Queering the Black Press: Remembering BLK Magazine

Man Operating A Newsstand In Chicago, July 1973 (John H. White, The U.S. National Archives via Flickr).

In a 2012 article for History Compass, historian Kim Gallon highlighted the continuing neglect of gender and sexuality by scholars of the Black Press. As Gallon noted, an array of factors including an over-emphasis on the role of heterosexual Black male publishers, such as John H. Johnson and Robert Abbott, and a reluctance to move beyond narrowly defined definitions of the “political” have contributed to the marginalization of gender and sexuality within Black Press historiography. Even as researchers have widely acknowledged the influence of racial uplift ideology over the content of many Black periodicals, and the hierarchies of class, gender, and sexuality this philosophy helped to reinforce, the important contributions of scholars such as Cathy Cohen and Hazel Carby have yet to be fully addressed by Black Press historians.

As we approach the twentieth anniversary of Cohen’s The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics, it seems an opportune moment to reflect back on the birth of a largely overlooked publication which remains a vital part of efforts to queer Black Press historiography. Thirty years ago, the first issue of BLK magazine was published in Los Angeles, California. Along with Black/Out, the official magazine of the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays which began publication in 1986, BLK became one of the few periodicals oriented towards LGBTQ members of the Black community.1 Its publisher Alan Bell had cut his teeth in queer publishing during the 1970s, when he had overseen the publication of Gaysweek between 1977 and 1979. After moving back to Los Angeles, where he had been born and raised, Bell founded a club called Black Jack, which promoted safe sex among the city’s Black gay men. To publicize the club’s activities, he started the Black Jack Newsletter in 1986, and this publication would evolve into a glossy newsmagazine called BLK two years later.

Kai M. Green, whose 2014 dissertation “Into the Darkness: A Black Queer (Re)Membering of Los Angeles in a Time of Crisis,” remains one of the few scholarly works to discuss the magazine in any depth, notes that BLK was designed to be “a Black magazine for gay people and not a gay magazine about Black people.” This race-conscious approach can be seen through its title BLK, which maintained the emphasis on racial identity included in popular Black periodicals such as EBONY, the flagship publication of the Johnson Publishing Company. Bell’s rationale for using the abbreviated “BLK” was that simply titling the magazine “BLACK” would have been too generic. We might also read this abbreviation as a critique of the class orientation and respectability politics endorsed by EBONY, with the abbreviated BLK highlighting the incomplete representation of Black communities shown on the pages of many popular Black periodicals. Other examples of such critique can be seen through the magazine’s early cartoons section, which lifted comic strips printed in EBONY and re-titled them to address queer Black sexuality and identity.

Launched close to the peak of the AIDS epidemic, BLK became an important source of information about HIV for Black communities and a powerful advocate for political action. Given the continued reluctance of the Black popular press to address the AIDS epidemic, as well as its failure to address the experiences of queer Black individuals and communities, BLK provided a sympathetic catalogue of love and loss which helped to push back against the stigmatization of queer Black folk and to document the disproportionate impact of the epidemic on communities of color. As Cohen argues, periodicals such as BLK and Black/Out “discussed AIDS as it affected the entire Black community, while paying special attention to the struggles of Black gay men with the disease.”2 This emphasis can be seen through the second issue of BLK, which provided readers with a moving retrospective on the life of African American queer entertainer Sylvester, whose death from AIDS complications in December 1988 was largely ignored by the popular Black Press.

By its first anniversary, BLK had grown to a 34-page newsmagazine with a rapidly expanding number of staff writers and contributors which included Revon Kyle Banneker, Preston Guider, Jarvis Moore, Ayofemi Stowe Folayan, and Belinda Rochelle. It would continue to attract new contributors and readers up until its cancellation in 1994. In contrast to narratives of queer Black pathology, which disseminated through the white mainstream press and Black popular press, BLK celebrated diverse expressions of Black sexuality from African American porn actor Randy Cochran to queer Black feminist Audre Lorde.3 At the same time, its increasingly sophisticated layout and aesthetics worked to make Black queerness “respectable” and to mainstream non-heteronormative expressions of Black desire.

From a different perspective, BLK contributed to the public mapping of what Green and other scholars have described as a “Black queer geography” within and beyond the City of Angels. As features such as its regular “BLK Board” column–which detailed local film screenings, parties, and events–demonstrated, the magazine remained rooted in queer Black Los Angeles. Yet as it expanded, it came to address the concerns, demands, and desires of a wider audience, helping to map and re-map queer Black life on a national and international scale. The magazine was soon receiving reader letters from as far afield as Ralph Navarro in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and J.R Thompkins in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 4 The magazine also attempted to place the racialized impact of the AIDS epidemic within a diasporic context, keeping readers abreast of its effect on sub-Saharan Africa as well as efforts to campaign against the disease. 5

The development of BLK during the late 1980s and early 1990s offers a counterpoint to narratives of queer Black pathology and offers an important intervention into histories of Black sexuality and Black print culture. Rooted in queer Black Los Angeles, but addressing Black queer identities and communities on a large scale, BLK remains a powerful record of Black love and resistance during the height of the AIDS epidemic. More broadly, attempts to recover the cultural and political impact of queer Black magazines such as BLK must be understood as just one part of the ongoing work needed to help address the neglect of gender and sexuality within Black Press historiography. Recent and forthcoming work by scholars such as Gallon, Green and D’Weston Haywood offer exciting possibilities and point to future research trajectories that will more substantively critique the form and function of Black periodicals and the relationship between the Black Press and Black communities.6

  1. “From The Editor”, Black/Out, Summer 1986.
  2. Cohen, The Boundaries of Blackness.
  3.  Revon Kyle Banneker, “Randy Cochran”, BLK, March 1989; Chi Hughes, “Oh, Lorde!”, BLK, April 1989.
  4.  “BLK Mail”, BLK, April 1989; “BLK Mail”, BLK, May 1989.
  5.  “Launch Tanzania Drive”, BLK, July 1989.
  6.  D’Weston Haywood, Let Us Make Men: The Twentieth Century Black Press and a Manly Vision for Racial Advancement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018); Gallon, We Are Becoming a Tabloid Race: The Politics of Gender and Sexuality in the Black Press, 1925-1945 (forthcoming).
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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. Her is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk.