It’s hard to imagine a tangle of identities more marginalized than that of the black gay man in Rhode Island. But Robb Dimmick — curator of an exhibit, opening November 5, that examines this very group — says the state’s black gay population has a surprisingly rich and long history. And recounting that history, he says, is important.
“It’s important for Rhode Island, but it’s particularly important for black gay men,” Dimmick says. “There is an opportunity and a need to examine these men and the contribu-tion they make to our culture.”
To that end, Dimmick and Daniel Scott, a professor of English and African-American studies at the University of Rhode Island, used a grant from the Rhode Island mittee for the Humanities to put together “Black Lavender 2,” which will be on display at Brown’s John Hay Library through January 8.
Dimmick says the exhibit will include photographs, artifacts and pamphlets and other printed materials highlighting the contribution of various politicians, academics, artists and leaders as well as documenting visits from out-of-state black gay figures like James Baldwin. The artifacts will be paired with audio culled from more than a dozen oral histories collected by Scott from a wide range of black gay men in the state.
The project is the outgrowth of a similar exhibit Dimmick put on four years ago at the Hay, and is the culmination of over 30 years of collecting artifacts of black gay life in Rhode Island and the US.
Dimmick, an East Side antiquarian book dealer, says “Black Lavender” came out of his “fascination and annoyance” in the early ’80s at the dearth of books about African-Americans in general, and blacks gays specifically.
“It was beyond marginalized — it was completely buried,” he says.
So Dimmick began collecting evidence of black gay life, and in 2005, put on the first “Black Lavender,” which focused primarily on black gay writers nationwide. With this exhibit, however, Dimmick chooses to focus specifically on Rhode Island.
Though statistics are expectedly sparse, Scott and Dimmick say they’ve seen firsthand a vibrant and growing — if discreet — community of black gay men emerge in the state.
“What’s quite amazing for such a small state is there are many black gay men, and they contribute very significantly in all fields of life, and there’s a grassroots dimension to it in addition to the more notable figures,” Dimmick says.
“What I see evolving,” Scott says, “is a greater sense of home and a greater sense of hope.”
However, Scott and Dimmick say, some of Rhode Island’s particular quirks have made it less than hospitable to the kind of thriving black gay culture that exists in bigger cities.
For one, there’s the state’s size: Rhode Island’s near-claustrophobic intimacy can be stifling, and “there’s this sense of it being more of this place you pass through,” Scott says. Further, Dimmick says, the influence of religion here hasn’t always supported open black gay life.
Rhode Island’s connection with the triangular slave trade, he adds, has also played a role in silencing voices: “Rhode Island is so shadowed by its history of slavery, and for such a long time it was a secret, and that has such a psychological drain on the entire state,” he says. “So if you’re a black gay man in Rhode Island, you drift through these ghosts if you know it or not.”
It is for precisely these reasons, Dimmick says, that he decided to put on the exhibit: it’s “about creating a dialogue and, through that, essentially stripping away some of this veil that has existed for far too long.”