February 18, 2005
Say it loud
Two nations have different views
“The future belongs to those who prepare for it today,” said Malcolm X.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“Revolution is not a onetime event,” concluded Audre Lorde.
The past, present and future of African Americans and the larger black community have always been inextricably linked. A sense of those who have gone before marries with the current situation to determine where things go from here.
Intertwined with the timeline of the black community is the tale of the African American gay man and lesbian, bisexual and transsexual. Appearing periodically, staying in the background like Bayard Rustin or demanding center stage like Richard Bruce Nugent, Ma Rainey and Lorde, same-gender-loving African Americans bridge the perceived gap between the “gay community” and the “black community,” a bridge that assumes the racism of the gay community and the homophobia of the black community. Unfortunately, all too often that assumption is proved correct.
Dwight A. McBride’s Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch, released by New York University Press, deals abundantly with that bridge in this collection of ten essays, including the eponymous one.
McBride expends more intellectual energy justifying his dislike of the popular clothing chain than perhaps any other person on the planet. He interviewed a number of former employees and managers, illustrating the company’s active marketing to the gay community while almost pathologically excising anything that evinces “blackness” or an “urban” feel. Whether as subtle as dress codes that prohibit hairstyles popular among black men or as blatant as district managers ordering store supervisors to force out black employees, that chain is simply not fond of anything it views as less than “all-American.”
Of course, McBride doesn’t accept African Americans who try to discount LGBT people of color either, taking to task black studies scholars who try to “straighten out” James Baldwin’s life and writings or simply brush aside gay issues for black issues.
McBride, chair of African American studies at Northwestern University, tends to use academic-speak, a strange language involving polysyllabic words not commonly heard outside of universities, like essentializing, patriarchal and imbricated. Certainly, one could use any of those words in a normal conversation, but would one?
Of course, in the United States, people tend to think that these problems are unique to this country.
Wesley Crichlow’s Buller Men and Batty Bwoys, released by University of Toronto Press, deals with black gay men in Toronto, Ontario, and Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“Buller men” is West Indian slang for a butch gay man, while “batty bwoy” is a more feminine one. Both terms have come more into the mainstream consciousness following the furor over reggae stars like Elephant Man and Beenie Man, whose lyrics often advocate violence against gay men and lesbians.
Crichlow’s book tells a far darker tale for the most part, illustrating more of the violence perpetuated against black gay men, both physically and emotionally.
If it seems like there is woefully little community organizing for LGBT people of color in the United States, it is perhaps just that much worse in Canada, where it is assumed that everyone will take care of each other.
Many black gay men stay relatively closeted, knowing that the black community and the black churches will shelter them as long as their sexual diversity is not too evident.
Others refuse to hide or deny parts of themselves, and might be met with violence, often from within their own families. Crichlow’s tales of black gay teens forced to live on the streets to escape abusive parents are hair-raising and harrowing.
His main bogeyman behind the homophobia in the black community in those two large Canadian cities is “bionationalism,” the idea that the body of the person of African descent belongs to the community, to continue the community. Therefore, a black gay man is attacking the community by not using his seed to sow a new crop, so to speak.
The book is a fascinating glimpse at a familiar issue with a twist, since there are different dynamics at play in Canada, and many more members of the black community are descended from more recent immigrants from the West Indies.
And, as King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”