QUEER VOICES

Schomburg Center For Black Cultural Research Is Helping To Make Black Queer Lives Matter

06/30/2015 01:29 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

The In The Life Archive (ITLA) at the Schomburg Center for Black Cultural Research in New York is bridging the gap between the LGBTQ and black communities through its record of photographs, flyers, film, video, artwork, clothing and files that chronicle queer black identity.

The Schomburg Center is both part of the New York Public Library and home to the largest of collection of artifacts that recognize the social, cultural and artistic accomplishments of LGBTQ people in the black community.

schomburg center itla

We caught up with Steven Fullwood, founder of the ITLA and Assistant Curator in Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, to learn about the archive's impact on the black and LGBTQ community.

The Huffington Post: How was the ITLA developed?
Steven Fullwood: Essentially the community of writers, activists, thinkers, academics and folks from the community built the archive. I consider myself a conduit who helped to develop the archive at the Schomburg Center. A year after I joined Schomburg’s staff, I approached Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD), an organization providing community forums and support for gay and transgender black males, about depositing their archives at the library. Kevin McGruder, former executive director, was interested and helped to execute the project. The records were moved to the Center, processed and are now available to the public.

What are some noteworthy pieces in the ITLA?
One of the key reasons why the archive exists is to acknowledge and preserve the accomplishments of the constellation of cultural producers, lesser-known writers, artists and activists in the community, such as Brad Johnson, who contributed to the first black gay anthology, In the Life. Johnson's papers, which include published and unpublished work, as well as correspondence with his family, friends and lovers, is a significant contribution to the archival initiative. There are well-known writers and activists [involved] such as Cheryl Clarke, Alexis De Veaux and Thomas Glave. Lesbian Ira Jeffries, a Harlem-born playwright and journalist, also has a collection of her plays scripts and photographs at the library. Additionally, there are files for many local, state and national organizations including the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays.

steven fullwood

How does the Schomburg Center envision the ITLA benefitting queer people of color, particularly queer youth of color?
Folks often decry what they think is a lack of services for QPOC, and while I think that is true in many ways, the ITLA was established to help fill in the gaps in a media-sponsored, largely whitewashed gay history, and a traditionally hetero-normative black history. The visibility is stark and extremely problematic. Because this archive exists at a public library, it will be here when our youth want to know more about their cultural histories. Without the histories written by black LGBTQ/Same Gender Loving (SGL) people, we are subject to being miswritten into history. In addition to the archive itself, we have had several exhibitions and programs to offer our varied audiences a glimpse into the very complex culture that is black LGBTQ/SGL life in the US, the Caribbean, in the UK and in some parts of Africa.

How does the ITLA show the intersection between black history and the LGBTQ movement?
The ITLA fills in the gaps between both, enhances both narratives, and allows for room for more voices to join the chorus. For example, the histories of bisexual and transgender people of African descent are being unearthed and written and rewritten, and this is exciting. Without these critical and archival interventions, the LGBTQ movement and black radical histories have been largely incomplete.

schomburg center for black cultural research

How does the purpose of the ITLA intersect within the Black Lives Matter movement?
I think there are many ways, but two come to mind. The crux of the Black Lives Matters movement is social justice. To be able to identify black oppression by structural white supremacy is to acknowledge historical injustices in as many ways through education, housing, jobs, health, and other ways. Consider the history of the black queer person and how a lack of visibility had led to stereotypical beliefs, which in turn allow for a discredited population doubly or triply at the mercy of a white supremacist and hetero-normative culture that deliberately discredits a group of people.

schomburg center itla

If you're interested in checking out the ITLA, the archive is open to the public by appointment. Contact schomburgarchives@nypl.org for more information about the collections.

Note: This interview was edited for clarity and length.

  • Alice Walker
    Writer Alice Walker earned a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Color Purple, which was later adapted into film. As a civil rights activist she walked in the 1963 March on Washington and volunteered to register black voters in Georgia and Mississippi.
  • Bayard Rustin
    Black civil rights activist Bayard Rustin was an adamant supporter of gay rights. He was also Martin Luther King Jr.'s advisor and personal secretary. Rustin helped organize the 1963 March on Washington.
  • Patrik Ian Polk
    Getty Images
    Patrik Ian Polk is an openly gay film director who is known for his films on the African American LGBT experience and relationships. Polk's 2008 film "Noah's Ark: Jumping The Broom" won a GLAAD Award for Best Feature Film and was nominated for three NAACP awards.
  • Audre Lorde
    Carribean American writer Audre Lorde was actively involved in the gay culture of Greenwich Village. She was also an activist for civil rights and feminist movements. Her poetry focuses on the female experience, race, and sexuality.
  • Keith Boykin
    WikiMedia:
    Keith Boykin was an editor of The Daily Voice and a White House aide to President Bill Clinton. After Clinton's election, Boykin became a director of specialty media. He became the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Clinton White House and helped organize the nation's first meeting between gay and lesbian leaders and a U.S. President. Since his time in the White House, Boykin has written a number of books on gay issues.
  • Kye Allums
    Kye Allums
    Kye Allums was the first Division I openly transgender athlete in NCAA sports history. Today, Kye is a transgender advocate and the founder of Project I Am Enough, a project dedicated to encouraging self-love & self-definition for everyone.
  • Bruce Nugent
    WikiMedia:
    Bruce Nugent was a writer and painter of the Harlem Renaissance. His short story "Smoke, Lilies, and Jade" has been regarded by many as the first publication by an African American that openly discussed homosexuality.
  • Wanda Sykes
    Getty
    Emmy award-winning comedian Wanda Sykes is actively involved in the LGBT community. She came out at a same-sex marriage rally in Las Vegas for Proposition 8 in 2006, having married her partner Alex a month earlier. Sykes was also the first African American woman and openly LGBT featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in 2009.
  • Tracy Chapman
    WikiMedia:
    Singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman is most well-known for her Grammy Award-winning music. Though very quiet about her private life, she also dated writer Alice Walker in the mid-1990s. Chapman is also a social activist and performed at Nelson Mandela's 70th Birthday Tribute, which raised money for South Africa's Anti-Apartheid Movement and AIDSLifeCycle. In 2004, Chapman received an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts by her alma mater, Tufts University, recognizing her commitment to social activism.
  • Langston Hughes
    Writer Langston Hughes' innovative poetry and stories lead him to became an icon of the Harlem Renaissance. Although he was known for his strong political views, he remained closeted throughout the course of his life.
  • Laverne Cox
    Angela Weiss via Getty Images
    Laverne Cox is a transgender activist and actress, best known for her role on Netflix's "Orange Is The New Black" and her work with GLAAD. She remains one of the the most prominent and outspoken transgender advocates in the entertainment industry.
  • Sheryl Swoopes
    Getty
    Three time WNBA MVP, Sheryl Swoopes was the first player to be signed to the WNBA after its inception. Not only was she a star on the court, but she was one of the first high profile athletes to come out publicly and later voted one of the Top 15 players in WNBA history.
  • A long-time fixture in the New York nightlife community, RuPaul rose to prominence with his hit single and music video 'Supermodel (Of The World)" in 1993. Credited as the master of transformation, his career is still going strong with the massive success of his reality television show "RuPaul's Drag Race."
  • James Baldwin
    Legendary writer James Baldwin pushed boundaries with his novel Giovanni's Room, which focused on an American man living in Paris and his relationships with various men. Baldwin lived most of his life as an expatriate in Paris where he attempted to escape American prejudice towards blacks and gay individuals.
  • Isis King
    American Apparel
    King was the first transgender model to be featured on the reality fashion competition "America's Next Top Model." She was seen on both the 11th and 17th "cycles" of the show and recently became American Apparel's first transgender model.
  • Janet Mock
    Jamie McCarthy via Getty Images
    The former staff editor of People magazine's website, Janet Mock has become one of the most visible transgender icons following her public coming out in 2011. Mock released her first book Redefining Realness in February 2014 and pioneered the #girlslikeus campaign, a movement encouraging trans women to live visibly.
  • Alvin Ailey
    Choreographer Alvin Ailey revolutionized modern dance and formed the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in New York in 1958. Ailey was known for his multi-racial company at a time when many talented black dancers were excluded from performances. In 1992, three years after his death, Ailey was inducted into the C.V. Whitney Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance.
  • Frank Ocean
    AP
    No mainstream black male hip-hop artist had ever come out until Frank Ocean did in July 2012, just before he debuted his first solo album "Channel Orange." The singer-songwriter posted a Tumblr post which read, in part, "4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide.” After that, Ocean received support from fellow hip-hop artists Jay-Z (and wife, Beyoncé), 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes and more. Daryl Hannah, director of media and community partnerships for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation said, "[The support for Frank is] an extension of the overall kind of support we’re seeing across the country for LGBT people, and not just in a broad sense, but specifically from iconic members of the black community.”
  • John Amaechi
    Getty
    After retiring from the NBA in 2007, John Amaechi became the first NBA player to come out publicly. In his memoir Man in The Middle, he discusses his career and life as a closeted athlete.
  • Dee Rees
    Getty
    Film director Dee Rees is behind the movie "Pariah," which follows a 17-year-old African American teenager struggling with her sexuality. The film was a hit at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
  • Simon Nkoli
    YouTube
    An openly gay black South African political activist, Simon Nkoli spent his youth as an anti-apartheid activist and in 1983 formed the Saturday Group, the first black gay group in Africa. He was arrested and charged with treason the following year. Nkoli was also the first openly HIV+ gay black African and the representative from Africa on the International Lesbian & Gay Association board.
  • Felicia Pearson
    Getty Images
    Felicia Pearson is best known for her role as "Snoop" on The Wire. Pearson is a co-founder of a youth drama organization named "Moving Mountains," which aims to stop youth violence, teach performing arts and help kids stay off the streets and out trouble. In her memoir Grace After Midnight, Pearson opens up about coming out and her experiences on the streets of Baltimore.
  • E. Lynn Harris
    Getty Images
    E. Lynn Harris was best known for his writing, which explored African American men who were closeted or on the "down-low." After quitting his job as a computer salesmen Harris discovered his passion for writing. He sold his first self-published novel, Invisible Life, out of the trunk of his car. Ten of his 11 novels made The New York Times Best Seller list.
Suggest a correction
Comments

CONVERSATIONS