The Roasting of Philip Pannell

Philip Pannell
Philip Pannell at GLAA's
25th Anniversary Reception
(photo by Brian Mahoney)

On Friday evening, October 25, 1996, a fundraiser for Black Lesbian and Gay Pride Day, Inc. was held at the Days Inn on New York Avenue, NE. It took the form of a "roast" of long-time black gay activist Philip Pannell, and featured remarks by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Mayor Marion Barry, DC Council candidate Carol Schwartz, School Board member Linda Moody, Umoja Party chairman (and DC Council candidate) Mark Thompson, activists Wanda Alston, Ernest Hopkins, Franklin Kameny, and others. Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas presented a proclamation in Pannell's honor. The evening was emceed by local actor Michael Sainte-Andress. GLAA President Rick Rosendall was the final roaster on the program, which lasted until 12:30 am.

Remarks by Richard J. Rosendall

Good evening. I'd like to thank Carlene Cheatam for bringing us together this evening, and thank you all for lasting to the bitter end.

There were three people here tonight who have received a perfect rating of +10 from GLAA. The very first was Marion Barry. The most recent is Eleanor Holmes Norton, whom we gave an honorary 10 for being our great champion on Capitol Hill. The third is our guest of honor, Mr. Pannell. When he ran for school board a few years back, he gave us such a perfect questionnaire and such a long résumé that we wanted to give him more than a 10. Since then, Phil has also won GLAA's Community Service Award.

We've all formed a variety of coalitions over the years on everything from domestic partnership to condom availability. Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock says that if you're doing coalition work and it's easy, you're not doing coalition work. And we have had our ups and downs, but we stick with it, and we support one another. I am a dues paying member of the DC Coalition of Black Lesbians, Gay Men, Bisexuals, Transgenders, and Those Who Enjoy the Virtues of Intra-Gender Affection, Inc. — When the Rainbow Is Enuf. [See Footnote 1]  I was inspired to join by Carlene. She was once actually a member — and I am not making this up — of Black and White Men Together, and I decided that if she was man enough to be a member of BWMT, I was black enough to be a member of the DC Coalition.

I just got word that Jim Graham [See Footnote 2] wanted to be here with us, but he had to deliver a shipment of Kemron to the Abundant Life Clinic. For those of you who have been living under a rock, Kemron is an alleged AIDS medication based on alpha interferon, developed in Nairobi by Dr. Davey Koech. I know this from studying tapes by Dr. Abdul Alim Muhammad, Minister of Health for the Nation of Islam. [See Footnote 3] I bought the tapes from a nice lady named Sister Yvette X at a bookstore on Georgia Avenue.

Dr. Muhammad, as a matter of fact, was on the Mayor's transition team. Renewal is the order of the day. The Mayor says that, when DC residents call the government, "70 percent of the time, you're going to get a courteous person on the phone." As it happens, I attended the Million Man March last year and I was fascinated by the keynote speaker, so in a spirit of atonement for all the nasty things I've said about the DC government, let me see if I can help out by applying some of Minister Farrakhan's numerology to the Mayor's figures:

Take the 70 percent courteous employees, and divide that by the number of letters in Anwar Amahl (the Mayor's Afrocentric name), which is 10; then multiply by the number of members on the Financial Control Board, 5; then, for some arcane reason, you subtract the height of the Lincoln Memorial statue, which is 19 feet; then multiply it by the number of white people in Ward 3 who voted for Marion Barry in 1994, which is 2; then subtract the number of years that Marion will have served as mayor by the end of this term. You end up with 16, which is the age of consent for sex in the District of Columbia! And how was the sodomy law repeal bill dislodged from the Judiciary Committee? When, with the key support of Philip Pannell, Marion Barry defeated Wilhelmina Rolark in Ward 8! Now, since his redemption, Marion has won two elections in Ward 8, and 2 times 8 is 16!

Speaking of sodomy, another thing that Phil and I have in common [pause] is that we can both yell just as loudly as Frank Kameny. And like Frank, we are by nature the sort of people who rock the boat — even if the boat is the Titanic. Agitators, you might call us. Of course, we follow in a great tradition of agitators, making trouble for people who deserve to have trouble made for them.

The problem with Phil is that, every so often, he also inadvertently makes trouble for his friends. It's true. Just one example is the phone calls from the end of the universe. The phone rings in the middle of the night, and after you've scraped yourself off the ceiling and gotten to the phone, that dramatic voice purrs at you, "I'm sorry, did I wake you?"

When Phil goes on a tear, he delights in the sounds and rhythms of his own voice. Suddenly he's in the pulpit, the lights and cameras are on, and he's testifying. I love the way he revs up and launches into a word, like "So-and-so, that rrrracist." I cannot reproduce the performance art that is Philip Pannell. The trouble is, someone seems to have drained the brake fluid out of his engine.

Many of you don't know this, but Philip recently took up filmmaking. He and Mickey Sainte-Andress are about to start casting for a new film titled, Tongues Untried. It's the uplifting story of the personal reawakening and self-affirmation that a black gay man experiences when he makes love to another black man — while his white boyfriend works the camera. [See Footnote 4]

Doesn't the Mayor look fine in his custom African-styled suits? He's always been a fashion leader. Remember how good he looked in his dashiki? — back when I was 15.

Another politician who looks good in kente cloth is Mark Thompson of the Umoja Party. He wasn't at all happy with his rating from GLAA, so he called Phil to get my number. Of course, when Mark calls Phil he goes by Matsimela Mapfumo, which is his east-of-the-river name. So Mark, or Matsimela, called me up and yelled at me for over an hour. I just lay back and let his righteous indignation wash over me. I almost needed a cigarette after that call. But Phil came to my defense. Matsimela said to him, "What do you have to do to get a 10 from GLAA?" And Phil said sweetly, "You could start by answering their questionnaire."

But I want you to know that Mark called me yesterday, and he was all sweetness and light. You can tell he has a background in broadcasting, with that deep, resonant voice of his. Damn, I thought I had Lou Rawls on the line:


You'll never rate
a candidate so great.

The Mayor was asked recently how he plans to vote in the At-Large Council race, and whether he might cast his second vote for his old friend Carol [Schwartz]. He answered, "I don't do Republicans." I waited all day for Carol to call me in tears over that one. As many of you know, I do support Carol — who, by the way, just got a 9 from GLAA, which is the highest rating of anyone in the At-Large race. My feeling as a Democrat is that we have room for a few progressive Republicans, despite the great condition the Democratic party has gotten the District into.

I discovered recently that Philip is a singer of some note — I couldn't quite figure out which note — but you haven't seen it all until you've had the pleasure of seeing Phil perform onstage at the Players Lounge on karaoke night. He is also a vivid poet, and if you're nice he may even recite something for you. One line of his that I especially treasure goes like this:

"Your mouth wrote a check
That your ass can't cash."

Phil, your mouth has written a lot of checks. In fact, you're cashing some of them tonight. But as far as I'm concerned, your bank account is full, because time and again you've put your ass on the line.

Another famous resident of Southeast Washington said, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are people who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning." Philip, you have given us just the kind of thunder and lightning that Eydie Whittington had in mind when she wrote that. [See Footnote 5]

In The Cancer Journals, Audre Lorde wrote, "I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood." She also wrote, "I realize that if I wait until I am no longer afraid to act, write, speak, be, I'll be sending messages on a ouija board, cryptic complaints from the other side. When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less important whether or not I am unafraid."

Phil, thank you for not waiting. Thank you for daring to break the silence so many times on so many issues. You are a man of integrity and decency and poetry and passion and fierce pride, and I am truly blessed to count you as my friend. So please take care of yourself, because I want you to stay around for a very long time.

(photo by John T. Camp)

Footnote 1. The group's actual name is DC Coalition of Black Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals, Inc.; it recently considered a name change. Also, Cheatam claimed in an interview in December 1995 that she was not lesbian but instead knew "the virtues of intragender affection" — suggesting that such phrasing would be less off-putting to non-gays.
Footnote 2. Executive Director of Whitman-Walker Clinic.
Footnote 3. Also Director of Abundant Life Clinic.
Footnote 4. The late Marlon Riggs, director of the similarly-themed film Tongues Untied, had a white lover. The evident contrast between his personal life and the theme of his film was the subject of some controversy within the black gay community.
Footnote 5. The quote is actually by Frederick Douglass. Whittington, Barry's hand-picked successor as Ward 8 Councilmember, was defeated in the September 1996 primary by fellow Democrat Sandy Allen, who subsequently won election to the office.
Copyright © 1996 by Richard J. Rosendall