Since I heard the news of Julian Bond’s passing on Saturday, I have not been able to shake my memory of the story he told at Emory University last March. In the keynote conversation for the conference, “Whose Beloved Community? Black Civil and LGBT Rights,” Bond told a story of single moment in his history with the NAACP.
“I’m not ashamed to tell it because no shame is attached to it, but I was the chairman of the NAACP for eleven years,” he began. “Each of those eleven years, I said to myself and only to myself, I wish I could get this group to endorse gay rights, same sex marriage particularly. And then I said to myself, ‘No. I won’t do that. Because they’ll say no. And I’d rather we had no position than a bad position. So I’m not going to bring this up.’ And the NAACP board is 64 people. ” In the story’s first layer, Bond gave us the size of the NAACP board, 64, a number large enough to count them as one of many black communities. In Bond’s story, this community becomes the fictional Black Community, an elision as central to American folklore as Mammy.
See James Cosby, registered sex offender and alleged murderer of his lesbian daughter and her partner, magically become the Black Community. See his derangement become ours. See us steeped in murderous homophobia. Or see Toya Graham ruthlessly beat her son in Baltimore and then magically transform into the Black Community, celebrated in white spaces for our commitment to the corporal punishment (a reporter called for Black moms to “tame” the animals/ rioters) of the future Black Community. So after introducing a community of Black lovers of freedom, Bond reminded the community in the room what was at stake for the Black Community—the threat of a “bad” position gone public, an addition to the evidence that the Black Community was behind the times, outside history, and hopelessly conservative.
He went on, “One day after I had sat down from the chairmanship, I’m sitting around the table and this guy over here says, ‘I move that we endorse same sex marriage.’ And I said to myself, ‘Oh no! Don’t do that, don’t do that. That’s awful. Because they’ll say no. And then we’ll have this bad position. It’d be just awful’” In the second layer of the story, Mr. Bond introduced another character, an unnamed “this guy,” who either had more faith in the board or less worries about the public image of the NAACP. “But somebody said, ‘I second the motion.’”
The air was thick with waiting; you could hear hope rising. In the room were people who had lived through the terrible years, when bad public policy was the least of their worries about being both black and queer. Irene Monroe reminds us of these people, lest we forget that the Stonewall riots began in protest to the state’s assault on black bodies. In the room, there may have been people who remember that those riots began with this call to action, “They’re across the bridge beating up black faggots!”
Sitting in the same rows as the survivors of the terrible years were those who were born in the age of information, people who’d been able to find communities of support with a few keystrokes, but who had also been victimized in the same digital space by thousands of bigots with internet access. For the latter group, the NAACP may well have represented the old guard, but they had the power to sway the opinions of a public we hold close to our bodies in laptops, tablets, and the smart phones glued to our palms. We all held still our bones, hoping for an unlikely end to the story.
Mr. Bond rounded the bend: “We have 64 members on the board. And that day, two were absent, including the biggest homophobe on the NAACP board.” Laughter pierced the tension. He’d introduced the character of homophobia in absentia, the nameless man who’d happened to stay home on the day of the important vote. What would the absence of our most public homophobes mean for the queer folks in this room?
“He was not there. And they voted 60 to 2 to endorse same sex marriage.” The room erupted in applause. An expert storyteller, he’d flooded us with relief, tabling for later the question of whether we were actually safer in our bodies than we’d been in the years before marriage equality became a policy agenda.
Finally, Mr. Bond delivered his lesson: “I felt so good and so bad at the same time. Good that they had done this wonderful thing and so bad that I had underestimated these people and hadn’t understood that they move as the rest of the country moved, and went from here to here to here.” With his hands, he illustrated “here to here to here” in the space in front of his chest, and all his hope for a more informed, compassionate community stood as real and invisible to the human eye as his beating heart.
In the short amount of time he had left, both in the conference and on this physical plane, Julian Bond decided to tell us a single story, not of his triumphs as a leader, the alliances he forged with LGBT organizations across the country, or the effort he put into transforming the attitudes of the NAACP. Instead, he told us a simple story of 60 board members who had surprised him, made him proud, and given him hope for a country that was always in transformation, always moving from “here to here to here.”