Standing in the porn section of Unabridged Books, absorbing Black male splendor in the pages of Black Inches and GBM, I get a sensual rush. Oddly, it comes not so much from viewing gorgeous, erect brothers, which I do appreciate, but from an affirmation of Black gay sexuality which feels strangely liberating.
In the glossy pages of publications like Black Inches, there can now be found, as Essex Hemphill once noted, some 'evidence of being.' And really, even if the models photographed aren't gay, that is less important than the fact that they appear, exposed and inviting, for our sexual pleasure. After all, a silent sexual revolution has occurred among Black gay men, as a lucrative sex industry is revealing.
Brothers are coming of age with the prolific production of hardcore videos, the enormous popularity of Blatino sex parties (talk about 'rainbow coalitions,' OK?), not to mention numerous sexual alternatives via bookstores, bathhouses, and parks for workin' low trade. Indeed, it would seem that Black dick is everywhere nowadays.
So I couldn't help wondering if our heightened sexual visibility might be used against us somehow. Here, I'm not alluding to the obvious sexual commodification of the Black male body, that is, the selling of Black dick. (Under predatory capitalism we're all whores for sale.) Neither am I referring to archaic morality arguments that are wrongly anti-pornography, anti-prostitution, and anti-sexwork. Unexplainably, I'm apprehensive about something else, something potentially harmful yet unseen.
When I've had my fill of bookstore porn, I move on to 'finer' gay literature. But as I consider the varied meaning of a highly visible sexual self, suddenly, on bookstore shelves, I confront its polar opposite: the absence of a Black gay male literary self. Thus, only a moment ago in the porn section, I had enough Black dick in my hands to keep me busy all night long, now, in literature, I couldn't so much as muster up even a slim volume of poetry to satisfy equally important needs.
Of course, the staple literary fare was available: E. Lynn Harris and James Earl Hardy. But two authors do not a literary tradition make. Besides, what if something other than a Black love story is required reading? Is one necessarily shit outta luck? Alas, this may be the case, because new books outside that genre aren't being published.
The meaning of a highly visible sex culture for Black gay men could have serious drawbacks when the pornographic eclipses the literary. Essentially, a visual sex culture without a literary culture (or images without text) not only leaves our history unrecorded, but makes self-definition impossible. In fact, the conspicuous absence of work by new Black gay writers isn't as alarming as the disappearance of published work by old ones—writers whose work was also absent on bookstore shelves. And for good reason.
Recently I tried to obtain a copy of the late Joseph Beam's groundbreaking anthology In The Life (Alyson, 1986) only to find it's no longer in print, along with many other books. Now, one would think, just by virtue of the number of Black gay men in this country, that alone should be enough to keep that book in print for some time to come. Unfortunately, not only is the present historical moment not being recorded, but the literary historical record could soon be rendered untraceable.
The real unseen tragedy, however, is that posterity isn't just hurt because our books are going out of print, but also because so many writers, due to the impact of AIDS, are no longer with us. So the books that were to come will never be written.
Every social revolution can be traced through its literature. But if there is no literature, where can the history of struggle to be visible be found? Resistance to be read about? Quite frankly, every Black gay book in this country should become a bestseller, because gay brothers have so little to read.
Years ago Joseph Beam wrote: 'By mid-1983 I had grown weary of reading literature by white gay men ... . None of them spoke to me as a Black gay man ... More and more each day, as I looked around the well-stocked shelves of Giovanni's Room, Philadelphia's gay, lesbian, and feminist bookstore where I worked, I wondered where was the work of Black gay men.' (Introduction to In The Life)
Today, though our literary history is scant, we have much to be thankful for. But it is deeply disappointing that we brothers aren't more conscientious. I mean, I know sissies who have enough gay porn at home to turn out a small country, but no Black gay literature at all, although books by straight authors can always be found. This isn't an indictment against possessing abundant porn or books written by straight folks, only an indictment of how invisible we often are to each other.
For instance, some years ago sitting in a room full of books, most by Black authors, I realized that not a single title I owned was written by a contemporary Black gay writer. So I began buying our books, because I figured if we don't, who will?
Where a diminishing literature is concerned, a task as ordinary as buying a book can become a charged political act (so if you buy Black gay books, gotdammit, you're an activist!). Nowadays I am constantly seeking out our books to buy, even books I have no intention of reading, because I know what it means: since we don't control publishing or distribution, we absolutely must buy the books for there to be more to come.
As a community, then, if we can pursue a literary 'nut' with half the unbridled enthusiasm and uncommon ingenuity that we often display in the sexual marketplace, then we will always be assured a place in history. If we don't, however, then Beam's final words on the need for a Black gay literary presence must inspire us: 'That fall I wrote in the Philadelphia Gay News (10/25/84): Visibility is survival.'