by Reginald Harris

The theme for this month's series of readings,
"Who Will Tell Our Stories When We're Gone?"
reminds me of part of a poem by Essex Hemphill,
from his "The Tomb of Sorrow":

When I die,
honey chil',
my angels
will be tall
Black Drag Queens.
I will eat their stockings
as they fling them
into the blue
shadows of dawn.
I will suck
their purple lips
to anoint my mouth for the utterance of prayer.

My witnesses
will have to answer
to go-go music.
Dancing and sweat
will be required
at my funeral.

Someone will have to answer
the mail I leave,
the messages
on my phone service;
someone else
will have to tend
to the aching that drove me
to seek soul.

Everything different
tests my faith.
I have stood in places
where the absence of light
allowed me to live longer,
while at the same time
it rendered me blind.

I struggle against
plagues, plots,
Everyone wants a price
for my living.

When I die,
my angels,
Black diva
drag queens,
all of them sequined
and seductive,
some of them
will come back
to haunt you,
I promise,
honey chil'.

"The Tomb of Sorrow" (Section II). In Ceremonies (Plume, New York, 1992.) pg. 81-82

I'm not sure whether this is how his memorial service in April will be handled, but it certainly wasn't how his family performed his funeral. That was a supremely unsatisfying event for some of us. It was odd to see Essex's family perform a kidnaping before our very eyes, taking him back from the world he had spent most of his creative life and returning him to a highly restrictive religious place. To see whole sections of his life erased in favor of a more sanitized view.

I suppose it is to be expected. We all want to remember The Departed in a particular way which may or may not be how they were in life. When we pass over to the other side we want others to remember us in a certain way, to remember certain aspects of our lives and not others. But to negate this man's sexuality, or to ignore those whom we lived with and loved , fought and danced with just to perpetuate some false view of life that says, "Everybody's one way and not another," meets most of the qualifications I have for being a criminal act.

It points out how I often think we as Black Gay men and Lesbians live in a Velvet Closet. The African-American community can be very nurturing and welcoming -- as long as we fit into a certain accepted way of being/acting/living. So - it's alright for me to be "That Way" as we say, so long as I keep my mouth shut about it, don't make too many demands on my community to accept my Other Half and I as the couple that we are, as long as everyone may suspect "something's wrong" but no one really knows, that even after death that, "Yes, I am Gay, thank you," I will be accepted by far too many in the community. Otherwise I'm an outsider, not really part of the community, a threat to the family, not "Really Black." I feel truly blessed that I am part of a family that doesn't act like that, and fortunate and honored to have married into one that views me as just another in-law -- although I do wish they'd stop expecting me to cook every time they come over to visit.

I'm reminded of a story, an old story of a woman who's husband is killed in a war, behind enemy lines. That side refuses to allow her access to the body to bring her husband home and bury him there. In fact they have already burned the body. The wife, with the help of sympathetic people who know her tale, sneaks behind the lines and gathers up her husband's ashes hiding some of them in her mouth even, to smuggle them out and bring him back to their homeland.

As I said, it's an old story, a Greek myth actually, but how resonant it is for me. How important it is for family to locate their loved ones and bring them to home ground. But what family, or which? How large should that family be?

My life in 1995 was the obverse of a popular British film of 1994 -- I lived through four funerals and a wedding rather than the other way 'round. I carry the family dead with me, speak their names and taste ashes on my tongue. But my idea of family is not just the Blood relation aunt and uncle I lost. It includes my "cousin," Essex Hemphill, my "Play Uncle," William Smith, whom I miss dearly; my brother, Rufus 'Butch' Mason who was in part responsible for bringing Mark and I together. My speaking of them re-members them, brings them back so they rise like phoenixes from the ashes in my mouth.

I've sat on the back mourners bench in chapels amongst the lines of somber men in suits, rings on both hands and sometimes in both ears, listening , waiting for the men that I remembered to be called back one last time and look on us left here. In one case, only part of the family went over and got my brother, and only the "clean" part, the socially acceptable part, the Sanitized version reappeared, draped in the robes of false piety and intolerance disguised as a religion based on love. And once we all went. the full extended family laid our good friend down and sent him off properly on his way, remembered fully, the whole man the whole life there for us to see and together we all wept and laughed and cried some more till it was time to say goodbye and send him on ahead.

As for me, I want lots of music. Nietzsche said somewhere that without music life would be a mistake, and I'm with him there. So play gospel, and spirituals, and blues -- "In the Garden" and "Goin' up Yonder" and "I've Got a Mind to Ramble." And Jazz -- John Coltrane's "I'm Old Fashioned," and "My Son Ra" by Arthur Blythe. Don't read any psychosexual overtones into the title of the House tune I want played at the service, "I Want to be Your Property." Just try not to dance in church to it's wonderful beat, and realize that there are worse things in the world than, "Want[ing] to live like Cyd Charese//in a great big house by the sea." Do, however, take literally another old story, the one about our ancestors choosing death over slavery as retold by David Bradley near the end of his novel The Chaneysville Incident, and the song I want played after that reading, as I'm lowered into the ground -- " Take it from me//Someday we'll all be free."

Absolutely do not fail to mention all aspects of my life, both good and bad -- or what some other people might call good or bad. And mention that I was once seriously in love with someone, more than I ever really showed or told him, without whom my life would have truly been a mistake.

Oh and by the way -- the drag queens? Not necessary, although there are a group of rather strapping young Black men I've seen around town who I wouldn't mind being escorted by. In fact, I'd be more than willing to have them practice carrying me around either separately or together any time at all.

Reginald Harris
{Read at Lambda Rising Bookstore: Baltimore, Maryland; 18 February 1996}

updated: 01 June 1997 by Chuck Tarver