by Guest Contributor Jafari Sinclaire Allen
Congratulations, Michael Brewer.
I have never walked across the stage on the Morehouse College campus green to receive my degree. On the first day of our indoctrination in 1986, who would have thought I would end up as one of those missing in action four years later? The upperclassman speaking prophesized: “Look to your left and your right. Four years later, one of these brothers will not be here,” and in 1990 one of those brothers was me. I was an “out” gay man at Morehouse College. On my would-be graduation day, I contemplated what
looked like a dismal future, by Morehouse standards—no Morehouse degree and no respect from the men that made up my peer group.
A recent article in the Los Angles Times, by Richard Fausset, bookends the recent history of homophobia and gay awakening at Morehouse with the heinous 2002 baseball-bat beating of a Morehouse student, Greg Love, by a dormitory mate, Aaron Price, and the historic “No More ‘No Homo’ ” events organized by Michael Brewer and members of the campus organization, Safe Space, in April 2008. For me, this recalls memories that I had put away, but which provide the foundations of my life as a scholar and activist. The fact that homophobia at Morehouse is not unique or unusual with respect to heterosexism and homophobia in society at large should be obvious. The institution represents rather, the “perfect storm” of homophobia —racial and class anxieties of “exceptional Negroes,” masculine gender trouble, class conflict and fundamentalist religious baggage [or as some might say, “heritage” or “tradition.”] These seas roil and skies open up in an international climate of heterosexism and misogyny. Homophobia at Morehouse is therefore instructive, dramatic and sad, but not rare in our world.
In return for the “crown,” which we are told Morehouse holds over the head of its sons who endeavor to grow tall enough to wear it, we are asked to buy a bill of goods that include fidelity to image and representation. But what—and whom– does this respectability betray?
Who pays the price for this shoddy mimicry- the picture in which the Black man takes up his “rightful” place at the head of a family with a dutiful longsuffering well-educated but decidedly under-employed light-skinned wife, and children with good hair?
[To each, her and his own, of course. My point here is not to point a finger, but to shine a light.]
How do these images and longings for certain types of lives, mates and relationships get shaped? To whom do we look for examples and for approval? My point here is that Black angst over appearing freaky, weird, less-than, or too Black shape our decisions and the ways we treat each other. Perhaps—the logic goes—if I speak, act and embody the White middle class heterosexual standard, or at least closely approximate it, I will finally be accepted as levelly human, as worthy, employable and loved.
But what violence takes place outside the picture’s pose, in order to frame this ‘just so’ story, in which Black men get to borrow the crumbling crown of the White patriarch? We rarely call into question the concept of “leadership,” or the assumption that an elite college education and middle class status qualify us to take the reins of a community putatively deemed “out of control.” And where do we turn, but to places like Morehouse, where suited and well-spoken men stand poised to do so?
For a long time, I could not express to anyone who was not there to witness it, what I experienced and what I felt. I allowed my parents to believe that my failure at Morehouse was just about being trifling. There was certainly a bit of that too, but hear me. The smart one—in whom my family and community had placed so many hopes—returned home from the Citadel of Blackness with nothing to show, but some scars he refused to let folks see. Tongues wagged about the waste. I despaired. I delayed. Perhaps I had not heard Audre Lorde the first time: “…even when we are afraid, it is better to speak.”
I was afraid and I had good reason to be. On that graduation day, though I did not receive a Bachelor’s degree, I had already come by a thorough education in heterosexism and homophobia.
I had learned, as well, a great deal about regret as I watched the woman I had loved, receive her degree at Spelman even as she dealt with her own disappointment and perhaps embarrassment over our break-up and the surveillance, attempts at discipline, and final expulsion that I was subject to by my fraternity brothers and friends. When I arrived at Morehouse I knew that I had desire for other men, but had resolved that homosexuality was a behavior—if I did not do it I would not be it.
But desire is stronger than reason.
I broke up with her without explaining why. Her love for me would not extinguish my desire for men. My love for her would not allow me to follow the well-worn path of marriage, infidelity and secrets. It was unfair to ask her to bear the burden of not knowing what was going on in my head and heart. Still, no relationship could work until I had resolved these issues for myself.
Two years before my would-be graduation day, I had joined KMT, an “Afrikan fraternity” that promised an end to the abuses of the Greek system, which at Morehouse had not only seen perennial scars and broken bones, but the death of my friend Joel, while pledging Alpha Phi Alpha. KMT represented a return to community service and scholarship and a new afrocentric Black masculinity respectful to women. Following tenets of Black cultural nationalism, each members changed their names as we crossed over to membership. I became Jafari, and this is still my name despite the challenges that came later.
I earned it.
The original impulse of the KMT Brotherhood was honorable, for the most part.
Just tragically flawed and not so radical after all.
Our aim was not to party, drink and step-dance, but to contribute to the liberation of Black people. For me, the opportunity to do this in the company of brothers who were likewise committed was irresistible. I had very few male friends in High School—always finding myself on the outside of those circles made up of athletes or wannabe gangsters. Here were men who also liked to read, to talk, to serve our community. I finally felt a sense of belonging.
The Black Nation which my fraternity brothers and larger community of budding afrocentrists imagined together had incisive [and for the most part, correct] critique of the bourgeois milieux most of us lived in and under. We were, for example, enraged by violence against women, inside and outside our ranks. But, not unlike the “handkerchief-headed Negro” institutions we
criticized, we also made no real steps to hold those brothers accountable or to make structural changes that would make sisters more secure in the streets and at home. I knew that I had to be in those fights, with sisters lobbying for better off-campus security and protesting swimsuits in the college pageants; and with the brothers, ready to deliver a beatdown to someone who had disrespected our sister. At least until it was one of our brothers deserving of the correction.
But it became clear that along with changing our names, a lot more work would have to be done to unlearn deeply ingrained homophobia and heterosexism. As we got closer, it became increasingly important for these brothers to protect their own deeply invested and fragile masculinities by ensuring that everyone in the brotherhood at least acted straight—lest the whole brotherhood be painted with a wide gay brush. This is the logic at work at Morehouse. Anxiety over what folks on the outside will think about The House drives the homophobia.
At the same time that I began to acknowledge to myself who I was becoming, I became a target. As Pat Paker promises in her poem “where will you be?” “they”—my “brothers” that is– came for me one hot afternoon. Not counting the months long traumatic prelude, my expulsion from the brotherhood took only a few minutes.
It was my job to call meetings and I had refused, for weeks, to call a special meeting where my sexuality and gender expression would be discussed– again. Eventually, I relented and agreed to show up. After a ride on the MARTA and a long walk, my stomach in knots, I was greeted by a number of those whom I had helped to initiate into the group, and a few who were initiated with me, after twelve weeks of a harrowing process. Perhaps there was also at least one who had been one of my guides into the brotherhood—I can no longer remember [or cannot stand the memory]. The air was thick with silence. No eyes met mine. My heart sank, then broke in silence. I like to think that I am now a long way from that young man with the paper-thin skin and razor sharp tongue. I keep him safe in a quiet space of my heart. But in moments of angst, pain, or alarm, these are the memories I exhume—my own scenes of injurious subjection. After all, these were my brothers, at one time.
In order not to reveal my pain, I quipped “so… what is it,” or something like that. He [the newly initiated brother whose name escapes me now] met my arrogant quip, quid pro quo: “we have decided to expel you from the brotherhood. For homosexuality.”
By definition, this is not radical, but reactionary.
The radical acts were happening– as I have learned, radical acts do– on the other side of the gates. I felt and participated in radical Black politics only after being once removed from this Black cultural nationalist kinship. Though we saw ourselves as a sort of revolutionary vanguard on campus, I became an intellectual and an activist in my own right outside the formidable gates of KMT’s brand of Black bourgeois respectability— in Atlanta’s Black lesbian and gay community of artists and activists. We supported each other as we healed from various wounds received within our communities and families; railed against homophobia at Morehouse in front of MLK’s tomb at the King Center; paraded with the African American Lesbian and Gay Organization of Atlanta [AALGA], established the Coalition of African Descent, Second Sunday; and Craig’s A Deeper Love Project at AID Atlanta; and marched down Peachtree Street and in Washington, DC, for more HIV prevention and care dollars, for an end to violence against women, gays and lesbians in our homes and our streets; and even organized and attempted to charter what I believe was Morehouse’s first gay and bisexual organization, Morehouse Adodi. We did our work to save our own lives and communities. We had to—wasn’t nobody else going to do it for us.
Nobody else cares that we are dying.
While my reading list did not change much, the new way I read—critically, synthetically– shifted like tectonic plates finally clicking into place to make another country, where I might one day live.
At the time, I did not link this unceremonious surgical removal with the unusual request that Ron [not his real name] had made several months before, to accompany him to Montré’s, the low-end strip bar in the West End. In a scene that I recall now in its cinematic inanity, Ron, then known as Hamid Khalid [likewise a pseudonym], insisted that we go to this strip joint after leading Freshman Orientation. I thought nothing of this strange outing, even though we usually spent our time at Yasim’s fried fish place, planning KMT work or fomenting revolution. There I was in this dark, dank, sad strip club, wearing my Morehouse “uniform”—dark Brooks Brothers jacket I had bought while interning on Wall Street, crisp khakis, white shirt and bow tie. He told me to order a table dance. I did not want to disturb the dancers who looked tired and uninterested [as I have learned, low paid strippers often do]. He insisted again. I did. He pushed—“go up and tip the dancer.” I did it—crisp $5 bill, probably borrowed from him, folded and arm outstretched for the sister-dancer. Then, the announcement from the DJ Booth: “Hey, Spike Lee college boy, don’t be ‘fraid of the pussy… !” We all laughed as I handed the bill to her—embarrassed for and saddened by the brothers that chose to place their gratuities for her work, in her flesh.
Years later, in 2003, I learned from Ron—both of us drinking Ketel One and tonics at a professional conference in New Orleans– that this had been “a test.” Similarly, two of the elders of the organization— the ones I respected and admired most– in turn “counseled” me. In an office full of symbols and photos of men whom I hoped to emulate, and leaning in his chair as if trying to pierce my skull with x-ray vision, he asked, sternly, “is there something that you have neglected to tell your brothers?” His words hung heavily in the air for a moment. I demurred. Then, in another elder’s home– where I first met Ann Petry and Toni Cade Bambara between her pages– she asked in her own inimitable way, “Do you really love her?” I answered affirmatively. It was true and remained so. But this was utterly beside the point and not what She wanted to know. I evaded. I had already learned my lesson in disclosing my nascent desire. Months before, I told a professional counselor at Student Affairs about my attraction to other men. Soon, I learned, it was all over Gloster Hall [the administration building].
More than a year after my supposed graduation day, my friend Kirk told me that his Sociology of The Black Family professor planned to screen Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied in class. Although I lived close by, my deep hurt—and shame too, I now believe—had prevented me from stepping foot on the campus before this time, but I was hopeful that this signaled a sea changed in attitudes. I arrived to find the class sparsely attended. The professor breezed in with a television on a cart, and seemed not to mind that a former student had asked to sit in. She pushed the video in, left the attendance roll on the table, and exited as the film began.
The chorus of “Brothertobrother brothertobrother. Brothertobrother brothertobrother…” now sound/feel like the beating of my own heart, but in 2002, it was only my second viewing of this film that re-ignited the Culture Wars when it aired on Public Television stations. A few students left the room after signing-in. Others sat through it, making a show of their discomfort, while some seemed to take in these revolutionary images of Black men revealing themselves and loving other Black men. At the end, I quietly wiped my tears—and felt one Spelman student glare at me, as another gave a kind smile.
The Professor marched back into the room and ejected the film. With one hand poised to write on the blackboard, she flipped the lights on with the other. She wrote, purposefully: “CONSEQUENCES”. Under this, she stabbed at the board with her chalk: “Alienation from family”; “Alienation from Community”… “Disease”; “Death.”
Today, it seems the news at the Atlanta University Center these days is hopeful. As the newly inaugurated President of Morehouse College, Robert Michael Franklin, begins his second year, his support of the “No More ‘No Homo’” campaign is inspiring. There is reason to be cautiously optimistic that the self-appointed makers of Black leaders will finally take up its work of producing 21st Century Black men with open and affirming gender and sexual politics.
There simply is no excuse not to do so.
Now is no time to turn our backs on the work left to do.
(Photo Credit: WeArePartOfYou.Org)