Interview with Steven Fullwood, Curator and Co-Editor of "Black Gay Genius"
Farrah Lopez, the Schomburg Center's Communications Pre-Professional, spoke to Steven Fullwood, Assistant Curator for our Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, about his “Epistolary Lives” collection in our current exhibition, Curators’ Choice: Black Life Matters, and his latest book, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, Black Gay Genius.
What inspired you to write Black Gay Genius?
Joseph Beam, an amazing editor and activist who conceived and edited In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology in 1986. Black Gay Genius (BGG) is a long overdue love letter to Joe. BGG was the brainchild of my co-editor, the marvelous Charles Stephens, founder of the Counter Narrative Project, which amplifies black gay men's voices through media, advocacy, and political education. I discovered Joe’s and other black gay writers work from In the Life. A friend made photocopies of some of the essays and poems and gave them to me, basically saving my life in 1988. Fast forward to 20 years later: I started working at the Schomburg as an archivist, and was excited that Joe’s papers were preserved at the library! Beam died two years after publishing In the Life. Because his mother, Dorothy Beam, loved her son and understood what he was trying to do, she donated his papers to the Schomburg. Working with Charles on a project about Joe Beam was exciting because he has such a reverence for the 1980s black queer art and politics. BGG took about 4 years from conception to completion.
Why is the observance of Joseph Beam’s life with an anthology important?
It is never up to mainstream culture to maintain or honor our dead; we must do that. I am specifically talking about black queer people. It is our duty. Joe Beam’s passion to learn, grow and provide an opportunity for others to speak their truths was inspired by the Black Power and Black Arts Movements. If you saw a need for something, you did it or you supported others that did. Beam identified the need and did that. Barbara Smith, writer, feminist, and co-founder of Kitchen Table Press, once wrote an essay about James Baldwin titled “We Must Always Bury Our Dead Twice,” which I took as a responsibility to make visible black queer life. In Black Gay Genius, Smith stated that “burying our dead twice, or three times or more means that we lift up their contributions, their legacy, their reputations and make them known in every way we possibly can” and I agree with her 100%.
How did Black Gay Genius influence your work at the Schomburg and your contribution to our exhibition, Curators’ Choice: Black Life Matters?
I’m obsessed with memory and how we learn who we are and why. To that end, my personal and professional work centers around three areas: cultural producer, cultural animator, and culture keeper. My role as an assistant curator is to preserve black culture. My work as a writer/publisher focuses on creating or producing culture that’s meaningful and imaginative. The animator aspect of what I seek to do is interpret culture, assist other artists with their work, and be a conduit for a specific kind of imaginative process that allows for learning beyond the brackets of the cultures we are born into and sometimes are imprisoned within. I think Charles saw the work I was doing with the In the Life Archive, a project that collects and preserves culture created by and about queer people of African descent, and thought I would be good to partner with him on this necessary project.
How does “Epistolary Lives” relate to Black Gay Genius?
“Epistolary Lives,” a collection of personal letters I curated for the Curators’ Choice exhibition, is an attempt to showcase the complicated ways in which black gays and lesbians imagined themselves and shared their lives with their friends, family, lovers and community. Topics range from self-discovery to health concerns to works in progress. BGG explores similar topics as well. About a third of the book is filled with testimony about Joe, as well as In the Life and its impact. Through the contributor’s works, we see similar themes arise: love, struggle, identity and liberation. An excerpt from one of Beam’s letters to poet Essex Hemphill appears in both “Epistolary Lives” and in Black Gay Genius. In 2011, while working on the book, I had the honor of assisting with the acquisition of the personal papers of Brad Johnson, who was a contributor to In the Life, and who died shortly after the papers were deposited at the Schomburg. One of Johnson’s letters, a very poignant one to his parents, is featured in “Epistolary Lives.” The most significant way these two projects connect is that they were produced to honor underrepresented queer people of African descent and to affirm their experiences by introducing these experiences to audiences unaware of their extraordinary lives.
What aspect do letters bring to Black Gay Genius that would not be present otherwise?
The letters that appear in BGG serve two purposes. In “Between Friends: An Ongoing Dialogue with ABilly S. Jones-Hennin and Carol Lautier,” we share in the experience of two individuals from two different generations. They tell us about their unique coming out processes. Jones-Hennin was a significant contributor to Beam’s In the Life, and Lautier is currently a PhD candidate at George Washington University. The other way letters inform BGG is through essays written by scholars Robert Reid-Pharr, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and andre m. carrington, who share excerpts from letters from Beam, Barbara Smith, Essex Hemphill and Audre Lorde—all of whom are significant foremothers and fathers of the black LGBTQ renaissance that exploded in 1980s. The book itself enters the long and complicated conversation about liberation and freedom.
Was there a particular letter that spoke to you on a personal level?
I was struck by the 11-page letter that poet Brad Johnson wrote to his parents in 1994. It reads like a novel. In it, Johnson talks to his parents who he clearly loves, and his profound disappointment of their refusal to accept him as a gay man. The letter is a testament to the complexities of love, honor and profound sadness. Meeting Brad, who was by his own account a loner, I received him as a remarkably thoughtful man who was still writing his letters in longhand in 2011.
Many of the pieces within “Epistolary Lives” have resonating themes of loneliness, isolation and struggle. Do you feel these themes still persist in black queer writing today?
Oh, absolutely. As the saying goes, some things have changed (e.g.., digital life) yet a great deal of things remain the same, or have even gotten worse (rampant homophobia, a rise in hate crimes, etc). In his brilliant essay, “An Archeology of Grief: The Fear of Remembering Joe Beam,” Colin Robinson captures what was always a painful time in what he rightly observes as an “unmourned AIDS grief of the 1980s and ‘90s, with all the trauma of working for black gay groups and networks, swimming at the bottom of so many drinks.” But it is also true that there is a lot of joy, laughter and insurgent vision in black queer writing that is often overlooked due to the reductive ways the black queer experience is rendered. In essence, there is so much more to our collective work.
What do you feel Black Gay Genius adds to the black queer conversation that is not already present?
Resurrecting Joe’s legacy to insert him into mainstream discourse, but a far more pressing one is that works like BGG can and should be done. Black queer/SGL literature, like all literature, is perpetually growing and developing and is often in conversation with Black radical/imaginative spaces—not always, but sometimes. BGG is a community offering in the tradition of the Black Arts Movement created by the community and published through a black queer press. It features new and seasoned writers, a variety of genres and a bibliography of Beam’s work. My hope is it will take its place among the many books that resonate in the hearts and minds of people who need and deserve literature that reflects their experiences.
How do you feel about the idea that Black Gay Genius is referred to as “wake work”?
It’s a very accurate assessment of what part of what Charles and I sought to do, which is to honor Joe by helping to resurrect him and his groundbreaking work. The book is not only a place for his friends and admirers to wax about Joe, but it also offers a bibliography of Beam’s work and works about him, essentially to have the opportunity to learn about him in his own words.
What would you like readers to take away from Black Gay Genius?
My hope is that the book entertains, informs and enlightens, and that it helps shed light on Joe Beam, who deserves to be studied more for his contribution to American letters.