“Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary action.” — Joseph Beam
Being Black in America requires a deep, intense, and unconditional love. It is love that gives us the fortitude and resilience to survive — and thrive. It is love that allows us to find fortitude in our faith in the midst of indescribable trauma and grave uncertainty. It is love that binds our communities at all of its intersections with spirit, soul, and solace. It is love that awakens the joy, the unspeakable joy, that ignites our very life force and brilliance. But it is Black Love that speaks truth to power, fights to change the status quo, and rewrites the narratives of our Black future.
Pennsylvania State Representative of the 181 District Malcolm Kenyatta and his partner Dr. Matthew Miller are living, breathing examples of Black love holding this space. For them, love is a verb. Love is an action. Love is activism activated through creating change through policy and politics.
Kenyatta, a native of North Philadelphia, is now running for State Senator of Pennsylvania, which is in and of itself a bold and revolutionary act. If he wins, he will become the state’s first Black and queer Senator in its history. His platform, A New Day, is focused on empowering working-class Americans in the state to create a more equitable and inclusive society — especially for Black, brown, LGBTQ and trans people. As the first openly LGBTQ+ person of color and one of the youngest members elected to the PA General Assembly, Kenyatta has used his platform to fiercely champion generational poverty, increase minimum wage, protect workers’ rights, increase access to mental health, safeguard digital infrastructure, and suppress gun violence.
You see, Kenyatta is a man of the people and wants to serve the people and his community. “I believe I’m the first African-American who has run for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania ever,” Kenyatta explains. “And also, the first openly LGBTQ person of color to run for Senate in American history. I think it boils down to this simple proposition. We have to have more working people in government. And at this moment, we’re receiving consistent attacks on our fundamental right to vote, attacks that have been targeted toward people of color, toward young voters, toward low propensity suburban voters.”
Political consciousness, activism, and community service are literally in Kenyatta’s blood. His grandfather Muhammad Kenyatta, a professor, civil rights leader, and activist, ran for Mayor of Philadelphia in 1975. His grandfather used to say, “If you aren’t involved in politics that govern your life, you aren’t really alive.” Malcolm sees the same issues affecting the Black community that his grandfather fought for 46 years ago. “We can’t afford to wait. And I saw my grandfather’s activism and my involvement in politics as really being an exclamation point on that notion, there are things that we need to do right now, right now, that we have an opportunity to do. And it starts with us being honest, having authentic conversations and having people in office who haven’t traditionally been there.”
Kenyatta’s other great inspiration is his late mother, Kelly Kenyatta. His mom was a divorced home healthcare aide raising four kids plus foster children. “When I think about my mom in particular, she was somebody who gave so much of herself,” he explains. “We would be in a food line getting a box of food because we didn’t have any food. And then my mom would have us volunteering later and my mom would always say, ‘Nobody can do everything, but everybody could do something. And it was a requirement that we were engaged in service. There was so much that our family needed, but I do think about all the time, the experience of my mom, which is reminiscent of so many people in Pennsylvania and across the country. How cruel it was to have her working as a home healthcare aid primarily in a group home setting with people who had really severe physical and mental disabilities, making sure they got their medication on time, and then she would have to come home and ration her insulin.”
Her struggles remain with him, heart and mind. “We know that democracy is not something we can take for granted,” Kenaytta continues. “You know, it’s not something written on some tablet somewhere that says America is going to succeed. The way we have succeeded is very much a version of what Coretta Scott King said that every generation has to win and re-win the freedoms that we so often can take for granted,” says Kenyatta, who was ordained a Christian minister at Mt. Zion Non-Denominational Church at age 14. “Every generation has stepped up and pulled us closer to making the American promise real. And during the fight means getting rid of the filibuster passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But once we do that, once we secure the mechanism, the most important mechanism by which folks can engage in their democracy. John Lewis said the most important tool in democracy is our right to vote. Once we secure that, then the real question is, are we going to have a democracy that works for working people?”
In 2016, Kenyatta’s passion for policy and politics caught the eye of Dr. Matthew Miller, Director of Justice x Belonging at the Weitzman School at the University of Pennsylvania, who was living in Los Angeles at the time doing his graduate studies. Malcolm was featured on a list of up-and-coming LGBTQ+ people in politics and Miller slid up in his DM. The two quickly moved out of the DM and started having real conversations. Miller explains, “I think that was part of what attracted me to him. He was cute. He was charismatic. He just had a lot of attractive qualities. But what I found to be somebody that I felt like I could build a partnership with. I could actually have a sort of deep, moral, spiritual conversation about what it means to do justice work in the world and, and seeing how he lived out his values.”
At the time, Miller was at the University of Southern California where he became the first Black person to receive a Ph.D. in urban planning. They dated virtually for one year until they met in person. Miller would later move to the East Coast so he could spend more time with Kenyatta — learning more about The City of Brotherly Love and his new love interest. There was a newspaper headline that stuck with Kenyatta entitled “North Philly’s Biggest Fan” which peeked Miller’s interest. He asked him straight-up, “Are you representing an office? Are you representing this and that? And he’s just like, ‘I’m representing myself. I’m representing the community. Like, this is, this is what I’m doing because it needs to be done.’”
Miller continues, “Through that process, we learned our love languages and the way that we communicate and what our not so flattering features were and whether those were mutually compatible. Like, am I messy? Are you messy? Like when are we messy? Like that kind of thing. When do I stress? When am I not stressed? So that, that, that, that’s kind of where I think the alignment started to become clear to me. And, it didn’t really feel like that big of a leap, honestly, it was a big trend. It still is a transition. I still love my home state and I still have deep connections to California. But the process of dating him and working and running our parallel sort of races, made it feel like this is the right life decision.”
On July 3, 2020, during the COVID-19 quarantine, Kenyatta decided to propose to Miller in a surprise engagement that went viral. Under the guise that the couple was going to shoot photos for Miller’s upcoming birthday, they got dressed up and headed to the Shofuso Japanese Gardens. Miller who also has a background in photography and working on a book about Black urbanism entitled A Palm Growing In Concrete, explains that he was looking for locations and setting up different shots to take the photographs. Kenyatta had other plans in mind.
“Malcolm starts pointing to another area. He said, I think that’s like a good area over there. I’m like, oh yeah, that’s okay. That’s cute. And he’s like, I think like around the corner and he kept pointing and I was like, alright,” Miller recalls. “I noticed there was another photographer there. I turned around and he’s on his knee. I’m like what are you doing? And I started seeing his lips quiver and my mind sort of went blank after that. I will tell you based on what I vaguely remember, ‘I want to spend the rest of my life with you’ and he pulls out the ring which is very apropos because it gives you galactic vibes. I hear snaps on the side of my ear and it’s that same photographer. He actually brought her to take photos of us in the moment. And I said, Yes!”
That “yes” went viral on social media over the July 4th, 2021 holiday weekend. The response to the tweets say it all: They garnered 154,000 likes and over 3,000 comments:
Kenyatta, who planned the engagement for months, including the ring created by his friend Henri David and setting up the photographs by Amanda Swiger, explains the importance of the engagement and its virality. “I wanted us to have this beautiful reminder to own adventure in our love in ways that doesn’t always feel readily available. We’re now in a place where more and more people understand the basic truth that love is love, and that all folks deserve to be able to experience the type of love and acceptance and partnership that Matt and I have. And that in that moment just felt like an affirmation of that, that we’re kind of doing this our way, we’re doing our own thing. And that’s, and there’s so much beauty in that.”
Not only did Keynatta and Miller receive congratulations on social media, they also received support from Representative Ayana Pressley, Pete and Chasten Buttigieg, and Senator Bob Casey. The couple went viral again during the Democratic Convention when they appeared together representing the LGBTQ community during a keynote address. “My hope is that I can be the role model that I didn’t have growing up. That there’s some gay kid watching somewhere who’s like, ’You know what… I can do that too,‘” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer about their appearance.
They say love is in the details, and Kenyatta and Miller believe this is true in life and politics. “Bravery is contagious,” Kenyatta says. “And that’s what’s always exciting about being — giving permission for someone to be themselves who needed to see somebody do it first. You know, there’s the old saying in church, don’t wait on your neighbor because your neighbor might be waiting on you. I feel like a lot of the times we’re in that position where somebody is waiting on us. And that’s the power of everybody living authentically because it gives other people the permission and the freedom to also live authentically. And I believe that when we all do, when we engage authentically, when we engage honestly, not just in our own lives, but with one another, that we would actually accomplish a lot of the things that I so often talk about in politics, around housing and healthcare and criminal justice reform and equal protections.”