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The New Black: Documentary Film Explores Divisions in African-American Community over LGBT Rights

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We continue our coverage of gay marriage and equal rights with a new film that explores the divisions among African-Americans on the issue of marriage equality. Despite longstanding opposition from church leadership, the documentary looks at how the black church played a critical role in the passage of the Maryland vote upholding marriage equality in 2012. Set to air on PBS next year, “The New Black” has just won the audience award at AFI Docs and this weekend plays at Frameline, the nation’s largest LGBT film festival, in San Francisco. We’re joined by the film’s director, Yoruba Richen. “The black church is a big factor in Maryland,” Richen says. “[After] they really engaged, I think that’s how come you saw the outcome in Maryland, which for the first time the public voted to uphold marriage equality.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We continue our coverage of the historic Supreme Court rulings with a look at a new film that examines how the African-American community is grappling with LGBT rights and the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland. This is a clip from a documentary called The New Black.

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: Don’t let people get you talking about gay rights. This is not about a gay right. There’s a difference between civil rights and sacred rights.

CHARLEY CROWSON: Same-sex marriage, it’s going to be put to vote here in Maryland.

ANTI-MARRIAGE-EQUALITY ACTIVIST 1: No same-sex marriage in the state of Maryland!

ANTI-MARRIAGE-EQUALITY ACTIVIST 2: Honk your horn! Honk your horn if you believe!

KOJO NNAMDI: Many people in the state’s religious community, especially in African-American churches, oppose gay marriage and are vowing to continue their fight against it.

PASTOR DEREK McCOY: Thousands of Marylanders around the state want to see marriage defined and upheld between one man and one woman.

ROD DANIELS: One of the biggest donors is pushing a strategy to drive a wedge between gays and African Americans.

SHARON LETTMAN-HICKS: All of a sudden, it was black versus gay.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.

IRENE HUSKENS: Marquise had asked, “When are you and mommy getting married?” Well, we’re working on it. We’re working on it.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN MINISTER: Regardless of what laws they may write, God designed the family.

PASTOR DEREK McCOY: Who has been the hardest hit in the issue of family? The African-American community.

RADIO INTERVIEWEE: We were blasphemous enough to compare the gay movement with the movement for civil rights and black folks. Is gay the new black?

REV. DELMAN COATES: I believe this election is going to be a referendum on the church. It’s going to be a referendum on black preachers.

KARESS TAYLOR-HUGHES: If we don’t reach out to these people, who is going to reach out to these people? Opposition.

ACTIVISTS: Remember to vote for Question 6!

AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMAN 1: God do not make lesbians. He—he—

AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMAN 2: I certainly did not interrupt you.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMAN 1: We have the right to agree to disagree.



AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMAN 2: But let me finish.


AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMAN 3: Sexuality in the African-American community is taboo. We don’t discuss it in any form.

KARESS TAYLOR-HUGHES: I felt like I couldn’t be myself, because I thought that I would shame you.

SAMANTHA MASTER: OK, are you registered to vote?

AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 1: I ain’t voting on that gay [bleep], though.

SAMANTHA MASTER: OK, why? What’s up?

AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 1: I ain’t with that.

SHARON LETTMAN-HICKS: Let’s be clear: This is the unfinished business of black people being free.

KARESS TAYLOR-HUGHES: I’m ready to win. I’m ready to make history.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for The New Black, a documentary playing in film festivals now, directed, co-produced, written by Yoruba Richen, also a former producer here at Democracy Now! The New Black just won the audience award at AFI Docs, and this weekend it plays at Frameline, the nation’s largest LGBT film festival, in San Francisco. The film is set to air on PBS next year. Yoruba Richen also published an op-ed for CNN this week entitled “How Youth Led the Change in Public Attitudes on Same-Sex Marriage.” Her previous film, Promised Land, looked at legal struggles over land ownership in South Africa after Nelson Mandela was elected president. We’ll talk about that in a bit.

But, Yoruba, your response to the Supreme Court decisions and how that is informed by your film, The New Black?

YORUBA RICHEN: Well, that trailer just ended with one of my characters saying, “I’m ready for history to be made.” And history continues to be made. I mean, it’s incredible, these last couple of years when I’ve been filming the film. I started in 2010, and what’s happened has just, you know, every—every month, it seems that some new development has happened in the push and the expansion of gay rights. And then, of course, the decisions which came down yesterday. I mean, it’s quite an incredible time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But it’s also a bittersweet week for the African-American and Latino community, given not only the momentous decision on same-sex marriage, but then also the two decisions on both restricting affirmative action, as well as basically gutting the Voting Rights Act.

YORUBA RICHEN: Absolutely. And, you know, what struck me just from a personal level is it seems that, for some of us in this country, our rights are always up for—someone’s always voting on them or deciding about our rights. And, you know, for—it’s certainly a mixed week for black LGBT and for LGBT folks of color, because the Voting Rights Act affects us, and it’s a terrible shame and loss. And, you know, again, we have a couple steps forward and few steps backwards. It seems like that’s how we go in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Yoruba, let’s go back to your film, to The New Black, where we meet two of the activists you profile, Karess Taylor-Hughes and Samantha Master, doing outreach to young African-American men in Maryland.

KARESS TAYLOR-HUGHES: That’s what’s up, man. It’s a righteous man over here.

SAMANTHA MASTER: OK, are you registered to vote?



KARESS TAYLOR-HUGHES: How old are you?



KARESS TAYLOR-HUGHES: Twenty-one? You’ve got to get registered to vote. We’ve got to get you registered to vote.


AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 1: I ain’t voting on that gay [bleep], though.

SAMANTHA MASTER: OK, why? What’s up?

AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 1: I ain’t with that.

SAMANTHA MASTER: That’s not cool.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 1: Except what made you be gay?

KARESS TAYLOR-HUGHES: Alright, that’s messed up. That’s messed up.

SAMANTHA MASTER: Right, so, what made you be straight? What made you be straight?

KARESS TAYLOR-HUGHES: The same thing that made you be straight. Same thing.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 2: You can’t answer that question.

KARESS TAYLOR-HUGHES: I used to not have the same rights as you. But I know that because a black man like yourself stood up for a woman like me, I know that I’ve got the same opportunities. So you, as a black man, have the opportunity to stand up for somebody else. Whether you’re gay or not, these are your brothers and sisters out here, and they need you to represent.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 2: Who is you to tell somebody who they can’t have sex with, who they can’t be with? They don’t got that power.


AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 2: Nobody has that power to say you can’t marry that young lady. Who has that power? Nobody.

SAMANTHA MASTER: But you know what? Our state has put the power in your hands. And so, what we need you to do is vote for—we vote—


SAMANTHA MASTER: You’re going to vote for 6.



AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 2: Yeah. I got you.

KARESS TAYLOR-HUGHES: Do you all need community service hours?


KARESS TAYLOR-HUGHES: You do? All right, you could always volunteer with us to get some community service hours. You all want to do that? We feed you. We bring you pizza.

AMY GOODMAN: Karess Taylor-Hughes and Samantha Master. Yoruba, talk more about what they were doing and the campaign in Maryland, the significance of it, that just went to a vote in November.

YORUBA RICHEN: Yeah, the thing that was so amazing to watch in Maryland was that—I think a real bitter pill was learned after Proposition 8 was passed in California and they lost marriage equality, which of course the Supreme Court just reversed yesterday. But it was really the first time that there was a marriage amendment where the black community was, A, a significant voting bloc, and, B, where they did major outreach and work within the black community. And, you know, we’ve been talking about it—been talking about it with some of the activists, and we’ve called it, you know, this out-of-the-shadows moment, where you had black LGBT activists, like Sam and Karess, going on the streets of Baltimore, you know, in the suburbs of Prince George’s County, in the rural areas in Maryland—Maryland is a pretty diverse state—and really engaging black voters on why—you know, why they should support this issue—and if they don’t, why not? And then, of course, black churches, as well, which was—the black church is a big factor in Maryland, as well as in our community. And they really engaged. And I think that’s how come you saw the outcome that you saw in Maryland, which, for the first time, the public voted to uphold marriage equality.

AMY GOODMAN: Anywhere in the country.

YORUBA RICHEN: Yes. And that—that election—Maine and—

AMY GOODMAN: The public.

YORUBA RICHEN: The public, so a referendum. Never before had a public voted to uphold, in a ballot referendum, marriage equality. Maryland was the first time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you talk about the role of the black church. Could you talk about what you saw, some of the battles occurring among the various ministers and their congregations on this?

YORUBA RICHEN: Well, the leader of the anti-marriage—anti-marriage-equality force was a black minister, Pastor Derek McCoy. He led the charge. And it was certainly focused on getting the black churches in, you know, opposition, and in support, as well, because of the significant role that the black church played in the state.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to your film on this issue. In the film, The New Black, you examine the significance and importance of the black church. Here we hear from Reverend Eric P. Lee and Bishop Yvette Flunder. It begins, though, with civil rights activist Julian Bond.

JULIAN BOND: The black church was a place to go when we had no place else to go. It was a place to meet when we had no place else to meet. The leader of the church was a relatively independent person. He didn’t work for white people; he worked for the church. And he was a figure of some importance because he spoke to these people every Sunday morning. He was a guide, a moral leader and so on. You looked to him for some guide on how to behave, how to be a person.

REV. ERIC P. LEE: Our organizing during the civil rights movement often took place in the churches. It was the facilities that we had control over. So, there’s a natural relationship between the clergy, the church and the civil rights movement.

BISHOP YVETTE FLUNDER: It has historically been the center of education and information. If someone was ill, if a woman had just had a baby, if someone died in the family, we had in that organization, the black church, people on the ready to respond to those families. So we’re talking about community. We’re talking about village, a sense of belonging, a sense of self-worth and value. You could go to a job and they call you “boy,” and they call you “Jim,” and then you come to your church and your name is Deacon James Jones, and you sit in a seat up in the front with the trustees, and you drive your Chevrolet to church, and you wear your suit, and you have a place of prominence that the world doesn’t give. But the end result of that is, in order, oftentimes, for people who have been trampled upon to feel powerful, there is a need to trample upon someone else.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to go to another clip of The New Black about coming out in the black community. This is our R&B singer Tonéx, this, again, from the film The New Black.

MASTER OF CEREMONIES: God is good! Ladies and gentlemen, let me bring to the stage right now one of the most anointed young men in our country, in our universe. He is ready to put a chokehold on the devil. He is ready to tell the world, “I do this in the name of Jesus!” I introduce the one, the only Tonéx!

TONÉX: Between '98 and 2000, I was all the rage and buzz. Pronounced Toe-Nay came out, people went bananas. Oh-two came around, I got six Stellar nominations and one win. That's when the touring began. And somebody else, for the first time, had to take over the choir at my father’s church, and that was new. When Out the Box came out, particularly the song “Lord Make Me Over,” it debuted at number one and stayed there for three weeks. My father got the Billboard magazine, and I remember him opening it up. He looked at me. He said, “You did it, Bub! You did it!” He also called me Bub. I just smiled, because it was the first time I really felt like my dad validated me. Two months later, he was dead. Little by little, I started feeling this thing in the back of my head, like, you know what time it is, right? I was getting tired of playing these games. I didn’t tell anyone, but my music started changing a little bit. People started questioning. I came up with an EP called Rainbow. People were like, “What the hell does that mean?” So, piece by piece, I started revealing things.

AMY GOODMAN: Tonéx in The New Black. Yoruba Richen, the significance of him and his coming out in the black community and the church?

YORUBA RICHEN: Well, Tonéx really represented the casting out that was happening and that is happening in the black church around sexuality. He is such a talented singer. He’s amazing. He devoted his life to the church. His father was a minister. He was a minister. And when he, you know, came out about his sexuality and his truth, he was basically banned from the gospel industry. And so, his story, to me, was so powerful and really, you know, epitomized what was—what was going on in the black church, or in many places in the black church, around sexuality and why this was this unspoken, hidden thing that people couldn’t talk about, and if they do, then they’re banned from their families, from their communities and from their churches.

AMY GOODMAN: Before you go, Yoruba, South Africa right now at a very critical time, former President Nelson Mandela on life support. Your film will air, The New Black, in 2014 on PBS on Independent Lens. Your previous film, Promised Land, aired on POV in 2010. The significance of this transition point in South Africa right now?

YORUBA RICHEN: Wow. Nelson Mandela, President Mandela, was—is an inspiration for, obviously, the whole world. And as an African-American person who saw the freedom struggle in South Africa and was inspired by it, inspired by it all my life, inspired to make Promised Land, his—this transition is very painful for a lot of us, but I think it’s also part of the growth of the country. We still have to remember South Africa is a relatively new democracy, and it faces a lot of challenges. And Nelson Mandela was the first person to say that and to know it. And I think that, you know, we honor him, and we—his legacy, obviously, lives on in a lot of us and in the country. And yet, South Africa has a lot of challenges that it needs to address.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet, as your film points out, the main issue of land ownership has not been addressed by the—

YORUBA RICHEN: It has not.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —by majority rule in South Africa.

YORUBA RICHEN: It has not. And, of course, land ownership has to do with—everything to do with the economic situation there, with still the racial disparity. And those issues have not been addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: Yoruba, you were at Yankee Stadium when Nelson Mandela spoke there.

YORUBA RICHEN: Yeah, we—when I lived in Harlem. And my whole building, it felt like, walked over to Yankee Stadium to watch him speak. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life.

AMY GOODMAN: We have a little clip of Nelson Mandela in Yankee Stadium. It’s from Danny Schechter’s film Mandela in America. It was June 1990, just months after Mandela was released from prison. He’s introduced by Harry Belafonte.

HARRY BELAFONTE: Never in the history of humankind has there ever been a voice that has more clearly caught the imagination and the spirit and fired the hope for freedom than the voice of the deputy president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

NELSON MANDELA: The principle of “one person, one vote” on a common and non-racial voters’ roll is therefore our central strategic objective. Throughout our lifetime, we have fought against white domination and have fought against black domination. We intend to remain true to this principle to the end of our days.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Nelson Mandela in—at Yankee Stadium, where Yoruba Richen was. Yoruba, I want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to interview you after the show about Promised Land, and we’re going to put it online at Yoruba Richen directed, co-produced and wrote The New Black, which is airing in film festivals around the country, is set to air on PBS next year. The film plays at Frameline, the nation’s largest LGBT film festival, in San Francisco this weekend.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

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