27 November 2007

Guest Blog: Going "Outside the Lines"

Author Christopher Hennessy recently asked me for a 'black & gay' take on Major Jackson's controversial (to some) “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black,” in American Poetry Review

Whether it be out of fear of exposing their own homophobia or simply worry about saying something potentially ‘politically incorrect,’ most non-gay writers dare not veer beyond their own experiences. The straight writers are supposed to write about being straight, the gay writers about being gay, and seldom do the twain meet. In much the same way that blacks are expected to talk about racism, and women about sexism, so we gays and lesbians are the ones that are charged with bringing up issues of sexual orientation. Sadly, this is a typical, and very old, position taken by those in the ‘mainstream’: WE (i.e. straight, white, male, etc) don’t have a problem, YOU (the non-straight, non-white, not male) are the ones with the ‘issues’ and we look to you to tell us what they are.

Read the rest over at Christopher's blog Outside the Lines. Thanks for the opportunity, Christopher!

21 November 2007

The Question of Space

Image from the Loyola University, Chicago's Advocate website

Lately, I've noticed an increased number of LGBTQ and 'non-gender-conforming' young people in our libraries here in B-more. Last week a couple of kids were even vogueing in the hallway leading to the African American Department of the Central Library downtown (I mentioned this to a friend who asked 'where was the music?' The answer was 'in their own heads'). Perhaps I don't mind a pose or two at the library, but when one of them dropped to the floor to do a few moves, I had to step in and remind them they were not in a club.

Libraries have always been safe spaces. We always complain about the parents to drop their children off and expect us to baby sit for them, but it seems to come with the territory. We too would rather have them with us in our buildings than out on the streets. The first branch I worked at on joining the library, on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and North, was and remains a veritable oasis in a sea of dispair, with both drug trade and drug treatment, and working girls literally around the corner from the building. Well lit, with security and helpful, non-judgemental staff, the library is probably one of the few places young people and others can go and feel truly free.

I remember, too, years ago, seeing a young man on the main floor, very furtively reading a copy of one of E. Lynn Harris' early novels. He would read a few paragraphs, then look up to see if anyone was watching him, trying to see what he was reading. My heart went out to him. Who knows what his life was like that he felt he had to worry about others seeing him reading that particular author.

Many of the young people I see now are rather 'obvious' in the expression of their sexual orientation. Many of the girls are very 'butch', and they guys are rather 'fey' in style and attitude (I'm sure a number of others who are often called 'straight acting' are, in fact, Family as well). They use our computers for research, play games, or to go on Facebook and My Space (and in some cases, I'm sure, try to get around our filters to access hook-up sites as well) -- just like the straight kids. Also like their straight counterparts, the library is a place to meet and socialize with their friends. So long as they are relatively quiet and non-disruptive, we leave them alone.

There are very few places for 'queer youth' to meet and relax with each other here. They are not supposed to be in bars or clubs, our Community Center has a few youth programs, mainly on Saturdays, and -- sorry to be stereotypical -- but I somehow doubt the young people I saw vogueing would be interested in going to a rec center or gym, unless they had dance classes there, and even then might be concerned about taunts from the more sports-oriented young people there.

So, again, it falls to us, the local library, to be the default community center for these young people -- and others, not that I'm complaining (much). I'm very glad we're here, and that they're here and not on the streets, in the parks, or whereever.It may even be possible that we are some of the few adults these young people come in contact with who are not judging them, or asking them to conform or 'straighten up.' Also, too, since there are a number of gays and lesbians in the profession, we might be one of the few places where they see 'out' gay men and women 'live' and in a professional capacity. Again, we're happy to provide them with our services. But I wonder if we should be doing more for them -- and as a gay man I'm haunted by thinking about what if anything I personally can do for them, to let them know that "I'm one too" without being seen as trying to take advantage of them.

Libraries say we are community centers by default, and really don't want to be in the business of raising other people's kids. But....well...in many cases that's exactly what we're doing/what we are. Perhaps its time for us to think of ourselves that way, and actually attempt to provide more services to our young charges while they're hanging out in our buildings.

12 November 2007

"We miss you, man!"

Many thanks to John for highlighting this news item from Cleveland (Emphasis mine)

Troy Smith does juvie

When Heisman winner and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Troy Smith stopped off for an inspirational speech at the county juvenile detention center last week, his odds of success weren't good. Row upon row of teenagers in blue jumpsuits slumped in cold metal chairs in the center's dismal gym, conducting silent warfare with their eyes. A guard noted that not all the kids could attend, since the center is overcrowded and authorities worry about gang problems.

But then something incredible happened. Smith attacked his audience with an unusual weapon: kindness.

"We miss you, man!" he began. "We need you guys to be future doctors. We need you guys to be future lawyers . . . We don't need you to be here your whole lives."

His voice rose and tears stained his cheeks as he defined Cleveland's deepest need: "We are starving for men."

The audience was hooked. Heads nodded, eyes were glued to the podium. "It's incredible to me how many beautiful young men we have in this building right now," Smith said. "I come here today as a humble servant to you guys."

One by one, he listened as the teenagers stood up to introduce themselves and ask polite questions. There were no jokes, no snide remarks. When Smith asked for their help in defending his hometown, most hands rose in the air.

"My long-term goal is making Cleveland a better place," he told them. "You can call me a hypocrite if it doesn't happen, but I guarantee you it will."

!Bravo Troy Smith! A winner on the field and off.

I am very struck and moved by this report. How often have we thought of dealing with the problems of (urban) crime and gang activity in this way? That we NEED the young black men who are getting 'caught up in The Game' and then ground into pulp by the legal system. So often young black men are seen as the enemy, worthless, dangerous, 'scary,' lost. These messages get internalized and becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: You already think I'm a Thug, so then, I'll be Super Thug!

What if we told these young men (and women) that they were beautiful? That there was no need for them to 'be hard' to be men? That we as neighbors, a community, a nation really need them out on the streets, taking care of themselves and each other and the rest of us? What would happen if more young people were told early and often that they were intelligent, capable, and wanted, that they were reminded that they were loved? What if, to paraphrase this Essex Hemphill poem, we organized to save our own lives? Are we 'man enough' to do that?

by Essex Hemphill

I want to start
an organization
to save my life.
If Whales, snails,
dogs, cats,
Chrysler, and Nixon
can be saved,
the lives of Black men
are priceless
and can be saved.
We should be able
to save each other.
I don't want to wait
for the Heritage Foundation
to release a study
stating Black men
are almost extinct.
i don't want to be
the living dead
pacified with drugs
and sex.

If a human chain
can be formed
around missile sites,
then surley Black men
can form human chains
around Anacostia, Harlem,
South Africa, Wall Street,
Hollywood, each other.

If we have to take tomorrow
with our blood are we ready?
Do our S curls,
dreadlocks, and Phillies
make us any more ready
than a bush or conkaline?
I'm not concerned
about the attire of a soldier.
All I want to know
for my own protection
is are we capable
of whatever,

07 November 2007

This is a Journey Into Sound...

Do we ever sound they way we think we do? New recordings of your irregular co-respondent now available via Washington DC's indispensable annual Gargoyle, and at the wonderful on-line poetic house party, From the Fishouse. Thanks Richard and Matt -- I'm truly honored!

06 November 2007

The Great Not-so-white North

(photo, The University of Minnesota)

Back from a whirlwind trip to Minneapolis, Minnesota. I guess if Garrison Keillor can come to Baltimore, I can go to Lake Woebegon!

My first time there, and I took an immediate liking to the place. What is it about some places that draw you (me) in automatically? Well, attractions for me....Minneapolis is an Arts town, with a nationally known museum (The Walker), Theater (The Guthrie) and literary arts center (The Loft). And as for music, we all know about it's other favorite son, Prince. I was also drawn to the interesting architecture, general 'walk-ablity' and the feeling of safety on the streets -- and the great food (another visit to Hell's Kitchen is #1 on my return trip To Do List). There's also something (in addition to the chill) in the air there that felt relaxing and even welcoming to me. Quick though this visit may have been, I enjoyed being there, and am eager to return and explore further.

As others pointed out, folks there are not exactly as outwardly friendly as they are here below the Mason-Dixon, but they're not mean or rude. Just reticent or "shy" as Mr. Keillor would say. Get them started, however, and they seem quite ready to talk: we had a very interesting conversation with the van driver on the way to the airport as we left about Minnesota politics, the job market for teachers there, and his support for Barack Obama, among other things.

One thing that struck me immediately was how African the city is! Starting with the support staff in the airport, I was amazed at the number of East Africans I encountered there. 2000 census figures show an 18% black/African American population in Minneapolis (versus a 3.5% total in all of Minnesota). I am not entirely sure that this figure conveys the range of African immigrants there (Africans in America), as opposed to those of us who call ourselves/are now called African-American. In the Twin Cities area there's an African newspaper based in Minneapolis, Mshale, at least a dozen African restaurants, and an Afrifest in August. The Walker also sponsored an art exhibit "Minneapolis and St Paul are East African Cities," by artist Julie Mehretu. I also note that the city's website offers information in Spanish, Somali, and Hmong. And as for "the Other part of me', the Twin Cities hosted the third largest Pride event in the US in 2007.

This is the changing face of Minneapolis, 1990-2000:

• Minneapolis population grew by 3.6% or 14,235 persons.

• Minorities and racially diverse immigrants provided 100% of the city’s gain in people.

• White population declined by 37,781 or 13.8%; Non-Whites increased by 54,016 or 68.0%; an additional 9,710 persons identified themselves as White and some other race.

• Minneapolis has the largest population of Black or African American (68,818), American Indian, (8,378) and Hispanics, (29,175) in the state; and the second largest Asian population in the state.

• The Hispanic population grew by 269.3%, the largest percentage increase for a minority group in Minneapolis.

Who knew!? Now I'm VERY curious about this town, and how the traditional Midwest and African and other cultures interact and mix (or don't). Too bad Mary Tyler Moore isn't still working in the newsroom there to do a special report!