A Dream in Black and Tan
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A Dream in Black and Tan

by Richard J. Rosendall
Originally published on January 27, 2005 in Bay Windows

Back in the days of racial segregation, clubs known as "black and tan clubs" arose in many cities, where black and white people intermingled despite the taboos of the day. Gay people of different colors frequented those clubs because they felt at home. The proprietor of one such club was Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, who openly consorted with white women despite frequent death threats.

Johnson and those clubs came to mind as I read the recent essay "A Message to the LGBT Leadership" by Jasmyne Cannick. Ms. Cannick is a board member of the National Black Justice Coalition, a black gay rights group organized in 2003. I was reminded of the black and tan clubs because of how far away they seem amid the racial mistrust reflected by Cannick.

Don't get me wrong. Cannick's essay has much to recommend it. In 2004, she notes, "Black pastors were being used by right-wing conservatives" in the fight against same-sex marriage. I call this their search for camouflage in the culture war. As Cannick correctly states, "The LGBT community cannot push forward without gays of color and together we need to develop a strategy that works towards addressing LGBT issues in all communities."

One jarring note in Cannick's essay is the essential otherness she conveys about black gay people, such as by using "same-gender-loving" instead of "gay," which is now treated in some circles as a white cultural construct rather than simply a word for same-sex orientation. More troubling is the sweeping generalization displayed by her statement, "I don't ever want to see a white gay man stand before a camera again and equate his struggle to the Black civil-rights movement."

Since Cannick is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, she must be familiar with journalism's five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why -- unless these too represent a white standard that does not apply to black people. Who exactly among the population of white gay men has equated (not just compared) gay rights with the black civil rights movement? When did they do so, and with what exact words? Doesn't the legacy of the civil rights movement belong to everyone, and isn't some comparison legitimate despite the differences between the two movements? What specific organizations have denied what specific black people "the same salary, benefits and support" as white employees, as Cannick claims? What complaints or lawsuits were filed in response to this illegal discrimination? The devil is in the details.

Is there no white person in the entire gay movement that Ms. Cannick is willing to give any credit? If not, that suggests we have made no progress despite discussing racism in the gay community for decades. If the situation is as hopeless as that, why keep bothering? In fact, however, this tactic of blaming white people works all too well. Race-baiting, and in general using the language of designated victims and designated oppressors, is effective in putting people on the defensive. But lumping all white people in the same category hardly seems conducive to racial justice.

The voices of Cannick and her same-gender-loving colleagues are very much needed in the fight against the theocratic Christian Right, particularly given the Right's attempt to hijack, in the cause of intolerance, the very churches in which the civil rights movement was organized. But the raising of those voices does not require the silencing of white ones. The national conversation that we need on gay rights is a multifaceted one crossing all of the cultural fault lines in our nation -- lines that also cut across the gay community. Our inevitable mistakes can be pointed out without injecting the poison of a generalized racial suspicion that discourages conversations rather than encouraging them.

Jack Johnson's confident, taunting smile in the boxing ring, preserved on film in 1910 and featured in the new Ken Burns documentary "Unforgivable Blackness," outshines all his persecutors who correctly saw his defiant excellence as a threat to white supremacy. It is that excellence, not grievances and demands, that marks the path toward overcoming racial injustice. A true leader does not merely demand respect, but commands it. When the negative and lecturing tone addressed to the demonized specter of "white gay men" -- so popular with Cannick and others and so unproductive -- is replaced by the assertive and confident smile of a champion, then we will know that Jack Johnson's ghost is once again in the house. And the black and tan club will be back in business.

Copyright 2005 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.