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February 16, 2007

Evenings Out

Black history is made every month

February is Black History Month, and everyone is compiling lists of historically relevant African Americans. LGBT organizations and media outlets join in, noting Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Bayard Rustin and other black lesbian, gay, bi and trans people from the last hundred years or so.

Perhaps lost in this salute to the month are the artistic efforts behind the names, not to mention the chance to talk about those who will be in the history books tomorrow.

The response of community groups especially questions the idea of the “history” part of Black History Month--with the National Black Justice Coalition profiling newly-out former Cleveland Cavaliers player John Amaechi for the ninth day of the month.

Is “history” something that happened last week? Is a British athlete who played professionally in the United States for five years fair game for what is, essentially, an American observance?

Well, sure. Let’s take the opportunity to not only honor composer and pianist Billy Strayhorn and academician Melvin Dixon, but also Slow Train Soul’s Lady Z, poet Samiya Bashir and author G. B. Mann.

Slow Train Soul is the epitome of the European aesthetic that accepted Josephine Baker when she could not break through to stardom in the United States.

With a voice somewhere between Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, Lady Z is a bisexual black woman with a powerful voice, backed up by Danish producer Morten Varano.

Varano’s production owes much to American jazz musicians, and complements his chanteuse’s voice perfectly.

Their most recent release, Santimanitay, evokes music from eras as diverse as the Harlem Renaissance and the disco days.

Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, a soundtrack to the PBS Independent Eye documentary on the gay composer and pianist responsible for some of Duke Ellington’s greatest hits, puts together a diverse group of jazz musicians and has Elvis Costello and Dianne Reeves performing the vocals on over a dozen Strayhorn songs.

Interstingly, Ellington’s signature song “Take the A Train” is absent, despite the time spent in the documentary showing that it was actually Strayhorn who penned it.

Strayhorn’s compositions were intricate and, yes, lush, reflecting the creative mind behind them, a perfectionist whose skill was prodigious.

In the documentary, interviews with various musicians and family members of both Strayhorn and Ellington are interspersed with vignettes of actor Dulé Hill as the composer.

The CD is available in stores, and while the DVD is not yet out, those interested in it can email lushlifedvd@mac.com. More information and video clips from the documentary are available at www.pbs.org/independentlens/billystrayhorn/index.html.

The next in the Independent Lens series is “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes” by Byron Hurt, which will look at the clash between the poetry and lyricism of rap and hip-hop music, and its misogyny and homophobia.

G. B. Mann’s Low-Hanging Fruit (Grapevine Press) is the sexuality of rap music without the homophobia. This collection of stories deals with black men loving black men, plain and simple.

It suffers from the malady of many small-press offerings: it’s poorly edited, with capitalization, punctuation and grammar not what they should be, even taking into account the use of vernacular.

However, reading an erotic story is much like eating chili. The question is: Is it hot?

Mann’s work is hot.

Of some concern, though, is the almost complete disregard for safer sex. In an age when AIDS and HIV threaten untold same-gender-loving black men, not having more condoms in the book goes beyond literary license into the realm of the irresponsible.

Samiya Bashir’s verses in Where the Apple Falls (Redbone Press) deliver lushness in every line, love, pain, anger, sadness, joy and fear, page by page.

“The Trouble with This Harvest Time,” for instance, illustrates the chasm between blaming the victim and the reality of victimization, that even someone who lives dangerously has a right to her safety.

And “Foxfire,” dedicated to Amiri Baraka, one of the creators of the African American poetry form, leaps off the page, staccato bursts of words firing in typeset rounds.

“Amazon’s Confession” is a call to arms, a celebration of the power of sisterhood and anger at the interloping men who view themselves as the center of the universe.

Bashir has the ability to be the Lorde for a new generation of women, a leader, a light guiding the way through the darkness of civilization in the new millennium.

A Melvin Dixon Critical Reader, edited by Justin A. Joyce and Dwight A. McBride, collects eight critical essays by the author, poet and scholar who died of AIDS in 1992, months after delivering an address at the OutWrite queer writers’ conference. That address is also included in the collection.

Dixon was never one to throw the baby out with the bathwater, always looking to the future while keeping himself firmly grounded in the past.

His study of the works of writers in the African diaspora provides fodder for essays so informative, it’s almost impossible to read them and not try to find these books by Haitian, Martiniquian and French writers, working in tandem with the Harlem Renaissance writers, many of whom were themselves gay.

While Dixon’s works in this book don’t necessarily focus on homosexuality, “I’ll Be Somewhere Listening for My Name,” his address to the OutWrite conference in 1992, draws parallels and comparisons between the efforts of black and gay writers, and plants himself firmly in both worlds.

“As gay men and lesbians, we are the sexual niggers of our society,” he said 15 years ago. “Some of you may have never before been treated like a second-class, disposable citizen. Some of you have felt a certain privilege and protection in being white, which is not to say that others are accustomed to or have accepted being racial niggers, and feel less alienated.”

“Since I have never encountered a person of no color, I assume that we are all persons of color,” he continued. “Like fashion victims, though, we are led to believe that some colors are more acceptable than others, and those acceptable colors have been so endowed with universality and desirability that the color hardly seems to exist at all--except, of course, to those who are of a different color and pushed outside the rainbow.”

His use of the “N” word is inflammatory, yes, and deliberately so. He goes on to use the “F” word made so infamous by Isaiah Washington, as well as terms like dykes, sissies and bulldaggers.

Whatever the epithet, however, he embraces the identity underlying it, among a myriad of others. If everyone would read his speech, see the power in his words, perhaps they would realize that black history is made every day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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