Book review: Not Straight, Not White: Black Gay Men from the March on Washington to the AIDS Crisis

Literature and fields of study have often overlooked, or altogether erased, the presence and impact of Black gay men in socio-political movements and ideologies. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) and African-American disciplines have both neglected to give proper credit to Black gay men’s contributions to their respective fields. Kevin J. Mumford’s Not Straight, Not White: Black Gay Men from the March on Washington to the AIDS Crisis is his answer to the erasure of adequate recognition. Mumford asserts that LGBT historiography has contributed to the evolution of gay male organizations, neighborhoods, and identity construction but neglects the Black gay male experience. Although, a shift does take place in the post Stonewall era of the 1970s and 1980s. The historiography begins to merge critical race theory and queer theory to delineate the interdependence of race, class, and gender concerning their impact of identity, community, and liberation movements. However, the white-centered gay narratives still persisted in literature, the academy, liberation movements, and more.

Additionally, with the exception of the Harlem Renaissance, African-American history has also perpetually overlooked the presence and contributions of Black gay men. Mumford accredits this erasure to the vast history of demonized Black eroticism. From slave importation to Reconstruction to the civil rights movement to the AIDS crisis, the answer to this negative connotation with Black sexuality is the image of respectability. In accordance with respectability politics lays the assertion of the traditional Black family. This rise of respectability politics erased Black queer spaces, censored same-sex and gender non-normative media, and ultimately killed the Black queer community and culture that was beginning to form in the 1970s and 1980s. For example, the famous Black-owned magazine Jet, unlike other magazines that catered to white audiences, routinely challenged the negative connotations associated with sexual, gendered, and racial biases in the 1950s. Jet ran stories of interracial marriages and Black queerness, neither of which were acceptable at the time because of white conservatism and Black respectability. However, by the mid-1960s, Jet became increasingly more conservative and the discussion surrounding racial, sexual, and gendered queerness stopped and the focus on respectability politics and traditional heterosexual family structures in Black communities emerged.  Mumford attempts to unearth why the reliance on respectability contributed to the erasure of Black homosexuality.

Here within lays Mumford’s frustration and larger argument in Not Straight, Not White. Black gay men live in between worlds – estranged from homosocial environments (clubs, bars, intellectual frameworks, support networks, liberation movements) due to racism and excluded from Black spaces (liberation movements, the academy, politics, media, religious organizations and communities) due to homophobia. For example, Mumford dedicates the entire sixth chapter to writer and activist Joseph Beam. Beam is a product of the combining ideologies of post-Stonewall activism and Black feminist theory of the 1970s and 1980s. Beam is often unacknowledged and underappreciated, but he was a brilliant mind and a masterful writer. Beam’s work centered on community and Black gay culture; a community and culture he never experienced but longed for. In his most popular essay, “Brother to Brother: Words from the Heart,” he challenges all Black men, both gay and straight, to love and celebrate each other. It was a call for kinship and community that he believed lacked in Black spaces. Joseph Beam had a life long struggle of living between worlds. In a letter written to his friend Steve Smith, Beam wrote, “I keep searching for home. When I’m in Black neighborhoods, I feel safe in my Blackness, but know that I’m seen as queer and as a faggot. In white areas, I’m perceived as Black and therefore despicable. Where can I go where these large segments of self can come together and flourish?” (131). Beam struggled with loneliness is entire life. He died of AIDS complications alone in his Philadelphia apart; no one would have known he was gone had his landlord not found his body. Not even Beam’s mother knew that he had the virus. Beam is one of many Black gay that lived in between worlds, and like many other Black gay men, suffered in abandoned silenced. Beam was desperate to merge those two worlds, but his failed attempts resulted in loneliness and depression.

Mumford states that the LGBT identity has progressed and pioneered the collective understandings on how institutions (the state, courts, prisons, etc.) and political activities (far Left activists, right wing conservatives) work, but important questions concerning race are often avoided. In particular, Mumford specifies the role of racial representation, in gay pornography for example, the construction of masculinity, and the struggles to mitigate gay desire and identity with religious proclivities.

To answers these questions, and in “effort toward remaking Black gay history” (8), Mumford recounts the history of Black gay men from the 1950s to the 1990s. Following major movements such as the civil rights era, Black power movement, gay liberation movement, and AIDS activism, Mumford asserts the presence and immense impact of Black gay men in shaping politics, culture, activism, and community. Mumford explores how writers, activists, and performers repudiated negative stereotypes and sexual objectification. He profiled both lesser known and popular Black gay activist, writers and performers to argue for the “genealogy of black gayness and a collective past that deserve serious study and full recognition” (3). Included are Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, Joseph Beam, Jason Holiday, Grant-Michael Fitzgerald, and James Tinney. Mumford elucidates on four pivotal decades that Black gay men were met with racism and homophobia, but also found community and inspired local and national change.

Not Straight, Not White was comprehensively well received. It was positively reviewed by numerous scholars, journalists and writers – including Daniel Rivers in Wiley Online Library,[1] George M. Johnson of America’s AIDS Magazine[2], and Charles Stephens of Lambda Literary[3]. It also won American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Awards in 2017. Not Straight, Not White is Mumford’s third book. He is currently a professor at University of Illinois where he teaches on race relations, African-American history, and the history of sexuality. Mumford believes that Not Straight, Not White is one of the first non-fiction books to concomitantly highlight both Black and gay identities[4].

Mumford does an excellent job of simultaneously illuminating the marginalization and empowerment of those that hold the intersecting identity of Black and gay. He strongly supports his argument will the use of his primary sources that include newspaper archives, pornography and film, government documents, personal papers, and more. He provides thorough historical evidence of Black gay men’s cultural and political impact in the past 50 years. Not Straight, Not White is a staple in African-America history, Queer history, Black Queer/Quare Studies, and Cultural history.

[1] Riley, “Kevin Mumford, Not Straight, Not White”.

[2] Johnson, “Not Straight, Not White: Review”.

[3] Stephen, “Not Straight, Not White”.

[4] Baudler, “Not Straight, Not White Highlights History of Black Gay Men”.

Citation: Mumford, Kevin J. Not Straight, Not White: Black Gay Men from the March on Washington to the AIDS Crisis. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016

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