Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Mrs. Ralph Ellison's Gay Blind Spot

In Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray (The Modern Library, 2000), I came across this startling passage in a memo from Fanny McConnell, Ralph Ellison's wife, to Albert Murray*, dated June 9, 1952:

"We caught a glimpse of [filmmaker/anthropologist Maya] Deren Friday evening strolling along a [Greenwich] Village street with five men. I use the word 'men' euphemistically."

No doubt the five men she referred to were gay and probably effeminate. In 1950s America such homophobic statements could be uttered without the fear of censure or ostracism. Today, in our more enlightened (we hope) times, such language would be frowned at.

Ellison's wife was probably a very nice person but in this one area she had a blind spot.

*NOTE: Albert Murray, an essayist and a novelist, died in his Manhattan home on August 18, 2013, at the age of 97. Ralph Ellison, also an essayist and a novelist, died in 1994.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Two Must-Read Websites

Here are two websites that I highly recommend--theroot.com, a site that deals with African-American history and culture and is a joy to read and pophistorydig.com. I recently learned about the latter site in an hour-long interview that host Brian Lamb did with the founder, Jack Doyle, on C-SPAN. If, like me, you love history, you will definitely love this site as well as theroot.com (whose editor-in-chief is historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University).

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Committing Bullycide


I'm planning to post a short essay in this space regarding author Anthony Heilbut's use of the word "bullycide," in his lengthy essay about black gay men in the church which appears in his fascinating book, The Fan Who Knew Too Much.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On Working At Mount Morris Baths

I frequently past the now-defunct Mount Morris Baths in Harlem. When I do, it's usually because I am on my way to do some grocery shopping at Pathmark three blocks farther down 125th Street.

I worked at Mount Morris for two and a half years, first as a towel attendant, then as a cashier. So whenever I pass what was once the bathhouse (now vacant for ten years), the customers (mostly black gay men), the coworkers, and the experiences, good and bad, instantly come to mind.

Of the two jobs I held there, the cashier one was undoubtedly the most dangerous and nerve-wracking, because the cashier's booth (often referred to as the office) offered no protection from criminals. Subway booth clerks have more protection than we did. Only plywood separated us from the customers. Since we handled money and kept customers's wallets and other valuables in various index card file drawers, there was no protection from a bullet. There was a closed-circuit monitor that let us see who was coming down the outside stairs and what was happening in the two TV lounges. But there  was no panic button to press or phone system in the office to use in case of trouble. The only phone available was a few feet away, outside the office, in a coin-operated phone booth. Not very convenient if one needed to summon help.

The nerve-wracking part of the job included being on the lookout for phony bills a customer would knowingly or unknowingly hand us, checking people in and out, notifying patrons to renew their time when they stayed past 8 hours ( or 12 hours on the weekend), refunding money lost in one of the vending machines, distributing condoms and lube, etc. At the end of the shift, I had to tally the money received from customers and deposit it in a drop box behind me for later pickup by Walter, the owner of the bathhouse. As you can see, the job required me to be on my toes at all times.

Despite these headaches and the rundown condition of the bathhouse, I still miss Mount Morris and its interesting, sometimes, bizarre cast of characters fit for a TV sit-com.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Malcolm X And Homosexual Rumors

I found the following unpublished letter-to-the-editor in a folder. It was written on June 11, 2005. Unfortunately, I neglected to indicate to which publication it was intended.

To the Editor:

The British newspaper writer who said that Malcolm X, a heterosexual, should be a role model for black gay and lesbian youth writes as if there are no such models now. Has this guy ever heard of James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, Billy Strayhorn, to name a few?

Although Malcolm X is a formidable icon in the black community, it is not too far-fetched that as a young man he had had homosexual experiences in and out of the prison system. If Chester Himes, a noted black writer, also heterosexual, can admit to being in a homosexual relationship in prison, why not Malcolm? The admission doesn't seem to have tarnished the reputation of Himes.

The  main trouble with cultural icons is that people begin to view them as if they are godlike and above  reproach. Before his iconic status, any revelation about his homosexual experiences would have been shrugged off. But now he is put on so high a pedestal that any mention of homosexuality is considered beyond the pale.

If homosexuality is common in prisons, why is it so unthinkable that Malcolm did not avail himself of the opportunity? The same people have no trouble acknowledging that he had been a drug dealer, a pimp, and a street tough.

Sincerely yours,
Charles Michael Smith

Thursday, August 1, 2013



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