Category Archives: Culture

Occupy Wall Street’s Race Problem: My Piece for American Prospect

“The economic crisis has disproportionately affected people of color, in particular African Americans. Given the stark economic realities in communities of color, many people have wondered why the Occupy Wall Street movement hasn’t become a major site for mobilizing African Americans. For me, it’s not about the diversity of the protests. It’s about the rhetoric used by the white left that makes OWS unable to articulate, much less achieve, a transformative racial-justice agenda.” Go to AMERICAN PROSPECT to read the rest.

My Remarks for SlutWalk NYC

So I gave a VERY abbreviated version of this speech, due to the rain–so if a video of the event surfaces, don’t gag. LOL! But this is what I’d prepared.

SlutWalk NYC Speech

Saturday, October 1, 2011

I am a slut. And I have always been a slut. Some of you may find this tongue-in-cheek, or even annoying coming from a male-identified person, right? Because when men call themselves sluts or ho’s, or players or whatever, it doesn’t carry the same social stigmas that it carries for women, particularly women of color. I understand that.

But I am not here to make fun of sexual violence, street harassment or any other form of nonconsensual behavior, often visited on the bodies of women. Nor am I here to try to displace the impact of gendered forms of violence against women, including transgender women, have to face, by doing what people with whatever relative form of privilege try to do when they want to justify being in spaces not deemed for them―to claim that they too, suffer forms of oppression. And then proceed to take over and displace the most impacted voices. But I am here because of this:

When I was 14 years old, as my body started to develop, and my particular kind of Black gay gendered body began to move through the world, I began to receive a lot of attention for older men. I was harassed on the street. I was, on 3 different occasions in one week when I was 15, followed by three different men, one of whom was in a car. When I was about 25 years old and living in New York City, I was once followed by a white van while walking to the train at 4am in the morning on my way home from clubbing in Chelsea, and had to run like hell to get away from it.

Most recently, in conversations about “men on the down low”– bisexual Black men who are not open about their relationships with men to their female partners–gay men are portrayed as the vectors of disease, particularly seen as the cause of HIV rates among Black women, though people are less likely to care that actually Black gay men have higher HIV rates than men who are not out, or so-called DL. And it is difficult to get people to care about the HIV epidemic where we’re concerned, because we cannot be seen as “innocent victims.” While most obviously an expression of the anxieties of bisexuality of Black men,  the “down low” framework also positions Black gay men as predatory, as competitors with straight Black women, as a threat to the success of the Black family, Black marriages, and Black progress in general. In other words, we are sluts.

So with this in mind, I want to challenge the way many straight men working against gender based violence have framed the debate– “Men don’t have to wake up in the morning and wonder if what I put on is going to make me the target of violence.” Unfortunately, many queer, gay, SGL, and transgender men and boys know this reality all too well. I am well aware of the ways in which I am marked, my gender, the sex I have (or am imagined to be having), and my physical body, as a problem―to be controlled and policed by the larger Black community in informal ways, the church, by the state policing apparatus, and by public health epidemiologists.

And like many of us, I have had to struggle with the anxiety that my body and sexuality, regardless of what I wear or how I butch or femme I behave, produces in other people. And that anxiety produces a range of responses from disgust, to titillation, to embarrassment. The weight of that is very real and it can be crushing.

Yet despite all the negativity, the stigma, the present and historical trauma I carry, all of the threats of violence, all the times I have been attacked verbally or physically, all the predatory acts of other people, I have come to embrace the fact that yes, I am a slut too.

I also have come to love my body (which I didn’t always), and often I like showing it off, and I know sometimes I dress like a faggot, even when it is sometimes dangerous for me to do so. I know the irony of the moments at which I feel my sexiest, are the same moments at which I am the most visible, legible as a faggot―which in many peoples’ eyes, is synonymous with slut.  I know stares of disgust I see from men, and sometimes women, and sometimes from other LGBT people who wish I would be less loud, less flamboyant, less exuberant, and less obvious in my own body and sexuality. And I don’t give a fuck!

So I chose to speak at SlutWalk because I believe playing the politics of respectability will get us no where. Being slutty and promiscuous is not incongruent with dignity, self esteem or consent!  I support all of us creating ourselves in the image that speaks most to us―even if that means not accepting the label of slut for oneself, for personal, historical and/or political reasons. But some of us have figured out that while we are both targeted for our gender or our sexuality, we also continue to embrace being utterly trashy and scandalous, and our desire to do so does not take anything away from you, and how you chose to be in the world.

In many ways The Color Purple, the book and film, were huge parts of my understanding of this dichotomy. When I was a kid, I most identified with young Celie. I felt ugly, skinny, and undesirable. But I knew that I wanted to be like Shug Avery―empowered, sexy, queer, creative, worldly, and someone who just didn’t take any shit. She was a Black woman who defied convention, and in the world of the novel, while she struggled with the gendered expectations of a preacher’s daughter and her estrangement from her family, she still chose to live the way she wanted, even being labeled a slut, and rumored to have “that nasty women’s disease!”

So I feel that Black queer, bi, gay, SGL men have had to struggle with our bodies at the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, but there are maps toward liberation, even in the midst of what seems like unsurmountable oppression and violence.

But I also want to extend my slutty hand to straight Black men, too.  The recent campaigns targeting  Black youth in different cities to ban “pants sagging” to me represent the way in which even the Black male body, even when it is assumed to be cis-gendered and heterosexual, creates a sexualized anxiety in the eyes of the state, whites, and Black middle-class with “racial uplift” values. And while some Black people reject these forms of criminalization of Black youth, we have an opportunity to work with young straight Black men and boys to fight back against their own criminalization, but also use this a way to critically engage their own sexist and misogynist assumptions about women, queers and trans people. In other words, what would organizing poor and working class Black and Latino straight men look like who both denounced the criminalization and hyper surveillance of their bodies and clothes, at the same time were committed to end the ways they are privileged and encouraged to commit violence against trans people, women and queers, or to act as enforcers of gender standards through street harassment?

I hope that we are able to own the real legacies of trauma many of us face in terms of the ways in which we are sexualized and criminalized in communities and by the state, to say nothing of the acts of violence that have been committed against us.  But that does not negate nor render impossible the many of us who, despite those legacies,  own our overt sexuality or promiscuity, and see it as a liberatory process. So here’s to all of us who realize we’ve been victimized by racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and labeled perpetual sluts and the enemies of whiteness, respectability, patriarchal families, and the nation itself. And despite the pain it sometimes causes, we’ve made a path for ourselves where we still get to be in our bodies in the way we want―to dress slutty, behave scandalously, love fiercely, and fuck consensually.

Desiree Marshall: F*ck Facebook

You know one of the things that I am beginning to admit to myself: I am finding a lot of activist and organizing happening in the US pretty boring and uninteresting. Most of what is really inspiring me is art–and I usually hate those kind of people. You know the people who want to circumvent any kind of political implications of their work by declaring it art. Or the artist who declare that art is going to save the world, and that a revolution can happen without some kind of challenge, indirect dismantling, or radical transformation of state power–and the art that is produced in a society is a direct outgrowth of it.

That said, I am finding myself more interested in the manner in which people are using creative forms to express ideas for audiences. As a result, I am entertaining ideas of getting back on stage in some way, shape or form, or exploring other kinds of writing–more long form, narrative, nonfiction or even fiction, as a method of creativity, political protest, and artistic endeavor.

I’ve posted some of that work here–Yolo Akili’s video work, Brontez Purnell’s growing from punk kid to full fledged performance artist, Awkward Black Girl, and now, another friend, Desiree Marshall (Awkward Black Girl isn’t a friend. But the others are.)

I’ve known Des for many years as our work as organizers and trainers in activist spaces. I was always impressed by her intellect, and the charisma she brought to political work. I’ve known she was also a spoken word artist, and always liked her work, but seeing her here, delivering this poem, “F*ck Facebook” made me see the incredible power she brings to her work as a performer, and her ability to command the audience’s attention. In addition, the piece itself, took me to some internal places about my own uses and experiences of facebook, of failed relationships, and I guess she commanded me, cynical me, away from my critical eye, even my eye as a friend of Des’ into the world of the piece itself. She had me. I loveit when an artist/ performer makes me want to perform again, and inspires me to step my own game up.

I think Des should write a whole show and take it on the road. There’s a space for her in the world, and the gift she has.

Watch and see.

Brontez Purnell Dance Company–LOVE THIS SHORT FILM

So a week or two ago I wrote a blog about my friend Brontez Purnell under some unfortunate circumstances. But I wanted to post this really innovative and creative short film (which Brontez tells me is a part of a longer creative project), in which he is dancer, drummer/musician, singer, and choreographer. I just thought this would introduce his work and worth to you in a different moment, one not in a state of duress.

 

A Must Read: King Leopold’s Ghost

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror & Heroism in Colonial AfricaKing Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror & Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I fucks with Adam Hochschild.

King Leopold’s Ghost is a brilliant book that traces how what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo became a “possession” of the Kings, the greed and profit made from its natural resources, the grotesque violence that resulted in 10 million deaths in 30 years, and the internal and external resistance movements that led to, in the short run, 50 years of colonization by the state of Belgium and not the King.

The book is a page turner, written in some respects like a novel more than a history text, with it’s detailed attention to the “facts” as much as character and narrative development. I also learned alot that not only deepened by knowledge of Africa during the colonial period, but also helped me understand the way contemporary racial politics are embedded in this history.

Part of the reason I say I fucks with Mr. Hochschild is because his analysis is so comprehensive. I often find with history books that while I learn a lot from the author in terms of historical fact, I often see through their political agenda and/or their political blindspots (willful or benign). And it’s not that Hochschild is without a politics here. What works for me about this book is I don’t think I have read another white male historian who is ambivalent about making white historical actors (and their notions of “progress” and “democracy”) look better than they are. As much as he criticizes King Leopold’s and his Congo “government’s” sadism and greed, he is also critical of the motivations and blindspots of many of the Europeans and American whites who were happy to place all of there energies in critiquing King Leopold, while their governments and corporations were involved in the very same acts of violence with genocidal proportions against Black people in Africa and in the diaspora.

This is a must read.
View all my reviews

Keynote Speech for Newark Pride Week

Remarks for Newark Pride Week City Hall Flag Raising Ceremony

Monday June 6th, 2011

Kenyon Farrow

First I want to thank the Newark LGBTQQ Advisory Commission, Newark-Essex Pride Coalition, Liberation in Truth Social Justice Center, and the African American Office of Gay Concerns.

When I first moved to the east coast from my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio in 1999, I moved to Jersey City. And like many people living in Northern New Jersey, I would spend a lot of time traveling on the PATH train into New York City, in the hopes of finding some safe space for a young Black gay man like myself, something called community.

I spent a lot of time on the Christopher Street piers in the West Village. Listening to the latest hip-hop, R&B, or house beats blaring from boom boxes, watching the next generation of ballroom legends perfect their best duckwalk, or butch realness runway—the broken slabs of concrete slung over the dark river that once upon a time, nobody else wanted, transformed into red carpet worthy of a Hollywood award ceremony. I would head into Two-Potato, a hole-in-the-wall dive bar just up the way, and catch the drag queens dart in and out of the flimsy curtain keeping their latest fashion creation mostly hidden from the audience until time for the big reveal. From there, the night might take me to Chi-Chiz, the bar that stood right next door to the PATH train, where I would sit at the bar, mostly getting drinks bought for me that I was to broke to afford, and in between the Anita Baker or Stephanie Mills oldies playing where the bar would seem to be singing in unison, I’d be talking to whomever was sitting next to me.

After some time, of spending many nights riding the rails underneath the Hudson River, I began to notice how many of us, mostly Black and Latino lesbians, gays, bisexual, queer and transgender folks were coming to and fro from Jersey City, Newark, and all parts of New Jersey in between, in search of community, a good time, or some place that felt safer than the homes, apartments, shelters, or street corners from which we were fleeing. I thought back on the many conversations I’d had at the pier, or on bar stools dotted along Christopher Street, where so many people who I’d socialized with in the West Village, NYC, were actually from New Jersey.

It made me think a lot about home, and even in my own work as an activist with FIERCE!, why we were fighting the gentrification and displacement happening to Black and Brown queer youth in the West Village, but had not yet stepped up to the task of working in the places where many of us actually lived.

Being from a city like Cleveland, which is the butt of many national jokes in the same way that Newark is, in that people blame the condition of the city on the people itself, and coming from such a place, means that you carry that stigma or mark. People carry the blame for a city’s condition, instead of understanding the way deindustrialization, the undermining of organized labor, the gutting of welfare and other safety net programs, education systems dependent on property taxes and the bloated policing and prison budgets as more responsible for the ways in which people have to live. In cities and communities like these, in the national conversations and media about the “gay community” it is almost as if LGBT people do not come from places like this.

Our cities are not places where life—certainly not fabulously queer life—can flourish, or so goes the logic. Most of are are not wealthy. Most of us do not have expendable incomes. Many of us have children—either our own, children of other family members we’re raising, or other people’s LGBT kids who’ve been kicked out. We, like most people around us, are a no more than 3 paychecks away from utter ruin. It feels cliché to say it, but the television images and sometimes advocacy organizations claiming to be speaking for us, don’t not only look like us, but aren’t speaking to the realities of what it means to be gay, black or latino, in a place like Newark. Race, class, gender and the community in which you grow up or live, all impact the way in which your life, and life choices are shaped. It is not that there can be no LGBT community in cities like Newark, but that it looks different, and sometimes in ways that are illegible to the so-called mainstream. In may ways, when primarily Black and Brown cities like Newark are discussed, especially in their proximity to being “LGBT friendly” is similar to the ways in which African countries are discussed, as “backward” where there are no local activists or communities of LGBT folk in those places who are working hard to challenge homophobia and transphobia, and are not waiting to be rescued by an American or European NGO.

Whether or not we are on the radar of the national LGBT movement as a legitimate set of organizations and coalitions with expertise in organizing in cities like Newark, is not important. It would be nice to be recognized. It would be nice to have some of those many millions of dollars in support from LGBT foundations coming in to support the work here.

But sometimes the best work happens in the places where there isn’t tons of support. With abandonment can come freedom—some sense of radical possibility. It is a place where innovation can occur, and where our community, or base constituents we are organizing, have the most opportunity to hold us accountable for the work we’re claiming to do in their name. And it is also important to me, that we do this work not just in the gayborhoods of America like the West Village & Chelsea, but that the work happens in Cleveland, Detroit, New Orleans, Bed-Stuy and East New York, Brooklyn, and Newark, NJ.

When the life of Sakia Gunn was taken in 2003, the question of where we do work became even more important to me. And although I knew there were organizations and activists already in place in Newark, like Liberation in Truth, AAOGC and longtime Newark activists like James Credle, I was impressed by the level of activism that took place here around her case, and a level of social justice work for the LGBT community here in Newark has only increased since. And Newark Pride Week, the possibility of public celebration of who we are, and our contributions to this city, is the fruit of all of the labor its taken since 2003 to build a better world for the LGBT community in Newark.

Though there have been other acts of violence, and other forms of targeting and bias that have occurred since, and sometimes challenging moments from members of the community who feel like having Pride Week or any LGBT recognition is an imposition, or a somehow in a city like Newark, separate from concerns about racial justice. To those people, I would offer that the work being done here by the coalition of grassroots organizations to make schools safe for students, to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic, to provide community activities locally for LGBT people is a benefit for any of us interested in reducing violence of any sort, of creating events and organizations that foster community and sense of belonging, and increasing the opportunities for supportive education environments for every student.

The fact that that we are here, celebrating PRIDE in Newark, because local organizations, local activists, decided to take care of home, is a testament to the strength, tenacity, intelligence and beauty of community organizing, the organizers who are here, many of whom have become close personal friends over the years. Struggle is never about arriving at some utopian destination, it is about the process of challenging what’s difficult, and continually building towards your vision of the world you want to live in.

So now the gentrification in NYC’s West Village is nearly complete—The Christopher Street Pier was redeveloped and privatized. The boom boxes have long been banned. A seemingly never-ending runway on which many a ballroom legendary icon trained, was paved over. With it, the numbers of yuppie baby carriages, joggers, and high-end retail shops have sprung from the ashes of Black and Latino LGBT bodies lost to concrete, their ghosts just visible in the shadows of the Hudson River. Some of their stories have been captured in history. On Christopher Street itself, Two Potato was shuttered around 2002, and that bar that sat right next to the PATH station, Chi-Chi’z, poured its last drink this past March. What stands in its place is a large fluorescent spotlight owned and operated by the New York Police Department, that probably cost several annual tuitions for a CUNY education, as a way to deter the young people from even stopping to hold a conversation.

So now that the NYC Christopher Street area has intentionally been made an inhospitable place for those of us who used to flock from Harlem, Bed-Stuy, East New York, Jersey City, and Newark night after night, I have to be thankful for the foresight of the LGBT community in Newark to be building community spaces right here, at home, for people to be able to organize, worship, receive needed services, and socialize.

So this year, we will celebrate Newark Pride with the usual mix of parties, marches, and festivities. We will raise this flag on Newark’s City Hall, which in many places is an act taken for granted. But I know that the celebrations are the result of struggle—a struggle that began long ago, has come along way, but has so very far to go!

Happy Pride, Newark!

Hot, Heavy & Bad Release ‘Undercover': Free Mixtape of Funky Futuristic Throwbacks of Classic Jams

In anticipation of the release of their first studio collaboration, Devon Lee & Joi have released a FREE downloadable mixtape called Undercover.

I happened to catch 2 shows of the duo in the last year where they focused on covering classic funk, rock, reggae and soul classics in only the way they know how–extra-funky. Once in 2010 I was in ATL at their show at Pal’s Lounge called Futuristic Throwbacks, and then recently at the Apollo Theater here in NYC, where they covered everyone from Bob Marley to Stevie Wonder, Billie Holiday to Teena Marie (in fact, it was Joi’s vocals on Square Biz that was the crowd favorite and evening show-stopper).

This Undercover mixtape features covers of Heart, The Beatles, Hair: The Musical, Johnny Cash, Edith Piaf, Three Degrees, Pink Floyd, War, & Kansas.

Joi and Devon Lee clearly know their music, and you should check out Undercover. Go to the Joilicious-Online.org to download. Check out this video of them doing Pink Floyd’s The Wall in concert in Brooklyn last fall (you might see me giving school boy swag in the bottom right corner of the screen.). Also, Joi recently spoke to AfroPunk.com about this project, so read the interview.

New Study Shows Black Gay Men Think Masculine Men are Less Likely to Have HIV

Are we the kind of boys/men we want?

According to a new study by  John’s Hopkins University, the answer is no.

The new study, conducted as a series of interviews with 35 young/teen Black men who have sex with men ages 18-24 shows that they:

  1. Almost exclusively prefer romantic and sexual partners they perceive to be masculine.
  2. Reluctant to allow a man they consider to be feminine to “top” them during sex.
  3. Allow men they perceive to be more masculine to control the terms of what kind of sex happens, including condom use.
  4. Consider masculine men to be less likely to have HIV, and feminine men to be more at risk.

According to the CDC’s last published incidence data from 2006, “among all black MSM, there were more new HIV infections (52%) among young black MSM (aged 13–29 years) than any other racial or ethnic age group of MSM in 2006. The number of new infections among young black MSM was nearly twice that of young white MSM and more than twice that of young Hispanic/Latino MSM.”

This study, while a very small sample, is interesting for several reasons. First, this study, unfortunately, speaks to the ways in which misogyny is very present in Black gay men’s spaces. Anyone who’s ever seen Black Gay Chat or Adam4Adam or any of the other outlets where Black gay men frequent for dating or sex, these notions about masculinity are abound. People still frequently post requirements about “must be masculine” or “no fats no femmes.” I am always curious about what does masculine mean? 50 Cent?

Michelangelo Signorille wrote a book many years ago called Life Outside, which dealt with the muscle and “straight acting” obsession in white gay male culture–and the ways in which muscle culture was used to also signify healthy and not having HIV, whether that was true or not, and I would say Phillip Brian Harper’s book Are We Not Men? is one of the closest Black gay books dealing with this issue. It was a reaction to AIDS and the more femme and androgynous aesthetic of the 1980s (like Boy George and George Michael for white gays, Sylvester, Prince and Jermaine Stewart for Black gays).

For white gay men, they often use sports imagery like “athletic” or “jock” to connote the kind of hypermasculinity most desirable. For Black and Latino gay men, that same hypermasculinity is expressed in hip-hop terms– the “thug” and “downlow (not necessarily as bisexual but as able to pass as heterosexual to other black people in public).” Most other kinds of black queer male aesthetics (afro-punks–as in punk rock, afro-centric, bohememians/neo-soul, Buppies, etc) are always trumped by hip-hop notions of masculinity.

But this study also points to the ways in which womanhood, or in this case, femininity, or one’s proximity to it, marks one as the vector of disease, as promiscuous, having dangerous sexual desires, and more deceptive of their partners. It’s similar to the ways in which women are most often blamed, and sometimes killed for the spread of HIV when straight men contract the virus.

This study points to a need to go beyond individual behavior models for preventing HIV, but undoing structures that impact people’s vulnerability or the contexts under which people are making decisions. We have to really have to find ways of confronting and challenging misogyny in our society (across sexuality and gender identities) that disempower those who see themselves or are labeled as woman, femme, or feminine.

Will the re-emergence of Black queer men in popular media change how young black queer men view gender and desire?

I think Yolo Akili’s short video and poem “Are We the Kinds of Boys/Men We Want?” are the kinds of interventions we need for Black gay youth and for public health researchers which explores these issues of power, desire and gender for Black queer men to interrogate our desires.

“Hyphy” Style Rapper Lil B Announces “I’m Gay” Album at Coachella

I hate to say I was right and I told you so, but, I WAS RIGHT!!! I TOLD YOU SO!!!

Two weeks ago I wrote an opinion piece for Colorlines.com about the fact that the hip-hop industry was going to change its tune around the place of queer artists within it, but that change, as 50 Cent noted, would likely be due to market forces of declining record sales and the way the gay consumer has become increasingly important market niche in global capitalism.

So last night at the famous Coachella Music Festival, up-and-coming hip-hop artist Lil B from Berkeley, California announced that he’s calling his upcoming album I’m Gay during his set. He stated (you can also watch in the video below):

“I’m gonna do the most controversial thing in hip-hop. Ya’ll heard it first. And I’mma just show you that words don’t mean s**t. I’mma make an album called ‘I’m Gay,’ right. Now I’mma tell you why I’m the first person to do it in hip-hop and why you’re the first people to know my reasons. I’m just gonna tell you. So many people be worried about what people mean and definitions of words and s**t… Now I like women, I love women, you feel me. But within yourselves, no matter what you do, it doesn’t matter, it’s like live life. You’ve only got one life to live. Be happy.”

Is Lil B coming out? Or is he using this as a way of tapping the gay market, and letting straight people know he’s not a homophobe? It’s worth noting he has a song called “Ellen Defgeners” where he’s rhyming about being famous and on television like Ellen Degeneres–no real mention of her sexuality but naming this white lesbian TV host as the standard of celebrity. Coachella is a great venue to do so, and get tons of publicity. The music festival has become an increasingly important venue for underground artists (so much so that mainstream artists like Prince, Kanye West and Rihanna have now all played there) to break into the mainstream, much like South By Southwest, if not bigger.

Now the question I have is when is the sexism and misogyny gonna go away in hip-hop? Will there ever be a reason, market forces or otherwise? Here’s a music video from Lil B…and if these 2009 lyrics are any indication (and I want to say I don’t mind overtly sexual lyrics or cursing in music, I wish I saw more straight men artist figure out how to rap about sex without being misogynist)…we have a long way to go…

UPDATE: Via Colorlines: Another article about Lil B.