I recently came across a wonderful collection of photography that showed gay men of color who are coupled or posed together in intimate ways that doesn’t cross the line of decency. The wonderful thing about this online gallery is that it dates back to the 19th century, giving one a glimpse into what is often not seen, black men in a relationship.
Compared to the sexualized images that are displayed today of black men, it’s refreshing to see that the concept of black men being in love or being in the company with each other especially during a time when it was more than a crime, it was a double strike for harm: being gay and being black. I cannot imagine what such a relationship endured and what obstacles had to be overcome to maintain such a relationship.
To know that for the men in the pictures forces were in place from both sides: one side that would do harm based on the color of your skin and the other side, your own black community, who may inflict the same harm based on your sexuality choice.
Credit for the photographs goes to Historian Trent Kelly who has done a great job assembling these pictures taken from the last 140 years of gay black history. By gathering the pictures as a collection he archives a lost history which is often not seen. As Mr. Kelly states in a previous interview, “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.”
I’m humbled by the smile of two men in one photograph taken in the 30’s as they stand side by side, each displaying a joy washed over their face. It’s a testimony that love can endure and that it’s also timeless. That love can be macho, that it can be timeless, a template for today.
I have heard from some people I know stating why they are not in a relationship. Often I hear about the stigma and the overall difficulties of being gay and a person of color in today’s society, but to see these pictures and placing it in the context of the time when it was taken you have to wonder if the barriers that exist today are as difficult as they were in the early twentieth century?
Mr. Kelly further states the reasoning why he started the project as he felt that Afro American gay male and couple has largely been defined by everyone but themselves. As evident by the sexualized images of Mapplethorpe or even the mentality of the public as gay black men are often stripped of their identity and today placed in either a grouping of being an abomination or a category of sexuality with a new identity that removes their face and are viewed based on their ‘BBC’ or other less flattering and newly adopted negative tags such as ‘thug’ If you’re looking for such an image in these collections I guarantee you, you’ll be disappointed
. There are truly some people I personally know who actually are under the impression that gay black men didn’t exist until the arrival of Langston Hughes or the oft mentioned, James Baldwin. But in fairness there is not a huge collection of images of black men in the past showing affection. And their stories are often not told. Usually the only images of black men in general that we are treated with are ones of us hanging from the tree with a crowd of revelers smiling.
What’s affirming is to see the confidence that is displayed in the pictures of two men who can be in the same company without the air of machismo. In this month of celebrating Pride I hope people who view these pictures, especially Afro-American’s can come away with the knowledge that we have been in love with each other for centuries. That the love we have shown each other has endured segregation, men in white hoods, the taunt lynching rope, the biting of the dog while marching for our civil rights and the emergence of a four letter word called AIDS.
I thank Mr. Kelly for assembling these photographs. Although they have existed for years by assembling them together for easy viewing he has done something that is very beneficial not only for the black community but for the gay community as a whole. He is has made sure we have not become the ‘invisible man’ and by archiving our history he provides a glimpse of what our future can look like.
If you can, make sure you look at the collected photos and maybe come up with ways that the love displayed today can be archived and stories told, never to be lost anymore.