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Awakenings: Reflections on being born black, discovering sexuality and becoming paraplegic

 

Rupert Kinnard '79

 
Rupert Kinnard '79 sees life differently since becoming paraplegic but says, "I would not give up one minute of the last five years." Known at Cornell as the creator of "The Brown Bomber" cartoon, he how owns the Rupe Group Graphics, a Portland, Ore., design business.

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.
-Malvolio, in Act 2, Scene 5,of Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Well, I admit that I-like so many of us-am continually aspiring toward greatness. Nonetheless, I relate to the above quote because, given my present way of life, it seems clear that I am one who has been born black, achieved an understanding of my homosexuality and has had a handicap thrust upon me.

In late 1953, my parents discovered my mother was pregnant with their second child. Whereas conception had been proven, birth was certainly not guaranteed, nor could my parents know whether the child would end up male or female. What was certain was the fact that both my parents were considered "Negroes"-as it was stated on my birth certificate-and if a birth did indeed occur, the child would be a Negro.

That was a given. I was born on July 21, 1954, a healthy, African American (my personal label) baby boy. I know my parents had the usual expectations-or rather hopes-that many parents have for their firstborn son. I'm sure those expectations were different from the ones they might've had for my older sister, born two years prior to me. And becoming aware of what was expected happened fairly early for me, as did realizing who I was as a person.

Neighbors joked with my mother once it was apparent I didn't want to play with the little girl next door. They'd say: "Oh, that's cute. Wait until he's older. He'll want to do more than just play with girls." Though my reaction could've been an indication of the fact that I was quickly on my way to becoming a loner, rather than a matter of not being interested in girls, I remember thinking, "Ha! That's what they think!"      As I grew older, people noted that I was a very creative child who liked to work on projects alone. Every once in a while my father would wonder why his son never played ball with the other guys. (He never seemed to wonder, though, about the part he played by not being there to expose me to the possible joy of the games. He was committed to providing for his family and often worked a number of jobs from early morning to late at night.)

I slowly became aware that, although I was expected to have a natural attraction to the opposite sex, I was fascinated by other boys. And boy did that seem natural to me!

As a creative loner who didn't chase girls, I was teased in my early teens for being different from most of the other boys. But for some reason I was blessed with a knack for celebrating difference rather than being so freaked out that I would do anything to be the same as everyone else. It was very comfortable to acknowledge (to myself) that      I really appreciated males much more than females seemed to appreciate them. I eventually realized there were a number of words for who I seemed to be. The word homosexual seemed more appropriate than sissy, which to me seemed to be a generic term for guys who were different from the other guys. Homosexual-like myself-seemed to go beyond what the common folk could comprehend.

Being black
Being born black is one thing. Discovering what it means to be black in this society is a totally different phenomenon. Moving out of the projects (à la television's "Good Times") and into Chicago's South Side with the first wave of integration brought forth a very rude awakening for me as a black youngster.

Getting up one morning and relishing a front porch that our family could call our own, I was puzzled when I said good morning to the white woman next door. She glared at me and rushed back into her house. I really didn't understand.

Another rude awakening came from an incident after I had enrolled in an elementary school that was transitioning from an all-white school to what eventually became an all-black school, due to the phenomenon commonly referred to as "white flight."

After being pushed by a white boy, I responded, "Niggah, what's wrong with you?" I didn't understand when a number of the white kids nearby burst into laughter, gleefully telling me I had a lot of nerve using that word on a white boy.

Up until that moment, I thought the term was just about interchangeable with the word chump.

It was a painful realization that the word did not pertain to them at all, and I quickly learned the history and viciousness of the word when used by whites against black people.

Life changes in an instant
Well into becoming an adult, my blackness and the awareness of my sexuality helped me to understand the plights of others. I had also been confronted with that question of which was worse: the hatred I experienced as an African American or the bigotry I encountered as a fairly open gay man.

But nothing prepared me for what was to come.

In early April 1996, my beloved grandmother passed away, and I traveled to Mississippi to attend her funeral. The day after the services-Easter Sunday, April 7-my life completely changed. Driving from one small town to another to visit my family, I approached a curve in the road where another car going the opposite direction veered into my lane. I swerved sharply and ended up bouncing in and out of a ditch along the side of the road. It was a freak accident that crushed my spinal cord.

I was transported via helicopter from the tiny town of Clarksdale, Miss., to Memphis. All of my family members were by my side, having gathered in Mississippi for my grandmother's funeral.

I am fascinated by what can be observed retrospectively through my eyes as a gay man in this unique situation.

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