"It is not enough to tell us that one was a brilliant poet, scientist, educator or rebel. Whom did he love? It makes a difference. I can't become a whole man simply on what is fed to me: watered down versions of Black life in America. I need the ass-splitting truth to be told, so I will have something pure to emulate, a reason to remain loyal."
--Essex Hemphill, from "Loyalty"
"I name myself 'lesbian' because this culture oppresses, silences and destroys lesbians, even lesbians who don't call themselves 'lesbians.' I name myself 'lesbian' because I want to be visible to other black lesbians. I name myself 'lesbian' because I do not subscribe to predatory /institutional heterosexuality. I name myself lesbian because I want to be with women (and they don't all have to call themselves 'lesbian'). I name myself 'lesbian' because it is part of my vision. I name myself lesbian because being woman-identified has kept me sane. I call myself 'Black' too, because Black is my perspective, my aesthetic, my politics, my vision, my sanity." -- Cheryl Clarke, from "New Notes on Lesbianism"
What was it like to be Black and "queer" in the early part of the 20th century? What is it like to bear that same label today? "Queer," not only in terms of sexuality, but race and gender as well.
As much as we may dislike the term, to be Black in America or to be a woman, is often conceived by the larger society as "queer"--that is different from the norm. But "queer," particularly in the context of this new anthology of LGBT writers, also extends to and signifies identity and ideological nonconformity--not a particular sexual orientation.
Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual African American Fiction (Cleis Press, $29.95) illustrates how many of the writers represented in this anthology were queer in terms of how they defined their racial identity, in terms of their conception and performance of their gender and how they both articulated and practiced politics--and the obvious--queer in their sexual identity and intimate relationships.
As the two authors quoted above suggest, race and sexuality cannot be separated. When one reads the works of authors like Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, or James Baldwin, three brilliant gay writers who far too often bear the onus of being cast as the only gay/lesbian writers in the Black literary canon, one is struck by the fact that their work reflects their race as well as their sexuality--even if the presentation is subtle and more nuanced then the works of a contemporary figure like James Earl Hardy.
Thus, as one reads the excerpts from the fiction of some of the previous century's most outstanding LGBT writers, it is important to observe the integrative methodological approach employed in the four introductions. The editors explain their rationale by saying "race, gender and sexual orientation are interconnected aspects of personhood." But they add they also intend to "complicate our understanding of history, civil rights and social and literary movements.
Just as noted author Cornel West states in his seminal text, "race matters," so too does sexuality matter. Perhaps one is more inclined to sympathize if not empathize with those who languish in prison, Black and guilty until proven innocent, when they too have felt the sting of hatred and oppression while on the job, from law enforcement officials or even from their family, because of their sexual orientation. The isolation, whether behind a prison cell or in one's own mind, is often quite similar in its emotional and spiritual destructiveness.
Black Like Us is organized into three sections: The Harlem Renaissance, 1900-1950 [although most scholars tend to say the period began in 1918 after World War I and ended in the mid-1930s]; The Protest Era, 1950-1980; and Coming Out Black, Like Us, 1980-2000.
A historical essay that explains the cultural, political, legal and literary conditions under which each author worked introduces each section. In addition, the introduction extends discussions of the political currents that shaped the identities of these authors and therefore the content of their work--gay-identified or not.
One cannot help but be struck by the fact that the voices we hear are not only those of the authors, but also their parents and grandparents, their children, former spouses, neighbors and friends. And while this anthology cannot claim any more than its precursors--Home Girls, Brother to Brother, Afrekete and In the Life--that it is the definitive study of Black queer fiction, it offers a broad and inclusive panoramic view of those men and women who sometimes risked their careers and their very lives to write about life--its vicissitudes, its joys, its challenges and its pain--sometimes only because one chose to say they were different.
The book also includes an extensive bibliography that offers the reader the opportunity to examine the literature in more depth. And the co-editors, Devon W. Carbado, Dwight A. McBride and Donald Weise, lead us forward in hopes of a greater appreciation of a wider canon of LGBT literature--a sometimes silenced but phenomenal tradition that includes poetry, memoirs, histories, anthologies, plays and academic studies.
While some of the authors are well known in Black American literature, others are not. But they have born good fruit. They are men and women like Richard Nugent, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Owen Dodson, Melvin Dixon, April Sinclair and Darieck Scott.
Finally, Black Like Us provides a foundation for one of the newest movements in the Academy--the study of gay and lesbian life. And it gives voice to a new and younger generation of gay Black youth who must live with the scourge of HIV/AIDS while attempting to discover their own songs to sing and reflections which bring them pride.