© 2016 Rustin Lorde Breakfast Southern Unity Movement
I was 15 years old when I first heard the song “Born This Way” by Carl Bean. Like all who are closeted, the respectable ones who refuse to wear it on their sleeve, I was deeply afraid of being recognized for what I was. Like most set in bondage, I was reluctant, unready to be set free. This was not the voice of a white gay activist on the evening news, one that we could distance as queer and white, one my father might dismiss with a button on our new “remote control”. It was a robust gospel infused disco setting the airwaves aflame on WBLS, New York City’s first Black FM radio station. The voice confronted, “You laugh at me and you criticize”. It petitioned, “We’re all the way nature made us to be”. It celebrated, “I’m happy, I’m carefree and I’m gay.” In disgust and indignation, Dad mimicked the line, “it aint a fault, it’s a fact”, before turning the dial. But the unspoken truth that terrified us both could not be dialed away. In that same year, Labelle harkened that there was “Something in the Air” as the lead-in to Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution will not be televised”. Although I would take another five years to walk through it, a door was opened by “Born This Way”. Archbishop Bean would go on to found the Unity Fellowship Church movement whose credo declares “God is love and love is for everyone”.
Art has an unparalleled power to inspire and transform, to recreate itself and have us reimagine our worlds. It may serve to heal and soothe. It can incite rage and channel that rage into action. Without meaningful expression of our Black genius, African dance rituals, abolitionist poems, field holler, gospel wail, jazz improvisation, Black liberation painters, gender freeing vogue and drag queens, we could never have survived. Our stories would have died with us.
Some reference the freedom songs of the 1960’s civil rights era as the soundtrack and spiritual balm for the movement. We assert that such art is itself the activism and that its agency to directly affect change must not be underestimated. Living in a white supremacist patriarchy, we must do more than demand recognition from those who oppose and oppress us. As it is our duty to love and protect each other so is it our duty to recognize and cultivate our own power. Today we affirm the artists from the Harlem Renaissance to the Combahee River Collective, Other Countries to Adodi Muse, Bessie Smith to Monica Raye Simpson, ACT UP to Undetectables, from the Stonewall Riots to Southern Fried Queer Pride, they who have tuck(ed) (their) bodies into places so that wheels don’t turn”.
We remember Mahalia and Curtis Mayfield, but who sings your freedom songs today? What mural in the West End or West midtown portrays your world? How will the Atlanta chapter of Black Lives Matter use Black people’s art to save Black people lives? How can the 15 year old boy in South Dekalb come to know “it aint a fault, it’s a fact”? In our search for those answers we may find a new, clearer vision for our community. Whatever work lies before us, we must provide our artists the love, support and money they need to carry on. Let the 15th annual Bayard Rustin/Audre Lorde Breakfast be your inspiration. The real work begins once we leave here. Hear the praise song in your sister’s greeting. Give thanks to the throb in your flesh as the music gives life and summons you to dance. Behold the rainbow sign in the photos and paintings outside or the window just above your head. Recognize it all. Art is Life. Art is Movement.