Thursday, February 21, 2013

Black Teens Deserve More Than Just An Entertainment Magazine

Toria J. Smith, Managing Editor
Black Teen
c/o Sterling Group
475 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10016
June 2, 1986

Dear Ms. Smith:

After looking through Black Teen, I was greatly disappointed in its contents. A magazine that calls itself Black Teen should, I feel, be about more than singers and musicians.

At a time when our black youth are confronted by brutal policemen, drugs, unemployment, low self-esteem, they need a full-service magazine that can help them move forward in this world. That is not to say that there shouldn't be any entertainment articles. But an entire issue devoted to entertainers? Our youth deserve something better. If our youth are our most important natural resource*, then why is there no article about selecting the right college or career or about black teen achievements or about our African heritage or about the responsibilities of being a parent?

I would like to write for Black Teen, but not if it continues in its present direction. If we are to survive as a people, our young will need to know more than who's the hottest singer or group.

Sincerely yours,
Charles Michael Smith

Note:* I should have used the term "human resource."

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Gay Men Of Color Tackling Thorny Issues

For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Still Not Enough: Coming of Age, Coming Out, and Coming Home
Edited by Keith Boykin
Magnus Books, 334 pp.

Despite the social and political progress made by gay men in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, some things--like bullying, bigotry, suicide (attempted and successful), and self-loathing--are constant reminders that there is a need for further change.

For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Still Not Enough addresses these and other thorny issues through essays and poetry by more than 40 contributors, who represent a diverse cross-section of gay men of color, both ethnically and occupationally.

With the exception of Keith Boykin, the collection's editor, James Earl Hardy, and two or three others, most of the contributors are not yet household names. But that in no way diminishes the power or importance of their words and life experiences, which are presented as tragic or funny or defiant or scary or inspirational.

"[W]e must tell our own stories," declares Boykin, in the introduction, "in a way that represents us as full human beings." These 40 plus stories attempt to achieve that goal by peeling back the years to reveal the physical and psychic pain meted out to them by peers, family members, pastors, teachers, and others. The pain expressed in these essays is so palpable, so intense I sometimes wondered how they were able to overcome their experiences without losing their minds.

Boykin groups the essays and poems into ten categories such as "Growing Pains," "Faith Under Fire," "Love Is a Battlefield," and "In Sickness and Health," thus giving the reader a broad range of experience.

One essay that particularly stood out for me is Phill Branch's serio-comic "Chicago," which had me on the edge of my chair, as he recalls the time when he was a naive college kid newly arrived in Los Angeles to become "the next Spike Lee." Being "bored, unhappy, and horny," he answers a personal ad in a magazine placed by a black man who says he hails from Chicago and is into "ff" (fisting), "ws" (water sports), and "k" (kink). When Branch arrives at the man's house in a L.A. suburb, he soon regrets answering the ad. "I'd imagined that being gay would come with some obstacles, but I'd never imagined being trapped in a townhouse, in Norwalk, by a man with a plate in his head would be one of them."

Another essay that moved me is Keith Boykin's eloquent, almost cinematic "When I Dare to Be Powerful," a retelling of the "historic but controversial all-male event" called the Million Man March, which took place in Washington, D.C. in 1995. Boykin and his cohorts in a moment of courage and determination, "[f]ists punching  against the air" while chanting a pro-gay slogan, cut a path through the masses of straight black men with surprisingly "no homophobia, no insults, no violence, or conflict."

The one drawback of For Colored Boys is the absence of any essays from gay men who came of age in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. This would have given the anthology an historical context with which to compare and contrast gay men of today and in the past.

Otherwise, For Colored Boys is a worthy addition to one's library if for no other reason than the fact that it bears witness to the persecution of gay men and lets readers know that there are others who not only have shared their pain but have found a way to survive and thrive.

This article was originally published online by the Lambda Literary Review (October 6, 2012).

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Exotic Negroes At The Cotton Club

In 1923, Owney Madden, a powerful and feared New York gangster with ties to "Dutch" Schultz, opened the Cotton Club on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. It served two functions: first, Madden needed a place to sell the beer he illegally made for his Prohibition-era customers. And second, he wanted to take advantage of the newfound white interest in black artistic achievement.

In the days before the Great Depression, writes black playwright Loften Mitchell, "Harlem was seen by outsiders as a showplace, a center of nightlife, a place for discovering 'exotic Negroes' and new art." It was the time of the Harlem Renaissance, when black writers and artists such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Zora Neale Hurston were, in the words of Hughes, "express[ing] our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame." It was also the time when whites from downtown and abroad came to Harlem to hobnob with struggling young black writers and artists in the salon of A'Lelia Walker, the daughter of Madame C.J. Walker, the black woman who became a millionaire by creating a hair-straightening process for blacks.

Carl Van Vechten, a white journalist and critic, is considered the primary catalyst for this influx of whites to Harlem. "As an influential critic, he helped launch the careers of numerous talented blacks," writes historian  Eric Garber of San Francisco, who's working on a study of the gay scene in Harlem in the 1920s. "But he is most notorious for his 1926 novel, naively titled 'Nigger Heaven', [which] told the story of the tragic love between a young black writer and his Harlem girlfriend and was intended to impart a sympathetic understanding of  Harlem and its people. Some of Van Vechten's black friends appreciated it, but the majority of Harlem was outraged."

"The white reading public," continues Garber, "had the opposite reaction, and the novel quickly became a best seller. After reading the novel, many whites hurried to Harlem to see the real thing."

And many of them hurried to the Cotton Club, which catered exclusively to a white clientele. "The low class of whites didn't come to the Cotton Club," recalls 81-year-old Joe Attles, a black former nightclub singer and dancer, "because they couldn't pay the money. All the young Vanderbilts and the This-and-Thats, they came to Harlem. They were young  and they had money. The rest of them who came to Harlem were gangsters. They came to visit the other gangs."

No blacks were allowed as customers--"unless you were a celebrity, like [dancer Bill]Bojangles [Robinson]," writes Langston Hughes in his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea. "So Harlem Negroes did not like the Cotton Club and never appreciated its Jim Crow policy in the very heart of their dark community"--a community that by 1930 was 200,000 strong.

The only other blacks allowed in the club were those hired as entertainers, waiters, or kitchen help. But despite its discriminatory admission policy, the Cotton Club launched many show business careers. Included among its alumni are Lena Horne (who in 1933, at the age of 16, joined the chorus line), Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, and the dancing Nicholas Brothers.

This is an excerpt from an article that was published in the San Francisco Chronicle (via syndication by the Los Angeles Times) on December 23, 1984.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

In Defense Of The Black Press

"I still don't think that there is a future for a young person working in a predominantly Black medium. Let's face it, twenty years from now Ebony magazine could be out of business. Or if it's not out of business, it would be something that would not give you the benefits, the rewards for your abilities that you would get if you went to a larger publication or one that was better integrated. Why work for Ebony when you can work for Newsweek or the Washington Post?"--Stanley Robertson, executive producer, Universal Pictures Television (Players magazine interview, December 1978, pp. 29-30).

Although Mr. Robinson has the right to speak his mind, I think he should be reminded (daily, if necessary) that his attitude toward the black press does more harm than good.

His statement would lead any young black considering a career in journalism to think that unless he is employed by Time or the Washington Post, his career will be going nowhere.

The fact that this statement comes from an experienced journalist and television executive adds weight to it in the mind of a young black. (Interestingly, Mr. Robertson writes a column called "L.A. Confidential" for the Los Angeles Sentinel, a black weekly.)

True, the salaries and fringe benefits at a predominantly white paper are more attractive than anything a black paper can offer.But this will change when a financially strong black press is given strong community support. Bringing in a cadre of dedicated young journalists will help immeasurably to arouse this support.

The increase in young blood will bring with it new ideas and new approaches that will stimulate the content in the black press. (To quote Joseph Nazel, a black writer, "the Black press is angry because it is not receiving the community support it so desperately needs." He also writes that this happened because "integration into the pages of the white press usurped much of the stature of the Black press" resulting in the loss of reporters, readership, and advertising revenue.)

This damage to the stature of the black press will not be rectified, if blacks like Mr. Robertson, who have "made it," continually play down the importance of the black press. This is not to say we should discourage anybody from going to the other side, either.

We need them there also (blacks make up approximately 4 percent of the working press). But we shouldn't cut off our noses to spite our faces. The white-controlled metropolitan dailies cannot and will not give the black community overall coverage. And we should not expect them to. That is why the black press is so important to the people and the events that would otherwise go unnnoticed or receive scant coverage.

Mr. Robertson's statement also ignores the historical reason for the existence of the black press today and in the past. It was the racial attitude of whites. (The 19th and 20th centuries saw the emergence of numerous newspapers and magazines catering to a black audience.By 1910, there were 288 black newspapers with a combined circulation of half a million.)

In the words of the late black journalist-author Roi Ottley, "Feeling among Negroes was negative to the white dailies. They felt those organs could not be trusted to tell the truth about the Negro." Although the white press today is not as hostile to blacks as it once was, there still is a need to "let the people know the true state of things."

The black press can do this better than the white press because the black press has a stake in the community.

This does not mean that the black press is perfect. There are a few black papers that are using unethical methods to attract readers.

Writes Ron Reynard in Players magazine, "Many small community newspapers are doing an excellent job. Others, however, seem intent on giving the Black community the shaft. Shrill editorials, misleading headlines and the stance that 'if it's Black, it's right,' do no service to the Black community."

But despite these shortcomings, the truth still remains--we need the black press as much today as did our forefathers in their day. That's why it is foolish for the black community to allow its support of the black press to decline any further.

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (September 20,1980). It was also published in the Black American, another New York-based weekly.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Former Foster Care Child Tells His Story

Washington, D.C. writer Mickey C. Fleming, a 33-year-old black gay man, was sitting in a friend's home one evening. Over a glass of Riunite wine, Fleming revealed his experiences as a foster care child. His friend, overwhelmed by what he had heard, suddenly exclaimed: "You have a great story to tell. You should write a book!" At first Fleming, lacking self-confidence, rebuffed the idea by saying: "I'm not a celebrity and I'm not good at that kind of thing." But after awhile he decided to take his friend's advice; he immediately began the arduous task of putting pen to paper. The result is his recently published autobiography, About Courage, a paperback original from the Los Angeles-based Holloway House. (It was one of five books nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in the Gay Men's Debut category.)

Fleming sees the book as his way of "exorcising personal demons." Those demons include sexual victimization by older boys at two foster care institutions and a deep-seated self-hatred stemming from a belief instilled in him by others that he was "a bad person, an evil person." Before writing the book, a friend told him that "it would be a good way to release all that anger and hostility. When I wrote the book I came to really see why I was angry and who I really am. In the process of writing," he continues, "I was able to get back at certain people." More importantly, Fleming says, "I wanted to educate people about what goes on in the child welfare system. Of course, I
didn't touch on half of the things that went on at Junior Village." (In 1973, a series of articles in the Washington Post brought about the closing of JV, writes Fleming, "because of an alleged history of abuse of the very children it was designed to help.")

Another goal of his is to reach out to those with a similar background of abuse. Among that group are gay youth; he hopes to inspire them "to believe in themselves."

Although he has been told that "a lot of changes have been made since I was a client of the system," some things remain the same. "I have talked to foster mothers, especially when I'm on a radio program. They  call in with horror stories. A lot of it sounds very much the same as when I was there. One of the complaints is that the system doesn't put much money into taking care of the children. Another one is that often the children are taken out of one home and put into another many foster parents feel this is detrimental to the children's well-being. The children can't get fully grounded."

The one thing About Courage has done, other than dispel some of Mickey Fleming's anger, is to incite anger and stir up a little controversy. especially among family members who probably didn't like such revelations like the one about the time when two weeks after his so-called "illegitimate" birth in his grandfather's house in North Carolina, "Granddad removed the welcome mat" from under his daughter and her three children. "They are all upset because I'm telling the truth," declares Fleming, in a telephone interview. "But, of course, they want to live in a state of denial."

And some in the gay community are not happy either. "My story is not typical of most gay people. I came from an institutional background. As most people know, it is in such institutions as Junior Village where a lot of forced homosexual sex goes on. Someone else needs to write a book about homosexuality from just living a normal life, having a mother and a father. I can't write that kind of book; it wasn't my experience. I try to tell these people--'Don't get angry with me because I'm telling my story.' They say to me: 'People will read this book and think homosexuals are made that way.' I'm not even saying that's how I became a homosexual. All I'm saying is these are the things that happened to me. People who read the book carefully will see I had an attraction for men even before I was raped. I even enjoyed the fact that they were paying attention to me, hugging me and all that kind of stuff. When the penetration happened is when I didn't enjoy that."

Others, like Ma Banks, one of his former foster parents, "loved the book. She's been promoting it for me. She's got every person in her church to buy the book. She understands. She knows my story."

Meanwhile, Mickey Fleming is at work on his next book, a novel, that "will focus more on other characters that I didn't bring out too much in About Courage."

This article was originally published in Outlines (Chicago) in February 1990.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

White Activists Fighting For Puerto Rican Independence

Bob Lederer, a gay activist involved in the white anti-imperialist movement, faces imprisonment if he refuses to testify before a federal grand jury investigating, among other things, a series of 1983 bombings of federal buildings by revolutionary groups.

Lederer, who is employed as a legal secretary, is media coordinator of the New Movement in Solidarity  with Puerto Rican Independence and Socialism, a group of white North American supporters of Puerto Rican national liberation.

On March 27, 1985, four men whom Lederer assumed to be FBI agents served him with a subpoena at his place of work. "The one who handed the subpoena," says Lederer, "whipped out his FBI badge. He didn't introduce the other three. They might been FBI, they might have been NYPD [working with the FBI as part of the Joint Terrorist Task Force].

The subpoena ordered Lederer to come to Washington, D.C. May 2 [1985] to tell what he knows about the anti-imperialist movement in the U.S. The grand jury is investigating the November 1983 bombing of the Capitol building, shortly after the invasion of [the Caribbean island of] Grenada , as well as earlier bombings that year that involved military targets, among them a computer center. Two groups, the Red Guerilla Resistance and the Armed Resistance Unit, claimed responsibility for those attacks.

Four activists, current and former members of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee (Steven Burke, Julie Nalibov, Christine Rico, and Sandra Roland), are already serving time for being grand jury resisters in this matter. They have voiced support for the bombings but deny any knowledge of the groups behind them. In a joint statement, they announced that they "send our love to Terry Bisson [an Anti-Klan member also subpoenaed March 27] and Bob Lederer who are continuing the struggle as grand jury resistors.[sic]."

Lederer whose work in the Puerto Rican movement has made him a target for government surveillance, plans to refuse to testify. He says: "Grand juries are a tool that's completely under the control of the prosecutor. There's no right to have a lawyer there. When it's a political grand jury investigating a political movement, I believe it's an absolutely essential thing for any person who has any kind of awareness of what this country does, what it stands for, how the FBI has been used over the years, can never give any information no matter how innocuous they think it is, no matter how much they quote unquote don't know anything. Because in  political case, when the FBI says its investigating an activity by an underground movement, anything they can get from you, even if it's saying you don't know, that you know certain people but not other people, that helps them to complete a very sophisticated computer profile that they've been building about every person in the movement."

The 30-year-old activist vows that he will "never cooperate with the FBI. They don't have the legal power to subpoena people so they use this rubber stamp relationship between prosecutors and grand juries, to virtually get subpoena power without legally [having] it."

His refusal will lead to either of two consequences: civil contempt or criminal contempt. Lederer explains the terms: "The theory behind [civil contempt] is that you are being held not as punishment but as a coercive measure with the hope that the time that you are in jail they will put so much pressure on you from how unpleasant it is that you'll change your mind and agree to testify. And then you're immediately released if you agree to answer all of the questions. If you then balk and say 'I'll answer some but not others,' then you'll be right back in jail. Criminal contempt is an acknowledgment by the government that this person has made it clear from their political stance that they will never, ever testify. You can put them in jail for 10 years and they wouldn't testify. So instead of the idea of 'We're trying to put pressure on them,' it's openly saying 'We're punishing them for not testifying.' You get charged with a felony called criminal contempt. You have a trial which is a farce because the only issue in the trial is: Did you or did you not follow the judge;s order to testify?"

A civil contempt charge would mean that a resister would remain in jail for the duration of the grand jury's term of 18 months. It is conceivable, says Lederer, for another grand jury to be called and, if the resister still refuses to talk, stay in jail an additional 18 months. A jail term for criminal contempt, on the other hand, would be indefinite, which would include a possible life sentence, if the judge wanted it that way, explains Lederer.

The product of what he describes as "a comfortable white middle class \" family, Lederer, who grew up in Wheaton, Maryland, became politically active during his students days at the University of Maryland. "My college experiences s opened my eyes beyond this attitude that America is great because they welcomed part of my family as Jews into the mainstream which is true, they did." But, he continues, "When I began meeting [African-American] people and African people" that was when "I understood that things are not so nice and comfortable for the majority of people in the world, thanks to the role of the United States in [their] exploitation."

This is an excerpt from an article that was published in the New York Native in 1985.

Dancing To The Music Of Charlie Mingus

In a book called The Jazz Story (Prentice Hall, 1964), the author, Dave Dexter, Jr., had this to say about the music of  [jazz bassist] Charles Mingus: "[He] composes and plays music that is often understandable to no one but himself."

Such music, you would think, would be difficult if not impossible to choreograph to. But Loris Anthony Beckles of the one-year-old Blue Mercury Dancing Company has managed to do just that. The 12-member multi-ethnic group performed these, and other works, at the Theatre of the Riverside Church on April 22, 24, and 26 [1987]. The program was in tribute to what would have been Mingus's 65th birthday (he died in 1979).

The longest of these pieces, "Eclipse," ran about 30 minutes. It featured a series of solos by the dancers using a lot of abstract movements and patterns beginning with the dancers parading around the stage backwards with their arms folded across their eyes. All of this movement is accompanied by polyrhythmic drumbeats. In this piece, the dancers put on a great display of energy and agility.

Like all of the Beckles choreography performed at TRC, there is the absence of a storyline: the audience must be willing to bring its imagination to the theatre. Beckles prefers this. "I'm not interested in telling a story," says the 33-year-old native of Guyana. Dance, he continues, can be enjoyed for the beauty of the movement and its celebration of the human form.

One of the most strikingly beautiful dances created by Beckles is "SheKing," inspired by Coretta Scott King, who represents "an elegant black woman in bereavement." The six women, in black gowns that seemed to float in the air with every movement, were placed in my mind in some ancient civilization, perhaps Egypt. Leonora Stapleton, who has a solo here, exhibited a queenly presence.

The only piece that had a more clearcut storyline is Michael Vernon's somewhat erotic but memorable "Changing Opinion," with haunting music by Philip Glass. Two males (Beckles and Tyrone Aiken) and a female (Stapleton) are cast. It is the tale of a romantic triangle in which one of the males emerges victorious. Much of the action takes place on a wooden bench with the female situated symbolically at the center. The men, especially Aiken, gave a strong performance. Stapleton, on the other hand, came off rather nonchalant.

Ray Tadio's "The Moon in Libra" and "Dear Giovanni" I found uninteresting, except for the solo jazz piano scores that accompany each dance.

Although these young dancers were a bit awkward at times, they nevertheless deserve high marks for having the guts and stamina to take on the demanding task of dancing to Mingus's cerebral music.

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (May 23, 1987).

Friday, February 1, 2013

Fighting Homophobia Within Law Enforcement

In 1983 the Gay Officers Action League (GOAL) was twice turned down for membership by the New York Police Department-sponsored Police Groups's Brotherhood-in-Action, a fraternal law enforcement umbrella organization. It was later disbanded by then-police commissioner Benjamin Ward because of its rejection of GOAL on the basis of sexual orientation.

Most recently, GOAL has encountered similar bigotry in its attempt to join the five-year-old Committee of Police Societies (COPS), made up of 21 ethnic, religious, and honor groups.

Although GOAL has traditionally been supported in its membership efforts by the Guardians Association (African-American officers) and the Hispanic Society, three other COPS groups have joined the cause: the Viking Association (Nordic officers), the Policewomen's Endowment Association, and the Shomrim Society (Jewish officers). All five have threatened to drop out of COPS if GOAL is rejected.

Said one source, a member of one of the affiliated organizations, to New York Newsday: "Every society in COPS has gay members. They don't want their membership money spent on a group that discriminates against some of their members."

Although it's "great" having allies, admits GOAL co-founder and executive director Sam Ciccone, "that's not going to determine what our action is going to be. We're taking this on. We're not asking anybody else to take it on with us."

As things stand now, GOAL is "waiting for a response from [COPS]," says Ciccone. "We have requested application last year [November 1989] and still have not been accepted. But they haven't refused us yet."

COPS, founded in 1985, was set up to provide members with a forum to discuss job-related issues as well as to promote brotherhood and understanding.

However, brotherhood and understanding become empty words when it comes to the immediate admission of GOAL into the fold. Art Strier, COPS's attorney, in comments to Newsday, has gone so far as to call into question GOAL's legitimacy as an "organized, recognized fraternal" organization in the eyes of the NYPD.

Sam Ciccone fires back: "That's bullshit!" It's COPS, not GOAL, that is not recognized by the department. He also asserts that the NYPD "doesn't have any  regulations as to what is a group or not." Despite Strier's comments, the department records do indicate that GOAL (with its 300-plus membership) is recognized by the NYPD and has been since 1983, one year after its founding by Charles Cochran and Ciccone, both now retired. As far as Ciccone is concerned, it comes down to one thing: many of the members of COPS are "bigots."

According to GOAL and NYPD estimates, between 2,800 and 3,000 officers on the New York police force are gay or lesbian.

Says Ciccone of GOAL: "We're a very unique fraternal organization. We span every culture, every race, every gender. How could we not?"

This article was originally published in the Philadelphia Gay News (December 21, 1990).