“BLACK LIVES MATTER” started as a slogan, a response to a spate of police killings of unarmed black men in 2014, a rebuttal to the message that Black lives were expendable. The slogan turned into a movement, re-awakened last year by the murder of George Floyd, and the phrase “BLM” came to mean more than “Please don’t kill us.” It’s a reminder of the vast contributions that African-Americans have made to every field of endeavor.
This would certainly include the province of this magazine, LGBT history and culture, where Black writers, activists, and artists of all kinds have been central to our struggles and achievements. Recent issues of this magazine have featured articles on James Baldwin, who wrote what some consider the first openly gay novel (Giovanni’s Room); Lorraine Hansberry, author of the classic play A Raisin in the Sun; and Civil Rights activist and legal scholar Pauli Murray.
In this issue, Andre Bagoo reconsiders the leading poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, who tried to play it straight but left clues in his work and personal writings that suggest otherwise: a fascination with men beyond the platonic and a secret life that we would call the “down-low”—a notion captured by director Isaac Julien in the 1989 film Looking for Langston. Julien’s film created a phantasmagorical version of the Harlem Renaissance with Langston at the center of a coterie of gay Black men who confront their dual oppression.
Years later, Samuel Delany would create another surreal world with a Black gay (or bi) protagonist in the classic 1974 dystopian novel Dhalgren. Russell B. Christie argues that the prison colony Bellona (i.e., Manhattan?) recreates on an epic scale the state of imprisonment experienced by both gay and Black people. The prison theme returns in an interview with filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, whose breakout project was a docudrama titled Stranger Inside (2001), which laid bare the abuses of the U.S. prison-industrial complex in general and its impact upon incarcerated Black lesbians in particular.
If the distinction between “high” and “popular” culture still means anything, then it must be said that the African-American impact upon the latter has been immense. Chloe Davis makes the highly defensible claim that Blacks have largely defined the meaning of “cool” for the past century. This influence is especially evident in LGBT culture, which has tended to flourish in large cities, precisely where “cool” is propagated. Davis focuses on language and shows that LGBT vernacular typically has its roots in African-American soil, from the Harlem Renaissance to RuPaul’s Drag Race. But why stop there? The Gay Liberation movement was expressly modeled on the Civil Rights movement; the soundtrack of gay life may be disco, but it all started with jazz, soul, and rhythm & blues; our divas are Aretha, Donna, and Sylvester; and now we have Lil Nas X.