Cary asked me to say a few words about my personal history with Other Countries and my friendship with B.Michael Hunter. Thank you for this opportunity to reflect upon life “in the life.”
Growing up in the fifties and sixties, straight talking was the norm. I learned at age four, when my first “little boy friend’s” older brother caught us hugging and kissing, that I had to repress my innate desire for another boy. I did my best to walk and talk heterosexual, but I always wondered if I got it right.
Clever colored contemporaries compared my bookishness to our smartest girl classmates or white boys, who could “afford to be ‘funny.'” Some brothers promised they would kill the first “sissy” they met and others laughed behind one Boy Scout’s back because his favorite color was bright yellow. I joined in and joked about the bright yellow boy: He had to be “one.”
I grew up fearing black men who preached the Lord’s damnation on boys “like that”
Reached adolescence lusting for handsome males in neighborhood or school but dared not act
I wanted one other brother to go ahead let me hold him and enjoy holding me through the night
But none of us could, or would break animated suspension that seemed itself to protect life.
Manhattan in 1975, promised artistic community, a fortune and at least one other everyday, black man who could and would fall in love with me as hard and long as I did him. I met my first New York brother at the Christopher Street piers. He introduced me to his parents, but our thing did not last.
I befriended two men of African descent at Man’s Country, before that bathhouse became an early casualty of New York City’s over-reaction to G.R.I.D – Gay Related Immune Deficiency. I visited one of them, Harry Burrison, at the hospital in 1982 or three, when doctors examined his swollen lymph nodes and wondered what his condition could be. He died of AIDS in August 1987.
I had already tested HIV-positive in December 1985: The combination of Harry’s fatality and this “dying man’s” wish to connect with other gay “brothaz” brought me to an early meeting of Gay Men of African Descent. I think it was at the home of Rory Buchanan, who told me about Other Countries. I did NOT want to hear a critique or even read in public, but I NEEDED to meet more black gay men involved in self-expression. I attended the next workshop and have never looked back!
Allen Wright, Ali Wadud, Cary Allen Johnson, Colin Robinson, David Frechette, Donald Woods, Len Richardson, Yves Lubin (a.k.a. Assotto Saint) and B.Michael Hunter were among the first I met at Other Countries’ Saturday afternoon sessions.
B.Michael Hunter — Bert, except in print — could compete on all significant levels: face, brains, wit, body, talent, black consciousness, sensuality, readiness to work, loyalty to family and friends, community commitment — staying out remaining proud . . . and hair.
I remember hearing Bert perform with Sheilah Mabry at an Other Countries presentation. They traded passages that recreated sequences from their shared childhood as lesbian and gay cousins. I wanted their experience.
Bert met many young, college queers during Other Countries performance tours. In 1994, he introduced me to one: a 21-year old black, gay poet, John A. Frazier. A few months later, John gave me my first ever father’s day card.
I remember Bert’s brilliant smile and broad laughter. He put anger in his poems and a lot of hope, too. For example, “Every time a brother I know / Dies from AIDS / My dick gets hard.”
I remember speaking one-on-one with Bert, about seven years ago. He was debating whether to start taking anti-HIV medications. There was no clear answer. There still isn’t. I described treatment modalities I had researched and detailed my personal combination of allopathic and alternative therapies. He listened, but left undecided.
The last time I remember hearing Bert recite his work, he stood before a small crowd at Cornelia Street Café and intoned as-yet unpublished verses about swimming in the Caribbean.
It is my favorite B.Michael Hunter poem. The narrator, swimming off the coast of Barbados, suddenly gets tired. He goes under: once, twice, three times. Just when he believes all is lost, he sees a black man tossing a life preserver to him. His mind hesitates, but his body grabs hold. Once pulled ashore, catching his breath, the storyteller admits, “I didn’t think a black man could save my life.”
It sent and still sends chills through my body. In the closely-knit, God fearing, upstanding, self-righteous Black community, I often felt a black man rebuke me, deny me, make fun of me or abuse me. I never thought a black man would want to save my life. Before I found New York City’s black gay community, I feared a brother would someday attack me and beat me beyond recognition. Who would have thought black men would save my life?
Yet, here I stand today with the women and men of Other countries celebrating twenty years of selected writing by black LGBTs and all of our lives; paying tribute to one who put his effort and money where his mouth was. Bert Hunter devoted years of his life editing the second Other Countries volume, Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS. His bequest made both the publication of Voices Rising possible and this book party necessary. Without his generosity, this third anthology might still be in development. In Bert’s honor, let our memories grow longer and deeper so that, as Cheryl Boyce-Taylor’s poem for dead sons insists, we “never forget, never forget” our ancestors, young and old, upon whose shoulders we stand today in love and dedication.
© Robert E. Penn 2007