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'Not Straight, Not White' highlights history of Black gay men
by Liz Baudler
2016-11-16

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Kevin Mumford believes his book, Not Straight, Not White, is one of the first non-fiction books to simultaneously highlight both Black and gay identities. "In the mainstream press I think you get these very singular categories of public discourses, and it's hard to get them to be more complicated," said Mumford, a history professor at the University of Illinois-Champaign. "There's still a lot of white-centered gay narratives."

Like many people, Mumford was familiar with James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin before he began his book, but he wanted to be original in his research. "I learned a lot by reading their FBI files, reading their newspaper clippings, and focusing on their gay writings in a way that people hadn't," Mumford recalled.

Although the book mostly profiles Black gay men in short, well-researched biographical chapters, Mumford said he couldn't resist including Lorraine Hansberry, who visited the White House with James Baldwin in the early '60s and whose archives he had special permission to view. "She's really an icon of African-American culture. She wasn't particularly out: she would have been out had she lived, I'm quite sure, but like Rustin, like Baldwin, she had to advocate for social justice and sort of remain silent on the question of her desire," Mumford said.

Trolling through archives brought up some unexpected figures, like Grant-Michael Fitzgerald, a gay Catholic activist from Philadelphia who Mumford feels was ahead of his time.

"I was working on an article about the passage of a sexual orientation clause in Philadelphia," Mumford remembered. "A lot of African American clergy turned out to testify against the measure. Two-thirds of the way through, this man steps up and says, "I am Brother Grant-Michael Fitzgerald. I am here to tell you brothers and sisters that god loves gays and lesbians."

Mumford did some research on Fitzgerald's religious order and followed up with people who knew Fitzgerald, who died of AIDs in the 80s. "I was able to sort of piece together this portrait of someone who was arguing for gay rights, arguing for Black gay power, arguing for inclusion for lgbt people in the church, educating priests about the mental well-being of gays and lesbians, their needs for religious outreach, all of which was pretty unsuccessful. He's somebody that did not win his battles, but he's really interesting to write about."

Community activist and anthology editor Joseph Beam was another piece of the puzzle, and Beam's own archives may have helped save him from obscurity. "Beam was really extraordinary because he corresponded with all kinds of people, and he saved all the letters that he got, and carbon copies of all of the letters that he sent," Mumford explained. "He's an average guy, he's an activist, worked at the Giovanni's Room bookstore, he's a waiter, but he has 15 boxes full of everyday letters, of being an activist, of being a community worker. For a historian, that becomes a crucial point for how you're going to create the story."

To Mumford, Beam is also somewhat recognizable in today's climate of intersectionality.

"Intersectionality is what Beam was working on. His belief in representation and the importance of having people see your humanity, that's totally what he was about. He was learning from Black feminists. That's the kind of work, the work of recognition—I think it's very progenitive of Black Lives Matter," Mumford said.

The throughline of Mumford's subjects, he feels, is their desire to create social change in response to their stigmatized identity.

"One of the things I was trying to figure out when I first started reading [Beam's] papers was, "why is he so invested in image-making?," Mumford said. "And I realized, at the end of my research, that there had been a lot of stigma. It's not that there weren't images of Black gay men. There were lots of images, but they were pretty negative. Even when Black intellectuals stepped up by the early 1970s to defend the normalcy of the Black family, it was always assumed that Black families didn't have Black gay men. It was a super-respectable defense."

This erasure and downgrading is most evident to Mumford when it comes to how the civil rights establishment treated both Rustin and Baldwin, both of whom, at the time of their greatest activism, were widely known to be gay.

"Anyone else who had successfully organized the most important mass demonstration in American history, they would not find themselves unemployed the next day," Mumford said of Rustin. "But Rustin had already been outed. He was already a political untouchable. It was only because of higher-ups that Rustin got to be involved in the march, and then afterwards he really had nowhere to go. And Baldwin would have loved to be in the March on Washington. He was clearly second only to King in terms of celebrity. He was a global figure, a world-famous novelist. Totally marginalized by the establishment throughout this period, clearly because he was gay and was understood as not what a civil rights figure or leader should be."

Writing this book helped Mumford see that in some ways, identity politics still has a role to play in today's social movements.

"People have turned against identity politics," Mumford said. "It's not grappling with some big structural problems, poverty or capitalism, and that's kind of where a lot of scholarship I think is going. And I think the lesson I learned is that's not right. You need to be able to walk into a bookstore and finds yourself, in order to be politically active, in order to be successful in any kind of place. That politics of recognition, of having respect no matter who you are, that's as important as anything on the table, as far as I'm concerned."


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