Activist DeRay Mckesson, journalist Don Lemon and playwright George C. Wolfe were honoured at inaugural awards
The Native Son Awards, held in November in New York, honoured the contributions and achievements of black gay men including CNN anchor Don Lemon, Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, and Tony award-winning director and playwright George C. Wolfe. Named after James Baldwin’s seminal book Notes of a Native Son, this year’s awards were presented to just a few individuals, but the initiative was also created to honour and recognize the community as a whole.
Journalist and LGBTQ activist Emil Wilbekin told Essence magazine that he created the event specifically to honour the achievements of black gay men in media, entertainment and social activism, while encouraging the increased visibility and impact of black gay men in society.
“This year was the perfect year to launch the Native Son Awards because there are more black gay men who are visible in the world who need to be recognized and celebrated,” Wilbekin explained. “It’s more important to make sure that black men, no matter what their sexual identity, are seen and heard.”
He noted the successes of the film Moonlight, the television show Empire, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Don Lemon’s reporting on police brutality.
“Oftentimes in the LGBT community, African-Americans are marginalized and overlooked—very similar to mainstream society,” Wilbekin said. “I wanted to create a safe place where we can come together and have fellowship, mentorship and discussions that are specific to us and our community.”
Lemon, who came out publicly in 2011, encouraged fellow black gay men to be out and proud, telling the crowd, “To be a black gay man in 2016 and beyond, you should be out and not have to think about being out. No duality. We should all be out. We should all be proud.”
Wolfe, who won a Tony in 1993 for directing the original Broadway production of Angels in America and the same award in 1996 for Bring in ’da Noise/Bring in ’da Funk, said black gay men need to persevere in the face of whatever is to come. “We’re entering an incredibly brutal period of history but we’re black and we’re gay. We’ve faced severe rejection from people who we love, from our families, so we’ve gone through some very hard stuff,” he told the crowd. “Whatever you do, do it with force and a conviction that exists inside of you because you are a black gay man and you have endured.”
Mckesson, a prominent leader within the Black Lives Matter movement, said he’s hopeful about what the community can accomplish. “Many of you tell our truth every day by just existing. I’m hopeful by the people here tonight, being ready to do the work that it would take to bring in the world that we know that we need and deserve.”An award and movement like Native Son is vital to put things in perspective. In 2016, black men have had to face continued challenges, but have still continued to thrive in art, media and activism, refusing to be ignored or reduced to stereotypes, while creating varied and diverse representations of black life.
“In my mind, Native Son has the ability to shift the cultural conversation in the black community about black gay men,” Wilbekin said. “The National Urban League Conference [an American nonpartisan cival rights organization that advocates againstracial discrimination]hosted a Native Son panel this summer, and it was the first time there had been an LGBT conversation at this historic civil rights convening. The more visibility we have, the more dialogue we can have. I hope that Native Son will be able to bring more of these conversations to life in the new year. This is just the beginning.”