“The Road Before Us”: Gay Black Poets from a generation ago

Scotch Bonnet Peppers on Ice_B_February 2016

Preface to The Road Before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets (1991)
The Road Before Us could have taken a far different path. As its editor and co-publisher, what I wanted foremost was a collection that would provide one more stepping-stone on the road to gay black poetical empowerment. Too often this has been the road not taken.
Each poet in this volume is represented by one poem…..
I relish this mixture of styles, which are as wide-ranging as our concerns. The myths, metaphors, and mundaneness of our gay black community, like those of any other community, broaden and deepen everyone’s knowledge of what it is to be human.
Most of the poets in this anthology have never appeared in a book before…..
It is my dream that all these fine young writers will keep penning poetry, polishing their craft, and juicing up a literally dying art.
The title The Road Before Us is borrowed from a line in the poem “Hejira” that the late Redvers JeanMarie wrote about our friendship. He dedicated it to me. I cherish it. It is anthologized here. The choice of “gay black poets” rather than “black gay poets” was a personal one. I originally used the working subtitle Gay African-American Poets – to which some contributors strongly objected because they were not born in the United States and, moreover, have not chosen to naturalize as American citizens (as I have).
Afrocentrists in our community have chosen the term “black gay” to identify themselves. As they insist, black comes first. Interracialists in our community have chosen the term “gay black” to identify themselves. As they insist, gay comes first. Both groups’ self-descriptions are ironically erroneous. It’s not which word comes first that matters, but rather the grammatical context in which those words are used – either as an adjective or as a noun. An adjective is a modifier of a noun. The former is dependent upon the latter.
I have never labeled myself either Afrocentrist or interracialist. From reading or seeing my theatre pieces, many might characterize me as an Afrocentrist; but others might immediately characterize me as an interracialist because I have loved and lived with a white man for the past eleven years.
Although I make no excuses or apologies for the racially bold statements in my writings, I also owe no one any justification of my “till-death-do-us-part” interracialist relationship. While the black gay vs. gay black debate rages on, in much-needed constructive dialogue, we’d best ponder, as L. Lloyd Jordan did at the conclusion of his essay “Black Gay vs. Gay Black”(BLK, June 1990): “Who are gay blacks and black gays? Halves of a whole. Brothers.”
Furthermore, I consider my sexuality a preference. Most of us have an inclination to bisexuality that we don’t acknowledge or act upon. I am very proud of my gayness – which is not to be confused with homosexuality.
In the preface to his book Gay Spirit, Mark Thompson explains this distinction clearly: “Gay implies a social identity and consciousness actively chosen, while homosexual refers to a specific form of sexuality. A person may be homosexual, but that does not necessarily imply that he or she would be gay.”
I declare that a person may be gay – but not necessarily homosexual.
Colour – and it is much more than skin pigmentation – is not a preference. The same has not to this day been scientifically demonstrated regarding our gayness, which is so much more than sexual orientation. It’s hard to imagine that any writer in this anthology would ever want to change either his colour or his gayness, given a choice.
I realize that these views add fuel to the “fire and brimstone” pronouncements of those in far-right politics who argue that we lesbians and gays could change to “normal” if we wanted to.
While I agree with our lesbian and gay community’s tenet that some of us can’t change, I would stand up anytime to Jesse Helms and his ilk, and declare loudly that, whatever the case may be, I refuse to change. Far too many of us continuously let church and state dictate our fate, by submitting to their painful spiritual and political butt-fuck.
What does all this politics have to do with poetry?
As Judy Grahn said in a keynote address at OutWrite ’90: “Poetry predicts us, tells us where we are going next.”
Shouldn’t we, the poets in this anthology, dispatch to Helms our gay black poems each time he gets up in front of the Senate and spews forth yet another homophobic or racist harangue without fairness of debate and real challenge? Couldn’t fifty of us (one representing each state of siege that he wants to turn our USA into) also fax him full-size etchings of our dicks to be inserted in The Congressional Record. Then ours would not be the dicks of death – as popularly characterized – but truly the dicks of everlasting political life.
. . .
Some months ago I urged all the contributors who are HIV-positive or have AIDS to come out. I felt than, and I still feel, that there is nothing that those of us in this predicament could reveal in our bios that is more urgent and deserving of mention than our sero-positivity or diagnosis.
A number of contributors agreed. I applaud their trust and thrust. Others who have previously come out publicly chose not to do so in this instance. A few who I know to be in the last stages of HIV illness cited confidentiality and their right of privacy.
While sympathetic to the right of privacy issue, I also find it part of the overall problem. It fosters anonymity rather than visibility. And when we don’t show en masse the lives, the faces, and the hearts of AIDS – ours included – we are accepting all the connotations of shame, all the mystification of sin and repentance that those who are plainly simple-minded place on a virus.
AIDS is a Pandora’s Box.
There is real jeopardy in revealing sero-positivity, publicly or privately. In gay black poetry the issue has been primarily dealt with from a third-person narrative rather than a first-person focus.
Meanwhile, in highly disproportionate numbers compared to our percentage in the American population, and adding to the lowering of our expected paltry sixty-year-or-so lifespan as black men, there are many gay disappearing acts among us, too often played solo, or for a small – and not so captive – audience. As the late Joseph Beam, editor of In The Life, anticipated and stated: “These days the nights are cold-blooded and the silence echoes with complicity.”
Back in April 1988 Joe [Joseph Beam] stayed overnight at my apartment, as he always did when he visited New York City. I detected the [AIDS] syndrome beneath the moodiness, innuendoes, and fungus of the fingers. I did not disclose to him my own sero-positivity, although – thinking of it now – I believe that he detected more than just a holocaust obsession in the poems I shared with him.
What kind of “deadly guessing game” were Joe and I – two of the better-known gay black writers – supposedly leaders – and most importantly, friends – playing with each other? What kind of label do I attach to my name, after leaving unreturned messages on his answering maching, for not marching down to Philadelphia and knocking on / down his door?
Yes, I am sick of the destructive threats that HIV constantly poses to my life-partner, my lovers, my friends, my communities, and me. On my desk, pictures of Redvers [JeanMarie], David [Frechette], and Ortez [Alderson] – to whose memory this anthology is dedicated – are framed like icons.
Each time I write I hear their voices, backed by a chorus of others I loved (“One AIDS death every eight minutes; it ain’t enough to write, you gotta demonstrate!”) pound in my head, like those sanctifying drums, especially tambou assôto, I used to hear in my childhood in Haiti in the hours of darkness.
. . .
May the rhythm of our gay black hearts be as uplifting in our daily lives as it is in our essays, anthologies, films, rallies, one-night-stands – and poems.
May the rhetoric never rage like the grandstand of many pedantics in the gay white community, which we so often hasten to castigate for claiming to speak on behalf of our “rainbow” community.
And most of all, may we come to believe in each other – heroes, first, to ourselves – unafraid to “strike a pose” and take a stand.
Ours is a country where omens abound out of control. Ours is a country tempted by fascism. Ours is a country in a demythologized age, perhaps void of salvation. Yet I don’t believe in the destruction of America, but in a reconstitution that recognizes our fully participating gay black voices.
Silence = Death.
Writing = Life.
Publishing = Survival.
With sixty T-cells left, I live on borrowed time. However, self-pity and sympathy are not part of my survival kit – another factor why making this book a reality became a first priority.
But when I do die, killed like hundreds of thousands in this AIDS war, may it transpire that every Memorial Day – until the circus of media, clown masks of stigma, and jeers of hysteria stop in our country; and certainly until a cure is found, or at least until a do-or-die governmental, scientific, and societal commitment to discover one finally gets underway – my life-partner, mother, lovers, friends, fellow poets, somebody, anybody…burn the Stars and Stripes then toss the ashes over my grave.
And please don’t sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” – but, furiously, read back every poem in the following pages.
Assotto Saint, nom de guerre
Summer 1991, New York City

Scotch Bonnet Peppers on Ice_A_February 2016

Poems from The Road Before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets, edited by Assotto Saint, published 1991
. . .
Love Song
you move me to poetry
to song
you’re often in my thoughts
are my thoughts
moving me to poetry
to song
then to poetry
even your silence
tells me things
your heart can’t
and when you are near
you can no more
maintain than i
in a dream
i loved you long
and deep
you let go
i let go
without a touch
i awoke wet
you move me to poetry
to song
you’re in my fantasies
are my fantasies
you are moving me to poetry
to song
then to poetry

. . .
Eric Stephen Booth
An Exercise in Misogyny
So I lied and told her that I loved her
Starved, she took me seriously
My heart couldn’t make a U-turn
Out of pity I married her
I hit her when I was wrong, then gave her
Roses with thorns to reconfirm our vows
Out of fear of being exposed
Growing up just like dad
Through journeys of weekend violence
It dawned on me after our fourth child
That my heart wasn’t steering
And my brain was on automatic drive
She damned me to hell
My mother couldn’t believe her ears
After a lifetime of masculine strife
I came face to face with my fears
. . .’

Rory Buchanan
I was taught
men marry women
have two point five kids
ranch homes in suburbs
with impossibly green lawns
surrounded by
pristine white picket fences
shop at pathmark and k-mart
buy tools from sears
go to church every sunday
pray for salvation
find mistresses when bored
I was told
it was wrong to
love another man
touch the way I do
mingle spirits and fluids
feel okay about who I am
listen to my heart
expose the real me
admit to being gay
I was warned
that if I followed my
unconventional desires
slept with a man
satisfied wants
fulfilled needs
I would burn in hell
fry forever
I tell them
“Start the barbecue”.
. . .
John E. Bush
Remember Me
Remember me for the love I gave
and tried to give
for the companionship we shared
held dear
– remember me.
Although I would have liked
our time together to have been longer
so much I wanted to do
so much you expected of me
it was not to be
– still remember me.
Think about those good times
when we laughed and dined
at the table of fellowship
good times now gone
yet preserved forever in your memory
– remember me.
Know that my love for you
was not one that was duty-bound
but it emerged sincerely
from some unknown place
a love once mine
now left to you to hold
and pass on to others
when it is your turn to leave
– so remember me.
Not in a sorrow of despair
but triumphantly
remember me.
. . .
Rickey Butler
After the Fuck
when the sheets are up
the curtains drawn
and your eyes get all fuzzy
because of the sun,
don’t disappear
. . .
Don Charles
Pony Boy
White man
Wealthy man
Bed is cold
Body old
Black man
Healthy man
Firm and young
Heavy hung
Silver man
Pays to score
Horny guy
Out to buy
Mocha man
Plays the whore
Life is hell
Got to sell
Business man
Hotel suite
So discreet
Hustler man
Hired lover
Money’s right
Spends the night
Respected man
Life of leisure
Owns the town
Sneaks around
Survivor man
Selling pleasure
Rich man’s toy
Pony boy
. . .
J. Coleman
When I write to Godmother
I’m careful with
Slang takes a holiday
careful not to twist
my tongue
She must not hear the
loose metaphor nights
nor smell the necks I’ve licked –
I don’t smack my lips
She must not see
the boys I’ve kissed
nor hear the whispers –
She must not examine my prose
for nuance
nor read between
too many lines –
But if asked
I won’t deny perdition –
What price
a letter!
I feel pen pricks
in my soul.
With a clean sheet of paper in hand
and newly brushed teeth
I ask
“How are you?”
. . .
Carl Cook
Love Letter #25
September has
the clearest air
the coolest nights
the brightest moons lie still
like autumn leaves
I am renewed
by thoughts of you
my love
I may need to wear a raincoat
galoshes made of manufactured latex
an umbrella wide enough
to keep us dry
in a sudden storm
But I am
of the faith
that storms will pass
the rains will dry
and love as cool and clear
as September air
will still be ours
. . .

Rodney G. Dildy
The heroes have died
Died twisting to blind
leadened boogies
Died broken blue midst indigo
moods, sworded bone
unsheathed ivory
blood-burned biceps
Died cold-dredged
thru mute catfish alleys
My heroes
they have all died
over or underqualified
neglected or exposed
from genius and gross
Died dirty-nailed
Died gem-cysted
Scotch Bonnet Peppers on Snow_A_February 2016
Sean Drakes
Love Lesson #1
(To Richard Cousar, whose death to AIDS encourages safer-sex behaviour, drives knowledge-sharing, stimulates my artistic responses to the epidemic, and has taught me what love feels like.)
A summer Sunday on Christopher Street
brought us together:
Two black gay men
yearning for love.
Quicker than instantly,
we shared secrets, passion,
weekends and underwear.
Suddenly, my six months exhausted,
I had to package
then file
this ideal come true.
I was twenty-one,
he, forty-three,
and rekindling
a thirteen-year romance
as I coped with foreign feelings.
The bright winter moon
guided me –
a messenger of good will
and faith
in a plastic pouch –
to and from his hospital
Day by day,
and offerings failed
to salvage my friend,
till after I hung up the phone,
a restless night
. . .
Roy Gonsalves
Black Summer
I know what it’s like to pick peppermint
from my garden
to make tea to calm my shattered nerves
wishing for magic to render sanity.
I’ve torn memories in my photos
ripped decorations by ex-lovers
snipped petunias for fun
burned hate letters in the fire of the grill.
I know what it’s like to recite
eighteen psalms in one night
to pray not to become one of Satan’s disciples
and cast a deadly spell.
I’ve heard whispers from my lover’s lips
telling me he’s sleeping with my so-called friend
I’ve lived harlequin romances
and watched them turn into bloody nightmares
where I became the murderer.
I know what it’s like to plot murder
to shoot a friend in the face
and watch his smile fall blank
to beat bloody my belovéd
with a hammer
and leave him in the cellar.
I know what it’s like to choke on hatred
despise the image in the mirror
and every living thing that moves.
I know the terror of being alone
for fear I might kill myself.
I’ve seen impatiens in my garden
shrivel up and die before my eyes.
I know what it’s like to be dead.
I’ve been to a funeral
in my own home
heard the ancestors scream:
“It’s not your time…”
I’ve watched summer turn black.
I know what it’s like to have your heart
turn into hot ice
waiting to burn.
. . .
L.D. Hartfield-Coe
You have been wasting a life /
with struggle and strife /
still you wonder /
late at night /
will the dawn ever come /
the rain stop /
so you can /
reach out for the light /
and make amends /
raining again /
will the sun ever shine /
a rainbow will be his sign /

. . .
F. Spencer Irvin
Black Culture in the Park
There’s a lot of culture in the park.
From the handsomest B-boys
To the sassiest Divas;
The Black Bourgeosie
To Homeless America.
There’s a lot of culture in the park.
A large wooded area:
A place with fountains and ponds,
Hills and rocks, grass and trees
Where “boys” walk, look, searing,
And men grope, seek, searching
For orgasms.
Do you practise “safe sex”?
Neither did they.
There’s a lot of culture in the park.
A youngman of twenty-eight or so:
A beautiful man, but a man of the streets –
Survivor – he asked me to pay him
Three bucks, and he’d take care of me.
There’s a lot of Black culture in the park.
. . .

G. Winston James
To Be Brave
Can you hear my footsteps as I approach the waiting grave?
Can you see my despair as I descend into death’s cave?
Do you recall the day when I imbibed that savage blood?
Do you know of shattered dreams, crushing of frozen rosebud?
How can I look ’round at my prints buried in the deep snow?
How can I bear that as it melts all trace of me will go?
Can you hear my footsteps as I approach the waiting grave?
If so, will you be there with me to help me to be brave?
. . .
Redvers JeanMarie
(for Yves Lubin)*
There were no colours
A night without azure
And a cloud-covered moon misted
Our skins
Such yearning could not be pinned
A rustle of trees gave no answers
Nor the ambient air
A sense of plenitude
The road before us with no symbols
A restrictive sense of nothingness
Wrapped us firm
I’ve a natural strength
And can follow with you
I heard myself
Questions long forgotten
What we’ve become
Has no name
. . .
* Yves Lubin = Assotto Saint
. . .
Sidney Curtis Johnson
Sunday, November 6, 1987
He came
the day
its reason.


I stared
a child
at the circus
dim hope
his call.

. . .
Anthony B. Knight-Dewey
Loneliness is an abandoned house.
It creaks with stillness and rests
on the blackness of its foundation.
It sits alone in the backyard of our minds,
yet stands out and demands recognition.
It hides elusively behind the rubbish of life,
yet shines a light most radian from its highest loft.
It is weather-beaten from years of torment and anguish,
but still retains its shape and strength.
Loneliness gives no clues or suggestions.
Secrets are hidden and locked away in the attic of darkness.
Groans and cries race through the pitted corridor
down the infested stairwell
to the moldy basement.
Loneliness gathers dust in the dungeon of time.
The windows of hope and aspiration are boarded up
with the greyness of despair.
Yet, only in loneliness does one experience
all those dimensions that are one,
those distant faraway lands of beingness –
the spirit supreme,
the temple eternal.
. . .
Steve Langley
My name Butch
I work at the hardware store
I got this l’il gal I be messin wif
Fine as shit
She wanna move in wif me
But I don’t need no bitch up under me
Wantin this and that
I be hangin out at this punk club
Somethin to do
I may get a drink, get high
But I don’t talk to nobody
If I do hook wif somebody
I go to they place
I may let em suck my dick
I may fuck em
But I don’t be kissin em
And they bet not try to kiss me
I’ll beat the shit out of em
I don’t give em my name or my number
Not my real one
Once I git off
I’m gone
. . .
Harvey J. Lucas
Too Late to Say I Love You
(for David)
Often he was parental,
But the rebellious pride masked
His contentment with concern.
Often he was great,
Generic in dress – forceful passion –
And a dynamic friend.
Often he was risqué,
Public kisses – arrogant smirks –
Not afraid to say anything.
Now, I often remember him:
Consumed by that inscrutable entity
Of eternal silence.
. . .
Jerome Mack
i wish i could
rid myself
of this skin
that covers me
subdue carnality
pick fights
with truth
pull husk
over conscience
i would…
there’s just no
hiding place

Scotch Bonnet Peppers on Snow_February 2016
Scott Mackey
I Couldn’t Speak His Language
(for Romuald Du Clos de Saint André)
when i first me him
he was only a boy,
but not really.
he allowed me to believe
i was in control – the man,
old, wise and mature.
reality obscured the dream
i couldn’t speak his language.
he knew
but needed to hear
what i couldn’t say.
a part of me burns
as i become
desperately aware of my mortality.
i didn’t realize
how important
words could be.
. . .
Vernon Maulsby
Gender Bender
(To Richard)
Is it safe for me
to let my hair down
and speak freely with you?
Will this woman’s heart
speaking through a deep throat
make you dismiss me
as just another gender bender,
incomplete in your eyes?
Can I share the men I’ve loved,
the women I’ve liked, the fears
of death that sired my children?
Would you understand,
or should I just sit here,
and make lewd jokes, as we
talk of sports I never watch?
. . .
Rodney McCoy, Jr.
I used to dream
of a ghost in
Dreaming of
tightening around
my finger
like a blessing
or was it a noose
These dreams
were my mother’s smile
handed down
to my sister
and me
thinking it was
our birthright
our duty
our gift to her
But the day I kissed
your mustached lips
to me
Those dreams
and my mother’s smile
popped loud
absent forever
. . .
Jim Murrell
Infinite carapace of day ingathers hard, riding noon fire
On molten hillocks beyond the coral.
Sun-drovered come
Sarabands of iodine, nomad across the sea grape.
Pupils burn to pinpoint smoke: rolling glitter of
Water’s desert.
Our boat burns in rise and slap
And indigo swells from the east:
My father, the friends of his youth, myself.
And I am thirteen, struggling to man manliness.
Head, heart, stomach…vortex.
Resolve eddies on fuming wash of clubbed fish blood.
Betrayal of inner ear for which gravity is not enough.
And the rum talk: pompous, monotonous.
Men and ritual braiding the deep world into submission –
Pattern of a weaving,
A harnessing I cannot learn.
. . .
L. Phillip Richardson
The Book of Lists
so fickle ink on first acquaintance
i penciled them in
the urban gods
the fleeting sparkles
the would-be stars
were the heavens kinder those days
by name i now browse the list
the ABCs of ruthless order
unordered by homeless strays
the innumerable nicknames
attached to numbers
on unattached slips of paper
at home in my book
like family
i remember the first call
in my ear the first word
high on “hi”
the voice vibrating man vibes
then the jittery jive
of jigsaw sympathies
the flirts
the dirts
the jerks
the hurts
still hurting
suddenly i see
the old book older
its frayed memories losing the fray
as some fall free
come loose without restraint
no spine
no rubber binds them
holds them close
i chill
with each name i can’t erase
how graceless and cheap faint recall
leaving dead men in leaded glory
in the book of lists
i keep
. . .
Bryan Scott
Roller Coaster
You’ve called but haven’t spoken.
You’ve expressed but haven’t clearly stated.
You’ve suggested but haven’t taken action.
You’ve reached out but haven’t connected.
You’ve touched but haven’t felt.
You’ve been here yet you seemed elsewhere.
You’ve mentioned “love” but implied “like”.
Before I get on this emotional rollercoaster
I’d better listen to the silence…
. . .
Jamez L. Smith
Dreaded Visitation
(for my Grandmother)
The knock on the door
on the lazy Saturday afternoon
like the toll of Donne’s bell.
Someone runs
and turns the television off.
The air becomes as still
as a dead fish.
Slowly, carefully,
Grandmama tips toward the window.
Another knock breaks
the silence,
and Grandmama freezes
like a doe suddenly aware
of the hunters stalking her.
Grandmama reaches the window
and, recognizing the form outside,
breathes a sigh of relief.
She opens the door.
“What took you so long?”
the visitor asks.
Grandmama replies:
“We thought you was a Jehovah’s Witness.”
. . .
Marvin K. White
Last Rights
When I learned of Gregory’s death
I cried silently
But at the funeral
Giiiiirl I’m telling you
I rocked Miss Church
Hell I fell to my knees twice
before I reached my seat
Three people had to carry me
To my pew
I swayed and swooned
Blew my nose
On any and every available sleeve
The snot was flying everywhere
Then when I finally saw his body
My body jerked itself
Right inside that casket
And when I placed my lips on his
Honey the place was shaking
I returned to my seat
But not before passing by his mother
Who I’m sure at this point
Was through with me
I threw myself on her knees
Shouting “Help me
Help me Jesus”
When someone in the choir
Sang out “Work it girl
Wooooork it”
All hell broke loose
I was carried out
Kicking and screaming
Ushered into the waiting limo
Which sped me to his family’s house
Where I feasted
On fried chicken
Hot water corn bread
Macaroni and cheese
Johnny Walker Black
Finally in my rightful place
. . .

Andre De Shields
His (Blues) Story
Verse I
Before there was Desdemona,
Iago would warm Othello’s bed.
Before there was Desdemona,
Iago would warm Othello’s bed.
He would sharpen his sword,
Fill his lamp with oil,
And rub his woolly head.
Verse II
Before Caesar knew Cleopatra,
He would hold Mark Antony to his chest.
Before Caesar knew Cleopatra,
He would hold Mark Antony to his chest.
And that’s why the Queen of the Nile
Invited a serpent to make a home in her breast.
Stop Time
Now Achilles destroyed the Trojans
Because of a boy in his tent.
And if it hadn’t been for Jimmy Baldwin,
Young Giovanni would’ve had no rent.
When Alexander marched out of Egypt,
He was fierce; he was festive; he was grand.
And when Jesus chose his disciples,
He made everyone a man.
Verse III
when you study your history,
You’d better learn it like you should.
‘Cause after God created the Heavens and the Earth,
And separated the light from the darkness,
And divided the water from the waters,
And gathered the dry land from the seas,
And produced vegetation according to its kind,
And hung the moon, and sun, and stars in the sky,
And threw birds in the air and fish in the ocean,
And placed wild creatures in the forest,
God said:
“I’m lonely. I think I’ll make Me a man in My image.”
And, so, He did.
Then, God looked around at all He had done and shouted:
“This is good.”

. . .

Assotto Saint (born Yves François Lubin) was a Haitian-American poet, performance artist, musician and editor. He increased the visibility of black queer authors and themes during the 1980s and early 1990s. In addition, Saint was both one of the first black activists to disclose his HIV-positive status and one of the first poets to respond to the AIDS crisis in his work.

Assotto Saint photographed by Robert Giard in 1987

Assotto Saint photographed by Robert Giard in 1987

. . . . .