NYC: City Of Love And Hate
â€œDuring the â€˜Negro Renaissanceâ€™ of the 1920â€™s, when Bruce first emerged on the scene, one saw a non-clandestine interaction between blacks and whites, straights and gays, of a kind that had never happened before. What made people then, proud to break the taboo of sexual experimentation and 'race mixing', was how it identified them as defiant, modern and progressive.â€
[Notes From The Frontline]
When last we met, restaurateur Jean-Claude Baker, of Chez Josephine on 43rd Street, had just called for calvados!
You’d be perfectly reasonable to imagine that, was that; the end. This only proves though, that you don’t know Jean-Claude, who’s spirit of joie de vie is such, that he was determined that our revelries continue.
For another 15 minutes, we discussed the forth coming-Gay Pride Parade and the book I’m writing about gay history in Harlem.
A big part of what we said, concerned how different it is for gay people in modern Harlem; how before there were a dozen or more gay bars, where now, there are none.
Once upon a time, even much of ordinary Harlem was entranced by the exoticism, of seasonal, semi-public, openly gay spectaculars, such as Phil Black’s Thanksgiving Costume Ball. It featured male and female-impersonation, as did the Apollo Theatre’s Jewel Box Review.
In the past, as today, many Harlem clergy, notwithstanding the secret homosexuality of prominent members and fellow preachers, were less sanguine. “All the same”, insisted a matter of fact Jean-Claude, “they knew that many of the community’s greatest celebrities were gay too. The great, Langston Hughes, poet, Countee Cullen, writer, Claude Mc Kay, activist, Bayard Rustin, novelist, Dorothy West, photographer, Marvin Smith, artist, Richmond Barthe and composer, Billy Strayhorn, they were each gay and unusually, for the time, largely, unashamed.”
“More circumspect”, he states, were some of Black Broadway and Hollywood’s biggest stars. “Like Josephine, they were not truly gay, but always seeking the reassurance and comfort of adulation, so, eagerly accepting sexual pleasures and satisfaction from unlikely sources, of their own sex!”
Following his provocative history lesson, next, Monsieur Baker introduced us to Stefan and Philip, a jolly bohemian white couple, dressed in Black. They have been together for 35 years. “We’re going to the Brown Girls Burlesque ”, beamed the taller of the 2, who’s black calling card announces him as, “TSAR STEFAN, Kabarett Savant"
"Good”, said Jean-Claude, pointing to us, ordering, in his Gallic accented English, “take them with you”!
The Zipper Factory, our destination, is just a few blocks south of the restaurant. Dimly lighted by flickering candles, colored lanterns and Christmas tree lights, furnished with mid-Century-vernacular sofas and old car seats, it’s imbued with a strong atmosphere, that’s decidedly demi-monde.
More than anything else, it reminds one of the raffish nightspots of old Harlem. Like those that encouraged Black as well as White patronage, so called “ black and tan clubs”, including, Small’s Paradise or the tiny, Hot Cha, it boast a clientele that’s cosmopolitan in every way.
“This was a big part of what gave rise to Harlem’s legend ”, stresses historian, Thomas Wirth. Literary executor of Black writer Richard Bruce Nugent, who’s collected essays and novel, Gentleman Jigger, he edited; Wirth is white. His comments concerning whites and Harlem’s cultural history as a consequence, are quite interesting.
“During the ‘Negro Renaissance’ of the 1920’s, when Bruce first emerged on the scene, one saw a non-clandestine interaction between Blacks and Whites, straights and gays, of a kind that had never happened before. What made people then, proud to break the taboo of sexual experimentation and 'race mixing', was how it identified them as defiant, modern and progressive.”
Except for us, the Zipper Factory crowd was overwhelmingly young. Both Black and White, it was about 2-thirds straight. Naturally, a few Asians, a smattering of Latinos and the inevitable representation of Europeans, added to the mix.
Beyond the cozy bar, front and center, in the lofty theatre, drink in hand, I’m delighted to find a goody-bag of chocolates and shiny beads on my seat. “If you’ve never seen them, you’re in for something really incredible”, whispers the 30-ish, straight, white lawyer on my left.
As a gay New Yorker I’ve certainly seen my share of drag-shows. I’ve met several trans-sexuals too. So it shames me confessing how even sophisticated ‘moi’, felt a certain sense of discomfort the other night, caused by confronting so much hyper-ambiguity.
Men loving men, women loving women, or even heterosexuality, that’s simple, right? Like most, I admire women with a curvy bosom. I’m also quite fond of willowy men. But as for, super tall women, (who were once men), with large, bared, breast and falsetto voices, that can be a bit un-nerving. It’s the kind of ill-ease, I imagine, some straight friends feel about me and others who are gay.
Worse still, it’s completely hypocritical. For, if it’s a burden to be Black in a world dominated by Whites; or gay, when you’re outnumbered by people, who mostly look down on you: what then, must it be like, knowing you’re really a woman, but trapped in an alien body?
If these other realizations, of who you are can lead to a lowered sense of worth, what must understanding, entailing a drastic change, to realize who you truly are, contribute to self-loathing?
The bottom line is, that as lovely as the performers were, I felt sure these girls had all once been boys. Mistress of ceremonies, Miss Aurora Boob Realis, forthrightly poked fun at her own, “transformation”, rejoicing about being liberated from the “hell” of, once compulsory, Brooks Brothers-drag. Acknowledging “a few lesbians”, otherwise, management professed, “our girls, are all girls.”
Why? Why, in the devil should it have mattered to me?
If the conversation reaches an uncomfortable lull, sometimes, I’ll ask, in as dead-pan a voice as I can, “given a choice, for a week, would you be willing to switch genders, just to learn what it’s like?” Invariably, women, irrespective of age, race or class, respond right away, with a wholehearted, “yes!”
Most men , however, are resolute! Gay or straight, they insist that, under no circumstances, for however brief a time, would they be willing to, “diminish themselves”, as a woman.
I’m not sure as to what percentage, but, as it turned out, only some of the showgirls at the Brown Girls Burlesque were trans-sexual after all. This fact hit home when , the most voluptuous and nearly-naked of the group exclaimed cheerily, "Hi! Remember me? I’m Nucomme, I was at your apartment, for your birthday party?”
Well, here we are, all of us, the same, but different and hungering for acceptance. Late last year, for example, I told a friend emphatically, “ don‘t move way out there, to Brooklyn, not you? You will not like it!”
She’s slender, smart, successful and White; but there are plenty of black people like her too---people who, no matter what, just won’t listen. Approaching a cliff, they run, head-long, irresistibly, simply, because you’ve pleaded, “stop!”
She wrote me, “how are you doing?” On Jun 8, 2008, at 5:40 PM.
firstname.lastname@example.org wrote: “ Fine thanks, how’s your new home?”
Her reply was more than the social quip I’d counted on, which only indicates how long we’ve been out of touch.
In five loaded paragraphs she gushed about, “wonderful young kids, it’s close to train, looking outside my window at a bit of green, being in Brooklyn near some great restaurants, ample parking, the fun challenge of fixing up a new place…”
“But”, at length she lamented, “there are a few things that are really bumming me out. there's a lot of litter on the block and when I said something to a woman who threw her trash…she told me this is a Black neighborhood...there was another incident where a guy was playing loud music from his car…It was 8am and I was sleeping and his car was directly outside my open window (hot day). He was cool and turned it down but this other woman said ...'He doesn't need to turn his music down. You couldn't play music loud where you used to live but here we can.'"
My friend then related a litany of complaints about, the intricacies of racial tensions on her block. She feels that perhaps, she’s merely seen as a conspicuous surrogate; a White target, for all her new neighbor’s, ripe and festering frustrations?
“...I don't want to be hated because of my skin color. I'm just trying to have something for when I can’t work…It's so depressing. I keep thinking I want to gather people together and talk about the tensions. Any advice?
…Maybe if we got to chatting the "tension" would dissolve?…I want to say, but hey I have so many Black and Latin friends…I miss sweet, sweet Tina…of course you too… and you'll probably say 'I told you so.'"
You know it! I was, so, so tempted to say, as if I were addressing some 5-year old, I’d cautioned to keep away from a lighted stove-burner: “Well, you refused to listen, didn’t you? And now, you’ve burned your little finger”
It would also have been momentarily satisfying, to reveal this secret fantasy that many Blacks have. It goes, now wouldn’t it just be marvelous, if White people, some how, could be Black, just for a week, to see what it’s like, to experience the rage and inconvenience, of being hated, for the color of one’s skin?
Instead, since I really am food of her, and I only type using one finger, I wrote: “Call 311 about trash and noise, anonymously! It’s nothing worth getting cursed out or shot about. You, nor I can change the world. The ways of the world mean that, for whatever reason, some people will always hate us. We can only help to change the world. Taking the trouble to be good neighbors, to meet, greet and show an interest in others, many will at least tolerate us. Because of who and what we are, a few will come to like us and fewer still will love us too, before we die. ”
Hate, it’s such a deadly corrosive and insidious agent. No more is this so, than when we direct it, most paradoxically, at ourselves.
“I never before felt any resentment towards me because I was White,” my Brooklyn friend wrote of her old neighborhood. She and her boyfriend used to live not far from me, on Strivers Row.
When she’d given her consent for publication of excerpts from her e-mail, I shared it with mutual friends, her former next-door neighbors.
Bachelor brothers, the older is divorced, light-skinned, Howard and Harvard educated; one is 75 and the other 40. They’ve occupied their family’s stately townhouse, designed by Stanford White, nearly 60 years. Cultivated, refined taste, all in all, they are the most wasp-y Black people you’ll ever meet.
Each, readily admits to having experienced the bias of racism. Concerning Barack Oboma or Tiger Woods, they’re ever quick to point out, slight after slight. They’ve positively grown to loath, both Clintons. Yet, listening to them, one feels, the only people they could possibly hold in higher contempt, are poor Blacks and Latinos.
From their position as privileged gentlemen, both subscribe to all the usual recriminations, criticisms made popular by Bill Cosby.
Frequently speaking simultaneously, even beginning and completing each other‘s sentences, the brothers are unequivocal, ‘“They", poor people of color, are, willfully lazy, unwilling to work, or learn, and refuse to keep up the places where "they live.”
Says one: “What really kills me is, they, are ridiculous, figures of fun, naming their, too often, illegitimate offspring, Chardonnay, Aliz`e or Hakim. Why didn't they buy here, when prices were low, as we did?”
Their denunciations are all but hissed, with un-genteel fury.
Still, I dare to raise mitigating issues such as red-lining, chronic unemployment and under-employment, wage disparity, and public schools, bad enough generations ago, so that their parents had them educated expensively at private schools, but far worse now.
“Bullshit! Those are all just excuses!”, retorts brother number 2, quickly rejoined by his sibling’s own fierce, equally inelegant, “Bullshit, all they ever do is avoid work and make excuses!”.
Wasn’t Jesus, unemployed and poor? How and why do otherwise intelligent people, take so unrelenting, unforgiving, unfeelingly harsh a tone, without empathy, towards people like themselves?
Sylvia Waters, remember, my neighbor, the director of Ailey II, she of all people provided part of the answer for me. “Such people”, she said with not a little contempt of her own, “feel certain that they are different, that they,'re better.
Just last night, I was on the One Train. A nice looking young man, of Dominican ancestry, well dressed, with a Tank watch, legs spread akimbo, was occupying 3 seats! It was rush hour, I was tired, from work. So, probably, was he. Politely, in a soft voice I requested he move over. And, he ignored me!
I tried again, I asked more firmly. I could hardly fit in the little spec of space he reluctantly relinquished. But, I kept cool; I was prepared to forget all about it. Except, then, loudly enough, so that I‘d be sure to hear, he said something very nasty to his friend!
“You see? That’s why I hate… ”, he used a Spanglish term, one I’m unfamiliar with, but, in context, it must mean the same thing as the N-word, because she responded: “Really, well what about your own heritage, that’s a part of who you are too! Right?”
Here, in spite of her anger, Sylvia starts to laugh continuing the story, but it’s definitely, a bitterly ironic laugh.
“Sure, you're right about that. Only, me, I only got a little bit of ‘it’”, pronounced the unrepentant youth.
“Man”, remarks noted social commentator, Stanley Crouch, “ there ain’t nothing else like our folks of color, who are full of themselves. You see, it’s like this, there’s not an African-American alive, who somewhere or another, hasn’t got some no-count, good-for-nothing relative who’s either broke or in prison.
Blacks, whoever we are, we have a much shorter distance to fall back to earth, to the poverty and despair we started from. That’s why, those folks you’re talking about, the educated ones, with visible white forbearers, man, those poor suckers, I feel sorry for them. No matter what they have or accomplish, they are scared to death of becoming like the very people they despise. Like whites hating Blacks or straights hating gays, they have to hate 'those damned incalcitrant poor people', just to prove they’re superior.”
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It was sexy to be against the war back then. He was probably in it to get laid.
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