Monday, 31 October 2011

A Queer Hallowe'en

Strolling through the shops this month I realised that Hallowe’en is growing in size very year. And just like Christmas it lasts longer as well.

Of course it all goes back to pagan times and the celebration of the New Year. They didn’t have the luxury of a regular, precise calendar like ours. They used the stars, the sun and moon to set dates, so events weren’t always on the same date each year – just like our Easter.

The most popular costumes I saw in the shops were of witches, demons, ghosts and vampires. Whilst the first three have been around for centuries, vampires are relatively new in the west. Surprisingly, it was the 19th century Romantic poets who established the vampire image we recognise today. Based on eastern European legends, poets like Coleridge, Shelley and Nottinghamshire’s own polysexual poet Lord Byron gave the blood-sucking demon its more human and sexual overtones which sells TV shows today.

The word vampire first appeared in 1734, taken from a French word, which in turn was adapted from the Slavonic word for a witch.

Dracula, the most famous vampire of them all, was created by Bram Stoker, a close friend of Oscar Wilde’s family, and a man who struggled with his own sexuality. Dracula was influenced by “The Vampyre” by Dr. John Polidori which in turn was influenced by one of the greatest literary “brain-storming” sessions in history.

One stormy night in 1816, in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, a group of friends gathered to drink and take drugs. Present were Shelley, his wife Mary, Byron and Polidori. As the storm raged outside they read ghost stories to each other. Then Byron challenged the group to come up with the scariest ghost story of them all. It was Mary Shelley who eventually won the contest with her story of Frankenstein.

Byron wrote down a short vampire tale of his own which he never got round to turning into a full novel, but it inspired Polidori to write “The Vampyre”.

The traditional vampire is a demon who possesses corpses and can change into animals, usually a wolf. The classic image of a vampire doesn’t come from legend or Bram Stoker. The suave charming Dracula character was created by actor Bela Lugosi on stage in 1927, and the bat comes from thousands of miles away and had nothing to do with vampires at all until a distant cousin of my grandmother, Charles Darwin, saw blood-sucking bats in South America. Darwin knew of the popularity of vampires in literature and gave them the name Vampire Bat. Since then, people get the idea (for no reason whatsoever) that vampires turn into bats – they don’t! Bram Stoker’s Dracula didn’t. Perhaps that’s why people are so scared of bats these days.

Just think – if Darwin had seen blood-sucking gerbils in South America instead of bats people would be  dressing up as gerbils for Hallowee’en instead!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Extraordinary Lives 4

Col. George Middleton (1735-1815)

Earlier this month I told you the extraordinary life of Peter Sewally, an African-American cross-dresser convicted of theft. A generation earlier another African-American became notable, but in a different way. His name was George Middleton who lived with his partner Louis Clapion (or Glapion) in Boston, Massachusetts.

Both were free black Americans at the time of the American Revolution. Clapion was originally from the French Caribbean and was probably half-white. He moved to Boston to work as a hairdresser. George Middleton was probably born and raised in Boston. When the American colonists began to fight the British Middleton joined one of only 2 newly-formed all black regiments, the Bucks of America. This regiment defended Boston citizens and merchants from attack from British Redcoats. According to some sources George Middleton was commander of the Bucks with the rank of colonel, an honorary rank he kept for the rest of his life. After independence the new American state governor recognised the Bucks’ role in the defence of Boston by presenting them with their military flag (pictured).

George Middleton then became one of the first to settle in the Beacon Hill area of Boston where a small African-American community began to settle. Middleton built and lived in a new house with his partner Louis Clapion. This house still stands and is one of the oldest in Boston and a major feature in Boston’s Black Heritage Trail.

Clapion ran his hairdressing business from the house until his death in 1813 when it was carried on by his wife. Both men were married. Men in same-sex relationships often married in those days. The notion that a gay man doesn’t marry a woman is a modern idea.

George Middleton went on to become a leading civil rights leader. He formed the African Benevolent Society in 1796 which gave financial relief to black Americans in Boston, and helped to form the first school for black children.

Rather surprisingly, Middleton was a freemason. One of his friends and fellow civil rights campaigners called Prince Hall formed the African Lodge of Freemasons, and Middleton was closely involved in its formation. He also served as Grand Master of the lodge in 1809. The Prince Hall African Lodge is still in existence.

I’ll leave the summing up of George Middleton’s life with the words of Kevin Trimell Jones, founder and curator of the Black LGBT Archivists Society of Philadelphia:
“Middleton lived a life that was dedicated to service of others and the fight for civil rights. Though questions still surround his sexual orientation, it is clear Middleton maintained close relationships and associations with men … Given his stature as a leader and his selfless contributions to the entire Boston community during the American Revolution, he stands out as a heroic figure for racial and queer communities.”

Monday, 24 October 2011

Star-Gayzing 2


Today the sun enters the zodiac sign of Scorpio. Actually it enters Scorpio for only one week from 23rd November – but horoscopes are fiction not fact.

When I began my research into “Star Gayzing” I came across a reference in “The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality” (edited by Wayne R. Dynes, 1990) which said that “a neo Babylonian text of c.500 BC says that ‘love of a man for a man’ is governed by the constellation Scorpio.” No matter how much I’ve looked I can’t find any other supporting reference.

The Babylonians believed that when the sun set it entered a tunnel into the underworld and came out at the other end each morning. The entrances to this tunnel were guarded by scorpion-men. When Scorpio rose in the night sky the Babylonians saw this as a sign that the sun would spend more time in the underworld.

Plants begin to die, the nights get longer, the days get colder, and ancient civilisations in general celebrated the “end of all things” at this time of the year. That’s why the ancients chose it as their year’s end and why they put so much emphasis on the dead (see my coming entry on Hallowe’en).

The only lgbt connection I can make with Scorpio comes with this idea of the descent into the underworld. The legendary King Gilgamesh travels to the mouth of the tunnel hoping to be allowed into the underworld in search of immortality. The scorpion-men, knowing Gilgamesh is a favourite of the sun god, let him pass.

Gilgamesh was a promiscuous ruler, having his wicked way with anyone he wished. So the goddess of creation created a wild man called Enkidu out of clay. Enkidu’s purpose was to show Gilgamesh the true meaning of love. It worked. After the obligatory fight when they first meet (a common folk motif in heroes, Robin Hood and Little John is another example), Gilgamesh and Enkidu became friends and companions on many adventures. The surviving version of the Epic makes many puns and references to the intimate sexual nature of their relationship. Perhaps they are the very first “gay” heroes, the Epic dating from the time of the fictional movie heroes Conan and the Scorpion King, and predating the Ancient Greek heroes such as Hercules by 1,000 years.

When Gilgamesh turns down an amorous approach from the goddess of love the gods punish him by killing Enkidu. This is why Gilgamesh travelled to the underworld in search of immortality.

Perhaps the Epic of Gilgamesh and his journey to the underworld was especially commemorated at this time of year in Babylonia, when Scorpio rises and the way to the underworld is revealed. Perhaps that is why the later Babylonians equated the constellation with the “love of a man for a man” – Gilgamesh’s love for Enkidu led to his journey.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Out in Africa

Historians usually mention Edward Gibbon writing in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” in 1781 that Africa has no indigenous homosexual culture. This was generally accepted by later writers. So much so that it spread across the emerging colonial Africa and into the minds of modern westernised African politics. Some African leaders claim that homosexuality is a “white man’s disease”. This is bigotry borne out of ignorance. Anthropologists have yet to find a culture that doesn’t have some form of lgbt sub-culture.

Because most of African heritage was not written down as much as in, say Europe, much of what is known comes from tradition and current practice.

As the continent varies in ethnic make-up from north to south so does its lgbt heritage. The northern part of Africa has been heavily influenced by Islam and much of its lgbt heritage has become merged with native practices.

In many ways the attitudes to homosexuality in central and southern Africa echo that of the Ancient Greeks. Same-sex activity was acceptable in society as a means of initiation into adulthood. Some tribes went further than the Greeks in having “boy-brides”. They believe that sex with women sapped their virility, even their masculinity, and it is recorded that men I some Sudanese tribes spent more nights with young men than with their wives.

In South Africa, a modern country noted for its pioneering legislation on lgbt rights in Africa, some boy-brides  performed a ritual transvestic dance at the wedding feast in which they wore false wooden breasts which they  only removed when their “husbands” paid them to do so.

What we also see in Africa is something not seen in Ancient Greece – a major role in society for cross-dressing men who live as women, something akin to Indian culture. In the Congo the cross-dressing “bitesha” were considered a third gender.

African women also have a wide variety of same-sex activity spanning the continent. A lot of these are reminiscent of the western “Boston marriage”, where women pair up for companionship rather than for sexual activity. In Lesotho the women go a little further in a relationship they call “mummy-baby”. Again there is an echo of Ancient Greece in that the relationship, like the Greek athletes I mentioned a few weeks ago, was conducted by a same-sex couple of different generations, as the name “mummy-baby” suggests. Unlike the Greeks, however, the sexual nature of the mummy-baby relationship often ended on the marriage of the “baby” but the close friendship continued.

There seems to be very little evidence of female cross-dressing in traditional African cultures. Generally women remained within their gender stereotypes and their tribes and communities didn’t allow women to express masculinity.

Africa is a large continent. In the ever-developing world of gender studies all we can say is that we don’t know enough. But what research has always shown us is that the spectrum of sexuality in Africa is perhaps more complex than it is in western culture.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Spirit Day

One year ago today the first SPIRIT DAY was held. Although primarily a day originating in America, through Facebook it became a global commemoration.

Spirit Day is held to raise awareness of the homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and related bullying that is experienced by students at schools, colleges and online. It was given the name Spirit Day from the purple stripe on the original Rainbow Pride flag created in 1978. The flag’s creator, Gilbert Baker, defined the purple stripe as representing “spirit”. From this the suggestion made by Canadian student Brittany McMillan that people wear purple on Spirit Day spread via Facebook.

A spate of homophobic-bullying-related suicides among students across America was the catalyst for Brittany to begin her Facebook campaign. By 20th October 2010, the day Brittany designated for Spirit Day, over 1½ million Facebook users had joined specially formed support groups.

The problem of bullying has got “nastier” since the creation of social networking sites, and some schools have been known to refuse to help victims of online bullying from classmates because it didn’t occur on school premises. Even worse, a school vice-president even put on his Facebook page that he wants all “fags” to commit suicide. He later apologised and resigned. But is that enough?

Only a few weeks ago another young teenage student, Jamey Rodemeyer, committed suicide because of bullying. The death is even more tragic considering Jamey had joined the “It Gets Better” project which aims to convince young victims that life “gets better” after bullying.

Tragedy often brings positive responses. It was Jamey’s death that prompted American actor Zachary Quinto (of “Heroes”, and the young Spock in “Star Trek”) to come out last week.

I don’t support the “It Gets Better” project because I’ve not experienced that it does, and Jamey’s death proves that the message is pointless. Campaigners should not be saying that things will GET better, but that they should BE better. Bullying continues after school. I experienced it myself when I left school and went to college in Worksop, and it also occurred in my 40s. And the tragic loss of a friend last month because of conflicts in his own family prove to me that we shouldn’t lull youngsters into believing “it gets better” as you get older. We should be more realistic.

I hope more people will observe Spirit Day. More importantly, I hope more school and colleges observe it.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Black in the UK

LGBT black history in the UK is elusive. True, there are quite a few black lgbt people who have made their mark – Justin Fashanu, Stephen K. Amos and Joan Armatrading to name a few. But as far as “ordinary people” like myself there is even less than with white lgbt history.

The wider lgbt community quite often ostracised and refused to accept black lgbt people, much as it did with bisexuals and transsexuals. With the visible differences arising out of race the black community tended, from the 1950s to 80s, to group together for support. This is how some of the most popular clubs in London were founded, and the few white people who attended them spread the word that racism is no reason to exclude someone from their community.

Some Afro-Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s, whether they were gay or not, had already been playing their part in the white lgbt community in the UK. A number of these immigrants set up illicit “clubs” in their homes to provide secret meeting places for gay men. Most of these were in the cities, but one or two are recorded in smaller towns. One was here in Nottinghamshire in Mansfield Woodhouse.

A house on
Old Mill Lane
was owned by an Afro-Caribbean man who opened it up to gay men from a wide area. Many men were local and some came from neighbouring cities like Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield. Some even came from as far afield and Pontefract in Yorkshire and Twickenham in Surrey. It came to an end in 1961 in one of the last and largest prosecutions for acts of homosexuality in the UK.

In a period where the police were deliberately pursuing what they called “chain prosecutions” every suspect’s friends became “people of interest”. One man who regularly visited the black man’s house in Mansfield was arrested in Derbyshire, and after an investigation some 22 other men were arrested for attending the same house.

During their trial in Nottingham 50 years ago next month the owner of the house was never mentioned by name, but all his “customers” were. The trial showed the range of backgrounds of the men who visited the house, revealing to the general public that even working-class men can be gay (even as late as the 1980s I experienced for myself the bigotry that still lingers in that coal-mining area). The jobs of these 23 men included several coal miners, machinists and lorry drivers. There were a few shop workers and clerks, an airman and a retired gentleman. Their ages ranged between 17 and 70. All pleaded guilty and received sentences ranging from 3 years in prison to 12 months probation (one received a conditional discharge). There were other chain prosecutions around the country.

What this case shows is that, even though the black gay community in the UK in the 1950s and 60s was very much subjected to racism in most cases, there were black men who recognised a need for gay men to socialise and gather in an era when such gatherings were illegal. The un-named owner of the house in Mansfield Woodhouse provided a much needed service, and the large number of men who were prosecuted (an goodness knows how many others slipped through the police net) proves that he, and others like him, was prepared to put himself at risk of prosecution.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Putting the Record Straight on ...

The Knights Templar

Today is the anniversary of the persecution of the Knights Templar in 1307. The Templars have entered folklore as an enigmatic group of knights in the supposed possession of many mystical secrets – and thanks to the books “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” and “The Da Vinci Code” that now includes being the guardians of an invented bloodline from Christ. This last theory contains so many holes that it doesn’t stand up as well as fishnet tights.

As Dan Brown (an author not known for the reliability of his research) has shown, anyone can claim there’s a conspiracy or cover-up – the only proof you need is NO proof. Even in their own time the Templars were accused of all sorts of things based on no evidence and only on gossip. King Philippe II of France was particularly jealous of the Templar’s wealth, so he used gossip to have the Templars declared heretics.

On Friday 13th October 1307 (the original horrible Friday 13th) King Philippe ordered the seizure of all Templar property and wealth, and the destruction of the organisation. Under torture the knights were forced to admit to many accusations, including idol worship and homosexuality. But there was no proof of either. There still isn’t.

King Philippe was to become father-in-law of King Edward II of England – that well-known Queen of England. Edward was at first reluctant to follow Philippe’s example and seems to have joined the persecution only after being ordered to by the Pope (who only got that job because of King Philippe).

As far being guardians of a supposed secret bloodline from Christ through the Merovingian kings, genealogists for hundreds of years have known that the Merovingians have millions of living descendants – including at least 18 million people in the UK who, like myself and other lgbt people like Ellen Degeneres, Lord Byron and Marlon Brando, inherit Merovingian blood through “Queen” Edward II.

If there is such a thing as a Holy Bloodline heir it isn’t the fictional Sophie Neveu from “The Da Vinci Code” or even any of the Sinclair family. Many descents have disappeared into the mists of time but as far as I have been able to determine, and I don’t mind being proved wrong, the most senior traceable legitimate Holy Bloodline heir is …

… 10-year-old Josh Hobday of London (11 years old on 7th November), eldest grandson of Capt. Edward Pereira (b.1938), late of the Coldstream Guards.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

National Coming Out Day

In the USA, today is National Coming Out Day (it’s tomorrow in the UK). Coming Out Day was founded in 1988 by Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary in California. Due to the homophobic influence of Section 28 it was not celebrated in the UK until 2008.

I’ve chosen to celebrate it today because of the potential “mass outing” possible in America now that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) rule was repealed on 20th September. This was the rule that gave 14,000 US service personnel a forced discharge for no other reason than admitting to being gay or lesbian, and kept thousands of others in the closet. Perhaps the first significant name in the campaign to have the ban on gays and lesbian lifted is Sgt. Leonard Matlovich (1943-1988). The words on his headstone sums up the ridiculous ban in a nutshell: “They gave me a medal [the Purple Heart] for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

The UK has not had the same “problem”. There has no recognised ban on gays or lesbians in Her/His Majesty’s forces. In fact, there have been a lot of lgbt service personnel who were open about their sexuality, even though it was illegal. One that springs to mind immediately is Capt. Myles Hildyard of the Sherwood Rangers who often took his partner to regimental dances, and no-one batted an eyelid. Even today there are openly lgbt service personnel. One of them, James Wharton, even made the front cover of “Soldier”, the army’s own magazine, in 2009.

A more recent incident in the DADT fiasco in the US is shown in the case of another decorated hero of Afghanistan Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach of the USAF. He was accused of raping a female colleague and faced discharge is found guilty. A third party outed Fehrenbach to the USAF and the rape charge was dropped after he admitted he was gay. Then the USAF began discharge proceedings because of it. Thankfully he negotiated the dropping of the discharge but was forced into a “desk job”.

Victor Fehrenbach and the US Navy’s Daniel Choi were at the forefront of the campaign to repeal DADT, with Choi even chaining himself to the railings of the White House to highlight the campaign. They are both pictured here in a photograph taken for “Instinct” magazine. But will the discharged lgbt personnel get their jobs back? I doubt it somehow.

So, perhaps now there’ll be hundreds of US personnel willing to come out. If not today, then another time when they feel more comfortable. Perhaps, also, the closeted US army sergeant who represented the USA at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics will reveal himself to the wider world. I’m sure the lgbt worldwide community will welcome him and all the others with open arms.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Extraordinary Lives 3

Peter Sewally (1806-1846+)

In June 1836 a black woman by the name of Mary Jones was arrested in New York for picking pockets and stealing wallets. The thefts occurred at night when Mary roamed the streets looking for men to start chatting her up. When the men started to get amorous and intimate Mary would pick their pocket. Sometimes she took the men back home to get even more intimate! Her crimes went unreported for a while, probably because the victims (all white men) were embarrassed. But police got a big shock when Mary was searched after her arrest. She was a man. No wonder her victims were embarrassed.

During his trial “Mary Jones” revealed himself to be Peter Sewally. His testimony is one of the first accounts of the life of a black man in America’s early lgbt community.

Sewally was born in New York in 1806, presumably to free black Americans. He claimed to have served in the army, but in which regiment isn’t known. Afterwards he began work in the homes of what he called “girls of ill fame”, meeting and greeting their “customers” at the door and collecting the money and acting as a sort of house-keeper. It was these “girls of ill fame” who first persuaded Sewally to dress as a woman, saying he looked better like that. He didn’t seem to offer any resistance to the idea and, by his own account, attended parties in New York and New Orleans dressed as a woman quite openly. Whether the other party-goers realised he was a man is uncertain. But it does seem certain that he began looking to have sex with men in his female attire.

Sewally’s trial was reported in the New York papers with each of them trying to out-do the other in revealing the lurid details of the case (and they say tabloid gutter press is a modern disease). In court Sewally was a victim of ridicule. Having chosen to appear in the dock dressed as woman someone behind him reduced the court to howls of laughter by snatching off his wig. Just the sight of a black man dressed as a woman was enough to reduce one court official to tears of laughter.

Such behaviour in court would reduce anyone in Sewally’s place to despair, but he was strong and firm, and utterly determined that he show the court who he was. Sewally was eventually sentenced to 5 years in the state prison for theft. A few days later a drawing appeared showing Sewally in his female clothes.

After his release Sewally remained out of public scrutiny until 1845 and 1846 when he returned to his masquerade and was imprisoned twice more.

What the story of Peter Sewally shows is that very early on in American history black men were cross-dressing and looking for sex with other men. The fact that the Afro-American community accepted him seems to indicate that they were more liberal than their white contemporaries when it came to displays of gender variance.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Pilgrimage to Constantinople

One of the places I would love to visit, as a sort of pilgrimage, is Istanbul. I’d like to see an object in the collection at the Archaeological Museum there of a unique gravestone. It was placed over the graves of two men who died in 1391. Nowhere in the world is there another like it. It depicts their coats of arms in the manner of husband and wife (my own coloured interpretation is shown here). The lives of these men supports the widely held belief that they were a “gay” couple.

The men’s names are Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe. I first came across this couple when I worked at Nottingham Castle and did research for the guided tours I gave of the underground passageways. Sir William was Constable of Nottingham Castle and Keeper of Sherwood Forest from 1381. He and Sir John were the same age and probably first met during the English campaigns in France in the 1370s. After that their lives became intertwined and were rarely mentioned separately in medieval records.

Sir John was also a poet. Both he and Sir William were friends of Geoffrey Chaucer and testified in his defence at his rape trial. Indeed, it is Sir John who seems to be the first to call Chaucer the “Father of English poetry”. Chaucer was also a member of the royal court, and in his role of Clerk of the Works came to Nottingham castle during Sir William’s and Sir John’s time there to supervise repair work.

Sir William married a Yorkshire heiress in 1366, and it is through her connections that I believe inspired Sir John to write the original version of “The Geste of Robyn Hode” in the late 1380s. This ballad is the oldest ballad in terms of origin, and almost every character and event can be traced to the family backgrounds of Sir William and his wife, even down to the identity of some of the Merry Men – including some of the minor ones. But that’s a subject for a whole entry in itself. Back to William and John.

Both men were Lollard Knights, influential members of the court who supported the church-reforming views of John Wycliff. Sir John wrote a lengthy treatise in defence of Lollardy. The Archbishop of Canterbury wasn’t too enthusiastic and banned its preachers, including one who was arrested in Nottingham and imprisoned in the castle. But, as Sir William was the Constable and a Lollard Knight it will come as no surprise to learnt that the preacher mysteriously escaped. The Archbishop of Canterbury was helpless to punish Sir William, mainly because Nottingham was under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of York – who just happened to be Sir William’s brother!

During the reign of Richard II both men became Knights of the King’s Chamber, trusted courtiers who were privy to the king’s private thoughts. As such they were sent on diplomatic missions together on the continent. One of these was to Constantinople in 1391. No-one knows the actual reason why they went, but they arrived at a bad time. The city had been ravaged by a plague the year before and some of it lingered. Sir John Clanvowe succumbed to the plague on this day, 6th October, in 1391. The companions and colleagues on the mission sent news back to London of what happened – and what happened next. The Westminster Chronicle (a medieval manuscript not a newspaper) written shortly afterwards from eye-witness accounts says that Sir William died 4 days later – not of the plague, but of a broken heart. And it is perhaps these eye-witnesses who ordered the placing of a marble gravestone with their joint coat of arms to be placed over their graves in Constantinople.

At that time there was a ceremony in the Catholic church called “wedded brotherhood” which was identical to marriage but for 2 men. With references to William and John as “brothers” in so many documents, and their apparent inseparableness, makes it possible that William and John were “wedded”.

Perhaps in a few years time I can make that pilgrimage to see their gravestone on the 625th anniversary of their death in 2016.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Out of Their Trees 2


Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

One of the leading black poets of the 20th century was Langston Hughes. There is no conclusive evidence that he was gay, but his writing and the people he was close to make it likely that he could have been. A lot of websites go further and list him as definitely gay. I’m 90% convinced he was which is why I’ve chosen him for my second family history post.

Though not quite a household name (unless you watch “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” in which one of the main characters in named after him) Langston Hughes holds an important part in the history of black literature in America. His writing career began in the 1920. For a short while he was personal assistant to Carter G. Woodson, the founder of US Black History Month. Langston became a well-known writer and social activist during the years of racial segregation and was proud of his heritage, a lot of which he researched himself. If he was alive today I’m sure he’d be at the forefront of celebrating Black History Month, though he didn’t even consider himself black! Researching his own ancestry he realised that his heritage was more complex than he realised.

Three of his grandparents were born as free black Americans, all of them children of freed slaves. Only one generation earlier he had an ancestor who owned slaves, and another who was a slave-trader. Another great-grandfather, James Patterson, was a rarity in the deep south before the American Civil War – a free Afro-American. He helped many young black slaves to buy their freedom, and made sure they had safe passage to the north. James’ wife was the daughter of a French fur-trader who married a Cherokee girl. Their daughter Mary inherited a lot of the genetic characteristics of the Cherokees and was to play an important part in the life of her grandson Langston Hughes.

Mary married a free Afro-American who, like herself, was a quarter Native American, Charles Langston. It is said that his mother Lucy was related to Pocahontas. Lucy was born a slave. At the beginning of the 1800s she was given to Virginia plantation owner Roger Quarles in lieu of a debt. Very soon Lucy gave birth to Roger’s daughter. Unusually, Roger freed Lucy and their daughter from slavery and they lived together for the rest of their lives, having three more children, including Charles who kept his mother’s surname. Charles was a pioneer abolitionist and political activist.

The Quarles family were one of the earliest and most important settlers in the Virginia colonies. Langston’s 3-times-great-grandfather, John Quarles, married Jane Mallory, a member of an even more important settler family whose ancestry goes back to King John of England and beyond. From this marriage many thousands of Americans descend, including Tom Hanks and Steve McQueen, and gay composer Virgil Thomson. And through the Mallorys Langston is related to the Prince of Wales (and both of his wives), Tom Cruise, Glenn Close, Cindy Crawford, Britney Spears, and “Dorothy” herself, Judy Garland.

Langston Hughes’ multi-cultural ancestry is not unique. The programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” has shown how it can be very close indeed. Next month I’ll turn my attention to someone who is considered quintessentially English and look at the diverse ancestry of Will Young.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Black History Month

Today is the start of Black History Month. Like other history months the idea isn’t to exclude everyone else but to encourage people to join in and celebrate the contributions the community has made to the world. It also encourages and inspires black people to discover new information about their own heritage.

Some critics say it is wrong to relegate one section of society to one month. Actor Morgan Freeman has been very critical in the past. But these critics miss the point. It’s like saying why should we have a weekend when you can work or take time off any day of the week? The joy of being part of a society like ours is its variety. You don’t get variety by making every day and month the same. That would be dull, like people who stop celebrating their own birthday.

The celebration of black history actually goes back further than you might think. It began in February 1926 in the USA. Carter G. Woodson, who worked at the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History and edited the “Journal of Negro History”, created the first small-scale event that is now held annually. He chose February because it was the month in which the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (the president who introduced the freedom of slaves) and Frederick Douglass (black social reformer) fell. For various reasons we in the UK reserve February for LGBT History month, which the Americans are celebrating this month – it’s a simple theme swap.

But you can still celebrate it at any other time of year because, like LGBT History Month, it carries on the celebrations all year round on its website.

Undoubtedly, the main emphasis in the early days of rediscovering black heritage was around slavery. Issues of sexuality were largely ignored. But today the black lgbt community, both here and in other countries where it is celebrated, have the opportunity to display their own unique contribution to history.

On a more local point, a friend of mine, Laura, has just helped to set up a new project called the Nottingham Black Archive. She hopes to produce displays by this time next year and perhaps set up a museum (just like my own wish to see an lgbt museum here).

This month I’ll be joining the celebrations and bring you some information on lgbt black history alongside other general history.