Who's Allowed To Hold Hands? | With Alicia Keys

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Brian Rea for The New York Times
Brian Rea for The New York Times

We don't always think about human touch, and the ability to hold another person's hand while we're walking down the street, as a privilege. But Nicole Dennis-Benn and her wife have thought a lot about that. She writes about their experience in her essay, "Who's Allowed to Hold Hands?"

It's read by Alicia Keys. Alicia is a 15-time Grammy Award-winning artist. Her new single is called "Show Me Love," which she calls a mediation on the simple, powerful magic that comes from being lost in love.

Where Are They Now?

Nicole Dennis-Benn's essay was published in 2017. She says that she decided to write it because she was frustrated.

"My wife and I would be walking down Fulton Street or East Flatbush Avenue —places we call home — but the one thing that made us stand out was our love for each other," Nicole says.

"It's like being forced to hide a part of yourself to be accepted in ... your community. You're claiming that place, but it doesn't really claim all of you."

Part of the reason that Nicole wanted to claim Brooklyn as her home was because of the homophobia that she had seen when she was growing up in Jamaica.

"I grew up knowing that if I came out, I would be ostracized. I grew up seeing people beaten and murdered back home. This was in the '90s. Of course, things have been changing. But at the time, growing up in Jamaica, that was what I experienced," she says.

"When I left Jamaica in 1999, in addition to wanting upward mobility as a Jamaican working-class woman, I left because I was coming out to myself as a lesbian. I looked to America as that place that would give me that freedom to love the way I want to love," Nicole says.

"To come here and to experience everything I feared I would have experienced back home — that was very disappointing to me," she adds. "So that inner fighter in me said 'No, I'm not going to do this, I did not come to America to hide. I came to America to live.'"

Nicole's wife Emma says that reading her essay was a powerful experience.

"It definitely took me to a place where I could feel the pain [and] frustration," Emma says. "And one thing [she captured] in the essay was how ... that rage that we have, that frustration, that sadness when someone tells us that we can't walk the streets freely in what we call our new home — how that then affects us. That rage, that sadness, it has to go somewhere. And that's where it can be quite problematic."

But they didn't want to stop holding hands.

"I don't want it to be like we're walking the street and people are seeing us as two sisters or two friends," Nicole says. "I've seen that happen multiple times with other lesbians of color. Visibility matters. So for us to show our love, and show the world, our community, that we are established as a couple, a married couple — it means everything."

Nicole and Emma say that in the past few years, there has been some progress.

"Perhaps [it's] the gentrification, perhaps [it's] the changing faces in our community. I'm not sure what's going on now, Nicole says. "Or maybe they are now used to us [and] they're like, 'All right, there go the lesbians again,' and shrug us off. So I'm wondering if the more people see us around the community, the more they realize that we exist and we are here to stay."

Emma adds that she thinks Nicole's essay is important because it reflects their love for each other, and for their respective cultures.

"I love being African-American. My wife loves being Jamaican. You just can't take that away from us," she says.

"We want to love each other as well as we can, and we want to be a part of our communities. And we have hope. We have hope that there will be other lesbians of color who are going to walk the streets and hear less things than we heard. There's still hope."

Voices In This Episode

Alicia Keys (Credit: Milan Zrnic)
Alicia Keys (Credit: Milan Zrnic)

Alicia Keys is a 15-time Grammy® Award-winning singer/songwriter/producer, an accomplished actress, a New York Times best-selling author, an entrepreneur and a powerful force in the world of philanthropy and in the global fight against HIV and AIDS.

On November 4th, 2016, Keys released her powerful and critically-acclaimed new sixth studio album, HERE, on RCA Records. Offering an honest glimpse into what matters most to Keys, the artist shines a light on the sonic soulfulness and stories from New York, the city that raised her. As an accompanying visual story to HERE, Keys also released a short-film entitled “The Gospel” inspired by the genesis of songs written by Alicia Keys.

Keys became a coach on NBC’s “The Voice” for its 11th season, alongside Miley Cyrus, Adam Levine, and Blake Shelton. Keys returned as a Coach on the hit show’s 12th season with Gwen Stefani, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton.

As a devoted and influential activist, in September 2014, Keys launched We Are Here, a movement that empowers the global community around a host of issues and initiatives building a better world where all people are heard, respected, equal, and treated with dignity.

Alicia is also the co-founder of Keep a Child Alive (KCA), a non-profit organization that partners with grass-roots organizations to combat the physical, social, and economic impact of HIV on children, their families and their communities in Africa and India.

Keys made her directorial debut for Lifetime’s Five and most recently served as Executive Producer of the critically-acclaimed film The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete. In 2011, she made her producorial debut with Lydia R. Diamond’s play Stick Fly for the Cort Theater, which Keys also composed the original music for.

Nicole Dennis-Benn (Credit: Jason Berger)
Nicole Dennis-Benn (Credit: Jason Berger)

Nicole Dennis-Benn is the author of HERE COMES THE SUN (Norton/Liveright, July 2016), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and the bestselling novel, PATSY (Norton/Liveright, June 2019), which is a New York Times Editors' Choice, a Financial Times Critics Choice, and a Today Show Read With Jenna Bookclub selection. PATSY is deemed a Kirkus Reviews, Time, Apple Books, and Oprah Magazine Best Book of 2019, and has received much acclaim from the New York Times, O Magazine, TIME, NPR, Vogue, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, Publisher's Weekly, ELLE, Entertainment Weekly, Bustle, Buzzfeed, Kirkus, Booklist, People Magazine, Newsday, Harpers Bazaar, Vanity Fair, and others. "Patsy fills a literary void with compassion, complexity and tenderness," raves Time Magazine; and NPR names Dennis-Benn "an indispensable novelist".

Dennis-Benn is a Lambda Literary Award Winner and a recipient of the National Foundation for the Arts Grant. She was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award, the New York Times Public Library Young Lions Award, the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize, and was long-listed for the Aspen Literary Award and the Dublin Literary Award.

Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Elle, BuzzFeed, Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, The Rumpus, Catapult, Red Rock Review, and Kweli Literary Journal, Mosaic, Ebony, and the Feminist Wire. She has previously taught in the writing programs at Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, NYU, Sarah Lawrence College, and City College; and has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell Colony, Hedgebrook, Lambda, Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Hurston/Wright, and Sewanee Writers' Conference.

Dennis-Benn was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. She is the founder of the Stuyvesant Writing Workshop and lives with her wife in Brooklyn, New York.

Headshot of Caitlin O'Keefe

Caitlin O'Keefe Producer, Podcasts & New Programs
Caitlin O'Keefe was a producer of podcasts and new programming at WBUR.



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