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Celebrating 'Hidden in the Open: A Photographic Essay of Afro American Male Couples from the Distant Past'

06/28/2012 02:44 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

I recently came across a wonderful collection of photographs that show gay men of color who are coupled or posed together in intimate ways that don't cross the line of decency. The wonderful thing about this online gallery is that it dates back as far as the 19th century, giving a glimpse into what is often not seen: black men in relationships.

Given the sexualized images of black men that are displayed today, it's refreshing to see portrayals of black men in love or enjoying each other's company, especially during a time when it wasn't just a crime but a double marker for potential harm: being gay and being black. I cannot imagine what men in such relationships endured and what obstacles they had to overcome to maintain them. For the men in the pictures, forces were at play from two sides: from racist people who would do them harm based on the color of their skin, and from their own black communities, which often inflicted the same harm based on their sexuality.

Credit for the collection of photographs goes to historian Trent Kelly, who has done a great job assembling these images of the last 140 years of gay black history. By gathering the pictures as a collection, he archives a lost history that is often not seen. As Mr. Kelly states on his Flickr page:

Some of these images are sure to be gay and others may not. The end result is speculative at best for want in applying a label. Not every gesture articulated between men was an indication of male to male intimacies. Assuredly, what all photographs in this book have in common are signs of Afro American male affection and love that were recorded for posterity without fear and shame.

I'm struck by the smiles of two men in one photograph taken in the '30s as they stand side by side. It's a testimony that love can endure, and that it's also timeless, a template for today.

Some gay black men I know blame the fact that they are not in relationships on the stigma they face and the overall difficulties of being gay and a person of color in today's society, but upon seeing these pictures and considering them in the context of the time when they were taken, one has to wonder whether the barriers that exist today are as difficult as those that existed in the early 20th century.

Mr. Kelly states that he started the project because he felt that African-American gay males and couples had largely been defined by everyone but themselves. As evident in the sexualized images of Mapplethorpe and even the general mentality of the public, gay black men are often stripped of their identities and either dismissed altogether as "abominations," objectified for their "big black cocks," or viewed in the context of unflattering, negative labels such as "thug." If you're looking for such images in these collections, I guarantee you that you'll be disappointed.

I personally know people who are under the impression that gay black men didn't exist until the arrival of Langston Hughes or the oft-mentioned James Baldwin. But in fairness, there is not a huge collection of images of black men showing affection in the past, and their stories are rarely told. Usually the only images of early-20th-century black men that we see are ones of us hanging from trees, surrounded by crowds of smiling revelers.

What's affirming is seeing the confidence that is displayed in these pictures of men who can be in each other's company without machismo. As Pride Month comes to a close, I hope people who view these pictures, especially African Americans, can come away with the knowledge that black men have been loving one another for centuries, that the love we have shown each other has survived segregation, men in white hoods, lynching ropes, attack dogs, and the emergence of a four-letter word called AIDS.

I thank Mr. Kelly for assembling these photographs. Although they have existed for years, by assembling them together for easy viewing, he has done something that is very beneficial not only for the black community but for the gay community as a whole. He has made sure we have not become the "invisible man," and by archiving our history, he provides a glimpse of what our future can look like.

If you can, make sure you look at the collected photos and maybe come up with ways that the love displayed today can be archived and the stories told, never to be lost again.

To view the collection, click here.