Double identity

Christopher Isherwood was once trying to persuade a Jewish friend that as both members of a minority, persecuted by Hitler, they should make common cause for liberation. His friend replied, 'Yes, but though Hitler maybe killed 60,000 homosexuals, he killed six million of us"! To which Isherwood's reply was, "What are we embarked upon? Real Estate?"

A common fact of persecution is not a common bound.

This is more complicated if you are a member of two minorities, the majority of whose members carry the same hostility to your second minority membership, as the wider majority.

This afflicts Perry, a gifted art student, black and gay, making his own way after his parents have disowned him, in the interesting,  but flawed film, 'Brother to Brother'.

We watch Perry in his 'black cultural studies' class try to bring his own minority perspective to bear on the questions of black identity being discussed only to be rebuffed. He has betrayed that black identity in his perversion (a perversion that we know the mainstream projects outside itself - in Africa homosexuality becomes in this hostility a colonial, white import - all evidence to the contrary). His only ally is the sole white classmate, who is gay, but his attraction to Perry is wrapped around his own, wished for identification with black minority culture.

Into this challenging confusion steps Bruce Nugent (who was, in fact, an historical figure, fact is about to blend with fiction): a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s - poet, performer, painter - and gay.

It is this cross-generational friendship that helps Perry step out into self-discovery, and the confidence not to sell himself short to either world, whatever the cost, either to slip out of the 'black world' as a 'young gay black artist' in the mainstream culture or to deny his minority status within it.

Nugent does this by describing his own pathway as the unashamed bohemian, never disguising his sexuality, never selling out the integrity of vision to any party to make it acceptable. It has been a hard life but one lived in celebratory integrity. In the process we get 'flashbacks' of some of the key figures of the Renaissance and their struggles to work within circles of minority.

The films flaw is that it is to didactic, and the characters remain ciphers of the situations depicted, themselves illustrative of ideas.

But it remains both a fascinating glimpse of history - there is a wonderful documentary moment of James Baldwin being interviewed on the complications of being a black voice undermined by people's perceptions of his sexuality - and raises good questions about where does one belong? Can, in fact, one belong to anything other than oneself, rooted in the integrity of your own aloneness? Or rather is it that the only safe freedom to engage compassionately with our potential identities comes when, in fact, we are free of them. Then we can play with them (seriously) and gather meaning from them, always knowing we are beyond them.

Bruce Nugent was free to be a radical, if marginal, black voice because he was so determinedly his own man.

Who asks this thing? by Richard Bruce Nugent

I walk alone and lone must be
For I wear my love for all to see--
It matters not how close our hearts appear to be
Since I tell my love in song for all to know--
Love must not be blind or small or slow,
But that I wear my heart for all to see
Means I am bound while he is, sadly, free.
He walks alone who walks in love with me


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