Colin Robinson interviewed by Nadia Wynter on 23 August 2019 via Zoom
Nadia Wynter: So I’m Nadia. I’m a New Yorker now living out in California. Wynter is my last name. I’m born to a Jamaican mother and an Antiguan father. They met in the ‘60s in New York, had my brother and I, split up, etc. . . . I identify as a bisexual woman, Black woman, currently in a relationship with a lovely woman whose family is from Haiti, so we have a lot of Caribbean culture going on in our relationship, for better or for worse. (laughter) We’re both strong-willed people. It’s a gift, really, all of it . . . . I met Sheilah [Mabry] through my aunt. My father’s brother is married to a woman named Paula. And they love to host at the table, breakfast, and things, and one time, when I [was] living in New York, Sheilah was there.
Colin Robinson: I’m Colin Robinson. I was born and grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, though I spent two years in Yorkshire, England, while my father was at university. My grandparents are from Grenada on one side, and [on the other side] my great-grandmother’s from Venezuela, and another great-grandmother’s from Martinique. So a little bit of a cocktail going on.
I came to the U.S. in 1980 to go to school. That did not work out very well. Ended up in New York at the beginning of ’81 and found these communities of black gay men and lesbians who were doing this exciting thing with words and with politics and with building community, and that became the center of my life at one point.
In 1986, [two] significant organizations formed in New York, one of which was Gay Men of African Descent, one of which was Other Countries, and I worked with Bert in both of them. More closely in Other Countries, which was this writing community that started as a writing workshop and then began to do print publications, and also, cross-cuttting both of those, to take both the written word and the performance of work into different kinds of community spaces: gay bars, elite university spaces, a giving the book away to LGBTI kids, various things like that. Other Countries was this amazing space. Fought a lot with different people over the years and stuff.
Met John [Manzon-Santos], and I know him through my HIV work, which I started doing after I left school. He did some amazing kind of pioneering work, as a very young man, with Asian and Pacific Islander HIV organizations in New York. And we worked together at the Audre Lorde Project. We were both co-founders I guess. We’ve remained in touch. And he’s tried to get me to take much more leadership around What I Miss? and I made all these promises, none of which I’ve kept.
N: I get it. But yet, here you are, right now!
C: Yes, the shame! (laughter)
N: Promise is kept! Sometimes it takes a while, that’s all. . . . The time is right because it’s happening right now. Is there anything that led to this pulling you back a little bit, or anything you’d like to share?
C: There are other things that have been going on, in life, for me. I do quite a lot of organizing work in Trinidad and Tobago. Well, have been. When I first talked to John about the project, I thought the concept was really brilliant and I definitely wanted to commit. I was in the U.S. at the time, because I’ve been spending more and more time here for healthcare. The part I didn’t tell was, since 2007, I’ve been spending most of my time back in Trinidad and Tobago doing leadership work in the LGBTI movement, and writing a newspaper column on a weekly basis. So just the demands of doing that, I kept foot-dragging.
I was thinking, today, that I hadn’t thought about what I wanted to tell Bert that he missed — and wondering what that was about.
So Steven [Fullwood] and Charles [Stephens] co-edited this volume called Black Gay Genius, which was a memory project for Joseph Beam, who edited In the Life and began Brother to Brother, and was a friend of mine.
I wrote a piece called, An archaeology of grief: the fear of remembering Joe Beam. And that’s how I billed the story because Steven gave me the call [for submissions] and I went back to my apartment and I began just pouring out this stuff [and] wrote with the windows closed for probably a day and a bit:
I don’t remember Joe Beam. I had put him away, with all the unmourned AIDS grief of the 1980s and ’90s, with all the trauma of working for black gay groups and networks, swimming at the bottom somewhere of so many daily drinks. In one of my most poignant poems, where I write about the community of imagination and language the New York City writers’ group Other Countries provided for me in a new land, I reminisced about a childhood schoolmate whose Caribbean language I was afraid of forgetting. In the case of Joe, I am afraid of remembering.
I guess there is on one hand the fear of remembering the beloved community we, young, employed, educated, urban, knew we were creating in those heady years of the mid-’80s. Fear of slipping into the hopefulness my therapist now counsels against with the words of Alice Walker: “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.” And then the fear of having to face its betrayal, to relive the loss. To account for the places of toxicity and narrowness and failure that most black gay organizations led by people of my generation ended up. To become revictimized by my own unhealed trauma of being robbed and lied about and demeaned and unrecognized. To confront the role in this violence of my own character, my too bright West Indian smugness, my capacity for emotional treachery . . . And, ultimately, to confront . . . a bitterness that I am alive minus so many of the men of that era, and waking with the same demons that killed them.
I do not look back with nostalgia. To remember Joe Beam is to unpack a nested grief. At our failure to connect. At our failure to save each other. At our failure to be enough . . . The next part is a reference to a piece that Joe wrote about the idea of us being worth wanting each other . . . At our failure to be worth wanting. That, as Marvin White . . . Marvin’s an amazing poet, and preacher these days, who’s published a number of books and who lived in New York for a period, he was at one point part of Pomo Afro Homos . . . has captured, we aren’t the ones we’ve been waiting for.
A lot of that stuff still swirls around . . .
N: Tell me, in that time where you met Bert in the ‘80s and ‘90s, what was in the air? What connected you two, not just the art? How would you describe your initial connection?
C: I think both Bert and I found Other Countries at different times. I remember that more than I remember how we connected through GMAD, or when he connected to GMAD. I was at the initial meeting of Other Countries, [which] was founded by Daniel Garrett, a man who I had a very complicated and messy relationship with, but with whom I’ve worked in other writing-based frameworks.
And I think Other Countries had been going for a little bit and had begun to do performance work when Bert showed up at the workshop, which was this quite magical space in the 1980s for young, mainly younger — and some older — black gay men in their 20s and 30s living in New York at a certain point in the HIV epidemic that I think was catalyzing public discourse about sexuality and sexual diversity and a certain kind of fear at the same time. Our friends had begun to die.
It was a moment, post that Stonewall-into-’70s [period], where there was this kind of renaissance of queer organizing in general, but specifically queer people of color organizing. In the wake of the March on Washington in ’79, there was all this intersectional organizing that was happening in cities. And some of it was about language, some of it was about publishing, some of it was journalism, some of it was creative work.
Daniel started Other Countries as a workshop, with a call to people and a very specific and literary and, for me, politically problematic vision of what writing and writing community were and meant. That’s one thing we struggled around.
But it was this peer workshop that met every Saturday in a public space and there was this ritual of going out to dinner afterwards. And it became the center of this amazing community of black gay men who ended up in friendships, in some cases in sexual relationships, but in these relationships of support and tenderness and creation in relationship to each other. Y’know, it wasn’t all sweetness and light. There were struggles, particularly when we decided to do a publication. There were struggles around whether to do it separate from the workshop or not. And people decided that it would ruin the workshop and it needed to go do itself somewhere else. And then there were struggles within the publication around roles people would have. Even within the workshop itself, there were struggles around aesthetics, some struggles around how democratic things were, and so on.
Bert landed in that space, in some ways, like me, not as a writer. My relationship to language, I think, may have been a little different than his in that I had been a technical writer in different roles in my young career. Writing was part of my cultural tradition, not necessarily creative writing, but literacy in a different kind of way. I’m not sure how that worked for Bert.
But he came as a businessman to this space at a point where, after a year in the workshop, I had begun to see myself as a writer and to develop a practice as a poet. And I was producing work, some of which has been amazingly enduring.
And so Bert and I came into this space at the same time. He came, I remember, with a certain kind of masculine and brash energy that I’m not sure always worked well. But I remember a particular event. It was some upstairs space on Fifth Avenue. It was 1987, I think. I remember the poem that I read. I remember his presence, and I think he also read there as well. That’s what I remember most about meeting, coming into Bert’s orbit. I remember being immediately attracted and, you know, I wasn’t the only one. (smile)
N: I’ve seen pictures. You’re definitely not the only one. (smile)
C: I remember that we shared certain kinds of closeness, but i don’t remember anything particularly distinct or special about it.
I remember him joining the Other Countries board at one point. I remember giving up my role as editor of Sojourner, which was this publication we decided to focus on HIV, in a bit of a huff and I think I wrote some famous epistle in response to that, that was grand and dramatic. And Bert stepped into those shoes and edited the publication. I don’t think I had necessarily full confidence in him in doing that . . .
N: Why not, you think?
C: I think I still saw him as not a creative. But it was interesting to witness his process. I think around that time he learned and began to disclose his HIV [positive] status to those of us in the group. But again, my memories of the period are so faded. They’re marked by these stories that have been retold.
GMAD has a different history. It was started by Charles Angell and I was his co-chair — but he was the founder — in July of ‘86, weeks after Other Countries, as an activist organization. It didn’t last. About a year after that, it was revived as a social support entity. And then, kind of in its third, and not final, incarnation, it attracted the attention of an ambitious, Ivy [League]-educated lawyer, Elbert Gates, who sought to transform it into a poltical platform for Black and Latino gay men.
Bert and El entered the space around the time and were in quite a bit of conflict. And so [I] was also witnessing the masculine struggles and the plotting (laughter). So that was another experience that I had of Bert of being in the minority within this organization where people had different visions of where it ought to go. And he and I were part of a team that swept El from office in an election. So that was another interesting history.
I was thinking today, if Bert did sidle and sit down next to me, there are so, so many things that have happened in the two decades that I’d have to account for. Some of the things are personal. I’d want to share my own evolution as a writer, as a particular voice. I have a book now and thirty years of poems. The work I’ve kind of carved out, the leadership role that I’ve made for myself in the Trinidad and Tobago and Caribbean LGBTI movement, and the kinds of stubborn politics that he would admire that I’ve brought to that.
And I thought of all these things, and I actually made a list of all the things: social media, smartphones, cybersecurity, bitcoin, Wikipedia, Airbnb, Uber, Obama, Obamacare, marijuana legalization, ISIS, Boko Haram, Katrina, GMOs, climate change, the Mars rover, the African American Museum — that he would want to know about!
Then things in the Caribbean, globally, politically: Chavez, Fidel’s death, the new pope, Mandela’s death, Usain Bolt, Rachel Dolezal! (laughter) . . .
N: Can you imagine? (laughter)
C: . . . Black Lives Matter.
Two of the things I thought would interest him most were the Obergefell decision and the Supreme Court work on marriage. But also because it’s been one of the most contentious things in my own activism outside of the U.S. and the way in which marriage has undermined some of the other goals that Global South movements have had, and the way in which it has inflamed culture wars and made what might have ordinarily been domestic struggles. . . . It’s prevented the domestication in some ways of queer struggles because they now exist in this globalized queer framework that has to account with this demon of marriage. Yeah, it’s a conversation I’m not able to have with a whole lot of people. And I was at Bert and John’s commitment ceremony.
But I think one of the most interesting things Bert would want to learn about was PrEP. The idea of, not just HIV medication being available for HIV-positive people, but the way in which it’s saving the lives, and also complicating the lives in some ways, of HIV-negative men.
I think I’d want to tell him about my turning my back, in some ways, on the movement we were both part of. My sense that my work with other black gay men in the U.S. had ended, and that it ended with a sense of frustration and failure. And that I’m excited that I found spaces where the work has been reinvigorated. I mean it’s had some of the same challenges, but it’s had different kinds of successes that I would want him to experience.
I would want to tell him a story. John was doing this thing of sending different people his ashes to take different places. So when I went home to Trinidad in, I want to say 2002, but I’m not sure if the date is right. John gave me this cologne bottle — I’m not sure the story of the cologne bottle — with Bert’s ashes in it. I took them in to the sea at Maracas Beach which is the, not too great, but best beach [on the] North coast of Trinidad. So I went into the water with Bert’s ashes and my brand new glasses on from the Korean optical store in Midtown [Manhattan], where I got them for this fabulous price. They were rimless and a wave came and they disappeared. I always wondered if he had something to do with it. (laughter)
Bert would’ve wanted to see Children of God and Play the Devil, two films by queer Bahamaian filmmakers that have gotten a lot of attention. They’re deeply problematic, both of them, but they’re also groundbreaking in different ways. Talking about them would have been interesting. Some fascinating things that are happening with the Bahamas. The referendum that got politicized, again around cultural wars, when it was supposed to be about Bahamian women being able to pass on nationality to their children.
Yeah, I think those are some of the things. But again, what I struggle with, more than anything else, is this idea of forgetting, this idea of less than firm hold on this swath of my life where so much happened, and some of the memory is quite dim.
N: I was thinking about that earlier today, Colin, just the distortion of memory, the fading of it, but it feels like we have some choice about what sticks and often, for me, it’s tied to emotion. Highs and lows, those kind of stand out more than the stuff in the middle.
C: Yeah, I think all our storytelling is a fiction in some way, even when it’s history. It’s how we create significance and meaning that is unique and is different from others’ stories. And I realize how much the histories that we think we remember are subject to our work as practitioners of fiction. That the ways in which I remember, and am deeply convinced of remembering, the stories that I have told over and over, I keep discovering are legends. Yeah. They’re the legends that I have. (laughter)
N: Where have we progressed in terms of what it means to be gay and love oneself? How Bert might see it? How do you see it?
That’s a very hard question. Because the meaning is so very different for people in very different spaces. At least two or three things are going on at the same time. On the one hand, there are these young people who are coming of age, or entering puberty, without the sense that who they are and how they want to express themselves is impossible. In earlier generations, we struggled with the idea that who we were and what we wanted to do was taboo, or difficult, or challenging, and they’re not constrained by that negative imagination in the least. And that’s just been amazing to watch. It’s also true of non-LGBTI young people who don’t have to imagine homophobia as part of who they are.
On the other hand, it’s tough to watch — I don’t have good language for it — the ways in which what I call the resilience that generations like mine had. And I’m not an advocate of “beat children and they’ll grow up strong” or any of that crap. There was abuse, there was horror, I’m not minimizing any of that. But I think, on balance, I think our generations had so much more resilience in dealing with adversity than I see young people able to muster. That’s a very, very complicated thing. I’m sure people have explained it and I just need to read what they wrote. That struggle for self-love, the rise of certain forms of self-harm. The challenges of social media that young people face where they’re unable to retreat from spaces that are consistently evaluating them. I think those are all really, really difficult challenges at arriving at self-love. I think the different kinds of challenges that working families face in parenting so that certain kinds of quality time loving kids, it’s shrinking in some ways. But we’ve created the tools, Bert and I and so many other people have created the words that new generations can read that make those acts of self-love easier.
I think that we’ve created different kinds of spaces, institutionally. But, again, we’ve invested so little in queer youth compared to the other issues that the movement has prioritized for resources.
N: Thinking about his life and how his presence is no longer in New York City schools. What are the children missing by [Bert] not being there?
C: It’s not a question I can answer. I know very little about New York City classrooms. I have spent very little time in New York since 2010. I have too many ghosts there. But I want to imagine that there are more teachers like him in the system. I want to believe that the school system in New York is a safer and more generous place for LGBTI kids. I don’t know that.
N: Well anything else you want to say about what he’s missing and anything in your heart that’s a burning desire that you’d like to share, Colin?
C: I would want to ask him, “What’s up with [him]?” (laughter) There’s this idea when we create this fiction of Bert sitting next to us, that he’s not witnessed what we’ve witnessed. I think maybe the missing part is more our own transitions and developments that he may not have been able to see, or we may not have been able to share with him.
I would also tell him how much I miss Donald. He became close with somebody who was, at one point, my best friend Donald Woods and there are many stories I can tell of the three of us . . . .
N: I was wondering about personal transformations and progressions that you would share with him.
C: Well, I’d tell him I have cancer and how that sucks! I would tell him how proud I am of John, and how proud I am of John’s attentiveness to his memory. Yeah.
N: Great. This has been a pleasure. (smile) I want to go on about some things . . . I’m thinking about my own heart right now, which has its own scars. Why, especially as a survivor of the 80s and 90s, a lot of trauma, as many of us are, especially Black people in the world. Why do we love if it inevitably can cause some pain?
C: I think we’re just wired to love. There’s got to be something good about that, some sort of intelligent design or evolutionary purpose to that. But I think that the reward of the loving, on balance, as I look back, outweighs the pain. Not for everyone, not in every instance. But on balance. I think our challenge is how to love better. There’s always risk in loving. It’s also about finding different ways to love. Different as in plural ways to love, so that we experience love with different people differently. So it doesn’t become just one thing. So as love threads through our lives, that some of those threads may burn, some of those threads may pop, but there are other threads that are strong and weave together.
N: It’s true. I feel like we don’t break completely. We may crack and come together as a new form. It’s not just love of people. There’s love of art, love of . . .
N: And the question isn’t so much, is it pointless? I believe in what you said too. Life is joy and pain and hopefully we end up with a little more love and joy than we have pain. That’s a good life, I think. We can’t avoid these things, but we can reflect. And that’s what this piece, What I Miss? is inspiring. It’s inspiring the reflection of people’s connection, which I think is key to life, and the connections that Bert made. Reflecting also on how his work still connects to today. I think with these reflections, and even what you said, we get better. And that’s subjective, it’s not always neat, but we expand, I think.
C: Yeah, there’s this idea that joy ends and pain lasts. Joy can also be enduring, and pain can end.