25 December 2007

Shaming The Brotherhood (Part One)

The Late Joseph F. Beam

Two decades ago, I took part in an historic event. I was one of thirty-five writers who contributed to a book called Brother To Brother: New Writings By Black Gay Men. This book was the follow-up to In The Life, a groundbreaking collection of Black Gay prose and poetry published in 1986. The editor of that first volume, Joseph Fairchild Beam, was laying the groundwork for Brother To Brother when he suddenly, tragically chose to commit suicide. The unfinished project was then taken up by his grieving mother, Dorothy Beam, and by Essex Hemphill, a highly-respected poet and activist.

I submitted my poems "Comfort" and "Jailbait" to Joseph Beam just prior to his death, so I don't know whether it was he or Essex Hemphill who chose them for the final manuscript. Whatever the case, I was altogether thrilled to learn that I'd made the cut. I had the honor of seeing my name listed on the contents page with those of seasoned scholars and artists like Assotto Saint, Melvin Dixon, Ron Simmons, Issac Julien and Marlon Riggs. Brother To Brother was lavishly praised in the Gay press upon its release in 1991, and went on to win a Lambda Literary Award. Its critical and commercial success inspired subsequent anthologies devoted to writings by Asian and Hispanic Gay men.

Fast forward to a year ago. I was contacted by Lisa Moore, the owner of Washington DC-based Redbone Press. Redbone is one of this country's main outlets for LGBT writing by people of color. Lisa recognized Brother To Brother as a milestone publication, and was determined to get it back in print. She painstakingly tracked down the 35 contributors (and in some cases, their survivors; several, including Essex Hemphill, have since died) and got from all but one signed permission to republish their work.

This month, Brother To Brother hit bookstores again in a fresh binding, with 95% of its original contents intact and new contributions by Moore, journalist Chuck Tarver, and Jafari Sinclaire Allen, an instructor from the faculty of the University of Texas. It's a classy reprint and a proud testament to Lisa Moore's persistence and hard work. When you want to get something done, put a Black woman in charge!

The reappearance of this literary triumph should prompt nothing but celebration, and for the most part, it does. Unfortunately, there's a shameful stain on the pages of the refurbished Brother To Brother! The stain didn't have to be there; it could've easily been avoided. It's there as a result of reckless insensitivity and a misguided attempt to appear "cutting-edge". Its presence speaks to how minority groups often allow majority group ignorance to creep into their thought process!

It's especially bothersome when an academician falls prey to ignorance! I'm talking about Dr. Jafari Sinclaire Allen. I'm talking about the adolescent love for the Q-word he displayed in his introduction to the 2007 edition. At the climax of his essay praising the rise of Black Gay literature, his rhetoric suddenly became insulting:

. . . what do we make of the fact that there are now nearly as many Black queer (sic) academics as there are Black queer (sic) writers and artists? . . . it is clear that the new, brilliant work of Black Queer (sic) Studies . . . located in the queer (sic) section of Blackademia, the Colored section of queer (sic) theory, and in small pockets of various disciplines, is still inappropriately and inadequately matched to the task of substaining liberatory Black queer (sic) praxis.

Dr. Allen's usage would be ludicrous if it didn't resonate with such a strong Jim Crow sensibility! "Queer section?" "Colored section?" I couldn't believe my eyes.  I said out loud: Is this dude for real? A wave of nausea overcame me when I finished reading his ill-conceived outburst. It both saddened and enraged me that he had not only called all the Brother To Brother contributors "queers", but also every other Black writer and/or artist who happened to be Gay, Pansexual or Transsexual.

I don't blame Lisa Moore for not editing out his degrading language. Regardless of what she may have thought about it, I know she didn't want to censor anyone. Lisa wanted both old and new contributors to express themselves freely in their own words. Therefore, I place the blame squarely on the one who expressed himself in such an offensive manner! Freedom of speech should never be free of accountability for what's been said. After obtaining Dr. Allen's email address from Lisa, I made my feelings known to him in a message dated 6 December 2007. Here's an abridged version of it:

Sir, when you talk about your same-gender-loving brothers and sisters, please take care what language you employ! I was highly alarmed to see you repeatedly refer to Black Lesbians and Gay men as "queers". To say that I was insulted doesn't even begin to convey the depth of feeling I have about what you did. I regret that you chose to take something positive and turn it into a vehicle for ignorance. If that sounds harsh, I'm sorry, but I want you to realize what harm you're doing.

Words have power; if they didn't, then neither you nor I would be writers, would we? Depending on the context in which they're used, certain words have the power to either educate and uplift, or denigrate and confuse. I often wonder why, when it comes to epithets like "queer" and "d*ke", the sensitivity of LesBiGay scholars like yourself seems to evaporate into thin air? I'm sure you'd never, ever casually refer to Jews as "k*kes", to Latinos as "greasers" or to Black folk as "n*ggers" in an academic context. Yet, you've somehow convinced yourself that it's empowering and progressive to saddle Gay and Transpeople with sexual slurs, and you fling them around like they're going out of style!

"Shaming The Brotherhood" concludes with Part Two.

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