The American Historian

Reviews

Darius Bost, Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Review by Kevin C. Quin

Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence explores the various ways black gay men in New York City and Washington D.C. fashioned themselves amid the structural forces of antigay and antiblack violence during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Writing against queer theorists and African American studies scholars who insist on abjection as the sole interpretative framework for black gay social life, Bost draws from an eclectic archive of cultural production to demonstrate how black gay men over these three decades imagined a better life beyond their challenging present. Bost analyzes journals, magazines, poetry, photography, and performance art to document the enduring optimism held by black gay men despite their struggles against institutional forms of racial discrimination and homophobia.

As an interdisciplinary study, Evidence of Being makes two important historical and theoretical interventions. Bost builds upon historian Kevin Mumford’s pioneering book, Not Straight, Not White: Black Gay Men from the March on Washington to the AIDS Crisis, in his exploration of black gay men’s social, cultural, and political activities in the post-Civil Rights and post-Stonewall Eras. Bost marks this period of increased cultural and political activity by black gay men as a “Black Gay Cultural Renaissance” to undo historical narratives that cast this era as one solely about trauma and loss. Bost also periodizes the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s as a cultural renaissance to underscore the vibrant and optimistic nature of black gay aesthetics and politics as black gay men challenged police violence, discriminatory housing and employment policies, and lack of access to adequate medical care during the AIDS epidemic. Evidence of Being ultimately maintains historical integrity while combining literary and cultural analysis to contextualize and examine the work of black gay activists, artists, and intellectuals from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s.

Evidence of Being also addresses theoretical tensions between African American Studies scholars and queer theorists. Bost highlights how Afro-pessimist theories of black life that privilege abjection as an analytic fail to address the complex nature of black gay social life in practice. In addition, Bost notes how queer theorists’ conceptualization of queer life as one of social death precludes richer understandings of black gay men’s longing for community. Bost states that claims from Afro pessimism and queer theory that give primacy to abjection and social death limit more nuanced accounts of black gay social life that illuminate black gay men’s yearning for self-determination and political subjectivity. Bost offers the term “being” as a way to move beyond this theoretical impasse and describe the lived experiences of black gay men. “Being” as a theoretical lens for understanding black gay social life attends to the realities of racist and homophobic violence while accounting for black gay men’s attempts at constructing black gay personhood. Evidence of Being successfully troubles the stakes of privileging loss in scholarly interpretations of black gay social life by highlighting what Bost calls “black/queer optimism” in the archive of black gay men’s cultural production.

Evidence of Being’s four chapters offers a comparative perspective on the emergence of black gay politics in New York City and Washington D.C. as black gay men responded to various forms of exclusion such as racial discrimination at gay bars and clubs, intracommunal homophobia, and class-based prejudices. Chapter 1 investigates how mainstream constructions of liberal gay personhood depended on the exclusion of black gay men. Bost examines how the black gay press in Washington D.C. covered an underreported string of murders of poor black gay men to demonstrate how expressions of grief from the city’s larger gay community varied depending on one’s class position. Chapter 2 demonstrates how the archive of black gay men’s cultural production contrasts with Afro-pessimists’ and queer theorists’ centering of abjection and social death in black gay social life. Bost analyzes interviews and poems by black gay poet and activist Essex Hemphill as an example of how the theme of loneliness in his works signify black gay men’s political longings for community as they remained attuned to the realities of racism and homophobia.

Chapter 3 explores how the practice of mourning fueled black gay writing and activism during the AIDS epidemic. Through archival research and oral histories with surviving members of the black gay artist collective Other Countries, Bost carefully documents the collective’s cultural and political activities as an example of how black gay men politicized mourning through a variety of activities such as holding writers’ workshops, performing poetry, and publishing a literary journal.

Bost’s analysis of black gay social life amid racist and homophobic violence is at its strongest in Chapter 4. Chapter 4 examines the diaries of black gay writer and intellectual Melvin Dixon. As one of the few diaristic accounts of black gay life from the 1960s to the 1990s, Dixon’s diaries serve as an example of how black gay men negotiated their racial and sexual identities in their personal and professional lives. Bost analyzes how Dixon’s diary entries provide an intimate account of a person living with AIDS while theorizing how the genre of the diary entry itself served as a viable site for black gay self-making.

In sum, Evidence of Being serves an excellent model of interdisciplinary study. More than simple historical recovery, Bost’s poignant analysis of cultural production successfully sheds light on black gay men’s collective visions for a better future while struggling against ongoing systems of antiblackness and antiqueerness. Evidence of Being is an extraordinary contribution to the fields of African American studies and LGBT studies. Evidence of Being should be of interest to a wide range of scholars of African American History, LGBT History, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and American Studies.