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Out, gay, black actor: What Black History Month means to me

Way back when, in the 1970s, when I was a fourth grader in Mrs. Vanet’s class at Ridgecrest Elementary School, I heard the phrase Black History Month for the first time. It was winter, the room was always over heated, and we snuffled our colds, pulled at our polyester sweaters and stared out of the frosted over-windows. Mrs. Vanet was tall, lean, and had been a New York fashion model. Her hair was always teased high above her black bangs and most of the time her neck was wrapped in a scarf of some sort held together with a big gold broach shaped like a Chrysanthemum and pinned to her shoulder.

Most of us in Mrs. Vanet’s class, the twenty odd fourth graders, ten year old boys and girls, were with maybe four exceptions, black. And Mrs. Vanet, whose voice was nasal and not at all warm or inviting tended to look down at all of us, regardless of our race. You never quite measured up under her gaze; you could tell. She and her husband, a PanAm pilot with whom she took exciting and breathless trips to far off places – we sat through hours of slides of her trips to Berlin and Bali -- had no children, and we thought it was because they didn’t actually like them.

So it was a surprise the day Mrs. Vanet handed out work books to all of us with painted portrait collages of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, and of course Martin Luther King on the cover. She stood in front of the room in a lemon yellow dress and told us that from now on, each February we were going to study the history and achievements of the Negro Americans. And from now on, we would designate one month out of the year, February, as Black History Month.

Even then we were not too young to look out the window and realize that it was the dead of winter, February being the worst month of the year in Maryland, and of course, they were going to give it to the black people.

But once we opened the book, the world opened up. Most of the black kids in the room came from middle class households. We lived in big enough houses with yards and trees. Our fathers wore ties, worked in offices, our mothers were strong and beautiful, and we all knew our families had originally come from the South. We still had relatives there, down there, somewhere. Some of our families, like mine, had even been to college.

What we didn’t know was that there were people who’d gone even farther, even earlier than our own ancestors. I mean, back then, we were more American than African American. What we knew about ourselves was that we were pretty comfortable in the suburbs, our rooms littered with G.I. Joes, Babies, and Hot Wheels. We didn’t have to strive. Not like the people we read about. A woman who risked death to guide people to freedom – on foot! Hundreds of miles! Or a scientist who looked at a peanut and saw a universe, or a doctor who figured out how to save lives transferring blood between bodies.

We got to look at our world in a whole new light. Speaking of, when I discovered that the stop lights on every street were designed by a black man, I bored my parents stupid every time we got in the car. Or when I went to work with my dad at Union Station and looked at the Amtrak trains lined up for points North, South and West and realized they couldn’t stay together without the coupling invented by another black engineer. It was crazy! We’d done so much. And having done so much we could do so much more!

What Black History Month invited me to do, encouraged me to do, and still makes me strive to do is reach way beyond the late-twentieth century comfort zone I was raised in and do something. SOMETHING. Something that matters. Something that makes a difference. Something that helps. The people I learned to honor, revere, and respect were all doers. They changed the world for the better. And every February I think about my frosty teacher and her clipped Yankee voice and I thank her for warming my mind and spirit to possibility. To what I could and would do with my life. To making some humble contribution to Black History.

It’s why as an actor, I chose to be an out, gay Black actor. Doing that, I took a risk; I made a decision that for years people in the entertainment industry considered career suicide. To be black and an actor is hard enough, but to call yourself gay on top of that? Screwed from the gate. But I also realized that nothing changes if nothing changes. Actors, really kids who sit in their rooms and watch TV like I did and dream of doing those things that I saw like I did, wouldn’t do them, might not even attempt them, if someone didn’t at least try to be all that they honestly were. So, I came out. And I’ve managed to have a bit of a career, too. It might be bigger if I’d chosen to be closeted, but then again, it might not.

I’m not Harriet Tubman leading slaves to freedom. I’m not a scientist or a politician leading a people to empowerment. But I have learned from them. And that’s what Black History Month means to me.