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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
In our media-saturated age, what's en vogue can quickly turn or gradually morph: This week, being of African descent might be "in." Last month, it might have been being gay or lesbian. But the two together? Rarely, if ever, is being a homosexual -- or the current politically correct acronym "sgl" (same gender loving) -- of African descent en vogue. Too much information, too much perceived baggage. From this springboard, editor Delroy Constantine-Simms weaves a startling essay collection, The Greatest Taboo: Homosexuality in Black Communities. The 28 pieces represent diversity in sexual orientation, gender, race, and ethnicity, all exploring the relationships between gays and lesbians of African descent and their straight counterparts.
The essays are grouped into categories: racial politics of black sexual identity; the black church; Africa; dress codes; the gay Harlem Renaissance; heterosexism and homophobia in popular black music and literature; and myths surrounding AIDS and public icons (Max Robinson and Magic Johnson).
Simms himself provides the collection's titular piece, "Is Homosexuality the Greatest Taboo?" Citing Walter Wink, he likens the explosive issue of homosexuality in black communities and churches to the issue of slavery 150 years ago. Just as folks once underscored slavery's biblical roots, many also use the Bible to condemn homosexuality today. "God didn't make Adam and Steve, he made Adam and Eve" is often preached as the ultimate word on the inherent evils of homosexuality. But, of course, even churches are conflicted on this issue. According to the incomparable bell hooks, "The black community has always found a role for the ever-growing numbers of gays and lesbians becoming more open and active in the role they play with the African-American church."
The Greatest Taboo's explorations range beyond modern African-American culture. Included are essays about 19th-century slaves and post-apartheid South Africa (amazingly, the only country in the world to include a prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation in its Bill of Rights). Additionally, RuPaul -- probably the most visible openly gay African-American man -- merits serious discussion, as does the Million Man March, which suffered from the same schizophrenia as black religion, openly welcoming gay men while also allowing Farrakhan to continue his homophobic rhetoric.
If rapper Ice Cube is to believed, "Real n______ ain't gay." Some Afrocentrists, too, maintain that "sgl" folks are not Afrocentric. In other words, being gay is not a "black thang." And certainly not an African "thang." But, thanks to the collected essayists here, such myths are debunked. Interestingly, editor Simms did invite known homophobes to contribute to The Greatest Taboo, but they "prefer[red] to hide their prejudices behind irrational intellectualism combined with misinterpreted biblical doctrine."
As intended, this collection of essays will successfully "generate further thought and prompt serious examinations of the subject within the heterosexual and black community as a whole." Real homophobes, like racists, will never engage in this thoughtful process, so this book's compelling reading will unfortunately elude them. Instead, The Greatest Taboo exists for those who stand uniquely apart, blessed by sexual orientation and race, for those whose passion (and compassion) transcends boundaries.
Akilah Monifa is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California, and a lesbian of African descent.