The New Black

by Louise Adams
Tuesday Apr 1, 2014
a scene from THE NEW BLACK
a scene from THE NEW BLACK  

"Traditional marriage is based on whose tradition?" asks eloquent, dogged Sharon Lettman-Hicks of the National Black Justice Coalition, one of the featured interviewees in "The New Black."

Yoruba Richen's 80-minute documentary recounts Maryland's 2012 marriage equality referendum, where outside funders galvanized the tight-knit (and rather inflexible) African-American church community against the initiative. "We repealed 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' in the military, and now we need to do the same in the black community," says straight Lettman-Hicks.

The National Organization for Marriage's mission was to "drive a wedge between blacks and gays" despite the obvious civil rights parallels, and to "produce and use fear" to garner enough petition signatures to put the legislation that the governor had previously approved on the November ballot. Up until this time, whenever the public had voted directly on marriage equality, it was defeated.

Among national news clips, others are interviewed, primarily in Maryland's Democratic but socially conservative Prince George's County, including a lesbian couple who want to marry (who remind detractors that "equality never hurt anyone"), young lesbian activists working toward passage of the referendum, and single-minded clergy gleefully delivering boxes of petitions and telling their parishioners how to vote from the pulpit. At a family gathering, one man accepts LGBT people yet still considers their sexuality a "vice."

Civil rights luminary Julian Bond talks about the historic importance of the church in African-American life, as autonomous communities where "trampled people find power." Former Gospel singing star Tonéx shares how his gradual coming out ostracized him from his lifelong religious home (you would think his albums "Out of the Box" and "Rainbow" might have clued in his fair-weather followers).

Even when President Obama, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton declared support for same sex unions, many churches remained as the "last bastion of prejudice and hatred" in the "narrative of the black family."

Despite its well-funded opposition, marriage equality in "Marry-land" passed with 52% of the vote, to implement what Lettman-Hicks calls "the unfinished business of Black people being free."

This documentary is an excellent snapshot of the long-held taboo on discussing sexuality within African-American religious institutions, and required viewing in order to continue change.

Louise Adams is a Chicago freelance writer at www.treefalls.com (and a nom de guerre).


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