An MLP Interview with Yoruba Richen, the film director of the documentary The New Black.
At the upcoming 2014 General Assembly in Detroit, MLP will host a film screening and a panel discussion of The New Black documentary. As a Black Queer Lesbian, I am excited there will be a forum to discuss intersectionality. Having seen the film at the LGBTQ film festival last fall, I felt what it conveyed was long overdue. Queer people of color deal with the racism of the white LGBTQ community. When I first came out, I immediately realized mainstream LGBTQ culture is centered around those who are white. Most LGBTQ advocacy does not consider the needs of LGBTQ people of color. For me this was/is devastating because its another added level of exclusion. The queerphobia and sexism that exists in the straight Black community, particularly in Black churches, forces Black LGBTQ people to be outsiders in their community. I for instance cannot lean on the majority of the Black people in my life for support when I encounter racism within the LGBTQ community. The idea is, “real/true” Black people, are straight. It is still a common notion among many straight Black people I know, that I was exposed to something or someone and that’s the reason why I’m a lesbian. Since the majority of Black churches are conservative, Black queers constantly experience spiritual abuse in Black churches. Predominantly white conservative churches are damaging as well due to the racism, sexism and queerphobia LGBTQ people of color experience. White conservative churches often pit Black conservative churches against the LGBTQ community (take marriage equality for example). The relationships these two otherwise segregated communities form is based solely on a queerphobia theology.
Yoruba Richen captures this struggle in her documentary The New Black. This is what makes this film so powerful. There are Black LGBTQ people telling their own stories. It is too common that the voices and experiences of allies are placed above those of LGBTQ people [take Maklemore for example or all the hype about a straight pastor going on trial for a gay wedding]. Such behavior is an unchecked form of heterosexism and when gone un-checked exacerbates the problem instead of alleviating it. Although the good-heartedness and intention is there, so is the perpetuation of violence to LGBTQ people. The thing goes for LGBTQ people of color and our white allies. The idea of being an ally isn’t to make the heterosexual person or the white person feel good, the idea of being an ally is using your privilege to create a platform where we can speak for ourselves. The integrity of being an ally lies in the majority of LGBTQ people believing the ally lifts our witness above and beyond their own. After all, only LGBTQ people know what its like to experience homophobia. Only people of color know what its like to experience racism. Our allies put a lot on the stake since they speak out, but for us queers we have the most at stake at all times and its never a choice. What Yoruba does in her film is re-claim queer space. There is no middle filter. LGBTQ Black people are speaking about their own experiences. Yoruba does a great job of evenly portraying all sides. The ethical evenness to this film speaks very much to her integrity as a director. Below is my interview with this incredible woman.
Who/What made you want to film this documentary?
“I started thinking about making The New Black just after the 2008 elections. The months leading up to election night were intensely emotional for me – as they were for so many Americans, especially African-Americans. The idea of a black president was something most of us had routinely dismissed as impossible within our lifetimes. At the same time, marriage equality was on the ballot in California in the form of Proposition 8. Almost immediately, it was reported that African-Americans voted for Proposition 8 by a margin of 70%. That these reports later proved to be inaccurate was not enough to counter the erroneous narrative – reported again and again as fact in the media – that blacks were to blame for the loss of marriage equality while gays had helped elect Obama. Many of us who were members of both communities watched horrified as latent resentments, outright racism and homophobia bubbled to the top of the national political scene.
Those of us who live at the intersection of black and LGBT knew the voices of LGBT African-Americans and their black allies were being left out of the national conversation, with the situation serving as yet another example of the ways that marginalized communities are left out of the media and their voices and concerns misrepresented or ignored. I wanted to go beyond the simple, superficial reports I was seeing to take an up-close look at how marriage equality and LGBT rights were really being debated and discussed by African-Americans – particularly within the black church, which has always served as the community’s pillar. The New Black was the film that emerged.”
What did the goal of the film become?
“I want to use the power of the film to get people talking to one another about the intersection of LGBT and racial justice, and to build bridges across communities in support of both LGBT rights generally, black LGBT rights in particular, and civil rights for all. I see every screening as a real opportunity to lay the groundwork for LGBT rights, racial justice and faith-based inclusion.”
If anything, what would you like/hope people take away from your film?
“ I hope the film brings new audiences to the issue of civil rights for all, by giving much needed visibility to African-American and other LGBT people of color. And I hope that, in bringing those audiences in, it will lead to the building of a broader, stronger and more inclusive LGBT movement, and facilitate the formation of critical alliances between members of the faith, LGBT and black civil rights movements.”
What was most difficult/challenging for you while making the film?
“Above all, the most unexpected challenge we discovered – in both storytelling, editing, and in discussions of the film out in the world – was ensuring that we always recognized the complexities of the issues involved and avoided reducing either side to stereotype. Race, faith and identity are emotionally charged topics, and we wanted to be sensitive and thoughtful in our approach. We took great pains to ensure our storytelling was in line with that ethos and to encourage conversation in the same vein.”
What response do you wish for all kinds of faith/spirituality/philosophical communities?
“We’ve already had such a great response from so many welcoming churches and other affirming faith communities, including of course, More Light Presbyterians. That support has really been wonderful for both the film and its message of equality. Beyond that, we’d love for our outreach to expand that support even further and to reach churches that haven’t previously been affirming communities, with the goal of having them make a commitment to become more welcoming and inclusive. Our outreach is focused on fostering awareness, sensitivity and dialogue among faith-based audiences.”
What has been most life-giving for you as this film continues to transpire?
“Seeing the response to the film – which has been tremendous, and far beyond anything I could have imagined when I undertook this endeavor. Beyond the awards and accolades the film has received, we’ve been most humbled and proud to see how the documentary has helped create change. This past October, Illinois Unites for Marriage held a series of screenings of The New Black as part of its push for marriage equality. In November, same-sex marriage was successfully approved by the Illinois state senate.
In the coming months, want to leverage the film in even greater ways to build bridges across communities and ensure civil rights for all. We hope to take The New Black to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), to engage young people around the country. We’re hoping to screen the film in churches and other houses of worship in communities across the U.S. to create more affirming, welcoming faith-based spaces. We want to work with our partners in cities throughout the South to foster understanding between groups working on racial justice, faith-based organizing and LGBT rights.”
How has this film changed/transformed the life journey you are on?
“Every film is transformative. The process of working on this film and letting it out into the world has opened my heart and my mind to the very real potential for film to drive substantive conversation and provoke meaningful social change. Because of this, I’m incredibly excited to undertake our outreach campaign, which will allow the film to genuinely fulfill its potential as a tool to educate, inform and — perhaps most importantly — transform.”
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a predominantly straight white church. People of color only make up 6% of the membership. I’m a third generation Presbyterian and if I had a nickel for every time a well-intended white family member of the church was surprised I’m a cradle Presby I could pay for two months of rent. There are several PC(USA) congregations of color in this church, many whose members have been Presbyterian for several generations. The majority of these churches are not treated with the same integrity or receive the same communications from their Presbyteries as their neighboring white churches do. I always hear when it comes to worship, “We’re Presbyterians, we’re the frozen chosen.” And every time I cringe, because Presbyterians of color, are anything but frozen. We still remain unseen, silenced, shut out from participating in the greater assembly of the church. Racism is clearly still having a deep negative impact on us. At the same time, many Presbyterian churches of color theologically participate in queerphobia. All the time I wonder, when will I, along with the rest of my LGBTQ people of color family members, be fully welcomed by the Church that we call home? When will my queerness not be ignored by the Black Presbyterian Church and the PC(USA) as a whole? And when will my blackness not be ignored by the white Presbyterian Church and the PC(USA) as a whole? There is room at the table for my whole self. I hope, one day, not to just hold this truth in my heart, but to walk into the majority of churches and know it is a reality. So talk amongst one another, respond to this piece, conversation is the first step to reconciliation.
The Unfinished Business of Black People Being Free, More Light Presbyterians
For more information regarding LGBTQ people of color, there is a great, short book written by queer theologian Patrick S. Cheng called Rainbow Theology. It is a book written for everyone who would like to know more about Spirituality and LGBTQ People of Color.