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literature

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Dixon, Melvin (1950-1992)  

Although mainstream media representations of homosexuality and AIDS focus disproportionately on young, white males, gay African-American authors such as Melvin Dixon eloquently refuse to be overlooked and give powerful voice to the gay, black experience. Dixon, through the articulation of his own struggle with AIDS, racism, and homophobia, bore witness to this experience while forging a solid niche in mainstream literary history.

A native of Stamford, Connecticut, whose parents had emigrated from the South, Dixon was educated at Wesleyan and Brown Universities in the early 1970s. He taught at several eastern colleges before becoming professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York.

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Although born and raised in the Northeast, Dixon acquired an uncanny ability to blend the vernacular language of the American South with intellectual eloquence, tapping the wells of both the African-American oral tradition and the sophistication of his university training to create powerfully resonant prose and poetry that ultimately transcend each of those categories.

In the late 1970s, Dixon began publishing in magazines with limited circulation, such as the Beloit Poetry Journal, and in chapbooks. At the same, time Dixon was becoming an accomplished scholar, receiving numerous academic awards, including a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship and a Fulbright Lectureship in Senegal. His book of literary criticism, Ride Out the Wilderness: Geography and Identity in African-American Literature (1987), opens with a discussion of slave songs and narratives and examines the work of ten African-American novelists.

Dixon understood the importance of recognizing his cultural history and incorporates that rich heritage in his poetry and fiction. At the same time, however, he was a world traveler and his cosmopolitanism also influenced his career. In 1991, he published his translation (from the French) of The Collected Poems of Léopold Sédhar Senghor, the poet and one-time Senegalese president.

Dixon's style is not only deeply rooted in his African-American heritage, his writing also evokes a sense of history and tradition grounded in family. His first poetry book, Change of Territory (1983), and his first novel, Trouble the Water (1989), both explore the common themes of finding oneself through a sense of connectedness with one's history.

These works explore the concept of the prodigal son from the point of view of the returned man who must confront the demons in his past in order to understand himself. The homecoming theme resounds throughout Dixon's work as a metaphor for sexual acceptance. Gay issues are more explicitly explored in Vanishing Rooms (1991), which features a brutal gay-bashing incident and a complexly layered interracial gay love affair.

Dixon's final volume of poetry, Love's Instruments (1995), addresses his experience of living with AIDS. One of the poems in the collection, "Aunt Ida Pieces a Quilt," explains how a dead man's garments are gathered to be included in his grandmother's contribution to the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

This nostalgic description of the traditional black woman's craft, juxtaposed with the modern reality of loss, lies at the heart of Dixon's work. Rather than standing apart from the experience of being African American because of his sexuality, Dixon embraced his community and demanded that his community embrace him in return.

Dixon died in 1992 at the age of forty-two from an AIDS-related illness. Because of his early death, Dixon's output was relatively small, yet it is essential to a full understanding of the black, gay experience.

Carla Williams

     

    
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    Bibliography
   

Koponen, Wilfrid R. "Melvin Dixon (1950-1992)." Contemporary Gay American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Emmanuel S. Nelson, ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993. 110-115.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Williams, Carla  
    Entry Title: Dixon, Melvin  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 7, 2003  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/dixon_m.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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