Native Son: Celebrating Black Gay/Queer Men in Literature and Media

Native Son—the classic 1940 novel from writer Richard Wright—struck something so deeply in the zeitgeist that the literary giant James Baldwin borrowed its title for his first collection of brilliant essays 15 years later, Notes of a Native Son. The borrowing continues. Fashion Institute of Technology professor and media maven Emil Wilbekin (formerly the National Magazine Award-winning editor-in-chief of Vibe, as well as the defunct Giant magazine) launched Native Son in 2016 as a platform to openly celebrate Black gay/queer men. (James Baldwin, of course, was famously one of the very first openly gay male icons of Black culture.)

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Brandon Blackwood. Image: courtesy of Native Son.

At the Frank Gehry-designed IAC Building in downtown Manhattan, the 2024 Native Son Awards recently honored choreographer Bill T. Jones, celebrity stylist Law Roach, actor-singer Jeremy Pope, public relations maverick Chris Chambers, HIV/AIDS activist Gabriel Maldonado and political commentator Keith Boykin at a gala-style dinner hosted by Don Lemon (a 2016 award recipient). Held on the 55th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, the festive event featured DJ Bill Coleman spinning Beyoncé and house music staples while Black men of every designation socialized, networked and occasionally flirted free from any homophobic gaze.

One style note: neckties are dead. Over 300 fashionable attendees sported scarves, open neck shirts, ornately designed necklaces, sheer T-shirts, and the occasional dress. Writer-actress Lena Waithe wore pearls and a sleeveless T underneath a suit; Queen Sugar actor Nicholas L. Ashe rocked an eclectic, spiky suit made entirely of what looked like black collar stays—but no neckwear. But men be warned: ties are on the chopping block.

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Law Roach. Image: courtesy of Native Son.

In the spirit of “what advice would you give your younger self,” Emil Wilbekin dedicated the night’s festivities to his younger self during his opening remarks.

“To young Emil,” he began, “who sat watching Gene Anthony Ray on Fame with awe, intrigue and interest. To young Emil, who grew up and was bullied for being effeminate, fat and soft, who was touched without consent. To young Emil, who decided to be different anyway. To young Emil, who listened to James Baldwin speak at Ogden Hall at Hampton University. To young Emil, who lived in fear of AIDS. To young Emil, who became the first openly gay editor-in-chief of a national magazine. To young Emil, who was diagnosed with HIV. And to young Emil, who dared to dream, to create a movement, a community and platform called Native Son.”

Following a musical performance by serpentwithfeet, speakers like Color of Change president Rashad Robinson and Native Son co-chair Darnell L. Moore rose to the rostrum giving voice to issues of social value to the Black queer community. Voter registration, Black queer empowerment and celebratory shoutouts to Pride Month were all addressed before Wilbekin made a major announcement: a new Native Son partnership with the LBGTQ-centered media company Q.Digital for its own channel, premiering this summer on its culture and entertainment site, Queerty.

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Jeremy Pope. Image: courtesy of Native Son.

“We are honored to be working alongside Native Son and Emil to amplify and celebrate the Black gay and queer experience,” Q.Digital founder and CEO Scott Gatz later said in a statement. “Q.Digital will bring scale and drive audiences to Native Son content like never before—ensuring these vital voices are heard across our network.”

By night’s end, Wilbekin sat onstage with Don Lemon for a speedy interview that soon evolved into a fundraising frenzy that raised over $75,000 for Native Son’s various initiatives throughout the year. Baldwin would have been proud.

Updated: June 22, 2024 — 12:03 pm