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African-American Literature: Gay Male  
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Major Themes

Although it is risky to make any sweeping generalizations about this diverse body of literature, it is possible to identify at least four major themes that dominate the works of contemporary black gay male writers: the complex relationship between the individual black gay self and the larger African-American community, the devastating consequences of racism, the pain and the possibilities of interracial love, and the tragedy of AIDS.

The relationship between the individual black self and the black community--a frequent theme in African-American literature in general--surfaces insistently in the works of many contemporary black gay male writers. Since a strong and enabling sense of racial self is necessary to cope with the psychological assaults of white racism, the black gay male protagonist can rarely afford to disconnect himself completely from the black community and seek total assimilation into the predominantly white gay community.

But the black community, with its heterosexist values, is often not prepared to accommodate his sexuality unproblematically. The tension that arises from these conflicting sources of black gay identity, therefore, constitutes one of the central features of black gay literature. Joseph Beam's defiant declaration in his introduction to the ground-breaking anthology, In the Life (1986), clearly reveals the potential drama inherent in this tension: "We are coming home with our heads held up high."

Similarly, Gordon Heath's autobiographical Deep Are the Roots (1992), poignantly illustrates the narrator's determined struggle to claim his racial as well as sexual birthrights. Even when a protagonist fails in his struggle to harmonize his conflicting subjectivities--young Horace in Randall Kenan's A Visitation of Spirits (1989), for example, commits suicide--the individual failure is also presented as a violent indictment of the community's inhumane rigidity.

Racism is another central concern in the works of virtually every contemporary black gay artist. Writers who are anthologized in Other Countries (1988), In the Life (1986), Brother to Brother (1991), The Road Before Us (1991), and Here to Dare (1992) not only challenge American racism in general but also vigorously expose the racism of white gay communities.

Some writers, such as Randall Kenan and Steven Corbin, offer broad historical perspectives on racism; others, such as Essex Hemphill, Craig Harris, and Assoto Saint, bear painfully personal testimony to racial injury. Even in the works of Larry Duplechan--someone who argues that his gay self is significantly more important to him than his racial self--there is considerable concern with racism and its maiming effects.

Despite the preoccupation with racism--or, perhaps, precisely because of it--interracial love is a recurrent theme in recent African-American gay literature. There are, of course, many writers who focus only on intraracial gay relationships and celebrate the black male body as a site of pleasure, but there are others who, with remarkable honesty, reveal their colonized sexual imaginations.

Robert Westley, for example, goes looking for "the last big-dick/White boy" ("The Pub" in Here to Dare), while Thom Beam writes a plaintive "Love Song for White Boys Who Don't Know Who I Am" (in The Road Before Us). Reginald Shepherd's "On Not Being White" (in In the Life) is an exquisitely painful statement on colonial desire, just as Essex Hemphill's "Heavy Breathing" (in Ceremonies [1992]) reveals his erotic longing for a white gay man who studiously rejects black partners. Assoto Saint's autobiographical Stations (1989) is a paean to enduring interracial love. Likewise, Canaan Parker's The Color of Trees (1992), set on the campus of an elite prep school in New England, affirms the possibility of love that transcends cultural and class differences.

But other writers sound far less sanguine about the durability of cross-racial connections. Duplechan's Eight Days in a Week (1985), for example, deals with the relationship between Johnnie Ray, who is black, and Keith, who is white. Their relationship ultimately fails: Their racial difference, which is the basis of their desire for each other, ironically proves to be too disruptive. More disturbing, Corbin's Fragments That Remain (1993) and Dixon's Vanishing Rooms (1991) suggest that a white man, even when he is very much in love with a black man, can remain fundamentally racist.

AIDS is yet another dominant concern of contemporary African-American gay writers. Without referring to AIDS by name, Delany examines in Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985) the distressing impact of the plague on the collective psyche of a frightened population. Duplechan, in Tangled Up in Blue (1989), explores the insidious effects AIDS has on individuals and on relationships by focusing on Maggie and Daniel Sullivan, a straight couple, and Crockett, their gay friend.

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