Thoughts on building, remembering, and access

In this research process, I’ve begun building my own personal collection of books written by Black LGBTQ+ people. I already own some chapbooks, a few zines, and a couple of anthologies by community members, but I have started to become more intentional with it. I’ve spent a significant amount of time scouring the internet and independent bookstores for books I come across in my research that are out of print or written by local people who have become ancestors. While searching online, I came across a thing that bothered me in my soul. I want to call it a phenomena, but that would imply that the cause is unknown or shrouded in mystery… it’s not. This thing is actually just an extension of colonization, and I hate it.

I know you’re wondering when I’ll get to the point and tell you what the thing actually is. Same, same 🙂 In a previous blog post, I spoke about how the work of Black creatives often gets stolen from them and they sometimes die poor as a church mouse. What I didn’t mention in that post is that the worth of these artists’ life work multiplies once they pass, but their estates usually don’t see this wealth. Instead it falls into exploitative hands. As the works gain financial value, it becomes less and less likely that the community from which these Black LGBTQ+ artists hail will be able to afford the works that were created with them in mind. Aaaaand that is the thing that I have encountered time and time again, and it is exhausting. 

If you search for a book like “Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry” by Essex Hemphill–a Black gay male poet who passed in Philly in 1995–it’s very difficult to find a copy in good condition that has a financially accessible price tag. One copy that comes up on Amazon is $978.00, which is nowhere near the original price tag when the book was published in 1992. The aforementioned book is just one example of this, but if you search for the books of many queer artist ancestors, the price tags will be out of reach to community. With high rates of houselessness, unemployment/underemployment, and food insecurity among Black LGBTQ+ people in the United States, many of us are prioritizing living with the diminished resources we have. For those of us that want books of our own, these price tags make our own literary history damn near impossible to obtain.

This type of gatekeeping of culture and knowledge behind nonsensical paywalls is the same thing we encounter with museums that hold our ancestral artifacts (and in many disturbing cases, the actual bodies of our ancestors) and large institutional archives that hold our family documents and and and and. It’s not new and it’s getting old. There needs to be a commitment from institutions and book sellers to stop making Black LGBTQ+ histories inaccessible to Black LGBTQ+ people.

Oral histories are so precious to me. I would say that I actually got into audio/video recording oral histories and personal accounts of individuals when I was in an African American literature class at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) taught by Dr. Cheryl A. Nelson. She encouraged the class to record an interview with an elder neighbor or relative. I decided to interview my abuela, Flora Rosario López, about her experiences leaving Puerto Rico and living in New York City as an Afro-Boricua woman. I cherish that interview because it was the last time I saw my abuela in-person, alive, and in a capacity to remember who I am.

In an email to Dr. Nelson on April 10, 2012, I expressed the depth of my gratitude for that assignment and that my grandmother had just passed. “I hope you assign it to more classes, not just for a grade, but because one day they might need that knowledge for themselves,” I wrote in part of the email. I recognize that assignment as the beginning of my dive into gathering oral histories and working to further my understanding of traditions of oral history throughout the African diaspora.

Dr. Nelson, if you’re reading this, thank you for exposing me to the rich heritage of Black oral history practices and equipping me for my future in preserving Black pasts.

hand holding a copy of The Negro and His Music. The book is wrapped in plastic.
photo courtesy of the author

Research journal excerpt:

1:12pm Monday, May 24, 2021

I just unwrapped, then quickly re-wrapped, an original copy of Alain Locke’s “The Negro and his Music.” The $137.80 that I spent on it was worth it, in my opinion, to have an original copy of the booklet written by one of my personal heroes. The book has also, supposedly, been signed by Locke. I don’t know if the signature is real, but that part doesn’t matter to me as much as just having this little piece of African American history matters to me. This is Black history, LGBTQ+ history, art history, literary history, and so on and so forth. It’s representative of so many things, and I feel so blessed to have been able to hold it in my hands. The delicate tooth of the booklet’s brown paper cover brought tears to my eyes: I thought, This has passed through so many hands to come to this point. I’m so grateful, and truthfully, I can’t even put into words all that this means to me. This little, scrawny journal entry can’t even begin to compare to the heft of this moment and this acquisition to my personal library.

Copyright 2021 by Wit López. All rights reserved.

Wit López (they/them) is an award-winning multidisciplinary maker, performer, writer, advocate, and public speaker based in Philadelphia. Through the use of various media, their work is tied together by exploring the use of absurdity and Black Absurdism as tools for radical joy, healing, and empathy. In 2019, Wit was awarded an Independence Foundation Fellowship in the Arts for Visual Art for their practice in fiber art and woodworking, and an innovative Cultural Advocacy Fellowship at CCCADI in Harlem, NY. They were also one of 10 recipients of the Leeway Foundation Transformation Award for 2019. To support their curatorial work of organizing the QT Noir Arts Festival, Wit has received 2018 and 2019 Leeway Foundation Art and Change Grants.