C. Glenn Carrington and Black Male Intimacy

“Black men loving black men is a revolutionary act,” writes the late and great Black gay writer Joseph Beam in his poignant essay, “Brother to Brother: Words from the Heart.” A personification of Beam’s insurgent statement can be found in the life and legacy of C. Glenn Carrington.

Calvin Glenn Carrington (1904-1975) was a Black gay leftist and collector of Black art; he was also a social worker, newspaper writer, and amateur photographer. Carrington received his BA from Howard University, where he studied under the leadership of Alain Locke, the “godfather” of the Harlem Renaissance. Carrington is associated with other figures of the New Negro Movement, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Harold Jackman to name a few. After traveling across Europe post-graduation, Carrington returned to the states and received his MA from Columbia University, and went on to become one of the first Black parole officers in New York State. Carrington clearly had a passion for social work, but it seemed that his true ambition was to give, receive, and capture the love of the Black gay men around him.

There are letters from the 1920s that document Carrington’s love and respect for his friends and lovers. The letters contain debates of Freudian theories of homosexuality and the seeking out and responding to advice concerning potential and ongoing sexual and romantic relationships with other men. The letters were full of love, laughter, banter, and knowledge. A friend of Carrington who was serving in the Second World War wrote to him in 1944, “There’s one piece of trade down here that keeps my heart aflame and my ass afire. Every time he passes my ass-hole twitches ‘Ain’t Gon Study War No More.” The language shared in this letter, particularly the word “trade”, is unique to Black queer culture. The intimacy that Carrington shared with his friends was not only physical and/or spatial but shared with camaraderie and language that provides a safe space for expression that offers a special form of closeness.

Carrington remained close friends with his college mentor Alain Locke. Locke was all about community and kept his community of Black gay and bisexual writers close to him. Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Bruce Nugent were among Locke’s “fraternity of brothers” of The New Negro age. They all may not have liked each other or each other’s work (*cough* Hughes and Cullen *cough*), but they all respected Locke and valued the piety of community.  

Carrington was also a friend of Locke’s partner, Maurice Victor Russell. According to Genny Beemyn, author of A Queer Capital: A History of Gay Life in Washington, Part 3, the young Russell was just beginning to acknowledge his “othered” sexuality and both Locke and Carrington offered support, comfort, and literature to aid Russell in his process. Beemyn writes, “The ties between Locke, Russell, and Carrington serve as another example of the close circle of gay and bisexual men which centered around Locke. (92)”

This sense of community and support is reflected in Carrington’s amateur photography of the 1950s. At a time where physique publications were targeting the budding gay community with magazines like Physique Pictorial, showcasing muscular, thin, masculine white men under the guise of “health and fitness”, Carrington was photographing the friendship, community, and intimacy of openly queer Black men. As Tracy D. Morgan elucidates, “His collection of well over two thousand photographic images includes shots of Black male couples seated on stoops – their hands resting casually on each other’s thighs – or standing on street corners, presumably in Harlem or Bedford Stuyvesant, where Carrington, at different stages of his life, made his home. Other images created by Carrington include Black men in small groups, their bodies resplendent, relaxed, and at rest amidst heathery fields (Morgan, Pages of Whiteness, 293).”

 

While underappreciated at the time and overlooked by history, what Carrington was doing was pretty revolutionary. The consist struggle, well one of them, for gay Black men is carving out our space to be fully realized in our identities when societal narratives attempt to define or erase, what Black male queerness looks likes, or what it can look like and represent. Carrington gave us a gift that defines, at least for himself, what Black male queerness looks like, and more so, what Black queer community looks like when given the opportunity to freely give and receive love and intimacy. It dispels dominate societal narratives rooted in heteronormativity, particularly, whiteness, and capitalism, and perpetuates a sincere sense of camaraderie, respect, community, and hope through the lens of subversive Black queerness.

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(Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Three African American bodybuilders” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed February 21, 2019.)

Carrington died in 1975, leaving behind nearly 50 years of Black literature, including manuscripts, poetry, play scripts, printed programs and pamphlets in what is called The Glenn Carrington Papers. Included in the collections are personal documents of Carrington, correspondence between friends, mentors, and lovers, professional papers as his work as a social worker, Carrington’s photography, and more. The Glenn Carrington papers can be found at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Black Press, Queer Lives

Stemming from the incidents of violence like Gemmel Moore, Jussie Smollett, countless Black trans women, and other LGBTQ+ individuals, recent online discourse has sparked conversation concerning the coverage, or lack thereof, of LGBTQ+ related events. Particularly, in the Black press. Many Black LGBTQ+ individuals are discontented with how Black media outlets are choosing to cover stories concerning Black queer lives. Murdered Black boys, such as Gemmel Moore and Giovanni Melton, received little to no coverage from the Black press. And in Gemmel’s case, when it was covered, it seemed to more about him being a sex worker (why there is nothing wrong with, #SupportSexWorkers) instead of the circumstances of his death (#ArrestEdBuck). In Jussie’s case, the reporting on it was polarizing. Because of his fame and visibility, It was widely reported, but the Black publications refused to acknowledge the homophobia of the attack and gay publications refused to acknowledge the racism of the attack. On both ends, each undermined his identity to fit whatever narrative they were attempting to disseminate. The overall lack of coverage concerning the violence against Black trans women, the silence is deafening and disheartening. It seems that only Black LGBTQ+ folks (and publications) care about Black LGBTQ+ issues, and that is reflective in the coverage of Black media outlets.

But, this is not a new phenomenon. There is a compelling (and ongoing) history of the Black press in relation to Black queer lives and stories. Particularly, Ebony and Jet were the two most popular and accessible magazines for Black folks as early as the 1950s. As a result, both publications played a significant role in constructing communal concern. For all intents and purposes, Ebony and Jet for the voices of the Black community – the “for us, by us” model that is so prevalent in contemporary culture.

Following The Second World War, the nation experienced a queer sexual awakening. This is not to say that non-heterosexual identities and behaviors did not exist before the war, but a significant number of men and women were forced (drafted or enlisted) outside of their strict heterosexual, patriarchal expectations of living. Put in single-sex, close quarters living arrangements, they were able, many for the first time, to discover new sexualities that they had not previously thought about or experienced, or gave them the opportunity to explore and/or pursue desires they have always had (although this is very white-middle class-centric narrative because many scholars and historians have reported that many working-class Black communities were open to non-heteronormative behaviors and relationships, but that’s another topic for another time). As John D. Emilio delineates, the war “created a new erotic situation conducive to homosexual expression (Capitalism and Gay Identity, 52).” Nevertheless, the war queered the American landscape and there was no turning back. Ebony and Jet were at the forefront of covering postwar LGBTQ+ happenings, while white publications refused to acknowledge or report on or about the community.

Ebony and Jet would publish stories, in a rather positive and celebratory fashion, about drag balls, queer, transgender, and gender non-conforming identities, and other Black queer happenings of the time. Kevin J. Mumford reports that the publications “pushed the boundaries of respectability” in the 50s with their queer reporting (as well as their reporting on miscegenation, racial passing and sex scandals). Ebony reported on Georgia Black, “a man who had passed for a woman for 30 years (Mumford 43).” Similarly, Jet frequently ran stories of drag queens (mainly cis men impersonating cis women such as Josephine Baker, Mae West, and Lena Horne) and transgender folks, following their journey of gender reassignment surgery. Among the queer reporting was also Gladys Bentley, a popular “bull dagger” performer. Although there was debate of the Black press’ intentions, whether they were fulfilling their audience’s desire for queer scandal and sentimentalism or if they were genuinely concerned with queer lives and news, Black publications such as Ebony and Jet “rebell[ed] against the constraints of both white repression and Black respectability (44).”

Moving into mid-1960s, a shift from gender and sexual inclusive reporting to respectable appeasement occurred in the Black press. A combination of the Civil Right Movements (and its adherence to respectability politics – no shade, just facts), the struggle of Black masculinity, and the popularity of the (homophobic ass) Moynihan Report, discouraged (some) Black press away from queer causes, identities, and events. Mumford writes, “by the mid-1960s, Jet ran noticeably fewer stories dealing with queer themes, such as female impersonation and sexology, than it had in its first years (56).” He adds that reports on gays declined as well,

“Perhaps the most important reason for the fewer stories publicizing the queer mix of miscegenation, scandal, and homosexuality had to do with history itself. By the 1960s, black politics was a pervasive concern, civil rights demonstrations dominated the news, and stories on progress and setbacks in race relations took up more and more space (56).”

It became apparent the “voices of the Black community” grew less concerned with Black queer happenings and more with Black civil rights concerns – as if they were not one in the same. It was apparent that there was a hierarchy of concern and Black queer lives were at the bottom.

It’s reflective of “Black first” politics of today, which is reflective of “Black citizenship” politics of the 20th century. Both subvert the importance, authenticity, and validity of Black queer lives for the primary advancement of Black cishet, male lives. Which is not about racial liberation, but about proximity to whiteness through the cis-patriarchal oppression of Black queer folks, women, and children.

I know that Black History Month is a joyous time to celebrate our Blackness, but I also think it’s important to tell full histories. Especially ones that are important to the current cultural climate. Additionally, this is not a sad story. Where other Black press dropped the ball, Black queer press picked it up and scored. A publications like BLK and Black/Out provided critical and much needed approach to Black queer happenings of the 80s and 90s. And today, we have publications like (the newly reconstructed) Out Magazine, Them, Black Youth Project, Slay TV, EFNIKS and others that I’m sure I’m forgetting (charge it to my head not my heart), that are giving us quality news on Black queer lives, issues, happenings, and events that should be appreciated and supported.

I say all of this to say, the relationship between the Black press and Black queer lives is complicated and layered. When we write and report on Black queer lives halfheartedly, ambiguously, or neglectfully, we cheapen and erase history and that is unacceptable. We, Black queer folk, deserve the respect of full and accurate histories.

We can worry about more than one thing at time: Surviving R. Kelly & Government Shutdown

The Surviving R. Kelly documentary on Lifetime, a six-part docuseries that outlines in grave detail the mental, physical, and sexual abuse and trauma that R. Kelly has inflicted on countless Black women and girls, aired six installments over the course of three-nights during the first weekend of 2019. Kelly, given his legendary status as a musician, especially among Black folks, R. Kelly’s infractions have been widely discussed on the internet over the course of the weekend. In response to the ubiquitous discourse surrounding R. Kelly and the docuseries, I have seen posts across social media that claim the docuseries is a ‘distraction’ from other issues such as the government shutdown the country is currently experiencing. Some of these post read along the lines of, “Don’t let this R. Kelly shit distract ya’ll. The government has been shut down for days.” I just want to briefly delineate why this argument is foolish and built on feeble foundation.

First and foremost, people are capable of caring about more than one issue at a time. Just because one issue is currently being discussed doesn’t mean it’s a distraction or that other issues are being forgotten. Following this logic, everyone only has the mental capacity to care about one issue at a time and we all must be concerned with the same issue. That’s foolishness. It’s further foolish that one can dictate what others are allowed to be concerned with or discuss. It’s gonna be a strong no for me. We are allowed and capable of caring about, discussing, advocating for more than one issue at a time.

Another reason why I believe that this argument of distraction is popular is because folks are focusing solely on R. Kelly and his (very egregious, reprehensible) infractions. While R. Kelly is the focal point of the docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly is telling an important narrative of the systemic disenfranchisement of Black girls and women and the history of predatory behavior in the music industry. It really is a intricate study of race, class, gender, and geography and how Black girls and women are left vulnerable to sexual, physical, and mental trauma. According to the Women of Color Network, 40% of Black women report experience coercive sexual contact before they turn 18.

It is a study of rape culture and how men use their patriarchal power to build coalitions to prey on and abuse young girls and women and/or turn a blind eye to the abuse. Racism and sexism work in tandem to disenfranchise Black women and thus leaving them defenseless in rape culture. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reported that “more than 20% of Black women are raped during their lifetimes – a higher share than among women overall.

So while the docuseries is about R. Kelly, a serial rapist and abuser who preys on young, vulnerable, Black girls and women, it is not only about R. Kelly. It a story of a much larger narrative that delineates how frequently Black girls and women are abused and how American society continues to fail them. By claiming that Surviving R. Kelly is a distraction further fails Black girls and women by diminishing their survival stories as a distraction – as if their lives and stories are of lesser value than other issues.

Yes the government shutdown is a problem, a major problem. Thousands of government employees are without pay, and the shutdown may affect student refunds and tax returns. And me, as a struggling graduate student, get the urgency and anxiety concerning the shutdown (trust, I need my damn refund check). However, there is very little the common person can do besides hope and pray that this mess of an administration can get it together. But there is a lot that the common person can do to end rape culture, fight patriarchal power, listen and care for Black girls and women, and etc.

The assault against Black women that was elucidated in Surviving R. Kelly is not a distraction. It is a plea to do your part in ensuring that there are less R. Kelly’s in the world – something we all have the ability, and responsibly, to do.

 

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