It really is hard to believe that almost seventeen years have passed since you left us. Since you’ve asked: “What I miss?” I’ll give you an update on some of the changes that have happened in Harlem, and the ups and downs of our writing collective, Other Countries. You may remember that the last time we got together was in the fall of 2000 to go to an afternoon screening of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled at the Magic Johnson Theater on 125th Street. You had finally moved into a new townhouse just a few blocks from the theater. I know it was years in the planning, and I remember hoping that your health would improve once you were settled so you would have an opportunity to enjoy living in your own place in Central Harlem.
The Magic Johnson Theater was probably half full. I thought the movie, a satire of race seen through the lens of a contemporary blackface game show, was pretty funny. I don’t remember if we went out to eat afterward, but when we spoke by telephone a few days later, you said the movie gave you nightmares. I felt guilty since I knew that the HIV medication you had begun taking was having a range of effects on you, and I hadn’t thought about how the imagery in the movie would have affected you. I think I had invited you to the movie as a kind of formal “Welcome to Harlem!” gesture, and I guess I thought what better movie to see than one by a Black filmmaker riffing on the history of blackface? I guess in reality there really is a lot more pain than laughs in that history.
We now know that, at the time you left us in 2001, Harlem was entering what might be called a final phase in the decades long process of gentrification. By the time of our movie outing I had opened Harlemade Styleshop on Lenox Avenue between 118th and 119th Streets, with two partners, Patricia and Murphy. It was a gift shop featuring tee shirts designed by Murphy, knicknacks designed by Pat and her niece Toya, and books and posters I selected. We had signed our lease in the fall of 2000 under the Old Harlem economy, but pretty soon, the cost of housing, that had been increasing gradually in previous years, began to climb dramatically. Lower crime rates, and better city services, meant that white people were no longer afraid of Harlem. Besides, as they were getting priced out of the Upper West Side and parts of Brooklyn, for a while Harlem was still seen as relatively affordable. A range of new restaurants opened on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Lenox Avenue (Malcolm X Blvd) in the 2000s, becoming Harlem restaurant rows. People began to talk about the New Harlem.
By 2008, the owner of the building where our store was located, was well underway in renovating the apartments above, and in the process Harlemade Styleshop, the only commercial tenant remaining, was squeezed out. We were told that we needed to close for a month while they worked on the water line. Over a year later they were still working on it when our lease expired. We tried to argue that our lease should be extended for the time the store was closed, but we were only given the opportunity to remove our things. The three of us had all moved on to other things and we didn’t have the interest, energy or money to fight the City. A couple of years later a hardware store took over all of the first floor space in the building.
If you were to walk through the streets of Harlem today, you would notice many of the new stores and restaurants I’ve mentioned. Contrary to the impression given by some newspaper stories on gentrification in Harlem, the pedestrians are overwhelmingly Black with a somewhat greater sprinkling of white and Latino people. I moved to New York in 1982 and to Harlem in 1985. Once I was there, I loved the people, the history, and the culture so much that I assumed I would never leave. But I did, in 2012, to take a job teaching History at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, population 3,500. The transition has been surprisingly smooth. I’ve found a community of Black people with a rich history, and am drawing back on my Ohio roots since I was born in Toledo, where my parents, sister and nieces live. But when I think back to Harlem, I’m reminded of the last line of the poem “Mr. Flood’s Party”. As Mr. Flood looked down on the city where he had lived for so long “where strangers would have shut the very doors that many friends had opened long ago.”
Bert, another thing you missed, but directly influenced, was the revival of our writing collective Other Countries. I know you were there in the early years following the 1986 founding of the writing workshop where Black gay men in New York City met weekly to share and critique each other’s work. By the early 1990s, when I joined, Other Countries had already published an anthology (Other Countries: Black Gay Voices, 1988), and was accepting work for a second, (Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS, 1993, that you edited). The Other Countries performance program was thriving with workshop members traveling to college campuses and other venues to perform work based on material from workshop members. Just as important as the workshop sessions were the after-sessions. Each week after the workshop we went out to dinner at an area restaurant, traded gossip, laughed, and got to know each other, a critical component in building a community of writers. Twice a year, at the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice, we hosted open readings at what was then called the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center.
You probably remember that by the late 1990s, the energy of the Other Countries workshop had declined. Attendance dwindled, and we reserved smaller meeting rooms at the Center. Challenged by the onslaught of deaths from HIV and AIDS, aging of the members, personal disagreements, and decisions by some to seek inspiration elsewhere, we were losing momentum. You and I were both serving as Other Countries Board members when we as a Board agreed to fold Other Countries into Gay Men of African Descent. GMAD had started the same year as Other Countries, by some of the same people, and was in an expansion mode, receiving fairly substantial grants to provide HIV prevention services. I was executive director of GMAD at the time, and we thought that the workshop could continue under the guidance of a GMAD staff person and that we could make the case that the writing of the workshop could be an important component to an HIV prevention toolkit. I think there were a few meetings under this arrangement, but things weren’t the same. The old guard of Other Countries members weren’t interested since the structure was so different from the self-facilitated workshop that they knew. There was also nothing to attract new members, since those interested in writing were not necessarily interested in going to a workshop as part of an HIV prevention program. For the most part the workshop stopped meeting.
From what I remember, around 2003 or 2004, Chris Adams, a former workshop participant put out a call regarding reviving the workshop. I think around the same time, we were made aware that in your will you had left a bequest to Other Countries. A small group of those interested in reviving Other Countries came together for several planning sessions, I believe facilitated by the Community Resource Exchange. We came out of the sessions with the understanding that there was a need and interest in the writing workshop and that we were also interested in reviving the publishing arm of Other Countries. We approached Tokes Osubu, then executive director of GMAD, with the request that Other Countries regain its independence and also recover the balance of funds that Other Countries had obtained from your bequest for a future anthology that had been given to GMAD when Other Countries was subsumed by GMAD. Tokes and the GMAD Board agreed to the change. Once more independent, the Other Countries funds were placed in a separate bank account. The workshop began meeting again, probably around 2004 or 2005, but rather than meet weekly at the Center, as we had in the past, I believe we met twice a month, with facilitation rotating among those present.
A small group also began meeting to plan the third Other Countries Anthology, the printing of which would be made possible by your bequest. An editor was selected, and a Call for Submissions was issued. The book, Voices Rising: Celebrating 20 Years of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Writing was published in 2007 and a launch party was held in Brooklyn. The anthology, a good book, was much larger than the planning group had approved, and there was frustration and disappointment that the editor had not informed the group of the changes that had been made to the original concept.
The workshop continued to meet regularly, but sometime after 2010 with attendance declining again, and some longtime participants moving out of New York, we decided to shift to meeting digitally through Google Hangouts twice a month. We continue to do this today maintaining the continuity of the workshop, and usually spending some time at the end of the session for general conversation and updates.
Although I no longer live in New York, I suspect that there is still a need as well for a face-to-face workshop, particularly for new writers, both for feedback on their work, and also for community building aspects that a digital workshop just can’t provide. I hope in the future that Other Countries can make this happen. In the meantime, I really appreciate the tremendous contribution you made, even in your absence, to reviving the publishing aspect of the workshop, and really the workshop itself, through your bequest. Thank you Bert.
December 28, 2017
© Kevin McGruder 2017