If you don’t affirm your own existence
Nobody else will.
Milking Black Bull was conceived by Assotto Saint, edited by Vega Press, and published in 1995. It is dedicated to the memory of Melvin Dixon, Roy Gonsalves, Don Reid, Marlon Riggs, Craig Reynold, and Umar Hassan, the last being one of the featured poets. In his Introduction to the collection, Vega adds a further dedication to Assotto Saint.
It is an anthology of “was,” punctuated and haunted by the men who lived to conceive but not to give birth, who wrote to and for futures they would not see. Some of them are more familiar—Thomas Glave, G. Winston James, Alden Reimonenq, others not as familiar, even absent or gone—Umar Hassan, for one.
Black gay anthologies from the late 1980s through the late 1990s, and there are not that many of them, are melancholic objects. Conceived by men who did not live to see them executed, executed by men who did not live to see second printings, received by we who were (and are still) searching for evidence that we are not alone, received as voices from the past that enable our presents and impossible futures.
I’m not quite sure how to continue.
I had wanted to write a review, but I can’t get there yet.
In a recent post, Reggie reminds us that poetry travels along multiple paths, each with its own aim and purpose. He reminds us that queer poetry serves multiple purposes, for its writers and its readers.
For many years, and as I continue to work on the queer Kenyan anthology, I have mused on the importance of the “I am here. I exist. I write.” I came to African American studies through the Harlem Renaissance and from there to the slave narrative, and both of these contexts have continued to shape how I think about writing.
Writing instantiates and testifies to being. We write ourselves into history.
Erasure is not an accident, not an “oops, sorry, didn’t see you there.” It happens in legal documents, in public discussions, in invitations to parties, online and offline. Many years after Phyllis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass, many of us are still having to write ourselves into being.
Over the past few months, I have been thinking about persistence.
Two contexts frame this thinking: the academy and Kenyan activism.
I work in fields that are at once still “too new” and much “too fragile” despite their seeming ubiquity. 30 years after they entered the academy, Black studies and Feminism are still despised by those who claim the fields offer no academic merit and simply cater to politically-driven agendas. Black diaspora studies and queer studies face similar battles for legitimation—though, I must confess, that every time I walk through the door into LGBT studies at Maryland, and every time I remember that I am affiliate faculty in LGBT studies, I get a wonderful thrill up my left ankle!
Queer studies still has a lot to learn from Feminism and Black studies, especially about persistence. These fields were never meant to survive. At their inception, they were termed “political” and “illegitimate,” and were supposed to succumb to a host of birthing and childhood ailments, to be proved wrong and unscholarly, precisely because they emerged from the streets.
What has it taken for them to be here today? What labors? Whose labors? What forms of persistence?
Turning to Kenya, I think about the labor of persistence that we writers-activists-citizens must engage. And about the labors of persistence to which we are inheritors. Kenya did not emerge one day in 1963. Its coming into that particular form of being—which may not have been ideal—was a result of small and large struggles, of building will, and compelling action, of coalescing around issues and figures, of labor struggles and guerrilla tactics.
We who want a different Kenya, a fairer Kenya, must think about persistence, about the labor of critique, and the time of change.
Re-reading Jim Murrell’s poems in Milking Black Bull, I am struck by his catalogs, catalogs that throw me back to Whitman then to Ginsberg and O’Hara and Adrian Stanford. And I think about the queerness—the historical necessity—for queer catalogs. Creating lists of “I was here and I saw this.”
What kind of historical work does cataloging engage?
And though I tend not to like anthologies, because I view them as truncated selections, I am thrilled by the chorus of voices in Milking Black Bull, thrilled that 11 black gay poets could be gathered into one collection. This assemblage is also a catalog.
On the back cover: photographs of eleven authors, men who look more like than unlike me. And this matters.
And even though I’m now writing only one or two poems a year (my muse is parsimonious), I’m glad these men are poets, that they write in the genre I most love.
Here’s one poem that still strikes me many years after I first read it:
An Old Black Aesthetic
I can’t see trees the way you do –
Not because of paltry vision;
I have long since quit climbing trees –
Not because the bark feels coarser;
Trees send no spice my way as yours—
Not because their scents do not lure;
Their rustling , no music for me –
Not because their song is foreign;
It’s all because no tree’s live fruit
Has ever, to me, been quite sweet.
Trees, you see, aren’t trees to me:
I know fruit that’s hung bitterly.
Copyright © Alden Reimonenq
Much more to say.
But I have two conference papers to complete. And a proposal for something or other. And an article underway.