Born in Philadelphia, an African-American author hugely influenced by the Black American Civil Rights and Black Power movements, he studied journalism, was an active member of the Black Student Union, and after completing his Master’s Degree in communications got a job at Giovanni’s Room Bookstore the oldest LGBT bookstore in the USA. From 1980 he wrote news articles, personal essays, poetry, and short stories for The Advocate, Body Politic, Gay Community News, and the New York Native. His work reflected on the life experiences of Black gay men, criticised both the racism of the mainstream white Gay and Lesbian Movement and the limitations of non binary sexual expression in the Black community.
In 1984, the Lesbian and Gay Press Association honoured him with an award for outstanding achievement by a minority journalist. However, shortly thereafter he left the LGBT literary scene due to growing and deep-seeded disappointed about the lack of Black male voice. Beam recognised how work by white gay writers addressed three camps: the incestuous literati of Manhattan and Fire Island, the San Francisco cropped-moustache-clones, and the Boston-to-Cambridge politically correct radical faggots. None of them spoke to me as a Black gay man.
A consummate activist and intellectual Joseph Beam helped to resurrect the flagging National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays – originally founded in 1978. Beam editing the organization’s journal, Black/Out. collected material for his pioneering anthology and nurtured the budding talents of dozens of men who had never written for publication.
Beam secured his place in Black LGBT literary history as the editor of 1986’s In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, a ground-breaking first of its kind anthology of works by Black same-gender-loving men. Beam said:
In The Life spoke for the brothers whose silence has cost them their sanity and the brothers who have died of AIDS.
Beam saw In The Life as a tool to organise and community building. His own essay, “Brother to Brother,” focused on friendship, love, and eroticism among Black men as a means of self-affirmation and group solidarity in the face of the pain and anger that arose from dealing with a white LGBT movement that did not address the concerns of people of colour, and a heterosexual black community that refused to accept Queer men. He wrote:
I cannot go home as who I am and that hurts me deeply. Aren’t all hearts and fists and minds needed in this struggle or will this faggot be tossed into the fire?
Beam died of complications related to AIDS in 1988, just three days shy of his 34th birthday and nearly 1 year to date after the death of Baldwin. After his death, Beam’s mother and his friend Essex Hemphill completed a second anthology of Black Gay men’s writing, Brother to Brother (1991), which Beam was working on when he died. Essex Hemphill’s memorial poem:
“When My Brother Fell”
He burned out
his pure life force
to bring us a chance
to love ourselves…
Dream like Beam
Though his life was brief, Joseph Beam’s influence was far-reaching. An inspiration and a mentor, Joseph Beam never stopped promoting the idea that “visibility is survival.” Beam writes:
I dream of Black men loving and supporting other Black men. I dare us to dream that we are worth wanting each other.
Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act of the eighties.” AND NOW!
BlackOutUK has an open invitation for those who identify as black gay/bi/SGL/queer men in the UK to share ideas and insights. We are seeking to create and support networks among Black queer men that help us to dream, and to achieve those dreams.
See BlackOutUK ambassadors at UK Black Pride to find out more.
We’ll be wearing these: