The book assumes that race and homosexuality (blackness and gayness) are real categories, and draws part of its authority from the social and historical importance these subjects have been given by many people through the years, but the idea of race is as suspect as the idea of strict sexual orientations. Skin is not a significant emblem of existential being (despite hundreds of years of western racialism, and the 1930s Negritude movement in Africa, France, Haiti, and Martinique, and the 1960s/70s black arts movement in the United States).
An Essay by Daniel Garrett
Freedom in this Village
edited by E. Lynn Harris
Carroll and Graf Publishers
New York, 2005
ISBN 0-7867-1387-9, 461 pages
“The American ideal, then, of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American ideal of masculinity. This ideal has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden—as an unpatriotic act—that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood.”
—James Baldwin, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Collected Essays
“Modern society has placed on sexuality demands far greater than have been made in most periods of human history; not only do we recognize the importance of sexuality, but we demand an end to sexual repressions (which Freud never did).”
—Dennis Altman, The Homosexualization of America
When I was a boy growing up in the American south, I had a camera and liked taking pictures, and I was part of a rural hobby club and once participated in a club fair that included having one’s exhibit judged. I had taken various photos and included in my portfolio some blurry photos of a bright red flower and other things: I thought them interesting images. I watched the young woman judge’s face as she looked at those; and she seemed to be wondering if I knew the pictures were out of focus. Years later, similar photos would be shown in the most respectable art magazines. Whose judgment had been right when she looked at my photos, mine or the young woman’s? She had the authority of the club and whatever experience she had with photography; and whatever authority I had was rooted in instinct and taste, in my own intentions. I did like to take pictures, and I liked to draw, though I had no particular drawing talent. I also began to write: something I wrote appeared in a local paper, and later I began a short-lived high school publication, and the school’s principal refused to have the second issue printed. Amid the various articles on local and general topics in the publication, I had quoted a wide range of people, from Woody Allen to Malcolm X, on diverse subjects, and the principal thought I was intending to foment rebellion. Had I been more astute, I would have made a first-amendment case of it. Was he right and I wrong? What are acceptable uses of authority? I certainly thought some of the values I saw around me—conformist, religious, shallow—not only cruel or wrong, but irrelevant, and I knew I had to establish my own: creativity, intelligence, passion, truth. I did not understand then that my own belief in those values would not mean that other people would acknowledge, respect, or support them in me or in the world: not even in New York, the dream/nightmare city to which I subsequently moved.
In college, before graduating from the New School for Social Research, where I studied everything, but principally writing, philosophy, and politics, I attended Baruch College for two years and wrote for The Reporter, a student newspaper, publishing articles on poet Grace Schulman, a student strike at Medgar Evers College, and a march on Washington, part of my varied interests. I also interviewed the leader of the campus gay group. I had been reading a wide range of political material, including work by anarchists, political economists, and feminists and gay writers such as Audre Lorde and Dennis Altman. It was a continuation of an evolution of consciousness—observable in the changes in the society in the 1960s and 1970s, and part of my own commitment to question all and re-imagine the world. I asked the student newspaper’s photographer to sit in on the interview and take pictures, as I had asked him to take pictures of the march on Washington: only he seemed more amazed by the interview, which was very much about culture and politics, not sex. After the interview was over, the photographer said to me, something like, “You seem to know a lot about it.” It would have been more interesting had he wondered why he didn’t know more, but that was before the full weight of the acquired immune deficiency syndrome had made itself known—with the corresponding public discussions about what sex between men consists of—and before the ACT-UP movement against the government and the medical establishment’s handling of the syndrome became famous. That was before the public disclosures of sex lives of celebrities such as K.D. Lang and Melissa Etheridge. I thought the interview the kind of thing a journalist should do: bring news, facilitate conversations that are rare but useful. Of course, we do not always do what we could or should, especially when we might be criticized or punished for it. I had been living with a woman then, a woman whose honesty and intelligence I enjoyed, someone I sometimes cooked for, and exasperated with my disinclination to mop the floor, someone I saw old Hollywood movies and classic French films with, and read the more dramatic passages of Chekhov, Toni Morrison, and Tennessee Williams to: and she sometimes snickered to see me read work by Jeffrey Weeks or Gay Left Collective. Maybe that was understandable: I thought of bisexuality as the start position of all sexuality, though I did not then act on the thought. It threatened our relationship, she supposed; although what threatened it more was an attempt to control someone determined to think as a free man.
“If a person possesses any tolerable amount of common sense and experience, his own mode of laying out his existence is the best, not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode,” wrote the great John Stuart Mill ( On Liberty, Cambridge University Press, 1989; 67).
I still think of bisexuality as part of our human potential, though I no longer think of it as a potential that most people will accept or act on (or rather, more pointedly, admit to acting on). “Within our modern epistemololgy of sexuality, any figuration of homo- or heterosexuality necessarily entails—wittingly or unwittingly—a figuration of bisexuality. In other words, to invoke and define any one of the terms hetero-, homo-, or bisexuality is to invoke and define the others by default. Each requires the other two for its self-definition,” wrote Steven Angelides in the beginning of his important book, A History of Bisexuality (University of Chicago Press, 2001; 16). Steven Angelides notes that bisexuality has been repressed in academic work, in society, and in politics for its ability to “disrupt the very classificatory alliance of sex/gender and sexuality” (47). That means certain questions are not asked or answered; and that certain problems are not given solutions: “But what of those individuals, such as bisexuals for whom sexual object choice is determined by factors other than gender?” asked Steven Angelides in A History of Bisexuality (204). What is the long-term good of academic work—of what is called knowledge—if it actually evades the facts of human experiences? Do the universities lead or merely follow? What many western societies have come to in the last two or three decades is greater allowance made for men and women whose behavior is homosexual, following the public declarations of self-declared homosexuals themselves. “The German homosexual rights movement of 1897 and the American ‘homophile’ movement of 1950 were sparked by the statistical studies of Magnus Hirschfield and Alfred Kinsey which suggested that homosexual behavior, far from being exotically rare, was much more common than generally imagined,” wrote Louis Crompton in his book Homosexuality and Civilization, published by Harvard University Press in 2003 (448). One wonders about the effects on the accuracy and rigor of public thought as such movements expand and become more popular: do ideas become repetitively dull, or more nuanced, or much simpler?
In order to protest negative diagnoses and prohibitions, men and women felt compelled to create an idea of a protesting subject. “Michel Foucault and his followers have argued that the ‘homosexual’ is a modern invention, a mental construct of the last hundred years. This is, of course, true of homosexuality as a ‘scientific’ or psychiatric category. But it is a mistake to presume that earlier ages thought merely of sexual acts and not of persons. Medieval literature speaks not only of sodomy but also of ‘sodomites,’ individuals who were a substantial, clear, and ominous presence. The fact that such beings were perceived from a theological rather than a psychological point of view did not make them any less real, or less threatening” (174-175), wrote Louis Crompton, whose logic I take issue with. The theological is an arena of belief and sin; and the scientific is a realm of hypothesis and proof. Scientific matters can be investigated and argued—with evidence battling evidence. Religions forbid women showing their hair or legs: are such displays objectively harmful or wrong? To assert a theological belief as proof does not really make a strong case; and places belief and morality where science, where reality, should be. Are other sins—or transgressions, not only envy or lust but even theft or murder—innate or inevitable? Even if one accepted terms conflating theology with science or law, does theft or murder encompass all that a man is, or the most important aspect of his being? Does eating, drinking, or some other physical want or need? Yet, it makes a certain limited sense to accept people as they present themselves: until that begins to interfere with one’s own reality, or larger social matters. As John Stuart Mill wrote about the expanse and limits of liberty, “A person should be free to do as he likes in his own concerns; but he ought not to be free to do as he likes in acting for another, under the pretext that the affairs of the other are his own affairs” (On Liberty, 104). Advocacy on behalf of self-declared homosexuals first enlarged then narrowed sexual definitions, sexual possibilities: and it now often inhibits what can be thought or said in public. The effects can involve not only censorship of permissible opinions but also how certain policies involving education, health, and even law develop.
“The seventies saw the beginning of a large-scale transition in the status of homosexuality from a deviance or perversion to an alternative life style or minority, as remarkable a change in the characterization of the ‘homosexual’ as was the original invention of the category in the nineteenth century,” wrote Dennis Altman in his path-making book The Homosexualization of America, the Americanization of the Homosexual, published in 1982 by New York’s St. Martin’s Press (2).
Altman’s work, The Homosexualization of America, was one of the books that identified and became part of a changing culture: and the practice of homosexuality seemed to embody new sexual freedom, new emotional possibilities, and also—alarmingly, gratifyingly—new markets with their tendency to commodify experience and new rhetoric. “To come out publicly is, according to the liberationist argument, the one potentially radical act for every homosexual, which is why homosexual militancy cannot be simply measured by organized movement activity. But as more homosexuals come out, new stereotypes are created; the assertion of homosexuality has in turn created new forms of homophobia,” identifies Altman (22). “Those who talk of a ‘gay sensibility’ tend to confuse two quite distinct ideas; one, that such a sensibility is inherent in being homosexual and, two, that it is the response of the particular experience of homosexuality in a given milieu. The first argument seems to me clearly nonsense, but it surfaces from time to time, linked to the idea of an innate and immutable homosexuality. After all, if some people are born homosexuals, why not go on to argue that with this comes certain inherent insights, qualities, or sensitivities alien to others?” asked Altman (148).
I think of sexuality as part of human nature, and human nature is forever developing, and I think of sexuality as part of much of the social atmosphere in which one moves. I am, and have been attracted to both women and men; and, sometimes for long periods, I have been happy enough to go without the pursuit of sexual attraction or sexual practice. Sexuality is far from my predominate concern, personally or professionally. I have written on art, books, business, the environment, film, music, and politics as a member of professional staffs and freelance. My work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The City Sun, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. My book reviews have focused on the work of Hal Bennett, Raymond Carver, Michael Frayn, Ivy Goodman, Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Anthony Hecht, Joseph Heller, Charles Johnson, John Koethe, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Toni Morrison, Albert Murray, Carl Phillips, John Updike, and Colson Whitehead, among others. That is all part of whatever intellectual authority and perspective I have, though I think the most significant part of intellectual authority is the sheer exercise of intelligence. And now I come to E. Lynn Harris’s Freedom in this Village: Twenty-five Years of Black Gay Men’s Writing, a book that affirms racial and sexual orientations in ways that can be read as too crude, too simple: false. I would rather ignore the book, but its prominent display in important bookstores and university and public libraries makes that difficult.
The book assumes that race and homosexuality (blackness and gayness) are real categories, and draws part of its authority from the social and historical importance these subjects have been given by many people through the years, but the idea of race is as suspect as the idea of strict sexual orientations. Skin is not a significant emblem of existential being (despite hundreds of years of western racialism, and the 1930s Negritude movement in Africa, France, Haiti, and Martinique, and the 1960s/70s black arts movement in the United States). “The truth is that there are no races: there is nothing in the world that can do all we ask race to do for us,” wrote Kwame Anthony Appiah, having noted the population migrations that caused intermingling of the world’s people, and also the people who live on the margins of classification (and in the margins of the world’s attention) and who do not fit comfortably into the easily defined groupings ( In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, Oxford, 1992; 45). As Appiah writes, “Talk of ‘race’ is particularly distressing for those of us who take culture seriously. For, where race works—in places where ‘gross differences’ of morphology are correlated with ‘subtle differences’ of temperament, belief, and intention—it works as an attempt at metonym for culture, and it does so only at the price of biologizing what is culture, ideology” (45). (I take that use of the word ideology, here, in its broadest sense—not in terms of propaganda but in terms of systems of ideas, ideas influenced by social considerations: as culture also includes aesthetics, ethics, philosophy and affirmations of individuality and independence.) It is culture that must be examined—carefully, intelligently—for its aesthetic inventions, individual perceptions, and social ideas—and for the rituals and patterns it reveals; and culture must not be mistaken for biology or destiny. We create, live with, and work through culture as individuals. To be a human being is to be an individual.
“In categorical racism, all persons who are classified as members of a racial group are included in qualities that distinguish that group from others. Categorical racism covers every individual instance of the race, while bracketing the material, particular differences that identify individuals within the race. It invites categorical judgments about the individual members of the group. When these judgments are negative or pejorative, the group as a whole is rendered a pseudospecies,” wrote Princeton graduate and Vanderbilt Divinity School professor Victor Anderson in Beyond Ontological Blackness (Continuum, 1995; 77). Anderson counsels against both denigrating stereotypes and idolizing heroic genius as racial markers.
What Anderson writes in his book, Beyond Ontological Blackness, and what Appiah has written in his book In My Father’s House, are echoes of what Richard Wright said decades ago: “The word ‘race’ should—as long as it is current in our speech—actually always be obliged to be placed between quotation marks. Race is a social myth, not a biological fact,” Wright said ( Conversations with Richard Wright, edited by Keneth Kinnamon and Michel Fabre, for University Press of Mississippi, 1993; 155-156). Richard Wright wasn’t the only one to say it: others have said it before, as far back as the time of William E.B. DuBois, and others are saying it still: and many people refuse to listen. Just as culture is sometimes substituted for politics, economic status is used as evidence of cultural inclinations: yet, as Richard Wright said, “The Negro problem is, in fact, a social-economic problem, including all the psychological facts of such a problem” (157). However, if people are ill-equipped or uninterested in solving the social-economic problem encompassing social discrimination, employment practices, education, housing, health care, and political power, they look for distractions, substitutions.
Consider: E. Lynn Harris, the editor designated on the cover of Freedom in this Village. He is the writer of salacious and sentimental novels, books one can enjoy and forget, an oeuvre that—along with that of Terry McMillan—has introduced something simple and tawdry into African-American literature, which more often than not was a serious field. The work of Harris and McMillan, despite their successful commerce, cannot compare with the intellect and integrity of the work of African-American writers, and writers of the African diaspora, such as James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, David Bradley, William Demby, Ralph Ellison, Percival Everett, Zora Neale Hurston, Gayl Jones, Gloria Naylor, Wallace Thurman, Henry Van Dyke, and Richard Wright. This anthology, Freedom in this Village, which I suspect Harris did little more than lend his name and a piece of his fiction to, includes an excerpt from James Baldwin’s novel Just Above My Head, Joseph Beam’s essay “Brother to Brother: Words from the Heart,” an excerpt from Samuel Delany’s Flight from Neveryon, Isaac Jackson’s “Michael Stewart is Dead,” Essex Hemphill’s “The Tomb of Sorrow,” Randall Kenan’s “The Foundations of the Earth,” Darieck Scott’s “This City of Men,” Assotto Saint’s “Vital Signs,” Carl Phillips’s “Minotaur,” Thomas Glave’s “The Death and Light of Brian Williamson,” John Keene’s “Palimpsest,” and E. Lynn Harris’s own “What I Did for Love.” The people principally responsible for this scrapbook are Carroll & Graf’s in-house editor Donald Weise, its editor-in-chief Philip Turner, and permissions director Yulia Borodyanskaya; and it’s important to note that there are pieces published for which permission was not received (that bizarre admission occurs on 457-459). Carroll and Graf, with Weise, have apparently made it a mission to produce new and previously published texts on sexuality: they are colonizing a market, and do not care how they do it.
To compare the prose of Freedom in this Village’s introduction, credited to Harris, with Harris’s fiction writing is to see two different sensibilities at work, as the introduction has an historical imagination and narrative detail that Harris’s work usually lacks—making one think he has become a more conscientious writer or that there’s a ghost-writer (Weise?) at work.
It may be more profitable (artistically, intellectually) to start my commentary on the details of the anthology with James Baldwin, as an excerpt from one of his novels appears first, after the introduction, in the book. In an essay called “The Inner Life and the Social World in the Work of James Baldwin” that appeared onIdentityTheory.com in the early part of this decade, I wrote, “James Baldwin’s values were courage, fairness, honesty, compassion, the importance of knowing (humanity, reality), and tenderness; and he looked for ambiguity, complexity, and recognition of human pain in conversation, art, and politics, in the belief that these were not only intrinsically interesting but led to the possibility of wisdom, healing, and community.” I described Baldwin in a way that did not make his existence or his worth less than it was. James Baldwin, especially during his early life, had relationships with men and women, and many of his leading characters are bisexual, though most of Baldwin’s later relationships were with men. Baldwin described his alienation from the gay world in 1984 to Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice: “I feel remote from it. It is a phenomenon that came along much after I was formed. In some sense, I could not have afforded it. You see, I am not a member of anything” ( James Baldwin: The Legacy,edited by Quincy Troupe, Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1989; 175). The use of Baldwin’s work is an attempt to appropriate an important cultural and historical figure, to assert an authority—by association—such an anthology would otherwise not have, but reducing Baldwin to race, gender, and sexuality is to circumscribe Baldwin’s own authority and worth.
In his novel Just Above My Head, a novel about family, love, music, and politics, a work that no one thinks his best work, Baldwin presents a consensual relationship between two young African-American men, one of whom is under eighteen years of age: it is a genuinely loving relationship. It is an interesting relationship because sex is not primarily what has brought them together: the young men are part of the same community and sing together in a traveling group. In the Just Above My Head excerpt that is used in Freedom in this Village, there is a conversation between two brothers, with one talking about an early childhood experience (he was thirteen), in which a man asked him for a favor—to go to the store for him, but that is a ruse—and the man ended up, without the boy’s understanding or consent, performing oral sex on the boy. It is the confession of a long-ago sexual molestation from one brother, a singer, to another, who may act as his business manager: the man talking says how the experience disturbed him, before he says that he is telling this partly to prepare his brother for his life, which his brother will see once he begins to work with him more closely, a life that involves sex with men. If this excerpt is received as a “founding document” for black gay literature, or even for this anthology, what does it say? That an author who did not claim the gay community can be claimed by it? That sexual molestation is the doorway through which one enters a life of homosexuality? That art can be made to speak for politics, and that private matters can be made to speak for public concerns? That confusion can be endlessly mistaken for complexity?
“Those of us who are destined to be independent and to command must in return set ourselves our own texts—and set them at the proper time.”
—Nietzsche, “The Free Spirit” ( Beyond Good and Evil)
“We’re trapped in language, of course. But homosexual is not a noun. At least not in my book.”
—James Baldwin (to Richard Goldstein, James Baldwin: The Legacy )
“Each piece of work is its own idea, its own form, its own reality,” I wrote, in Winter/Spring 2000, in “Notes,” a piece on culture, politics, and life issues, a piece that appeared in the early part of this decade on the web site IdentityTheory.com.
Freedom in this Village includes poetry and prose, including fiction, analysis, and memoir. Genuine art and thought have their own life: is any of significance to be found in the collection? The anthology includes Sidney Brinkley’s sexual reverie, a prose piece called “Passion,” and Salih Michael Fisher’s poetic nostalgia, Joseph Beam’s hopeful, honest—and possibly tragic—affirmation of love between men, and Samuel Delany’s Flight from Neveryon excerpt, a fable in which a father brings his seventeen year-old son into the city for sexual initiation with a whore and the son chooses a man, not a woman. Delany has always been a highly idiosyncratic writer, and he has achieved authority as a result of a cosmopolitan and generative individuality, which is part of, or a result of, his intellect and imagination; and his work’s presence in this anthology will survive the association (he writes science fiction), while suggesting new avenues to other writers.
Freedom in this Village collects Isaac Jackson’s tribute to a young man killed by the police, Michael Stewart, and Reginald Shepherd’s essay “On Not Being White.” Shepherd states, “In order to choose or refuse to ‘be black,’ one must first have a concept of what it is to be black. None of those on offer seemed to fit…The language of culture and education was not among those all-too-available semblances of blackness” (51). It is recognition of a reality that subverts the assumptions on which the ideological appeal of the book rests. It is fascinating to have a text that raises questions that should lead to a more complicated discussion: and yet, its very appearance in such an anthology works to nullify its perceptions. Shepherd’s offering is an intimate, thoughtful and personal delineation of identity, critical of self and society, featuring an extensive review of negative imagery of blacks. He even wonders how much desire for a man is the desire to be that man—a speculation that to me speaks not merely of idealization but of a damaged self, a damaged self seeking substitution for wholeness in another, seeking distraction from its own injury.
Jerry Thompson’s poem about the erotic attraction of a thug is to be found in the anthology, as is Gil Gerard’s piece on political organization. Donald Woods’s poem of daily life, inertia, ambition, and small—sincere or insincere?—gestures of care, is here. In Vega’s poem of advice—promoting community—there is a plea for love and respect (having been hurt for one’s skin and sexuality, one goes to the similarly hurt for attention; and finds it or fails to find it: people, in their most profound moments, in the ability or inability to love, are individuals). David Frechette’s inventively poetic and satirical treatment of religious prejudice and assertion of his own happiness is followed by the ground-breaking poet Essex Hemphill’s predictable work, a poem that mixes sex, politics, and street life, a mix that once seemed provocative and now seems tired. Melvin Dixon, author of a wonderful novel, Trouble the Water, about family, pain, and healing, is here represented by the poem “Aunt Ida Pieces A Quilt,” in which local tradition commemorates personal loss and national catastrophe (and one personal gesture is rhymed with similar gestures of memory made all over the country, as a result of the mourning caused by the acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Marvin White’s half-mocking, half-serious quest for blackness is here. Whereas, geography (Africa, Europe), like culture (books, films, music), is real, blackness is an essence—an idea of a supposed reality, an invented trope; and White’s poem “For Colored Boys…” is noteworthy for exposing the inclination to see blackness as an essence, and funny in that in the poem it is an essence hard to grasp or hold. (Months ago, I wrote: “I do not believe in essences; I believe in change, choice, complexity, consciousness, and correction, though much of the world seems to prefer that character and existence be defined by certain common categories, such as age, appearances, attitude, class, gender, race, religion, and politics. Whether what one believes is substantiated by evidence and logic—and can be called then a fact or truth—is another matter; and even then, it may be difficult to know what has actually moved a man or woman to act.” I wrote that in the midst of discussing Hotel Rwanda, Shakespeare, Godard, and Susan Sontag in “Human Conflict,” Offscreen.com, February 2005.)
In Freedom in this Village, Craig Harris’s memoir is a remarkable document: he writes of his life, work, and concern for a woman acquaintance in a difficult financial situation and of his handling of his own dire personal health issues while the first American war in the middle eastern gulf is underway. The memoir’s clarity is respectable and chilling, its humor amusing and brave, its intelligence significant, its honesty a challenge, and consequently its pride is a fact, not merely an assertion. Craig Harris writes about his resources and skills and some of his and his former lover’s weaknesses—fear of intimacy, lack of commitment, poor communication—that derailed their relationship. He writes about his struggle with acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It is a large portrait of the last years of a life; and it is a small portrait of American society at the end of the twentieth century.
Marlon Riggs’s clichéd rhetorical plays—such as using effeminacy as both a humorous device and a subject to be analyzed—attempts a social criticism that I do not find effective. He forfeits potential authority. Don Charles’s sweet and simple (and possibly simple-minded) conflation of brown skin with an old blanket, a maplewood table, and gingerbread, attempts a vision of home that is of a quality that might cause gagging.
I liked Randall Kenan’s first novel, though others I knew thought it too experimental, hard to understand, and there’s some of his prose here—and it seems careful and clear, as he tells a story of country life, love, and death. Fiction by other writers is here too, providing the chance for contemplating and imagining other lives, rising and falling with the writers’ talents and inclination toward explicit sexual congress or blunt provoking of emotion: work by Robert Penn, Larry Duplechan, Steve Corbin, and Darieck Scott among them. Scott is an extraordinary and promising writer. What will be interesting to see is whether these writers, the better writers (Kenan and Scott), allow themselves to be defeated by easy questions and easy answers. Cary Alan Johnson’s poem “Post-Nuclear Slut” is here and the title suggests its attitude and theme, and present is Cyrus Cassells’s more subtle “A Courtesy, A Trenchant Grace,” and both poems are interspersed with prose. (The book moves from one form to another.) There are also poems by playwright and poet Assotto Saint, and Forrest Hamer, G. Winston James, Cy Jones, Tim West, and the distinguished poet Carl Phillips.
Writer Don Belton’s conversation with Essex Hemphill and filmmaker Isaac Julien covers the haunting trouble of childhood wounds, and the desire to do better (“Our masculinity must encompass diversity and nuance,” says Hemphill; 245). One notices again and again the plan to become a better person or to create a better world: dreams, not reality; and now Hemphill, like Melvin Dixon, David Frechette, Craig Harris, and Donald Woods, among others, is dead. What authority can texts centered on unfulfilled ideals have? James Earl Hardy’s characteristic work (slangy, vulgar) is here, as is Gary Fisher’s exploration of sadomasochistic sex, and Bil (yes, Bil) Wright’s chatty neighborhood scenes, with their references to entertainment and death, and there’s work by Donald Keith Jackson and Brian Keith Jackson.
Robert Reid-Pharr, a professor, writes in his piece on personal and intellectual evolution: “‘Stop acting like a sissy,’ my father would bark at me, his eyes fixated on my limp wrist as I crossed the street from the school bus”: apparently, sometimes, clichés bear relationship to reality, but his piece is interesting for its formal movements between past and present, life and literature. It doesn’t reveal much that’s new but it is better reading than L.M. Ross’ piece on wanton sex and sad death, or Keith Boykin’s intelligent, well-intentioned, and somewhat dull refutations of the “down low” (hidden bisexuality and homosexuality) milieu. Thomas Glave, a gifted fiction writer and essayist, adds—after a murder in Jamaica—his own ideological urgencies to the mix. John Keene’s “Palimpsest” has a mystique—for his close attention to aesthetic and erotic feeling, and for sophisticated literary references, and is followed by prose by James Hannaham, Randy Boyd, Bruce Morrow, and E. Lynn Harris. Harris’s fiction makes one wonder how he can stand in judgment of other writers, how he can be a gatekeeper for any anthology: what, other than sales, is the root of his authority? Has he misused his authority by lending his name to the book?
There is one piece in the book I know should not have been published: permission was neither sought nor granted, and when the book first appeared in the stores the writer, someone I knew well in his youth, but with whom I am only distantly related today, wrote the publisher to say he did not want his work included or circulated in the book. He explained that he had only briefly been involved in the so-called black gay community, for a few months over the period of about three years, and that his essay had been written while involved in a journal project, from which he resigned, and that though he allowed the publication of his piece in the original journal, he maintained the copyright for it, as the journal copyright page stated (the publication of the original journal included a note about his resignation, which also puts the essay in perspective: Carroll & Graf dropped that note—giving the piece a falsely uncomplicated authority). It is another fact that calls into question whether or not this book has or can have genuine authority.
The book Freedom in this Village is made up of pieces written in different places and times. Many of its writers affirm forms of identity—regarding race and sexuality—that have been discredited as purely imaginary, so that reading their work is like taking seriously the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or where one can find the flat edge of the earth. Other writers included pursue or present experiences—promiscuous, sadomasochistic, for example—that call into question the use of reason or judgment. Some of the work is weak in craft, thought, and imagination. Does the book, as a whole, have any but a commercial value? That is for the reader to decide: and this reader says, Some individual pieces have merit but that does not corroborate the purpose of the book—to affirm a racial and sexual identity: meaning is made when human complexity, beyond social categories, is cultivated. Freedom in this Village cannot be a final authority on racial or sexual identity or anything else. However, I imagine that lies will be sold as truths for a long time to come. I recall that Nietzsche wrote—in “Epigrams and Interludes,” Beyond Good and Evil (Oxford, 1998; 72)—that, “Ultimately, it is desire, not the desired, that we love.”
About the author: Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana, is a longtime New York resident (“I love it and hate it: it intellectually refreshes me and spiritually exhausts me”). Garrett wrote in Fall/Winter 2005 a study of icons, ideas, and images that appeared on the web pages of the online film magazine Offscreen in early (February) 2006. A range of his commentary on books, film, and music—on Nietzsche and Baldwin, on Brando and Denzel Washington and Resnais’s Night and Fog, and on Sinead O’Connor and the Isley Brothers—has appeared on the web pages of TheCompulsiveReader.com.