Preferred Citation: Hawkeswood, William G. One of the Children: Gay Black Men in Harlem. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

5— "Different from Other Colors": Black Culture and Black Identity

"Different from Other Colors":
Black Culture and Black Identity

For the gay black men who make up the informant group for this study, opting to remain in a black community and to pursue social and sexual contacts with other black people is an expression of being black.[1] They perceive learning to be black as a conscious, active process, contrary to the common portrait of passive socialization one gets from the literature on black society.[2] In Harlem, individuals actively seek out information on being black, rather than just experiencing blackness in their daily lives. Growing up in a black environment, they are exposed to many of the elements of black culture.

Here I want to allow a population to speak for themselves about those aspects of socialization, black culture, and black experience that they deem important to black identity. What is immediately evident is that individual actors identify primarily as black, often when they have the opportunity to identify otherwise, for example, as gay or as American. Being black, then, is more than just an issue of skin color. It is a cultural identity constructed from experiences in the black family, in the black church, and out of black history and folklore, and it finds its expression in the social performance of black identity.

Harlem and Black Culture

Being raised in a black community is of primary importance in constructing a black identity: familial and other cultural con-


tacts are maintained, and lifelong friendships with other black people are established. But Harlem is also a center of black cultural innovation, a historical capital of urban blackness.

LIONEL : Growing up in Harlem? Just like anywhere else, I guess. I mean, I know its different, really, I'm proud that I'm from here. The whole world knows what Harlem is. I mean all the black people in the world know this is where it's at. So, yeah, I feel proud that this is my home.

HARRY : The most important thing to me is that all my friends are black. All my lovers have been black. That's what I like. So, that's why I live here. 'Cause all my friends live here. And they're all black. So, we just live our black lives right here.

Its history as the black town, the black ghetto, is reinforced by its being a city in its own right, a city that caters to the needs of all of its residents.

FRANCIS : Now you know I like my black boys. You know that. And, child, there's some fierce trade to be had right here in Harlem. . . . Honey, there ain't nothing like a Harlem boy. . . . You see, Harlem is the heart of black life in this country, and that's where you come to find real black men. That's why I live here. I been to Chicago. I been to Detroit. There ain't nothin' like Harlem.

Most especially, Harlem is perceived as a place to be black.

COLIN : I truly believe that that's why so many people came north. All these magazines and books about jobs and a better life. We know that ain't true. But what is true is that Harlem was a black town. It was a place where they could come and be black. They didn't have to deal with white folks. In their small towns or in their schools an' their churches. At work. Here in Harlem they could live black lives. I don't think they consider that angle. All these stories have a human angle. And sometimes we just do things because we're human. Not because we want more money, or better living conditions, or a better education. You can get all that better in the South than here anyhow. Harlem was special because it was black. Like the young folks is saying about Brooklyn. They all runnin' off and livin' in Brooklyn. Sayin' it's the biggest black city outside o' Africa. Same reason. Not because they got better jobs there. They still work in Manhattan. Not because the rents are cheaper. 'Cause they ain't. They goin' there because it's so black.

Black people today still believe Harlem is the core of black culture.

MARTIN : The way those children walk wears me out. All that energy. Sometimes I feel like telling those boys to put the energy into me. Come round my place and burn up some energy. But that's them. That's Harlem boys. They carry on. In the street. They don't care who sees them do what. They


tough. . . . These children in Harlem started all that stuff. You can see all these street styles in D.C. or Atlanta, or Chicago, or Philly, but this here is where it's from. That's what I like about Harlem. It's original. It all starts here. . . . Mind you, a lot of what these children on the street are doing comes from the gay [black] children. You see these boys and their haircuts, and their spandex, and bicycle caps. That all came from the gay children. Now a couple of years ago, they'd be callin' you "sissy" if you carried on like that. 'Specially in the street. But now it's OK. You see, what I'm sayin' is that all this fashion and stuff comes from the gay children. Even the white children are copying it now. So it's a source for all this creativity. Harlem is the source. I guess that's what really makes it famous. . . . To live in Harlem is to be at the source of black life. That's what I like about it. You're either creating it or taking part in it.

Harlem as a center of core black culture includes many artists—painters and sculptors, novelists and playwrights, musicians and dancers—although its image from the outside is of the ghetto: bombed-out buildings and projects, drugs and home boys. The white world of mainstream America believes the latter image to be Harlem's only truth. And the image of Harlem as a fearful, run-down, chaotic place full of impoverished people has been carried worldwide by the media. In Tokyo or Amsterdam, Mombasa or Sydney, the image of Harlem is that of the consummate black urban ghetto. Yet Harlem has over 300,000 residents, most of whom work, own or rent their homes, go to school, and live very typical urban lives.


Obviously, growing up in Harlem does not provide the only source of information on being black. Gay men have constructed their identities as black men from what they have heard from family and friends, read in newspapers, magazines, and books, seen in movies and on television, learned at school and in college, and most especially from what they have observed in the community around them.

One of the significant reminders of being black comes from close and continuous contact with others. Of course, this experience of being confronted with difference occurs every day on the street, especially in New York City.

CARL : I never knew I was black until I came to New York. I mean at home we just was. You know. I mean all of us was the same. Sure we was told, "Don't you be goin' over there. The white folks don't like us goin' over there." But


you didn't really know you was different 'cause you didn't see it. Or feel it. Y'know. But in New York. You learn shit like that. I mean you are forced to deal with so many other peoples. So you become aware that you're different too. I mean you can see it easy enough. People here all look different. And they're all mixed up together, y'know. So you see the differences.

But the most important source of information about being black comes from the family.

STANLEY : Really you learn those things when you comin' up. In family. I learned from my sisters and my grandmother. She was the one. I learnt all the stuff about down South, all the stuff about slaves, and whites. I learnt all that from my grandmother. 'Cause she was the only one that knew. We never saw no white folks. My first white man was a schoolteacher. Now he was fine. So, you know, I had no trouble listening to him!

The next most important source of information are friends in the neighborhood. Interaction with other black people "on the street" exposes the individual to the expressive elements of black culture: clothing and other fashion styles, black English, nonverbal communication skills, music, and dance.

STANLEY : The children on the street was where we got it from. I mean they be the ones that be teachin' you how to behave. They beat it into you. I didn't realize that until I was much older. How much we conform. We all wear the same shit and wear the same [hair]dos. I remember when we all had the same shoes. The whole class at high school was wearing exactly the same pair of shoes. I didn't see it then. But now the kids in the same sneakers, the same coats, the girls in the same earrings. They all conform. And they do it to the beat of the street.

LOUIS : You learn a lot of that stuff [being black] on the street. I remember the first time I saw the children coming up with their Afros. That was the biggest black thing ever. It must have really pissed off the white folks. They couldn't do that one if they tried. But it was exciting. To see something really black. And urban black. Something that was us, here in the city. . . . You learn how to walk, how to talk, how to act, how to dress. You learn all that on the street.

It is important to note that Louis raises the issue of black American culture as racially and culturally distinct from white. The construction of one culture in opposition to another has important ramifications for black people, one of which is providing a psychological cushion against discrimination. Since they often see themselves being treated as second-class citizens in American society, by declaring pride in being black, African-Americans are claiming a culture that is their own.

Some sense of pride in being black is also instilled through formal


education. Most of my informants were exposed to black history and the lives of famous blacks while in high school or college.

GARVEY : I didn't really understand about it [being black] until I was at school and we read about famous people. You know, prominent black men and women who'd done things. I'm not just talking about Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Or Adam Clayton Powell or Malcolm X. But a whole lotta other folks. Like Carter G. Woodson and Garrett Morgan. And Ida B. Wells. And A. Philip Randolph, Matthew Henson, James Weldon Johnson. And so on. We read DuBois, Washington, Frederick Douglass. I remember one teacher telling us about the famous African kings like Shaka and Haile Selassie. I guess that was all quite forward thinking then. In the sixties. But that education gave me a real sense of being something. That's what's wrong with the children today. They don't know that stuff. Or if they do, it don't matter too much to them. But then, in the sixties, with all that shit going on, we really took pride in knowing about these people. It gave us a sense of who we were. Blacks weren't all bad. Blacks could be famous. It makes you feel better. Makes you feel proud of your race. Proud to be black. Black is beautiful!

For many of my informants, school provided the first setting where they learned about famous men who were both black and gay.

BYRON: I remember reading some of that stuff in school. Not too much. We read [Langston] Hughes and Countee Cullen. We heard about them. I knew who they were. 'Cause at that time ev'rything that was black was cool. You know, the teachers would really push the black stuff. But it was in college that I really enjoyed them. Especially [James] Baldwin. I guess I could understand him then. And [Ralph] Ellison and [Richard] Wright. I loved Ellison's work. And [Maya] Angelou and [Audre] Lorde. That's when I found out about Hughes and Baldwin and Cullen and them being gay. That was wild. I felt really proud of them then.

The fact that some of these famous blacks were also gay proved a bonus for many of my informants. They were able to identify with many of their culture heroes on two levels: as black men and as gay men. One informant even cited Hughes and Baldwin when he came out to his mother. He noted how he thought it helped her to understand his situation and realize that it is all right to be gay if famous black men were gay.

Finding out about black history—that blacks had an important past filled with significant individuals—often sent these men in search of further information about their black forebears.

NATE : I used to go to the library [Schomburg] after school, or after dinner, 'cause I couldn't study at home. Not with all the people comin' and goin'.


So I used to go there and study. I had work to do, but I used to look up all this stuff about the [Harlem] Renaissance. I was fascinated with these writers. I suppose because I wanted to be one. I read about Wallace Thurman and Walter White. And Claude McKay. Then I'd read the other writers too. I used to read Richard Wright's works. I think I read everything he ever wrote. I read W. E. B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson. I wasn't too interested in the poets. They didn't seem to say that much. Not that much about life in Harlem or down South. Not like the novelists did. I even read Nigger Heaven [by Carl Van Vechten]. I used to look up the old papers like the Age and the Crisis . It was such an informative time for me. I was hearing about all these people and books and I'd do follow-up at the library. I think I knew more than what my teachers did. Especially about the Harlem Renaissance. That was my favorite period. And that was before it became popular.

Often an appreciation of the past was gleaned from family members or sought from friends and neighbors. Leonard learned about his heritage from several sources. From his grandmother he learned about his southern roots.

LEONARD : She told me all about the South. And workin' on the farms. But that was when she was small. 'Cause my grandfather was from up here somewhere. I think he was born in Connecticut. Yeah, he was. And he was a preacher. And he worked in some church in South Carolina. And that's where he met my grandmother. So, when they got married, he brought her up here to New York. To Rochester. 'Cause that's where the church sent him. So she told me about life in Rochester. And in South Carolina. I guess her folks were poor farmers. They had their own farm. But their son, her brother, was killed in some sort of accident. I think he may have been lynched or something. But the family never talks about that. They just say "he met with an accident." So she was their only child. Now, when they died she inherited the farm. One of my cousins lives on it now. He and his wife. But they work in Charleston. They just live on the land. So I used to ask her about my heritage. She was the source of all I know about my own family. . . . She took us with her. Every year for about eight years I guess. We just stayed on the farm. But we had to work. She had an old man that used to look after the animals and the trees. But we had to pick the fruit, every year. We had a lot of fun though. It wasn't all hard work. And we were near the sea, so we spent a lot of time at the beach. I remember those long, slow, hot summers. You don't get those anymore. Not once you older.

From his older friends Leonard continues to learn about his black heritage.

LEONARD : Oh, C——. Yeah, I really hear about the old times here in Harlem from him. I mean he's a great source of information, because he knew all those painters and writers from the twenties [Harlem Renaissance]. He could


tell some great stories about the parties and who was carrying on with who. I want to record what he says, but he doesn't want to. He told me that we black folks keep our history to ourselves. We don't write it down like the white people. We just pass it on by word of mouth. I don't agree with him, really. I think we'll keep better records if it's kept written down. Then they can't say we made it up. I think they will respect us more too if we write it down. . . . C—— told me about Wallace Thurman, who he knew very well. And Richard Bruce Nugent. They traveled together to England. So they were quite close. He said they were all tramps. They had so many men and when they were traveling, they were more tired from all the sex than from the acting and dancing. . . . He mentioned a couple of bars where they'd hang out. Now this is in the thirties, before the war. Before that they didn't have gay bars. Not like we remember them, but most of these gay men would cruise straight men in the straight bars, right here in Harlem. But they had a lot of parties too. That's where they'd really hang out. Going to parties. Like the rent parties. And of course there were the parks. Even then Mt. Morris was famous. I was really quite shocked to hear that men my grandfather's age were carrying on like we do. I guess every generation has. It's just you can't imagine your grandfather doin' it. . . . Every time I visit C—— I hear something new. So I come home and write it down.

From both of these sources Leonard has learned not only about his family's past and the history of Harlem but also what it is to be black.

Television and the movies also capture some of what it means to be black. Although many of my informants remember the "black exploitation" movies of the 1960s and the 1970s, many noted the influence that black movie and television stars and series can have on black youth. Much of the expressive culture that is black is conveyed nationwide through the media, reinforcing a national black style yet usually neglecting its origins on the streets of Harlem. Although they spoke of the importance of the media in educating blacks about being black, my informants also criticized the media for misrepresentation.

HERBIE : Being black is the most important thing in my life. I am black. And I can't do anything abut it, so I might as well enjoy it. . . . Of course, you know you're different. You just gotta look at TV to see that. I mean even when they do us they get it wrong. Even when they use black actors, it's just like white people's ways. They really don' know what it's like to be black. That's our secret I guess. That's what makes us different. So, yes, we know we're different. . . . Sure, they did it OK with "Good Times." Now that was in Chicago. And you could tell that. But that was close to what you'd see around here. I mean they caught some of the emotions. They made you laugh and cry. And


that's what we did. We laughed and cried. Just like everybody else, I guess. We laughed and cried about it all. That's how you got through.

Being black also includes the realization that you are different. Of course, it is regarded as more than just an issue of color.

SHAWN : McKay and Ellison taught me about that [racial difference]. I learned that from them. More than being black or Negro. It was being different. Different from other colors. But they mean different in other ways too. Not just color. But black things I really learnt from my family and my friends. And at school. I mean you gradually learn those things as you grow up. But certain events or books teach you certain things. They can be more earth-shattering than things you do. Like The Autobiography of Malcolm X . That book affected me more than anything else I've read. It moved me so much. I took a real close look at the Black Muslims after that. I almost became one. But I respect them enormously. They're tough.

Thus, from a variety of sources, much different information is received about being black—from family, friends, the street, television, school, and books. Actively seeking further information from libraries and knowledgeable people enhances this experience. One of the most important ways to learn about being black is in confronting different races. Out of this confrontation, knowledge comes early and often painfully.

Skin Color

The search for a black identity in America includes the recognition of race, an important dividing line in this country.

LUTHER: I knew I was different when I first went to school. I had a white teacher. She was the first white person I had to deal with. And she talked funny. I used to laugh at her. Well, she had enough o' me. And my mother got called up 'n' all. I really didn't know what was goin' on, but I knew I was in trouble. My mother explained to me, after she beat the shit out of me. It really wasn't my fault. She told me we was different, and they didn't like us. So I has to be careful. I remember that well, 'cause in the end we all ended up laughin'. My mother laughed so much, she forgot to be angry wit' me. I was walkin' around like my teacher. And talkin' like her, and ev'ryone was laughin'. I guess that was the first time I was imitatin' a woman. It must have been good, 'cause they all laughed.


Knowledge of race and ideas about other races are learned at home or from peers. However, difference is learned through contact, sometimes confrontational, between members of different races.

HAMILTON : We've all been called names, child. But when a white child does it, it really gets you pissed. Now that don't happen too much, y'know, 'cause we not stupid enough to expose ourselves to that imagery. You know, you keep away from places where that's gonna happen. We was always told don't you go here or there. We was always told that. So you knew that if you went there then you could expect some shit. But in New York you can't keep away from everyone. So, you gets it. . . . The one time I remember it really bothering me was in school. I remember they used to bring some older white children uptown to help us with our homework. It was like a program to help the poor kids after school. You know, they'd come up and teach you. It was OK, but some of them were worse than the teachers. But I remember once a group of these children walking down St. Nicholas Ave. Looking for the subway, I s'pose. And they had to walk around me and my sister. We was carrying a bag of groceries or something. And one of these guys said something about having to come up here and help these "colored" kids but we didn't respect them. Then he bumped into my sister and walked away. I called after him, and called him names, but the others took him away. I was ready. I was ready to knock him upside his head. Especially when he hit my sister like that. But that's how you learn you're different. That's how you know what black is all about. It's about not bein' white.

This confrontation is resolved by seeking out an alternative, positive identity, that is, being black in a white-dominated world.[3] However, most informants did not raise the issue of race. When they did, it was as "color."

DARWIN : They make it a racial issue, simply by labeling us black. I believe that Negro is a true racial label. If they want to divide us up racially, we should be Negro and they should be Caucasians. But they call themselves white, so we have chosen to call ourselves black. To be different.

But being black is more than an issue of color. As defined by my informants, "black" describes not only skin color but a cultural milieu. As Cleveland put it, "Black is our color. It's race. But it's more too. It's cultural. Black stands for different cultural things. Not just skin color."

Pride in black culture reinforces a positive image of being black for most of my informants.

TERRY : My first encounter with the police told me all that I'd heard was true. I was walking along 125th Street with my brother and suddenly they swooped


down on us. This car pulled up and they jumped out and had us up against a window. A shop window. They handcuffed us and took us to the precinct. We were there for hours before they even spoke to us. I think they were looking for a couple of guys that had stolen something. Something like that. But when they put me in this room with the two cops, one was a detective, I think, they started asking me questions. But before I could speak they'd keep asking more questions and talking about Negroes and how we were the scum of the earth and how we weren't fit for living, and how they had the right idea down South by lynching all the niggers. When they said that and I couldn't even answer, I knew everything I'd heard about whites was true. They were different to us and we were black and different. I felt a sense of pride too because I knew we were fit to live. We have our own culture. Right here in Harlem. And they didn't even know that. I often wonder whether those cops ever went to any jazz clubs, or to the Apollo. Or the Cotton Club. I wonder if they ever knew anything about us apart from the few bums they had to deal with on the street.

The gay community is not without racism either. Most gay black men have experienced rejection by other gays because they are black.

BLYDEN : White gays are strange. They treat you all nice and shit, but when they don't want you around, they'll let you know. Like when I went to Fire Island. lust once. I sat on the beach all day, drinking my cocktails and feeling just lovely. But I wasn't picked up, like the other children. I was just left alone, all day. I didn't get invited to any of their parties. And even in the clubs, I felt like I was from another planet.

This means that for a gay black man, often his color, not his sexual preference, defines his position in society.

BRANTLEY : I'm more aware of my color than my sexual orientation. My mother taught me what it was to be black in this country. And now I understand what she meant. It's the color which is thrown up in my face when I move around town. People see my color, not my sex. They see I'm a black man, so they step aside, they won't serve me. Or not with the courtesy or enthusiasm that they serve white folks. That's what defines me. My color. Even though I choose to be gay, and a gay black man, it's my color that decides where I go, who I can go with, or what I can do. . . . White men expect certain things from you, if you're black. They believe you're either rough street trade and that you're gonna rob them, or they're expecting you to be all macho and butch. Aggressive sexually. I can see that a lot of white men that I know, that move in the circles that I do, don't know how to deal with me as a physician. I'm clean shaven, well dressed, quiet spoken. That's not the image they have of a black man, one way or the other. So, that's what it's like to be black in a gay world. . . . I really only feel that when I'm downtown.


Because gay black men are constantly defined by their skin color when they socialize in mainstream gay life, they choose to live in black society, among black friends and lovers, to be free from the stigma of racist attitudes in their daily lives, and their choice of black men as lovers is often an expression of love of blackness.[4] In this context, black culture becomes not only a source of pride but also a source of comfort in a society where racial and other stereotypes are so pervasive.

Skin color differentiation reaches deep within black society. The significance of different shades of black within the black community was evoked by Spike Lee's movie School Daze . The competition between light-skinned and dark-skinned black college students aired a painful issue for many in the black community. For one man, this antagonism was evident even within his family.

PAUL : I was the dark one in the family, y'know. So I knew right from the start that I was different. I really knew what it was like to be black. My brothers took after my mother. They was light. Very light brown. And I took after my father. I was always dark. They used to call me names. When I was real small it used to upset me. 'Cause I was different. And they were my brothers. But we never was close. I think it made my parents closer to me. Especially my mother. But they could do it too. You know, if they was angry or something, they be callin' us names. And I was always the black one. Like if I did something wrong, I'd be "the good-for-nuttin' black one." . . . I don't know but they must feel they was right doin' it too. I never was too good at school. And then I turned out gay. I bet they're laughin' about that now.

Thus the stereotypes about blacks prevalent in mainstream American culture have been absorbed into black culture itself. In black society, light-skinned or "mulatto" blacks are often regarded as closer to white and therefore more easily accepted by white Americans, while dark-skinned blacks are often regarded as more African, more street-wise, and less white in dress, speech, and aspirations.

DONNY : Now those dark boys. We were told they were good. Like Paul. Now Miss Thing's husband is fierce. You know him. He's a fierce child, honey. So you know Miss Thing is gettin' it real good. . . . My mother. And my sisters. And their friends. They told me. I remember. They said that the black ones would be good in bed, but the light-skinned ones was husband material. Now that's true. They're the ones with jobs and education.

That this distinction has become culturally accepted among black people is an interesting, if painful, expression of the intersection of race


and class. The arbitrariness of such categorization is seen when its lines are crossed. Barry, for example, felt he had to defend a dark-skinned friend: "Child, he's family. You know that, don't you. He is. Don't be fooled by his big, dark self. He went to college. . . . Just because that child gives you street, he ain't no bum."

Although color differences obviously exist, attitudes toward different colors and shades, and expectations of the same, are instilled during socialization. As a result, a deep distrust of white people and white society and different attitudes toward differing shades of black run deep within the black population (Gwaltney 1980). However, while race itself is not that much of an issue for these gay black men in their daily lives, shade differences within the black population do exist and tend to reflect a socioeconomic differentiation.


Although class differences do appear within the population studied here, participation and social position in the gay scene do not necessarily reflect that.[5] In other words, not all hustlers came from the projects or single-parent homes, nor were they all high school dropouts. Michael, for example, comes from a well-established Harlem family. His flamboyant lifestyle, a combination of staying out all night, drug use, and failing grades, led his parents to cut off funding when he was only halfway through college. Hustling redressed this problem, until drugs caused him further financial difficulties and the "temporary" abandonment of his degree.

The non-hustling gay population also includes many men from lower socioeconomic classes. Barry was raised in the Grant Houses, a project on Broadway, by his unmarried mother. He still lives in city-operated housing, despite stints at rooming with other gay friends, and he is forever looking for better-paying work. However, he pays his rent and maintains financial independence, with a little help from friends. By contrast, Louis and Paul, who were raised in home-owning, two-parent families in Harlem, own their own apartment. They rely on nobody for financial aid but do dispense some to close friends like Barry.

This mixing of different socioeconomic classes of men in the gay


scene in Harlem was explained as one reason gays referred to themselves as "family."

DEVEN : We're all family in the life. No matter where you come from, or what you do. You one of us, then you're family. That's how we survive. That's what's keepin' us going. We just like a family. Takin' care o' each other. Lovin' each other. Don't matter if you come off the street. Or live in a shelter. Even these hustlers. They're all over the place now. No matter. They be family.

This socioeconomic leveling brings people of all classes into each other's social networks. Although there is a class structure in Harlem, and gay men there do originate from different classes (which they still reflect in terms of their education, occupation, income, and residence), when it comes to gay social life, class lines fade.

Because most of the gay black men in Harlem I encountered during this study did not come into contact with people of other races very often, issues of class based on race did not often arise. Admittedly, some thought that white people are richer because they are white. Some Harlemites employed in occupations downtown worked alongside people of a variety of racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds. But the majority did not, and they certainly did not socialize outside their community in their leisure time.


If there is a definable group of people with whom these gay men socialize in Harlem, outside of the gay scene, it is women. Most of the gay men I interviewed numbered many female friends in their social networks. Friends from school days or the neighborhood, and occasionally from the workplace, participate in the social lives of these men,[6] sometimes accompanying them to bars, dance socials, parties, family gatherings, and on shopping expeditions. But it is female relatives, especially mothers, grandmothers, and sisters, who top the list.

It is from their female friends and family members that gay black men learn about black men and how to deal with them in relationships. Although some dismiss the opinions women have about men as irrelevant to themselves as gay men, most concede that many of


the opinions they themselves hold about men have been learned from their mothers and sisters. In Soulside (1969), Hannerz notes that men are placed into two basic categories—"good men" and "no-good men"—although "no-good men" are often regarded as "real men" by gay blacks. In other words, men who hang out on the street or pursue lives as hustlers are perceived as more masculine and aggressive than those who are more inclined to maintain permanent relationships and steady employment.

The support these gay men receive from women when they have trouble with men is reciprocated with financial assistance, babysitting, or "father" role playing. In many instances, gay black men acted as "fathers" to their sisters' children. These men are probably the "uncles" in Stack's All Our Kin (1974). They contrast directly with the received image of black men, who are pictured as not playing an active role in children's socialization.[7] While only one respondent currently resides with his sister, several indicated that they had played a significant role in the socialization of their nieces and nephews.

BRIAN : When V—— was raisin' her boy, I stayed by her for about five years. After that she married T—— and they had their family [three more children]. But Mickey's my boy. He calls me "uncle" now, but before he called me "daddy." I was like a father to him. His own father never showed up. I was the man in his life.

Sometimes a gay man and his lover will both be involved in the care of a sibling's children.

EDWARD : I still take M——'s children on the weekends. Sometimes we go to the movies, or hang out in the park. I'm too old to play ball with the boys, or rather they be too big now, but I still go down the park with them. . . . Their [other] children [three girls] always come by on the holidays and stay with us a while. They love to hang out with A—— and me. They know what's goin' on. They old enough. But they still come and stay.

Mothers and grandmothers remain the most important family members in the social networks of the gay men I interviewed. Along with maternal and paternal aunts, they influenced where the men lived, what friends they brought home (into the family setting), and how often and when they went to church. All demanded and received attention from their sons, grandsons, and nephews, sometimes asking for financial assistance, in addition to other forms of care and company, which was always provided willingly.


This intensity of gay black male interaction with family members is unique among other gay men in New York City. Because most gay men in New York come from elsewhere,[8] kinship is not such an important aspect of their day-to-day existence. In Harlem, family is very much the center of daily life.

The Black Family

According to these gay black men, the aspects of black culture that have the most influence on their social lives and identities are their experience of family and their expectation of extended familial relationships.

STANLEY : I grew up right here. In this building. We had an apartment upstairs. I think Dad's parents lived here at one time as well. I remember [Shirl, Stanley's mother] telling me that when she married Dad, she moved in here with him. His brother also lived in the building. So I grew up with my family around me. I had cousins right here in the building. Mom's sisters all live in the neighborhood with their families. They're still here. Mom lives with one of my aunts now. On 163rd [Street]. . . . I have an uncle who's gay [father's first cousin] and one [first] cousin that I know of. He's a few years younger but I used to see him around the bars with his crowd. He comes over whenever we have a party. We're closer now than what we were before. In fact, [London's] gonna move back up here soon. He likes to be near the family. Especially now his roommate's gone. They were real close. I guess he misses having a close friend. And I'm the next best thing. . . . My mother comes to all my parties. She never misses one. And she's the life of the party. Always dancing with the boys, and drinking up a storm. They all love her. She's always been like that. She's always been good to me and [Mickey]. She gave us a beautiful decanter for our first anniversary. And she made the curtains in the living room. . . . My brothers. Well, they're OK. C——'s really great. He and his wife live on 145th Street. They got two boys. So I see them a lot. Over at Ma's. We all get together for dinner on Sunday over there. Some of my cousins will come. Bring their kids. Ma's really popular with all the family. I don't see D—— that much. He lives in the Bronx. He and his woman have been having some problems. She's very religious and he likes to hang out. But I don't know what crowd he's hanging with. But I know he's having problems.

Stanley comes from a family with three boys. All have worked with their father, who is in construction. In his retirement, the father has entered the real estate business and now lives off his investments. He owns the building where Stanley and his lover reside. Several of


Stanley's parents' siblings and his first cousins also live in the building or in other buildings owned by his father. Several generations of occupancy in the same building or on the same block give a sense of continuity, of "roots," that has been important in Stanley's sense of identity.

Stanley and his brothers receive an annual payment of $20,000 from their father, which Stanley says he is reinvesting, for the most part. He is interested in buying property in Florida, where his lover grew up, so that eventually they can live down South. Although he was born in Harlem, Stanley loves the South. His grandparents came from South Carolina and Louisiana, and he has relatives in both places, which he visits now and then.

Stanley's parents are divorced. His father remarried a younger woman, whom all of the family like. Family gatherings include both parents, Stanley's brothers and their spouses, and many of his twenty-four first cousins and their families. Stanley also has second and third cousins living in the building and the surrounding neighborhood. He considers several of these relatives to be part of his social network, not only because he likes to keep in touch with all his family but because he is in continual contact with them in the neighborhood. This is typical of many of my informants. It is important for their identity to have a sense of family constantly reinforced by frequent interaction. It promotes security and a sense of well-being.

Likewise, Nate is surrounded by kin in Harlem. He too makes efforts to keep in touch with his parents, who are still together, and his four siblings and their families. He visits frequently with his grandmothers and a couple of his six maternal aunts. Like Stanley, Nate realizes the importance of female relatives as anchors of strength in the black family. Their opinions and example of family leadership, nurturance, and household management are imitated by these gay men in their own homes. As mentioned above, gay black men tend to have close relationships with women, especially female relatives. Many informants frequently referred to the open expression of emotion that made these relationships special.

BASIL : I never forget the first time I cried in front of my mother. Not the thing to do for a growing man. But she let me howl. It was great. I thought she would get mad at me. But she didn't. I told her it was over some girl. But I think she knew even then that John and I had broken up.[9]

Nate's other family members are also important. Two uncles live in


the Bronx, but he counts some of their children among his closer friends. He visits weekly with one cousin who lives in Harlem to play cards and party. While his family is aware of his sexual orientation, none of them has participated in the gay side of his social life, certainly not to the extent that Stanley's family has absorbed his lover and gay friends into its extended familial network. Nate prefers to keep his gay social life separate from his family obligations. The necessity of maintaining a semblance of independence is important to him as a man, and in order to protect the privacy of his gay sexual activity, but he admits to the strength and importance of his familial relationships. They are an integral part of his being black.

NATE : I been livin' by myself for twenty years. It's the only way. I had a child live with me for a while ten years ago. But it didn't work out. I wanted to go out but he wanted to tie me down. Worse than a woman. So it didn't work out. So, I just keep to myself. I go out and have friends to go out with but I just keep to myself. . . . My family's very close, y'know. We all stay close to home. My sisters are married. One lives here and the other one lives on Long Island. But we are very close. My brothers both live nearby. T—— was out in California for a while but he and his wife are back here now. He works for the government. B—— has been around the streets forever. He has children all over the place. I don't even know how many. But he brings them by my mother's all the time. She knows all her grandchildren. But I don't know them. . . . Both my grandmothers live in Harlem. Dad's mother stays with my mother. She's getting old, so they look after her. Sometimes my uncle [father's brother] takes her for a while. . . . I spend a lot of time with my aunt [mother's sister]. She's not married. She likes to party and always has us over there for a drink. She lives in the old people's [maternal grandparents'] house. She looked after my grandmother 'cause she's a nurse. But now she's in the hospital. . . . I see a lot of my cousins. There's hundreds of them. They're all around Harlem. I can't go nowhere without they be seein' me. Even in the middle of the night when I go up to [Mickey's Place], someone'll call out, or tell my mother they been seein' me. . . . I'm close to the family. You know, on birthdays and things I'll go and party with them. But I don't go out too much with them. I just keep to myself.

The fact that so many of these gay black men were raised by both parents may reflect to some degree the socioeconomic standing of the members of my respondent sample, who are largely middle class or at least have stable working-class backgrounds. The broader community of people whose lives I came to know reflect a wider range of socioeconomic classes. It is true that those living in the south part of Harlem, below 125th Street, or in the city-operated projects, are more


likely to come from single-parent families with less stable sources of income.

Single-parent, often female-headed, unstable, or unstructured families are also evident in my data, most predominantly among my informants from the lower classes. These families best fit the description of "kin-structured local networks" that are the basis of Stack's (1974) thesis. Yet all of the gay men in this population (irrespective of socioeconomic standing) participate in extensive social networks of financial, emotional, and other support. Every informant listed a variety of kin, always including parents and siblings and usually including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, in their social networks. While it was not always apparent to what extent the "survival" of individuals and individual family units depended on these close familial ties, most informants indicated a certain emotional dependence on family and insisted that family values instilled in them as children constituted the single most significant influence on their black identities. These values included the importance of kinship, "good neighborliness," hospitality, generosity, education, work, and church.

The Black Church

The value system of black society inculcated through the family, education, and the church constitutes the foundation of black identity. Outside of the family, the most significant black social institution appears to be the church.

CECIL : The most important black institution for me is the church. I don't care which church. But you better be in the church. That's such an important part of black life. It's your whole bein'. Without the church, you ain't shit! And so that's what you see in Harlem today. A whole lot o' shit. That's because they give up on the church. . . . In the South, that's all we had. All that was ours. I mean they robbed us of everything. Even our names. But we've got our church. That's our sanctuary in the storm. Praise the Lord. . . . If more of these children had stayed closer to the church, there'd be no problems. And it don't mind what you are. 'Cause the church will take you in and feed you and care for you and guide you on your way. That's its significance for the black people.

August Meier and Elliott Rudwick (1976) discuss the significance


of the church in the lives of black people, not only in the South (see Powdermaker 1939) but also among transplanted migrants in the northern urban areas.

In the black church the migrants carried with them an institution that helped them adjust to the dismal realities of urban life. The church, as it had in the South, remained the center of black community life. Migrants sought to reconstruct the institutions they had known in their southern homes. Indeed, throughout the North and West one could identify church congregations composed of people from specific locales in the South. (Meier and Rudwick 1976:249–250)

Similarly, when blacks migrated within New York City from the Tenderloin to Harlem during the last decades of the last century, they followed or were closely followed by their churches.[10]

C. Eric Lincoln, following on the heels of E. Franklin Frazier, writes of the importance and centrality of religion in the lives of black people.

To understand the power of the Black Church it must first be understood that there is no disjunction between the Black Church and the Black community. The Church is the spiritual face of the Black community, and whether one is a "church member" or not is beside the point in any assessment of the importance and meaning of the Black Church. Because of the peculiar nature of the Black experience and the centrality of institutionalized religion in the development of that experience, the time was when the personal dignity of the Black individual was communicated almost entirely through his church affiliation. To be able to say that "I belong to Mt. Nebo Baptist" or "We go to Mason's Chapel Methodist" was the accepted way of establishing identity and status when there were few other criteria by means of which a sense of self or a communication of place could be projected. While this has been modified to some degree in recent times as education, vocational diversification, and new opportunities for non-religious associations have increased, the social identity of the Black American as well as his self-perception are still to an important degree refracted through the prism of his religious identity. His pastor, his church, his office in the church, or merely his denomination are important indices of who he is. (Lincoln 1974:115–116)

Church affiliation is still an important mark of identity today for gay black men in Harlem. Among those gay men who continue to attend church, the majority agree that the strong socialization into church participation when they were young explains their continued attendance, along with the kin pressure from mothers, grandmothers, or siblings. Friendships with other congregation members, especially other gay men, is also an important motivating force for participa-


tion. This sense of community evoked by the church is explored in Melvin D. Williams's ethnography of a black Pentecostal church.

The Zion members must depend upon a social network of relationships that extends across neighborhood and subcultural boundaries to reach potential recruits wherever they can be found, as well as to nourish them as members once they are committed to the church. These relationships and the way they are linked make Zion a community. (Williams 1974:157)

For gay men with children, the desire to raise sons and daughters "right"—that is, in the church—is strong. Willis leaves his son at a day care center operated at his local church and vows that "young Will" is bound for Sunday school when he is old enough.

Even non-Christian belief systems such as Buddhism and Islam are entered into with extraordinary passion and devotion. Both informants who converted to Buddhism say that this "spiritual" religion—they pray in private daily rather than attend church weekly—enables them to live "good" or "decent" lives as gay men in a black community. Since Christian preachers frequently rail against homosexuality, some gay men seek out alternative belief systems. (This was also cited as the main cause for the disaffection of seventeen informants from any form of religious participation.) However, for the majority, church or at least some religious affiliation is such an important identity marker and the church such an important social institution that they continue to participate even in the face of the anti-gay rhetoric of many preachers.

The two Black Muslims in my sample were born and raised in the Nation of Islam.[11] One of them remains true to his faith, in defiance of the unusually strong stance against homosexuality taken by this Islamic sect. Mohammad attends mosque infrequently but stays close to his faith through his family ties. He observes Ramadan (the Islamic month of fasting) and tries to pray at least three times a day. He has a prayer rug laid out on his bedroom floor as a constant reminder of his need to pray. He hopes that he will get to Mecca at least once in his lifetime. He has a paternal uncle, a former member of the Fruit of Islam, who made his pilgrimage in the 1960s. This uncle serves as his inspiration in his faith.

MOHAMMAD : I respect Christian and Jewish holidays too. You have to. This is a Christian country. A so-called Christian country. But I stay true to the teachings of Mohammad. That's how I was raised and that's how it is. I know I'm not the best. I don't always observe things. But I am good during Ramadan. And I want to go to Mecca. I give to the poor. But I don't always pray every day. I go to mosque. But I'm black first. And there are things that


are important to me there as well. Like Kwanzaa. I celebrate Kwanzaa with my friends. I have a large group to my house one night during Kwanzaa. Every year. Really that is most important to me.[12]

What is peculiarly important about the black Christian church is the prominence of the black pastors, not only as preachers within the church but also as political leaders in the black community. Lincoln waxes eloquent on the history of black political leadership in the church, especially when referring to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s (Lincoln 1974:114–122). Such political leadership has a long history. Even Frazier (1974) notes that the "Negro church" provided an avenue for black leaders to emerge in their communities during Reconstruction, outside of the existing white power structure, to which blacks were not admitted.[13]

The church has played a central role in the organization of political life in black society since the days of slavery (Berry and Blassingame 1982:107). And it remains politically prominent in the lives of contemporary urban blacks.

CLEVELAND : For me the church was very influential. Right from the youngest time I remember having to go to church. As I grew older I realized that there was something there for me. The preacher was always talkin' 'bout our rights and how they were comin'. I didn't know what he meant at first. As I grew older I knew what he was talking about. Especially when I came to New York. That's when I heard about Martin Luther King, Jr. That's when I heard about the marches and the sit-ins. I wasn't aware that we were treated so badly until the preacher started informing me. I just wasn't exposed to any of that shit. You know, I was raised in a family and among my family and friends. That was my world. I never came into contact with any of these so-called racists. So, at first I didn't really understand. . . . By the time I was in college, I understood what it was all about. Why black folks had suffered so. Why King and Malcolm had to die. Why the preachers talked the way they did. They were a big influence on me. Especially in the South.

Because of the strong impressions made by preachers and the importance placed on religious services in their youth, many gay black men feel motivated to attend and participate in their respective churches. Even the anti-homosexual teachings of the Bible and the blatantly homophobic sermons of many preachers have not shaken their faith. More important is that the church has become a place for social encounters with other gay men.

WILBERT : All the friends I have in New York are gay. They all come to church. My best friends sing in the choir. [Leslie] and [Clayborn]. They're the first


two good friends I made here. And I met them at church. . . . Child, you don't know. Hundreds. Hundreds and hundreds. All the choir boys are sissies. Ain't nothin' but sissies. . . . There's a strong network of us in the church. And other churches as well. I mean we know the children in the other Baptist churches too.

Gay friendship networks within most churches reach out to other networks in churches of the same denomination and even into churches of different denominations. In his "church girl" network, Moses counts both Methodists and Baptists. What is important to him about his friends is that they are associated with a church. This affiliation not only identifies these men as being religious but also as "decent" gay men. Moses judges gay men on this affiliation, and if he finds them acceptable, incorporates them into his wide circle of church friends and the social events they attend.

In addition to establishing networks of friends, many men make sexual contacts within the church population. In fact, many have their first sexual encounters through church contacts. Edward recalled the circumstances of an early experience: "My first sexual encounter was with a fine young man. Older than me, mind you. He used to sing in the choir. By the time I was in Bible class, we had a real strong thing going. He led our group. . . . This was when I was about twelve or fourteen."

Now that education and occupation, among other variables, have become identity markers, the significance of the church has declined somewhat. But the social institution of the church remains an important focus for gay socializing for many men in Harlem who continue to express their identity through church attendance. The sense of continuity through generations of family participation in a particular church provides the black man with a sense of familial and historical roots and enables him to participate in that ongoing history.

Black History

Knowledge of the past experience of black Americans is deemed an important aspect of being black by my informants. Significant events in the history of Harlem—the days of the Harlem Renaissance and thereafter,[14] the jazz clubs of the 1930s and 1940s,[15] and the civil rights demonstrations and riots in the 1960s[16] are well


known to gay black men. Each event or era represents a positive example of the potential of blacks to achieve historically significant steps in the acquisition of political power and artistic achievement. The lore surrounding these events has usually been passed down by word of mouth, especially by older family members to their children and grandchildren. Yet several of my informants can recall the riots of the 1960s and the looting.

WILLIS : I remember seeing the crowd running down Fifth Avenue. They were carrying sticks and things, and breaking the store windows. When they got down near by our house, my mother made us come in from the window.

One informant who witnessed the assassination of Malcolm X has the experience indelibly printed in his memory.

HERBIE : I was really quite young, about thirteen or fourteen, but I remember that well. It was very confusing. I remember the shots. I don't think I really knew what had happened. Not at that moment. All the shouting and yelling. That's what I remember the most. And outside afterwards, the crowd went crazy, smashing up cars and things. My older brother [first cousin] took me outta there.

The furor surrounding Malcolm X's assassination left many people in Harlem confused and obviously angry. Many are still upset that his memory has not attracted the attention of government or the general American populace as has the memory of other leaders. For those who witnessed Malcolm's demise, his example lives on, informing their oppositional stance to the system, the "man," and most things representative of mainstream American culture.

Although many were too young to actually participate in the civil rights struggles, every informant had been made fully aware of the significance of that period for black people in America. The culmination of the civil rights era in the political enfranchisement of blacks engendered hope that equality in other areas of life could be achieved. The lesson inherent in the recounting of the sixties is the need for constant struggle, which the young are urged to continue.

The most important historical period in American history for black people is the era of slavery.

DEMOND : I see slavery times as being a time of great strength. Especially for us. It taught us the strength that we need to get by today. It taught us the strength of family. And of prayer. I think of slavery times as the times of big strong men. Of healthy babies, and strong, capable women. It was a period of


great strength. And today I draw on that strength. I think of the hard times we're in now. And I think, well, they got through it then, just with the simple strength of their bodies. That gives me the strength to get by here.

Slave culture has been the object of study by many academics—folklorists, historians, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists—as well as novelists. A significant contribution to this vast collection of material, data, analysis, and assumptions was made by Lawrence Levine (1978) in his well-analyzed documentation of expressive elements of black culture from the Civil War to 1950. His work has incorporated previously unpublished or inaccessible writings, hymns, songs, poems, and "toasts,"[17] which in various forms represent the thoughts, aspirations, and interpretations of the current social lives of the narrators. These elements of expressive culture provide us with a historic record of black life in the United States. Although not written down, they are nonetheless reliable and credible to present-day black people. This belief enhances their sense of tradition and informs their identity with a sense of roots—albeit in slavery.

Slavery remained alive, too, in the specific details and descriptions embodied within the stories of the slave past. The narratives of ex-slaves and the stories, anecdotes, and legends of their descendants are filled with information about the everyday conduct and culture of slaves and the mechanics of the slave system. (Levine 1978:388)

The oral traditions kept alive knowledge of the slavery experience and also encouraged a tradition of resistance to the slavery system. They combined fact and fiction to produce powerful images of resistance and escape from the harsh realities of slavery.

Historians have much to learn from these prolific reminiscences not merely because they are so often accurate but also because they are so often legendary; because they blend and interweave myth with fact. The folk are not historians; they are simultaneously the products and creators of a culture, and that culture includes a collective memory. . . . Historians have debated and will continue to debate the exact amount of resistance that occurred during slavery, and for an understanding of the slaves this debate is crucial. For an understanding of the post-slave generations, the history of slave resistance is less important than the legends concerning it, though the two by no means invariably contradict each other. Looking back upon the past, ex-slaves and their descendants painted a picture not of a cowed and timorous black mass but of a people who, however circumscribed by misfortune and oppression, were never without their means of resistance and never lacked the inner resources


to oppose the master class, however extreme the price they had to pay. (Levine 1978:389)

This model of resistance is critical to my gay informants and is expressed in their attitudes toward mainstream American culture. In turn, their resistance against "whitewashed" norms instills a pride in black culture and motivates individuals to seek out the attributes of being black. It provides them with an imagery of strength and the capacity to overcome hardship. Coming from Harlem as they do, they have seen enough hardship to identify with slave traditions of survival against the odds.


The active search for knowledge about being black has led many of my informants on a search for Africa: African history, the collection of African artifacts, masks, statues, kente cloth, and a desire to visit. The Public Broadcasting Service's television series based on Ali Mazrui's book The Africans (1986) was seen by many of my informants and was often the crucial experience in this search. These gay men claim that Africa is important to them not only as an affirmation of their distinctive race but also as evidence of a golden age when blacks ruled kingdoms and cities through trade networks every bit as significant as those of the Europeans'. During the 1960s especially, knowledge of Africa became tied to black nationalism and pride in being black.

The sense of African roots is part of the development of an ethnic identity, which Geneva Gay has outlined in her interesting essay on the sociopsychological process of ethnic identification (Gay 1987b:35–74). It can best be likened to the establishment of an African nationalist identity, which black Americans sought during the civil rights era (Essien-Udom 1962), one expression of which was the establishment of the Black Muslims (Lincoln 1961).[18]

The intensity of the search for African roots is deepening as witnessed by the interest in things African in the black community at large and among my gay informants in particular.

BINGA : I've always worn this stuff. My mother had me wearing this cloth when I was a kid. I remember the children at school teasing me because they thought I was an African. And when I told them I really was, they thought I


was crazy. At least they left me alone. . . . Now, I choose my cloth carefully. I am sure we came from Ghana. Or the Gold Coast, I think it was called. I'm sure, because the more I read about Ghana, the more it sounds like my family. You know, the way that the families are extended. I was raised with all my cousins. And with my father and my uncles. They took a real interest in us children. They taught us so much. I don't know where they get the idea of all these women running things in Harlem. The men are here, baby, believe me. And they ruled us. I mean my father was the head of our household. He was the one that punished us. And always chasing us for our homework. He was crazy. But he was the force that made us get there. . . . He was a true African king.

This fierce, ethnicity-based "nationalism" (Berry and Blassingame 1982:388–396) that accompanies the search for an African heritage had already found expression in other areas of black culture: in the civil rights movement and in the traditional African cultures of the Sea Islands, for example (Jones-Jackson 1987). Clinging to African elements of culture is not only an important feature of the Southerners' lives but also provides a reawakening of an African consciousness for many Harlemites. On the individual level, this search for African roots and participation in activities related to African themes gives these gay men a sense of pride in being black.

GARVEY : Having a real sense of yourself. I think that's important. That's truly bein' black. Knowing who you are, where you're at. Where you come from. That's really important. And I don't mean which state you come from. Or what state your grandmother came from. Or whether she was a slave or not. That's important. But I mean a real sense of your African roots. Knowing that you have a whole history behind you. You know you can tell if someone's got that in them. They have a pride in themselves. You can tell that. . . . I know that's true. But in the Carolinas, the children are on this Yoruba trip. Child, we really don't know exactly where we came from. I mean even Alex Haley has doubts about his origins. But what he did was fierce. I mean it got a whole generation of us lookin' back to Africa. And if it's Yoruba that turns you on, hey, then go for it, y'know.

The South

Knowledge of the South and especially experiences in the South are regarded as important aspects of black culture. In fact, many of my informants spoke of the southern origins of much of what is regarded as black culture: extended families, soul food, church, and much of black folklore.


Roots in the South, either through ancestry or birth, are important to all of my informants. Even those informants raised in Harlem usually spent summer holidays with grandparents or cousins in the South.

ZACHARY : I go back to see the old girl [his grandmother] often. Especially now she's going blind. We have a lot of fun together. She fills me in on all the news about all the children I grew up with. They're all over the place now. Only one or two of them left in North Carolina. None of them at home. I don't know what's going to happen to the community when all these old folks die off. My mother says she ain't goin' back. She's crazy anyway. But I think I might come back. It's so peaceful. And the house is huge. I could find some work down here. At one of the schools in the area. . . . All those herbal things I use on my massages are from her. I've been adapting some of them for some of the young guys I'm working with now. Many of them are in awful pain because of this disease. And to have the touch and care of someone else is all they need to give them peace of mind. That's what we're about with this stuff. . . . I got all of my healing training from my grandmother. She taught me the massages. And the voodoo. Some old African stuff. Yeah, she was Geechee. She was born on one of the [Sea] islands. But she never gave it up. She always kept close to their beliefs. Some of that stuff even scares me. But she says of all the children in the family I'm the one with it in me. So I guess I have some powers or something.

Some informants still visit relatives and friends in the South, even as adults. Some are even considering the possibility of living or retiring there.[19] The South is regarded as "home" by many of my informants, even if they were born in the North. Because the South is perceived as the root of black culture and because of the large black population in the South today, it is regarded almost as a homeland. In the North, a certain body of lore has arisen about the South and its potential as a separate black state, where, if Atlanta is any standard to judge by, black men can be successful and prosperous in a black-run land. With these visionary tales and the strength of historic familial connections, the South has become important to being black, as least for these gay black men.


One of the South's enduring traditions that is being rediscovered in northern black areas is storytelling.[20] One gay black man in Harlem, Manu, has become a storyteller and has visited other storytellers in Baltimore and Philadelphia in order to learn tales. Most of those he tells are of African origin or concern African roots. Several


museums, such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, sponsor performances by these storytellers. Storytelling, an age-old African tradition, has always been an important part of black culture in the United States. Together these tales form a body of folklore essential to black culture.

Apart from the social commentary and didactic intent of much of the storytelling, today as in the Old South, the stories entertain. They allow the narrator and his or her audience to rise above their lot, albeit momentarily, and take pride in the heroes of their race. In black culture, legends of resistance against slavery and oppression are full of culture heroes such as the slave trickster—in part, an extension of the African "Anansi the Spider"—and the "Signifying Monkey" and "Brer Rabbit" of the South. In the real slave world, too, as Levine (1978) points out, there was no dearth of stories or anecdotes of slave ancestors who had stood up to their masters. Freedmen also featured in these tales. Thus the transformation of the slave culture hero into a man (or sometimes a woman) standing for civil rights in the postbellum South was relatively straightforward.[21] "Henry Peterson" and "Trickster John" were such heroes I heard about from my southern-born informants. "Shine" appears to be an urban creation. Most of these heroes were, in fact, "bad men"—"hard, merciless toughs and killers confronting and generally vanquishing their adversaries without hesitation and without remorse (Levine 1978:408). Their stories are still relayed today. Dennis Wepman, Ronald Newman, and Murray Binderman have collected them in The Life (1976). The narrative poems in their book are a representative sample of "toasts," as important to black hustler culture in performance as in content. Here the "Signifying Monkey," "Dumbo the Junkie," and "Stagger Lee" feature again. As Wepman explains, the toasts, as a cultural record of "the Life," promote the masculinity of both the performer and the culture hero: "The Life is a glorification of virility, masculinity, male assertiveness" (ibid., 4).

Masculinity is a recurrent feature of all the folklore stories since the majority of heroes are men. This may be because men are more often the storytellers, because the events confronting the characters are more often encountered by men, or because the stories express the "shadow values" of black male culture (Liebow 1967). Gay black men are also enthralled by the overt masculinity of these characters. When Edward told me his version of the John Henry story, he provided details describing Henry's physical attributes and the aspects of


the story that emphasized the latter's masculinity. In fact, the most important culture hero about whom I heard most frequently was John Henry. Fifteen informants were able to reiterate the famous story of this black man's strength, in part if not in full, in the prose in which they had learned it. Not only is John Henry's sexual prowess the subject of many stanzas, but John Henry stood alone, stoically, against the white man and his machine.[22]

John Henry's epic contest is never purely individual. He is a representative figure whose life and struggle are symbolic of the struggle of the worker against machine, individual against society, the lowly against the powerful, black against white. His victory is shared and his demise is mourned. . . . It is this representative quality that gives his struggle epic proportions and makes John Henry the most important folk hero in Afro-American lore. (Levine 1978:427)

Many folk stories also revolve around male-female conflict, so often the basis of analysis of black social life, especially in the urban setting.[23] Yet it is the male culture heroes who have had the biggest impact on gay black men and their aspirations.

By tracing John Henry's legacy to modern secular, real-life heroes, such as Joe Louis, Levine explains how easily masculine sports heroes become today's culture heroes. Thus, when asked about significant black men in black culture today, all of my informants went beyond the arena of politicians, civil rights leaders, and artists to include the likes of Mohammad Ali and Mike Tyson, Dave Winfield and Dwight Goodin, Carl Lewis and Bo Jackson, but most repeatedly the basketball players Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. In Edward's words, "Honey, they are the fiercest [best]. Indeed. Child, you can't find a finer lookin' man than a basketball player. And it ain't because they can't be had. They just fine."

Folklore, then, provides these gay black men with not only a sense of history, which is important for their black identity, but also an image of the ideal man in the culture hero: a physically strong, sexual, masculine man.

Role Models

Besides preachers, sports figures were included in lists of prominent black male role models for these gay black men. Not only


are they constantly present in the media but they are also invariably good-looking men.

LEONARD : When you look at black role models you invariably come up with the sportsmen. I mean that's the kind of man that American society likes. He's the kind of man's man that it's all about. . . . I guess the football players are the most important. And the baseball players. Because those are the main sports. They are where even white men will be fans of black players. But if you ask me, in fact, in the black world especially, ask any woman, or any gay man, and they'll tell you it'll be the basketball players. They're the finest-looking men. And they are the real athletes. . . . For the most part. You get young guys like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. They serve as pretty good role models. In my day it was Kareem [Abdul Jabbar] and Julius Irving. Because they went beyond the court and took some interest in black youth. Working with youth clubs and stuff. But you gotta remember that they are one in a million. So all this talk about role models. It only does so far. And we know that. Only one in a million black child is going to make it. That's why we pay that no mind!

Several informants rebuked the media for "all the fuss" about the lack of suitable male role models for young black men. Donny retorted once, "Role models for what?" He and others were adamant that excellent male role models exist in black society, especially their fathers and their teachers and preachers.

LEONARD : There have always been role models for us in Harlem. I mean even if we didn't fit into their shoes, directly, there were always men to look up to. I just wish the kids today would aspire to these heights. Instead of wasting all their money on drugs and that bullshit gold. There's so much they could do. Especially now. I sense a second renaissance in black art. Even the white art establishment is after it. They know we've got lots to offer. And especially with the Japanese chasing after us up here. The white folks'll be smellin' money. With the Japanese tourists. The next thing you know they'll be cutting business deals with the restaurants and artists up here in Harlem. I know it's gonna happen. But whatever. If it funds a renaissance, then that's fine by me.

While prominent black women in history featured as role models for some of my informants—especially the liberationists Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells and the writers Nikki Giovanni, Audré Lorde, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou—it was the male political leaders—Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Adam Clayton Powell, Marcus Garvey, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X—who were most frequently perceived as role models. Some of the


black power leaders, such as Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, and Huey Newton, were also named. Most important were the writers and dancers of the Harlem Renaissance: Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Wallace Thurman, Walter White, Claude McKay, Douglas Aaron, and Richard Bruce Nugent, and their successors James Baldwin, Alvin Ailey, and Arthur Mitchell. The impact of these prominent black Americans and the historical events that surrounded their experiences was most pronounced among those of my informants who were themselves employed in the arts. Garvey, who works as a choreographer, described his feelings.

GARVEY : I perceive Ailey as the most inspirational for me. He took jazz and modern dance to black society, and then back to white society, but filled with that special exuberance he had. It was African. African deep [thoroughly]. The Dance Theater [of Harlem] give you that too. But in a more classical manner. They are the most widely accepted because of that. But Ailey has paved the way for so many of us now. He's really the one.

Political leaders also appear to have had an impact on gay black men in Harlem. Without a doubt, the importance of Malcolm X to this population is unrivaled. His aggressive, confrontational style of politics is often praised by black New Yorkers.

FRANKLIN : Malcolm X, definitely. The most important. I mean just the fact that he died right here in Harlem is significant. I know a lot of us knew him or saw him. I heard him speak once. He was so strong. And so powerful. He was someone who you could identify with. Very easily. He was speaking from us. Now, Martin Luther King was important. But he was southern. He was church. He didn't have the appeal that Malcolm had with the people here in Harlem. King was respected and just as loved, believe me. But Malcolm was one of us. He knew the streets and knew the boys he was recruiting into the Nation of Islam. And he knew how to hook the rest of us into his philosophy. They were violent times. We all knew violence. Especially in the ghetto! So his message meant something very real to us. It certainly had more appeal to us in the cities than Martin's did. . . . I would say that Malcolm X was the most significant of all of them. For me anyway.

The impact of political leaders as role models is especially evident in the following remarks.

LOUIS : Malcolm X was the most influential political leader we've ever had in Harlem. But, you know, there've been other leaders up here. Adam Clayton Powell. Senior and Junior. And Marcus Garvey. I don't think enough people really understood what that man achieved. Especially the people from the civil rights movement. They could have honored Garvey a whole lot more. . . .


Sometimes I thought about running for office. You know, like the city or the state. I think Harlem could deal with a gay politician. I think that people in Harlem would back you no matter what. And they'd still be proud of you, and support you. That'd teach America something. . . . Yes, mind you, the churches would stop that [a gay candidate]. They really are the powerhouse in Harlem.

It is interesting to note that Louis entertains ideas of a political career. It shows the impact that Malcolm X, Louis's culture hero, and other leaders have had on this man. In fact, Louis is quite sure that gay people in America will achieve recognition only if they unite behind some dynamic leader. He noted that the gay movement does not have the charismatic leadership that it once had, nor that which the black movements had in the 1960s. But he adds that the politically powerful churches are likely to sabotage any attempt by a gay man to achieve elected office.

This fear of the power of the church not only reinforces respect for the institution in the black community but also shows respect for the charismatic preachers who lead the churches in Hadem.[24] Their leadership has been, and still is, an inspiration to many of the gay black men who are currently church participants.

CLEVELAND : I guess you could say that they were role models for most of us. We felt very close to our preachers. They were community leaders, especially down South. And with the family pushing us, we became very involved with the church. I guess I was in the choir before I knew it.

Both in the South and in Harlem, preachers are seen by gay men as role models—men who are educated, successful, and powerful.

Prominent men in Harlem are often political or religious leaders who manipulate the media to promote their prominence. Many informants were critical of such leaders, who they feel often detract from the positive aspects of being black.

TERRY : Some of them are crazy. Now, that's the problem. Because they're crazy, and they represent us, that's why the media makes a fool outta us. Showin' C. Vernon Mason and that Maddox guy. I mean they're lawyers. OK. But all the young kids gonna hear about them and start carryin' on like that. Miss Sharpton's a trip. With that [hair]do. Child, she's missed her callin'. She should be on stage at the Apollo. Really though, the impression they make 'cause of the media. That ain't right. They need to see what these young men are doing' for our kids at the YMCA. Running all those dance and theater workshops. Now that's important. And those brothers feedin'


the kids with AIDS. They're the role models today. But you don't see them on TV.

In addition to the role models of prominent black men, those in the immediate neighborhood, through community participation, offer examples of what it is to be a good black man. At this same community level of interaction, black people learn many of the expressive traits of being black.[25]

Expressive Culture

Peer pressure in the black community to conform to "being black" is given prominence in the discussion of socialization in the works of other ethnographers.[26] Many demonstrate in their descriptions of life on the street the powerful socialization of their subjects in day-to-day interaction with other members of their communities.

In Harlem, much of the expressive culture of blacks is transmitted verbally and by example in the performance of daily life on the streets and in the courtyards of project and tenement buildings. Language, speech performance, nonverbal behavior, and clothing and hair styles define what it means to be black. They are learned from peers with whom individuals hang out after school, in playgrounds and parks, in the bars and dance halls, while shopping or sitting on the stoop.

My research in Harlem has provided a vast pool of evidence of black expressive styles. These range from spoken expressions and reinterpreted standard English vocabulary to nonverbal gestures, dance and walking styles, hairdos and fashions. Gay black men appear to be at the source of much of this stylistic creativity, as with so many of the styles of behavior and clothing that originate within this population. To this extent, gay blacks have their own "diction," which feeds on and into black society. While non-gay Harlem would probably be reluctant to admit this, evidence exists that indeed it does (see chap. 9).

Gay black men in Harlem learn the expressive culture of being black from family and friends in their hometown community. Specifically, gay black aspects of that expressive culture are learned in the gay scene, in the bars and discos, at parties and card games. The creativity gay blacks express in their daily speech and nonverbal communication


with each other, their fashion and dance statements in the gay community, and their contributions to the arts of black American culture place them at the cutting edge of black expressive culture and demonstrate the significance of their position at the intersection of gay and black cultures.

"Being Black": Summary

Because their socialization into black culture has been so thorough, gay black men in Harlem are able to identify as black men. Although they are known to be gay or "sissies," they know how to act as black men. Also, because they avoid contact both with the white world beyond Harlem's borders and with mainstream gay society, they have accepted "being black" as their primary identity. From all of the varied sources referred to above—family and friends, books, television, and the example of community leaders—gay men in Harlem have learned what it takes to be black. "Being black" is more than an issue of color, although that in itself is a significant attribute. For Byron, for example, "being black" is more than just having "black" skin: "Black means a whole lotta things. It means my color. It means my race. It means my family. It means my church. It means Harlem. It means me. I'm black. That's what it means. Everything."

Roots in and connections to the South, knowledge of slavery in particular, are important components of being black. Knowledge of black folklore and pertinent historical events and participation in a black church, at some level, are also important. Most significant are some of the contemporary cultural traits that are learned in the home, at school, or on the streets where one lives. And peer pressure on the streets is especially important in the creation and perpetuation of expressive black cultural elements.

Participation in expressively black styles of walking and talking is one important part of "being black." Living in a black extended family and in a social network of black acquaintances also contributes to black identity.

WALLACE : Black lives? That means the way you live. The way I was taught to live my life. The way I was raised. My mother taught me that. You know, the importance of family. The importance of church. The importance of schoolin' and work. How you need good friends around you. How to choose those


friends, carefully. All those things are our lives. That's what makes our lives. It's a bit different in the city. You know, the most important thing here is money. You gotta have money. To survive. So, it's a bit different here. Your friends can be more important than your family. You know, because your mother live somewhere else. Or your brothers are running in Brooklyn or Yonkers, or someplace. So your friends become your family. That's why I take good care of my friends. They be my family.

Gay black men's preference for residence and a social life entirely within a black environment further serves to explain the perception they hold of themselves as being primarily black men.

However, if these men socialize outside of the black community, they are most likely to do so in an alternate gay scene rather than in a non-gay or gender-mixed scene. In other words, gay culture, while of secondary importance to being black, is an important source of cultural identity for these men.


5— "Different from Other Colors": Black Culture and Black Identity

Preferred Citation: Hawkeswood, William G. One of the Children: Gay Black Men in Harlem. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.