?
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Michael Arceneaux. He has a new memoir called "I Can't Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, And Other Reasons I've Put My Faith In Beyonce." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "EGYPTIAN FANTASY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Michael Arceneaux. His new memoir is called "I Can't Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, And Other Reasons I've Put My Faith In Beyonce."
You know, you write in your book that when you were young, you were - what? - overweight, a little chubby. I'm not sure what word to use.
ARCENEAUX: Yes. No, I was fat. Yeah, I was fat. It's fine.
GROSS: OK. You're not now. I've seen you on TV recently.
ARCENEAUX: No. I try to work out. I have to always do pushups because the sins of my chubbiness - still there. Like, I used to literally look like I used to need a bra. But keep going. I'm sorry.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
ARCENEAUX: My body dysmorphia took over. Sorry.
GROSS: How - so how did body image affect you when you were, you know, first starting to be with other men - or wanting to but reluctant to?
ARCENEAUX: Oh, I did not want to take my shirt off, which is, like, not how you're supposed to do it. A lot of gay men are really fit and not - and I know not all gay men, but a lot of us are not kind to each other, particularly in terms of our body. And so I joke, like, when my friends compliment me, I'm like, yeah, but I'm still gay fat. And by that I mean, like, if I'm not perfect, then I'm fat, which isn't the healthiest thing to say, and I need to not even joke that way.
But realistically, you know, a lot of gay men are very fit. And again, we're not always that great to each other, so you can be insecure and triggered that your body is, like, not what you want it to be like. I'd still talk about, I might need some CoolSculpting on Groupon to, like, get rid of, like, these little slight love handles. Like, I can't have this. I don't want nobody tugging on this and being like, oh, I can't date you now because this is there. So that's another thing I'm, like, really trying to let go of. I've conquered most of the, like, other stuff in the book, but the body thing - I'm better but, yeah, no, I feel the pressure. I worked out before I came to see you, talk to you.
GROSS: I can't even see you.
GROSS: ...Because we're in separate studios. But I'm sure you weren't working out to impress me. You were just doing your vigilant workout.
ARCENEAUX: No. You never know.
GROSS: Do you find it validating to be a writer and frame your experiences in the way you want to, as opposed to having other people frame your life in the way that they see you? It just - is it empowering?
ARCENEAUX: I will say part of the journey in getting this book to be a real thing was that I was having many meetings with lovely people who would say all these nice things and then tell my agent, I like everything about him; he needs to change this, this, this and that. I think, typically, the way you consume otherness, particularly black people, is largely pathological. And one person that I really love is David Sedaris, and I like when he's able to take - mix humor and pathos. I think for some people, it was a little bit harder to wrap their heads around the idea of consuming someone like me in that way. But it is very validating that I wrote the book that I wanted exactly how I wanted to do it and that so many different types of people are reading it and enjoying it. It proved me right. And actually, it proved me and Beyonce right because, again, she is my center, and I took that from her. This is, like, my "Formation," basically.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. You went to Howard University, a historically black college. So how did that work for you, you know, being in a historically black college?
ARCENEAUX: I love Howard University now. I did not initially like it because my reaction - well, so I'm from Houston, but not from a nice part. And I remember one girl specifically saying, oh, my God, you went to Madison High School, and you're from Hiram Clarke, and you go here. And then she starts clapping - I'm so proud of you. And I was like, well, love, I'm smarter than you; what do you mean? But I think because it's the hood, that people have certain attitudes about that. So my initial introduction to Howard was, like, snotty black people. And then I used to say, oh, these are, like, TV black people that I don't like.
However, once I got more ingrained in Howard and once I - particularly, once I came out - Howard is the most diverse place I've ever been because it showed me how diversity goes beyond just race or ethnicity. There were black people from all over the world there. I wouldn't trade that experience for the world. I would definitely fund it differently. Shout-out to student loan debt - the oppressed. But I really do value and love Howard. It just got off to a rocky start.
GROSS: You still have student debt.
ARCENEAUX: Oh, plenty. I have private student loans, so they are the bane of my existence.
GROSS: How oppressive is that in terms of driving what you need to do, what kind of writing you need to do, who you need to write for?
ARCENEAUX: It dictates a lot of my career choices. It has actually, to be honest, somewhat spoiled even this moment. And my friends have been very adamant about not allowing it to. And I'm trying to pull myself away from that because, like, I'm in this space. Like, I - you have no idea how appreciative I am to be in this place because someone like me is not supposed to be here, so I'm trying to be cognizant of that in the midst of dealing with that. It's not fun, basically paying a southern mortgage (ph) every month in loans. Sure, I'll be - I'll have them paid off sooner than most because they usually get decades, but it's been a struggle.
It's very hard. But I will overcome that the way I've overcome everything else because as one of my friends has always reminded me, no matter - I've always done everything I said I was going to do. And sometimes you lose sight of that when you feel like you're chasing a dream people like you can't afford to have. And all of these things sound so nice, but the reality is, like, you have support, and you have encouragement, and you have people pushing you, and you - you know, in between this, you harass people to make sure they give you your check so you can give it to these people so they can get off your back.
GROSS: What's one of the things you most want out of life now that you don't yet have?
ARCENEAUX: Broadly, happiness. And by happiness, I mean security, a partner - well, actually, let me start off with a boo that maybe becomes a partnership - and to create culture, not just critique it. I think those three things will make me kind of - like, that's just where I want moving forward.
GROSS: So do you see your book as a step forward in creating culture, not just critiquing it?
ARCENEAUX: Yes. Again, I really respect the art of culture criticism, but I've always wanted more. And I think this is my first real opportunity to show people who I am, how I think, what my humor is like, what my thought process is. This is the most honest presentation of myself that I've ever been able so far to contribute. And I'm really glad because in my mind I'm trying to be the Cardi B of lit. So hopefully, this one opportunity will take me to all the others. So, you know, I want my Offset. I want my other stuff. But, yes, this is my beginning.
GROSS: Well, Michael Arceneaux, I wish you good luck with your writing, and thank you so much for talking with us.
ARCENEAUX: Thank you so much for having me. It has been such an honor and a pleasure.
GROSS: Michael Arceneaux is the author of the new collection of personal essays "I Can't Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, And Other Reasons I've Put My Faith In Beyonce." After we take a short break, we'll listen back to an interview with Adrian Cronauer, who Robin Williams portrayed in the film "Good Morning, Vietnam." Cronauer died last week. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RARE EARTH SONG, "HEY BIG BROTHER")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM")
ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As Adrian Cronauer) Good morning, Vietnam. Hey, this is not a test. This is rock 'n' roll. Time to rock it from the delta to the DMZ. Is that me, or does that sound like an Elvis Presley movie? Viva Da Nang. (Singing) Oh, Viva Da Nang.
GROSS: That's Robin Williams in the 1987 film "Good Morning, Vietnam" playing a fictionalized version of Adrian Cronauer. Cronauer died last Wednesday at the age of 79. In 1965, during the war in Vietnam, he was a DJ in Saigon on Armed Forces Radio hosting a Top 40 radio show called Dawn Buster in which he signed on each morning with the now-famous words, good morning, Vietnam. After returning to the States, he continued working in broadcasting. But with the money he earned from the movie, he went to law school.
I spoke with him in early 1988 when he was a second-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania. He went on to become active in veterans' causes and served as an adviser to the State Department's Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office. I asked him what the Armed Forces Radio station in Saigon sounded like when he got there.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
ADRIAN CRONAUER: If you've seen the film, you'll notice at the very beginning there was a very dull, dry, boring, soporific announcement about how to get your hold baggage if you'd lost your duffel bag or your trunk out of Tan Son Nhut Air Base. That is as accurate depiction as is humanly possible of what the station sounded like when I got there. And one of my aims was just to make it sound more like a stateside station.
GROSS: How did you sign on the first morning that you did your show?
CRONAUER: The same as I did every other one. We would have a little bit of music from an album called "Like Tweet" by Joe Puma and the Audiobon All-Stars.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CRONAUER: And then I would say, good morning, Vietnam, and then start into the program that way.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Did you get an immediate reaction from the soldiers who were listening to your show?
CRONAUER: No. The reaction that's shown in the film is way overblown. We did not get mailbags full of letters and cards, and we did not have a bank of phones taking requests. First of all, there was nobody - no place where anybody could phone in from anyway. But secondly, there was a reaction that I would get mostly when I went out into the field. We would get an occasional card and letter. But if I'd go out doing interviews, people would say, you're who? And I'd say Cronauer. And they'd say, oh, yeah, I think I - and I'd say, good morning - oh, yes, of course. And I found out later on that many times the GIs, although the program was popular and they enjoyed it, if I'd do the good morning, Vietnam, on a particularly bad day, they'd boo and hissed, and occasionally some would yell at their radio the GI equivalent of get stuffed, Cronauer.
GROSS: (Laughter) What did you play the most when you were on the air?
CRONAUER: Whatever happened to be currently popular, again, looking at what were the popular songs in the States and assuming that the GIs who came over from the States would want to hear what's popular back at home. Our whole idea was whether it was in the music policy or the production that we did on the air, it was to make it sound as much as possible like a stateside radio station to give them a little link with home as a morale factor.
GROSS: In the movie, the Robin Williams version of Adrian Cronauer is censored when he wants to read the real news that comes across the wire. All the news that comes over the wire is first presented to censors. And in the movie, the character witnesses a bombing at a restaurant that a lot of the Army men hang out in, and he's not allowed to mention that on the air. Similar things happened to you?
CRONAUER: On the subject of censorship, the movie is very accurate, except in one small detail. We did not have censors on premises at the stations. It was done by phone. But there was indeed a restaurant called the My Canh floating restaurant. It was built on a boat that was moored in the Saigon River.
And one evening, I had dinner there with some friends from the station. And after dinner, we were still hanging out in the area when the Viet Cong sprayed the boat with shrapnel from a Claymore mine. And then, about three or four minutes later, when everyone was panicking and trying to get off the boat, they aimed another Claymore mine directly at the gangplank and did a lot of carnage. And I heard the report of the explosion and the commotion and went back to see what was going on, tried to help out a bit and then went back to the station to see if I could put the item on the air.
And I called the duty officer for permission to put the story on the air and was denied permission. And I asked for a reason. And he said, we have no official confirmation of this happening yet. And I explained that I had been there in person, had seen it with my own eyes. And the answer was still, no, we have no real confirmation of any casualties. And I said, sir, with my own eyes, I've seen heads severed from torsos. Barring the second coming, they will not get up and walk away. And the final answer was no. And the final reason was, well, suppose we're wrong.
GROSS: So you didn't defy the order and then go on the air, right (laughter)?
CRONAUER: No, I did not go and lock myself in the studio and put it on anyway. No. In fact, there are a lot of things in that movie that Robin does - if I had actually done them, I would have been court martialed, and I'd still be in Leavenworth.
GROSS: When you were on the air, were there any signs in the control room that there was actually a war going on?
CRONAUER: It was basically a traditional, ordinary, run-of-the-mill radio station control room. The only real reminder of the war was the fact that on the console beside the turntables was a loaded .45. Over in the newsroom, there was another one beside the teletype machines. And we were instructed that if it was necessary, we were expected to use it.
GROSS: You were in Vietnam in 1965. And that was a year that the war really escalated. What were some of the things that you saw that made you realize that the war was really changing?
CRONAUER: When I got to Saigon in May of '65, it was a sleepy, little French colonial town. And in one year's time, I saw it turn into a nightmare. The massive influx of American personnel, equipment, armament, money turned the city upside down. There were the - when I left, the black market was flourishing. The economy was in disarray. The traffic was unmanageable. The entire city was ridiculous. And although I found it a very enjoyable place to be when I first got there, in the context of a - that it was a war going on, it was - I was very glad to get out.
GROSS: What was your reaction the first time you saw the completed movie?
CRONAUER: For about five minutes or so, it was difficult to get used to the idea that, well, that's Adrian Cronauer up there, but I'm Adrian Cronauer. But he's me, but I'm here. And then finally, I just settled down and said, all right, relax. Enjoy the movie.
GROSS: Well, Adrian Cronauer, I want to thank you very much for talking with me.
CRONAUER: My pleasure.
GROSS: Adrian Cronauer, recorded in 1988 after the release of the film "Good Morning, Vietnam," in which Robin Williams played a fictionalized version of Cronauer. Cronauer died Wednesday. He was 79.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, can we eat meat ethically? We'll get a resounding yes from my guest, Camas Davis. After working for years as a restaurant reviewer and an editor, she apprenticed as a butcher on a family-run small farm and slaughterhouse in France. Then she founded a program to teach people about conscientious slaughtering and to inspire responsible meat production and consumption. She has a new memoir. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE DJANGO FESTIVAL ALLSTARS' "TSIGANE FANTASY")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE DJANGO FESTIVAL ALLSTARS' "TSIGANE FANTASY")
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