A group of BlackOutUK contributors went to see the debut of Matthew Lopez’s play, The Inheritance at the Young Vic in London. It’s on until May and definitely worth seeing. Inspired by the themes of Lopez’s epic, we got to wondering what knowledge, wisdom, or artefacts we have inherited from other black gay men and what we would like to pass on.
Here, Rob and Phil share their inheritance/legacy.
Once you’ve passed through the looking glass it’s sometimes hard to remember what it felt like on the other side. From here, I ask myself how could I not read all of the evidence of black queer existence around me, how could I not tell? How could I have felt so alone? My inheritance includes a book that has had more impact on me than I often care to admit, and that, at the time, was like catching a glimpse of Narnia through the wardrobe, Ul Qoma from Beszel, or getting a VIP invite to Wakanda. At that time, it needed to be obvious for me to see it, and it needed to be where I was – at that time, I was mostly in the library.
I’ve never met Professor Kobena Mercer, but he changed my life. As an undergraduate politics student trying to gain my bearings in the foothills of sociological theory and struggling to see the point, never mind the way, I came across his 1994 collection ‘Welcome To the Jungle; New Positions in Black Cultural Studies’ and fell in love with cultural theory. I was inspired to undertake a doctorate so that one day I’d be able to write as coherently and lucidly as Mercer about Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, or the politics of black hairstyles! One day . . .
Before even starting his beautifully phrased, insightful theorising, Mercer’s preliminary acknowledgments included the sentence, ‘I would also like to thank everyone involved in the Gay Black Group in early eighties London . . .’ I remember that sentence taking my breath away, evoking images of earnest intellectual debate, activism, radicalism, and above all community. I romanticised about squats and love-ins, Black Panthers and Black love. Prior to this point I had only been able to imagine gay intellectual life as excruciatingly white, Wildean, Bloomsbury salons or Black intellectuals as macho, beret-clad, Marxists. It allowed me to dream of a black gay intellectual life beyond the library – for ‘without community there is certainly no liberation’. (Audre Lorde (1980))
Mercer’s work is ground-breaking, and an inspiring example of academic authenticity; publishing his damning critique of Mapplethorpe’s fetishism, alongside a self-critical revision written three years later. In the same chapter he foreshadows Kimberlie Crenshaw’s work developing ‘intersectionality’;
Today we are adept at the all too familiar concatenations of categorical identity politics, as if by merely rehearsing the mantra of “race, class, gender” (and all the other intervening variables) we have somehow acknowledged the multiplicity of differences at work in contemporary culture, politics and society. Yet the complexity of what actually happens in-between, the contingent spaces where each variable intersects with the others, is something only now coming into view. Instead of analogies, which tend to flatten out these intermediate spaces, I think we need to explore theories that enable new forms of dialogue.
Thank you Professor Mercer
Some of it looks a bit like BlackOutUK – look around.
There is a life which has been inspirational to me that seems to be little-known among my peers – namely that of Alain Leroy Locke. The first African-American Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University (1907) and renowned as the ‘Dean’ of the Harlem Renaissance, creating spaces and platforms for a more diverse range of intellectual and artistic expression; and supporting younger queer voices such as Langston Hughes, Richard Nugent and Zora Neale Hurston.
We’re going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle, but W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe – Martin Luther King, 19/03/1968
His contributions are myriad. He is the only black queer man among the overwhelmingly white portraits on the walls of an Oxford college dining hall. Most apposite for BlackOutUK’s work though is his development of the notion of ‘race-building’. He calls for a move beyond shared oppression to the sharing of community in his seminal collection, The New Negro
Hitherto, it must be admitted that American Negroes have been a race more in name than in fact, or to be exact, more in sentiment than in experience. The chief bond between them has been that of a common condition rather than a common consciousness; a problem in common rather than a life in common (The New Negro p.7)
Alain Locke; poet, philosopher, philanthropist and activist – a reminder that we stand on the shoulders of giants.
I have inherited many things from older gay black men, but one thing that I really appreciate inheriting is the right to be unapologetically myself. Gay black men before me have fought so I could express myself however I want, in spite of the constraining identity preconceptions of a heteronormative, racist society.
Without these men fighting for a better future for the next generation my life would be much harder. Their campaigning has reduced stigma, helped change homophobic views within the government, given me the option to get married, stopped goods and services laws allowing discrimination against me because of my sexual orientation and provided legal protections within workplaces, life insurance, medical rights and inheritance.
Within the last 8 months, I have learned about the roots of social justice activism in black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, focused on inequalities in HIV and sexual health, considered the intersectionality of sexuality and race, and the importance of providing evidence that multidimensional black gay men exist in the UK with my mentor and activist friend Marc Thompson.
This is important to me because without this inheritance I wouldn’t have learned about LGBTQ+ history as deeply as I did, I wouldn’t have dedicated my career to this work or hope to one day build on Marc’s work. There aren’t many gay, black and African men that work in HIV and sexual health, I am in a very unique position and I have an opportunity to make a difference within my community.
I would like to pass on our histories as a legacy.
If we do not know where we came from what will we become?
Many millennial gay black men have no idea about the struggles that were faced by the generations of gay black men before them and do not yet appreciate or respect all the hard work that has got us to where we are today. If we do not know where we came from what will we become?
There is a massive divide between the older gay generation and the younger gay generation, I think other young gay black men would benefit from knowing about our history and realise that not only are we not so different from our elders but we can learn from them to make life better for the next generation.
I think that it is important to pass on the legacy of our history because without the men and women who paved the way for us by going through so much pain and sacrifice to give us the freedoms and rights we have now, none of us would be in the position we are in today. What they have done for us and what they have been through are too often forgotten. I also hope to pass the torch to another young activist in the future to continue the necessary work done here in London.
Tell us about what you have inherited and what you would like to pass on #BlackOutInheritance
The Inheritance is on at the Young Vic until May 2018 – get tickets here