Wednesday, December 3, 2008

BlackMail/Black Male ...Sean Stewart Ruff

In Ishmael Reed's "Writin' Is Fightin'"(Atheneum), Reed suggests, " A black boxer's career is the perfect metaphor for the career of a black male. Every day is like being in the gym, sparring with impersonal opponents as one faces the rudeness and hostility that a black male must confront in the United States, where he is both the object of fear and takes an extraordinary amount of effort to understand someone from a background different than your own, especially when your life doesn't really depend upon it."

The so called black male as endangered warrior revolutionary, finds himself the subject (lately) of many a intellectual discourse on contemporary life and American popular culture. From Academy Award nominated hip-hop hood genre films; dangerous gun toting brothers in gold teeth and pig tails, to magazine covers of shiny beefy men with alluring scowls in an assortment of Fashion Fair earth tone pigmentations , this new protagonist of the media arts comes complete with sex appeal, drama, and published cultural criticism. But the definitions are still narrow and at best, reductive . Boxer's like writer/editor, Sean Stewart Roeuff, (more brain than braun, more sissy than stud) are seldom the topic of conversation of the modern day Othello variety. In the heterosexually dominated world of film and literature the character of the intellectual homosexual of color is still distorted and incomplete as a person- a let down to God fearing heterosexual women and their sons. The fight is obvious. The opponent is not so obvious. And with this new new protagonist (or antagonist) as the character you love to hate for everything from the destruction of the family to the rise in heterosexual AIDS related deaths, one wonders how the career minded gay black male will fair in the ring against impersonal opponents who are not ready to admit fear and fascination as the impetus for battle, as quick as they admit good old fashioned justifiable ethical hate.
Ruff is a former Random House copywriter, former Development Director for the infamous Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co., and a recovered closet novelist who never let anyone read his work. He describes himself as "Always gay, always treated like I was gay...a sissy...a punk." Raised in an American ghetto where "Blacks were the minority of the projects", he found himself searching for himself in books at an early age- identifying with Baldwin's sexually/spiritually torn "David" In "Go Tell It On The Mountain", and a little black girl battling the trappings of a ghettoized environment in "Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack". Escaping James Baldwin's world of incredulity and violence "inside and outside" of his house, little Sean later discovered the English and American Literature Departments in College. The cliched cynicism stops here. What the work of William Styron and Henry James inspired is not from a Baldwin novel or a Williams play. It is a complete character- educated, and eloquent, a little Richard Bruce Nugent with a dash of Gertrude Stein. Altogether pulled up, keen, and fiercely decadent with a penchant for refinement. Seediness. Accomplishment.
Aside from an opera about Robert Oppenheimer he has been commissioned to write the libretto for, a soon to be published novel,and two non-fiction anthologies on Gay and Lesbian culture he is currently editing, this June, Henry Holt will publish the first book edited by Roeuff, "Go The Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African American Gay & Lesbian Fiction". The title is from a Village Voice Interview with James Baldwin. The subtitle is, perhaps, a marketing ploy by the publishers- sure to create some controversy. Collections of gay and lesbian fiction, poetry, essays, etc. are doing very well on the literary market, but this anthology features stories by assumed to be heterosexual writers, including Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, and Richard Wright (as well as other writers, known and unknown, who are either homosexual, bisexual or sexually unidentified.) This anthology focuses on sexual identity conflict and gender bending as a reoccurring theme in fiction. It is not the intention of the editor to draw attention to the sexual identity of the authors. The idea of reversed inclusion came to Ruff when he decided to collect work that dealt with gay and lesbian issues. "We don't need to read about our pathologies, we need to know about how ideas are shaped. Without that, there is static in gay fiction.I was interested in fiction that evolved to a level of truth. Not self conscious...fiction about people.It's important there be a diffusing of negative, vitriolic energy about homosexuality."
Ruff discovered Amiri Baraka's play "The Toilet", first published in 1967. He was so impacted by Baraka's violent drama of homoerotic hetero-male camaraderie he sought out and soon discovered Baraka's masterful short story, "The Alternative" featured in his collection of fiction, "Tales by Leroi Jones". It was one of the first pieces by a heterosexual writer to be included in this anthology. Wright's fifty year old short story, also included, could be described as "Bigger Thomas Does Drag" and many readers will be surprised to re-read the excerpt from Miss Morrison's "Song Of Solomon", as it appears in the context of this ensemble. The identity of this collection was shaping. It would not be a book published solely to choral marginalized voices. Sean Roeuff's "Go The Way Your Blood Beats" would take focus as an eye on a certain reality- told by people who either experience, bear witness or observe that reality. " Being gay is incidental to plot, as opposed to the plot hinging on it", Roeuff explains.Celebrated gay and lesbian writers have not been excluded by any means. Noted gay and lesbian authors like Sapphire and Samuel R. Delaney are included in this collection. Both writers have a wide audience. For lack of a better word, multi-cultural. Demographics are important here. This editor is in the ring with chartreuse gloves on, and fighting fiercely to remove the railroad tracks between the gay literary canon and the black literary canon."What literary segregation creates is a kind of beautiful slum. Everybody knows who lives there, and how beautiful the gardens are- but they're afraid to be seen there. They are leery of guilt by association.". He predicts the audience for this book will be " People who read literature. White, Black, Gay, or Straight."
Generally, boiler plate fiction fares better on the market than literature. Gay and Lesbian Literature has a large readership, but according to Roeuff, that's because there is a large populous of gay and lesbian readers. "Most white heterosexuals don't read Black Gay fiction. They do read literary fiction. James Earl Hardy (author of 'B-Boy Blues') does not have a large white heterosexual audience, but Randall Kenan (author of 'A Visitation Of Spirits')does. E. Lynn Harris ( author of bestsellers, 'Just As I Am' & 'Invisible Life') tapped into a certain market that was unexplored. Not Toni Morrison readers. Not Walter Mosley readers. Not even Alice Walker readers. (Harris) tapped into a market of romance novel and Terry Macmillan readers." With the success of Macmillan's monotone yet contemporary black woman identified book and film "Waiting To Exhale", that market is nothing to scoff at. And the task of accessing readers to situations, language and characters an audience can identify with should be the point of the writer rather than creating terms to separate popular art from high art. Roeuff quickly points out, " In 'B-Boy Blues', James Earl Hardy creates a character who is free of the need to forgive himself, gain his mother's forgiveness, and other kinds of recriminating guilt associated with sexuality in most fiction. Hardy's character is a queen, and everybody accepts he's a queen, and he's in love with a homeboy who accepts himself as being gay." Progress springs eternal. Says Ruff, taking a slow drag from his Lucky Strike and striking a pose, " I think to survive in James Baldwin's world is probably, really the greatest accomplishment that anybody can have."

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