An Opinion: “Not Quite A Rainbow, Star Ledger!”

I am ecstatic to see the most recent “Special Section” of the Star Ledger Magazine, dated May 31, 2011, dedicated, solely, to the purposes of making visible queer New Jerseyeans (and, apparently the “community’s” buying power as evidenced by the many consumer ads placed throughout), but I am troubled by the issue’s utter failure to irradiate all of the diverse “textures” and “colors” that its picturesque, rainbow-colored title page ostensibly seeks to reveal. 
Inside Jersey: Living Gay in the Garden State offers readers a disturbingly myopic frame of a “gay” Jersey that is, literally, monochromatic and insular in its lack of representation of non-white, non-suburban and non-middle class queer New Jerseyeans. What could have been a nuanced and commemorative segment ends up being nothing more than a seemingly under-researched piece that is certain to offend anyone who hoped, like me, to browse the segment and see a semblance of racial, ethnic, economic, neighborhood, and cultural diversity on any of the pages. But, maybe I am misreading the articles and images in failing to see the diversity that the editors intended to present beyond that of sexual identity.
This Special Section highlights a few exceptional locales where queer persons and families exist; however, queer New Jerseyeans also reside contentedly in urban spaces like Camden, Paterson, Trenton, Jersey City, Elizabeth, and Newark, as well. While we tend to turn to suburban, middle-class municipalities and townships like Collingswood (I grew up in neighboring Camden) and Maplewood (I went to undergrad in neighboring South Orange) as progressive, forward-thinking communities where queers can live comfortably, it is vitally important to consider the lives of queers who live outside of those spaces.
For example, I’ve lived (until recently) and am active in the city of Newark and have experienced the strongest sense of community and welcome as a queer man of color than any other spaces, including suburban locales like Laurel Springs and Princeton to name a few. To be sure, Newark (while it has its share of issues) was the first city in New Jersey to establish an official government instrumentality that advises the Mayor’s office on LGBTQ concerns. In fact, it was a coalition of mostly Newark-based advocates and not Maplewood or Montclair residents—along with a few representatives from Garden State Equality including Steve Goldstein, who worked with the county of Essex to establish a similar county-wide body this past year. Newark has been home to one of the state’s—and region’s—most celebrated pride week’s, namely, Newark-Essex Pride Week, for several years bringing Newarkers and non-Newarkers into communal celebration. Newark is home to the Hetrick-Martin Institute’s HMI-to-Go program, an initiative of the oldest and largest LGBTQ youth-serving organization in the world, which provides academic and mental health supports to Newark youth. Newark, under the auspices of the office of Mayor Cory A. Booker, was the host location for a brunch sponsored by the New York Chapter of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association in 2009. And, there’s so much more to say about Newark, which is only one of the few urban spaces where queers exist, which has been left out of the writers’ narratives describing queer Jersey.
Queers in New Jersey are diverse (i.e. non-white, Latino/Hispanic, working and jobless poor, non-married/non-partnered families, rural and urban, and/or non-LGBTQ identified) beyond the ways they are typified within this Special Section. The fact that the editors failed to illumine this fact leaves no other choice but for one to wonder about the absence. If it’s the case that the section seeks to drive a consumerist market towards the purchase of everything from cabaret show tickets to condominiums or that writers traced the usual trail of news stories (or lack thereof) located in media outlets focused on queer Jersey, then it is clear why the issue proves problematic. Whatever the case, I failed to see my queer, black, urban reflection in the rainbow-esque offering, and I am afraid that others might fail to see reflections of themselves, as well.


Celebrating Sakia Gunn…2011

Sakia Gunn would have celebrated 23 years of life today. We are left, however, with the task of honoring Sakia-a young daughter of Newark-whose days were shortened by way of a physical weapon (a knife) and ideological artillery (heterosexism/sexism). But, Sakia’s spirit remains among us: waking us from our social (un)consciousness and enlivening us to do the work of justice in Newark, NJ and elsewhere. In fact, hate may seek to destroy but it doesn’t kill. Here are 10 reasons why:

1. After Sakia’s murder, her family and friends stood up for justice. Young Newarkers, like Dawn James and Valencia Bailey, galvanized others to stand in solidarity with Sakia’s family, pushed city leaders and politicians to act and organized peaceful memorials.

2. The Newark Pride Alliance (NPA) was formed under the leadership of LaQuetta Nelson and James Credle in response to Sakia’s death. NPA began its advocacy work armed with the mission to ensure that safe spaces are created and maintained in the city of Newark.

3. Cory A. Booker, who was a councilperson at the time of Sakia’s murder, turned his attention to the case, in particular, but would vow to make LGBTQ issues a priority.

4. Filmmaker, Charles “Chas” Brack, directs and produces “Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Story,” and, along with Sakia’s family members, begin to carry her name from Newark to other spaces around the world.

5. June Dowell-Burton introduces the City of Newark to LGBTQ pride when she founded Newark-Essex Pride Coalition and Newark-Essex Pride Week. Pride moved queer celebrations from meeting rooms and other social spaces to the streets of Newark.

6. The City of Newark, with the Newark-Essex Pride Coalition, under the auspices of Mayor Booker, councilperson Dana Rone and June Dowell-Burton, raises the rainbow flag at the entrance to Newark City Hall.

7. Liberation in Truth Unity Fellowship (LITUFC) forms the Social Justice Center as an extension of its faith ministry to address issues of injustice in the community. True Colors, a queer youth initiative, was subsequently developed to provide avenues of expression for queer youth.

8. New Jersey Community Research Initiative (NJCRI) develops and implements Project WOW, a drop-in center for queer youth who are engaged or disengaged from the school system.

9. NPA, in partnership with the City of Newark, Hetrick-Martin Institute and Rutgers-Newark, chaired 3 free full-day conferences on religion, education and health, hosted a series of trainings for Newark Public Schools, advocated on behalf of queer students and provided trainings to NPS students…the City of Newark now has an official instrumentality, thanks to Dana Rone and Ronald Rice, Jr., that advises the Mayor on LGBTQ concerns and the county of Essex, following the city’s lead, has just organized its own body to do the same…the city of Newark and Newark Public Schools is now home to the HMI-to-Go afterschool program for queer youth….Rutgers-Newark LGBTQ groups now hold annual events on campus…New Jersey Performing Arts Center hosts its “Newark is Burning” event…African American Office of Gay Concerns, with the assistance of FemWorks and MedinaCiti, launches its “Status is Everything” Campaign….

10. The Sakia Gunn High School for Civic Engagement, an initiative spearheaded by the Hetrick-Martin Institute and the Newark Public Schools and supported fully by Sakia’s mother and family, will open its doors in the city of Newark in the Fall of 2012….and sooooooooo much more! Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Matthias Pressley are right in warning us against the need to lift up Sakia as a victim and martyr only. Instead, they encourage us to celebrate Sakia, the young, vibrant, human being, from Newark. Today, on her birthday, we celebrate her spirit that continues to drive Newarkers to serve toward the end of creating safer spaces.

Add to the list your celebratory comment or event that you would like to name in honor of Sakia…

in love and community…darnell and june

A Note for Jordan Miles…and for all black and brown boys living in a police state…

It was a sunny afternoon in “Pollock Town” and the bells signaling the end of my school day at Camden High had rang a few hours before. I was home. I decided, as I typically did, to leave my grandmother’s house—which happened to be my house (and at various points in time, every family member’s house)—on Vanhook Street (as it was named then) to my Aunt Arlene’s house directly around the corner. We lived in a neighborhood where youth played outside often, where homes were literal camping grounds for neighborhood children, where fights broke out and brought everyone to their porches, where “posses” were family and formed because of boredom, and where one might receive love as easily as s/he did bullying. Drugs, like other urban spaces, had a stronghold on our neighborhood. I assume that’s the reason that our police took to our neighborhood as if it were a war zone where civilians figured in their skewed imaginations as either the drug user or pusher. Most forgot, I assume, that they too had family in our small city who just as easily matched their stereotypes given that most of the presumed “shining shields” were from the same hood that they had begun to terrorize. I digress….but, not really.

I walked elatedly as I turned the corner of the street where my Aunt’s house was located—adorning my fresh kicks, rocking trendy gear, and flaunting my flashy herringbone necklace with matching bracelet. I’ve always had a penchant for nice clothes and sneakers even if I could not really afford them. So, I would clean my sneakers with a toothbrush and iron my clothes as if I worked at a professional dry cleaning service. I understood, honestly, the lure that pulled other young brothers into a fast-paced life of drugs and money: even while I witnessed the lives of those that I love being wrecked by drugs, I desired to live the “Rap City” life (at least wear the clothes that rappers were wearing in the videos) every day. But, I was lured by my dreams of something better and books instead; though, I managed to live into “street” fantasies every now and then. But, my black male body—adorning fresh kicks, rocking trendy gear, flaunting flashy herringbones—remained a point of surveillance because of its seeming displacement from the “set” (read, drug corners). I assume.

A city of Camden cop car turned the opposite corner as I walked passing young and not-so-young black males on the corner. The car increasingly picked up speed as it moved down the street in the direction I walked. I walked to my aunt’s house often, practically lived there, and had my share of eyewitness accounts of police happenings on the block. So, I expected there to be nothing new but the mundane emergency response to some neighbor’s call. The car moved quickly unto the sidewalk. I was surprised considering that there wasn’t anyone walking on that part of the block but me. The black cop jumped out of the car and screamed words that I still don’t remember to this day–lthough, he mentioned something about “look out boys”–because I was in shock as my arm (the same arm that I would typically use to write essays in my advanced English courses, the same arm that I would use to place money in the hands of bus drivers when traveling downtown to take college-level classes at Camden County even while a high schooler, the same arm that I used to make silkscreen t-shirts as part of my summer youth employment job) was violently placed behind my back as if the black cop wanted to break my arm as well as my spirit. I could see my aunt’s boyfriend, Big Sam, running down the street and feared that the black cop would turn from me and beat the black man coming his way. But, he didn’t. He threw me in the back of the car and was unaware that I was a student in Camden High’s IPLE (Institute for Political and Legal Education) where Coach Hanson had taught us about Miranda rights and what happens when our law enforcement officers break the law by failing to recite them. I am certain he was unaware of this fact, because I matched his image of the public enemy: black, male, and hood. So, he drove away without reading my rights. He angrily asked, as he drove, my name to which I gave him none….my birthdate to which I responded by asking him for his ID number…my purpose for walking the street to which I asserted “walking to my aunt’s house.” Shoulder hurting and spirit broken, I sat in the back terrified for my life, and, for a second, the life of every black male in an America that still images us as America where black men see each other as enemies.

Sam finally caught up with us on Atlantic Avenue, which is about seven minutes away-by car-from where I was initially picked up. I am certain that the black cop would have rather me walk back home (or worse, limp) if he had his choice. Sam commenced his appeal: he’s a good kid, an “A” student, don’t mess with anybody, ain’t never sold drugs, going places. I sat in the back of the locked police car pissed as hell and sad to the point of tears. He eventually let me go, but his hands are still felt on my arm and the pain is still very real in my shoulder. Even as I write this I feel the need to cry: for the brother who couldn’t see me…or himself in me and for those who are innocent victims of police brutality whether they are guilty of committing crimes or not.

This is for Jordan Miles! And, while my tears might have been the result of a broken spirit then, I cry tears of righteous indignation in solidarity with those who stand against the machinations of a police state today.

A Review of Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention”

Manning’s Invention, or, Malcolm’s Reinvention?

Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X” is an adroit craftsperson: an artisan who is skilled at undergoing perpetual “reinventions.” Marable’s thesis, in his now widely discussed and contested Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, is grounded in the proposition that “self-invention was an effective way for [Malcolm] to reach the most marginalized sectors of the black community giving justification to their hopes.” According to Marable, Malcolm’s travels (between his pasts and futures) and travails (to define his self and his politics) in a raced, classed, irreligious (read, anti-Islamic) and imperialist American (and, later, international) context were driven largely by his desire to engage in the process of relentless reinvention: a process of continual, purposeful becomings, not necessarily for himself, but for the “black community” that would eventually claim him as its “Prince.”

Marable’s biography, flowing from this idea, recreates the sometimes tragic, and, mostly gallant, life and death of a martyr who dies for a cause—for others—but also a radical (and complicated) freedom fighter who dies also to his “self” and volition. Malcolm, via Marable, is caricatured as a “social being”—only imagined within the context of his beingness-in-relation-to the larger societal context where there exists a need for a salvific protagonist of the burgeoning black radical tradition and villainous antithesis to the very ideas of the presumed democratic tradition of white racist (and liberalist) America. But, as Baldwin illumines when writing about Richard Wright’s Native Son in his essay “Many Thousand Gone”: “the reality of a man as a social being is not his only reality and that artist is strangled who is forced to deal with human beings solely in social terms” (emphasis added). Marable, who was committed to the task of a historian as opposed to fiction writer, develops a narrative that refuses to allow space for Malcolm X the “human being” who exists without the ostensible proclivity towards “self-reinventions” that benefit others while only tangentially benefiting the human actor himself.

One must, then, interrogate the argument that is weaved into the narrative arc that directs Marable’s historical analysis of Malcolm X the “social being.” If the argument goes that Malcolm’s life “narrative is a brilliant series of reinventions,” as Marable suggests, then it would follow that Malcolm Little/Detroit Red/Big Red/Malcolm X/Malik Shabazz/El-Hajj Malik Shabazz were merely iterations along a continuum of perpetual and purposeful becomings, which were driven by external forces only, rather than the living-into, or, rather, states of beings that emerge and re-emerge as a result of the contextual life spaces and experiences that propel any human being toward self-motivated (and sometimes unmethodical) change. The former is a sign of a tragic life while the latter opens up the possibility for life’s complex beauty.

So, was the life of Malcolm X one defined by reinventions (for the sake of everyone but himself) or was Malcolm X delimited by Marable’s drive to invent a Malcolm X whose propensity manifested towards such desires? And, did such a desire impact the Malcolm X that the reader is left to grapple with? Even if one is not sure of that answer, s/he should read Marable’s work with that question in mind or otherwise s/he might find him/herself guilty of submitting to a politicized historiography of a sociopolitical Malcolm X that fails to fully capture the human being who just happened to be, like all of us, social and political.

A Response to a Response to a Response: On White Liberal Organizing

So, I recently responded to an email correspondence between several Newark-rooted LGBTQ leaders/activists and a few representatives from a larger, regionally-focused organization regarding our responses to the tragic shooting of DeFarra “Dean” Gaymon at the hands of an undercover police officer in Branch Brook Park in Newark. In sum, I argued that their approach was wrong (as it is often, in my opinion) and a rep responded by ostensibly suggesting that responses like mine impede collaboration. I’ve decided to post the conversation (and a response from a comrade) because it speaks to the problem of macro-level organizing that doesn’t account for people, communities, and cultures on the ground.

Here’s my response to a Board Member’s argument for the opening of space for partnership between the larger, regional organization and that of the local organizations/groups:

Dear Friend:

Thank you so much for your note/testimony! I am glad that we were able to sit next to one another yesterday, as well.

Personally, I am quite thankful that this discussion, particularly as it relates to collaboration and “community”, is taking place. I think that such times push us to re-examine our relationships and those aspects of our relationships that, both, advance and impede our activist projects. Yet, it also presents us with the opportunity to speak honestly about the ways in which power and privilege operate in our interpersonal and system-oriented relationships. Let me try to explain what I mean by referencing, what I think were, teachable lessons from my short time/work in Newark.

When I began work in Newark, I thought that there existed a monolithic “thing” that we could name a “LGBT” or “queer” community.  I was of the opinion that every LGBT person in the city (because I imagined that there were many) knew about the programs and community-based organizations whose missions and work focused on LGBT issues. I thought that we could organize one meeting to discuss LGBT issues and everyone would come out of their concern for the “community.” It wasn’t long before I discovered that there were many points of difference that complicated this notion of a unified/monolithic community in Newark. I soon realized that economic status and perceived class factors kept certain LGBT contingencies from venturing into different parts of the city, from attending certain meetings, from buying tickets to specific events. I realized that race and ethnic identification would play a strong role in group formation, and community partnerships. I realized that age, neighborhood, religion, historical era, Newark nativity vs. Newark newcomer status would sooner have a stronger impact on the ways that one would imagine “community” than the mere sharing of a particular “sexual identity” category or politic. In other words, I realized that to get to place of shared politics, concern and collaboration much work would have to be done on my behalf to ensure that I HEAR the different perspectives maintained by other folk (who lived in different Newark neighborhoods than me) and to RESPECT that some folk didn’t prefer my approach to organizing (because some felt that I maintained a top down approach that didn’t consider the needs of those who lived in economically-stressed neighborhoods, folk who weren’t in my intellectual/academic/social circles, folk who walked balls, danced at the Armory near Baxter Street Terrace Housing Projects as opposed to those who look down at the ball scene and preferred exclusive parties in the brownstones of James Street). This is my experience. But, what I am sharing it? What am I trying to say? Well, for starters, I think that we need to acknowledge the following:

1. While I will not/can not argue against [said organization’s] amazing national and regional work and people-strength (e.g. many thousand members across the county, including more than thousand plus in Newark), it is my opinion that [said organization] comes to the “table” with the belief that our ideals, politics, advocacy positions, and modes of activism are the same. Again, this, in my opinion, and is a problem shared by many large regional and national LGBT organizations, namely, the belief that the work done at the “macro” level speaks directly to the needs and interests of an imagined LGBT “community” at the “micro” level-or on the ground. That understanding does not allow for a serious consideration of the multitude of spaces we inhabit, the diverse perspectives we maintain (e.g. we may be LGBT but some of us choose not to fight for marriage equality because it does not cohere with our politics), or the reality that we need to examine and check the blind spots that may prevent us from seeing how our practices and perceptions shield us from engaging in ways that are equitable.

2. Why Gaymon’s tragic story is not owned by Newark and, indeed, is the story of a man who lost his life in Newark, Essex County, New Jersey, it is one that pulls at the heart of those who live in this city, whose bodies daily maneuver through the streets here in Newark. And, why strong connections can be made to Maplewood and South Orange, the real-time effects of racism (i.e. the disproportionate number of people of color who are victims of police perpetuated violence and institutionalized oppression at the level of the courthouse and jailhouse) and economic injustice (i.e. the disproportionate number of economically distressed and working class folk affected by the same) and heterosexism (i.e. the number of cases of folk harassed on our streets by citizens and cops) makes cases like the Gaymon story that much more “real” and “felt” in the lives and bodies of those living in Newark. The maintenance of analysis at this level, in my mind, signals a respect for the space and place that certain communities exist in and a nuanced understanding of the systemic issues that plaque such communities on the ground.

3. Lastly, collaboration does not necessarily mean that everyone should be at EVERY table. Collaboration means maintaining an understanding (and process) that is advanced by the group regarding who the group feels should speak, when they should speak and what should be said. Yet, collaboration, at least as I understand is, is a continuous process of engagement. That is, we don’t sit at the table when a situation spews but are always already present. I am thankful that despite the many challenges leaders face here in this city, many have taken heed to the idea of commitment and presence. Frankly, [said organization] shows up when it is campaigning for marriage equality and when high-profile incidents take place. There are meetings taking place all the time…Pride celebrations…scholarship dinners…positive/asset focused events that I have not seen [said organization] reps or its 1200 Newark members present at.

I apologize for the length, but am sharing my thoughts in love. In some ways, I felt inspired to do so by your free sharing. Let’s start a fruitful discussion regarding how we might “collaboratively” collaborate.



The response of the organization’s representative:

Darnell, thank you so, so much.   We would be delighted to attend Newark-based events on a regular basis anytime the invitation is there – when we’re invited, we almost always show up, even when we know that sometimes we’re going to be in the figurative hot seat.  That’s okay.  We will never give up on trying to have closer relations, even if the road is bumpy.   It is worth it to invest the time into another, so we don’t base our perceptions on assumptions – whether assumptions about Newark’s LGBT community or assumptions about [said organization].

By the way, about a third of our work is on marriage equality, and most of the laws we’ve passed and actions we’ve taken over the years have had nothing to do with marriage equality.   Other issues on which we’ve worked so hard include transgender rights, youth at risk and equal employment opportunities, and we’ve done particular organizing in faith communities.

We respect the unique role that Newark LGBT organizations have regarding a tragedy that occurred in Newark.  X’s view that [said organization], too, has a role in this situation, as other statewide organizations do reflects that of our other members, to whom we’re responsive.

And, now a metaphorical response to the problem of White Liberal Organizing by a comrade, C. Riley Snorton:

Dear White Liberal Organizer*

I realize that your tone — a mixture of condescending self-congratulation and bureaucratic coldness — is a reflection of two larger problems: the non-profit industrial complex and the inheritance of certain white liberal traditions, which probably prevent you from even understanding what’s wrong with your response both to the email, which proceeded your own, and to the tragedy of the fatal killing of Mr. Gaymon by a Newark police officer.  Please understand, WLO, that the indignation in this letter is really not about you, at all.  Rather, it is about a need to articulate the weariness produced by witnessing similar types of responses time and time again.  It is tiresome, WLO, because of the systemic nature of it all and the variety of responses (similar to yours) that undermine the race, class, gender, and sexual specificity of the tragedies for which your organization feels it should be responsive.  It is also tiresome that an email that is supposed to be in support of local grassroots responses to Mr. Gaymon’s murder is principally about protecting the interests of an organization who implicitly feels a need to defend itself against perceptions and assumptions that it is pursuing a mainstream gay agenda.

Before changing careers, I worked alongside you as an employee of two major LGBT non-profits.  So please understand that when I say, it’s not about you, it really isn’t. I know the position you’re in–the role you play–very well. But the problem as I see it, is that the more we internalize the values of the economic structures that support and unfotunately implicitly lead the kinds of work we do, the less we are able to understand and undo a cycle of paternalism that structures the road of organizing (for pay).  I believe it is also this set of systematic incentives from our funding structures that cause larger organizations to deride local community organizing as either ineffective or threatening–making the path to cooperative action and social justice bumpy indeed.

So let me conclude this letter with an invitation.  I invite you to show up–not simply physically, with your bodies, at a community action, but to show up with some reflexivity and a connectedness to the materiality of social justice.  The price of a human life should never register as an obligation to respond to one’s members.


Tired Black Activist

* This note is my version of a letter to a young (white liberal) activist.  To be clear, this letter is not an actual response to the content of the email but a metaphorical response to the kinds of rhetoric that characterize what is most problematic about white liberal organizing.