Keith Boykin: Practicing Love
Author: Bryan Glover
November 26, 2012
As a regular CNBC contributor, MSNBC commentator, BET columnist, and former White House special assistant to Bill Clinton, Keith Boykin is quite busy this political season, and his passion for politics is clear. However, the New York Times best-selling author of three books, including One More River to Cross: Black and Gay in America (Anchor), has another project that is also close to his heart these days, his latest book: For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Still Not Enough: Coming of Age, Coming Out, and Coming Home (Magnus Books), The volume is a collection of essays that he edited from a diverse array of contributors: 45 men of color who share personal stories of pain, mental and physical abuse, and the terror they experienced as gay men in, and often from, their families and communities. Reading these stories also conveys a sense of resilience, triumph and self-love, as these are the tales of those who lived to tell them. Yet a certain sadness remains, as there are ghosts between the pages here, echoes of the many we know of personally, or have heard of anecdotally, who did not survive, and as is so often the case for men of color, who rarely make media headlines.
I met Keith when we both lived in Washington, D.C. in the mid-90s. He was working at a national black lesbian and gay organization while I was working at a local black gay service organization. Our agencies eventually did some collaborative work, and it was then that I noticed we shared a favorite quote from the black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet, warrior Audre Lorde, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” That quote serves as the source of the title—and driving force—of one of Boykin’s two essays in the book, “When I Dare to be Powerful”, in which he recounts the story of conquering his own fear and apprehension at a historical moment: leading a contingent of black same-gender-loving men at first Million Man March organized by Louis Farrakhan in 1995.
I certainly recalled my own anxieties about participating in the event on my way to the National Mall that day as I read Boykin’s essay, but it was another DC story that hit me powerfully as I read Boykin’s introduction—the story of a man named “David.” I knew David. David was a brilliant young African-American man , a literary editor in his own right, who started his own online arts magazine and whom I wrote an article for over a decade ago. I even ran into David some years later in New York City, where he had briefly relocated from the DC area, and we vowed to get together. But we never connected after that. Originally slated to be one of the editors of For Colored Boys, Boykin relates how David was “an Ivy League-educated gay black man, had worked with me on several projects in the past, and had once served as my personal assistant…” David took his own life before Boykin got a chance to ask him to join the project. And though I knew of and lamented David’s death at the time, it was not until I read the introduction that I knew David’s death was a suicide.
Reading about David’s death in your introduction powerfully set the tone for me as I read the stories in For Colored Boys I knew David and thought he was incredibly talented and nothing short of brilliant. Though I was aware of his untimely passing, I didn’t know the circumstances of his death and was…surprised?…shocked?…confused?… to learn that he took his own life. I also remember reading online at the time about Joseph Jefferson, whom I did not know, another young activist involved in the community that you mention in the book, who killed himself rather than continue to “bear the burden of living as a gay man of color in a world grown cold and hateful towards those of us who live and love differently…” as he stated. Both of these stories clearly reveal that being “out” and involved in community is not enough, that many of us are living and suffering in silence under the weight of being the focus of so much societal hatred. What keeps you going personally as you continue to work to create spaces for LGBT voices of color?
I was very shocked by David’s death as well. The last message I got from him was on my Facebook page telling me not to patronize Chick-Fil-A. This was more than a year before the whole Chick-Fil-A controversy erupted this past summer.
A few weeks after For Colored Boys was published, I learned of another tragedy. I met a woman at a book signing in D.C. who asked me if a young man named Elgin Stafford was included in the book. I had never met Elgin but I remembered the name because he had submitted an essay for the book that we didn’t include. After his submission, he emailed me several times and shared his personal story of how he had to literally beg for money to pay for college, and I tried to encourage him to keep going. Well, this woman at the book signing told me that Elgin had killed himself a few months after I emailed him. I was shocked and horrified, and obviously I couldn’t help wondering if he might have lived if his essay had been accepted.
For my own perspective, I’ve never contemplated suicide. I’ve been through lots of difficult times in my life, and there were times when I was probably depressed, but for some reason that I can’t explain I’ve always had hope for a better tomorrow. Even during the times when I couldn’t pay my bills, didn’t know how I was going to support myself, and questioned my life and career decisions, something inside me told me to keep going. I’ve always felt I had some purpose or mission in life and that’s keep me focused on the future.
What surprised you the most as you read through the submissions?
The first thing that surprised me was the number of stories about abuse. Many of the writers who sent submissions told stories of molestation and abuse they suffered as children. I was stunned to find so many examples. We could have filled the entire book simply with those stories alone, but we wanted to have a broader book that told a variety of different stories.
There is a great diversity of geography, profession, age, struggles and experiences collected in this anthology. How did you choose what to include?
The diversity of the contributors in the collection is both purposeful and organic. We hoped we would get a broad range of essays submitted and we did. So we have everyone from drag queens to professional football players included in the book. That was intentional. I really wanted to include and challenge the various images of masculinity out there by presenting and validating dramatically different types of life experiences in the same book. We also wanted to create a book that spoke to people of all different ages and backgrounds, from different parts of the country, and from various age groups, so we were pleased to include college students, activists, doctors, lawyers, entertainers, and of course some professional writers too. And we were fortunate to include contributors from north, south, east, west, and overseas. I’ve never seen all that diversity before in a book like this.
My goal was for the book to tell a story from beginning to end. It starts out with childhood experiences of young boys coming of age and it ends with a more adult conversation about personal and community empowerment and the importance of love. But the essays in the book almost chose themselves as the book evolved organically from the early stages to publication.
Originally, we put out a call for submissions for essays on four topics: faith, family, love, and work. But as we started reviewing the essays, we realized those four categories weren’t adequate to represent the many different experience that were shared. So we cut out a couple of the old categories and expanded into new categories and came up with 10 distinct sections in the book. There’s a section on coming of age, a section on molestation and abuse, a section on coming out, a section on religion and spirituality, a section on love and relationships, a section on health and HIV/AIDS, and more. All those sections reflected the input of the people who submitted essays and the four co-editors who helped me to pick which ones to include.
Are the any gaps in the book that you would have liked to see filled? Was anything missing, or were you surprised by anything you did not see?
Great question. Well, the book is not perfect. And because I’m a classic Virgo perfectionist, there are some really tiny little things I would love to fix in a second edition, if we get a chance to do one. But the only major regret I have for what was not included is that we had to cut out a few essays at the last minute for space considerations. We had a talented Canadian writer whose piece we had to cut at the last minute, and we had a great little story about a boy with a crush on Michael Jackson that I wanted to use as the opening essay, but we had to cut it out too.
We did, however, make a conscious decision not to include fiction in the book, and that decision cost us a few amazing essays. There were at least three or four beautiful pieces that seriously deserve to be published but we couldn’t, only because they are fiction. One of those essays was so shocking that I had to call the author on the phone and ask if it was true. When he told me it was fiction, my heart sunk because I knew we couldn’t include it.
What do you want this book to accomplish?
My goal all along was to educate, empower, and inspire, and those are the three words we use on the website for the book as well. First, I hope the book inspires young people who are struggling with their sexuality. Second, I hope it educates parents, friends and family members to think about the damaging effects that hurtful language can have on young people in their lives and how they can use that knowledge to create more affirming relationships with those people. And third, I hope it empowers gay men of color to speak up and tell their stories and pass on their history to one another so it doesn’t get lost or covered up.
The book is also for those of us colored boys who have survived. In the poem “For My Own Protection”—noting that “the lives of Black men/are priceless/and can be saved./We should be able/to save each other” —Essex Hemphill dreamed of black gay men organizing themselves to save themselves. Your own contributions to the collection talk about political action: one a story of your own action, and the other a call to revolutionary action. Some 20 years since Hemphill penned those words—in an increasingly corporate and commodified culture, amongst a largely apathetic society, as some say—what strategies do colored boys have to save each other? What do you think is needed most at this moment to advance gay men of color politically or for them to organize themselves?
That’s the central question I’ve been asking myself since I wrote my first book nearly 20 years ago. After all this time, I still go back to that famous quotation that “black men loving black men is a revolutionary act.” I interpret that to mean that love is the answer. We have to learn to love ourselves enough to be able to love one another. I’m a very political person, but at the end of the day, the most important political step we can take is simply to practice love. That’s the message I try to communicate in both of my pieces in For Colored Boys.
I think it’s notable, too, that the collection is not all “gloom and doom”. There are moments of lasting love, supportive and accepting family members, valued friendships, and empowered self-acceptance. How important was it for you to find some level of balance in the book?
We could have filled the book with stories of doom and gloom but that would have been just as dishonest as doing a book filled only with happy success stories. For most of us, life isn’t all sad and isn’t all happy. It’s about balance, and that’s what we tried to create in the book. Some of the most inspiring stories in the book are not really about doom and gloom. In fact, I think my favorite essay in the book is a love story by Curtis Pate called “Just The Two Of Us.” It’s about two young men forging a relationship together against the odds, and it’s such a beautiful, romantic story to me. Every time I think about it, it just makes me smile, especially the ending.
One of the great things about collections is that they feature, support and encourage new voices. How did you approach being mindful of balancing more established authors with first time writers?
I knew all along that I didn’t want to produce a book that only featured established writers. Of course, we do have several established writers, including James Earl Hardy, Alphonso Morgan, and others in the book. But I really wanted to include people who had good stories, regardless of whether they were writers or not. As it turned out, several of the contributors were not writers at all, and I personally sat down with them at the computer to help them tell their stories because I felt they had something important to contribute.
The book has been out for a few months now, and you’ve toured a few cities with it. How has the response been? Have you heard anything unexpected or experienced a particularly memorable moment?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive, but we have to go out and do more tour events later on because we actually stopped the tour abruptly in mid-season because I had to return to work for a few months. You see, the book was released in the middle of the presidential campaign, and I only had a few weeks of time I could devote to promoting it because I had to get back to my day job as a TV commentator and political columnist. Now that the campaign is over I hope we can get things rolling again.
You have a varied multi-media component to the book. How did you come to decide to do a soundtrack?
Three main reasons. First, we wanted to do something different that might help us reach audiences that don’t typically read a lot of books but still might be inspired by the message. Second, as I was reading through the essays, many of the pieces referenced musical works or songs that stayed in my mind as we were putting it together. Third, several of the contributors are also recording artists, including Jessica Wild, Emanuel Xavier, Tim’m West, and B. Scott. With all that, a soundtrack seemed like a logical extension.
But on top of those reasons, I think a soundtrack is another way to teach a little bit more about our community’s history. I recently met a smart young black gay man from the Midwest and when he came to New York I invited him to my house to meet up. As he was looking through the titles on my bookshelves, I pulled out a book on Sylvester and he had never heard of him. That’s when it occurred to me how little of our history we communicate from one generation to the next.
Though Ntzoke Shange’s work [For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enough], unlike your collection, was written specifically for the stage, have you thought about a possible stage or screen adaptation of this work?
Yes we have. Everybody keeps asking me that, but ultimately, I want this project to develop and grow organically instead of trying to impose a shape on it. I’ve heard lots of great ideas, everything from a play to a film. We’ve talked about creating a scholarship and an essay contest for young people. And eventually we want to go out to schools to share the message with as many young people as possible. But as I said, I’m going to let that process unfold on its own and see where it leads.
Do you have another book planned or has this project inspired you to think about other books?
I’m always trying to think of new book projects. I’m thinking my next book may be either a political book or a personal memoir, but I’m still trying to sort that out in my mind.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about the book or your experience working on it?
Just that I think it’s an important book that will stand the test of time. And it’s a great holiday gift!