A New Hero for Black History Month

Last month was Black History Month. Black History Month is that time of year when the achievements and courage of people of African descent are acknowledged and celebrated. However, for decades now, Black History Month has not once acknowledged or celebrated the contributions of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Our omission from the annals of black history would lead you to believe that the only shakers and movers in the history of people of African descent in the U.S. were and still are heterosexuals. And because of this heterosexist bias, the sheroes and heroes of LGBT people of African decent — like Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, and Bayard Rustin — are known and lauded within a subculture of black life.

Along with the pantheon of noted black leaders who are always lauded this month, I want to personally celebrate the courage and strength of a Morehouse College student who sustained a fractured skull from his classmate, sophomore Aaron Price. Price uncontrollably beat his victim on the head with a baseball bat on Nov. 4, 2002, for allegedly looking at him in the shower.

According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), the victim, whose name was not disclosed to protect his privacy, did not have his glasses on and allegedly peered at Price through the shower curtain of his stall to see if Price was his roommate.

But many on Morehouse’s campus feel that peering in a student’s shower is an act that not only transgresses Price’s privacy as a man, but also warrants some form of brute retaliation as an indication of his manhood. “A lot of people believe that he deserved to get beaten up if he was looking in the shower stall. Students are very wary of any action that could be misconstrued as a gay overture,” sophomore Mubarak Guy, who is a friend of Price’s, told the AJC.

I want to personally celebrate the courage and strength of a Morehouse College student who sustained a fractured skull from his classmate, sophomore Aaron Price. Price uncontrollably beat his victim on the head with a baseball bat on Nov. 4, 2002, for allegedly looking at him in the shower.

Morehouse College is part of the consortium of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) that is lauded as the jewel of black academia. Founded two years after the end of the Civil War in 1867 by William Jefferson White in the basement of Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., Morehouse is noted as the bastion of black male leadership. Its most famous alumnus is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who graduated from Morehouse in 1948 with a B.A. in sociology. As the nation’s largest liberal arts college for men, Morehouse continues to confer degrees on more men of African descent than any institution of higher education in this country.

Although Morehouse has always had a vibrant underground gay community, Morehouse has carefully crafted its image as an institution that produces strong men of African descent. And part of its crafted image is the legacy of the strong Morehouse man who is unquestionably heterosexual.

Although Morehouse College President Walter Massey stated that “homophobia is not a new topic at Morehouse” in commenting on the beating of the student in a campus wide address, Greg Griffin, an alumnus of the college said that it is. “Homosexuality is something that is very uncommon at Morehouse College, the only all black male college in America. When I was a student at Morehouse College in 1976 an incident such as this would have never happened. In fact I can not recall any homophobia during that time period. I really only recall one gay person on campus and that was a professor that made a pass at Olympic Gold Medalist Edwin Moses. Ed turned the professor in and the professor was fired,” Griffin wrote in his column Griffin Speaks in his piece, “A Tragedy at Morehouse College.”

The homophobic incident at Morehouse speaks to a larger issue plaguing men of African descent in this country — acknowledging their sexuality. With the dominant culture’s iconography of black male sexuality ranging from sexual predator to pornographic object, both the dominant heterosexual and the gay culture’s fear and fascination with black male sexuality may satisfy racist paranoid fantasies, but also strips men of African descent of both their possession of their sexuality as well as their language to safely express it.

Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s notorious “Man in a Polyester Suit” maintains the stereotypical convention of black male sexuality as a monstrous phallus that is dangerous, out of control and animalistic. The gay white male photographer’s central focus on a black uncircumcised penis protruding from an unzipped pair of polyester pants reasserts the mythology of the super-sexualized black man.

[B]oth the dominant heterosexual and the gay culture’s fear and fascination with black male sexuality may satisfy racist paranoid fantasies, but also strips men of African descent of both their possession of their sexuality as well as their language to safely express it.

Just as African-American female sexuality has always been and still is unprotected and vulnerable to the vagaries of white male violence and curiosity, so, too, is African-American male sexuality.

Part of America’s unspoken and sordid history in this country is how white men have forced or had consensual sex with African-American men and these rapes and trysts have oftentimes resulted in a lynching. Little Richard, the well-known gay African-American rock & roll star of the 50′s and 60′s, shared his story of escaping a lyncshing after nearly being raped. Richard, in the essay “Black Masculinity and the Sexual Politics of Race,” is quoted as saying, “I went through a lot when I was a boy. They called me sissy, punk, freak and faggot. If I ever went out to my friends’ houses on my own, the white guys would try to catch me, about eight or twenty of them together. Sometimes white men would pick me up in their car and take me to the woods and try to get me to suck them. A whole lot of black people had to do that. It happened to me and my friend Hester.”

Sexuality has never been a comfortable topic of discussion in the African-American community due largely to slavery and then to what we African Americans appropriated from the dominant culture about sexual behavior after slavery in order to deem ourselves as human beings in the eyes of our oppressors.

First bred as cattle during slavery to later be touted out as either sex sirens or taunted as sex predators, black sexuality has never had a chance to evolve in a milieu free of abuse, violence and stereotypes. The raping of black women and the lynching of black men in this country by white men have always kept the control of black bodies away from us.

In carving out an essentialist racial identity, we African Americans have done it at the expense of leaving our bodies and sexualities behind.

With the embrace of fundamentalist Christianity that has embedded in its tenets an asexual theology, African-American bodies and sexualities that were once systematically usurped by white slave masters are now ritualistically harnessed by the black church and violently policed in the black community.

With the embrace of fundamentalist Christianity that has embedded in its tenets an asexual theology, African-American bodies and sexualities that were once systematically usurped by white slave masters are now ritualistically harnessed by the black church and violently policed in the black community.

With homophobia running as rampant in historically black colleges and universities as it is in black churches, there are no safe places to openly engage the subject of black sexuality. With sexuality being both socially constructed and performative, black male sexuality due to racist stereotypes becomes a caricature of itself that is heavily imprinted in society. Black gay sexuality within African-American culture is perceived to further threaten not only black male heterosexuality, but also the ontology of blackness itself.

“If you look historically at what black males were subjected to in the white community, to hear a black male saying he’s gay goes against the grain of society’s picture,” said Florence Bonner, head of the sociology department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., another HBCU. “The African-American community suffers from not having enough outlets for cross connection, or for all of us in general to talk about sexuality and the impact of living in fear of stating your sexuality.”

As I celebrate the usual pantheon of noted black heroes and sheroes for Black History Month, the unnamed music student at Morehouse who is a member of the college glee club will also be added to my list. While his heroic act will be lauded in the subculture of black queer life, it is his courage to have stepped out of a prescribed gender role and behavior at Morehouse that defines manhood and masculinity as only heterosexual that I will always remember.

And it is also his victimization by a colleague wielding a bat, who is the son of a minister, that I will also remember, because it serves as a reminder of how frequently LGBT people of African descent are figuratively as well and physically bashed on the head by members of our community who deliberately want to strike out our existence from the annals of black history.

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