[Next Tuesday, September 24, POFEV: People of Faith for Equality in Virginia is sponsoring “The Many Voices of LGBT Pride,” an interfaith service focused on the spiritual foundations of LGBT liberation, at 6:30 pm at Congregation Beth Ahabah, 1111 West Franklin Street, in Richmond. I will be offering some color-themed blog posts over the next few days to help us get ready for this celebration, and the celebration of Virginia Pride on Saturday, September 28, at Kanawha Plaza, in Richmond.]
This is a difficult post, because in a short space I am attempting to tackle a complex set of topics: color as in visual perception and art, color as in skin color and race and racism, color as in history of a people, and probably one or two other things.
In our spiritual observance of LGBT Pride this Tuesday at Congregation Beth Ahabah, we will center ourselves on the eight-color rainbow flag that was originally designed and sewn by artist Gilbert Baker in 1978. That vibrant palette had two colors no longer in use, hot pink and turquoise, as has been noted in this space in prior posts. Also, indigo has been replaced by a more basic blue.
Over the years, however, I have been troubled by a color that was never included, namely brown. My distress has several foundations. First, as you may know from prior posts on the rainbow, I like color. And although brown is not a bright color it signifies much that I love: earth, of course, fall leaves, monks’ habits (especially the Franciscans), and wood. Jesus is so often portrayed wearing earth tones, and if we showed him accurately his skin would be that dark olive of the Middle East that is part green and part brown–no blonde, he! It also signifies for me, and many others, a whole people, or peoples, people whose skin color is not like mine. We often call some of them “black” people, but most of those are more accurately brown. And then there are Hispanic peoples who are so often shades of brown (and some Native American people may appear to be more brown than red).
When I see brown, I see the ground of being–even though according to experts, brown is not its own color, but rather a mixture of red, black and orange. It is officially considered a shade of orange. Check this out for more about brown. Oh yes, one more thing: many of us run after a “tan” each summer, wanting to look brown as a nut.
I also know, that like the pink triangle and the yellow star of David, the Nazis, and their counterparts in Mussolini’s Italy, appropriated brown as the color of their uniforms. Once again, something beautiful and loving was turned into a symbol of hate and violence. So, as always, it is complicated.
But for me, part of the complication has been this: Are “brown people” included in the rainbow? One response is to say, well, of course, there is no white in the rainbow, and no black, so the absence of brown signifies nothing about race or racism. It sounds reasonable, and as a straightforward logical point of view it is.
But for those of us who are “white” (of course, most of us are not truly white–its more that we are not “black”), it is important to remember that it is people who look like us who created this rainbow flag–and I don’t just mean Gilbert Baker. White people have long held most of the leadership positions in the LGBT community, and until fairly recently, it was white people who always seemed to be pictured in groups of LGBT people. Context matters.
And I remember in the 80’s picking up a copy of a ground-breaking book, the book of a play called, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuf,”by Ntozake Shange, a major poetic and drama voice among African American women. The play was produced off Broadway in various locales and finally, on September 15, 1976 at the Booth Theater on Broadway,
It is not enough to say that this play is powerful, it knocks your socks off. It was an early venture in what was known as “women’s theater,” at a time when that usually meant “white women’s theater.” It still, forty years later, catches you–the rhythms, the insistent truth-telling, the images.
One thing in particular caught me: there are seven parts in the show, seven ladies: one in yellow, one in red, one in green, one in purple, one in blue, one in orange . . . . and, yes, one in brown.
And here’s another thing: the show begins with the lady in brown. Here’s part of her first speech:
I can’t hear anythin
but maddening screams
& the soft strains of death
& you promised me . . .
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
sing her song of life
she’s been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn’t know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty
she’s half-notes scattered
without rhythm/no tune
sing her sighs
sing the song of her possibilities
sing a righteous gospel
the makin of a melody
let her be born
let her be born
& handled warmly
Let her be born . . . maybe the rainbow, our rainbow, is enuf, but then again, are we not yet engaged in giving birth to ourselves, to our community, too, and don’t we want to be sure none are left, none are stillborn, none are cast away or cast out? So maybe we need a bigger rainbow? I know mine is bigger than six, and even than eight.
“Celebrating the Many Voices of LGBT Pride” means, for me at least, making sure the “brown” voice is heard. Join us Tuesday night as we attempt to celebrate all the voices (and no doubt we will fall short–but making the effort is important).