Note: This article was published December 2002 in The Philadelphia Inquirer. It appeared at a time when a controversy raged in West Chester PA over renaming Bayard Rustin’s alma mater West Chester High School after him. The controversy was multilayered and involved not only Rustin’s homosexuality, but his radicalism and activism.
Bayard Rustin was one of those persons who from an early age are
comfortable in their skin. But he made many around him uncomfortable.
Certainly his life has honored the community he grew up in and the high
school from which he graduated as valedictorian. Along the way he was a
star athlete, member of the French, history and science clubs, and of the
school chorus. Rustin’s career after high school, his commitment to peace,
justice and civil and human rights, made of him one of the most important
people of his generation.
But Rustin was black, politically outspoken, pacifist, communist and
socialist. This was at any time in American history a dangerous
combination. But he also was an openly gay black man. By the very nature
of this he was a subversive.
His blackness and gayness, his invented British accent made him
different – some might suggest exotic – and a challenge to the racial and
sexual values of the American middle class then and now.
The problem that some in West Chester have with Rustin cannot be
located in one dimension of his, or their, lives. Black masculinity in its
heterosexual or homosexual expressions does not sit well with many people in
the white middle class. Add to the mix an outspoken and assertive
confidence, joined to a radical vision of remaking the world, and Rustin’s
memory becomes a little too much for the small-minded. That he defined
himself and would not let others define him is still a problem. He must be
dealt with on his terms and, just as he wished to change the world for the
better, his life forces us to change ourselves for the better by engaging
our fears and vulnerabilities concerning race and sexuality.
Yet we are not in ordinary times. The nation is at war. At any time
in America black men are an endangered group. In times of war black
masculinity is considered almost a fifth-column movement. Some would prefer
that black men become invisible. Others feel comfortable with the
hyper-visibility of the stereotypes of black men: brutes, criminals,
minstrels and clowns. Bayard Rustin’s life challenges the stereotypes.
Rustin believed America could be great – but only if she confronted
her demons and prejudices. So President Bush and Bayard Rustin are at
opposite ends of the human continuum. One believes in war, the other in
peace and justice.
I believe that history stands with Bayard Rustin. Just as we learn
from history, we also learn from large figures in history. We learn from
them by engaging the rich diversity that defines their being. Bayard Rustin
is the hero we need, and certainly we need a school named to honor him.