Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Conversations at the Museum of the African Diaspora: Past Pain and the Difficult Path to Future Empowerment

Ericka Huggins and Ronald K. Porter

The 25th Anniversary Conversations Across Generations “Stirring the Waters, Fanning the Flames” was the first event of the silver anniversary speaker series of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Historical Society (GLBTHS). It was partnered with the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) in a comfortably cool room on a scorching hot day at MOAD’s Mission and 3rd street location on Sept. 25.

One of San Francisco’s newest museum, the Museum of the African Diaspora traces all of humankind’s origins to Africa through that continent’s culture, art, and history. The diaspora of Africans was powerfully and painfully displayed on a slave trade map on the wall behind the speakers on stage.

Presenter Ronald K. Porter exclaimed his pleasure that the majority of the 60-plus person audience were people of color. Porter is a University of California at Berkeley doctoral candidate in social and cultural studies in education. He was in conversation with acclaimed activist, former political prisoner, and author Ericka Huggins, who was a leader of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and currently is an educator who teaches at three schools.

Ronald K. Porter

Porter began the discussion relating a conversation with his cousin that shocked him because his relative could not conceive of an openly-gay African-American leader like Bayard Rustin who worked with Martin Luther King. Both he and Huggins spoke about the deliberate suppression of information about the activism of both African Americans and LGBTs throughout history, especially when the activists are queer and people of color.

Porter spoke emotionally of reading through the archived personal papers of a deceased Black author and discovering that gay love letters had been removed. A desperate need for family respectability had ruined the preservation of a valuable historical resource, and he said that 1920’s magazines with gay themed articles by famed authors such as Langston Hughes were suppressed.

Ericka Huggins

Huggins strongly expressed her view that the BPP not only invented the first charter schools, but also provided food, education, legal assistance, and help for prisoners and parolees. She mentioned that there was and still is a misinformation campaign about the BPP and its ability to give empowerment to people with lower incomes and to challenge the abuses of law enforcement. She also mentioned that she was an open lesbian in the BPP and there were other lesbians also, but that she did not know of any gay men.

This journalist spoke with Huggins after the Q&A about an Oakland Gay Liberation Front meeting that he attended in the early 1970s that was visited by Black Panther Party members who invited the gays to the upcoming BPP convention in Washington, D.C. The BPP’s 19-year-old office manager outed himself at that meeting, much to the surprise of everyone.

Racism in the LGBT community and homophobia in the African-American community was discussed during the Q&A. Huggins said that it will be difficult and uncomfortable for people to join together to talk about racism and homophobia to make changes, but that it has to be done. She hoped that young people would make that effort. She also spoke about the courage of the first inter-racially married couples fighting for legality and she related her disappointment about the unappreciated accomplishments of women of color such as Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Angela Davis, and Dolores Huerta.

Porter has known Huggins for five years and when they first met he asked if she could connect him with other Black gay men, and now that he has met many of them in the Bay Area he still feels that he would be involved in more of a community on the East Coast. There was a disagreement between Porter and Huggins about which LGBT couples wanted to be married, and Porter’s experience was that lower-income queer couples did not seek marriage vows. And Porter needed to assure an audience member that he did not feel that Black people were so damaged that there was no hope in the future for them.

The centerpiece of the event was a back and forth discussion about Huey P. Newton’s memo to the BPP that homosexuals had been discriminated against and that it was unfair. Huggins said that there had been talk about LGBTs before Newton’s memo, but that its issuance was still monumental. Newton evidently wanted sexuality to be talked about and that memo can be seen as an extension of Black revolutionaries’ feeling of solidarity with other oppressed people during the Viet Nam War era.

The GLBTHS’ executive director Paul Boneberg was introduced to the throng just before they mobbed Huggins and Porter to express their admiration and support for their activism.

The GLBTHS is presenting their annual Masked Ball Gala on Oct. 28. See glbthistory.org for information.

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