By Angelique Smith
Joseph Beam's In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology ( 1986 ) came at a time when there was a lack of cultural guideposts for, and authentic reflections of, Black gay men. The book touched on isolation, revolution and revelationand paved the way for Steven G. Fullwood and Charles Stephens to bring Black Gay Genius, an anthology of poems, essays and interviews from activists, creators and academics.
Some pieces allude to Beam's influence, and some are recollections of Beam himself, but all are an homage to being "in the life," and the very idea of it found, helped, defined, shaped and changed those who read it.
Windy City Times: In the introduction, you speak of the absolute compulsion to create this book. Can you talk more about that?
Charles Stephens: The book emerged out of conversations that Steven and I'd been having over the years, in addition to conversations that we've witnessed among Black gay men of different generations. We wanted the opportunity to harness the power of those conversations and pay tribute to an amazing legacy. Oftentimes, the particular kind of activism in the '80s that figures like Joseph Beam and Essex Hemphill were engaged in has in many ways been erased from our historical memories.
Steven Fullwood: We are trying to reclaim and capture the work of our elders, their memories and what they did for us. Learning how to be accountable to that which came before you is always a challenge, given that books go out of print, people's works are lost, memories fall into a void. … We wanted to bring Joe back into the public conversation through this work.
CS: Many of the issues that we grapple with today are not completely different from that previous generation. We wanted very much to use this book as a blueprint, as a way to excavate some of those lessons. It's 2014, we're still grappling with racism, homophobia, classism, hegemonic masculinity … and it's extremely important to look back at the legacy of these figures.
WCT: Robert Reid-Pharr states, "Hemphill and Beam expressed not only their desire to see the development of a Black, gay, progressive community, but also the fear that in their efforts to draw such a community together they were, in fact, further isolating themselves." Is it more important to call on the support of other marginalized groups or ensure that the Black, gay community fights for itself in order to remain authentic?
SF: I think we can do both. Working with other people on multi-platform issues is a necessary thing. The way that we typically approach keeping community together makes us think that we dilute our message or we don't serve our own needs if we align ourselves with like-minded people in other culturesI think that's incorrect. There are class and gender issues that are critical for us to understand from other people's points of view. I don't think it's an "or," I thinks it's an "and." Early on, perhaps you had to go personal so that it would become universal.
CS: I think that the brilliance of Beam, being very influenced by Black feminism, was that he was able to capture the singularity of the Black gay experience while also seeing the importance of thinking intersectionally.
WCT: The LGBT community hears so much about the Harvey Milks and the Vito Russos, but not the Joseph Beams. Has there been any significant progress with QPOC being given their due in terms of historical contributions in the LGBT struggle?
SF: The reason I think people know the Harvey Milks and other white icons is because their iconography is constantly being produced through print, documentaries, the names of centers … it's a whole cultural practice. It's a power thing: it's not only about whose book stays in print, it's also about who values what you do.
CS: There's also an extraordinary cost to living the life of a radical. Beam wasn't aligned with elite institutions and there's a consequence of not being in close proximity to institutional power. Beam was a waiter and he worked at Giovanni's Room [the bookstore]. He wasn't an academic, he didn't write for the mainstream media and when you make those kinds of choices, or when those choices are sometimes made for you, you're going to be erased.
WCT: Referencing Uhuru's poem"See you don't understand, my own people don't consider me a man," or Ward's [with], "I'm too stubborn to apply for equal rights in my own people's eyes"do you think we're lagging behind in terms of acceptance within our own community?
SF: I honestly don't think Black people are any more homophobic than anyone else. That's the line I'm hearing a lot; that's the public face of it, we hear about homophobic Black ministers, the family that didn't accept their son or daughter. For every person that didn't have acceptance in the home, there are many more that tell a more nuanced story about different levels of acceptance. My coming out experience was extremely positive and I'm not the only one. I don't think we're lagging behind anyone at all, in some ways I think we're quite progressive.
CS: The narrative of Black people being more homophobic works to obscure the ways that Black gay men have suffered extreme racism in white LGBT spaces, historical and systematic strategies to marginalize Black gay men. With any mythology, you have to complicate it, you have to resist it. It's not about not acknowledging that there's homophobia in Black communities, but it would be very simplistic to just leave the narrative there and not examine the very complicated experience of oppression.
WCT: How did you finalize which works would appear in the book?
CS: We had a very big vision, we wanted to have a book that was diverse in terms of age, gender, geography, experiences, styles of writing. … It's ultimately about celebrating, affirming and uplifting this legacy.