For Black Gays, Writing is Power

The goal of the event was to bring together LGBT writers, thinkers, teachers, and publishing and media professionals of African descent to discuss the position and importance of African diasporic LGBT literature.

In talking with Lisa Moore, one of the conveners of the conference as well as founder and editor of RedBone Press, an LGBT black publishing house based in Washington, D.C., I asked her what voice or voices do we as LGBT people of African descent bring to the literary canon.

“We bring voices that aren’t often heard in the gay and lesbian world of literature and writing,” said Moore. “We bring the poor black gay and lesbian voice; the club kids; the urban experience; the rural Southern experience; the Caribbean voice, in all its various flavors and accents; the Canadian-Caribbean immigrant experience. All of this is not heard from HarperCollins, from Simon & Schuster, from Farrar Straus Giroux. We want black writers to know we black gay and lesbian writers are their people too and we want white gay writers to know we’re out there, too, with a substantial body of work, and more being created.”

The exclusion we experience from publishing houses and the literary world due to homophobia and/or racism, at best, departmentalizes our works as either black or queer; thus erasing the LGBT of African descent literary canon, and, at worst, rendering us invisible and muting our voice.

In a statement by Barbara Smith and Joseph Beam in March 1988 at the Second National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College, in Brooklyn N.Y., they said, “In spite of efforts to ghettoize and exclude us, we are part of a long and proud Black Lesbian and Gay literary tradition. The Harlem Renaissance could not have occurred if it had not been for its Black and Gay participants, among them: Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Alain Locke, and R. Bruce Nugent.”

The exclusion we experience from publishing houses and the literary world due to homophobia and/or racism, at best, departmentalizes our works as either black or queer; thus erasing the LGBT of African descent literary canon, and, at worst, rendering us invisible and muting our voice.

And Nugent was the only self-declared gay man in the bunch. “Harlem was very much like the village. People did what they wanted to do with whom they wanted to do it.”

The name of this conference, “Fire and Ink,” is a spin-off from the literary magazine FIRE!! that was published by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. For these gay writers, as for our present-day LGBT writers of African descent, their sexuality was as central to their work as their race. However, the sexual politics espoused in their opuses were censored, and consequently only one issue of FIRE!! made it to print. The reading out or weeding out of the queer experience in the Harlem Renaissance was due to patrons who would not support openly gay writers or due to relatives in charge of their estates who weeded out any implied references or overt pronouncements about their sexual behavior or sexual orientation.

Being both of African descent and queer creates a distinctive epistemology that shapes not only our identity but it also shapes our distinctive interpretative lens we zoom on the world about politics, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, arts, music.

Our method of identifying and “languaging” our way of identifying as both of African descent and queer is evident in the terms we use like “in the life” — an identifier, a code, that derives from the Harlem Renaissance. Another is the term “same-gender loving” that became popular in our queer lexicon in the 1990′s. Both terms are indeed a radical pronouncement for LGBT people of African descent, because they are statements about openly engaging in sexual behavior, mannerism and lifestyle outside of the accepted norm, and about naming it in the face of virulent homophobia in the black community that could very well cost them their careers if not their lives.

Although the Black Church is a representation of black heterosexual male power and sexuality, we LGBT people of African descent nonetheless articulate, live and write about a black queer spirituality that derives from the church, and is part of the black religious cosmos.

For my African ancestors, writing became a subversive tool, particularly in a Western culture that did not value the veracity of their lives told in an oral tradition. . . Hence, writing also makes visible, at least in print, those lives that are too often, with intent, omitted. Therefore, writing is a political necessity.

Evelyn White, an African American lesbian and the author of The Black Women’s Health Book, stated in Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual African American Fiction that “The kind of bliss that Langston Hughes describes in Blessed Assurance, is his story about the erotic love between two black men that is made plain in the stained-glass sanctity of the historic black church. As the Shakespeare of Harlem was known to have said himself: Do Jesus! Lawd Today!”

Writing is a way to be visible and to be heard.

For my African ancestors, writing became a subversive tool, particularly in a Western culture that did not value the veracity of their lives told in an oral tradition. Writing allowed my ancestors to tell and to compile the stories of their lives as a sacred text. Hence, writing also makes visible, at least in print, those lives that are too often, with intent, omitted. Therefore, writing is a political necessity.

For LGBT people of African descent our writings create a counter voice, text, and knowledge that becomes a tool that not only gives us a voice and visibility, but also gives us power.

As LGBT people of African descent we write because not to write would cause us to participate in our own death. We write because those behind us, our progeny, will need it. We write because our opuses become a canon for survival, and our holy bible in spite of the claims that our sexual orientation is both an abomination to our community and God. And we write because we know our lives too are sacred texts.

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