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Out, no doubt: today's black gay and lesbian poets proudly proclaim their identities and show their varying talents to an increasingly receptive public. (poetic license).

Recent accomplishments by openly gay, lesbian and bisexual African American poets point to a rise in profile and stature of these writers. Carl Phillips, for example, won the 2002 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the $100,000 prize for his fifth book, The Tether. And in 2003, Jamaican-born performance poet Staceyann Chin, an out lesbian, was an audience favorite among Tony Award-winning cast of Rusell Simmons's Def Poetry Jam on Broadway.

For some people, the move from margin to center by "out" black poets may be surprising. But many gay and lesbian poets agree with spoken-word poet and hip-hop artist Tim's West (author of Red Dirt Revival: A Poetic Memoir in 6 Breaths, Poz' Trophy Publishing, October 2003) when he says, "Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered poets are so prominently represented in the black poetry canon--from the Harlem Renaissance, to the Black Arts Movement, to the current proliferation of spoken word poetry--that it almost makes little sense to make any distinction."

THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE

Many important figures associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s were gay, lesbian or bisexual, but most writers from this time did not write about gay themes publicly. Richard Bruce Nugent was one of a handful to publish explicitly same-sex work. His short story "Smoke, Lilies, and Jade" appeared in Wallace Thurman's one-issue journal Fire!! But A. B. Christa Schwarz's recent book Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (Indiana University Press, July 2003) explores how poets including Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and Langston Hughes often "encoded" their work with gay lingo that could be picked up by readers in the know. And letters and poems written to women by poet and playwright Angelina Weld Grimke, for example, were not widely circulated until scholar Gloria Hull uncovered Grimke's buried life in an essay in the 1983 anthology Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (Kitchen Table/Women of Color).

Today, black gays and lesbians embrace Langston Hughes as part of their community, although biographer Arnold Rampersad and members of the Hughes family deny that he was gay. Regardless of Hughes's orientation, many openly gay poets acknowledge him as a major influence. "Hughes's work inspired me to want not only to be a poet, but also a black man in my work," says G. Winston James, author of Lyric: Poems Along a Broken Road (Grapevine Press, June 1999). "Hughes, in a sense, made me want to write my poetry on my skin so that people could read my poems and meet me--know who I really am."

GROUNDBREAKERS: AUDRE LORDE AND ESSEX HEMPHILL

The economic collapse of the Great Depression effectively ended the Harlem Renaissance. World War II, the Cold War's gay-baiting "Red Scares" and the strident homophobia of many in the Black Arts Movement kept most black gays and lesbians in the closet. From the 1940s to the late 1960s, African Americans were collectively focused behind the issue of race to gain civil rights; issues of sexuality and class often fell by the wayside, with the notable exception of the novels of James Baldwin.

Gay themes generally weren't talked about until the late 1970s. With the end of de jure racial segregation and the start of the Women's Movement and gay-rights activism, works such as Black and Queer by Adrian Stanford (1977) and Movement in Black by Pat Parker (1978) began expressing the complex relationship between race, gender and sexual orientation. Two important poets with an outsized influence during this period, both for their commanding personalities as well as elegant and uncompromising work, were Audre Lorde and Essex Hemphill. Both authors appeared in the influential Norton Anthology of African-American Literature (W. W. Norton & Company, November 1996). Hemphill, who made significant poetic contributions to the films Looking for Langston (1989) and Tongues Untied (1991), is the final entry in that edition. "I was so hungry for a different take on this homosexual thing, I almost died waiting for one," Steven G. Fullwood, founder of the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive project at New York's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, wrote in a memorial "open letter" a year after Hemphill's death in 1995. "Although I knew there was something else, I couldn't articulate it or even fully imagine what it could be. I was overwhelmed by your simple words, your testimony. As a consequence, I worked to articulate and chronicle my own pains and joys about being African American, homosexual and unapologetically funky."

THE 1980S BOOM AND THE BEGINNING OF THE AIDS EPIDEMIC

The increased visibility of gays and lesbians and the creation of gay- and women-owned independent publishing houses and bookstores helped to fuel an explosion of work in the 1980s. In some ways, the mid-1980s to the early 1990s were a second Renaissance emerging in the black gay and lesbian community, not just in Harlem but also throughout the country. Joseph Beam's groundbreaking In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology (December 1986), and its companion volume Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men (Alyson, December 1991), edited by Hemphill, were just two of a number of anthologies that gave many black gay and lesbian poets and writers their first exposure to the reading public. New York City's Other Countries Collective released Black Gay Voices (1988) and Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS (1993). Assotto Saint founded Galiens Press, publishing his own poetry in Stations (1989) and Wishing for Wings (1994), and the work of other gay male poets in The Road Before Us: 100 Black Gay Poets (1991) and Here to Dare: 10 Black Gay Poets (1992). Like the other anthologies, Saint's anthologies mixed established poets with newcomers, including some, like Thomas Glave and Bil Wright, who would later go on to establish careers in fiction.

Just as the gay and lesbian literary scene was on the rise, however, AIDS, breast cancer and other illnesses took away many of its founders and leading lights. Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Melvin Dixon, Assotto Saint, Donald Woods and many others left the scene in their prime, leaving a void that in some ways may never be filled.

Building on the foundations of the past, many of today's black gay and lesbian poets are out and working in a variety of different poetic genres. African American poets including Pamela Sneed (Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom than Slavery: Poems, Henry Holt & Co., April 1998), Letta Neely (Here, Wildheart Press, November 2001), Cheryl Boyce Taylor (Night When Moon Follows, Long Shot Productions, April 2000) and Forrest Hamer (Middle Ear, Heyday Books, December 2000) can be found in African American journals and collections regularly, as well as in recent gay anthologies such as The World in Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of the Next Wave (St. Martin's Press, April 2000) and Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry (Talisman House Pub., July 2000). Openly gay work also appears in Third World Press's 2002 Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social & Political Black Art & Literature. The 1997 anthology Ma-Ka: Diasporic Juks: Contemporary Writing by Queers of African Descent was published in Toronto, Canada, and expanded the view of U.S. readers, just as work by Scottish poet and novelist Jackie Kay (The Adoption Papers, 1991; Trumpet, 1999) and British poet Dorothea Smart (Connecting Medium, 1992) began appearing in the United States.

Mixing "page" and "stage" poets with fiction writers, filmmakers, playwrights, journalists and academics at all stages of their careers, the groundbreaking Fire & Ink: A Writers Festival for GLBT People of African Descent, held in Chicago in 2002, helped introduce a wide range of writers to each other and their work in ways previous, mainly non-black writers' gatherings and small literary salons could not match. "There was a new respect for all of us and what we do and how we walk in the world with the work we do," says Body Language author C.C. Carter. Organizers of Fire & Ink are making plans to hold a second festival in 2005.

TAKING IDENTITY FOR GRANTED

Some poets have moved away flora the notion that writers need to give clues about cither their race or sexual orientation to their readers. Reginald Shepherd, author of four poetry collections, including the lambda Literary Award-nominated Otherhood: Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, April 2003), says of Hemphill and Lorde, "Their work was certainly important in making it possible for poets like myself to take our sexual and racial identities for granted in our poetry and to focus on other things--among them, crucially, the poems as an aesthetic object, not just a statement. My blackness, my gayness, are component parts of my poetry, but not its meaning or its definition."

Other gay writers are focusing on experimental work, breaking down the language it self, questioning notions of what a poem looks like or can be. Duriel E. Harris, Dawn Lundy Martin and Ronaldo Wilson formed the Black Took Collective during the summer of 1999 at the Cave Canem Black Poetry Workshop Retreat to "challenge how we think about representational forms of black identity and the poetics that they engender." They write in their "Call for Dissonance," published in the Fall/Winter 2002 issue of the journal Fence: "What if we broke down the assumptions about race that tend to go unchallenged in our 'community,' make their ways into the poem and are often blindly accepted in workshop? How might gestures resist and speak powerfully against entrenched notions of identity, culture and experience? Our wish is to respond to received notions about what a black poetics is of is fantasized to be."

The boom in self-publishing, as well as using electronic advances and the Internet to spread the word are just the latest examples of the African American tradition of "do for self." Self-publishing by black gay and lesbian poets has a long history. "Self-publishing is what poets generally do all poets," says Lisa C. Moore, editor of Lambda Book Report and founder of RedBone Press. Most poetry, in general, is published by small presses. Cheryl Clarke's path breaking early poems were published by small, women-centered presses: Narratives: Poems in the Tradition of Black Women by Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, in 1982; Humid Pitch (December 1989) and Living As a Lesbian (December 1986) by the feminist Firebrand Books. Lisa Moore will reissue Marvin White's first volume, Last Rights, and will publish his new manuscript, too, because White's original publisher, Alyson Books, has decided to move away from poetry. The wide range of the work of African American gay and lesbian poets may be the most exciting thing most readers can look forward to as the 21st century continues. Says Reginald Shepherd, "There's a greater diversity of voices, styles, approaches and topics than there has ever been, and this can only be for the good."

Reginald Harris is the author of 10 Tongues (Three Conditions Press, 2002), which was a finalist for the 2003 Lambda Literary Award (Gay Men's Poetry category).
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Author:Harris, Reginald
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2004
Words:1820
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