Photoessay: Hidden in the Open

I love photographic exhibits.  One of my favorites was a retrospective of California based 20th century photographers at the Oakland Museum of California some years ago.  It featured the works of Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and other masters of that generation.  A good photograph tells a story reflecting some aspect of the age in which it was taken.  It becomes a window to the past.

A few weeks ago my sister sent me a link to an absolutely amazing online photoessay entitled Hidden in the Open:  A Photographic Essay of Afro American Male Couples. Not only did this serve to introduce me to the exhibit’s totally cool creator, Bronze Buckaroo, but the exhibit itself has enthralled me with its depiction of African American males in various poses of closeness and friendship.  As BB notes, we cannot know for certain if in fact all of the men in the pictures were gay.  Though some of them, in my eyes anyway, scream girlfriend! with snaps flung high.  It is too easy to fall into these pictures and speculate on the lives behind them, both the figures shown and the one behind the camera.  Where did they hang out?  What music did they listen to?  What were their hopes and dreams and fears?  What would they tell you about themselves if you could interview them?  Each photo tickles you with these questions.

Hidden in the Open is a well put together exhibition that pries open a window to the past that is too often boarded-up.  I highly recommend checking it out.

Excerpt: Sin Against the Race, Chap. 1

[Editor’s note:  This excerpt is from an earlier draft of the first chapter.]

 

Sin Against the Race began life close to 20 years ago as a short story about a young black man in his late teens named Bill Hawk.  During his coming out process, Bill witnesses a gay bashing in the large city park across the street from his family’s apartment, and he has to decide whether to retreat back to the closet or come out swinging.  The story has grown and evolved considerably over the years.  An excerpt was published in an anthology, Sojourner:  Black Gay Voices in the Ages of AIDS in 1993.  A backstory involving Bill was published in Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly in 2005.  (You can find a bit of that story at Bronze Buckaroo’s Wandering-Caravan site.)  The book as a whole has acquired a respectable history of rejection notices like all good manuscripts do.  But I’ve continued to work on it, between life events and the ever-present urge to Give Up.

That urge evaporated in 2008 with the passage of California’s Proposition 8.  I received a Yes on 8 mailer featuring a group of black (male) religious figures, all advocating a vote to “protect marriage.”  Protect it from what?  Anyway, I became incensed.  To be sure, the phenomenon of homophobia in the African American community, often and loudly touted as one of the contributors to Prop. 8’s passage, was grossly overblown by the media.  But that isn’t to say that it does not exist.  Prop. 8, of course, is an abomination and that there are some in the African American community who willing supported it, like the reverends and preachers on the Yes on 8 mailer, proved that no, in fact, Giving Up is not an option.  So I spent the next two years rewriting SATR (as I affectionally call it) from scratch.  Much has changed.  Most notably, the emphasis has moved from Bill to his friend Alfonso Berry, III, the scion of a politically powerful black family, who out of necessity has lived his life in the closet, until Life Events happen.  I am at a stage now where I am comfortable showing it around.  Hence the except, below.  It’s the first 23 pages or so, so it’s kinda long.

Have at it, and thank you.

Continue reading

Evolution

1985.  UCLA.  Sophomore year.  I fell into the swell of anti-apartheid protests that engulfed the campus that year and began to live the life of the “activist student.”  My mother made a suggestion.

“You should start writing a journal.”

I agreed with her, but it took another year before I began in earnest.  She knew I was a writer before I did.  She was often right about those sorts of things.

The journal started as a chronicle of my burgeoning career as a student protester.  I was studying the life and ways of Mahatma Gandhi at the time, and it showed.  Yikes!  I cringe at some of my early entries.  I sound like a bloody Gandhian puppet.  My voice, my real voice, was deeply buried, yet to be discovered.

1987 should have been the journal’s first watershed year, but it was a test I failed miserably.  I barely wrote in it at all.  I still look back at that period with much regret and sadness, because I would love to now be able to reread an accurate chronicle of what I truly thought and felt at that time.  I even remember erasing one of the few honest entries I had made.  I wrote them in pencil in those days, so tenuous I was, so afraid to speak too loudly, even as I shouted slogan after slogan at protest after protest.  My journal had (and has) no audience apart from myself, though I fancied it an open book for all to see, again, mimicking the Gandhian model.  A facade, and a sad one, which kept me from having conversations with myself, conversations I desperately needed to have.  I suspect my whole pretense about the open journal was to keep me from having those conversations.  I remember taking an intro to psychology course at that time.  I failed because I never went to class.

In any case, the cracks to my facade began to appear by the end of ’87.  First was the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights on October 11, an event woefully underreported at the time and now a date observed internationally as Coming Out Day because of this event’s importance to queer history.  I knew a couple of folks at UCLA who went.  Their stories intrigued me, even if I was not able or willing to admit it.  They gave me hope.  Then something else happened.  In late November, I had my first true sexual experience, and it was with a man.  Until that point, I had never had sex of any kind with a man or a woman — as closeted as I was with myself, it never felt right to me to date women so I never did.  I wrote about this great episode obliquely in the journal, scribbling some gibberish about getting it out of my system and expressing relief that I could finally “move on.”  Ha.  Move on to the next man, no doubt.

Flash forward to April 1988.  I finally admitted to myself, in my journal, that I’m a gay man.  That broke the dam and the flood has continued, in one way or another, ever since.  So in the end the journal became a tool to help me come to terms with, and accept and embrace, my sexuality.  I came out to my family by writing them a letter entitled “What James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, and Gregory Russell have in common.”  I made a special trip to the family house — I had moved out by that point — and gave the letter to my mother and sister, who were home at the time.  My mother put down the letter after reading the title and stood to give me a hug.  My sister joined her.  It was all good with them and later with my father and three older brothers, too.  I exhaled.

It’s impossible to write without honesty.  It’s impossible, I continue to learn, to write well without the courage to say what needs to be said.  As I continue to write fiction, largely about things black and gay, I continue to find new challenges for myself to say what I really want to say, to say it clearly, to say it well.  the gar spot is just another evolution of this process.  Forces in my life have often advised me to start blogging.  (“Fool!  Start a blog!” my sister often said.)  I resisted because I didn’t think I’d have enough to say to maintain a proper blog.  Who knows, maybe I don’t.  I leave that for you and the fates to decide.  But at least now, finally, I’m willing to give it a go.

Mazal tov.