On this past Friday afternoon, I made my usual bi-weekly trip to my barber to get my little bit of hair I have left trimmed, my beard straightened out and spend a little time talking with my barber. I was lucky because when I strolled into the shop, he was busy eating a fish sandwich from Mama T’s Restaurant from down the street. I knew I was next and the three men sitting around talking were waiting for the other barber in the shop.
The Barbershop is a contemporary edifice of my culture; a place where Black men have for decades found their way inside, all over this country on weekends in order to talk their talk, free of the influence or intimidation of white folks. I sometimes thought that if someone could just record the conversations that take place in those shops, it would become a best seller. Every topic possible is discussed in the barbershop. In fact, some folks just show up on Fridays and Saturdays to participate in the bantering back and forth.
Once my barber finished his fish sandwich, he waved me over to his chair and just as I settled in, a man strolled into the shop and began a conversation on homosexuality. Evidently, he was a minister and felt compelled to explain to all of us in the shop that homosexuality is “an abomination against God.” He stressed that it is not just a sin but an abomination. A number of “Amens” resonated throughout the shop. One other man, who had been sitting quietly reading what I believe was a Bible, jumped to his feet and echoed the first man’s assertion. Another man, who claimed to be a minister, remained seated but joined in the conversation. He informed us that God created “Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve.”
After this kind of attack went on for about five minutes with everyone in there agreeing with the ministers, my barber leaned down and said, “Brother Williams you awfully quiet. You don’t agree with the minister’s condemnation of homosexuality?” I should have told him, “no I don’t agree with this very bigoted condemnation of one’s preferred choice of how they live their life.”
Because, in order to condemn homosexuality, I would also have to condemn some of the greatest and brightest minds throughout the years within the Black community. Men and women who have offered their best in the service of the race. I would have to condemn Wallace Thurman, one of the brightest and most progressive explorers of the literary genius of Black writers during the Harlem Renaissance. Mae Gwendolyn Henderson, Thurman’s biographer wrote that, “It was perhaps his ‘erotic, bohemian’ lifestyle as much as his literary creation that made him one of the most fascinating and seductive of the Renaissance itself.” Arna Bontempts, one of the historians of the period, described him in the following manner, “He was like a flame which burned so intensely, it could not last for long, but quickly consumed itself.” Undoubtedly, without Thurman that Renaissance Period would have lost some of its vigor and glamor.
Because, in order to condemn homosexuality, I would have to condemn the literary spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement, James Baldwin. As a novelist, essayist, and social critic, he became a leading voice of the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement. Initially, as a young man he moved from Harlem, New York to Paris, France, in order to escape American racism and the stigma he faced as a gay man in his own community (much like the bigots in the barbershop). He wrote the definitive explanation for the movement with his outstanding book of essays, Fires Next time. Fires was published in 1963 just as Eugene Bull Connors, the Police Commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama, was turning the dogs loose on Black people and where four little girls were killed after an explosion at the Sixteenth Baptist Church from dynamite planted by the Ku Klux Klan. He took racist to task with his famous quote from the old Negro Spiritual, “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time.”
Because, in order to condemn lesbianism, I would have to condemn one of this country’s finest playwrights, Lorraine Hansberry. Her famous play, Raisin in the Sun, was the first written by a Black and performed on Broadway. At age 29, she won the New York’s Drama Critic’s Circle Award making her the first Black playwright, the fifth woman and the youngest to do so. She was truly a credit to the race. However, throughout her life, she was involved in a personal search for her sexual freedom as she dated women and was an active member of the country’s initial lesbian political organization, Daughters of Bilitis. In a letter to the editor of the Lesbian publication, Ladder, she wrote, “I think it is about time that women began to take on some of the ethical questions which a male dominated culture has produced. There may be women to emerge who will be able to formulate a new and possible concept that homosexuality persecution and condemnation has at its roots not only in social ignorance, but a philosophically active anti-feminist dogma.”
Because, in order to condemn lesbianism, I would have to condemn the first Southern Black woman elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction and to the United States House of Representatives, Barbara Jordan. There have been very few members of that distinguished body that had the impact that she did, in such a short period of time she served. On July 25, 1974, she delivered a fifteen-minute televised speech in front of the members of the United States House Judiciary Committee supporting the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. She became the first Black woman to deliver a Keynote Address at the Democratic National Convention in 1976 and again in 1992. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Finally, in order to condemn homosexuality, I would have to condemn the organizational genius, the Guru of the non-violent civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin, the man who was the mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There is no one person that dedicated their entire life to the improvement of the condition of Blacks in this country more than Rustin. He went to Montgomery, Alabama in February 1956, right after the bus boycott was under way, and taught King and the followers the Gandhian tactic of non-violent social protest. After the success of the boycott, he laid out the organizational structure for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was the person King wanted to be its director, but bigoted ministers blocked that appointment. They did so after he spent months developing the concept for implementation. Finally, he organized the two major marches on Washington, D. C. the Prayer Pilgrimage March in 1957, that brought King out of the South and made him the recognized leader of the Civil Rights Movement. It was at that pilgrimage that King developed his first nationally recognized speech, “Give Us the Vote.” Finally, Rustin was the one person who did more to organize the famous “1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” than any other individual. King’s name is associated with the success of that march because of his “I have a dream” speech, but the real credit belongs to Rustin.
Because of the work that these men and women did to improve the condition of Black people over the decades, I could not join in the attack on homosexuals and lesbians, the bigots in the barbershop conducted. And even if these great people hadn’t provided me with a reason to reject bigotry, I still would not have joined in the condemnation because I take to heart Dr. King’s famous assertion that an individual should be judged by the “content of their character.” Certainly, Black America has been honored with some very great men and women with excellent credentials and are not “abominations.” That term best fits those bigots who viciously attacked them in the barbershop, and any place in this country that homophobia exists.