The Key to the Closet: Making Race and Sexuality Matter

By Henderson, Dwan | Black Issues in Higher Education, January 16, 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Key to the Closet: Making Race and Sexuality Matter


Henderson, Dwan, Black Issues in Higher Education


Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual African American Fiction

Edited by Devon W. Carbado, Dr. Dwight A. McBride, and Donald Weise

Foreword by Evelyn C. White

Cleis Press, 2002, 555 pp., $29.95, Trade paper, ISBN 1-57344-108-2

Fiction by gay, lesbian and bisexual African American authors has long been marginalized in the academy. When it has not been, it frequently has been the victim of a form of academic separatism, often studied within racial contexts excluding sexuality, within sexual contexts excluding race, or within gender constructs excluding both sexuality and race. More damaging than even the academic treatment of these texts, however, has been the stigma often attached to them and their authors amidst African American communities deeply entrenched in the fight against racial prejudice and/or gender bias. For these communities, subjects of untold oppression on so many fronts already, the issue of same-sex love, which brought with it the threat of criminal prosecution for years, was simply taboo.

In Black Like Us, an anthology of 36 works of fiction by African American gay, lesbian and bisexual authors, editors Devon W. Carbado, Dr. Dwight A. McBride and Donald Weise reclaim these authors (and, in turn, their fiction) for scholarship that is inclusive of all facets of their identities and their experiences. Divided into three historical segments preceded by lengthy introductions, this anthology seeks not only to unveil a longstanding "queer" tradition within African American fiction, but also to locate the texts comprising this tradition in the social, historical, political and literary climates of their times.

In part one, "1900-1950: The Harlem Renaissance," readers will find works by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimké and Wallace Thurman. In addition, this segment includes what is believed to be the first fiction featuring overt homosexuality published by an African American author, Richard Brace Nugent's 1925 "Smoke, Lilies and Jade." To contextualize these works, the editors provide a sweeping introduction. Using W.E.B. DuBois' notion of the "Talented Tenth" and its inherent elitism as a starting point, they articulate the ways in which the drive for Black enfranchisement from Reconstruction to 1950 was rooted in the heavily contested idea of "Black respectability." Relegated to "outlaw status," very few, if any, African American artisans or scholars openly acknowledged their homosexuality, often opting, as in the case of Cullen, to marry for convenience, or, in the case of Nelson, to limit discussions of sexuality to private (and until recently, unpublished) correspondence. In this section, it becomes clear that underneath the blossoming artistry of African American writers, and beneath the rhetoric of Black uplift, gender equality and Cold War politics that dominated this period, lay a slowly emerging realization that sexuality, too, was a highly charged, political issue.

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