Ballroom: The Trans Sound of Black Freedom

Michael Roberson, New York City
June 16, 2017

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning—getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.
—Ella Baker
[1]

Early 20th century African-American Harlem Renaissance writer and poet Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “Black women are the mules of the world”[2] politically, theologically, and historically. If Hurston’s statement is grounded in an analysis of truth, then Black trans women are situated somewhere between the late great African-American theologian and civil rights icon Howard Thurman’s notion of “the disinherited” and the radical Black French philosopher Frantz Fanon’s notion of “the wretched of the earth.” Persistent marginalization over centuries—not only of trans and cis women, but also of Black gay, lesbian and bisexual people—has led to entrenched stigmatization, violence, and instability. Yet, in the face of complex challenges, such as housing insecurity and some of the highest HIV infection rates in the United States, Black/Latino LGBT people have formed powerfully robust, self-sustaining social networks and cultural groups. One such network is the House | Ballroom community, a Black/Latino LGBT artistic collective and intentional kinship system that has its roots in 1920s Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance. Emerging from the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North to escape the American white supremacist racist and xenophobic terror of Jim and Jane Crow racism, lynching, and the Ku Klux Klan, it became a formidable social movement for LGBT persons of color.

This essay explores the history of the House | Ballroom community (HBC) as a freedom movement, a radical pedagogy, and a spiritual formation in response to race, class, sexuality, and gender oppression. Using the lens of Black Trans-Womanist theological discourse, developed in large part by scholars at Union Theological Seminary, my understanding of the House | Ballroom community carries with it an analysis of the Black church, race, sexuality, gender, and class from scholars and practitioners who engage with interdisciplinary frameworks and who work at the intersections of critical race theory, queer theory, Black liberation theology, queer theology, and feminist thought. This analysis will consider the community’s ability to use the art of performance as a hermeneutics of the body, a homiletics of community organizing, and an intentional philosophical framework of liberation within the Black radical aesthetic tradition, while placing its history of mobilization as resistance to oppressions and positioning it in relation to other historical and global struggles. Throughout this narrative, I will refer to:

  • The Vogue’ology collective’s pedagogical approach, which puts the performative aspects of HBC in relation to the politics and attainment of emancipation;
  • House Lives Matter, which establishes a narrative of resilience and wellness within the HBC community; and
  • The Arbert Santana Ballroom Freedom and Free School, which is shaping a curriculum to enable members of the HBC community to consider how collectives are organized and sustained, and how they can teach, learn, and work in solidarity with others in struggle.

The origins of the HBC are in the early 20th century “faerie balls” and cross­dressing pageants made popular during the Harlem Renaissance. The modern HBC was established in 1968 in response to racism within New York’s LGBT community. In that year Crystal LaBeija, a star of the city’s cross­dressing competitions and pageants, broke publicly with the white gay male dominated scene and established a separate ballroom circuit for Black and Latino gay men, lesbians, and transgendered persons. A year later Crystal formed the House of LaBeija, a team of Black and Latino performers who competed in cross­dressing events. The rival House of Ebony, made up predominantly of Black members, was formed shortly thereafter. While the reference was to the conventions of haute couture, the class conditions that actually defined the scene were those of poverty, racism, homophobia and transphobia. To survive, the Ballroom “houses” had to become a source of support and protection. Thus, the house of fashion became a home and the members constituted new families. The leaders of these houses became known as “mothers” and “fathers” and members referred to as “children.” This is the Ballroom scene that exists today.

Photo by Steven Liang

This essay narrates the HBC as a strategy for freedom, as an epistemology of humanity, and as an effective “intra-vention”—a term coined by scholar Marlon Bailey that denotes homegrown strategies arising out of a community to address issues confronting said community. Despite its historical outsider position within the American democratic project, HBC is a collective re-imagining of democracy by and for itself. Reflective of this are the two most recent dialogical intra-ventions: the House Lives Matter leadership movement and the Arbert Santana Ballroom Freedom and Free School, which will be highlighted here not to recruit folk to become members of the HBC, nor to serve as an object of the white and/or heteronormative gaze. Instead, the goal here is to engage in a conversation with the HBC arising out of a historical crisis of annihilation that started during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. The onslaught against Black LGBT folk continued through strategies created by the most prominent Black church in America at that time, responding to the politics of recognition and respectability that was shaped by the white heteronormative gaze. From the ethos of Black trans-women, through what was then called “Drag Balls,” and over the last century, it has developed into what I term “the trans sounds of Black freedom.”

Photo by Steven Liang

Ongoing conversations on sexuality, queer subjectivities, racism and xenophobia, capitalism, art and politics, theology, and philosophy on a macro level are closely related to the HBC, particularly when looking at historical, systematic strategies to create socio-political economies of marginalized, racialized, and gendered communities. Marginalized communities, such as the HBC, have created both resistant and subversive strategies to confront oppression and deploy the social imagination as the necessary precursor to long-term liberation work and justice-making. HBC has something to teach the world about what it means philosophically to be human, what it means politically to struggle for freedom, and what it means theologically to do so in the face of catastrophe and even death.

Crisis

This text arises out of crisis—both historical and contemporary, political and theological—as a philosophical critique of the past and a present shift in collective consciousness, as the mandate to create a future, to paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., in “The Beloved Community.” Crisis can catalyze new and expansive paradigms by rejecting antiquated epistemologies that serve to maintain the status quo, and engaging methodologies of radical listening that surpass the faculty of the ear and respond to ancestral cries for freedom. It is grounded in this kind of philosophical, theological, political “Trinitarian” framework that aligns with the progressive pedagogy of Paulo Freire. As a result, crisis serves as a Foucauldian epistemological rupture, radically going against the hegemonic grain, allowing the crisis to remain unnamed, reacting neither to the neoliberal impulse for silence (e.g., Ronald Reagan during the first seven years of the AIDS crisis, 1981-1988) nor the liberal use of what sound-art collective Ultra-red terms “value form” (e.g., Bill Clinton’s crime bill of 1994 and his “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy of 1993).

In 1992 Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins offered a pivotal analysis that lends credence to why the unnamed crisis is still vital at this moment:

In an increasingly poststructuralist world, however, positivist sociological interpretations of social reality have been challenged forcefully by people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and other historically marginalized groups. From their perspectives, the claims of sociology to be a value-neutral, objective science ring false. To them, sociological traditions produced by a homogeneous circle of insiders represent a partial perspective on social relations. Race, class, gender, and heterosexism now present major challenges to the field as a whole. Yet despite these significant changes, the inner circle of sociological theory—its membership, epistemology, and theoretical frameworks—remains strangely untouched by the changes buffeting the remainder of the discipline.[3]

True to Collins’ assertion and to the history of global progressive politics emerging from this crisis, a collective called Vogue’ology was formed. Vogue’ology is part of a multi-phase, long-term curriculum created in collaboration with Ultra-red and members of New York City’s HBC. This collaboration rests on a common commitment to struggle for individual and collective freedom in the face of poverty, racism, gender, and sexual oppression. The curriculum provides an opportunity to be in conversation about how various creative practices in the HBC might reflect on or function as strategies of freedom. Vogue’ology is a pedagogy that privileges the simultaneous use of teaching and learning as a protocol necessary for deep learning, and listening as the precursory condition for justice-making. This allows suffering to speak as fundamental to liberation work, to what the Black church calls a “life-calling,” and to the ethical and moral imperative of a full human rights agenda.

As a collective grounded in the ethos of community, Vogue’ology has been in dialogue with long traditions of collaborative, creative work concerned with emancipation or liberation. Teaching and learning are as central to these traditions as they are to the many art practices wrestling with the dialectics of oppression and liberation, resistance and resilience. For this reason, pedagogy has been a constant and consistent reference point of Vogue’ology’s work as reflected in the etymology of its name. It derives, with intention, from the HBC’s most emblematic art expression and practice—Voguing—and from cultural-political-theological formation. What Vogue as an art form has done for the HBC illustrates Angela Davis’ thesis, that “progressive art can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society in which they live, but also about the intensely social character of their interior lives. Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation.”[4]

…a wedge is driven between Blackness and sexuality and gender identities that makes even the collective struggle for freedom an occasion for deep and painful fragmentation.

Due to its demographic composition, which includes gay men, lesbians, gender non-conforming, and transgender people, the HBC has long borne the burdens of a theological assessment of homosexuality as an abomination. The Leviticus code, in particular, defines LGBT bodies and practices as a priori the negation of all that is good in the flesh. Given the central role of the Black Church in the long struggle for freedom from white supremacy, this theological violence is also a historical violence in that a wedge is driven between Blackness and sexuality and gender identities that makes even the collective struggle for freedom an occasion for deep and painful fragmentation. Consequently, the HBC has been situated historically and theologically outside the image of God—the Imago Dei. Historically, one of the most effective ways to discredit a community has been to put its members on trial, accuse them of transgressions, particularly sexual transgressions, and dehumanize them either by condemning them to death or by allowing them to die.

Theorists, historians, and theologians have described and examined how this discrediting and dehumanizing of a people, often with references to sexual depravity, was used against African slaves in America (Kelly Brown Douglas). This was the strategy at the heart of the post-1865 emancipation of slaves in the US, giving rise to Jim Crow policies and the lynching of Black people as a means of terror and a form of social control (James Cone). We saw the same process at work in allowing Black women and Black gay men to suffer and die of AIDS during the early days of the epidemic, under the political regime of Ronald Reagan, and through the abomination doctrines of a politically divisive, homophobic Black community (Cathy Cohen). For more than 200 years, the US government “constitutionalized” Blacks as not human in America (Cornel West). Through the American project of democracy, institutions have been constructed—slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, the prison industrial complex—that reduce people and communities, specifically Black ones, “to the barest biological subsistence because it pushes them outside the law and the polity”, as we saw in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina (Angela Davis). When it comes to Black LGBT people, this dehumanizing structure is further amplified by the Black church’s hegemonic narrative of homosexuality as an abomination. The HBC, being predominantly Black and Latino, is situated historically, politically, theologically, and philosophically in relation to this history.

It is more commonplace to engage in discourse on racism rather than on xenophobia in an American context, and especially with regards to racially marginalized LGBT folk. According to Wikipedia, “Xenophobia can manifest itself in many ways involving the relations and perceptions of an in-group towards an out-group, including a fear of identity loss, suspicion of its activities, aggression, and a desire to eliminate its presence to secure a presumed purity.”[5] For the HBC, xenophobia manifests not only in relation to perception of colour or race, but also in relation to the perception of the LGBT body. The HBC experiences xenophobia through multi-layered and multi-dimensional dichotomies such as:

  • Blackness in relation to American nation-building;
  • homosexuality in relation to homophobic Black/Latino communities;
  • Black/Latino LGBT community in relation to the dominant white LGBT community; and
  • Black/Latino trans people in relation to Black/Latino cis-gender privilege.

Furthermore, “Xenophobia can also be exhibited in the form of an ‘uncritical exaltation of another culture,’ in which a culture is ascribed ‘an unreal, stereotyped and exotic quality.’”[6] The HBC—with its artistic practices rooted in the Black radical aesthetics tradition, and its cultural, political, and theological formulations rooted in a history of the Black struggle for freedom—has been commodified and misappropriated through the white supremacist gaze via Madonna’s song and video “Vogue” (1990), Jennie Livingston’s documentary “Paris is Burning” (1990), recent contemporary white European Vogue competitions, and so on. It has also been commodified and misappropriated by Black Entertainment & Fashion through a heteronormative gaze produced by Beyoncé, Chris Brown, and Willow Smith, among others, and by almost every Black reality show on television today.

Despite this visibility, we are witnessing increasing violence and health disparities in the HBC. Black/Latina trans-women continue to be brutalized and murdered in increasing numbers; the NYC LGBT Anti-violence Project reports there have already been 7 this year (as of April 2017). The Center for American Progress, NYC State Department of Health, The True Colors Fund, and The National Coalition for The Homeless all report significantly high numbers of LGBT homelessness, ranging from 20-40% nationally in the US, to 30% in NYC, with a disproportionate representation of LGBT youth of color.

1 in 2 Black gay men and 1 in 4 Latino gay men will be HIV positive in their lifetime.

Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control report that young Black/Latino gay men have the highest HIV prevalence/incidence rates in the world.[7] In February 2016, the CDC also released data through the agency’s NCHHSTP Newsroom online platform that 1 in 2 Black gay men[8] and 1 in 4 Latino gay men[9] will be HIV positive in their lifetime. Both the New York City and the New York State Departments of Health as well as numerous researchers[10] report that the HBC has been disproportionately affected by HIV and other health disparities.[11] In 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo drafted The BluePrint as a political response and strategy to radically reduce new HIV infection rates in the state by the year 2020, as a means to ending the AIDS epidemic in New York State. One of the document’s strongest analyses was its focus on the HBC as a priority.

We are currently in the 35th year of the AIDS pandemic, and what it has mostly produced is the materialization of historical-theological logic as the chronic physical, emotional, spiritual crises of Black gay and bisexual men and transgender persons. Attempts to circumvent this impasse using the science of public health have been unsuccessful. In fact, the field’s reductive and objectifying approach to sexuality only alienates members of this community further from ourselves, our partners, and our bodies. Karl Marx, in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, asserts that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.”[12]

The historical and contemporary, political and theological unnamed crisis leads us to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human, Black, gay, same-gender-loving, queer, and read as the antithesis to God? What does it mean to be exiled from our people’s history and struggle for freedom, having to live—in the words of W.E.B. Du Bois—under the “veil”? He wrote, “Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like [them perhaps] in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows.”[13]

Community Power

Just as technologies of control run the gamut from overt coercion to implicit persuasion, so modes of resistance may extend across a similarly wide spectrum. At one end is organized protest, explicit moments and movements of dissent that are easily recognizable as “political” by western lights. At the other are gestures of tacit refusal and iconoclasm, gestures that sullenly and silently contest the forms of an existing hegemony. . . . And far from being a mere reflection—or a reflex expression—of historical consciousness, these acts are a practical means of producing it.
—Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff
[14]

Comaroff and Comaroff’s insight exemplifies the shift in the work Vogue’ology and the HBC began organizing some years ago, as they were confronted with worsening infection rates and death rates from HIV/AIDS that continued to climb within the community. In 2010, Arbert Santana, a leader in the HBC, initiated a dialogue about Vogue’ology by inviting Ultra-red member Robert Sember and I to help him establish an oral history and archive of the HBC. So began a continuing conversation among the three of us about how to address the persistent social and structural violence of racism, classism, transphobia, and homophobia that drives the HIV/AIDS crisis among members of the HBC. Arbert Santana’s death in 2012 underscored the urgency of this work. It is for this reason the Ballroom Freedom and Free School was named in Arbert’s honor.

On November 9, 2016, the first convening of the Arbert Santana Ballroom Freedom and Free School was organized, bringing together 14 public intellectuals and ballroom “organic intellectuals” (to use Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s expression) to discuss the project and the creation of curricula and political literacies. The gathering amplified the enormously productive dialogue between Vogue’ology and allied constituents concerning terms and themes to guide liberation efforts concerned with sexuality, gender, race, and class oppressions. It also initiated a series of events to celebrate the depth of the HBC’s history and to bring that history into dialogue with allied communities and movements. Throughout 2017, the project’s aim is to enable members of the scene, representatives of other constituencies, and scholars to identify points of common concern and consider how collectives are organized and sustained, and how they can teach and learn and work in solidarity around issues of common struggle.

It is significant to note that 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Mississippi Freedom Schools, which played a significant role in the signature mass mobilizations of the Civil Rights era. As Cornel West asserts, “For interpretive purposes, the ’60s is not a chronological category which encompasses a decade, but rather a historical construct or heuristic rubric which renders noteworthy historical processes and events intelligible.”[15] Therefore, learning from these and other popular education movements around the world, we envision the Ballroom Freedom and Free School as a venue and set of practices rooted in the HBC’s traditions of skills exchange, collective learning, and self-organizing. It will also function as a base from which to organize and contribute to coalitions mobilized to address poverty, racism, mass incarceration, and other oppressive structures.

The process of constructing this space has been long yet generative, and it involved the facilitation of other gatherings at which young leaders in the HBC started to co-organize and share the desire to create a youth-led initiative called Keeping Ballroom Community Alive Network. One of its aims was to present the second annual Ballroom Symposium titled Reclaiming Our Narrative, and to host The Freedom Ball for young HBC members. These two events were held October 29 and 30, 2016, and will reconvene in August 2017 in NYC.

Photo by Anja.

A national community-organizing event, House Lives Matter, sponsored by the Brooklyn-based HEAT Program, took place in New York City over a two-day period on November 10-12, 2016. This convening was situated differently from past national HBC leadership gatherings that have occurred over the last five years (Los Angeles 2011; Washington, DC, 2012; Dallas Ball House and Pageant Conference 2012-2015; Los Angeles 2015) as the aim was to shift the historical narrative regarding the HBC from that of a pathology of illness through a public health lens to a narrative of resiliency of wellness through a human rights lens. Therefore, as part of the agenda, topics of discussion included mass incarceration, the Black Lives Matter movement, race, sexuality, theology, capitalism, homelessness, transgendered invisibility, and how these issues impact community wellness and efforts to eradicate HIV.

While the first national HBC convening in Los Angeles in 2011 served to bring national HBC leaders together with national public health officials to create the first national agenda concerning health disparities impacting the HBC, the 2016 House Lives Matter convening was radically different, in that it focused on community mobilization and leadership development. There were several reasons for this change: 1) to educate regional and city HBC members about systemic barriers to health through a human rights lens; 2) to share lessons learned and experiences about community mobilizations around health; and 3) to provide capacity-building activities for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) education, access, and regional action planning. The organizers believed that with this knowledge, individuals could become better equipped to make informed choices about HIV, PrEP utilization, treatment as prevention, and other health concerns. The convening was organized in alignment with the NY Governor’s 2014 Blueprint to eradicate HIV/AIDS in the state by 2020. Due to diversity among HBC leaders, this meeting presented a unique opportunity to engage in purposeful dialogue that discerned specific barriers and challenges, developing corresponding strategies to overcome them, and setting actionable priorities to be used in the implementation of a regional and national education campaign for HBC. The Unity: Human Rights Ball was organized as a major event at this convening.

Photo by Steven Liang

I report and write all of this to underscore and illustrate a transformational shift in the way, the mode, and the intensity with which this work is now happening. It is shifting the historical narrative of the HBC from a reductive, liberal, capitalist “pathology of illness” to a more generative, progressive, socialist “resiliency of wellness” through a human rights lens. This shift continues to question historical racism and xenophobia, situating them in relation to the two texts that most influenced democracy in the US—the Constitution and the Bible—and placing them into conversation with the ethical imperatives of our current moment. What does it mean for a people to call themselves human and struggle for freedom in the face of real death, when they have been narrated both historically and constitutionally as “not human”? What does it mean for a people to be fully human and fully divine, to philosophically die, and theologically be reborn, to politically gather and decide, “We want to live,” when they have been historically and theologically situated outside the image of God? These questions are the necessary foundation of our query, pushing us to go beyond the traditional politics of marginalization and putting forth counter-cultural strategies that function as profound and radical analyses of the historical American democratic institutionalization of what Cornel West terms “the nihilism” of Black people. West states:

The proper starting point for the crucial debate about the prospects for Black America is an examination of the nihilism that increasingly pervades Black communities. Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophic doctrine that there are no rational grounds for legitimate standards or authority; it is, far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness. The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world. Life without meaning, hope, and love breeds a coldhearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys both the individual and others.[16]

House Lives Matter and the Ballroom Freedom School offer a pedagogical invitation that counters the historically ineffective methodologies used to address issues confronting the HBC. It borrows from Paulo Freire’s concept of “conscientization”: the ways in which individuals and communities develop a critical understanding of their social reality through reflection and action. This involves examining, engaging, and acting on the root causes of oppression as experienced in the present moment.

A Conceptual Lineage

Two scholarly conceptual frameworks we have accessed and integrated in our inquiries are legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “intersectionality” and Womanist scholar Eboni Marshall-Turman’s “quadrilateral forms of oppression.” In using these concepts to further our work, we use recognize their emergence from W.E.B. Du Bois’ early 20th century analysis of “double-consciousness” with regard to race and citizenship within US democracy, and from Angela Davis’ use of the Roman god Janus in her autobiography. The latter involves specifically her desire for an international feminist movement that situates race and class as equal partners with gender to forge real liberation work and dismantle oppressive structures created by national institutionalized racism in conjunction with global capitalism. Black feminist Joy James, in her description of the Roman god Janus, states:

Representing a dialectic of theory and resistance in revolutionary struggle in Davis’s political and intellectual development, Janus signifies conflictual and transitional stages that foster feelings of alienation from the familiar, yet open new avenues. Life is set by a series of decisions, paths taken and paths avoided. The existential dilemmas described in Angela Davis: An Autobiography reflect a tension magnified by the heightened expectations and fears characteristic of revolutionary social and political movements.[17]

All these notions and frameworks, as conversation pieces, have helped the Vogue’ology collective in creating a space conducive to strategies that align with the central goals and foundational terms of the HBC. Namely, they articulate a historical consciousness within the HBC that binds its capacity to thrive apart from the deep history of racism, xenophobia, and freedom struggles in the United States and elsewhere. This marks a dramatic reframing of the crisis confronting this community, which is dominated by the public health establishment’s—the state’s—focus on risky behaviors and high-risk individuals and populations with regards to the AIDS epidemic. Despite almost 30 years of initiatives guided by this framework, little has changed for LGBTQ people of color.

Photo by Steven Liang

In contrast, we have revived AIDS Cultural Analysis, which guided early AIDS social movements. AIDS Cultural Analysis asserts that oppression is the primary driver of the crisis and that the end of AIDS requires a fundamental shift in the distribution and organizing of power, including our understanding of how art relates to politics. We bring this legacy into conversation with a number of other traditions, including: 1) the practices of participatory, community education facilitated during the early civil rights era by, among others, Ella Baker and Septima Clark, in which culture and art-making functioned as collective pedagogical tools; 2) the concept of intersectionality used by Black feminists to describe how the oppressive structures of race, class, and gender form social structures of exclusion necessitating, as Audre Lorde noted, a radical poetics that articulates experiences of struggle and hope and calls multiple constituencies into solidarity; 3) the Prophetic tradition that provides a theological dimension to Black political movements, meaning the assertion of the possibility of radical historical ruptures that will re-define the terms and practices of freedom for future generations; and 4) the aesthetics of the Black radical tradition, as Fred Moten notes, as a radical pedagogy in resistance to systems of oppressive racist and xenophobic paradigms. Bob Avakian, a community organizer, Marxist, and communist, offered this sentiment, which speaks truth to power about the HBC:

Those this system has cast off, those it has treated as less than human, can be the backbone and driving force of a fight not only to end their own oppression, but to finally end all oppression, and emancipate all of humanity.[18]

House Lives Matter Town Hall, November 2016.

In the beginning of the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois made two powerful assertions that are relevant here, given the current political climate after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Imbued in racist and xenophobic ideologies, this election and its aftermath promise to further deny segments of our country access to democracy and full humanity. Du Bois stated:

Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being Black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line . . . the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. . . . And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe.[19]

As we see the HBC’s racial, gender, class, and sexuality demographic make-up, having historical roots in organizing against racist and xenophobic oppression (Slavery Abolition, Black Reconstruction, Civil Rights, Black Nationalism, Black Feminism, Stonewall, House|Ball) and also having historical roots in using art as a political and theological movement (The Spirituals/Slavery, Blues/Jim & Jane Crow Racism, Jazz/Northern Industrial Racism, Gospel/Civil Rights, Hip Hop/NYC 1970s politics, etc.), and lastly recognizing that the HBC has roots in the history of building political and theological community organizations (NAACP, SNIC, SCLC, ACT UP, etc.), for all these reasons we can assert that HBC has something to teach the world about struggle and resistance. Since its history has not been included in larger narratives of racial struggle, situating it in this historical lineage can add tremendous insight to racial justice, with what Black radical feminist civil rights icon Ruby Sales calls “complete sight: hindsight, insight, and foresight.”

The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are—until the poem—nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.
As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.
—Audre Lorde
[20]


[1] Ella Baker, “The Black Woman in the Civil Rights Struggle,” address given at the Institute of the Black World, Spelman College, Atlanta, Georgia, 1969.

[2] The original line from her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was spoken by the main character, Janie Crawford: “De n*****r woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”

[3] Patricia Hill Collins, “Transforming the Inner Circle: Dorothy Smith’s Challenge to Sociological Theory,” Sociological Theory 10, no. 1 (1992): 73-80, doi:10.2307/202018.

[4] Angela Y. Davis, “On Education and Culture,” Women, Culture & Politics, New York: Random House, 1989.

[5] Guido Bolaffi, Dictionary of race, ethnicity and culture, SAGE Publications Ltd: 2003, as cited in Wikipedia, s.v. “Xenophobia,” last modified February 9, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenophobia.

[6] Ibid.

[7] It is a sobering fact that while the US national HIV rate is under 2%, it is close to 46% among young gay men of color—comparable to the rates in South Africa and Botswana, the countries with the highest HIV infection rates in the world. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “HIV Prevalence, Unrecognized Infection, and HIV Testing Among Men Who Have Sex with Men—Five U.S. Cities, June 2004–April 2005,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) 54, no. 24 (2005): 597-601. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5424a2.htm)

[8] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “HIV Among African Americans,” CDC Fact Sheet, February 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/factsheets/cdc-hiv-aa-508.pdf

[9] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “HIV Among Latinos,” CDC Fact Sheet, February 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/factsheets/cdc-hiv-latinos-508.pdf

[10] Including Edgar Rivera-Colon, Phd (Columbia University), Marlon Bailey, Phd (University of Indiana), Robert Sember (The New School University NYC), Frank Leon Roberts, Phd Candidate (New York University), Jennifer Lee, Phd Candidate (Cuny Graduate Center, NYC) and Michael Roberson (The New School Univ NYC and Union Theological Seminary NYC).

[11] New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene et al., “HIV Prevalence and Risk Behaviors Among Persons Active in the New York City House Ball Community,” 2003. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/dires/epi-resupdates-riskhouseball.pdf

[12] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, trans. S.W. Ryazanskaya, [Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1859] online edition, 1993. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/Marx_Contribution_to_the_Critique_of_Political_Economy.pdf

[13] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University, 2006.

[14] Jean and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa. Volume one, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

[15] Cornel West, “The Paradox of the Afro-American Rebellion,” Social Text 9/10, Spring-Summer, 1984.

[16] Cornel West, Race Matters, New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

[17] Joy James, The Angela Y. Davis Reader, Malden, Maine: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1998.

[18] BA Speaks: Revolution—Nothing Less!, produced by the Bob Avakian Institute, 2012.

[19] W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Forethought” in The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford University Press, 1903.

[20] Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” in Poetry and Cultural Studies: A Reader, eds. Maria Damon and Ian Livingston, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009, 355.

Michael Roberson

Michael Roberson

Michael Roberson is a public health practitioner, activist, and leader within the LGBTQ community.

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