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BLACKlines: New book looks beyond the Down Low
by Max Smith
2005-02-01

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All through history people struggling against the same social problem have come to understand it and react to it from such very different perspectives that natural allies seem to be seriously at odds with each other. One hundred years ago Booker T. Washington called upon African Americans to overcome racial prejudice through training for manual labor, acquiring property, and developing 'high Christian character,' while he repudiated involvement in the democratic process of representative government. His contemporary, W.E.B. DuBois, one of the co-founders of the NAACP, wanted Blacks to get public education, full voting rights and equal access to mainstream American society. Forty years ago Malcolm X had a very different approach to advancing civil rights, compared with his contemporary, Dr. Martin Luther King.

The new book Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America by Keith Boykin gives quite a different perspective on down low ( DL ) brothers compared with the one presented in the 2004 bestselling book On the Down Low by JL King. Most men are socialized to be competitive. After reading what Boykin has to say about King, I feel like I have a ringside seat at a boxing match to see who will be the heavyweight activist champion of the Black same-gender-loving world.

Reading chapter five, 'When A Disease Becomes An Excuse,' made me think: Wow! Boykin is punching JL King with a right, a left and another left ... serious body blows to King's motives, reasoning, and to the question of the accuracy of JL King's numerous comments to major media, including his appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in April 2004.

Boxing promoter Don King did not write the foreword to Beyond the Down Low, E. Lynn Harris did. In 1991 E. Lynn Harris published Invisible Life, the first of his several popular novels dealing with bisexuality at a time when that topic was too taboo to be discussed in mainstream African American media. Now Harris says, 'As the AIDS epidemic grows in the Black community, Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America is timely and necessary. Over the years, I have met far too many Black women and men whose lives have been dramatically affected by HIV, and I have seen how the down low discussion has drawn some of them apart. Indeed, the most visible public discussions about the down low lately have been more about finger-pointing and dividing the community than about establishing honest and open dialogue. Rather than blaming Black men or Black women, Keith offers a smart, thoughtful approach that suggests we try to move beyond fear to find ways to love ourselves and love one another.' Harris acknowledges 'I have no doubt that this provocative book will spark controversy in some quarters, but it is time for us to have a healthy and informed discussion about these issues.' Sure enough, in chapter six, 'The Down Low Detectives,' Boykin really gives King some punishing upper cuts!

Does he put JL King on the ropes? Or does he deliver the knock-out punch? Reread JL King's book, then read Boykin's apparent response and rebuttal, then you decide. It is ironic that while Boykin covers many pages criticizing Republicans, homophobes and conservatives for demonizing Black men, he uses JL King as a punching bag.

Of course JL King could go round three with another book to answer this one, or not. What JL King was trying to accomplish with On the Down Low was to sound an alarm, to create awareness and to generate discussion. Given the truth of the long-standing motto of the old AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power ( ACT UP ) silence = death, JL King was on target, on message and did us all a favor by accomplishing his mission very well.

Imitation is sincere flattery. Boykin's book flatters King's publication, by taking the discussion of DL issues to the next level. To switch metaphors: was it necessary for Boykin to really 'pour the tea' on JL King to the point that you the reader will feel like you are listening in on a very private conversation? Clearly Boykin decided he had to 'go there' and give you the DL on JL! Of course you might say that in these days and times of hardball investigative journalism, public figures cannot keep secrets. Activist friends of mine across the country are saying that this book unleashed a torrent of e-mails commenting on and questioning Boykin's airing of JL King's laundry in a book. Could some of what was published have been handled better if these two fine gentlemen had spent a few days together ironing out their differences in private conversation? Perhaps.

But it's out there now, and those who read it will learn a lot from knowing the details and particulars of behind-the-scenes information given. Boykin has a lawyer's eye for specifics, documentation, exacting facts and figures and total rational logic. That's a tall order when by nature people on the down low live emotionally, act impulsively and therefore behave in ways that to an outside observer are highly irrational. Both King's book and Boykin's books cite Black gay ministers, choir directors and singers and church members who financially support homophobic congregations that condemn them. I loved the way Boykin let Angie and Debbie Winans have it in a debate on BET.

Boykin said, 'If the discussion helped to save the life of one kid who was struggling with his sexuality, then it would be worth all the effort. And even if the discussion failed to change a single mind, it would at least present a debate instead of a one-sided diatribe against homosexuality.' Boykin says, 'It doesn't matter what your sexual orientation may be. It doesn't matter what people may think about you. It matters what you think about yourself.' True that! Boykin goes on to hammer the point that homophobes create down low behavior, then complain about its negative consequences. It is irresponsible behavior, dishonesty and the adamant refusal of too many people to face facts and learn new vital information which all fuel the AIDS epidemic.

By far the best part of this book is the listing of many specific, well thought-out proposals of what people can do to control or even stop the AIDS epidemic. JL King fully funded the publication of the book I edited in 2004, Staying Power: The Unofficial Guide To Maintaining Positive African American Male Relationships. If this commentary on Beyond the Down Low seems rather defensive of JL King it is because I know JL King better than I know Keith Boykin. That said: I do highly recommend that you read Beyond the Down Low and work with others to implement its excellent recommendations.

Our community is blessed to have both gentlemen out there doing the best they can do, working hard to have a beneficial impact as they try to solve problems other people avoid due to the complexity and controversy around DL issues.

MaxsonnCS@aol.com


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