Black gay Fire & Ink
A distinguished group of gay and lesbian
writers of African descent gather, and in the very act of doing
so find themselves making a political statement
BY RHONDA SMITH
Washington Blade (http://www.washblade.com/point/020927cover.php3)
ABOUT FOUR years now Lisa C. Moore, the founder of RedBone
Press, the only black lesbian publishing house in the U.S., and
a handful of friends in her literary circle have been talking
about sponsoring a national conference for gay writers of
The conversations traditionally unfolded after they left
OutWrite, a now-defunct national lesbian and gay writers'
conference held in Boston. While OutWrite gatherings would
attract as many as 900 gay writers, Moore and a close colleague,
poet and writer G. Winston James, said it was a mostly white
crowd and issues of concern to many black writers there were
"At the 1998 conference, a group of people of color, writers,
got together and talked about creating what was to be referred
to as the Arts Tour 2000. But that did not happen," James
recalled this week from his home in New York City. "But Lisa
and I continued to have conversations about the need for a
conference like OutWrite for black folks."
Finally, Moore said, "It just got to be like we really do
have enough people we know that we could have our own
About 200 gay writers, thinkers, teachers, and publishing
professionals of African descent gathered in Chicago for three
days last week for the first Fire & Ink: A Writers Festival for
GLBT People of African Descent. The conference, which included
workshops and panel discussions, and various types of spoken
word performances, took place Sept. 20-22, at the University of
Days before the conference, however, a fire in Moore's apartment
destroyed much of her property, including material she would
need at the conference. Still, with help from friends and family
members, Moore did not deviate from her plans for Fire & Ink.
"It turned out fabulous," she said this week.
Dorothy Randall Gray, a conference organizer and non-fiction
writer, echoed Moore.
"We are looking forward to the next one in 2004," she
said. "But we are very much in need of funding to deal with the
financial challenges that this one presented to us. We've got
bills to pay, and we've still got money to raise for the next
Moore said Fire & Ink had a $70,000 budget and currently has an
outstanding balance of $35,700.
Still, she said it succeeded on all levels by giving black gay
writers and other performers a plan to network, learn, and share
In the Fire & Ink program booklet, organizers included a
statement that black gay writers Barbara Smith and Joseph Beam
made in March 1988 at the Second National Black Writers
Conference at Medgar Evers College in New York.
"The Harlem Renaissance could not have occurred if it had not
been for Black Gay participants, among them: Countee Cullen,
Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Alain Locke, and R. Bruce
Nugent," they said. "Historically, Black Lesbian writers
have been less easily identifiable, but recent research has
documented that Alice Dunbar Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimke and
Lorraine Hansberry are also members of this tradition."
Smith and Beam also said, "The acknowledgment of our work as
Black Lesbian and Gay writers necessitates a major revision of a
currently homophobic and inaccurate Black literary history."
Some of the 20 writers who signed the statement ? Beam, Assotto
Saint, Essex Hemphill, Audre Lorde, and Pat Parker ? are no
longer alive. But several others showed up last week at Fire &
Among them were Cheryl Clarke, a longtime author and poet who
lives in Jersey City, N.J., Alexis de Veaux, a poet, fiction
writer, and educator, and Michelle Parkerson, a writer,
filmmaker and performance artist from Washington, D.C.
"Fire & Ink was quite a witness to those who have come before
us ? Bruce Nugent, Zora Neale Hurston and, later, James Baldwin
? those who were willing to go before us with far less than we
had," said Rev. Shirlene Holmes, a lesbian performance
artist, educator and community leader who works as an associate
professor in the communications department at Georgia State
University. Holmes is perhaps best known for her "Pride
Plays," which depict various aspects of black gay life and
have been performed nationwide.
"We are a thousand times more privileged than they were,"
said Holmes, who was one of three "trailblazers" who
spoke at Fire & Ink Friday. "What an honor to gather and
remember them and to know that writing like theirs is going on
all over the country."
James said Holmes, who spoke along with Cheryl Clarke and Samuel
R. Delany, a novelist and English professor at Temple University
in Philadelphia, discussed the importance of "recognizing our
gifts" and using them to help one's community and
"bringing youths along as well."
"She and Samuel and Cheryl really helped to set the tone for
the conference," he said. "It was not just about writing
in your room at home but writing for the world and not ignoring
youths who come to you seeking guidance."
FIRE & INK ORGANIZERS said a major focus of the conference was
to allow various artists to share their work and to learn from
emerging voices that haven't been widely heard.
"Our focus was on the ways in which people represent our
community and making those representations sharper and clearer
so we're not being shaped by someone else's vision of us,"
said Reginald Harris, a poet and short story writer in Baltimore
who directs the Information and Technology Support Department
for Enoch Pratt Free Library.
"We are setting the tone so we can speak for ourselves,"
said Harris, who is also the Web site manager for the Cave Canem:
African-American Poetry Workshop/Retreat and editor of Kuumba:
Poetry Journal for Black People in The Life.
This, Harris said, is a political act germane to the gay civil
"Anytime someone from a marginalized community says, 'I will
define myself and use my skills, arts and talents in the best
way I know possible to represent the world,' that's a political
act," he said.
C.C. Carter, an adjunct professor at Columbia College in
Chicago, who teaches performance poetry workshops, agreed.
"All literature, from humor to erotica, has its political
significance when it's not being shown often enough," she
said. "When I walk out on the stage, and I'm facing 7,000
white women and many of them have never seen a black woman
perform, that's political."
Carter recently retired from the poetry slam circuit, but not
before winning the Fifth Annual Guild Complex Gwendolyn Brooks
Open Mic Competition and the Lambda Literary Foundation's First
Annual National Slam Competition at the Behind Our Mask
"I'm very woman-centered and very much into presenting the
upside of what it means to be black and female and a
full-figured woman and all the other 'isms' that go with that,"
IN ADDITION TO conference workshops on writing books,
screenwriting, and magazine publishing, there also were
opportunities for performance artists such as Carter to display
"So many of the people who don't necessarily regard
performance as literary got to see many of us in spoken word,
slam and on the performance scene and I think they came away
with a different attitude," she said. "There was a new
respect and appreciation for all of us and what we do and how we
walk in the world with the work that we do."
To a large extent, issues related to writing dominated
discussions at Fire & Ink. James said he and other contemporary
black gay writers, such as Reggie Harris in Baltimore and Marvin
K. White in Oakland, Calif., are trying to bridge the gap left
by black gay poets such as Hemphill and Beam, whose work gained
wide acclaim before their deaths.
Jane Troxell, executive director of the Lambda Literary
Foundation, a national non-profit organization that works to
advance gay writing, said the forces that sustained the gay and
lesbian book boom of the 1980s and 1990s are still very much in
play for black authors.
"Black gay writing has an increasing relevance in today's
culture, and it should be fostered and honored," she said.
"If you're looking for representations of African-American
LGBT people, you most likely will not find them on television or
in a movie; you will find them only in books."
The Lambda Literary Foundation, in Washington, D.C., was one of
the sponsors of Fire & Ink. It began sponsoring the Lambda
Literary Festival, a bi-annual event, after the OutWrite
Before the conference last week, Moore said she wanted to play a
role in helping create Fire & Ink because so many writers
nationwide are working in isolation.
"It will be so affirming for them to see other people and
know the work that they're doing is valid and crucial to the
formation of a lot of people's identities as black gay men and
lesbians," she said. "Words give validation and are a very
powerful thing. For them to make it to a printed page and be
bound and sold, there's power in that."
Rhonda Smith can be reached at