So I was checking in on social media this weekend and this post about the brother dying from “True Blood”, kept popping up. Well I know they’re always trying to kill off famous black folks, so I did not pay it much attention until maybe the next day when it was confirmed. Nelsan Ellis was dead at a youthful 39 years old from complications of heart failure which was verified by several sources including Variety.
I was like this is not right. I just saw Ellis on a Netflix film the other week, “Little Boxes.” Ellis played a father in an interracial couple as well as other diverse roles including portraying civil rights hero Dr. MLK in “The Butler.” But the role that truly defined Ellis and catapulted him into pop culture status is the irreverent, snapping, colorful and quick witted Lafayette Reynolds on HBO’s, “True Blood.”
Being a big fan of vampire genre I was immediately engrossed in the series “True Blood.” But what made the series widely successful were the characters and non was more endearing than Lafayette. As much of a fan of vampire genre that I am, it typically is very mainstream. So it was a welcome departure to see a character like Lafayette that challenged the norms in both race and sexuality. The wonderful thing about Lafayette’s character is that he was unapologetically gay. I mean Lafayette wore eye lashes, makeup, head wraps and at one point even had a hot Latin boyfriend. But do not get it twisted Lafayette was a brother first and a kind of thug brother at that, so be warned.
The inspiring thing about Nelsan’s character Lafayette is that he was very comfortable in his own skin.
As is typical of most black gay characters, Lafayette’s role was celebrated in the mainstream but was not always embraced within the larger black community. Well a lot of folks had a problem with the sometimes hyper sexual energy associated with the series, “True Blood” but Lafayette’s gay character seemed to rub some black folks the wrong way. Some expressed the same reoccurring rhetoric of; gay folks being an abomination, gays contribute to the dissolving black family and Lafayette’s flamboyant character is a part of an agenda to feminize black men.
But the inspiring thing about Nelsan’s character Lafayette is that he was very comfortable in his own skin. Sure he wore makeup, shamelessly cruised dudes but he would also stomp you within an inch of your life if he felt disrespected. Lafayette was not bothered by society norms in regards to what makes a “real” black man. Lafayette made it not just OK to define your sexuality on your own terms, he made it beyond cool and looked pretty fierce while doing it.
We unfortunately see the fragility of the straight male ego so often as in some male reactions to ESPN’s recent Body Issue featuring a naked NFL running back Zeke Elliott. Why is it that the black male form seems to make folks anxious? Could it be that it is hard to drink it in without objectifying the black male form; is it the narrative of the black male as a dangerous predator or is it the persona of hyper-masculinity we so often associate with black men? Black men are often challenged to live up to a hyper sense of masculinity that was not created by us but we sometimes feel compelled to support the myth.
I have experienced the challenges of negotiating black masculinity first hand. A perfect example was during my early tenure as a weekly columnist for Q City Metro, a regional online site devoted to news for African-Americans. Although I eventually developed a loyal following, I quickly observed a pattern. Whenever I wrote about issues of sexuality some good, black, church folks and Hoteps would descend like locust. In fact my unique writing journey inspired my first book, Class is in Session: Critiquing Culture Through A Black Gay Lens. Surprisingly the most validating comment I received towards the end of my writing tenure for Q City Metro was from a straight brother. The reader basically shared that after following my column over time, he like many other readers, discovered we had more in common as black folks and that my sexuality was just a small part of who I was as a black, gay man. This same sentiment can be said of the character Lafayette. Ellis was able to bring such humanity to the character Lafayette, that his gayness was an important part of who he was but did not singularly define him as a man.
The character Lafayette paved the way for other future young black artist in the media like Jaden Smith in “The Get Down,” who plays a young graffiti artist who has an exploratory tryst with another male artist. Ellis and Jaden’s characters challenge the viewer to explore their notions of masculinity and sexuality. Nelsan Ellis and his character Lafayette leave a legacy in helping society and specifically the black community in expanding the narrative of black maleness. RIP Lafayette, heaven just got a bit more fabulous.