This compelling book recounts the history of black gay men from the 1950s to the 1990s, tracing how the major movements of the times—from civil rights to black power to gay liberation to AIDS activism—helped shape the cultural stigmas that surrounded race and homosexuality. In locating the rise of black gay identities in historical context, Kevin Mumford explores how activists, performers, and writers rebutted negative stereotypes and refused sexual objectification. Examining the lives of both famous and little-known black gay activists—from James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin to Joseph Beam and Brother Grant-Michael Fitzgerald—Mumford analyzes the ways in which movements for social change both inspired and marginalized black gay men.
In the following excerpt from Not Straight, Not White: Black Gay Men from the March on Washington to the AIDS Crisis (pp. 11-13), Mumford describes a meeting between Bobby Kennedy and Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and Jerome Smith that he considers the beginning of modern black gay activism.
Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and Bayard Rustin—each belongs to African American gay history while contributing to a turning point in the civil rights movement in the summer of 1963. Their queer intervention concerned, first, the federal government’s role in protecting southern demonstrators, during an important meeting between Baldwin, Hansberry, and an assortment of other celebrities with Attorney General Robert Kennedy in his Manhattan home, and, second, Rustin’s disputed role in the iconic mass demonstration the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. By this time Baldwin had published The Fire Next Time, the best-selling “disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice,” and Hansberry had distinguished herself as the youngest and first black woman to win the New York Drama Desk award for the Broadway sensation A Raisin in the Sun. The two writers were introduced during the workshop production of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, based on his controversial 1956 gay novel, and met again at the premiere of Hansberry’s play in Philadelphia. Though a box-office success, a few had criticized the drama for its apparent celebration of the American dream of upward mobility, but in a brief 1961 review Baldwin instead compared Hansberry to the radical novelist and essayist Richard Wright, emphasizing their shared critical vision of an American dystopia.
Their meeting with Kennedy on May 24, 1963 was prompted in part by Baldwin’s essay “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” which appeared during the increasingly violent spring of police-demonstrator confrontations in Birmingham and other southern cities. Published in the New Yorker, the long piece meditated on American racism, seeing white prejudice as arising from the reality that the “white man’s masculinity depends on a denial of the masculinity of the blacks” and that therefore the nation subjected the “Negro” to many “horrors.” After reading the essay, Kennedy had reportedly contacted Baldwin and sought the meeting because he wished to hear “fresh” ideas on “coping with civil rights problems.” If he had invited only the older and more moderate celebrities, such as Lena Horne or Harry Belafonte, it seems unlikely that the meeting would have ended as it did, in frank disagreement and an acrimonious exit. But the presence of Jerome Smith, a participant in the southern Freedom Rides that continued to press for the desegregation of buses and stations, had raised the stakes. Baldwin referred to Smith as a “tremendous man,” recalling his police beating with brass knuckles in demonstrations in New Orleans. Smith’s presence attested to the need for stronger federal protection of demonstrators. Along with Smith, Baldwin and Hansberry became the most notable participants in the secret meeting, with photographs of the two published the day after, dubbed by the New York Times as the “ ‘angry young Negroes,’ ” which presented the public with a compelling combination of rebellion, celebrity, and creative genius.
Disagreement over the government’s approach escalated when Baldwin asked Smith if he would fight for his country and Smith replied that he would not, quite to the astonishment of the attorney general. Baldwin reported, “Kennedy’s face turned purple but he remained silent. The meeting could not be put back on the track of amicable discourse.” Next, Lorraine Hansberry entered the stage, according to several accounts, and said, “Look, if you can’t understand what this young man is saying, then we are without any hope at all, because you and your brother are representatives of the best that a white America can offer; and if you are insensitive to this, then there’s no alternative except going out in the streets . . . and chaos.” Then Kennedy heard Jerome Smith say that being in the same room with him was nauseating and, to paraphrase, made him want to throw up. Baldwin recalled that “Bobby took it personally,” “turned away from him,” and apparently looked to the others in the room in search of support from a “representative Negro,” which Baldwin felt was a mistake. They were “the reasonable, responsible, mature representatives of the black community,” summoned by Kennedy not only to advise but also to lend public support to the president’s moderate approach to civil rights that was coming under attack. The famed social scientist Kenneth Clark recalled that “Bobby got redder and redder and redder, and in a sense accused Jerome of treason.” In turn, Hansberry directly challenged him: “You’ve got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General. But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there,” indicating Smith. Baldwin exclaimed that because of the government’s failure to protect southern demonstrators, he was contemplating violence. It was to become the meeting that “shattered them all,” in the words of the presidential historian Arthur Schlesinger, a turning point that Clark described as the “ ‘most intense, traumatic interchange among adults, head-to-head, no holds barred . . . the most dramatic experience I have ever had.’ ”
Bobby Kennedy was surprised by the vehemence of the young members of the contingent, and in turn the press portrayed the scene as a crisis that raised questions about his capacity to deal with race issues, at one point reporting that he was in for the fight of his life. Baldwin became a formidable combatant of the government—“the bitter and brilliantly articulate spokesman for the Negro who says, ‘integration now,’ ” wrote the New York Times. Likewise, Hansberry, usually assigned only a few paragraphs if any in the standard textbooks, was making civil rights history. Upbraiding the attorney general, she in effect took on Smith’s burden and reportedly “exploded,” charging that the government was “worrying about ‘specimens of white manhood’—recently immortalized in photographs showing their knees on the breasts of Negro women who had been dragged to the ground.” According to Baldwin’s 1979 recollection, “the meeting ended with Lorraine standing up” and saying “Goodbye, Mr. Attorney General,” followed by the others. For Baldwin, the atmosphere became “caustic,” and Kennedy later reported that “it was all emotion, hysteria—they stood up and orated—they cursed—some of them wept and left the room.” Baldwin attributed the insurgency to the irrepressible anger of Hansberry: “We passed Lorraine, who did not see us. She was walking toward Fifth Avenue—her face twisted, her hands clasped before her belly, eyes darker than eyes I had ever seen before—walking in an absolutely private place.” This memorable moment of emotionality, radical refusal, and principled resolve ought to be seen as a signal beginning of modern black gay activism.
From Not Straight, Not White: Black Gay Men from the March on Washington to the AIDS Crisis, by Kevin J. Mumford. Copyright © 2016 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Kevin J. Mumford is professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
- Black and White Men Together Newsletter (BWMT ) New York 2, no. 7 (1982): 1, BWMT Ephemera Collection, John J. Wilcox Library, William Way Community Center, Philadelphia, Pa. (WW); James S. Tinney, “James Baldwin ‘Comes Out’ at Gay Forum,” Blacklight 3, no. 5 (1982): 1.↩
- “BWMT Celebrates Fifth Anniversary, March 7–13, 1986,” Philadelphia Gay News; “Ad Hoc Planning Report,” January 19, 1986, BWMT Ephemera Collection, WW; “BWMT—PHILA, 5th,” BWMT Ephemera Collection, WW.↩
- D’Emilio, Sexual Politics; Bérubé, Coming Out under Fire; Chauncey, Gay New York; Stein, City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves; Houlbrook, Queer London; N. Boyd, Wide-Open Town; White, Pre-Gay L.A.; Avicolli, Smash the Church; Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A.; Howard, Men Like That; Hoag, Same-Sex Affairs; Marcus, Making Gay History; Beemyn, Creating a Place for Ourselves; Stryker and Van Buskirk, Gay by the Bay.↩
- Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy; Canaday, The Straight State; Stein, Sexual Injustice; Sides, Erotic City; Marcus, Making Gay History; Stein, Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement; Rupp, Desired Past; White, Pre-Gay L.A.; Armstrong, Forging Gay Identities; Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A.↩
-  Mumford, Interzones; Ngo, Imperial Blues; Molesworth, And Bid Him Sing; Wilson, Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies; Christa, Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance; Wirth, Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance; Van Notten, Wallace Thurman’s Harlem Renaissance; Tillery, Claude McKay.↩
- Hine, “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women,” 43–44; Mitchell, Righteous Propagation; Summers, Manliness and Its Discontents; “LGBT African-Americans and African-American Same-Sex Couples,” 2012, Williams Institute, Los Angeles, Calif.↩