Our commitment to publishing feminist and lesbian writing has sometimes made our relations with our communities difficult and even painful, but the longer the press has existed, the easier it has become to get an intelligent and open response to this work, and we have been met with increasing interest and understanding.Barbara Smith A Press of our Own: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press (1989)
I wrote an article – Good Mirrors for Invisible Men – in April. It reflected on the global outpouring of anger and sympathy in response to the brutal murder of father/son/brother/human George Floyd. Murdered by an agent charged with keeping the peace in the world’s leading democratic state, because he was Black. I lamented the lack of material change since the sanctioning of trading in humans on the basis of their Blackness. I marvelled at the effectiveness of the white supremacist hardwiring to modern capitalism that still appraises Black lives so cheaply. Racism is so deeply ingrained, and its lingering trauma so pervasive, that it diminishes even the empathy which humanises us. It both hardens our hearts and dulls the synapses. Or at least so it must seem to Black people across Britain, who are once again surprised that their white compatriots can once again be surprised at racism and its pernicious, persistent impact.
Most Black Britons by now will be familiar with the sleight of hand employed by social/cultural commentators in the mainstream media. The distraction tactic that somehow means that the malign impact of racism (where acknowledged) is not caused by racists (a moniker reserved only for the most swivel-eyed of thugs). The recent trend has been to attach blame for racism to university students for choosing not to spend their time debating against racists. These are the young people who deserve to be pilloried. They should be ridiculed for being ‘woke’. The crime of taking an ideological stand different to that of many of their elders – for example, from those who the government appointed to compose a report on racial injustice that, in essence, accused victims of racism of over-reacting, and having a ‘chip on their shoulder’ – a widely discredited report that the government cannot even yet be bothered to respond to. Nine months have passed since publication while the report languishes in the proverbial policy long grass. Meanwhile, youth unemployment hits twice as hard for Black youth. A group at risk of being left behind in London, while the government ‘levels up’ largely white, red/blue wall land. Reverting to racist type during lockdown, police stop and search of Black young people in London now achieves similar frequency to the injudicious use of bogus ‘sus’ laws 40 years earlier that sparked rioting across English inner cities. While the headline writers have moved on, the omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to shine an unforgiving light on racial inequities; making them potentially fatal, even while being poorly understood.
In the article, published in a collection jointly commissioned by the Race Equality Foundation and the Institute for Public Policy Research, I noted how twenty years of anti-racist research, and public policy influencing had effectively stolen my voice from me. I supposed that given the elaborate game of charades in which I had become engaged, voice was a redundant feature. I had sought a myriad of formulations to sugar the ‘Yes, you are racist‘ pill, had tied myself in knots to widen my media appeal to curry favour with the print, radio, and tv news gatekeepers, to be a non-threatening, amenable, invisible messenger – to be heard, but to never be the story. I debated with racists, and with journalists ‘just playing Devil’s advocate, you understand’, perhaps believing like former US President 45, that there are ‘good people on both sides’. My role was to persuade a mirage, that elusive member of the audience I had never met, and who was never likely to identify herself to me, because everyone knows, ‘no one is racist’.
I led a think tank that at its best designed and gave directions to progressive dreams of a non racist future. More often though, it was vulnerable to being constantly dragged into debates with shadowy opponents, required to comment on racism like a TV quiz show adjudicator, declaring ‘you are the weakest link . . .,‘ (except who wins in a game where any attention is good attention? Racism is automatic controversy, is easier than creating something new, and sells just as many books). The subject matter was nearly always oblique to racism, trivialising Black folks’ experience, and rarely capable of definitive closure – or else who would ever phone in, or be angry enough to click and share? It had somehow become my role to employ the master’s tools to make running repairs to the master’s house, which he would have to pay for at the same time as not notice the mend. The alternative? I could become entertaining enough to be kept around, spin each TV appearance into a magazine article or eventual self help book.
Langston Hughes famously asked, ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’, and, already unsure who’s dream I’d been lumbered with, I decided not to hang around to find out. I thought instead that I might be able to join ‘them’, as beating ‘them’ seemed to only generate victories of the hollowest kind. So I joined the BBC, as a senior ‘diversity’ hire – maybe I could make it work, and be able to create new work. I had become tired of the gravity of each think tank decision, of the self-imposed, financial constraints from a make do and mend ethos, plus the additional alienation of competing for attention/resources with those in other racial justice organisations who should have been allies, but like two bald men fighting over a comb, limited funding in the racial issues pot, and the pet issues of funders who always new better than the experts, combined with significant ideological differences, that we knew that we would never make time to discuss, meant that we risked becoming the bitterest of rivals with other anti racists (of course the real rivals, the racists, kept well away from us).
At the BBC, I soon realised the critical distinction between media that is popular and that which is important, and soon after, why few others chose important as their arena of operation, opting instead for the frivolous rather than finding that rewarding intersection between the two. Unable to settle for irrelevance and unwilling to settle for a diversity sinecure, however well paid, I set about learning about corporate leadership, disruptive media tech, the politics of public service media, and the possibilities of operating at scale. I rediscovered that I am motivated by radical, necessary, change – to my surprise, even more than I was in my youth. I realised too, that
now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow.WEB DuBois
and that for me, purpose will always drive profit. Having seen the damage that racial capitalism has wreaked on Black people I am immediately dubious of claims that market forces alone can be the route to Black liberation, but at the same time I know that failing to disrupt the current market hierarchies only reinforces existing inequities.
Assiduously, I try to ‘follow the money’ and avoid propping up systems that have rarely if ever worked for Black people.
In the summer of 2016, I approached Marc Thompson and Antoine Rogers with some thoughts about disruption, decentralised accountable organisations, new communications technology, but first and foremost a shared commitment to revolutionary love for Black queer men. We committed to support each other as much as we could and BLKOUT UK was born. Brilliant, insightful and energetic, they both brought excellent and complementary skills to what I was imagining as a 5 year project.
In 2019 Antoine needed space to focus on his writing, and by early 2020 Marc had other exciting media projects to pursue. In the intervening years, BLKOUT had started to take on a shape that none of us would have predicted. Our initial literary/cultural hub concept had given way to a much broader form of community organisation, ‘following the money’ we were inspired by publishing houses like Barbara Smith’s Kitchen Table. Our community-led research project, In The Picture highlighted the scale of need, that we had known about but had found difficult to enumerate.
With support from a new team – Romeo Effs as Treasurer, with Nalla and Francis as fellow board members from July 2020, we established a new company (limited by guarantee), independent of Evidence To Exist who had previously acted as our ‘incubator’, and began operation with a not-for-profit constitution, as a prelude to completing full charity registration in due course.
The best laid plans were scuppered by our existential need to survive the COVID 19 pandemic. Rather than 2020 spent raising funds for BLKOUT on the back of the research as planned, the pandemic encouraged us to do what we could with our limited staff resource (me and the angelic volunteers that came forward to do what they could from where they were) in support of Black queer men. Given what we now knew from the research about the experiences of loneliness and isolation likely to be experienced by Black queer men, it felt like the only justifiable decision.
I took on community management of the app, event management, and administration, along with fundraising, governance and communications.
An onerous set of tasks – ones which I have not always been able to complete to a standard that I would have liked – they have delivered numerous opportunities for learning. The tasks have pushed me well beyond my comfort zone. I have become accustomed to failing in public (worse, in front of an audience of my peers)- a feat that astounds my inner control freak. I’ve broken the silence that anti-racist policy development imposed (this article is already 4x longer than I intended – thanks for sticking with it!), and am now actually looking forward to expressing views and taking positions.
I should apologise to all the journalists and interviewers who have tried to get more out of me than ‘official-spokesperson’-Rob could allow. I apologise to all that came looking for answers but only got more questions. I’ve been doing my best to unlearn years of seeking to do for folk – to always have the answers or to bluff as if I did, and am now really keen to do with, which means admitting when I don’t know but committing to find out with you.
No longer on mute – what #JosephBeamDay revealed for me
I dare us to dream that we are worth wanting each other.Joseph Beam
I’ve been thinking about Joseph Beam a lot over this Christmas period. His genius, and his generosity of spirit that saw him marshal so many disparate voices (after all, we know what we can be like) and distill messages that unify while respecting difference. I think of his sensitivity – the young man who was so concerned with his integrity and authenticity that coming to terms with his sexuality, his political organising, and his Catholic upbringing meant not completing his degree. Telling his parents Dorothy and Sun Beam why he had dropped out, and receiving their affirmation, must have been amazing for him. As it must also have been to meet Essex Hemphill, a younger, kindred spirit, and for them both to meet Audre Lorde after she had given the keynote at the ‘National Third World Lesbian and Gay conference‘ in 1979. Lorde wrote about the meeting in her journal –
I felt a connection to certain men I’d never found before – black men I never new existed. I’d like to send Jonathan [Lorde’s son] off to some of them. . .They were saying things I’d never heard any men say beforeRudolph P Byrd, Create Your Own Fire: Audre Lorde and the Black Tradition of Radical Thought
She would go on to personally fund the first edition of Black/Out that Joseph was to edit for the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays. Lorde would also write a poem in memory of him, Dear Joe. It starts;
How many other dark young men at 33 left a public life becoming legend
The same eloquent, energetic, driven activist was shy of meeting other men, and never had a love affair. His shame and fear after having been diagnosed HIV+ meant that he never disclosed to any of his friends or family. He died on Christmas Eve, alone in his flat, his body not discovered until three days later, just three days before his 34th birthday. Black men loving Black men remains revolutionary – yet even for the man who penned these words, love for self and romantic love for another Black man remained unrealised.
I was reminded of how vulnerable we are as gay men, as black gay men, to the disposal or erasure of our lives.Melvin Dixon
Love and letting go
Reflecting on this evidence of the texture of Joseph Beam’s life – he is not a two dimensional character but a complex human with a history, habits, and challenges, as well as triumphs – at his death he still had things to do.
I set the task for Joseph Beam Day of finding 10 of us to respond to one or more of the questions about love, family, care and legacy. 8/10 is a leading alpha, I’ll take that. It was not merely the quantity, but the quality of your responses that I particularly appreciated
As well as the implicit reminders that we don’t have to agree to be in ‘communion’ with each other as the late bell hooks noted:
It seems to me that it we would do well as black folks to replace the notion of unity with the notion of communion. The root meaning of it would suggest that our union is fundamentally based on a notion that we must be willing and able to communicate with one of another. Bbell hooks, Black is . . .Black Ain’t (1994, dir: Marlon Riggs)
Similarly, your films and audio clips reminded me that challenge is a part of this endeavour – our spaces are more often ‘brave’ than safe