This summer I am reading the nonfiction of James Baldwin–his essays, reviews, lectures, speeches. He was a masterful essayist, and while re-reading “Notes of a Native Son,” the essay for which one of his best known books is titled, I thought of Trayvon Martin and his parents–and all of us struggling for the way forward after the verdict. Baldwin is writing of his estranged father’s death and funeral–a man consumed–and driven mad– by the rejection of his blackness by the world:
It was the Lord who knew of the impossibility every parent in that room faced: how to prepare the child for the day when the child would be despised and how to create in the child–by what means?–a stronger antidote to this poison than one had found for oneself.
I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin caused in other people.
Jimmy Baldwin, in his novels, plays and non-fiction was a consummate voice of Black America in the 1950’s, 60″s 70’s, a critic of race relations with an elevated platform and megawat vocabulary. But while he held celebrity status as a voice, he was not considered, by civil rights leaders, as one of them–and is said to have been disappointed not to be invited to speak at the 1963 March on Washington.
As we approach the 50th year celebration of that landmark gathering, one of the largest human rights events in history, it is notable that another brilliant Black man was asked to keep a low profile there–Bayard Rustin, its chief architect.
Rustin, like Baldwin, was a gay man in a time of revulsion, illegality and unacceptance. His first formulation of the idea of a March on Washington, with A.Philip Randolph–that in the early 40’s–was enough to get President Roosevelt to make concessions. By 1963 the time was right for it, and as an adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., within 8 weeks he organized a massing of nearly 300,000 people on the Washington mall.
Rustin’s life and work before the March were extraordinary: during World War II he worked on behalf of interned Japanese; spent 3 years in prison as a conscientous objector to the war (he was a Quaker); did time on a chain gang as a result of a 1947 Freedom ride; worked in India and Africa for democracy. It is said that Bayard Rustin, a student of Gandhi, convinced Martin Luther King, Jr. to engage in non-violence in the South, and helped create King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
It is also said that Rustin was denied public leadership positions–and the acknowledgement of his work–because he was gay.
So, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary this year at the end of August, I for one will be celebrating the contributions of two gay men who didn’t get the glory that day: the man who organized it; and the writer who would have added some fine fire–that time.
The progress being made in LGBT rights symbolizes for me the spirit of these two great humanists.
More about Bayard Rustin, including the film Brother Outsider at http://www.rustin.org.