By James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
How would you have us, as we are?
Or sinking ‘neath the load we bear?
Our eyes fixed forward on a star?
Or gazing empty at despair?
Rising or falling? Men or things?
With dragging pace or footsteps fleet?
Strong, willing sinews in your wings?
Or tightening chains about your feet?
By Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966)
The right to make my dreams come true,
I ask, nay, I demand of life,
Nor shall fate’s deadly contraband
Impede my steps, nor countermand;
Too long my heart against the ground
Has beat the dusty years around,
And now at length I rise! I wake!
And stride into the morning break!
Each February, National Black History Month serves as both a celebration and a powerful reminder that Black history is American history, Black culture is American culture, and Black stories are essential to the ongoing story of America — our faults, our struggles, our progress, and our aspirations. Shining a light on Black history today is as important to understanding ourselves and growing stronger as a Nation as it has ever been. That is why it is essential that we take time to celebrate the immeasurable contributions of Black Americans, honor the legacies and achievements of generations past, reckon with centuries of injustice, and confront those injustices that still fester today.—From “A Proclamation on National Black History Month, 2022,” Joseph R. Biden Jr.
As I read these poems, it invokes images of the hardships and discrimination faced by the African American community, but I also can’t help to also read them as a gay man. In “To America,” James Weldon Johnson writes, “How would you have us, as we are?” The world has treated the LGBTQ+ community, especially gay men (and even more so, black gay men), as wrong. They want us to be something that we are not. We have faced discrimination and hardships, not in the same way as African Americans, mainly because we can often hide our queerness, but minorities of color are not able to do so. While there were certainly gay African American slaves in antebellum America, gay men, no matter their race, have faced the fear of imprisonment or “tightening chains about” their feet for “lewd behavior and crimes against nature.” One famous example is Oscar Wilde who was imprisoned for two years of hard labor for “sodomy and gross indecency” in 1895. Georgia Douglas Johnson begins “Calling Dreams” with the lines: “The right to make my dreams come true, / I ask, nay, I demand of life.” Isn’t this what all LGBTQ+ individuals, no matter their race, want?
Gay African Americans have made “immeasurable contributions” to the history of the United States. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s was as much about the burden of representation and sexual dissidence. There were several queer men who made up the core of the Harlem Renaissance: Countée Cullen, whose ” virtues are many; his vices unheard of”; Langston Hughes, who was a “true people’s poet”; Claude McKay was the “enfant terrible of the Negro Renaissance”; and Richard Bruce Nugent, who is called “Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance.” However, the Harlem Renaissance did not have monopoly on black queer trailblazers. Bayard Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream Speech.” The writer and social critic, Baldwin is perhaps best known for his 1955 collection of essays, “Notes of a Native Son,” and his groundbreaking 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room,which depicts themes of homosexuality and bisexuality. (Giovanni’s Room was the first gay work of fiction I ever read.)
Queer black representation had not been limited to men either. Audre Lorde, a self-described “Black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet, warrior,” made lasting contributions in the fields of feminist theory, critical race studies and queer theory through her pedagogy and writing. Barbara Jordan, a civil rights leader and attorney, became the first African American elected to the Texas Senate in 1966, and the first woman and first African American elected to Congress from Texas in 1972. Marsha P. Johnson, who would cheekily tell people the “P” stood for “pay it no mind,” was an outspoken transgender rights activist and is reported to be one of the central figures of the historic Stonewall uprising of 1969.
About the Poets
James Weldon Johnson, born in Florida in 1871, was a national organizer for the NAACP and an author of poetry and nonfiction. Perhaps best known for the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” he also wrote several poetry collections and novels, often exploring racial identity and the African American folk tradition.
Georgia Douglas Johnson was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in the late nineteenth century. A member of the Harlem Renaissance, her poetry collections include Bronze: A Book of Verses (B.J. Brimmer Company, 1922) and The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems (The Cornhill Company, 1918). She died in 1966.
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