“Punch Me Up to the Gods” by Brian Broome is a somber memoir that focuses on Blackness, queerness, poverty and addiction. Despite such strong and difficult themes, the memoir is funny in places and hopeful in others. The language is also deceptively simple and almost journalistic, where Broome seems to be reporting things that happened to someone else. Being a heterosexual woman of color, I did not expect to be so powerfully affected by this work. My suggestions would be to read with breaks in between. I offer these content warnings: substance abuse, domestic abuse, alcoholism, attempted suicide and homophobia.
Broome currently lives in Pittsburgh and is a poet and screenwriter, a K. Leroy Irvis Fellow and an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh. The memoir follows two storylines: a more or less chronological background of Broome’s life, from his childhood in 1980s Ohio to the present, and his observations of a Black man and his young son, Tuan, who are waiting at the same bus stop as Broome. Broome explores his own experience of being a Black boy and man in contemporary America, of the presumed burdens of being a Black father — Tuan’s father reminds Broome of his own, with his scolding and berating — and of the contrast between queer love, which society says should be hidden, and heterosexual love, which is socially and openly accepted.
Apart from these storylines, Broome writes one chapter from the perspective of Broome’s mother and one that is addressed to Tuan. As I enjoy different narrative strategies, these two sections made for better reading, especially compared to the painfully stark way Broome describes his family’s poverty. He grew up with his parents and his two siblings: an oldest brother, who played sports in school, and an older sister, whose toys and clothes Broome would clandestinely use. I would have enjoyed the viewpoints of the siblings, to know how and what they felt growing up with a brother who was not typically masculine (although Broome does write a bit about their relationships).
Broome’s childhood and school seemed sadly typical, whereby he was bullied and called names not only for his queerness but also because he was Black and poor. He realizes the racist and unfair truths of his childhood in different instances, especially when he does not conform to traditional roles of Black masculinity, but Broome also connects that to larger issues of systemic racism and segregation, school discipline, poverty and capitalism. The last idea is seen when Broome’s father, who had a sixth-grade education, was laid off from the nearby steel mill and received no compensation of any kind. This exacerbated his father’s psychological downfall, as he had connected his life and worth as a man to his employment and his ability to provide for his family. It also strained the relationship between Broome’s parents, as the roles were reversed, whereby his mother went out to work and his father stayed at home.
Broome shows the small-town experience from a little-known perspective of being Black, poor and queer. Small towns in the U.S. are often described as quaint, backwoods, picturesque, artsy or touristy. Broome’s descriptions upend these to show the underbelly of capitalism and the truths of joblessness, family breakdowns and abuse.
Therein, one of the most important issues Broome analyzes is his family. I had similar feelings that he has when he analyzes the portrayal of white families in popular culture and compares to his own family: I assumed white people had it all figured out, had money and loved and cared for each other as family members. Broome, for instance, endures a very hard relationship with his father, who does not want him to be effeminate and regularly scolds and beats him to get rid of his queerness. After his father loses his job, Broome’s mother takes up various jobs to keep the family afloat. Broome’s father struggles and thinks he is emasculated as his wife starts to work outside the home and later kicks him out. Despite living off of her wages, he constantly complains about her to Broome and his sister. Broome’s father is sexist and quotes religion to justify his horrible treatment of his wife and son. Later, Broome does realize why his father behaved like that: a misguided effort to protect him from the white world that would see his queerness and Blackness as a threat. Broome also recognizes the strength and importance of Black women, as he sees his mother taking care of their family after his father is unemployed.
Broome is unflinchingly honest about the different subjects that he focuses on in his memoir. He describes his addiction to cocaine and alcohol, visits to gay bars, his relationships and interactions with other gay men, his own insecurities, his friendships and his fears and despair. While these sections showed me a world that I have limited knowledge of, I would have liked to know more about his journey as a student (he describes his four-week stay at the University of Akron) and as a professional. As he faced so much prejudice in grade school, I would have liked to know if he had similar experiences in higher education and how he overcame those.
The title refers to the punches Broome got from his father so that he would stop acting like a girl: “My father back then believed in beating Black boys the way Black boys are supposed to be beaten. For our own good, he would say. Meant to toughen us up for a world where white people feed off our pain and to teach us that we cannot give them the satisfaction. Any Black boy who did not signify how manly he was at all times deserved to be punched back up to God to be remade, reshaped.” Broome refers to his father’s literal and metaphorical beating and punching while Tuan’s father, who seems to appear younger than Broome, ends up punching Tuan in a less literal way by scolding him, ordering him to be quiet and not giving him any attention while being glued to his cell phone. Broome advocates for a more compassionate and understanding form of parenting among Black families.
This memoir can be a difficult read. However, if you want to learn directly from the adverse and small-town experiences of a poor, queer, Black boy facing domestic abuse and addiction, then “Punch Me Up to the Gods” is rewarding and a must-read.
If you like “Punch Me Up to the Gods,” also check out:
■ “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin.
■ “How We Fight For Our Lives” by Saeed Jones.
■ “The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
■ “Brave Face: A Memoir” by Shaun David Hutchinson.
■ “How I Learned to Snap: A Small-Town Coming-Out and Coming-Of-Age Story” by Kirk Read.
Rashmila Maiti is from India and lives in Oregon. She’s a scholar of comparative literature and cultural studies. Find her on Twitter @Bookreviewite.
Read more of the June 23-29, 2021 issue.