Everyone’s first Black Pride is their favorite, and mine is no exception. For black gay men who came out in Atlanta around a certain era, late 1990s to early 2000s I suppose, our Black Pride memories are shaped by Loretta’s, Fusion and Traxx.
We may recall lines and lines and lines of black men all around downtown. We will say things like, “I didn’t know this many black gay men existed.” And of course the stories: hook-ups and love affairs or both. Drunken debauchery that would make Caligula blush. Exchanging numbers in parking lots, searching out and discovering a place to sneak a kiss or make love. Showing up somewhere in a group of friends and splitting off, only to reassemble later to exchange notes and shade.
Pool parties and house parties and sex parties and barbeques. Sometimes all the same event. A pool party can be repurposed into a sex party at the drop of a Speedo. Friendship circles merging with other friendship circles forming armies upon armies upon armies of black gay men, everywhere you see, black gay men.
As for myself, what I recall most is the Renaissance Hotel. When I was 19 and a budding activist, I started hearing about Black Pride—Black Pride as in the formal series of workshops, cultural events, and community activities. If you weren’t there, I hate to tell you, you couldn’t possibly grasp it. You just couldn’t. It was the energy that was most remarkable. A feeling you would get. Everything was so electric. You felt it the minute you entered the door. Magic cannot be explained, only described, so I will say it felt kind of like a rush of inspiration and admiration. Being surrounded by these folks, you felt like you could do anything.
Keiron Williams, my friend and mentor, took me around by hand and introduced me to every prominent black queer person in Atlanta by Sunday. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. And within a weekend, I knew many of them too. Such an amazing connector. Hugs and laughter flowing as freely as flirtation and reads. I also must admit that what I miss most about that time, which I suppose started with my experience at Black Pride, is a clear sense of the activist community. There was I think a solidarity created in the flurry of activity: poetry readings, workshops, discussions, support groups.
Not to say there wasn’t dysfunction or drama, because there was, there absolutely was. But there seemed to be more cohesiveness and less fragmentation. You could mobilize because you knew people. You knew whom to call. Skills could be deployed more effectively, because you knew who did what, and the relationships were there.
The programming was also really robust. Darryl Moch ran the show that year. I remember admiring his leadership of the event. Keith Boykin was around, I think I saw James Early Hardy too, and some other kind of famous people. Bobby Blake I think hovered about.
I also attended my first BDSM 101 workshop that weekend. I was shocked that there was a black men’s leather group at all, let alone in Atlanta, talking about flogging and spanking and fetishes. I learned some of the best insights about race and power come from black Leathermen. I don’t recall the other workshops as clearly. I do remember they all seemed well attended. Everyone appeared to be so insightful and interesting.
Even as I look back I’m aware the stories we tell are much better than the reality. We forget or leave out the rejection and the loneliness. The shade and self-doubt. We forget the pain of being each other’s mirrors and each other’s worst judges. We forget the moments where we hate each other as passionately as we lust. Walking past that group of brothers and knowing, just knowing, they are thinking horrible things about you. Those memories are suspended because it’s easier to remember the triumphs or the trauma, but not both. To hold both, and see the beauty in the complexity of the experience, is the more powerful position to inhabit. Transformation happens in the contradictions of our personal narratives.
My participation in Black Pride in the following years has been significant, though not as magical and certainly not as committed. The event now feels more like a class reunion. I eventually became very critical of Black Pride, engaging in my very own version of “gay shame,” advocacy, critiquing the assimilationist politics, fat shaming and hegemonic masculinity of many of the events. I would critique the cruelty of some of the more imperial organizers. Boy were there some imperial organizers. They would as soon spit on you as say “thank you” for helping out. No, not all, but some.
Last year, in 2013, I promised myself I would never again have anything to do with Pride, or even with the affiliated events. I’ve already broken the promise. No matter what, I seem to keep getting called back. Maybe it’s still because of that first experience. Maybe it’s because I’m hopeful for the new cohort of organizers.
Charles Stephens is the founder of The Counter Narrative Project (thecounternarrative.org) and is co-editing the forthcoming anthology ‘Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call.’