Windy City Media Group Frontpage News
Celebrating 30 Years of Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Trans News
home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2019-10-02
DOWNLOAD ISSUE
About WCMG Publications News Index  Entertainment Features Bars & Clubs Calendar Videos Advertisers OUT! Guide    Marriage

Sponsor
Sponsor
Sponsor

  IDENTITY

The origins of Black gay history
by KEVIN MUMFORD, GAY HISTORY PROJECT
2008-11-01

facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email


The idea of Black Gay History is about as far out there as is Gay History Month, and the two curiosities are not unrelated. The first attempt to set aside a time to disseminate information on minorities was Negro History Week, invented by the Black ( straight ) historian Carter G. Woodson around 1926. He chose February to honor the births of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and he and his students lectured to clubs and fraternities, sponsored essay contests and published popular textbooks. The impulse to reach a wider audience and instill pride caught on with Women's History week, and then month, and so now let there be Gay History Month. Why not?

This could mean that queer scholars of color will have more opportunities to teach their lessons, but my fear is that we will have none. This sort of anxiety was at the heart of the first efforts to construct a Black gay history, from Melvin Dixon to Barbara Smith, and dozens of less-known writers. More than 20 years ago, a Black gay journalist, Robert Grier, wrote a column for Au Courant ( a newspaper that consistently covered Philadelphia's vibrant Black gay life ) entitled, 'Black History Month? Why Gays Don't Exist.' He disparaged books that 'communicate to the black straight community that [ B ] lack gays are not/no longer contributors and resultantly expendable.' New York activist Craig Harris was angrier. 'Many consider our history unworthy of scholarly attention,' he wrote in 1986. He called out by name Black historian Lerone Bennett, Jr., and gay scholar Jonathan Katz for refusing 'to embark upon the discussion of our complete history. They supply us with half-truths.' Harris went on to describe in detail the contributions of Black gays and lesbians, displaying a learnedness that was common, even constitutive of, Black gay men of the 1980s. He likened white historians who dabbled in the Black gay past to 'the presence of intruders.'

History was the favorite subject of the star high-school student Joseph Beam, who became a Black gay luminary among Philadelphia cultural activists ( 1954-87 ) . Every one who encountered Beam, recalled the depth of his intensity—a carefully controlled rage at invisibility. He wrote dozens of unusually moving essays, mentored artists and writers, and edited 'In the Life,' the first anthology of Black gay writings. On history, Beam wrote about how he had to 'create myself from scratch as a black gay man living in the late-1980s.' He explained that in the 1970s, he enrolled in graduate school in Iowa, and 'spent so much energy in self-observation' that he dropped out of the program. 'I need heros [ sic ] , men and women I could emulate.' He later returned to Philadelphia and rented a studio apartment off Rittenhouse Square. 'I needed to create images by which I, and other black gay men to follow, could live this life.' In another Au Courant column, he observed that, 'to endure with any safety, I must be a historian, librarian and archeologist, digging up and dusting off the fragments of black history and black gay history.'

Barbara Smith, another visionary of Black queer history, came up with a metaphorical salve for the likes of Beam. Smith had attended the New York funeral of James Baldwin ( 1924-87 ) and described the eulogies to him by America's most important writers, Amiri Baraka and Toni Morrison, neither of whom mentioned his obvious gayness. It was a remarkable omission because not only had he written queer novels, but came out publicly some five years before at a lecture sponsored by Black and White Men Together. Smith imagined how telling the truth could help black queers 'all over the globe,' and satisfied herself with the prospect of future ceremonies. In a revelation, Smith told us that 'we must always bury our dead twice.'

As an African American and gay historian, I have felt some of this double mourning. Even the most radical or progressive Black history textbooks, such as Nell Painter's 'Creating Black Americans' or Robin Kelley and Earl Lewis's 'We Changed The World,' completely omit any and all mention of homosexuality. To open a textbook to the New Negro or the Harlem Renaissance, and not identify gay or bisexual folks, is like reading about the Civil War but not learning that the South had slaves. When black communities speak out against the inclusion of LGBT history in their local schools, who can blame them? Where would they learn better?

Unlike the moment when Beam and Harris wrote in despair, there is much to read on Black gay history. Professional monographs, journals and dissertations abound. We know that Alain Locke mentored Black gay graduate students, who went on to work as social workers in prisons, at the same time that he helped to invent the historic movement known as the New Negro. In my first book, I discovered documents pertaining to Wallace Thurman ( 1902-34 ) that were ignored by scholars for decades. Thurman, a major novelist who vividly portrayed gay life, confided to a friend that he was arrested for solicitation of another man in a Harlem restroom. Richard Bruce Nugent has told his story of Black gay life to every generation, but his last novel was published only this year, with an introduction by the controversial biographer Arnold Rampersad, who had long refused to acknowledge the gay desires of Langston Hughes. They were all Black, queer and pivotal—without question.

As every historian knows, attitudes and beliefs change in response to larger trends and events. Indeed, looking back at the Black community in the 1920s and '30s, one sees remarkable openness to gays and lesbians, and then how some of the tolerance gave way to postwar homophobia. Some new scholarship suggests that Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, civil-rights demonstrations were premised on a demand for strict respectability, not only cleansing the movement of radicals and communists but also what were known as sexual deviants. Yet by the 1970s, many Black progressives protested for gay and lesbian rights in New York City and Philadelphia. The first out Black gay Catholic, Grant-Michael Fitzgerald, was a brother in the Society of the Divine Savior and, in that capacity, helped to pass a resolution at a national conference of priests to extend pastoral services to gay and lesbian laity. In 1974 before the Philadelphia City Council, Grant-Michael powerfully refuted Black religious testimony against gay rights, and in Milwaukee appeared in his characteristic black suit and clerical collar on a television talk show to make the case for gay rights, Black gay power and gay fostering and adoption. ( He was a licensed foster-care parent in the State of Wisconsin. ) As a biographer of Fitzgerald, my research leads me to an inquiry into the human trait of courage. Where did he find the courage to speak out when many of his generation felt the oppression of silence?

On the other hand, merely adding gay history to the calendar is not a guarantee for inclusiveness. It is true that in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots, white and Black gay men felt radicalized and shared an identification with Black people's historical experiences. If Black was Beautiful, Gay was Good. In 1976, the Philadelphia Weekly Gayzette, an activist publication, ran a story about black history month, which they described as 'a time for celebrating the history of a people which was kept hidden by racism and bigotry.' Their point was that 'gay people have a special link to black people and the Black Liberation Movement.' But they truly honored black history month by taking the time to criticize unfair practices in the gay community. 'The racists policies at the bars are shocking. Yet racism is one problem which is given only lip service in most gay liberation groups. More black sisters and brothers are being oppressed on all sides.'

LGBT history is a relatively new field, and feels vulnerable—and Black gay history confronts it with difficult stories of racism. It is a momentous time when the dean of gay history, John D'Emilio, chooses to spend more than a decade to devote to the biography of a Black gay man, Bayard Rustin. The fact is, in America, gay worlds have always turned on the question of race—on the construction of whiteness, on racial segregation of leisure, on the performance of stereotypical spectacle. Over the past 20 years or so, countless awards, endowed chairs and learned distinctions have gone to historians who take seriously the mercurial power of race. Yet it is not an exaggeration to argue that gay and lesbian historiography remains one of the whitest fields in the discipline. More celebration under the rainbow flag won't correct our errant ways.

Kevin Mumford is associate professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Iowa. He is the author of numerous reviews and articles about race and sexuality, and of Interzones: Black/White Sex Districts in Chicago and New York in the Early Twentieth Century ( Columbia University Press, 1997 ) , and of Newark: A History of Race, Rights and Riots in America ( New York University Press, 2007 ) .

Photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., ( left ) and Bayard Rustin courtesy of Mark Segal


facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email





Windy City Media Group does not approve or necessarily agree with the views posted below.
Please do not post letters to the editor here. Please also be civil in your dialogue.
If you need to be mean, just know that the longer you stay on this page, the more you help us.


  ARTICLES YOU MIGHT LIKE

Gay News

LGBT HISTORY MONTH The rise of the ballroom scene through the ages 2019-10-15 - What is ballroom? The first time Jacen Bowman attended a house meeting, he had no idea what LGBTQ ballroom culture was. Going ...


Gay News

Legacy Project hosts '[un]Gala' 2019-10-15 - Supporters of Chicago's Legacy Project gathered Oct. 10 to pay tribute to key volunteers who've contributed to its organizational success. The event—" LANDMARK: ...


Gay News

Gerber/Hart opens lesbian history exhibit 2019-10-15 - Gerber/Hart History & Archives launched a new exhibit, "Lavender Women & Killer Dykes: Lesbians, Feminism & Community in Chicago," with a reception and ...


Gay News

Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame calls for 2019 nominees, announces ceremony date 2019-10-14 - The Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame, now entering its 30th year, announced today that it will resume inducting new members. The ceremony for ...


Gay News

"Lavender Women and Killer Dykes" to launch Oct. 12 2019-10-09 - Gerber/Hart Library & Archives, 6500 N. Clark St., will host the launch of the exhibit "Lavender Women and Killer Dykes" on Saturday, Oct. ...


Gay News

LGBT HISTORY MONTH Pete Buttigieg on LGBT history, historic campaign 2019-10-08 - Pete Buttigieg—who has served as mayor of South Bend, Indiana since 2012—came out as a gay man in a self-penned essay published by ...


Gay News

LGBT HISTORY MONTH For museum curators, garments offer stylish storytelling 2019-10-07 - Curators working with the Oakland Museum of California on its first major LGBT exhibition, dubbed "Queer California: Untold Stories," displayed a blue sequined ...


Gay News

LGBT HISTORY MONTH Alfred Kinsey "was our Stonewall." - Samuel Steward 2019-10-07 - There was a time when 1 out of every 2 Americans Gallup polled knew Alfred Kinsey's name, and to gay men, lesbians, and ...


Gay News

LGBT HISTORY MONTH For celebrities, an off-screen journey to on-screen equality 2019-10-02 - ABC News correspondent Gio Benitez said that as a young reporter in Miami, he was inspired by the greats of television journalism: Peter ...


Gay News

LGBT HISTORY MONTH Charlotte Cushman: A flawless Romeo 2019-10-02 - Charlotte Cushman ( 1816-1876 ) was the greatest American actress of her era, a theatrical superstar and a gender-nonconforming lesbian who worked on ...


 



Copyright © 2019 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.

 

 

 

TRENDINGBREAKINGPHOTOS

Sponsor
Sponsor
Sponsor
Sponsor


 



About WCMG Publications News Index  Entertainment Features Bars & Clubs Calendar Videos Advertisers OUT! Guide    Marriage


About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots      OUT! Guide     
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Subscriptions      Distribution      Windy City Queercast     
Queercast Archives      Advertising  Rates      Deadlines      Advanced Search     
Press  Releases      Event Photos      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Post an Event      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam      Outguide Categories      Outguide Advertisers      Search Outguide      Travel      Dining Out      Blogs      Spotlight  Video     
Classifieds      Real Estate      Place a  Classified     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.