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Black is Not Enough: Thoughts on Race, Gender, Sexuality and the Black Left

Date Published: 
April 01, 2007

Recently Left Turn spoke with a few Black activists, organizers, educators, and cultural workers to examine the intersections of race, politics, gender, and sexuality. From coming out experiences, to stories of coming to political consciousness, examinations of the meanings of Black, queer, and left, to opportunities and challenges for working in solidarity with other people of color, the group began what must be an ongoing conversation among the Black left. What follows are excerpts from that exchange.

Kazembe Balagoon (KB)

Kenyon Farrow (KF)

Patricia Hemphill (PH)

Imani Henry (IH)

Aishah Shahidah Simmons (AS)

Framing Black, left, and queer

Imani Henry: I was able to come out in a Pride Parade in Boston under the cover of marching in solidarity around LGBT struggle, but it was with the understanding that there was going to be an anti-war contingent that I could march [with]. Then I went out and partied and the same folks that I might have known from other struggles. I’m at this party and we could start having a queer conversation about our own personal identities, even though in the movement we might not have been able to. And I think about what it is for me to transition openly as a female to male trans person in the movement, in the Mumia movement, in the anti-death penalty movement, and it’s been an amazing sort of process, primarily working inside Black political movements, of being able to watch people.

Kazembe Balagoon: One thing we have to deal with in terms of what it [means] to be Black, queer [and] left is that all of these categories—for Black people in particular—have traditionally been defined from without. So we’ve been defined by our sexuality from the outside and there’s not a serious documentation of what it meant for us to have our own autonomy in terms of our sexuality, because our relationship to this country since we came here 400 some odd years ago was as of property. Within that, you can make all sorts of definitions that stem from slavery laws to the Black Codes, to Jim Crow, to the prison industrial complex, and the underlying theme within that has consistently been us not having control of our sexuality. So, I think that part and parcel of any kind of revolutionary movement, any left movement, is reclaiming that part of ourselves that has always been lost.

In terms of the Black nationalist left, the concept of nation is a very contradictory term. On one level you’re talking about the liberation and freedom of Black people as Black people, but at the same time the concept of nation is a very patriarchal term, because the nation denotes a strict sense of what family is. The Black queer perspective is important to open up that channel. I think when we are freed from the constraints of what our sexuality means, all sort of things happen that open doors. But there’s always this consistent pressure, particularly from the outside, to say if you’re Black you have to be straight. A lot of my left practice is doing the history to reclaim people who have been lost because we don’t acknowledge the expansion of our sexuality. I’ve done some research recently [and] I found out that Hoyt Fuller, who was one of the architects of the Black Arts movement in the 1960’s, was a queer man and I think that’s kind of important in terms of our understanding of the role of Black queer artists, Black queer writers, and Black queer thinkers within the shaping of Black sensibility in this country going back to Langston Hughes, Gladys Bentley, to Ma Rainey and her whole concept of prove it on me blues. I think that Black queer people in resistance have always been a part of a continuum.

Aishah Shahidah Simmons: I come from the city where a Black mayor murdered people in MOVE. I believe as well as I know my name that if [Black, former mayor, Wilson] Goode had been [white, former mayor, Frank] Rizzo, Philadelphia would have been in flames. But because Goode was not Rizzo, it was like we didn’t know what to do as a community. Or why Essence Magazine can do a piece on Condoleezza Rice. Or [why] Black folk can celebrate Oprah without any kind of critique and on and on. It’s kind of like winning a battle and losing the war, so to speak. It’s not enough to just say, “I don’t care if Condoleezza Rice is the Secretary of State.” Her being Black makes me feel worse. Used to be you’d travel around the world and be like, “Hey it’s not me, y’all, I’m Black.” You can’t do that anymore. Now you’ve got to explain, “Yeah it’s fucked up, but I still don’t support it.” We have to kick the door in and say, “I have a right to be at the board table,” but the question is do we want the board table? Racism ending tomorrow doesn’t make me safe as a queer, as a dyke, as a woman, so for me, I’m trying to figure out how we can abolish, dismantle all of it simultaneously.
Black-white paradigm

Kenyon Farrow: Every time I join an organization I may be excited about particular aspects of the work, but there are parts of me that are always reticent depending on the organization. There’s a part of me that will debate how much my participation either challenges or helps prop up their own shit, so even if they can call me as the Black gay man that they know they can call, they feel a little let off the hook of having to look at that stuff institutionally. [There are] queer spaces and even more broadly POC spaces where as a Black person I’m not always happy with some of the political frameworks, so I feel like there is a complicated thing for me in terms of my participation in movements.

There was something about the Black-white paradigm that I felt wasn’t being addressed in some of my circles in New York and I felt there was pressure to be talking about going beyond Black and white in a way that was always directed at Black people, as if we invented the Black-white paradigm. So for me, being uncomfortable in those spaces is about that pressure implicit, or sometimes explicit, to go beyond Black and white, or as a Black person hav[ing] to think about other groups of folks, which I think is definitely important. I’m not saying that you don’t have to be concerned or think about the way that race plays out for other racial groups, but what has bothered me is both a sense of real hostility to Black people in some of those spaces by other people of color groups and the different ways they express the sentiment that our shit is played, or it’s over, or it’s dead.

AS: Thank you, Kenyon, for voicing that. That resonates for me personally as well. The Black-white paradigm—it's like we created it and we're capitalizing off of it. I find it very difficult to have these conversations in some spaces and in some ways. One of the many things that I like about The Color of Violence, The INCITE! anthology is that Andrea Smith, a Native American feminist activist, really looks at those kind of paradigms in terms of how white supremacy and patriarchy are all connected. I feel like somehow, whatever visibility, if you will, that Black people have—being shot 50 times, being raped—it speaks to white people's relationship vis-à-vis us. So much stuff is on our backs, literally and figuratively looking at it in terms of sexual harassment, incest and how it informs the national dialogue on these topics. I feel like there's no overall understanding about that impact and what that means.

Patricia Hemphill: And I think Black liberation, the possibility of Black liberation, means a lot for the liberation of all people. If there’s a way to liberate Black people, I think the effects would be so vast. Black people have been villainized and oppressed in such a brutal way that to actually attain some liberation, what could that mean? What could our liberation mean for you as well? But not in a way to devalue people’s struggles or to say the Black-white paradigm has to exist, but what could that actually mean if we were able to do that?

IH: I’m clear that the way they use the Black-white paradigm piece depends who’s saying it and I’m really clear about divide and conquer around people of color communities, too. Particularly after 9/11, coming from Boston and being one of those desegregation kids and not living in the South, but knowing the Black-white paradigm from fist fights in the school yard to the “n” word on my school, on people’s homes, having snowballs and rocks thrown at you—that’s my earliest memory of going to school. And that’s in a place like Boston clearly defined as Black and white. And more recently, other races and other nationalities being in the mix. I think of a place like Dorchester where you have Asian, Black, and Latino folks, poor folks all living together and having to fight together, because our back’s against the wall, because we are being pushed out.

After 9/11 when a SALGA (South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association) party, a South Asian lesbian and gay organization, was raided by the cops, for the first time in my life I could actually stay and be an ally and fight. As a Black man, you know, I’m out the door. But seeing activists and people that I respect from the South Asian community have to leave because of their immigration status—they couldn’t stand. I stayed all night. We got lawyers. We organized. I was like, oh my god, the cops aren’t pushing me around, ain’t telling me to shut up. I’m literally the go-between. I can just be here in solidarity.

There’s so much divide and conquer that happens based on all the paradigms that are set for us as people of color and I’m always looking at ways of building unity and solidarity. We just can’t do things the same exact way and expect the same results. I know from May 1st here in New York City we made sure that African American forces, as well as African forces, as well as Caribbean forces—Black folks were in the immigration coalition. That there were African Americans standing up in solidarity with immigration, as well as African speakers, as well as Jamaican speakers, as well as Haitian speakers with South Asian speakers, with Latino speakers, and marching together, because it’s not enough. I think it’s about not leaving it to chance. We have to show some unity, because folks are trying to break us down and pull us apart.

KF: I hear that, Imani. I think that in particular moments, those acts of solidarity are important, but I also think what has to happen is shifts in the actual conversation and shifts in how people are constructing different movements. I feel like part of what happens too much, and this is I think a critique of the left in general, is that there are a lot of people who know very general ideas about a bunch of stuff and very few people who have thought really critically or learned some intense nitty gritty stuff about very specific things. So I feel like what happens is a lot of sloganeering around solidarity, but people haven’t really [been] able to have those hard conversations. It would have been interesting to have another, older generation’s perspective on this, because some of the older folks I know from different movements talk about, at critical points, having real knock down, drag out, ideological battles, and I don’t feel like that happens so much anymore. Sometimes I’m dealing with folks of color and I get blocked from doing other stuff, because I’m trying to open a door to have a conversation, but I can’t do that if you continue to have this same kind of narrative through line that I find fundamentally problematic. And if we can’t have those conversations then there can’t be any solidarity, because then what is it based on?

KB: I think we haven’t found a language of what we call people of color, because if you look at people of color, what exactly does that mean? In the ‘60s, there was a language for it, because there was an anti-colonial movement where there was a sense [that] we’re all fighting against imperialism, we’re all fighting against colonization, so Asia, Latin America unite. I think the common thread between all of us is when we walk through different spaces, how queerness help[s] us have this analysis that helps us connect all these dots and bring out a new analysis of what’s going on in this society in terms of looking at it racially, sexually, in terms of patriarchy as well. How can we use that in really redefining our language? I think we’re operating on very traditional models and these are very untraditional, challenging times, where different identities and different political tendencies, and different issues are coming into play with each other. I think that one thing for me is definitely to try to step back a little bit and say, well, how do we bring all these kind of things into conversation with each other?
Trade offs?

KF: Those are things that [also] play out in Black spaces and even in Black LGBT or queer spaces. Black gay male spaces, I often feel sometimes, are so deeply sexist. Quite often the politics of what exists of Black gay male organizing in this country, and there’s not very much of it, is we want to be able to claim manhood in the same way that other Black men claim manhood. And I’m like, “why are you interested in claiming that?” We’re all scared to leave this meeting because we’re going to get beat in the skull when we walk out the door a little bit too swishy. What is our investment in that? Or even in terms of some of the more butch/femme politics in the Black gay community, there are ways we perform aspects of Black “femininity” that are also problematic so it’s important for me to challenge some of that stuff around real issues of wanting to be coherently seen as men. I’ve struggled with that in those spaces and certainly in broader Black political spaces. I feel like there’s this whole thing about subsuming [the] gender [and] sexuality politics of libratory politics that needs to be a part of that work in order for us to be free.

KB: One thing that hasn’t really been discussed in terms of this relationship between queer activism and the Black community is the role of the Black church. Traditionally, the church has been the basis for any kind of political movement and what we’ve seen in the past twenty years has been the transformation of these churches from rural-based or corner-based institutions to mega-churches. People like T.D. Jakes and Eddie Long who’ve said some pretty homophobic things [are] getting faith-based initiative grants from the Bush Administration. Right after Katrina, Bush went straight to T.D. Jakes and Eddie Long for his back up and they got a lot of money to do programming on the ground over there. What does this mean in terms of actual policies? I think that what’s going on is a tremendous push in forcing patriarchal norms in the Black community. Now what I think this means in terms of Black queer folks is that there are new challenges, but also new opportunities.

PH: There was something you said that made me think about Black bodies. I was just thinking about how I perform and being really careful about the Black masculinities that I want to put on the stage and how they’re interpreted. Every time I get on stage I’m always thinking about it as an exercise in owning my Black body and my gender expression, but so often I feel like we’re asked to fill that quota so people can own this kind of Black masculinity vicariously and sexualize it.
Cultural production and commentary

AS: As a filmmaker, the reason it took me 12 years to make NO! is definitely because of racism, sexism, and homophobia. It wasn't like I was waiting for the product to come out. It's economics. It was, from, "What's your axe to grind, given that you're a lesbian?," [to] "Most women say no when they really mean yes." Age was [also] used at that time. I was “too” young; there was no way I could do a proposed documentary of that magnitude. It's just always having to challenge those norms about those perceptions. I was making the documentary for the Black community to really acknowledge that racism is alive and well, but to look at other forms of oppression that we as a community perpetuate against each other. And by my being out, it's not so much that I think homophobia was used to silence me talking about sexism. I think it was just, "How can we stop this project from being made?" I felt that the issue wasn't my being gay per se, the issue was talking about Black men perpetuating violence against Black women. And regardless of that fact that everybody in NO! is Black—women and men, and it's Black men who are speaking in defense of Black women, Black men who are on the front lines of struggles to end violence against women, regardless of all that, it's just kind of like we can't talk about anything that critiques our community, because it's like we're under siege.

AS: I'm very clear that were it not for women of color, predominantly, and white women, white American as well as European, NO! would not exist. As a result of economic censorship from foundations and funds, I had to come up with a whole other way of raising money. The way in which I did it was screenings at colleges and universities and film festivals all across this country. As a result of film festivals, European women and African women, Arab women and Asian women living in Europe organized not just screenings, but [did] simultaneous translation of NO! with a microphone reading a script that they translated themselves, raising money to not only bring me over there and tour me through their country, but also to give me money to come home with toward the making of NO!.

This past summer I got a grant from the Ford Foundation—a distribution, marketing kind of grant. I really feel like the reason I got the grant was a result of all of the coalition building work and that enabled me to make this film in the way that I wanted to. Had I gotten the funding that I wanted to get in the early stages, a lot of people would have had a lot to say about how I was going to express NO! I feel it was a victory learning how to do coalition building beyond just joining a group. There are those days when you get 10 grant rejection letters and you have to say, “fuck it, I'm still going to make it in spite of this.” Or those days when you've had five organizing meetings and only two people showed up. The Ford Foundation grant is playing an important role by enabling me to translate into different languages and get NO! out into a global market. I'm grateful for that, but in terms of who made NO!, it's like the Astraea Foundation, it's unemployed women in Europe as well as here, saying, "I don't have much, but here's a euro or here's a dollar because this film touched me."

KF: As a writer, one of the things that’s been the most meaningful is pieces that I’ve written and put out over the internet and that two, three years later still get e-mails. Recently I got a phone call from somebody in St. Louis. It was this Black gay man and he was like, “I read the gay marriage piece and I wanted to tell you I really dug it, there was stuff I liked and stuff I didn’t like, too.” I’ve been really blessed because it’s touched a lot of people and been able to raise some issues. In some ways it’s actually had much more power in that it’s been able to free float among people who have been looking for something like it. And not just that piece, but other pieces I’ve written.

People think of me as a polemicist or that I write these essays and what not, but it’s always important to me to tell my own story within that, so typically in my work this is where I am in this personally, and these are the larger political questions, and the way that I’m entering this conversation is through personal experiences. I feel that’s important for me to do. Because I write essays, people think that I’m some bourgie kid from wherever. And it’s not about trying to have keeping it real politics, but I’ve had a different life experience and the ways I’ve entered these conversations may not be what you think they are because I’ve written them down.

PH: My grandmother would say we’re so far in the back of the line that we’re at the front. I think as Black queer people we’re so far back in the line that I don’t even know what the line is about. I question if we should be in a line, and what is this line about? I think it’s in that perspective that I’ve been doing a lot of my work. All of my performance has a commentary. We’ve done a piece on Katrina, done pieces on domestic violence in queer communities. Some pieces are just meant to explode gender in some way. It’s interesting to me that there are so many stories that overlap. It’s amazing to see myself on stage a lot of times, but it’s always a struggle for me in performing. A lot of times I perform in white spaces and that’s a painful experience, and there have been lots of times that I’ve performed in predominantly Black spaces and it’s been a painful experience as well. The worst performance I had was in New York where I was literally pulled off the stage for performing something that was talking about gender and Black masculinity and the fluidity of Black gender and maybe what goes on behind closed doors. That was the toughest experience, having Black people remove me, literally, from the stage because it was a little too much.

KB: I think one of the things that is important for Black queer artists is really reclaiming our image and the work that you’re doing Imani, Aishah, Kenyon, and Patricia is so crucial. We’re up against a lot in what is viewed as Black queer identity. I look at the paradigms created by the mainstream media, for example like Tyler Perry and the whole entire Madea series, and Black women being portrayed by Black men and the resurfacing of the mammy image in [what] I call neo-minstrelsy in the post-Katrina moment. I think we have to reach back into our resources in reversing and reclaiming a lot of imagery. I don’t think it’s particularly easy, but it’s never been easy.

IH: We embody all these complexities and multiple identities and ultimately I always feel like I am a revolutionary because I am Black and trans. When people are like, “oh, you’re in a Marxist organization,” I’m always like, “what do you expect me to be?” There is all this history that’s not written down that we don’t necessarily get to talk about before there was that queer umbrella, the LGBT umbrella, before Stonewall, in that time period when people of color, LGBT, radical left folks, [and] we ain’t necessarily singing their histories, but they were doing it and living and breathing and doing the work and being all that they were. It’s about carrying on that legacy, too.

About the Authors

Kazembe Balagoon is a writer/educator living in Brooklyn NY. He is currently a member of Estacion Libre, a people of color organization in solidarity with Chiapas. His articles have appeared in The Indypendent, Left Turn magazine, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory.

Kenyon Farrow is a writer and activist living in Brooklyn, NY. He is the co-editor of Letters from Young Activists (Nation Books 2005), and his essays have appeared is a wide range of publications and online sites. Kenyon continues to write, lecture, and organize, and is currently working on his first solo book project. He is working on a Master's in Journalism with the City University of New York.

Patricia Hemphill is a genderqueer bio-female originally from Dallas, TX. Now living in the Bay Area, Patricia recently became the Youth Program Coordinator at the Freedom Archives. In her spare time, she works as a queer performance artist and has given workshops on queer performance and the complexities of performing blackness.

Imani Henry, is an activist, writer, and performer. He has worked nationally within the anti-police brutality and anti-death penalty movements, as well as fighting for the freedom of political prisoners. His writing has appeared in a range of publications and his multi-media theatre piece, B4T (before testosterone), received an Honorable Mention for Best Play for the Downtown Urban Theatre Festival.

Aishah Shahidah Simmons is a Philadelphia-based award-winning African-American feminist lesbian documentary filmmaker, international lecturer, published writer, and activist who uses the moving image, written and spoken word to make left of center, radical progressive social change irresistible.