|All photos from historian Trent Kelley's Hidden in the Open: A Photographic Essay of Afro American Male Couples|
Houston playwright and historian Trent Kelley has collected 146 rare vintage photographs of black male couples from the past 150 years. And what a breathtaking collection it is: While most of the photos clearly depict gay couples, they all portray black men comfortable and confident with who they are.
"Historically, the Afro-American gay male and couple has largely been defined by everyone but themselves," Kelly notes in his introduction, from his Hidden in the Open: A Photographic Essay of Afro American Male Couples collection on his Flickr page. “Afro American gay men are ignored into nonexistence in parts of black culture and are basically second class citizens in gay culture. The black church which has historically played a fundamental role in protesting against civil injustices toward its parishioners has been want to deny its gay members their right to live a life free and open without prejudice. Despite public projections of a “rainbow” community living together in harmonious co-habitation, openly active and passive prejudices exist in the larger gay community against gay Afro Americans.”
Kelley’s collection of well over 140 photos would make an ideal coffee-table book, much like Montreal-born, NYC-based author and art historian David Deitcher’s 2001 landmark book Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918.
But like Dietcher once told me about his own book, Kelley says the men portrayed in his collection may not necessarily be gay.
“Some of these images are sure to be gay and others may not,” Kelly notes. “The end result is speculative at best for want in applying a label. Not every gesture articulated between men was an indication of male to male intimacies. Assuredly, what all photographs in this book have in common are signs of Afro American male affection and love that were recorded for posterity without fear and shame. Friendships where men often wrote romantically to one another, walked arm in arm were not uncommon to the straight and gay men alike during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Depending on economic situation, many even slept together and this may have precluded or included physical intimacy between the sheets.”
A fascinating interview with Trent Kelley can be viewed beginning at the 4:30 minute mark in the video below.