The Lavender Veil – Excerpt from “Sin Against the Race”

In one of my history classes at UCLA, we read W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. Originally published in 1903, it is included in the celebrated reader of early African American scholarship, Three Negro Classics.  My professor described Souls as a wake up call to white America,

“… to ask of this nation three things:

1.  The right to vote.

2.  Civil equality.

3.  The education of youth according to ability.

Du Bois portrayed black Americans as living in a world separate and apart from white Americans, the separation defined as a veil that does not allow those on the outside to see the true nature of those inside.  There are consequences for folks on either side.  Those outside the veil develop their own prejudices which hinder understanding and respect for blacks.  Those inside the veil can sometimes do the same for themselves.

Shortly after studying all this, I came out and in a flash the whole concept of the veil had new meaning for me.  I had been living behind a veil, a different veil.  I started calling it the lavender veil.  At the time I came out (1988), the world of queer folk was very invisible.  A few cracks existed.  There would be the odd mention or cameo appearance, for example, on more progressive shows like “Barney Miller” or “The Golden Girls.”  But larger, more consequential events, like the 1987 March on Washington, were totally ignored in a way that would never happen today.  Today, the gay has become downright mainstream, but the separation still exists.  In vast areas in the country, the lavender version of Du Bois’ most famous metaphor is as strong as the old Iron Curtain.

This concept is discussed in the following excerpt from Sin Against the Race.  Bill discusses his coming out saga over dinner with boyfriend Roy and den mother Sammy.  Bill’s story is itself taken from An Angel in a Shower Stall, but from a part of the story I haven’t posted here.

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Acting Up at Sammy’s – from Sin Against the Race

The first piece I ever had published was an excerpt from Sin Against the Race that told the tale of some black gay folks attending their first ACT UP meeting.  It was included in the anthology Sojourner:  Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS in 1993.  The passage has survived every rewrite of SATR to the present day.  Actually, my sister insisted that I include it.

So below is the current version as it appears in Chapter 15.

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Bashing Big Bird

Big Bird and I have grown grey together.  If you look at him closely, you’ll see a tuft of white feathers on top of his head.  It’s been there for a while, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t born that way.  Maybe he was, and I just don’t remember.  But in any case, it pleases me to think that my old friend, whom I grew up with, is aging and surviving just as I have managed to do.

So the Republicans want to defund public broadcasting again.  Yawn.  As Rachel Maddow pointed out on tonight’s show, they pull this stunt every time they get in power.  And the Democrats respond with “they’re trying to kill Big Bird.”  Though I guess the aging bird couldn’t make the rally but Arthur the Aardvark did.

Rachel rightly stated that the attack against public broadcasting isn’t fiscally driven, even if that’s what some Republicans might say.  The Corporation for Public Broadcasting isn’t exactly rolling in the dough.  Its 2010 budget saw a federal contribution of $420,000,000.  Defunding CPB won’t exactly rid the country of its multi-billion dollar deficit.

No, the move to defund, either partly or entirely, public broadcasting is strictly ideological.  Beyond the usual conservative talking point about wanting smaller government, public broadcasting, and Sesame Street in particular, represent what they hate the most about the 60s.  CPB is the child of progressive thinking and an optimistic view that said things are possible.  At a time of racial strife, the Sesame Street had white folks and black folks and Latino folks and Asian folks, and a bunch of furry monsters and feathered birds, getting along peaceably.  Other shows born during this period include The Electric Company and Villa Alegre, both also impressively integrated for its era.  I think, I fear, that the bi-lingual Villa Alegre, which portrayed Spanish-speaking people in a positive light as intelligent, three-dimensional human beings, could never get produced today, in this age of SB 1070.  Some folks, I fear, don’t seem to mind that.

Public broadcasting is all about opening doors.  This crop of Republicans seem to be all about closing them.  Culture be damned.  Children be damned.  Well, how we fund our culture, how we fund institutions for our children is the very measure of who we are as a society.  We can cut funding to CPB and get rid of Big Bird and Grover (my personal favorite).  We can cut funding to National Public Radio and get rid of Piano Jazz and Jazz at Lincoln Center.  But is that what we really want?  I give generously to KCSM, Jazz 91, and have for the past 14 years.  Keep jazz alive.  But I’d like some of my tax money to pay for it, too, and to pay for public stations which I may never hear in parts of the country I may never visit.  Because a cultured society, an educated society, a society which fosters these higher ideals in its children is the society I want to live in.

Ideological vapidity be damned.

Re: Vision

I was hoping to put up more short stories.  Some need revisions before I’m willing to put them out there on the internets.  However, I’ve still working on revisions to my novel.  I find that every time I think I’m done, I realize that no, in fact, I’m not.  This is a good thing.  Chapter 1, for instance, has already changed quite a bit since the version I put up here a few months ago.  Stuff has been edited down.  Stuff has been streamlined.  I’m happy with it.  We’ll see what happens.

I’m reminded of a chapter on revision in a textbook on composition I had for a writing class at UCLA.  The chapter was just one page long and consisted of an excerpt from an interview Ernest Hemingway gave the Paris Review.  He said he revised the ending to Farewell to Arms 39 times before he felt OK with it.  The interviewer asked if something had stumped him, but Hemingway simply said he was just trying to get the words right.  Yep.

Back to work.

He made me laugh

I wanted to wait a few days before putting something down about the sudden resignation (termination?) of Keith Olbermann from MSNBC.  My thoughts are influx about what really went down — and we may never fully know the answer.  But I still don’t think he was necessarily pushed, even if Keith himself used language suggestive of that outcome during his sign off speech.  Rachel Maddow, during her tribute to Keith on Monday’s Rachel Maddow Show, stated that there is no corporate influence over the editorial control of her show, and that there never would be.  So she’s not going anywhere.  That seemed to jibe with my initial instinct that if Comcast, the soon-to-be-owners of the NBC networks, really wanted to get rid of the lefty evening programming on MSNBC they would just do it.  They wouldn’t nickel and dime it to death.  Clean sweeps occur on network TV all the time.  So call me naive, but I don’t think there is a grand conspiracy here.  I think this article’s title summed it up pretty well:  MSNBC and Olbermann:  A Failing Relationship.

Regardless of the reason, I still have a heavy heart about the end of Countdown with Keith Olbermann.  He made me laugh, often.  In addition to saying things that virtually no one says on TV, he said them eloquently and, when the occasion merited, with a good deal of humor.  He is a damn good writer, and I hope he continues to put up posts on Daily Kos from time to time.  And needless to say, he is a stalwart friend of the queer community, coming out with a very moving editorial in defense of gay marriage during the height of the Prop. 8 mess.  But he was a voice of all those who are considered underdogs in the mainstream of society.  He has always been an interesting voice — I am hardly a sports dude, but truth be told, he was the most interesting thing on ESPN and I did catch him during his gig there from time to time.  Though in my mind, his best work to date has been on MSNBC.  Not just his own work, but he used his position to help Rachel and later Lawrence O’Donnell get their own shows.  Not bad.

Sure, he could get carried away.  Some might call him a blowhard.  Fortunately, he usually knew when to dial it back a bit when called on the excesses.  But he did something which is becoming an increasing rarity in our cynical world:  he wore his heart on his sleeve.  I’m an old romantic, so I admire someone able to do that consistently.  I hope it won’t be too long before we hear his voice again, whether it be online or on TV.  We need the voice.  And I always need a good laugh.

Kim Jong-Il Looking At Things

My voyage on the shortwaves, mentioned a couple of posts ago, long ago took me to the peculiar country of North Korea — or more formally the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  DPRK is sort of a bizarre anachronism, a microcosm of old school Stalinism living into the present day.  So its shortwave station, Voice of Korea (formerly and more famously known as Radio Pyongyang) is equally bizarre and anachronistic.  The programs, when you can pick up the station, are usually a hodgepodge of rants and bombast touting the glories of North Korea and condemning the evil West and their “puppet” government in South Korea.  This is old-school Radio Moscow or Radio Peking shit!  And neither of those stations have existed in either name or spirit in about 20 years.  But Voice of Korea is holding it down and keeping it real with their special brand of insular, isolated, the-rest-of-the-world-don’t-exist programming.

The programming is just a reflection of the country as a whole.  North Korea is built upon an extreme, even by Stalinist standards, form of cult of personality.  The personalities are supplied by the family Kim, first Founding Father Kim Il-Sung (aka Great Leader) and after he died his son, Kim Jong-Il (aka Dear Leader).  Dear Leader’s son, Kim Jong-Un, has been tapped to be the next Leader, though I think his title is still influx.  In any case, a great deal of the programs from Voice of Korea, and Radio Pyongyang before it, focus on the activities of the countries leader, visiting places, meeting troops, etc.  Now, in the age of the internet, photos of such events are easier to come by.  And some clever soul has made them into a website perfect for those of us obsessed with this odd place.  Enter Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things.  Now we can see photos of Dear Leader doing what he does best, visiting places in his country and looking at things.  It’s bloody brilliant.  I think nothing better encapsulates this country’s peculiarities than this very simple site.

Short Story: The Swing Shift

This story could be called a love letter to the Duke Ellington Orchestra.  I wrote it around the time I fell head over heels for all things Ellington and started listening to his music 23 out of 24 hours in the day — a practice I continue to the present time.  I immersed myself in all things Ellington to learn as much about what Mahalia Jackson once called a “sacred institution.”  And that’s when I learned about Billy Strayhorn.  Mr. Strayhorn was the Maestro’s composition partner from about 1939 to 1967, when Billy died of cancer at the age of 51.  But I was moved and awed when I learned that Billy was gay and that he was, for his era, fairly open about it.  That is to say, he didn’t go to great lengths to hide it.  He wore no beards.

So this got me to thinking about being black and gay in the 30s and 40s, and that was the inspiration for The Swing Shift.  This story was originally published in the magazine Mobius  in 1999.

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Ptolemaic Takeover

With the Republicans taking control of the House, there will be ample examples of ptolemaic logic in the coming days and months.  Chief among them will be items pertaining to the budget.  They will cut, cut, cut the budget until the cows come home and scrutinize any new expenditures to the hilt.  But they will lower taxes without nearly as much scrutiny.  Both add to the deficit, which they profess to care deeply about, but still, tax cuts get a pass.  Why?  Because it makes their base — rich people — happy.

It’s going to be an interesting year.

Homo Sum

I am not a Christian, but I will gladly say Merry Christmas.

I am not a Muslim, but I will gladly say Ramadan Mubarak.

I am not a Hindu or a Jain or a Sikh, but I will gladly say Happy Diwali.

I am not a Jew, but I will gladly say Happy Hanukkah.

I am human

Homo Sum

I am human

Homo Sum

I am human

Homo Sum

And the sum of humanity will always interest and fulfill me.

Let’s get some peace in 2011.

✌ ♥

Shortwaves & Honey Cakes

Some time in November 1975, I was home from school and in something I think we can call a funk.  My older brother Robert and I shared a bedroom.  I was 10.  On this day he showed me what the funny looking metal thing with the vacuum tubes was all about.  It’s a 1937 Stromberg-Carlson Model 250 broadcast receiver, capable of getting AM and shortwave.  He introduced me to the world of international shortwave radio.  From our little bedroom in our house in South Central LA, I could hear voices from around the world.  It was love at first listening.  The geek in me loved the thought of radio waves traveling such enormous distances:  from Cuba, from Canada, from England, from Australia, from Japan, from India, from Holland, from Germany, from China.  And my soul was deeply enriched by hearing those other voices, voices I would never have otherwise heard and viewpoints I would have otherwise never known.  I would not have developed my international perspective at so early an age had it not been for my twiddling with dial of my old radio at all hours of the day and night.

Shortwave radio is the godfather of the Internet.  Radio frequencies between about 1700 kHz and 26,000 kHz have the ability to bounce off the ionosphere, a high level of the earth’s atmosphere, and return to earth where it may bounce off the earth’s surface and off the ionosphere again, and so on.  All this bouncing about carries the signal great distances, much greater than standard AM or FM signals can travel.  And all without satellites.  In the 1920s, governments put this then-nascent technology to use to broadcast radio programs to distant lands, typically to their colonies.  The Dutch were one of the first, creating Radio Station PCJ to broadcast to their then colony the Dutch East Indies — or as we know it now Indonesia.  Holland to Indonesia, not bad.

By the 1970s, when I started listening, there were scores of nations on the radio dial broadcasting news and propaganda to the globe, especially propaganda — this was during the Cold War, after all.  The US’s shortwave service is the Voice of America.  But we also operated Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which aimed transmissions and programs specifically towards Eastern Bloc nations.  To counter this, the Soviet Union had Radio Moscow and Radio Peace and Progress.  Trippy stuff.  More objective news could be found from BBC World Service or Radio Australia.

But my main station was from the country that helped start it all.  Radio Nederland Wereldomroep, or Radio Netherlands Worldwide, used to have a Sunday program called “The Happy Station.”  It was started in 1928 by an Edward Startz, who worked for the aforementioned PCJ.  It was a variety show with music and chatter, programs about Mr. Startz’s travels, listener letters, etc.  The show came to an end during the Second World War.  After the war, in 1947, Radio Netherlands was founded and Mr. Startz was invited back to continue The Happy Station, which he did until his retirement at the end of 1969.  A new young fella by the name of Tom Meijer took over.  That’s who was doing the show when I started to listen to it.  I liked Tom.  He was fun and quirky and could spin yarn after yarn for as long as the broadcast lasted whether it be an hour or two hours.  He retired in 1992 and the show itself was retired by Radio Netherlands a few years later.  (Happy Station was recently been revived, with Radio Netherlands’ blessings, by Keith Perron who’s based in Taiwan.)

One of the shows broadcasted in my early days of listening was a recipe show, featuring Dutch delicacies.  I can’t remember all of the dishes, but one has remained a standard for the past 33 years:  Honey Cake.  I wrote to the station and they gladly sent the recipe along.  I excitedly asked my mom permission to bake it, and she said “Of course!” and gathered all the ingredients for me:  honey, sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, eggs, coffee.  The only ingredient she didn’t allow was cloves.  She hated cloves.  She said it reminded her of the toothache medicine she had to take as a child.  So we ditched the cloves.  Otherwise, I made the recipe as proscribed and out came a yummy coffee cake like treat.  Apparently the Dutch eat honey cake as a coffee cake year round, but I got into the habit of making it for Christmas.  That’s when I made the first, for Christmas 1977.  I was 12.  Everyone loved it.

The hardest honey cake to make was for Christmas 1996.  Mom had been gone for six months by then.  But I did something impish, to lighten the mood a bit.  For the first time, I included cloves — just a dash, as the recipe said.  I don’t think it made that much of a difference in the flavor.  I guess only Mom would have noticed.  Moms notice everything, you know.

Shortwave radio has been dying a long slow death for the past couple of decades.  First fiscal belt-tightening put the squeeze on many international broadcasters — shortwave stations are hella expensive to operate.  The transmitters usually use upwards of 250 kilowatts of power and require tons of oil and stuff to run.  That adds up.  And of course, the internet arrived.  It’s much easier to hear and see the world now than it was in 1975.  I can listen to Radio Netherlands easier now via podcast than I can on my radio — you know, the funny looking thing with the vacuum tubes.  My dad restored that radio, by the way, in 1968.  Still works.  My prediction that it will likely outlive shortwave itself may well come true, alas.  Though shortwave radio is still important in the developing world where the internet and satellite radio are still cost prohibitive.

There.  I just took the 34th Annual Honey Cake out of the oven.  Smells like Christmas has arrived.  These days I usually bake a couple, one for here and one to send to family and friends in LA.  For those of you who want to try it, look below the fold for the recipe.  73s and Merry Christmas.

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