Charles Stephens: Language of trauma is silence: Part 2

We became big brothers without first being little brothers. Elders without first being youth. This is how I think about those early years. We were still kids and yet we weren’t. In my circle of young black gay men: activists and artists, not even 25 years old, we fought and survived homophobic families and academic institutions, being marginalized, being invisible, poverty, and the racist white gays. However, the one battle that we were never quite prepared for was when we had to go to war against each other.

My beautiful friends, they were boy-warriors. And yet there will never be streets named after them. They will not be recorded in history books. Their names will never be spoken at academic conferences. Their faces will never be placed on stamps. Their lives will never be depicted in the cinema. It’s as if they never existed. And this is why I insist upon writing about them. Not just because I want to remember, but because I won’t let you forget.

Of those early battles that we endured and that we witnessed, the one that haunts me to this day was one of the last times I saw Keiron. I was in Midtown; the old Midtown. This was fall 1999.

It’s important to make a distinction between the old Midtown and the new. The old Midtown was dark, dangerous, fun, mysterious, alive and sexy; back then we named buildings things like “Vaseline Towers.” The new Midtown is gentrified and sterile, with condos, strollers, yuppies and such. But in the old Midtown I happened to be walking by the Atlanta Lambda Center (which was where many of our LGBT meetings took place), and as I was walking past the building, Keiron happened to be walking out.

Keiron Williams had been one of the founders of My Brother’s Keeper, the young black men’s group I had been politicized in, and also a student at Morehouse College. Did I speak first?

I don’t remember. Maybe he did. I do remember him saying “I just got fired.” Second Sunday was the black gay men’s discussion group that was the sort of “parent organization” to My Brother’s Keeper. Apparently during its board meeting, that he was leaving when I met him, they fired our entire leadership, including Keiron. The leadership positions were volunteer, though I think Keiron might have received a small stipend. The stated reason for the firing, I believe, was an administrative error. Keiron sent a report to a funder without first getting Second Sunday to review it.

I think the real reason Keiron was fired was that he was a feminine, brilliant, defiant, black sissy and many of our elders despised him for it. He was a big mouth. He refused to be invisible and he refused to assimilate into absurd notions of respectability activism. As he told me about the firing, his face looked calm, even serene, but now I know that face well, because it’s also a face I’ve learn to make. A mask I’ve learned to wear. This is the mask you wear when your brothers hurt you and you try to conceal it. Trauma isn’t just about silence; it’s also a performance.

He then told me that he was leaving activism to focus on his life’s purpose (which I imagine he no longer saw as activism). He was, I think, 25. He would die maybe two years after we had this conversation, and it still haunts me to this day.So this is why I write about the past. Not just to remember, but to memorialize. So as I finish this, my last column for Georgia Voice, I’m thinking not about death, but about life, about how language is life and life is memory.