Hidden in the open

Hidden in the open: a photographic essay of Afro American male couples from the distant past

photos by Trent Kelley

Sometimes it is difficult not to write without anger. Pretending or denying certain controversial truths do not exist for the purpose of catering to a saccharine political correctness wanting to make the individual comfortable is dishonest. Transfiguring a string of independent words into coherent whole sentences not losing their intended integrity but also not causing the reader to turn an exasperated and eventually disinterested blind eye toward is complicated.

How does one write about the Afro American gay male and couple? How does one accomplish such a goal from an historical perspective?

Historically, the Afro American gay male and couple has largely been defined by everyone but themselves. Afro American gay men are ignored into nonexistence in parts of black culture and are basically second class citizens in gay culture. The black church which has historically played a fundamental role in protesting against civil injustices toward its parishioners has been want to deny its gay members their right to live a life free and open without prejudice. Despite public projections of a “rainbow” community living together in harmonious co-habitation, openly active and passive prejudices exist in the larger gay community against gay Afro Americans.

Pockets within Afro American culture have on occasion wanted to deny that its men could ever be gay and part of the overall African American experience. Gay was traditionally conceived as a white man’s predicament, a sexual orientation and affliction common only to him. By persistent influence to a culture not historically his own, the disparate Afro American man became gay. The prurient interest in the otherwise “straight” Afro American male by a white male effectively turns the black male gay. Of course, this was all nonsense as Africa has long history of homosexuality predating European incursion into the continent. Open acceptance of the gay male varied from tribal community to tribal community. The gay male often occupied an honored high place in the African tribal community. In some instances, he either publicly or privately took another male as a marital partner without prejudice from his community. Where the predominant religious influence was Islam, the construct of male affection depended on the prejudices and custom within a specific local community where in some instances a man had a wife for procreation and a socially quiet husband; the male couple was expected to be discreet about their relationship.

In the larger white dominated U.S. gay culture, the Afro American gay male has and is often portrayed as a victim of black homophobia needing the aide of a white gay savior. This is coupled with black homophobia wanting to believe that two Afro American men cannot “desire” and “love” one another. Thus, the defacto interracial gay couple is ubiquitous in gay media. A misguided political correctness has only accentuated this problematic image. The vast majority of commercial photographic imagery within U.S. gay culture will portray the Afro American gay male coupled with a white male. Where accounts are written down for general reference to document gay history, dominating is image of the white male couple and the interracial couple. General gay culture has and is often hostile to the fact that most Afro American gay men imbibe little and no sexual or emotional interest in white men, but instead can prefer the Afro Diasporic diversity among their own people. Taking cues from general gay culture, even mainstream academic scholars and the media have adopted the picture of the gay interracial couple. Gay pornography is the primary medium where Afro American male couples are countenanced. Special interest is reduced to the fetishistic centering on the black phallus as black gay pornography is typically not produced for a Afro American gay audience.

The selected images for this photo essay date from the mid 19th to the 20th century. Styles of photography included are cabinet cards, picture post cards, tintypes and the more commonly used and inexpensive photo paper such as Kodak dating to the WWII period and afterwards. A picture mounted on a stiff card, the cabinet card was the next generation of photographic imagery after the cartes de viste which were the most popular from the mid 1850s and reached their peak in popularity in the 1860s. Surpassing cartes de viste in popular use, cabinet cards were influential from the 1870s to 1890s, declining in use during the 1920s because of the growing popularity of picture post cards. Picture post cards were cheaper and could be sent through the mail using a penny stamp. Relatively inexpensive and quick to produced, the tintype were photographs produced on sheets of thin iron. The tintype was favored by photographers and the public from mid 19th century up until the 1930s.

Hopefully for this photo essay, they will challenge as false definitions of the Afro American gay male and couple imposed from the outside. Accomplishing such a task is certain to be herculean as from time to time problems have arisen when the gay Afro American male was want to define himself for himself outside the common stereotypes imposed on him for reasons not excluding those for politics and profit.

Some of these images are sure to be gay and others may not. The end result is speculative at best for want in applying a label. Not every gesture articulated between men was an indication of male to male intimacies. Assuredly, what all photographs in this book have in common are signs of Afro American male affection and love that were recorded for posterity without fear and shame. Friendships where men often wrote romantically to one another, walked arm in arm were not uncommon to the straight and gay men alike during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Depending on economic situation, many even slept together and this may have precluded or included physical intimacy between the sheets.

Gay men did record their affections in photograph form after the invention of the camera. Not as overt as many today will want to see, tell tale signs of affection between lovers were as simple as a hand on the shoulder, a visible clasp of the hands, limbs quietly touching or simply two bodies in close proximity to one another —- all gestured affection carefully calculated so as not to arouse the suspicions of a possible censorious photographer not inclined to have an open mind.

Historically, during earlier eras of U.S. racial segregation, there were Afro American communities thriving despite both codified and non-codified prejudices being implemented as the law of the land. As W.E.B. Dubois wrote in 1901, blacks lived in their own protected world closed in from the outer world with churches, clubs, hotels, saloons and charities along with their own social distinctions, amusements and ambitions.

Within these microcosmic villages, which could be within large cosmopolitan areas with the city and off the road rural areas, lived subcultures of secure gay men. These men could be and were often quietly tolerated by their local community. This contradicts popular perception that for self preservation the Afro American gay male had to run away and eventually divorce himself from his ethnic community. Most research has concentrated on negative experiences within these self-sustaining villages. Little has been written about those who found contentment within these enclosed enclaves of the past before the supposed panacea of integration into general white culture destroyed the communal infrastructure. Even within early blues music, there was often unapologetic and uncompromised acceptance of gay men within the lyrics whether or not same lyrics were sung by an heterosexual male or female.

Same gender loving men could be tolerated so long as their behavior was not a threat to the precarious image of the larger Afro American community wanting assimilation into larger U.S. culture. Overriding importance for the community was a determination to present a positive image outside prevalent racial caricatures conveying people of African descent as lacking in industry and being intellectually unequipped to compete. The private lives of these men could be ignored provided they did not bring public scrutiny upon themselves by being anything but discreet. Acceptance depended on healthy familial relationships which if good allowed for the gay man to openly express himself and participate fully in the larger family and community of friends and neighbors. In those largely uneducated rural areas for instance, it was common to refer to known gay men in a then street vernacular not considered “politically correct” by today’s standards. Words were not used in a malice manner but only to identify the gay man. The gay man was both accepted and treated as a “man” without receiving any kind of special treatment and sympathy because of his same gender attractions. This isn’t to suggest that there existed a laissez faire attitude with male same sex attraction. Remember, vocally homophobic pockets with the larger Afro American community are want to deny the legitimate existence, or influence, of Afro American gay men. Nor does it attempt to ignore undue harassment for being perceived as gay in some black communities. It does indicate that like in the general Afro American experience, the gay black male experience was not monolithic and should not perennially be viewed in the negative as typically done by white gay historians who have been paternalistic and dare say supremacist with their attempt at inclusiveness in documenting the gay male of African descent.

Black gay men always found a way to meet one another. Without fail in secret, they discovered some out of the way place to congregate and be themselves, suspending all the rules of heterosexuality forced upon their true inclinations. A rendezvous destination in a walk-up or brownstone in Harlem, a nondescript house in the backwoods and just off the road somewhere in the land locked Midwest or the sultry and humid South , a section of the beach far removed from the occasional de facto melanin designated spots, gay men of African descent came together to socialize, find that “special one,” or just not feel alone.

They have meeting places today. The only difference is such spots where we congregate are no longer hidden and off the road in the majority of cases. More than provide a place for entertainment, a stiff drink after work, or just meet friends or maybe a husband or lover, our meeting places today provide a protective enclave for men of African descent who have on occasional been made to feel either unwelcome in the larger and whiter gay established hangouts, and, who have had enough of certain “white admirers” wanting to go slumming for an evening beneath bodies from the gay African Diaspora.

It is important for Afro American gay men, African Diasporic gay men in general, to understand they have a history of loving and desiring one another worth acknowledging and celebrating in whatever form. They have an history of just being that is important. The photographs presented here, and by extension a larger history of the Afro American/ Afro Diasporic gay male, is only the initial step of a defiant reclaiming of such facts representing the beginning tip in research either by a professional scholar or the arm chair one willing to put the time and labor in looking, asking questions, and wanting answers.

Writing her book Portraits of a People: Picturing the African American in the Nineteenth Century, scholar Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw wrote of early African Americans encircled by a dominant society that controlled their lives and image:

The important move from the margins of somebody else’s portrait into the center of one’s own cannot be overstated….

View hidden in the open: a photographic essay of Afro American male couples

Copyright 2010 by Trent Kelley

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