People of Color and M/s: a speech from MsC 2015
This Labor Day weekend, Master Taino, MTTA and the Master slave Conference 2015 extended to me the privilege of speaking briefly about the history of African Americans in M/s and on the 20th anniversary of ONYX, a Leather brotherhood geared toward Men of Color. The following is that speech.
Building Community is the theme of this year’s Master/slave Conference and it is an important thing. The analogy of building is an apt one. When we think of building we think of construction and, particularly in the Master/slave community, we think of structure. The best structures have a firm foundation. When the foundation is weak, then it doesn’t make a difference how much time, money or effort is put into the building. It makes no difference how unique or diverse the materials put into the edifice, if the foundation is not sound, it will not stand.
Along these lines, if we are to build community, we have to start with a strong foundation. In the case of the M/s and Leather communities, our history is where we get our foundation. Without that history we would be unable to stand. And without knowledge of that history, we as a community and as houses and families and relationships will be standing on shaky ground.
“If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree. ” ― Michael Crichton
One of the key aspects of Leather tradition is the preservation of history. Whether it be the history of organizations, of clubs, families or our own individual histories, keeping account of the people who make up the many groups that are known collectively as “community” is vital to our future survival. Indeed, not only can we learn from past mistakes, we also learn from past successes and, if we are smart, we can build upon them. Expounding upon what Mr. Crichton said, some of us have branch knowledge, but we don’t have root knowledge.
This is one reason why the Carter Johnson Leather Library and Collection and the Leather Archives and Museum have proved to be so vital. They are a living, breathing history of all that we value as people of Leather, as members of the BDSM community and as a part of the Master slave community. We can see art, literature and memorabilia, true, but we may also see the struggles of individuals as well as groups of us, the obstacles that were overcome and the progress that was made. In addition, it allows us to see what progress we must still make.
In creating a foundation, one must use care in its construction. We cannot ignore any elements of its composition or it will not be strong enough to support anything built upon it. The same is true when we look at our community history. If we ignore one element of it, then we are bound to weaken all of it and what comes after will not succeed. For a very long time, the history of People of Color in the M/s and Leather communities have been ignored, or simply not known. However, if this edifice we call community is to stand, and more importantly, if we are going to be able to build it into something stronger, we have to pay attention to all of the elements upon which it stands. George Orwell stated this in his book 1984, when he said, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
People of Color have long been an integral part of our Leather and M/s history. The people for whom the Carter Johnson Leather Library are named are examples of this. In addition to being the catalyst for the library which bears their names, Jill Carter became the first African-American International Ms. Leather in 1996 and used the platform afforded to her by the title to collect memorabilia and money that ultimately led to the opening of the Leather Archives & Museum – which you will hear more about soon. Ms. Carter was the recipient of the Pantheon of Leather Woman of the Year Award 1998 and 2001, The National Leather Association International Order of Merit and Lifetime Achievement Awards, and many other awards for her devotion and care in building long-lasting parts of the foundation upon which we all sit today. Her partner of over 40 years, Viola Johnson, affectionately known as “Mama Vi”, is also iconic in the community as an activist, author, archivist, mentor and educator and has a lengthy resume of contributions to our communities that are almost too numerous to list including helping countless women figure out that only when you consider breathing optional can you properly wear a corset. Her effort in building our foundation has been recognized as well with the NLA and Pantheon of Leather Lifetime Achievement Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award from Black BEAT, and even an award here at MsC – the slave heart award. Both of these women continue to give of themselves to ensure that those who are here today building additions to our community understand the materials they are building with and we would do well to honor that work.
While many of us know of Jill Carter and Mama Vi, the foundation of our community is filled with many People of Color upon whom this structure has rested. The late Jack Jackson was the only president ever of, The Eulenspiegel Society, or TES, the oldest BDSM support and education group in the country, for almost ten years until he passed away in 1983. He was a Leatherman and a Master and was among the first to utilize the media to demystify and destigmatize BDSM back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His interviews and photographs appeared in media outlets like Hustler magazine and the Columbia University newsletter. He was a trailblazer in this regard, speaking freely about power exchange relationships at a time when it was very taboo. He was even called upon by NYPD detectives in sex crime cases involving rope bondage to testify as an expert witness as to whether the perpetrator was an amateur or someone intricately familiar with rope. Morgan Lewis HMQ (Her Majesty the Queen) is a member of the Imperial Court and was a board member of The Eulenspiegel Society for 27 years, earning emeritus status. In the 80s, HMQ was central to the founding of the Dominant Women’s/submissive men’s group that still meets at TES and she was instrumental in building the foundation for the TES parties which many of us still enjoy monthly. There is also Graylin Thornton, Mr. Drummer 1993, and the only African-American to ever hold the original title. Thornton has spent decades speaking out about People of Color in the community and encouraging their involvement. He also produced the first Ebony in Leather Contest in 1991 and serves as an Emeritus National Board Member for the Leather Leadership Conference
Many of us are most aware of our M/s traditions and structures dating back to the 1970s and though we often don’t think about it, People of Color have always been a part of that structure. Way back in the late 1960s there was a society called OBEAH, which was a BDSM related Black supremacy group. They did not allow Black subs or dominant whites. In the late 1970s they published a magazine that included images of Black domination and white submission called OBEAH: Society of Black Masters and Mistresses preaching the “natural superiority” of Black men and women. Images of Blacks in power exchange relationships appeared at that time, with the fabulous Mistress Mir among a select few. Also, The Ohio Players were well known for their imagery of women and men in chains and in domination and submission scenarios on their album covers. These sensuous photographs and their sexually charged lyrics made it alright for Black people to enjoy that side of their persona. Marvin Gaye’s Masochistic Beauty from 1985, sings about an M/s relationship, wherein he utters the tender lyrics, ““Shut up...You nasty little slave, kiss my feet. Put your face right here and start to eat.” These are a few bricks in that foundation that helped to build this community.
Our Leather title holders have in many cases been seen as leaders in our community based upon their stands on issues and the causes they represent. In 1984, International Mr. Leather, one of the preeminent Leather contests crowned its first Black titleholder, Ron Moore. Unfortunately, it would be exactly 30 years before it was to happen again, when Ramien Pierre became International Mr. Leather in 2014. Because of the lack of representation of Men of Color in the Leather contests, in 1991, the aforementioned Graylin Thornton and Gregory Adams started the Ebony in Leather contest which later became “Mr. Ebony Leather” in Chicago, produced by Cain Berlinger. It lasted until 2003. In 2004, Mufasa Ali organized the Leatherman of Color contest which was won by Jack Tatum. Back in 1999, in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tristate area, a group was formed for Leather men of color and those who wished to learn more about the Leather lifestyle and BDSM. It was called The New York Panther club. The website Dark Connections which contains information on Black groups, munches and Black BDSM history started in 2003, as did the group Black BEAT (which stands for Black Expression Alternate Tastes) which included an educational component. International Master and slave 2010 titleholders Master Obsidian and slave namaste have proven a force as authors and educators, mentors and leaders, not just in the M/s community but in the greater community as well. These are all just a few more of the many building blocks securing diversity in the structure of the foundation that was to build a representative community.
Black-Boricua Taíno, queer performance artist, activist, filmmaker, lecturer and sex educator Ignacio Rivera once said that the term “inclusion” implies that you weren’t thought of in the beginning, thus the need to be included. It says that we weren’t a part of the original concept. While People of Color have always been a part of this broad foundation, it is easy to see how some could think otherwise.
One organization that has sought to correct this misconception is ONYX. In 1995, the year of the Million Man March, the O.J. Simpson trial and a record breaking heatwave in Chicago, five bold Leathermen who were men of color got together for a noble purpose. Maybe they were the reason for the heatwave in Chicago that year! Mufasa Ali, Stephen Bailous, David, Nate and Wes got together to form a group to establish a safe space for men of color to explore, be educated and thrive as kinky people. The group was not started to be separate from the Leather community but to help men of color ease comfortably into the Leather community. These forward thinking men were concerned that many men of color in the Chicago area were not connected to nor familiar with other men of color who were into BDSM or the Leather lifestyle and they sought to remedy that. Since their inception in Chicago twenty years ago they have been at the forefront in the Leather community, providing guidance and leadership, not just to their core group of Leather men of color and their admirers, but to the entire community. From their small beginnings in the Windy City with the original Midwest chapter, we have seen them expand to the New York/Northeast region, the Mid-Atlantic region, the Southeast region, with new chapters building in the Northwest and Southwest. Everywhere you see the men of ONYX they are conscious of their commitment to People of Color in the Leather community, and to the broader community as well. The Men of Onyx have organized fundraisers for Leather and other alternative charitable organizations. They have volunteered as a group to feed the homeless. You will see them prominently at volunteer posts at the various Leather Pride Nights, Folsom Street East, The Imperial Court’s “Night of a Thousand Gowns”, at contests like IML, MAL and IMsL. In addition to their charity and volunteer work, ONYX is deeply committed to education of the history and traditions of the life we live. With their combination of learning and fellowship at events like the upcoming Blackout, and in their chapters, they help contribute to the building of community. It’s not just at ONYX venues that you will see this at play. ONYX members have recently been on panels and presentations at the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit, Black BEAT Conference, the BDSM Writers’ Conference, and the Leather Leadership Conference and of course, right here at the Master/slave Conference. So while many will laud their parties, which are fabulous, by the way, what is more important is that for two decades, ONYX has reached out to take an active role to take those who may have felt marginalized from the Leather and M/s community and to give them camaraderie, education, guidance, a sense of tradition, and a sense of pride in who they are. They help create leaders and that is an important part of building community. This is why we celebrate this beautiful part of our community that has been building community for 20 years and shows no sign of slowing down.
The people and organizations I mentioned are only a very small sampling of the myriad of People of Color who have been building blocks for this community. I could stand here for hours naming names and their accomplishments and I would only scratch the surface of their vast contributions. They illustrate the need for us to expand our view of community. As these members of our family have proven through outreach, education, leadership, mentoring and the preservation of traditions and values, a strong structure of community that transcends race, culture, sexual preference, and gender identity can be built. We have a wonderfully diverse foundation upon which to build. Only by honoring ALL of the foundation builders and ALL of our collective histories can we truly make our house as strong as possible and build a community that lasts.