Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Look Inside Baraka's The Toilet: A Love Letter to Gay and Lesbian Youth

By definition a classic is a work that withstands the test of time, fad, beyond the ephemeral. A classic theme deconstructs one or more of the eternal concerns of humanity: love, hate, life and death, or the problems of life that never seem to get solved even when the solution is quite apparent. The simple solution to hate is love, so simple we must revisit the question and solution from time to time.

Almost forty-five years ago, Amiri Baraka examined the themes of racism and homophobia in his one-act play The Toilet. The set is a high school men’s room, wherein he gathers a group of young men to decipher the meaning of love and hate. Mostly black, the young men appear to be at an urban manhood training rite. We see a myriad personalities expressing themselves in the rhythm and rhymes of the time—there are no pants sagging, no grills in teeth, but they are there seeking to discover their manhood, racial and sexual identity.

The tragedy of that time and this time is that their search for manhood and sexual identity is unorganized and haphazard, thus then and now young men must grapple with self discovery in isolated groups without mentor, elder or guide. No adult appears in The Toilet to give words of wisdom, thus the young men are adrift in their ignorance, seeking to find themselves in the midst of darkness. How ironic the setting is a high school where we assume learning is taking place, and yet learning occurs not in the classroom but the toilet. The toilet becomes the bush in African or primitive tradition, for there is terror, violence to bring transformation from hatred to love and interracial understanding.

A white boy writes a love letter to a black boy and the drama involves the resolution of this event. The white boy has crossed the racial line into the black brotherhood and suffers violence as a result—he his beaten into a pulp, bloody as a beet, half-dead when brought into The Toilet.

Gang violence is a natural happening in urban culture, senseless violence to express manhood; even sexual violence is a natural part of this oppressed society. And so the black boy is finally confronted by the white boy who loves him and the brother is physically overcome by the white boy to the chagrin of the black brotherhood. The white boy is again attacked by the toilet gang and all depart, including another white boy who had come to the defense of his white brother.

The Toilet ends with the black boy returning to embrace the white boy. Lights down.

What was Baraka trying to tell us forty-five years ago and what relevance has his message now? Since then gays and lesbians have come out of the closet, although the passage of California’s Proposition 8 denies them the right of marriage, and the gays are miffed at Blacks for supporting the proposition, although the president of the state NAACP in her role as a lobbyist opposed the bill, along with many black newspapers and several ministers who were probably paid to do so. Apparently a majority of blacks do not equate gay rights with civil rights. Are sexual rights human rights?

The question Baraka raised had to do with transcending hatred in favor of love. Proposition 8 denied gays and lesbians the right to codify their love in marriage.

Blacks are known to be sexually conservative, although they now have many children on the streets embracing the gay/lesbian lifestyle. Blacks are thus hypocritical and drowning in denial, in similar fashion to the black brothers in The Toilet who refused to consider that one of their own might have crossed the line, not only racially but sexually as well.

On my recent visit to New York to see Woody King’s production of my play (with Ed Bullins) Salaam, Huey Newton, Salaam, Baraka’s The Toilet and Hugh Fletcher’s Amarie, I was accompanied by two lesbian assistants. Of course, being a dirty old man, I tried to get at them. (See my poem Why I Love Lesbians.) And they were highly upset at my offensive language, something they should have known I am known for by those who know me. Although I imagined them to be young women, with whom I could talk adult talk, they were suffering arrested development, in search of their sexual identity, much like the brothers in The Toilet.

Nevertheless, I wanted them to spend some time with Amina Baraka who is still in grief over the lost of her lesbian daughter Shani and her lover Rayshan to homicide. I thought conversing with the young ladies, 19 and 25, would help Amina heal from the horror of losing her only daughter by Baraka. She did meet the young ladies at the theatre and immediately saw the physical similarity between one girl and her daughter, Shani. “I knew you would see that,” I told Amina. The girl, Raushanah, like Shani, had been a point guard as well. We agreed to come to Newark to spend time with Amina, but after my verbal insults, the girls declined to make the trip, even though we reconciled our issues as best we could.

I made the trip to Newark alone to hang out with the Barakas, who had me bar hoping after a wonderful dinner at the Spanish restaurant across from city hall. One of the bars we visited is owned by former mayor Sharp James, now doing prison time for corruption.

I hadn’t planned to spend the night but Amina had other plans, so she made room for me in the space they have preserved for Shani. On my last visit, she had told me that I was the first person to spend the night in Shani’s room, filled with her artifacts, several basketball size trophies, numerous awards and proclamations to her athletic prowess and mentorship.

After the last bar, we headed home. Tired, I said goodnight to the Barakas and went upstairs to my room or rather Shani’s room. I shut the door and looking around at Shani’s archives, something told me to say a prayer, so I did.

I got up the next morning early, way too early to disturb the Barakas, so I purveyed the room, and seeing the trophies were dusty, wiped them. I just happened to have a poem in my back pocket When Thy Lover Has Gone to Eternity, so I placed it between the trophies as an offering. I said another prayer before departing. And then I heard Shani speaking, saying, “No, no, no, no to hate, no, no, no, no.” She said, “Yes, yes to love, yes, yes, yes, yes.”

I shut the door and made my way downstairs, passing the sleeping Barakas and out into the cold Newark morning. At South Tenth and Clinton Streets I hailed a taxi, telling the driver to take me to John’s Place, my favorite breakfast spot in Newark. I ordered Whiting, grits and eggs, with biscuits that melted in my mouth. After breakfast, I walked to the bus stop for the ride to Penn Station and the train back across the river to New York. As I stood waiting for the bus, Shani spoke again in the winter wind, “No, no, no, no to hate. Yes, yes, yes to love.”

Shall we not love our gay and lesbian children, the many young men and women who have chosen the gay/lesbian lifestyle for whatever reason: we can say they were born that way, or have an identity crisis from feminine or matrifocal socialization (lack of manhood rites or womanhood rites), or there was sexual assault by a gay or lesbian relative, or incest by father, uncle, brother, cousin who turned the girl against all men or men against women.. We can catalogue all the possibilities yet not get to the end of the road on this matter: our gay children need help! They need love and support as they go through their daily round. We cannot simply look at them and reduce them to social rejects, or pariahs we must shun at all costs as if they are not natural but some kind of mutants from Mars.

In short, they need our help with their growing pains. All children need love, recognition and acceptance. Do you think the gay children are not suffering the normal white supremacy virus of parental abandonment, abuse and neglect? Even more so, our gay young men are suffering the highest rate of HIV infection. What shall we do—surely we can reach out and touch these young men on a suicide path—at the very least, we can educate them about the dangers of their unsafe sexual behavior.

Our lesbian children need our love and acceptance as well. Maybe some of them will return to the straight life (as if that’s anything to brag about until we evolve our spiritual consciousness from the patriarchal mentality of domination).

Again, no matter the cause of the explosion of the gay and lesbian lifestyle, it is a reality we need to deal with. Those who want to be straight should be guided, others who want to be accepted as gay or lesbian should be shown unconditional love as well.

It is wrong for anyone to hate another human being, and especially to hate a child. So let us put on the armor of God and exercise Supreme Wisdom. Either we are working with Divine power or we are on the animal plane, from which our actions are devoid of spiritual consciousness

The Toilet is a state of mind, toxic and transfixed. It must be flushed clean with pure water. There is a moment in the play when a brother goes down the row of urinals flushing each one and laughing with joy as the water flows loudly like a river. Let us flush ourselves with the royal flush of all urine and defecation in our lives, in our minds that have a stranglehold on the eternity of love, for love is all there is that is precious and real, radical and revolutionary, love, the meaning of the morning, the essence of the night, the why we rise to try again the daily round, to suffer the pain and joy—only love makes the day possible and the night bearable.

In conclusion, moral propositions become just that and nothing more, a momentary thing, until the destruction comes, then we see some things are beyond mere propositions, thoughts, a consensus of the moral or the immoral, for who is moral today, who is immoral? Who are the good guys, bad guys? Who is without sin? You are against gays and lesbians, yet you are a child molester! You are against gays and lesbians, yet you are a wife beater, a murderer, a dope dealer, a wicked teacher, a corrupt banker. Who has the high moral ground? Is it he who does the most good—in the hood? Shall he or she determine the moral code, or is this a free for all, do yo thing, I do my thing—in the Arabic: lakum dinu kum waliyadin (to you your way and to me mine, Al Qur’an).

Unless there is a consensus, who is to say what is right or wrong? We must come to a consensus on the new morality, no matter what ancient mythologies have taught us. In Divine consciousness surely we can find the Way of Love in all matters. Let us search the ancient holy books, texts, inscriptions, for the sure path, since there is doubt persisting into the night. What do the holy books say? They all teach love for all human beings.

Shall we be swayed by illusions of any kind, spiritual, physical, mental or sexual? If we reinstituted manhood and womanhood rites of passage, we might go a long way toward helping our children cross the threshold of sexual identity and toward spiritual maturation as divine beings in human form. Sexuality and other illusions become secondary to the primary objective of reaching spiritual maturity, or following our true bliss, as Joseph Campbell taught us. We want our children to sing their song into the sun and be the best they can be. We want them to transcend racial and sexual oppression and not be handicapped by anything, for under the best of circumstances life can be difficult. Let us give them the support and love to excel into the sun. They must learn to live with their life choices, just as we did. Let us not be the reason they stumble in darkness but let us be the guiding light of love and acceptance. Many of our children are simply having growing pains in a turbulent world. If we try a little tenderness and transcend our own moral blindness and hypocrisy, there is the grand possibility our children will be just fine—after all, they are entering a world we shall never see, so how can we say they are right or wrong?

--Marvin X
November, 2008

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