The Black homosexual is hard pressed to gain an audience among his heterosexual brothers; even if he is more talented, he is inhibited by his silence or his admissions. This is what the race has depended on in being able to erase homosexuality from our recorded history. The 'chosen' history. But these sacred constructions of silence are futile exercises in denial. We will not go away with our issues of sexuality. We are coming home.
— From Loyalty by Essex Hemphill
As long as humankind has been on the planet earth, from the time that primitive drawings were part of life, to the tradition of oral histories that are still being practiced today in some cultures, humankind has always sought to retell the stories of their lives or experiences before one or more persons.
As we have evolved throughout the past millenniums, we have been able to use literature, theatre, radio, film, television, and the Internet to tell those stories or create stories of other human beings as a source of affirmation, education, and entertainment.
The twentieth century has had some of the greatest milestones in the history of humankind. Throughout the history of literature and other means of communication, many people thought to question the validity, even the very existence of gay culture or gay sensibilities. Many choose to overlook or ignore the contributions of gay culture because we live in a culture that raises us to be heterosexual, which may not always achieve the desired result.
United States society is bombarded with daily reminders of heterosexual life with the use of mass media devices. We are shown, and instructed in some cases, the most intimate interactions between consenting adults, to the basic interactions of parents and the way they choose to raise their children.
In the not-so-distant past, gay society was characterized by isolation, self-hatred, and subterfuge. I believe that it is the closeted underground living which produces a subculture. When the gay subculture has been presented in the past, when it was there at all, it was usually a heterosexually distorted view. The roles were frivolous fairies, psychotic bull dykes or some suicidal man or woman. Having non-stereotypical representations of gay culture and society grace the pages of books or the stage and reach mainstream society has been long in the making. We can always look at the past as an example and lesson on how we should lay the foundation for the future.
As long as there have been writers and playwrights, LGBT people have either contributed (sometimes closeted) directly or behind the scenes. Just as in mainstream U.S. society there is noted behavior that questions the validity of gay culture, the efforts of people of African decent are also questioned and in some cases have been erased from mainstream society. Within the culture of people of African decent, there are those that identify as LGBT or Same-Gender-Loving (SGL), and if you were to try and research information about writers, actors or activists and the contribution to U.S. society as a whole, what you will find may vary due to location, be it urban or rural.
In 1999, Steven G. Fullwood, Manuscripts Librarian at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at New York Public Library, was researching a grant to process the records of the community-based organization Gay Men of African Decent (GMAD). 'I was sadly disappointed at the lack of representation on Black non-heterosexual culture. Sure there were books. There were even a few manuscript collections. But overall the documentation was scarce and extremely limited by format,' said Fullwood.
This event was the catalyst for Fullwood—he founded the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive (BGLA) in 2000, a project designed to facilitate the preservation of Black gay and lesbian history. 'I feel, as a community, we must consciously put our records down and take the preservation of our legacy one step further,' said Fullwood.
There are two phases to the BGLA. The first phase, already executed, is the gathering of materials, which includes non-fiction, biographies, and novels (including erotica). Dramatic works, poetry, plays; posters and ephemera are also sought for the archive in addition to ephemera including flyers, palm cards, and broadsides produced in the U.S. and other countries in our global community. Fullwood is also collecting photographs, prints, moving images and recorded sound consisting of film, audio, and videotape materials.
The BGLA, while in its collecting phase, will be seeking works by and about SGL/LGBT people of African decent until the year 2005. Phase two of the project is to place materials in one or more reputable repositories for the expressed purpose of preservation and access to the public for research. 'The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has agreed to house the archive. I am in communication with other repositories to develop similar initiatives,' Fullwood said.
'I can actually say that the archive started before I knew it did. I recall as a kid reading Go Tell It On the Mountain and I remember the scene where the main character, Gabriel, was wrestling with an older boy in church. Gabriel was clearly smitten with the older boy and it struck me as a very important moment in my life. I collected James Baldwin's works and by the 1980s, there were plenty of writers producing works. I was curious about what my life was supposed to be about as a man who intimately and sexually loved other men, and there were literally no records of our culture in the libraries and bookstores until writers like Audre Lorde, Essex Hemphill, and Joseph Beam came along,' Fullwood said.
When the BLGA commenced, Fullwood expressed that among the first to make a donation was writer Jewelle Gomez, who may be known best for her science-fiction novel, The Gilda Stories. She made a donation of all of her books, essays, articles and photographs. Gregory Victorianne, creator of Buti Voxx, made a significant contribution of books, broadsides, flyers, magazines, and newsletters.
Firebrand Books donated publications by Shay Youngblood, Cheryl Clarke, and Pat Parker. Alan Bell, editor of KujiSource, donated an entire run of BLK, along with copies of Blackfire, Black Lace, and Kumba. Cornelius Moore, Director of African Cinema at California Newsreel, contributed copies of MOJA, the first Black gay and lesbian-oriented newspaper, and Marlon Riggs's last film Black Is, Black Ain't. Lisa C. Moore, founder of Red Bone Press, contributed copies of Does Your Mama Know: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Coming Out Stories, and The Bull Jean Stories by Sharon Bridgeforth. Thomas Glave, author of the short-story collection Whose Song and Other Stories donated copies of his book and other materials. Charlene Cothran, editor-in-chief and publisher of Venus Magazine, and activist Anthony Hardaway, both made contributions consisting of books, broadsides, flyers, journals, magazines, and programs.
London-based photographer and activist Ajamu has donated his photographs and his own archive project, Ruckes!, a Black queer arts organization. Dirg Aab Richards, poet and activist donated copies of The Voice-Great Britain's Black newspaper and Capital Gay which contained articles about his organization's fight to combat homophobia in the UK. Files for organizations, articles, and various events concerning LGBT/SGL people native to Nigeria and South Africa are also included in the BLGA.
'The archive will provide worldwide access to a comprehensive collection of information about Black LGBT/SGL Queer life through various media. Scholars and casual researchers will be able to construct long overdue histories about the Black LGBT/SGL community for academic and personal use,' Fullwood said.
Collecting, reviewing, and cataloging materials donated is a full-time job for Fullwood, along with promoting the BLGA.
'People are donating materials, volunteering their time to build the collection by working to compile contact lists, helping to locate grant monies and generally being extremely supportive,' said Fullwood.
The 20th Century has had some of the greatest milestones in the history of humankind. Throughout the history of literature and other means of communication, many people thought to question the validity, even the very existence of gay culture. It's up to all of us to illuminate what could be a bumpy road for our youth, our brotha's and sistah's; our children.
We need to lay the foundation for those who follow us.
If you would like more information about the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive Project or wish to contribute, please contact Steven G. Fullwood at 12 West 130th Street #3, New York, New York, 10037, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at 212-491-2224 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
I speak for thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of men who live and die in the shadows of secrets, unable to speak of the love that helps them endure and contribute to the race.
— From Loyalty by Essex Hemphill