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Following the example of James Baldwin

Speaking bravely about race, culture, sexuality

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James Baldwin, gay news, Washington Blade

Author James Baldwin as seen in ‘I Am Not Your Negro.’ (Photo by Bob Adelman; courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

The words popped! Sitting at the E Street Cinema, it seemed as if I were hearing a devastatingly spot-on response to life in the United States at the dawn of the Trump era: where former Breitbart News chair and white nationalist Stephen K. Bannon is the president’s chief strategist; people of color are unjustly shot by police; and Hollywood, despite some Oscar noms this season, is still way too white.

Heroes, as far as I could see, were white – and not merely because of the movies, but because of the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection.

There are days when I wonder, how precisely are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here, and how are you going to communicate to the vast heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here?

Yet these incisive, viscerally true, gut-wrenching words were spoken by novelist, playwright, essayist and one of the most important mid-century public intellectuals, James Baldwin in the searing new Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” directed by Raoul Peck. (The Academy Awards ceremony will be held on Feb. 26.)

Baldwin, an African American, who was born in Harlem and lived much of his life in France, died at age 63 in 1987. Though he chafed at labels, Baldwin spoke and wrote openly about same-sex love. His 1956 novel “Giovanni’s Room” was one of the first novels (other than pulp fiction) to feature male characters loving other men.

He knew civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, all of whom were murdered. In 1979, Baldwin wrote a 30-page letter to his agent describing how he wanted to write a book titled “Remember This House” of his reflections on these men and his friendships with them. (Only 30 pages of the book were finished.) Using Baldwin’s notes for the book and his essays, clips from his TV interviews and news reports of the 1960s civil rights movement, Peck makes you feel as if you’re inside Baldwin’s head. Hearing his voice and seeing his elegant presence, juxtaposed with images from Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, you feel as if Baldwin is speaking directly to you right now – in 2017. Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s words when Baldwin isn’t talking.

I can’t speak to how people of color might feel about “I Am Not Your Negro.” As a white woman, I found this 93-minute movie to be stunning. The documentary brings you face-to-face with the cruelty and discrimination that black people encountered in the South in the 1950s and 1960s. In the late 1950s, Baldwin decided that he should leave Paris and return to the United States after he saw a photo of Dorothy Counts, a 15-year-old black student entering a newly integrated school, Harry Harding High School, in Charlotte, N.C. White people spat and hurled epithets at her as she went into the school. “It made me ashamed,” Baldwin said, “some one of us should have been there with her.”

It’s easy for me to feel that I’d never act in such a hateful way. Yet, the film’s images of Ferguson cut through my complacent superiority to my white privilege.

I thought I was an astute pop culture observer until I heard Baldwin talk about how Hollywood has shaped our cultural perceptions. “It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians,” he said, “and, although, you’re rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians is you.”

Then there is the 1966 FBI memo on Baldwin. “It has been heard that Baldwin may be a homosexual,” it says, “and he appeared as if he may be one.”

Baldwin wrote and spoke brilliantly, boldly and bravely about race, pop culture and sexuality. In an era where bigotry of all kinds is rising, let’s follow his example.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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Words create worlds, so what kind of world do we want to live in?

Free speech comes with incredible responsibility

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It seems that each new day brings a fresh debate around speech and the weight of impact that speech holds. Back in October hundreds of Netflix employees staged a walkout protesting their company’s controversial Dave Chappelle stand-up special. At issue were a number of jokes aimed at the transgender community. The protest happened in response to Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos’ defense of the special, saying that “content doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” This statement could not be further from the truth. Not only do words carry impact and directly translate to real-world harm, words form our conception of the world and oftentimes what is seen as truth. The language we use and condone shapes how everything around us is perceived, which is why there is great responsibility in considering the words we use before we put them out into the world. 

We think about this every day at Reading Partners, an organization that places community volunteers in Title I elementary schools to support students in mastering reading skills. Because many of our volunteers do not share racial identity or a similar lived experience of the students we partner with, it is incredibly important to us that they understand that their role is to empower students who need a little extra support rather than coming to “help” or “save” them. The white-savior narrative has historically run rampant in spaces looking to mobilize volunteers for a cause and it is our responsibility to dismantle this narrative. This dismantling starts with the language we use and the stories we share about the communities we have the great privilege to partner with. Given that structural racism and oppression have created the current conditions facing under-resourced students, it is incumbent upon us that we recognize our role within the community and understand that we are here to act as a partner with students and their families whom have already created plans to address gaps in learning.

Because of the impact words yield, it is essential to carefully consider language choice, especially if it could affect marginalized and oppressed groups. Even those who have good intent, like journalists and public figures, often use outdated language and phrases that stigmatize communities or frame them through an othering lens. Some common examples of misguided language often used include phrases like “low-income students,” and “learning loss.” Both of these phrases place responsibility on students for the situation they are in despite the fact that students do not receive income, or have intentionally chosen to miss out on learning opportunities particularly with the disruptions that COVID-19 created. This type of framing has a direct corollary on how these students might be treated by teachers, administrators, and tutors, as well as how they are viewed by leaders, politicians and other people who hold power. It is therefore important that we use terms that accurately describe the situation, which may need to include political or historical context—so instead of “low-income students” we say, “historically under-resourced communities,” while a more accurate substitute for “learning loss” is actually “unfinished learning.” While these are subtle shifts in language, it completely reframes the situation, elucidating who shares responsibility for the current state of things and who does not.

It is also of note that the positive or negative connotations inherent in the language we use are hugely important to how we see those who may have different lived experiences than our own. At Reading Partners, we know that our students are not in fact “struggling” or “suffering from a lack of” something. We highlight our students as they are: “working hard,” “enduring,” “skill builders,” etc. despite growing up in a world where they have been denied access to high-quality literacy education. 

It is a fallacy that words cannot do harm. Language has served to dehumanize and subjugate people for as long as it has existed and it is often those in power who have the loudest voice. We as people, institutions, corporations, media, and otherwise must think through what we say and how it might impact others. Let’s be clear—this is not about censorship or ‘cancelling’ anyone. Language changes all of the time and it can be hard to keep up with. We are simply making the appeal that those in power, and with platforms, continue learning from and listening to those who have been harmed for centuries by systemic injustice. Free speech is a privilege, and with that privilege, there is incredible responsibility to utilize language that truly aligns with and demonstrates the user’s values.

Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan is executive director of Reading Partners DC, a nonprofit that for more than 20 years has helped empower local students to succeed in reading and in life by engaging community volunteers to provide one-on-one tutoring. If you’re interested in learning more and becoming a volunteer visit readingpartners.org/volunteer-washington-dc.

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Why are gays so terrible at intergenerational friendships?

D.C. should create buddy program for elders

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Let me just start with a question. How many friends outside of your generation do you have? I mean honest-to-god friends. In my friend group, as large and fungible as that can be in the District and in the age of social media, it’s sort of me and a few other Gen Xers, and then just loads of Millennials. They do look to me to pass down some knowledge, but it’s mainly to do with the ins and outs of mortgages and things like that. 

But is it me? Or are gays just really, really terrible at having intergenerational friends? It’s striking. I’ve recently developed a friendship with — let’s call him — Bill. He’s almost 80. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I just love the stories. But more on that later. For now, to ask another question, just why are gays bad at having friends removed from their respective generations? 

On social media this week I posted an obituary from a Houston paper dating from 1978. It was obviously from a gay man. You can tell from the coded language, “long time resident of this city despite stays on the West Coast.” And if that didn’t give it away, it ended with this rather heartbreaking language, “his parents requested that his friends not attend the memorial services!” Bill told me these sorts of obituaries — terribly vague but also cruelly pointed — were quite common in the dark days of AIDS. And this is succinctly why I think gays are so bad at having intergenerational friends, we’ve simply lost an entire generation of elders. And what was exactly lost with that generation is far more than can be enumerated in this column. 

Back to Bill’s stories for a second. There is a real value in oral histories, the telling and passing down of shared experiences make our culture certainly more valuable and rich, at the very least far more interesting. And again, this is nothing new, as cultures across the globe seek to capture personal stories and first-hand viewpoints of history unfolding. But it’s not just the story itself that’s important. It’s also the perspective and opinions. These remain nuanced between generations. Again, that’s really not saying anything new. But these varied opinions and outlooks, if not shared and debated risk isolating gay men into rigid and unchanging views crafted in echo chambers. 

Also, gays place a large premium on youth. And this, again, is nothing new, nor particularly gay. We just like what we like. But as Bill told me, he’s rather annoyed that any interest he expresses in a younger man is automatically filed under lecherous behavior. Let me just deal with this right here: We all, no matter the age, display to varying degrees lecherous behavior. Just get us a little dehydrated, a little tipsy, and throw us on the sand of Poodle Beach and watch the unwanted flirting unfold. So. But still we have to do better than mistaking anyone displaying interested in us as a simple sexual advance. That seems rather juvenile.  

With contact between our generations low, we are in danger of passing down a culture to future queer Americans that might seem a little lopsided and even a bit, well, shallow. But what’s to be done? I’ve commented in past columns on how we’re failing older LGBTQ Americans, especially in the District. To remedy this, we should use what I call the Chicago model and what is being done at the Center on Halsted, the city’s LGBTQ community center. The Center offers numerous programs geared to the city’s LGBTQ senior population. But one that sticks out is a sort of a buddy program, pairing seniors, even those in care facilities, with younger friends. This would certainly help us here in the District better care for our LGBTQ seniors, and would also of course help with the bridging of our considerable generational divide. So perhaps we could reproduce this here in the District. 

For now, I’ll continue to buddy up and enjoy my time with Bill. 

Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer. He contributes regularly to the Blade.

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Texas synagogue attack a reminder to fight anti-Semitism

Supporting Jewish community after latest tragedy

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Congregation Beth Israel (Screen capture via ABC News YouTube)

It was an all-too-familiar moment. A relaxed Saturday afternoon. Until an alert flashed on my screen. A gunman had taken hostages at a synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, in Colleyville, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. He’d gone into the synagogue during Sabbath services.

It was an hours-long ordeal for the rabbi and three members of the congregation who were held hostage. The police intervened. The hostages emerged safely after 11 hours. The gunman, Malik Faisal Akram, died.

Like so many hearing this news, I was horrified, saddened, frightened, and shocked, but not surprised.

The hostage-taking at the Texas synagogue is part of a pattern of rising anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League has tracked a rise in anti-Semitism in the United States in recent years – from the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., where marchers threw Nazi salutes to the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting that killed 11 people in Pittsburgh.

I don’t want to draw a false equivalency. Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia aren’t the same as anti-Semitism. But there are parallels. As I heard about the terrifying attack on the Texas synagogue, I remembered how frightened, enraged and sad we felt in 2016 when 49 LGBTQ people were killed in the Pulse nightclub massacre and how traumatized our community was by this attack.

As I write, much remains unknown about the hostage attack on the Colleyville synagogue. Authorities in the United Kingdom and the FBI are still investigating the situation.

Akram, the attacker at the Texas synagogue, came from Blackburn, England. In 2020, MI5 the U.K.’s counterintelligence and security agency, had investigated Akram, the BBC reported. The agency kept him on a watch list as a “subject of interest,” but determined that he wasn’t a “threat.” The FBI is investigating the hostage-taking at the synagogue as terrorism, the Washington Post reported. The authorities don’t know how Akram was allowed to get to Dallas or to buy a gun.

During the attack, Akram referred to Aafia Siddiqui, an American-educated woman known as “Lady al-Qaeda” and convicted of terrorism. Siddiqui is in a federal prison in Fort Worth for trying to kill U.S. soldiers, the Post reported.

Akram’s brother, Gulbar Akram, told media outlets and authorities that Akram had a mental illness.

Though the attacker’s motive still isn’t known, it’s clear that the Texas synagogue wasn’t randomly targeted, experts say. “It wasn’t a government office. It wasn’t another house of worship by a different faith community,” Holly Huffnagle, the American Jewish Committee’s U.S. Director for Combating Antisemitism, told NPR’s “Morning Edition.” “It was targeting Jews.”

Why should the LGBTQ community care about the attack on the Texas synagogue and the rise of anti-Semitism?

First, of course, because of the Jews in our community.

Those of us who are Jewish and LGBTQ know the double-whammy of encountering anti-Semitism along with homophobia, biphobia and/or transphobia. We run up against this prejudice in everything from slurs to stereotypes to violence.

Those of us who aren’t Jewish don’t know what anti-Semitism is like, though we may have Jewish family members or spouses who have experienced anti-Semitism. But because we’re LGBTQ, we have run into bigotry. We’ve been called names, discriminated against and wounded and killed by anti-queer violence.

Anti-Semitism and anti-queer bigotry aren’t identical, but I’d wager that many who are anti-Semitic are anti-queer.

“Then they came for the Jews,” wrote Martin Niemoller, a Christian pastor who resisted the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany in a poem, “And I did not speak out/Because I was not a Jew/Then they came for me/And there was no one left/To speak out for me.”

Our community needs to look within itself. We should work to expunge any anti-Semitism in our midst. 

Anti-Semitism has been a scourge for centuries. Combating it isn’t easy. But, let’s do all we can to support the Jewish community and to fight anti-Semitism.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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