Studies of African-American culture have long focused on the middle-class heterosexual population and have consequently overlooked the rest of the community, according to Dwight McBride in an April 6 lecture entitled ‘Why All the Blacks are Straight.’
In the lecture sponsored by UC Irvine’s African-American studies department, McBride read excerpts from his forthcoming essay collection, ‘Why I Hate Abercrombie and Fitch.’
The title refers to the clothing retailer’s alleged discriminatory hiring practices through the cultivation of a certain appearance in its employees, of which, critics say, whiteness is a major component.
McBride made only brief mention of this particular issue, opting instead for a general discussion of the current state of African-American studies and how homosexuals are considered in these studies.
‘In the public discussion of black community, of black intimacy, of black class issues and of race relations, the black gay man and the black lesbian are completely invisible,’ McBride said.
McBride said that the African-American community too frequently ‘whitewashes’ or ‘sanitizes’ their racial identity, relegating some groups to a realm of non-existence in order to promote a certain image which they seek to project.
‘Whenever we publicly take up issues of black intimacy and relationships, we trot out the old, worn-out, overly respectable idea of who makes up the black community,’ McBride said. ‘In it, all the women are rich, all the men are poor and all the blacks are straight.’
McBride cited a complaint that he perceived among African-American women that it is difficult to find an African-American husband because ‘most black men are in jail, gay or taken.’
McBride said that such comments are dismissive of the rights of homosexual males in the community to seek happiness for themselves.
‘My black gay male sexuality is every bit as integral to my life and happiness as is any straight person’s heterosexuality,’ McBride said. ‘We are part of the black community and we want as much of a chance at happiness in our lives and loves as do our straight sisters.’
McBride discussed James Baldwin, a homosexual African-American writer whose dual roles as a spokesman for both African-American and homosexual issues presented him with difficulties.
‘Baldwin was not content to simply be a black writer, a gay writer or an activist,’ McBride said. ‘Scholarship has often tended to relegate Baldwin to one or the other of these identities.’
McBride cited the 1956 novel ‘Giovanni’s Room’ and its white protagonist as indicative of this problem.
‘Only whiteness is sufficient to represent large, broad, universal concerns,’ McBride said. ‘If the characters had been black, the novel would have been read as being about blackness.’
McBride suggested a new approach to African-American studies that is more inclusive.
‘We are ready to move beyond the centrality of the lone straight man, standing at the precipice between monolithic blackness and the rest of the world broadcasting a sanitized version of black life,’ McBride said. ‘Telling the truth of black life in the U.S. requires a multiplicity of voices.’
Many lecture attendees, particularly those with backgrounds in African-American studies, found the lecture to be very informative.
‘It was a brilliant exposition,’ said Doug Haynes, a history professor and a committee member of the African-American Studies program at UC Irvine. ‘The speaker had a strong case for reconfiguring humanities and African-American studies to place issues of sexuality at the center of inquiry about what it means to be human.’
Some students, however, criticized McBride’s lecture as being too inaccessible for those not familiar with the issues that he discussed.
‘It was too academic for me,’ said William Ngo, a fifth-year sociology major. ‘I wasn’t familiar with the sources he referenced, and it was hard to follow along.’
McBride is the Chair of the Department of African-American studies and an associate professor of African-American studies, English and communication Studies at Northwestern University.
His previous books include the Lambda Literary Award-winning ‘Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual African American Fiction,’ of which he was a co-editor.