In honor of Black History Month which wrapped up yesterday, GLAAD's COAD Program recognized black LGBT writers who illuminated the black experience during pivotal eras in American history. While we know that there are countless talented pioneers, here are a few of those who have made significant contributions to the black arts movement, and who are emulated today through the work of other prolific writers, artists and activists.
Lorraine Hansberry is best known for her play, A Raisin In The Sun, which tells the story of a working-class black family struggling with classism and racism during the 1950s in Chicago. The play was inspired by her father’s legal battle against racially segregated housing laws in the Washington Park subdivision of the South Side of Chicago. The Hansberry home was recently nominated as a Chicago landmark, and is pending review by city council.
Hansberry contributed to the black feminist and lesbian movement through her writing, which included articles published in The Ladder for the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first lesbian rights organization. Hansberry joined DOB in 1957 and supported issues contingent to feminism and homophobia. Hansberry’s past works also include To Be Young, Gifted and Black and The Drinking Gourd.
“When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right...Make sure you done take into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got wherever he is.” - A Raisin In The Sun
The black LGBT community lost author E. Lynn Harris too soon in 2009, who took a bold leap in the fiction genre by writing the first book series on black romance/drama featuring open and closeted gay male athletes. His first novel, Invisible Life, catapulted Harris’ career in 1994 and thereafter, he continued to write 10 New York Times bestsellers.
Born in Flint, Mich., and raised in Little Rock, Ark., Harris’ motivation to break new ground began at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville where he was the school's first black yearbook editor, the first black male Razorbacks cheerleader, and the president of his fraternity. His work includes the memoir What Becomes of the Brokenhearted and the novels, A Love of My Own, Just as I Am, Any Way the Wind Blows, I Say a Little Prayer, If This World Were Mine, Just Too Good to Be True, and Basketball Jones. He died shortly before the release of his last novel, Mama Dearest, at the age of 54.
“I couldn't believe it, but it felt so natural. It was the first time I had ever kissed a man. I had never felt a spasm of sexual attraction toward a man. Honest to God. But his kiss. I had never kissed anyone like this, not even Sela.” – Invisible Life
With the release of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, author and performance poet Sapphire emerged on the scene quietly, yet unrelenting. The film is a complex and gritty tale told in the words of Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones, a 16-year old who has suffered sexual and emotional abuse from her mother and father, but finds salvation from her teacher through writing and learning to read at the same time. Sapphire’s career as an educator and social worker during 1980s Harlem and the Bronx inspired her to construct a story that is an interwoven piece depicting the real-life socioeconomic struggles her students confronted. The film continues to be a staggering success: actresses Mo’Nique and Gabourey Sidibe were both nominated for Golden Globes and Academy Awards for their roles in the film; and the 21st annual GLAAD Media Awards also recognized the cast in its “Outstanding Film” category.
Sapphire is also an acclaimed poet and has been a part of the black lesbian arts movement since the 1970s. She is a former member of United Lesbians of Color for Change, Inc., and self-published a collection of poems, titled “Meditations on the Rainbow” in 1987.
“Ms Rain tell me I don't like homosexuals she guess I don't like her 'cause she one...Ms Rain say homos not who rape me, not homos who let me sit up not learn for sixteen years, not homos who sell crack … It's true. Ms Rain the one who put the chalk in my hand, make me queen of the ABCs.” - PUSH
One of the Harlem Renaissance’s greatest writers, Langston Hughes delivered the African-American experience with colorful diction through jazz and folk poetry. His engagement with jazz music produced some of his greatest works, including “Montage on a Dream Deferred.” Depicting the black aesthetic was the highlight of Hughes’ career along with his entourage, which included Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Aaron Douglas, all of whom collectively created the quarterly magazine, “Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists.”
Hughes gained popularity with the younger black generation because of his bold efforts to speak against racial inequalities during a time period when blacks suffered at the hands of white supremacy with no remorse. Here is a quote from his article, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” published in The Nation in 1926 that exemplifies his contempt of hatred from whites and his intolerance for blacks who presumed that Hughes’ was an elitist:
“The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves.”
Fifteen years ago, spoken word poet and author Staceyann Chin moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., to free herself of a constricted life in Jamaica and has since evolved into a brazen political activist for the LGBT community. In her new memoir, The Other Side of Paradise, Chin delivers poignant details about her identity crisis as a child after her Chinese father blatantly disowned her, and the threats on her life from the men in her hometown in Jamaica because she refused to be a closeted lesbian.
Chin was featured on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents: Def Poetry Jam, and included as a cast member for the Tony-award winning Broadway production of the show. Her essays and feature stories have been published in the New York Times, Essence, and the Washington Post. She has also coordinated media campaigns with national organizations, including GLAAD, to speak out against anti-gay lyrics from Jamaican reggae artists.
“I am only poison when you seal me in a transparent coffin.” – Stain Me a New Heart
Audre Lorde’s perception of herself was multi-faceted: “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” As a black feminist, she recognized the lack of inclusiveness for black women within the larger “white-led” feminist movement and challenged her colleagues to address the fact that racism and classism prevailed. As a lesbian, she surrendered a large portion of her essays, poetry and activism to liberate the LGBT movement, and became the voice of reason by tackling the issue of sexual fluidity.
In 1994, two years after her death, the Audre Lorde Project was founded in 1994 in Brooklyn, N.Y. The organization’s centralized work includes community organizing and radical non-violent activism for LGBT people of color, and is a testament to Lorde’s activism in the gay community in Greenwich Village.
"...But I, who am bound by my mirror as well as my bed, see causes in color as well as sex, and sit here wondering which me will survive all these liberations.” – Who Said It Was Simple
Octavia E. Butler is well-known for her science fiction writing, which included ambiguous themes around race and sexuality. She was raised by her mother and father, who worked as a maid and shoeshiner, respectively. At the age of 12, Butler’s writing began to blossom after taking an interest in sci-fi films. To date, she is the only science fiction writer to receive one of the genius grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Butler continued to explore other fictional genres, while still encompassing themes around identity. Her last novel, Fledgling, was published in 2005 and received critical acclaims from the Washington Post and The Seattle Times.
"I think people really need to think what it's like to have all of society arrayed against you.” – Butler’s response to the vision behind her novel, Kindred
James Baldwin’s legacy has inspired many American novelists and he is well-cited for his accomplishments in the black arts, civil rights and LGBT movements. Baldwin attended The New School in New York and resided in Greenwich Village. Disheartened by the prejudices against blacks and LGBT people, he decided to move to Paris, France. During this time as an expatriate, Baldwin’s work was published in literary anthologies and he worked alongside mentor Richard Wright to ultimately publish a collection of essays on Wright’s Native Son. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published in 1953, but it was Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, that pushed the envelope with critics because of its homoerotic content.
Baldwin continued to write other novels that echoed his tormented life as a black gay man in Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. His life and work continues to be celebrated through organizations such as the National James Baldwin Literary Society, and outreach services including Hampshire College’s James Baldwin Scholars program.
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” – Baldwin