In Our Lives
by Eric Sneathen
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hrough their new anthology, editors Steven G. Fullwood and Charles Stephens have gathered beloved activist, spokesperson and writer Joseph Beam and his coterie for a new generation: Black Gay Genius.
Even a cursory glance through his Wikipedia article reveals Joseph Beam’s influence within the gay and lesbian world of the 1980s. He was an activist all of his adult life. He was a journalist writing for both national and regional papers. His work was awarded for outstanding achievement by The Lesbian and Gay Press Association in 1984. And he was the editor of the first ever anthology of black gay men, In The Life, which featured a range of luminaries such as Essex Hemphill, Reginald Shepherd, Craig G. Harris, and Samuel Delaney. Before dying of an AIDS-related illness in 1988, Joseph Beam had been a catalyst, a friend, a comrade, intensifying, in his own poetic way, a conversation about the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender.
Beam hoped for and fought against the crushing alienation he knew was everywhere an accessory for black gay men. In his introduction to In the Life, Beam flames his discontent in no uncertain terms when he quotes from a article he wrote for the Philadelphia Gay News in 1984, “Visibility is survival. It is possible to read thoroughly two or three consecutive issues of the Advocate, the national biweekly gay newsmagazine, and never encounter, in words or images, Black gay men….We ain’t family. Very clearly, gay male means: white, middle-class, youthful, naturalized, and probably butch; there is no room for Black gay men within the confines of this gay pentagon.”
Reading Beam’s words in 2015, I pause. How far has the conversation and action been brought to address the kind of alienation, disenfranchisement, and confinement of queer life? Or, how far have queer politics and aesthetics come to dissolve the condition of possibility for their advance? My thoughts turned to the proliferation of the bear aesthetic, the paradoxical isolation of apps like Grindr and Scruff, the limited conversation happening around PrEP.
To help me wonder and parse, I had the fortune to carry on a brief e-mail correspondence with Steven G. Fullwood and Charles Stephens, editors of Black Gay Genius: Answering Jospeh Beam’s Call (Vintage Entity Press), a new anthology “born out of a series of conversations, panel discussions, debates, and dinners with friends, colleagues and comrades over the years, assessing the impact and legacy of Joseph Beam and the writers of the In the Life generation.” As the introduction to the volume insists, Black Gay Genius is neither biography nor hagiography; it’s a conversation where Joseph Beam is the guest of honor.
Eric Sneathen: Collaboration is an essential part of your work with Black Gay Genius and Joseph Beam’s with In the Life. I’m especially excited by his deferral to and inspiration by feminist and lesbian writers. Can you speak to what collaboration makes possible in your work?
Charles Stephens: Our collaboration made this book possible on so many levels. That and the inspiration and model provided by works like Home Girls, This Bridge Called My Back, and But Some of Us Are Brave. Like Joe Beam, we recognized how indebted this work was and is to Women of Color Feminism.
When I began to seriously contemplate this project, I knew there was at least one person that I wanted to have on board, or certainly have his blessing: Steven Fullwood. Once I approached him, and told him about the idea, he very enthusiastically agreed to take this journey with me. I also knew that Steven was someone that’s very intentional about the projects he takes on, and so his involvement felt like a very high compliment. I don’t know anyone busier than Steven. And this of course meant the world to me at the time.
I knew that his experience in publishing and as an archivist would be a tremendous asset in the development of this book and he could help me shape the vision of the project. Most importantly I also knew I could learn from him and that this was really important to me. Steven is a fabulous cultural organizer, among his many talents, and just has this great ability to conjure brilliant ideas and implement them. So its always a pleasure to work with him, to see him in action.
The work of creating an anthology, it’s extremely difficult. In the course of the development of the book, a lot of stuff happened in both our lives. I mean, life happens. Feeling a sense of accountability to not only the project, but also to Steven helped me focus my energy, and kept me sane even in the most difficult parts. It also meant a lot to have someone to be there with you, through the great times and the most difficult times, going through it with you. Celebrating with you and holding your hand when disaster strikes.
I think this model of collaboration is really important for black gay men that seek to take on these kinds of projects. The work can be lonely, Beam certainly understood this, and being able to have someone in your corner, someone that you call to vent to, laugh with, a shoulder to cry on, that’s also going through it with you, is definitely a key to creative resilience.
Steven G. Fullwood: Charles answered this question quite eloquently. I’ll add a few comments:
Collaboration has always been a hallmark of Black queer cultural production. Whether creating and running organizations like Gay Men of African Descent, African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change, and Fire & Ink, presses like RedBone Press, Top Penn Press, and Kitchen Table Press or performance groups like A Real Read or Adodi Muse, collaboration was key in making good things happen. It certainly has been essential to the community who contributed to the project as graphic designers, writers, editors and those who support this effort.
Charles is a gifted thinker. Years ago when he came to me with the project, I was hesitant at first because I was busy at the time, but it was such a necessary project it was hard to resist. Collaboration also holds you accountable in a way that I think working solo cannot. This project was created by the community and one must have fidelity to that community.
For many of us doing these kinds of reclamation projects, it is essential to us to honor those that came before us, to learn their work and take what they did a little further in our own lives. Joe Beam isn’t as well-known as Essex Hemphill or Audre Lorde, and that may have something to do with his lack of visibility at the time, or that he died two years later after publishing In the Life. I really can’t say. But what I can say is that for someone who made such a vital contribution to American letters, there’s no excuse for us not to find him and lift him up. It’s our duty as thinkers, writers, cultural keepers to resurrect these men and women, repeatedly, if necessary. Not looking back is criminal, lethal even. We need to know their stories, and we need to enhance ours.
Joseph Beam is such an outstanding figure. As Black Gay Genius demonstrates, he was able to inspire and bring together a wide swath of people with his vision, tenacity, and good nature.
This anthology attempts to bring his spirit back into a critical dialogue about race and queerness—those fields’ allegiances, histories and priorities—and renew it with a voice, a humor, a body, a way for him and us to continue conversations that have either ceased to be relevant or to have been effaced.
Can you please tell me, in your own way, why bring back Joseph Beam now?
I don’t know if we brought Joe back as much as we wanted to move him more to the center of a particular set of conversations happening around race and sexuality. Joe was not singularly responsible, but definitely extremely influential, in imagining the possibilities of “black gay man,” beyond identity, but as a kind political category, a source of agency and power and offered in his vision a way to reimagine black maleness and desire. For Joe “black gay man,” also inherently critiqued narrow or “normative” notions of race and sexual identity, and advances a kind of discussion around identity, politics and intimacy that could be of significant value for us today. And these are the kinds of ideas Steven and I wanted to elevate, bring in more forcefully, to clarify some of our contemporary debate and angst around these things.
A few more points to get more directly at your question: Joseph Beam and his legacy, his work has remained very relevant within certain realms of black gay political life. His work and his ideas are still being discussed and grappled with in some black gay men’s discussion groups, among some bloggers, in social media spaces. Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, one of our contributors has been one of the many very instrumental forces in elevating Beam’s work into black queer critical discourse. But because Beam did not have institutional access in the ways that other figures might have, his work has not had the same currency in certain academic and activist spaces. “Relevance” is always very politically loaded. Thus, one of our aims for the book is to encourage more people to write about Joseph Beam, to write about Essex Hemphill, and others of what the scholar Charles Nero calls, the “1986 generation.”
Another point about our project, we wanted this book to not only be a commemorative work about Beam, but rather as a force to bring all of the conversations we had been witnessing and participating in together. Through our travels, Steven and I both I think, kept hearing stories, getting questions, and participating in conversations about Joseph Beam and so forth, so we knew it was time for this book.
SGF: Joe’s work matters, present tense. He spoke very eloquently about responsibility, activism, quality of life, etc., and the importance of building community and the complications in doing so. Recently we were asked the same question by another interviewer, and I think it’s important to say again that without people talking about people who made significant contributions to culture these men and women, and their books, films, etc., simply disappear. Without reprints, distribution deals, or institutions that will actively remember them in classes, store their work on shelves or display their work in exhibitions, or name scholarships or buildings after them, without schools where they can be studied, these people die a second more painful death. With their work, we’re left to reinvent ourselves again.
I think Joe’s take on being Black, out and intellectual and willing to work inspired his peers and generations after he died. If it wasn’t for Lisa C. Moore, publisher of RedBone Press, republishing In the Life and Brother to Brother in 2008, we would have had a considerably harder time crafting this anthology. We’re dealing with PTSD when it comes to the 1980s and 1990s within the black queer community, AIDS, cancers, racism, and so it’s a healthy, necessary thing to remember, to bring someone back. Our lives depend up in it.
To that end, we also saw just this March, the publication of Martin Duberman’s Hold Tight Gently [A&U, March 2014], which gave us an extensive look at Beam’s longtime collaborator Essex Hemphill. Why might their work be necessary for thinking through our current moment of crisis?
Though today’s national resistance to police violence and the resistance movements attached to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s appear to be quite distant, I’m wondering if you two see some connection, some way that Beam (and Hemphill) cast light on what’s been unfolding and how we might be a part of it.
Well Beam and Hemphill along with Craig Harris’ essay “I’m Going Out Like a Fucking Meteor,” offered some really significant critiques of American institutions and the ways they failed black gay men. Much more needs to be written and studied about how these critiques of the shameful indifference of the state, as black gay men were dying in the 1980s and 90s of AIDS. A shameful indifference that is in many ways a form of state violence. I also think it was also Craig Harris who launched a kind of campaign called “Fuck Black Men,” in the late 1980s, which also speaks to this, the relationship of our bodies, and the lack of value, to the state. We can learn a lot from these efforts.
SGF: All generations suffer from not knowing their history, and unfortunately this lack of knowledge adversely impacts already disadvantaged communities, specifically, but not exclusively, black and Latino gay, bisexual and trans men. Duberman’s book reminds us not only of the inspired work of activists like Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill, [but] more importantly dovetails with what we hope that Black Gay Genius might encourage, and that is to tell your story, and to tell it with a razor sharp vision, and with your head up. If not you, then who? Remarkably, and sadly, the state’s relationship to the brown and black queer body really hasn’t changed much since the 1980s, and so yes, what are today’s critiques of the system? It’s happening and we could use as much of it as we can.
From here, we can see how anyone suffering Reagan’s neoliberal America would be moved by Beam’s calls to love, calls to arms. We can see how exactly the kind of rigorous love envisioned by Beam is still under consideration, even threatened, in this world that says black lives are judged by the government to be less than. When we pick up Black Gay Genius we are given another way across that “invisible” bridge that joins our time to our immediate past. We’re invited to wonder, what’s changed? What’s in our lives now?
Eric Sneathen lives in Santa Cruz, California, where he is studying for his PhD in Literature. His reviews have been published by Small Press Distribution and Tripwire, and his poetry has been published by Mondo Bummer, The Equalizer, and Faggot Journal.