When I think about Black History, I often visualize it as a quilt. You know, the kind of quilt that your great-grandmother might have sewn together from many different shapes and colours of fabric. Each piece with its own pattern and story, some more striking than others, but when stitched together they result in something strong and beautiful!
In commemorating Black History Month, I think about just how colourful and varied our heritage is. Just like that quilt, our history is pieced together with unique and complex patterns. Together, all these individual pieces joined together with strong threads create our story of hope, our story of struggle and our story of survival. Our history includes a diversity of heroes and heroines, each playing a unique part in creating the pattern we continue to elaborate today.
Usually, we focus our attention on the handful of well-known and truly inspirational leaders, such as:
- Martin Luther King
- George Washington Carver
- Rosa Parks
- Booker T. Washington
- Madame C.J. Walker
- Malcolm X
But too often, as we celebrate Black History Month, we do not pay sufficient attention to one particular group of men and women who made tremendous contributions in the fight to end racial injustice. I would like to celebrate the contributions of our queer brothers and sisters, who wrote, spoke, sang, marched, and made history alongside everyone else, but who are often left out of our history books, or if mentioned, their queer identities are frequently sensationalized or quietly ignored.
As part of the LGBTQ community myself, I feel it is high time for us to recognize and celebrate these COURAGEOUS and EXTRAORDINARY individuals. Let us celebrate individuals like:
- BAYARD RUSTIN – An openly gay man and trusted confidante of Dr. King who was the chief orchestrator of the historic March on Washington.
- BESSIE SMITH & JOSEPHINE BAKER – Not only was Baker a vocal opponent of segregation and discrimination, like Bessie Smith, she was also bisexual. Baker was the only black woman to speak at the March on Washington.
- LANGSTON HUGHES & JAMES BALDWIN – Baldwin knew at an early age that he was gay and bravely faced the hardships that came along with that to become, like Hughes, one of the most articulate novelists, playwrights and activists of his time.
Let us celebrate these individuals. Their names should ring loud and clear just as those featured in our mainstream history books, movies and TV shows. Let us celebrate them not only because they battled the systems of racism hatred and bigotry, but also, because they had to battle systems that attacked them because of their sexual identities. Now more than ever, it is time for us celebrate our amazing history in its entirety, with all of its richness and colour! It is time to recognize the many inspiring Queer Black Figures that have played such an important part in shaping our culture and our continuing struggle.
Their stories are tightly woven, if not always visibly, into the history of our black excellence. Let us celebrate trailblazers like:
- WILLIAM DORSEY SWAN – Born a slave in Washington, DC, beginning in the 1880s, he became not only the first American activist to lead a queer resistance group; he also became the first known person ever to call himself a “drag queen.”
- SYLVESTER – Dubbed ‘the queen of disco’ in the 70’s and 80’s, he was known and loved for his flamboyant and androgynous style.
- MOMS MABLEY – Came out as a lesbian at the age of 27; she was one of the first openly black gay stand-up-comedians. A highly successful entertainer, at the height of her career she was earning $10,000 a week.
- GLENN BURKE – The first black Major League Baseball player to come out as gay. Famous for saying, “they can never say now that a gay man can’t play in the Majors, because I’m a gay man and I made it."
- LUCY HICKS ANDERSON – Socialite, chef and one of the first publicly known African American Transgender Persons.
- ROBERT JONES JR. – New York Times bestselling author of The Prophets – a novel of queer love during slavery – and creator of the online social justice community Son of Baldwin, which today tackles issues from Black LGBTQ+ perspectives.
Let us celebrate these trailblazers and folks like them. Let us be inspired by their action.
We have fought many battles, and YES, we have won a few, but let’s not be fooled by the banners and balloons, the struggle continues and there is still much work to be done. Especially if we want to have a voice in our political arenas, a voice of leadership in our communities, workplaces, law societies and a voice to advocate for change. As February is Black History Month, let us Celebrate Our Black Excellence!
If I can impart one message to you, it is that it is important to celebrate the complete picture of the Black experience – one which includes celebrating the proud legacy of Black LGBTQ people. All of our futures depend on it.
About the author
Antoine L. Collins is chair of the OBA’s Equality Committee.