Ain't Walking with Nobody Else's Legs

Doing Battle with Sexual And Racial Injustice in the 1980s

by Louie Crew

© 2004 by Louie Crew

This address was a keynote at the 1982 convention of Black and White Men Together BWMT). Adrienne Rich gave the other keynote.

In the early 1960s the students at a particular Catholic girls school were giving the Mother Superior quite a hard time about the lack of entertainment on campus.

"Well, what do you propose that I do about it?" replied Mother Superior.

"We could have a dance," one girl timidly suggested.

"But where would we get young men?" asked her teacher.

"Oh, that would be no problem. There's an army base nearby," came the ready reply. "I am sure that they have a similar problem and would be glad to send us as many males to the dance as you request."

Weary with the battle the Mother Superior acquiesced and called the base. Surely enough, she was put in touch with an entertainment officer who was delighted to accommodate the girls school by sending 305 young men on the next Saturday night at 7:30 as requested, that is, five more men than women to keep things moving, after heterosexual fashions.

"Oh, but there is just one more thing," Mother Superior interjected.

'What is that?" the entertainment officer asked.

"Well, I hope that you won't misunderstand this request, but this IS a Catholic school, you know, and I would really appreciate it if you would not send us any Jewish boys," Mother Superior added.

"No problem," the officer replied.

At precisely the appointed hour seven troop buses loaded with 305 black soldiers arrived for the dance. Mother Superior was quite at a loss and rushed to the handsome corporal obviously in charge: "Oh, there must be some mistake!" she exclaimed.

"Why no m'am," the corporal replied, "Sgt. Goldberg never makes a mistake!"

Now, as then, we need to be especially vigilant and humorous as we, like Sgt. Goldberg, expose the frauds amongst us.

A friend reported a recent episode:

"Honey, you won't believe the ruckus that went down at my house! I was over to this girlfriend's place with her boyfriend and two other dudes from the air base. When her boyfriend went to bed, she wanted to cut over to my house with one of the other dudes--you know how they are. The other soldier and I sat in my living room talking while the girl and her man did their thing in the bed. My dude was 19 and quite intelligent. We both discovered that we shared an interest in dogs and dog shows and talked about them for over an hour, when casually I mentioned that I had met several other gay people at one dog show recently .

"What you mean gay? Are you gay? ' he shouted.

"Ev-er-y minute of my life, honey, ' I told him.

"But I didn't know you were gay. I wouldn't be talking to you if I knew you were gay. I don't want no funny people round me....' Then he huffed and went to the bedroom to try to rouse his buddy. I suggested that he could wait on the porch if he was afraid he might catch my gayness; and honey, he got himself right out there in an instant. Well, I didn't do a thing but lock the door behind him and in a minute he commenced to bang to get back in.

"'But you might catch some sissiness if you get back in here! ' I yelled.

"'Let me in; let me in; I have to use your phone! he pleaded.

"' But a sissy has talked on that phone and it might jump sissiness down your ear, funniness down your mouth ....'

"But the best part," my friend concluded," was after he got in and some of his other buddies from the base showed up, all of whom know me, have even been to bed with me. When they all greeted me with a hug, I told them, 'You'd better protect your friend here, cause he's going to be scared to sit with you on the way back.' They didn't stop ribbing the poor child; and one of them said to me, 'Come on over here, darlin, and get a kiss from a real man!'"

Ten years ago, I taught at Claflin College, a black Methodist school in South Carolina, nextdoor to South Carolina State, scene of the infamous Orangeburg Massacre where in the late 60s the South Carolina state troopers had fired indiscriminately into the backs of a group of unarmed student who were protesting a segregated bowling alley. Three of the students were dead in the field next to my parish church.

I feel that it is very important to study the sources of such action. I encouraged lots of term papers probing racism. The best designed one got me into a fair amount of trouble, especially with my white colleagues. A first-year student elected to study how much the white faculty on campus actually mingle with the black community in which it taught. He prepared a very large map of the town and put numbers to mark the locations of the major black churches, the major white churches, the major soul food restaurants, the major fast-food places, the major white cemeteries, the major black cemeteries, etc. hen he asked the respondents to match the numbers with the proper identities. He added other questions about characters in black sitcoms matched with characters in white sitcoms, stories in Life balanced with stories in Ebony. The white faculty did miserably except with items out of the majority culture: they knew next to nothing about the daily space of most of their students and colleagues. They did not even fare much better with the few items out of black American history versus those out of so-called "general" American history. In short, they were not very different from their ancestors who went as missionaries to Africa in the same boats that brought slaves back to their nation's plantations: they were exporting a culture while they were completely unaware of the culture in their midst. Their avid protestations--"But we are here to teach philosophy" or "We are here to teach literature!," etc.--did not seem too cogent when they could not give you a major premise out of Souls of Black Folks or even identify two members of the Harlem Renaissance. They would hardly have felt a black teacher qualified to teach their own children who was ignorant of Wordsworth or unimpressed by Thomas Jefferson. And they would have been right. A major job of teachers is the empowering of students, and students are very much empowered in terms of their own culture, in terms of their own roots, even as they are led out to discover other diversity, Quite frankly, I have no business teaching a young female person in 1982 if I am not more conversant with feminist literature and the feminist critique than any of my first-year students are likely to be. I don't have to be a doctrinaire feminist; I don't have to deny any other biases I might retain: but I simply am in a poor position to help females negotiate the big questions that they should negotiate if I am ill-informed.

Admittedly, all of us have learned from folks whom we have distrusted. Our meanest enemies can sometimes teach us very important lessons. All of us must finally eject even our most sympathetic teachers to become responsible for our own intellectual integrity. Even so, must we throw any old Pied Piper before those who desperately need to be led out of ignorance, led out of patterns of oppression, led out to discover their own worth and the history of their people's achievements?

I think that it is devastating all over America to have folks teaching James Baldwin without being candid about his orientation, especially about his courage in being one of the first serious writers to take on homosexual questions. I think that it is a mockery of all that education should stand for to have almost every high school text in our land including works by Willa Cather, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, W. H. Auden, and scores of other lesbians and gay males without thus identifying them. We are told the names of all of the women who tried to hop in bed with Lord Byron, but not the names of the men whose beds he sought. Heterosexuality, especially hetero adultery, is the very stuff of the literature that makes the official canon, and the hetero registers are flaunted as readily as tin cans and streamers on Saturday afternoon in my little town in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, every time we license another pair of breeders.

And being a black person, being a woman or being a gay person does not exempt one from the same obligations to do one's homework. Black lesbians do not necessarily know much black lesbian history. After all, most of them have been taught by white heterosexual males White heterosexual males set most of the standards for everyone else. When was the last time that Audre Lorde or Anne Allen Shockley made it big in a high school or even a college text?

The issue is not simply one of knowledge either: perhaps more importantly, how does one pay one's dues?

At Claflin I once asked a large crowd of my colleagues at a cocktail party how many were members of the N M CP. Most of the hands went up, but the two or three of us there who actually were members got a big kick out of urging the pretenders to join. Seriously, here were many folks quite anxious to jump on the issue when it cost them nothing and they thought they could impress the white outsider. Most of them were making thousands of dollars more than their parents and grandparents who sacrificed much from their little to make organizations like NAACP possible, organizations that in most cases had secured opportunities for this very generation to get the credentials that assured these larger salaries. How quickly we forget.

Most gay folks spend more money on food, liquor, and entertainment on any one weekend than they have spent in their entire lifetime contributing to Gay Rights National Lobby, the National Gay Task Force, National Coalition of Black Gays, or any other group operating to secure their rights. Most of these national groups operate on budgets smaller than those of any First Baptist Church in any town of 20,000 folks! Yet Jerry Falwell brings in millions annually. We have a very sad state of affairs when the bigots are more generous than are their victims. And those who lead our lesbian/gay organizations will tell you privately that if you want to get our people to give, one of the best ways is to have a dance or any other kind of cruise. Now, I'm not objecting to sociability. After all, Falwell's folks also have their hetero cruises at church suppers. I do feel however that we all need seriously to consider more substantial investments if we wish to assure the kinds of change so desperately needed. I am not impressed with the alleged progress represented by the numbers of clubs, the numbers of publications, the numbers of movies.....all of those things can be suppressed in less than only a month. It would take only 24 hours to padlock most of our social establishments if the Moral Majority got to be as vocal as it wants to become, as vocal and as effective as it was for well over half the first part of my life.

Forgive me if I exploit my own perspective--rural, and even more isolated, academic, but I fear that most of us exaggerate the amount of change that has allegedly occurred. I read over 2,500 papers each year that students in Wisconsin write in my classes. People give away lots of information where they are when they think you are watching only spelling and grammar. For example, routinely I ask students to write anonymous accounts of the reactions of each member of their family if a brother or a sister were to come home with a spouse of another race. Here are typical excerpts from a recent sampling:

  1. Mother would be deeply hurt, as if she had failed with my upbringing.... [Dad] would never forgive me for going against morals.
  2. Eldest brother's reaction: "Oh yeah!, she's gone and married a jigaboo! I would've never thought...."
  3. [Mother would] probably have a nervous breakdown. Her reaction would be less severe depending on the race I married into or if the person I married was of my own religion.
  4. My mother would take one look at him and her face would turn blank. She would try to weigh the issues with both of us, not really bringing up the fact that he was of a different race. Only after I had convinced her that I wasn't going to change my mind, would she apprehensively accept the fact that her daughter had gone mad and there was no hope for me.
  5. I would be very upset also. I couldn't picture a member of my family marrying a person of another race. I suppose what race the person is would make a difference.... All the members of my family would be surprised and shocked.
  6. My family has an attitude that would make it very uncomfortable to be in. It would be like a bad smell. I know that they would realize their prejudices and get over them. Nobody in my family is a redneck hillbilly, and I say that seriously.
  7. If the spouse was to be a Negro, they would probably throw me out of the house and never allow me to come back. My dad, especially, would go berserk because he is very prejudiced against them. If the spouse was to be Oriental, I really do not think they would be too upset. Maybe I am wrong, but I really hope I never have to find out.
  8. I know my parents would totally disown me.
  9. My dad would probably say hi, crap his pants, and sit in silence for the next day or two. He taught us not to be prejudiced, but I have heard him make some crude remarks.
They go on in a litany to repeat most of these themes. A racially integrated couple had a field day when I invited them to visit the class and critique the papers. In a separate exercise I asked the student to write a paragraph describing the ideal education for their daughters. Most papers prescribed that she should be able to cook, sew, keep house, make her husband happy --most females made the same claims, unsurprisingly--and many added something to the effect that she "should also be able to go to work and make a living to support the entire family in case her husband got sick." The head of the Women's Resources Center was grateful to get this kind of candor as her introduction to the class as well.

1982 or 1922? Sometimes it's very hard to tell.

It is important to realize that villains in the real world do not carry a cloak and dagger, do not stalk through shadows to the tremolo of violins, do not necessarily stand over their children beating them.... Too many of us who ought to know much better still have a comic book view of morality, easily dividing the world into the good people and the evil people. Evil characters that we can discredit or laugh at comfort us with the suggestion that we belong to the better crowd. But when these same students above write about these same family members in other situations, very real love and sacrificial understanding will inevitably be manifest. I was amused last year when our dean put in the faculty room of my building a pop art picture of Mississippi with Philadelphia indicated as an outhouse or some such. Certainly the tragedy of Philadelphia deserves fitting memorials, but must the good people of Mississippi, most of whom are black, take that kind of trashing Is it wise to give evil a place on the map as a false sense of security that you and I don't live there? These same Wisconsin colleagues complain that I exaggerate when I share with reporters tapes of the racist hate messages that are routinely left on our answering machine. After all, one of the advantages of their having only 23 blacks in a town of 23,000 folks is that they don't have to know about the pa(in that their vicious members perpetrate. And of course it is normally only a small minority who perpetrate the glaring evil in any society. Only a few Eichmanns are necessary to stoke the furnaces for any regime, and the "good people" have only to pretend that they don't detect the smell.

My hometown is Anniston, Alabama. If you're an American, that should ring a bell, but I find that it normally rings a bell only for blacks over 35, that is, for potential victims when the poor whites of my community banded to burn a freedom rider bus there early in the 1960s. I remember how the privileged white adults of Anniston went to their kneeler to pray that the bus would go away. They did not like the smell of Dachau. They called themselves "The Model City." They, it is true, did not do the burning but they allowed it to happen. All along they had heedlessly encouraged sick attitudes. I remember as a child my embarrassment when routinely my father would parade our maid Eula (never Mrs. Jackson) before Yankee visitors: "Eula, you don't want to be eating at restaurants with white folks, do you?" he would ask. "No'me," she would croon as she collected the bread and butter plates to make way for her best dessert. And she didn't want to eat with these white folks, didn't think such mean folks good enough to be sitting down with, and she was much too smart to be telling her real reason and losing the limited security that she already had. Meanwhile, my father, chairman of the school board made public policy of upholding the Constitution of the State of Alabama with all the force available, keeping segregation another 12 years after Little Rock, on the basis of the domestic duress to which he subjected his household servant. And mind you, at home in a thousand ways he was a"good man." He did not grow a snout. But he was wrong, dead wrong, on this very important issue. Ernest and I are very grateful that Dad has lived long enough to affirm us, that he lived long enough to lead in the poverty program that helped to reverse some of the injustices that poor blacks and whites alike suffered in his region. As importantly, Ernest and I remain eternally grateful that the two of us got to share with Mrs. Jackson, my black surrogate mother, the beauty of our own relationship: before her death: "Lawdy mercy," she said, "I done shore raised you right! Lawdy mercy!"

I have emphasized at length the complexity of the issues because we simplify at our peril. Those of us who participated in sit-ins and boycotts and pickets in the South in the 1960s self-consciously chose those who were most vulnerable to exposure, not necessarily those who were the most damaging in their racism; and too often too many of us forgot the difference. Lester Maddox would probably still be selling greasy foods and riding his bicycle backwards in front of his Pickwick Restaurant had not his vulnerability as a highly visible person drawn our movement to him. Ironically we put him in the Georgia governor's mansion where he could ride more than his bicycle backwards, while we never touched the more powerful, less accessible racist patterns of financial investment, e.g., the Coca Cola money in the same city. And only in the 1980s are victims of cruel racism in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and other large cities getting some of the attention focused on their real and urgent needs that too long was diverted to places elsewhere, as if evil really did have a specific and limited address.

When the Milwaukee Journal put a front-page story in its Sunday paper in May 1981, detailing the hostility Ernest and I had faced in Stevens Point, many well-meaning, kind members of my faculty came privately to complain that I was too harsh on the town, that similar abuses would happen to me if I had moved to other units in the University system and that I was stirring up trouble by making them look bad. The administrators even told a friend that he and others in a poetry group with me could not expect funding from the campus unless they dissociated themselves from me, so hostile was the reaction to exposure. Not one of these folks came to say, "Look, we think that it is dreadful that you are being threatened for your lives. We think that it is unconscionable that your federal and campus mail have been vandalized. We think that it is evil that you can't walk down the streets without a twenty-percent chance of being heckled." No, not one said that. And of course they are right --at least partially. Stevens Point is not a new locus for evil, does not deserve to be thus memorialized, any more than anyone else's neighborhood. Let the truth be spoken at last: we all live in neighborhoods and homes and personal bodies threatened with the worst forms of racism, sexism, and homophobia, and we will survive these threats, if at all, only by perpetual and united vigilance.

I am fearful of those who advise us to fight sexism, racism, and homophobia out of any simple notion of goodness. Last year in a forum sponsored by Black and White Men Together, I heard a white fellow use the parable of the Good Samaritan to explain why we white sought to care about black victims of injustice. "You see," he said, "there are these second-class citizens, the Samaritans, these Negroes, who are in a ditch, and Jesus teaches us that if we are going to get into heaven we have to go down and patch up their wounds and put them in a hotel and make all nice for them." Very interestingly, he had got the story backwards. The comfortable Jew was the one in the ditch in the original story, and it was the so-called"second-class" Samaritan who attended the privileged member. For the white folks to see the parallel, perhaps we would do better to put ourselves in the position of the Wall Street banker who got on an elevator once in the 1950s with our black brother, Bayard Rustin, a great leader in the black civil rights movement. Noticing Mr. Rustin's skin, the banker muttered over his paper, "Boy, would you mind polishing my shoes?" Rustin used a handkerchief and did as he was bidden. When he finished, the banker held out a half-dollar. "No sir," replied Rustin, "I do it only for kindness, not for money."

Beware of those who come as superior do-gooders, wanting to work their way into heaven. In my book, theirs is spiritual pathology, not real religion. The saints have always taught a harder lesson: you are not better than a victim; you are one with all victims; until all are safe, no one is safe. Leave the 90 and 9 and seek out the one not yet in the fold.

Similarly, I distrust those who are concerned only with the Particular injustice which is in season. Are Native Americans the cause this year? Or will it be women? Or can blacks make a comeback? Is it to be the gay 80s or the gay 90s? "You've had your turn; now it is ours!" or "How dare you to claim it's your turn; we've not finished with ours!" Surely such divisions serve the oppressor more than the oppressed. The human heart is able to able to sustain itself on several fronts at once, even if individuals wisely parcel out their energies to specific skirmishes.

Again and again in teaching in black America I picked up on students' reasoning, "We blacks have come a long way; therefore, we deserve our basic rights." Similarly, often I hear women arguing, even as a cigarette company has notoriously exploited to boost its sales with teenaged females, "We've come a long way baby; therefore, we deserve the ERA." Lately, I have even heard members of my campus Gay People's Union surmise, "Gosh, we lesbians have contributed so much to this culture that if they just knew about our contributions they would have to give us our rights." I do not question the progress and contributions of blacks, women, and gays. I do seriously challenge the logic here that somehow rights should be contingent on such progress and contributions. As I understand the American claim, rights are inalienable, and all people, at least in theory, are endowed with them. Now we know that those rights have been a bad check for many disenfranchised groups, blacks, women, and gays amongst them. But I think we would be wise to keep sending that same check back through, demanding our rights because we are persons, not because we are achievers. If we get basic rights because of our achievements, we will simply set ourselves up to cut out the next defrauded group until it plays the same ridiculous game. Besides, surely we're all familiar enough with the ways heterosexuals can trash us, that is, put a lower grade on us than we deserve. The phrase "smart sissy" says it poignantly, as does the old joke: "What is a faggot? Answer: A faggot is the 'homosexual gentleman' who just left the room." And some of you have learned to detect the very degrading inflection that a racist can give to a title like Mister or Doctor when ascribing it to a black person.

We who violate the biggest taboo, we who actually engage in sexual congress across racial boundaries, are ourselves prey to several potentially damaging degradations as well, I believe, chief among them, the sentimentality that too readily masks itself as genuine love. At the most superficial level I can detect it when I hear a self-\proclaimed liberal, say "Oh, I think that it is just wonderful that you and Ernest have been able to be married for almost a decade now!" this uttered when the person has known us maybe one evening and has had no opportunity to test for herself or himself whether the longevity is one of health, reciprocity, respectful independence, and growth or one of pampered neurosis, economic inequity, puerile dependence, and stifling spirituality. I surely am not prepared to award an endurance medal to heterosexuals or homosexuals merely because they stick together, and I see black and white together very equivocally. The racial blend that can offer diversity, extension, complementarity, and the like, can just as easily tempt people into a mushy, erotic sentimentality that masks the failure of the two to unite in healthier ways. One factor almost certain to be bigger in interracial relationships than in single-race relationships is that the interracial couples are more on parade, more in public view, and it behooves us all the more to do our housecleaning in private very, very carefully.

For example, how much justice is there in the division of labor and leisure? Who owns what? Does this division best contribute to the full growth of each person?

How much and in what ways does each influence the other? Who imitates whom? What value do both put on the imitation?

In what ways can control be shared more equally?

Can each love through the other's failure without enabling it?....

My inventory is not different from one that I would put to any couple. I just suspect that some blacks and white together might get so caught up in the public spectacle that we make that they might devalue these much more fundamental issues. I also suspect that many lesbians and gays are still very much in the adolescent stages of experimentation with other human beings and have not begun to probe equity, even in our friendships, where they are also vitally important.

Sometimes I think that BWMT ought to call itself the Jan Creoli Society.

Our struggles are ancient in this land. Jonathan Katz resurrects the following account by pages 22-23 of his important Gay American History (Crowell, 1976), from The Calendar of [Dutch] Historical Manuscripts:

June 15. Court proceedings. Fiscal [public prosecutor] vs. Jan Creoli, a negro, sodomy; second offense; this crime being condemned of God (Gen., c. 19; Levit., c. 18: 22, 29) as an abomination, the prisoner is sentenced to be conveyed to the place of public execution, and there choked to death, and then burnt to ashes....

And on the same date the Calendar lists:

Sentence. Manuel Congo, a lad ten years old, on whom the above abominable crime was committed, to be carried to the place where Creoli is to be executed, tied to a stake, and faggots piled around him, for justice sake, and to be flogged; sentence executed....

Not all societies made the same choices, at least not all did before white heterosexual men got full control of things, as Maurice Kenny reminds us in his very powerful little poem "Winkte," which is a Sioux word for male homosexual:
We are special to the Sioux!
They gave us respect for strange powers
Of looking into the sun, the night.
They paid us with horses not derision. 

To the Cheyenne we were no curiosity!
We were friends or wives of brave warriors
Who hunted for our cooking pots,
Who protected our tipis from Pawnee. 

--from Only As Far As Brooklyn (Good Gay Poets, 1979). 

For four more stanzas Maurice Kenny applauds several groups of Native Americans who affirmed gay men as special, blessed people tne Crow and the Ponca. "There was space for us in the village."

Most fundamentally our struggle is still to claim that space in our global village, as well as to claim the right to do our own naming. No one has helped me in my own struggle more than has my spouse, and sometimes he moves so freely in that space, so readily does his own naming, that he seems not to dwell in our time at all. He is notoriously impatient with those among us, black or gay, who complain. It helps me to have someone around who refuses to encourage my self-pity, the way our society teaches. His belief in my own health and my own worth affirms that health and that worth for me daily in ways that our hecklers and spitters cannot penetrate.

"But surely you suffered inside for your gayness at some point?" I remember asking him, "Surely they got to you somehow at least once?"

He thought for a bit, and said, "No, I can't remember."

I had seen him lose a job with the civil service because he wouldn't go to bed with an obnoxious male boss. I had seen him fired from a nursing job when they found he was organizing the black nurses. I had seen the two of us evicted from our home in Stevens Point, but then he, coolly as before, just went on to organize a tenants association. The episodes didn't reach him with pain, it seemed.

"But surely some experience did?" I persisted.

"Oh, I remember once, yes," he said, "when I was on summer vacation from junior high school visiting an aunt in Florida. The boys had all been kidding me at the playground, saying I walked funny. When I asked them what they meant, they said I walked like a girl. Well, all the way home I studied my walking. My aunt saw me from the distance but I didn't see her. When I got to the door, she said, 'Boy, what is wrong with you?'

"'What you mean?' I said.

"'The way you walking,' she fussed.

"'I'm just walking,' I volunteered.

"'Child,' she said, 'God gave you two legs and you been using them well up to today. I suspect I know what those chillen been saying to you, but you listen here. God can't spect you to be walking with no one else's legs, and what you've been doing today ain't walking. God loves you just as you are, you hear?!"'

It is my faith that God loves all of us just the way She made us, and we lesbians and gays gawk our way towards someone else's walking only to our own just ridicule.


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