Reclamation: The Value of Black Gay Writing LGBTQ Studies Panel

How gratifying to see a packed house on October 14, 2008 for a discussion of Reclamation: The Value of Black Gay Writing! Cosponsored
by CLAGS and Freedom Train Productions (, the panel of scholars—Terry Rowden,
professor of African-American Literature, College of Staten Island (CUNY); Jafari Sinclaire Allen, assistant professor of Anthropology
and African-American Studies/American Studies, Yale University; La Marr Jurelle Bruce, Ph.D. student, African-American/
American Studies, Yale University—and me, publisher Lisa C. Moore (RedBone Press) came to discuss the impact of black gay writers on
the community and academia… and to bear witness, reclaim and critique the work within the first two black gay men’s anthologies, In
the Life: A Black Gay Anthology (Joseph Beam, ed.) and Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men (Essex Hemphill, ed.).
Joseph Beam began editing In the Life in 1984 after years of frustration with gay literature that had no message for—and little mention
of—black gay men. Essex Hemphill finished Beam’s Brother to Brother after Beam’s death in 1988 from AIDS; Hemphill died in 1995
from AIDS. Together, these two books broke ground, becoming testaments to the power of words to change lives. Long out of print and
passed from hand to hand by those in black gay communities seeking affirmation of their identities, In the Life and Brother to Brother also
form the base of black queer studies, and provide a range of black gay men’s perspectives to queer studies, women’s studies and black
studies programs across the country.
First up to speak was La Marr Jurelle
Bruce, who presented from a paper entitled
“AIDS Poetics and the Enchanted-Infected
Body.“ Bruce’s talk was a meditation on the
works of two queer poets of color, both of
whom became infected with HIV/AIDS,
both of whom wrote with/through/against
the disease, both of whom would eventually
succumb to it: African-American
poet Melvin Dixon (also appears in In the
Life and Brother to Brother), specifically his
posthumously published collection Love’s
Instruments; and Chicano poet Gil Cuadros,
author of a collection of poetry and prose,
City of God.
Bruce suggested that in these volumes, “the AIDS-infected body is not merely
the site of biomedical phenomenon: It is also a site, symbol, a matrix of social, spiritual, and ideological dramas.” In the texts under consideration,
Bruce added, portrayals of such bodies are hyperreal—that is, the poets examine physiological details of disease with graphic,
painstaking detail. And yet, such bodies are also frequently surreal—that is, inflected with the supernatural, exceeding the bounds of
realism, charged with magic. The coalescing of the hyperreal and the surreal, of natural deterioration and supernatural augmentation; of
disfiguring and transfiguring is what Bruce called “a poetics of the enchanted-infected body.”
Next up was Dr. Terry Rowden, who picked up on Bruce’s theme of the AIDS-infected body as site for drama and discussed the “problematics
of community and the conditions of possibility.” He noted, “The sense of pathos created by the fact that … many of the men
whose work appears in In the Life and Brother to Brother, most notably the editors themselves, are no longer ‘still proud and living’ is one
of the most telling aspects of these books as both historical and memorial documents, and as living texts whose vitality is signaled by the
‘reclamatory’ work by Lisa [C. Moore] and Jafari [Allen, who wrote the new introduction to Brother to Brother].” Rowden suggested that
Joseph Beam and Essex Hemphill started the process of “legitimation” of a black gay identity, but it has largely taken place in “creative
expression across a range of genres and social sites rather than through explicitly politicized action in the service of a specifically black gay
agenda. Most of that overtly political work has been subsumed under the banner of LBGT activism as a macrocommunal enterprise. It is
only now that the blackened demographics of AIDS (or maybe just the blackened discourse of AIDS talk) and the scapegoat rhetoric of
black men on the ‘Down Low’ has entered the American racist imaginary that the need for a specifically sociopolitical discourse of black
gay male or black homosexual or black queer desire has been vitalized.
“[A]cross their voices and genres, In the Life and Brother to Brother reveal the awareness of a generation of black gay men that community
formation is an act of both consolidation and separation,” Rowden said. “On the one hand, there is a desire for the consolidation of black
gay manhood as a culturally distinct way of being both black and gay. On the other, there is recognition that this consolidation could only be achieved by separation from both the
normative force of a white gay movement…
and from an enabling but essentially prosthetic
investment in the writings and strategies for
social and sexual community formation being
crafted by lesbians and black women. Perhaps
the achievement of the men whose work we
are here to both ‘reclaim’ and honor is to have
made the well from which we can draw sustenance
immeasurably deeper.”
Dr. Jafari Allen spoke last, reading excerpts
from his new introduction to Brother to Brother,
and from an unpublished paper titled “Find Yourself
a Friend.” He affirmed that “academia has claimed In the Life and Brother to Brother, but
what about the community outside of the academy? How will it/is it used there?” He then
read from Marvin K. White’s Our Name Be Witness (forthcoming, RedBone Press) as an example
of a “living black gay poet,” one who avers that there is a gap between the generation
of black gay writers in the pages of In the Life and Brother to Brother, and those writing now.
“As Marvin K. White says, ‘No one signed our birth certificates; no one named us as next,’”
said Allen. “My questions are these: How might the work be changed? What about the
bloggers, such as Kenyon Farrow and others, who are working now? What would Beam and
Hemphill make of this phenomena? Do we want this work to be canonized in academia?
How else can it be used? What is the disposition of the remains of the Black Gay Body [of
work]? Do we continue to pick over the bones of dead geniuses?”
I give many thanks to James Earl Hardy, who wrote the new introduction to In the Life, and to Colin Robinson of Other Countries, who
provided me with invaluable information in researching the estates of the deceased contributors to both books (one-third to one-half of the
writers are dead). May both books continue to spark affirmation, critique and growth.
Lisa C. Moore is the founder and editor of RedBone Press, which publishes work celebrating the culture of black lesbians and gay men and promoting understanding
between black gays and lesbians and the black mainstream. Most recently, RedBone Press published Spirited: Affirming the Soul and Black
Gay/Lesbian Identity; Blood Beats: Vol. 2, film and music criticism by PEN Award winner Ernest Hardy; and reprinted In the Life: A Black Gay
Anthology and Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men. Moore is board president of Fire & Ink, an advocacy organization for LGBT
writers of African descent.