Charles Stephens & Steven G. Fullwood: A Conversation on Joseph Beam and ‘In the Life’
Author: Steven G. Fullwood
December 29, 2012
Our forthcoming anthology Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call (Vintage Entity Press) was born out of a series of conversations, panel discussions, debates, and dinners with friends, colleagues and comrades over the years, assessing the impact and legacy of Joseph Beam and the writers of the In the Life generation. We wanted to bring that dazzling history of the black gay arts movement of the 1980s front and center to contemporary black gay life. Black Gay Genius consists of a series of writers, scholars, and activists responding to In the Life and the influence of Joseph Beam.
We wanted to create a text to celebrate with those that remember and know, and introduce to the ones that don’t, this important literary legacy. This dialogue was an opportunity for us, the editors of the anthology Black Gay Genius, to describe the process and development of Black Gay Genius.
Stephens: I started reading Baldwin when I was 12, and found so much in Just Above My Head. Then as a teenager I became obsessed with the Harlem Renaissance. E. Lynn Harris was pervasive at the time. Everyone seemed to be reading him or at least had an opinion about his work. But the type of black gay experience Harris put forth, though entertaining and affirming in some ways, and definitely significant, was far from the way I hoped to exist in the world. Then, when I was about 18, and started being more politicized around my sexual identity. I also became very lonely. I had friends certainly, and there were people around me, other gay men, but there was not the kind of intimacy I longed for, the kind of intimacy you can only experience with those who share your ideas and worldview. In the midst of all of this, I discovered this great interview Barbara Smith gave. I want to say it was in Venus magazine. Smith pointed me, not just to Joseph Beam, but to Audre Lorde, and Marlon Riggs, and Essex Hemphill. As these things happen, as I read, I also came across Pat Parker, June Jordan and Isaac Julien. Then others. These figures would serve as inspirations for me, even to this day. They were giants. Still are.
I lacked the language to describe what I was longing for, and perhaps in a sense Beam, and his stunning vision of community, provided that language for me. I absorbed his words, and found a home in them. In the Life became a compass for me, to first locate myself, and then others that shared my commitments.
Fullwood: As a teenager in Toledo in the 80s, my thirst for words to describe what I thought I was–or at least becoming–ravaged me. The library, like it is for most outliers, became my sanctuary. I regularly (and quietly) perused the shelves for anything black and homosexual because back then with the exception of Baldwin these were two distinct subjects. Then in 1988 a friend of mine went to the public library in Cleveland, and discovered In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, edited by Joseph Beam, a book that anticipated my future as an editor and an archivist. She made photocopies of essays and poems and gave them to me. My heart raced. Writings by several self identified black gay men. I read those pages with nuclear bombs going off in my head. Coming out stories. Sexual encounters. Homophobia. HIV/AIDS. Romance. Political activism. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Something in me took root and wanted to flourish. So I did. And when it comes to black queer culture and history, my experience at the Schomburg Center has been overwhelmingly affirmative. It’s the largest repository of black culture in the world, and it is the first repository to actively collect black queer materials. Not simply books or magazines, but personal papers and organizational records, photographs, audiovisual materials, and the like. It is a phenomenal place to work. Schomburg houses the papers of author, poet, translator and professor Melvin Dixon (Vanishing Rooms); poet, editor, publisher and activist Assotto Saint, (The Road Before Us: One Hundred Black Gay Poets); and, of central significance to me, Joseph Beam. In less than a decade I went from carrying around wrinkled photocopied pages of In the Life to having access to Beam’s papers containing original submissions to the book, drafts of the manuscript and correspondence with writers such as Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde, inspirations for Beam and scores of other black queer people. Reading what Joe read and considering his process of taking an idea to publication resonated with me. Through that seminal publication, he turned a light on in my head as an archivist.
Stephens: I’m also very interested in Joe Beam’s persona. When I thought about Joseph Beam, I thought about In the Life, and when I thought about the book, I thought about Joe. In my mind, he and the book were one and the same. In one of his letters to Essex Hemphill, he talks about his anxiety about only being valued for his work, but not himself as a person.
Leadership can be dehumanizing. If you aren’t clear, and adamant, you might become reduced to your ideas. And in a way I suppose I was reinforcing that by not thinking about Joseph Beam outside the persona he crafted through In the Life, and as this man of letters.
Later, I would meet others that knew Beam personally, and I would read Joe’s words much more deliberately. And what I found, which still is unsettling to me, is how often I’ve heard people describe Joe as very serious, or angry. I can’t help but wonder, if what we might have perceived as anger was really a kind of urgency. Urgency because he had so much to say, so much to get out in the world, and so it probably came out in bursts. I also think he wanted to be whole, and perhaps, in the persona he cultivated, that was not available to him. Maybe even as this fully realized black gay man, he still felt like he was in a kind of prison, which speaks to his loneliness.
I now think of him as being vulnerable. He, and certainly others, were perhaps of this generation of black gay men, and certainly the black queer women that influenced them, that carried this work and the movement on their shoulders. Maybe he and his peers felt that they had to be very serious and they had to seem very strong because “we” needed fierce leaders to liberate us.
Fullwood: I’m glad you talked about Joe as a person. Joe as a person continues to swirl in my head from the time I saw his fine-ass on the back of the first edition of In the Life (1986) and on the cover of the RedBone Press reprint (2008). Joe as a serious man. Joe as a sexually, desirable man. But ultimately Joe, the man, forever inaccessible. You read “Brother to Brother: Words From the Heart,” right? That essay added other dimensions: vulnerability, loneliness, a wanting to be seen, recognized, and acknowledged. And his rage, so much rage. But damn, it felt good to read his rage. Necessary, really or I would have imploded. Over the years, like you I started meeting people who knew him. You knew Joe Beam? There was no way for them to understand my underfed, malnourished Negro homo-self, and how Joe was a hero to me—a word I don’t use much. When I discovered his papers—his words pre-and post In the Life in letters, diary entries and other writing—I saw more of him. I’ve been carrying around photocopies of his writings and letters in prep for this project, and two things have become apparent: one, Joe seemed to be very sensitive, loving and had a good sense of who he was; and two, he’ll always haunt me and reveal different parts of his life to me as I grow. It’s a pleasant haunting, really.
Stephens: I used to romanticize activism, but there are consequences, emotional consequences that I see so much more clearly now, and perhaps even played out for Beam. I believe that the inspiration for In the Life might have come from many places, but I wonder if loneliness was part of the motivation. One of the lines from his letters to Essex Hemphill that haunts me the most, is when right before In the Life comes out, he shares his sadness at being this very well-known black gay man, idolized, but not dealt with. This is not unique to Joseph Beam, since loneliness can be an occupational hazard for any of those that dare dissent.
Fullwood: Joe strikes me as haunted, walking wounded like many bright people I know who envision and seek Nirvana but are stuck here, slouching in Babylon with the rest of us. The difference between Joe and Joe Normal is that he had art and ways to express his anger, as well as his joy, pain, and other emotions. Someone told me recently that anger is a healthy response to injustice. Living in anger though, well, that’s a whole ‘nother something. It can consume you, break you down, distort and limit your vision of what’s possible. Activism is a lifelong job. Things do not happen in a decade, and thinking so disempowers people. And if we can’t take it from there, there is no hope. Black gay men, like anybody, could be as wonderful or as treacherous as anyone else. The idea that there are communities of homo men waiting for me is complicated. In some ways it is true for me: I have great friendships and solid networks. But when I expected, craved it so badly, it hurt… it was a betrayal. How could you, who are like me, cut me so deeply? But that with that understood, Beam’s work is a love project, and it hardly failed because love can’t fail. In the Life is a work in-progress revealing our starvation and naked impatience. Think of trying to break up concrete with your fingertips sincerely believing that it’s going to be easy when for so long you had no fingers. Love is extremely hard work and even harder given the context in which men who love other men are born and bred, it is considerably more complicated and at times lethal. Joe’s work appears to be limited by what some folks call “the moment.” Some also say that he was naïve for embracing what they felt were the worst aspects of Black Nationalism’s “Black is beautiful.” I wholeheartedly invite critics to rinse and widen their lenses, to step back a bit and consider that moment two decades before and after that book arrived on the shelves. Two decades before I was born in a decade searching for meaning in a Post-Civil-Rights moment. Black Power Movement and the Black Arts Movement were gaining traction and was often rendered monolithic and a waste of time. But how could a self-love project be a waste of time? I am often reminded that the discredited have no right to love or be loved without permission, and certainly not the discredited of the discredited. Joe wisely aligned himself with black lesbian feminists like Lorde and Smith who not only had a literary tradition but were thoughtful, engaged and radical, and who knew their worth, much of what one needed to fight the good LONG fight. Utopia might have to wait a moment while we get a handle on what we say we want vs. what we seem to be ending up with.
Charles Stephens has most recently contributed to the anthology For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Still Not Enough: Coming of Age, Coming Out, and Coming Home and is co-editing the anthology Black Gay Genius about the legacy of Joseph Beam. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesStephen2.
Steven G. Fullwood works as an archivist at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. He founded the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive in 1999 to aid in the preservation of black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, same-gender loving, queer, questioning and in the life history and culture. Steven is co-editor of two anthologies, Think Again (with Colin Robinson) and To Be Left With the Body (with Cheryl Clarke). Both publications were produced by AIDS Project Los Angeles. His articles, essays, poems and criticism have appeared in Black Issues Book Review, Lambda Book Report, Vibe, Library Journal, and other publications.