Howard Rollins

Rollins, Howard 2017

Howard Rollins was born on October 17, 1950 (to December 8, 1996). He was stage, film, and television actor, best known for his portrayal of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the 1981 film, “Ragtime,” for which he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Rollins also had a successful career on television as Virgil Tibbs on the television series, “In the Heat of the Night,” and on daytime’s “Another World,” for which he received an Emmy nomination.

Howard Ellsworth Rollins, Jr. was the youngest of four children, born in Baltimore, Maryland, to Howard E. Rollins, Sr., a steelworker, and Ruth R. Rollins, who worked as a domestic. He thought he would become a teacher, but at 17, a friend convinced him to attend a casting call at a local Baltimore theater, where he won a role in the John Steinbeck classic, “Of Mice and Men.” Rollins surprised himself with the talent he displayed. Of that experience, he told “The New York Times” in 1981, “Things made sense to me for the first time in my life.” He studied theater at nearby Towson State College, but left in 1970 to play the role of Slick in the PBS soap opera, “Our Street.” In 1974, he moved to New York, and appeared on Broadway and in television films, including “Roots: The Next Generations.”

Rollins celebrated performance in the 1981 Dino De Laurentiis/Miloš Forman motion picture, “Ragtime,” almost didn’t go his way, despite his leading man good looks and his dependable acting. When Rollins tried out for the film, for which he was later nominated for an Academy Award and two Golden Globes, he had to beat out 200 other actors for the leading role, including O. J. Simpson. When he found out that he got the part, Rollins told “People” magazine that he “just fell down on the floor and cried” because he was so happy.

Success eluded Howard Rollins after his success in “Ragtime,” and he did not get another strong role until he played Captain Richard Davenport in “A Soldier’s Story” in 1984. It was an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage production of the same name. The movie’s director, Norman Jewison, told “People” that Rollins had a “quiet elegance and dignity” about him; critics did not treat him so kindly, with one saying he gave an “adequate performance.”

Rollins’ life and career took a positive turn when he won the part of Detective Virgil Tibbs in the television series “In the Heat of the Night” in 1987, a role previously played by Sidney Poitier in its original film version. “Heat” took place in the deep South, and its central characters were police chief Bill Gillespie (portrayed by Carroll O’Connor of “All In The Family” fame), and detective Virgil Tibbs (Rollins), a transplanted Philadelphia police officer. Racial tensions often ran high in the South and were portrayed on screen in the lives of its central characters.

However, Howard Rollins found the work in the series to be formulaic, and often felt uneasy and isolated. He said that when he would leave the set, certain words that were used in reference to blacks and treatment of blacks bothered him. The onscreen racism was too close to the real life racism he had encountered, and that made shooting the series uncomfortable for him. Rollins stated that he did not find the environment welcoming or friendly.

Rollins began to indulge in crack cocaine and alcohol. In 1988, while filming the television series in Louisiana, he was arrested for crack cocaine possession. He tried rehab in 1990, but soon his drug and drinking problems overwhelmed him. This affected his work, and Rollins reportedly arrived late on the set—and sometimes did not show up at all. His problems continued as he was arrested three more times in Georgia during 1992 and 1993 for driving under the influence. His last arrest resulted in a 70-day jail sentence.

Because of continued legal problems, Howard Rollins was ultimately dropped from “In the Heat of the Night,” despite his popularity with fans, and replaced by actor Carl Weathers. After completing drug rehab, Rollins was invited back as a guest star on several episodes in the seventh season, but further legal problems led to his being totally banned from the county where the series was filmed. During this time, Rollins changed his appearance and reportedly began acting erratically.

The show’s producer, Herb Adelman, said Rollins would be welcomed back after he worked out his problems, but Rollins would never return. In an August 1993 interview with “Jet” magazine, Rollins discussed his recent brushes with the law. “I now have found other ways to try to make my situation work. I don’t regret anything I’ve done in my life because they’ve brought me here and I’ve become a better actor based on those things,” he said.

After serving his sentence, Rollins returned to New York and isolated himself in his apartment, where he lived alone since the early 1980s. He did not find work for months until he landed the role as a Harlem minister on a “New York Undercover” episode in 1995. The show’s producer, Don Kurt, told “People,” “We were apprehensive about hiring him, but he was a treat to work with.” According to Kurt, it appeared that Rollins had turned his life around.

To his colleagues in the business, Rollins was an extraordinarily gifted performer who felt deeply the emotions of the parts he played. Anne-Marie Johnson, who played Rollins’ wife on “In the Heat of the Night,” told “People” about a scene in which Rollins had to inform a mother that he had shot and killed her son. Johnson said, “Something in the scene really touched Howard. He just broke down.” She said of Rollins in the same interview, “Howard was such a sensitive artist. He was a tortured soul.”

In 1995, Howard Rollins played the part of a recovering alcoholic in Peter Cohn’s “Drunks.” While the show received mediocre reviews from the movie critics, Rollins was acknowledged as a talented actor. That same year, he also played the role of Chimbuko, an activist and former drug addict, in “Harambee,” a PBS special. Of his performance, director Fracaswell Hyman said in the “Detroit News,” “Howard has had his own trials and personal troubles…He was a joy to work with. His sensitivity and talent is so strong that he works very hard.” In the last years of his life, Rollins also appeared on the TV show “Remember WENN” (his final acting role).

Those closest to Rollins believe that he had turned the corner and that his career and life were moving in a positive direction. He was an impassioned, often tormented individual who, at times, became emotionally embroiled in his parts. That, many feel, made Howard Rollins the extraordinary actor that he was, and will be remembered as.

Rollins was a frequent patron of gay clubs in Los Angeles, along San Francisco’s Castro Street, and in New York’s Greenwich Village. He would often go clubbing with fellow gay thespians, Raymond St. Jacques and Paul Winfield. But he was not public about his homosexuality. Rollins often played romantic leading men, and the common industry standard at the time held that public disclosure of queer desires would break a career, especially if you were cast in sexy and romantic roles, opposite sexy and romantic women.

In the fall of 1996, Rollins was diagnosed with AIDS. Six weeks later, he died at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York at the age of 46, from complications from AIDS-related lymphoma. As was typical at the time, his publicist issued a statement claiming he suffered from lymphatic cancer, but it was later revealed by his family that Rollins had been diagnosed with AIDS. He was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in his native Baltimore.

Upon hearing of Rollins’ death, Carroll O’Connor was quoted in “Entertainment Weekly” as saying, “My wife and I are deeply saddened by Howard’s death. He was a friend who we loved dearly.” O’Connor understood what Rollins was going through, and made this statement in the “Detroit News” after Rollins was replaced in the cast of “Heat”: “Howard has a problem, but it’s a problem that 1-in-3 Americans face. There isn’t a family that doesn’t face this in some way.” O’Connor knew of Rollins’ suffering first-hand because O’Connor’s son, Hugh, who played a law officer on the show, committed suicide in 1995 at the age of 33 after losing his 16-year battle with drugs.

On October 25, 2006, a wax statue of Howard Rollins was unveiled at the Senator Theatre in his hometown of Baltimore. The statue is now at Baltimore’s Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

We remember Howard Rollins in appreciation of his skillful and often touching acting, and for his many contributions to our community.

André Leon Talley

Talley, André Leon 2017 by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

André Leon Talley was born on October 16, 1949. He is a “Vogue” contributing editor, trendsetter, and a promoter and a mentor of young fashion designers.

André Leon Talley was born in Washington, DC, the son of Alma Ruth Davis and William Carroll Talley, who worked by day as a U.S. Patent Office press operator, and by night as a taxi driver. André’s parents eventually divorced, and he was raised in the Hayti neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina, by his maternal grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, a dormitory room cleaner at Duke University.

Talley’s early life was grounded in the church, and he was baptized in 1961. “My childhood was, by anyone’s standards, a rich one,” he later wrote. Because of his height—which eventually reached six feet seven inches—his father had hopes he would become a basketball player.

Following his graduation from Hillside High School in 1966, Talley pursued French studies at North Carolina Central University. He went on to earn his master’s degree in French literature at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1970. While at Brown, Talley befriended students from the nearby Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). He eventually took an art history course at Brown, and wrote a gossip and fashion column for its school newspaper.

Talley began developing friendships with fashion enthusiasts, and made frequent weekend trips to New York City. He is associated with former American “Vogue” editor-in-chief and Costume Institute consultant, Diana Vreeland. Talley says that he was inspired by “the pivotal role played by all the fabulous, exotic North African women in the works of poet Charles Baudelaire and painter Eugène Delacroix.” Intent on using his master’s degree to teach, his frequent visits to New York caused him to reconsider, and he eventually realized that a career in academia was not for him.

In 1974, Talley moved to Manhattan. With a letter of recommendation from the father of a friend from RISD, he obtained a volunteer position at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. At that same time, he contributed an article to Andy Warhol’s “Interview Magazine.” Talley soon accepted his first steady job, at $50 a week, as an assistant to Warhol. “On his first day at work,” editor Bob Colacello later said, “André turned up in a khaki safari shirt and Bermuda shorts, with matching knee socks, topped off by a hunter’s helmet from Abercrombie & Fitch. We dubbed him André de Interview, because he often answered the phone with a festive ‘Bonjour!’” Soon, Talley was promoted from receptionist to fashion editor.

André Leon Talley became the Paris fashion editor for “Women’s Wear Daily” in 1977. They have long been considered the “Fashion Bible” of the industry, and it only seemed fitting that Talley would contribute to their all-important critique of style.

Talley became the fashion editor of “Ebony” magazine in 1982.  Hired by Eunice W. Johnson, he elevated both “Ebony” and Ebony Fashion Fair, the high fashion shows that toured Black communities across America as being at the pinnacle of the very best in high fashion. Quite simply, Talley brought enormous credibility to their shows, and young, previously undiscovered Black designers. Tally went on to join “Vogue” in 1983 as its fashion news editor, a crucial role that put him in charge of the Vogue View fashion section. He was named creative director of “Vogue” in 1988.

In the late 1980s, Talley lost two of the most important women in his life, his beloved grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, and his longtime mentor, Diana Vreeland. He became active in the church family at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, and joined its congregation in 1989. Several years later, Talley would take up writing his memoir, partly as a therapeutic way to get over the deaths of his grandmother and Madame Vreeland.

After several years at the very top of “Vogue” magazine, he left fashion maven Anna Wintour and “Vogue” to once again live in Paris, and once again work for his friends at Women’s Wear Daily, becoming the bureau chief for “W,” a monthly American fashion magazine, in 1995. Talley returned to “Vogue” the following year, after being named editor-at-large and writing a regular column, “Style Fax,” which would later be known as “Life With André.”

André Leon Talley was honored in 2000 by the Savannah College of Art and Design, of which he is a trustee, when they created a lifetime achievement award in his name. Noted designers Oscar de la Renta, Miuccia Prada, Tom Ford, and Manolo Blahnik have been honored as recipients. In 2003, Talley released “A.L.T.: A Memoir,” published by Villard Press, and he took to the stage with the Martha Graham Dance Company to narrate “The Owl and the Pussycat.”

Talley’s second book, “ALT 365+,” was published in 2005. Inspired by a trip to Turin, Italy, it is an art monograph chronicling 365 days of Talley’s life through his own photographs and words. Included are fond remarks about Diana Ross, Oscar de la Renta, and Diane von Furstenberg (a friend since the 1970s). He also co-wrote “MegaStar” with Richard Bernstein, a book with an introduction from Paloma Picasso and portraits of famous stars.

Talley provided commentary from the red carpet as a co-host of ABC’s Academy Awards night coverage, and curated “A Celebration of Oscar Fashion,” showcasing famous dresses from down the years in the grand lobby of the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters. He had a guest role, playing himself, in “Sex and the City: The Movie,” and in 2008, he advised the newly elected Obama family on fashion. Talley introduced Michelle Obama to the Taiwanese-Canadian designer Jason Wu, from whom she bought several dresses, including her inaugural gown. He has appeared in two hit documentaries, “The September Issue” and “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” and was a judge on “America’s Next Top Model.”

From 2013 to 2014, Talley served as international editor of “Numéro Russia,” but resigned after twelve issues. In 2017, Talley hosted his own radio show focusing on fashion and pop culture on Radio Andy, a Sirius XM satellite station, and a documentary about his life, “The Gospel According to André,” premiered.

André Leon Talley says he hates the label “gay,” and cites his strict religious upbringing as a contributor to his discomfort. But he admitted to having had some “very gay experiences,” and said that at no time, ever, were designers included. “I never slept with a single designer in my life. Never, ever desired, never was asked, never was approached, never, ever in my entire career.” In 2007, he was ranked 45th in “Out” magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Gay Men and Women in America.

Talley has used his influence and power to make the world of high fashion more diverse and more inclusive. He has especially been vocal about the need for more Black models on runways, in magazines, and in advertising and marketing.

Talley makes his home in Westchester County, New York.

We thank André Leon Talley for his fierce style, his indomitable spirit, and his many contributions to our community.

 

Yolo Akili Robinson

Robinson, Yolo Akili 2017

Yolo Akili Robinson, known as Yolo Akili, was born on October 14, 1981. He is the executive director and founder of BEAM (Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective), an organization named after Joseph Beam, the prolific Black gay activist.

Yolo was born Michael Todd Robinson Jr., in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Michael Robinson, a soldier, and Patricia Robinson, a department store manager. Because his father served in the military, Yolo lived in many places as a child, however most of his early life was spent in Weierhof (Germany), Fort Lauderdale, and Augusta, Georgia. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in women’s and African American studies at Georgia State University (where he was also re-named as per the African American Studies department’s custom), and completed his 200-level yoga certification at Yoga of India, a school in Sandy Springs, Georgia.

Yolo first gained recognition nationally as a spoken word artist in Atlanta, and later as a community organizer. His work centers on themes of Black healing and challenging patriarchy. Some of his most well-known accomplishments include his book, “Dear Universe: Letters of Affirmation & Empowerment For All Of Us,” his docu-poem, “Are We The Kind of Boys We Want?”, his anti-sexism work with Sweet Tea: Southern Queer Men’s Collective and Men Stopping Violence, and his essays, “Gay Men’s Sexism & Women’s Bodies,” “Why Black Mental Health Literacy Matters,” and “The Immediate Need for Emotional Justice.”

Yolo’s writings have appeared in “The Huffington Post,” “V-Day,” “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,” The Good Men Project, and “Everyday Feminism.” He has been featured on BET.com, and in “The Feminist Wire” and “The Daily Princetonian.”

As executive director of BEAM, Yolo and the organization train individuals, organizations, and grassroots movements on how to implement and embody healing- and social justice-informed mental health strategies into their communities and work.

Yolo also leads the Healthy Young Men’s Study, a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded initiative aimed at researching how to improve health outcomes for young Black and Latino men.

When asked about his purpose, Yolo says, “I’m here to co-create tools that help us heal.”

Yolo makes his home in Los Angeles, California.

We thank Yolo Akili Robinson for his advocacy in the areas of emotional and mental health, feminism, and healing, and for his steadfast support of our community.

Bryan Epps

Epps, Bryan 2017

Bryan Epps was born on October 13, 1982. He is an accomplished advocate, social justice activist, community builder, and entrepreneur.

Bryan Matthew Charles Epps was born on in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the son of Mark Cobb Epps Jr., a graduate of Cook College, Rutgers University, and Rutgers Business School, where he received his master’s in business administration. Mark Epps was recruited by the City of Newark, New Jersey, to advise Ken Gibson, the city’s first Black mayor, and the first Black mayor of a large northeastern city. Epps’ mother, Dr. Linda Caldwell Epps, is a graduate of Douglass College, Rutgers University, Seton Hall University, and Drew University. She served as a college professor and administrator. Bryan has one sibling, educator Mark Epps III. His parents also raised an older cousin, Micah Caldwell.

As a second generation Black American, Epps was raised in a household with an extremely expansive worldview. His mother, a scholar in African American history, and father, a civil servant, encouraged him to practice principles of self-respect, pride, and community engagement. Epps’ mother was afraid of the water, and refused to have her sons in the same predicament. As a result, he was an “aqua-tot” and became a competitive swimmer by the age of five, eventually swimming with the Newark swim team and later at Rutgers University. Epps attended St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark (against his will, he says), a diverse all-boys parochial college preparatory school dedicated to instructing young men from Newark and surrounding areas through the lens of strict Benedictine rules. He graduated in 2000.

Epps then enrolled at Rutgers University, where he earned his BA in history, with double minors in anthropology and African studies. Epps also solidified his commitment to social justice and community engagement while at Rutgers. He was elected vice president of the Paul Robeson Club, which organized students campus-wide around politically and socially progressive issues. Epps also chaired the Rutgers College Programming Council’s Human Interest Committee, which developed political debates, lectures, and social events for LGBTQ students. He was also a member of the Black Student Union, and volunteered with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In these roles, Epps brought often neglected issues like inequity, race, and sexuality to the forefront on campus.

After graduating, Epps worked full-time for the Greater Newark Conservancy, engaging Newark communities in beatification projects and with city officials on environmental policy. He simultaneously pursued full-time graduate studies, earning a Master’s of Science degree in urban policy analysis and management from The New School. By the time he turned 21, Epps was elected as district leader of the Downtown Newark neighborhood in which he grew up. He was then voted president of the James Street Commons Neighborhood Association Historic District at the age of 23.

Bryan Epps served as the volunteer executive director of the Newark Pride Alliance. Under his tenure, the Alliance advocated and consulted on the citywide and countywide commissions for LGBTQ concerns, and a center for LGBTQ safety, organizing and advancement; the fostering of Newark’s annual Pride Week festivities; and multiple educational symposiums and workshops that engaged an often homophobic public on issues pertaining to the LGBTQ community. For this work, Epps was awarded the Human Dignity Award by Rutgers University, and the Local Hero Award by Bank of America.

Epps was recognized as a stern political campaigner for his work leading a municipal judicial campaign in Brooklyn in 2012. He contracted with various officials and the Working Families Party to lead campaigns and canvasses throughout New York City, New Jersey, and Connecticut, following work as a senior policy analyst for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, and senior performance advisor to former Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Epps contributions as one of the few registered Black lobbyists in the State of New York included advocacy on behalf of hospitals in danger of closure, policy work in favor of the Affordable Care Act, and preservation of historic sites.

Bryan Epps’ work as a lobbyist and bureaucrat—professions that are thought to be conservative —caused many to be surprised when he was appointed executive director of the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center (The Shabazz Center) at age 31. The Center is the site of the historic Audubon Ballroom, the place where Malcolm X organized and spoke more than 20 times in the last year of his life, and where he was assassinated in 1965. Epps was appointed to take on the demanding tasks of raising the overall profile of the Center, including the planning and implementation of events to commemorate the 50th memorial anniversary of the assassination, and to celebrate what would have been Malcolm X’s 90th birthday. The events received coverage on most major news outlets, including BBC, Al Jazeera, Fox and CNN. Epps was named as a 2014 game changer by “Mused” magazine.

As an out queer Black man, Epps employs a millennial’s approach to leadership. He believes that leaders are inevitably shaped through collective and informal engagement. Epps’ dedication to community has also manifested itself in many ways, including the work he did with board colleagues to develop People’s Prep, a public school dedicated to preparing Newark youth for college and beyond. Epps served as co-founder of the school, and board president for three years.

Epps also worked with the Newark community, Mayor Booker, and the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI) of New York to develop HMI: New Jersey, a crucial afterschool program for LGBTQ youth. The program was the first in the city of Newark to engage the administration, school system, and nonprofit sector simultaneously in an effort to provide services to LGBTQ young people in need. He served as inaugural advisory chair of the program for two years.

He is also an administrator of The Social (for singles) and Social Squared (for couples), groups that exist to provide events, excursions, and social networking opportunities for gay, bisexual and trans men of color.

Bryan Epps enjoys city life, and is a romantic who desires to build a family and share love on a personal, intimate level. He is a foodie who takes advantage of New York City’s restaurants and lounges, but primarily spends free time with friends and family. He also has a Weimernaer/Pit Bull named Remy, and a cat, Cloud.

Epps spends time selecting exotic herbs and quality tea leaves to arrange distinctive, healthy, and tasteful tea blends. In 2015, his hobby turned into Ivnamez™, an artisanal tea leaf and herb blending company that creates personalized organic tea blends. Those interested in more information can email ezanatea@gmail.com.

As a young person, Epps realized that images depicting the LGBTQ community, especially positive ones, were extremely limited. When he was 20 years old, Sakia Gunn, a teenage lesbian from his hometown of Newark, was stabbed to death by an adult male for rejecting his sexual advances while heading home. Despite common acts of violence similar to that which took the life of Gunn, the proliferation of homophobia in everyday culture, and any substantial proof to the contrary, Epps believes that individuals and a larger community that reflect his own world view always exist. His quest for community led him to a lifelong pursuit of activism and organizing.

“Despite the fact that too many in the world are united by the shared experience of oppression, and the fact our ancestors have been tortured, assassinated, and martyred, and that our lived experiences are denied legitimacy, my blood flows knowing I am able to keep history alive in the communities of which I am part,” he says.

We thank Bryan Matthew Charles Epps for his inspiring advocacy, for touching the lives of others through his leadership and community building, and for his many contributions to our community.

Rashad Robinson

Robinson, Rashad 2017

Rashad Robinson was born on October 13, 1978. He is a highly respected civil rights leader and human rights advocate, a blogger, author, and current executive director of Color Of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization.

Rashad Robinson was born in Riverhead, Long Island, to Everett Robinson, a tile contractor and entrepreneur, and Shirley Robinson, a homemaker and business owner. Robinson attended Riverhead High School, and hosted a news talk shown on Cablevision’s public access channel. Following graduation in 1997, he enrolled at Marymount University, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science. As a student at Marymount, Robinson served as student body president during his junior and senior years. He also interned for former Congressmen Michael Forbes, following the representative’s switch to the Democratic Party.

Following college, Rashad Robinson held leadership positions at a number of social justice advocacy organizations, including as national field director at FairVote (formerly known as the Center For Voting and Democracy), and at the Right to Vote Campaign, a national collaborative of seven major civil rights groups, including the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, People for the American Way, and the American Civil Liberties Union. The Right to Vote Campaign worked to bring an end to voter disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions.

Rashad became the senior director of media programs at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), and went to work spearheading the development of GLAAD’s Media Field Strategy division, which has helped build a communications infrastructure within movement organizations, and provided strategic media support, trainings, and message development in states across the country, supporting successful initiatives to change public opinion and policy.

In 2011, Rashad Robinson became the executive director of Color Of Change. As a force driven by over one million members, Color Of Change moves decision makers in corporations and government to create a more human and less hostile world for Black people and all people.

“At Color Of Change, I get to provide the opportunity for our members—and the community at large—to leverage their voices in order to bring about real change. Every single day we hear and see the voices and stories of those that want to be heard and counted,” Robinson told the Ubuntu Biography Project. “At Color Of Change, we take moments that exist in the world and provide opportunities for those folks to be part of movements for change.” He says he is “inspired by how we accomplish civil rights work, not only through changing public policy, but also by advancing long-term culture change.”

According to the organization, “…under Rashad’s leadership, Color Of Change has developed winning strategies to change the written and unwritten rules of many fields affecting Black people’s lives: forcing over 100 corporations to stop funding the secretive, right-wing policy shop ALEC; framing net neutrality as a major civil rights issue to win a free and open Internet; ending the network fun of shows inaccurately portraying and dehumanizing Black people, such as COPS and the Glenn Beck show; eliminating voter intimidation tactics from the right-wing playbook; and holding local authorities accountable for their abuses by winning justice for Black people hurt or killed by anti-Black violence. Rashad is committed to advancing the power, freedom and wellbeing of Black workers, students, families, farmers, immigrants and others, wherever their freedom is limited or threatened.”

Robinson has appeared in hundreds of news stories, interviews, political discussions, and as an op-end author in media outlets including ABC, CNN, MSNBC, BET, NPR, “The Root,” “The New York Times,” the “Los Angeles Times” and “The Huffington Post.” He was selected as one of “EBONY” magazine’s Power 100 honorees for 2015, and for the past six years. “The Root” has named Robinson to The Root 100 list of influential African Americans under 45. In 2015, Fast Company named Color Of Change the 6th Most Innovative Company in the world; in 2016, the Stanford Social Innovation Review profiled Color Of Change’s strategies for “pursuing the fight for racial justice at Internet speed” in both online and offline venues.

Robinson is the proud recipient of awards from several organizations, including ADCOLOR and Center for Community Change, and serves on the boards of Demos and the Hazen Foundation. He is adjunct faculty at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

Robinson lives in New York City.

We thank Rashad Robinson for his unwavering advocacy and pursuit of social justice for everyone, particularly for the LGBTQ community and communities of color.

 

Rhone Fraser

Fraser, Rhone 2017

Rhone Fraser was born on October 12, 1979. He is widely respected literary critic, journalist, advocate, playwright, and academic. Dr. Rhone Fraser identifies himself as gay, Marxist, and Christian, “without contradiction.”

Rhone Sebastian Fraser was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Jamaican immigrant parents. His mother is a registered nurse, and his father is a pharmaceutical manager. Fraser’s family moved to White Plains, New York, when Lederle Pharmaceuticals hired his father.

Fraser’s mother read to him as a child, and later told him he was reading from the age of two.  He was raised in the Episcopal Church, and attended Holy Name of Jesus Catholic School in Valhalla, New York, until the age of ten, when his father’s job moved his family to Wesley Chapel, Florida. While there, Fraser played basketball in high school and junior high, and joined the National Honor Society at Zephyrhills High School. He also performed in drama productions of “Everyman,” directed by influential drama teacher, Greg Burdick.

Fraser attributes his intellect to the various range of art forms to which his father introduced him, especially Black drama. The first drama he remembered watching with his father was Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” which inspired his love for the theater. Fraser graduated from Zephyrhills High School in 1997, and Yale College in 2001. He discovered his love of Black literature while performing the role of Meridian Henry in a Yale production of James Baldwin’s play, “Blues for Mister Charlie.”

Fraser has admitted that he did not have a sexually gratifying experience until he was 28, due in part to his own homophobia taught by his religious upbringing. He did not consider himself to be truly “out” until he told his father and mother personally in November of 2011. Fraser has endured difficulty reconciling his sexuality with his faith, but eventually did so as a result of reading Baldwin, receiving some helpful counseling, and especially after meeting his second cousin, Jason Latty, in 2011. Fraser now works as general secretary at the organization founded by Latty, Caribbean Alliance for Equality (CAFE), which is devoted to ending homophobia in Jamaica and the greater Caribbean.

Fraser taught eighth grade earth science at Augusta Lewis Troup Middle School in New Haven, Connecticut, until 2003. He was invited by then-principal Valerie Reidy to teach Regents chemistry and forensic science at the Bronx High School of Science until 2004, when he moved to Florida to continue his graduate education. Fraser applied to medical school and law school to no avail, yet flourished in broadcast journalism at Pacifica radio’s WBAI program, “Tuesday Arts Magazine.” He interviewed and produced segments with a range of journalists, scholars, and artists, including Dr. Julianne Malveaux, Bobby Seale, Yolanda Adams, Juan Williams, Tavis Smiley, Ellis Cose, Randall Robinson, Jasmine Guy, Marcus Gardley, Tonya Pinkins, Phylicia Rashad, Shola Lynch, Amy Goodman, Dr. Charles Ogletree, and Boris Kodjoe.

While in Tampa, Dr. Fraser also read on Friday evenings for WMNF Evening News. In 2005, he started the Master’s program in Africana Studies at the University of South Florida, and wrote his first documentary play, “Living Sacrifice: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,” that was read at the ROAR Anniversary celebration in Hamer’s hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi, in August of 2005. In 2007, Fraser earned his Master’s degree and began the Ph.D. program in African American Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A year later, he completed his second play, “A Sound Mind,” based on a group of influential young ministers of the Gospel he met called Odd Generation.

After attending a 2008 production of Leslie Lee’s play, “Sundown Names and Night Gone Things,” based on Richard Wright’s experiences in 1930s Chicago, Fraser committed himself to writing historical drama, and began taking playwriting classes taught by Lee, the former artistic director of the Negro Ensemble Company, at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center from 2008 to 2010. With Lee’s supervision, Fraser completed his third play, “Negro Principles,” about the personal and political life of A. Philip Randolph and Lucille Green Randolph during one week in Harlem in 1928.

In 2011, Fraser was personally selected by Philadelphia mayoral candidate Diop Olugbala as education chair in Olugbala’s unsuccessful campaign against current mayor Michael Nutter. He also chaired the campaign’s effort to appeal to LGBTQ voters. Frasier supports third party movements such as the Green Party and the Workers World Party.

On July 27, 2012, Fraser defended his more than 420-page dissertation and earned his Ph.D. The dissertation, “Publishing Freedom: African American Periodical Editors and the Long Civil Rights Struggle, 1900-1955,” focuses on three periodical editors—Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph, and Paul Robeson—and how their writings influenced the Black freedom movement in the twentieth century. He is excited about promoting the work of these Black writers, and especially the work of journalist-playwrights Alice Childress and Lorraine Hansberry, whose plays, Fraser argues, came from the periodical “Freedom,” inspired by Paul Robeson. He believes that works by Childress and Hansberry are the unsung foremothers of the Black Arts Movement.

In 2013, Dr. Rhone Fraser produced a reading of his play, “Unity Valley,” based on the actual 1803 pamphlet by Quaker merchant David Barclay called “An Account of the Emancipation of Slaves from Unity Valley Pen, Jamaica.” The following year, Fraser was honored to speak at, and direct shorts of, Leslie Lee’s plays at the memorial for Lee, hosted by the Signature Theater and featuring Woodie King, Jr. and Douglas Turner Ward.

That same year, Dr. Fraser produced and directed a historical drama reading series called “Readings at the X,” which featured Starletta DuPois, Zuhairah McGill, Brian Anthony Wilson, Caroline Clay, Alexander Elisa, Carlene Taylor, Shayne Powell, Norman Marshall, and many other notable actors. The series featured a new historical drama written by Ted Lange about John Brown and his collaborator Osborne Anderson entitled “The Journals of Osborne Anderson,” a gathering which Lange himself attended.

In 2015, Dr. Fraser joined the faculty of the Department of English at Howard University, where his teachings featured “Between the World and Me,” a book by Ta-Nehisi Coates that he said changed the course of his life. He believes this is the first mainstream publication that spoke to him directly, because he related so much to Coates’ thoughts on manhood, and the fact that he and Coates are fellow Librans and there are similarities between his Aquarian father, Anserd, and Coates’ father, Paul. In September 2017, Fraser was invited to lecture at Pacific Lutheran University about his critical response to “Between the World and Me,” during which Coates was compared as a journalist to the likes of Ida B. Wells, Pauline Hopkins, Hubert Harrison, and Marcus Garvey.

In 2016, Dr. Fraser organized a panel, “Marcus Garvey: 100 Years Later,” about the historical significance of journalist Marcus Garvey, who sailed to the United States exactly one hundred years prior. The gathering at the Left Forum included historians Horace Campbell and Jeffrey B. Perry. That October, the son of Marcus Garvey, Dr. Julius Garvey, called Fraser and asked him to join a lobbying effort, organized by Howard University’s Dr. Goulda Downer, to get then-President Obama to grant Marcus Garvey a posthumous presidential pardon. Dr. Fraser committed himself and got others to write and tweet weekly to President Obama for the pardon, which was ultimately not granted.

On January 1, 2017, Dr. Fraser completed his fifth play, “The Original Mrs. Garvey.” The work is based on two biographies of Amy Ashwood Garvey, the first wife of Marcus Garvey, by Lionel Yard and Tony Martin. He has lectured about Amy Ashwood Garvey at the Francis A. Gregory Library in Washington, DC, at Howard University, and at a U.N.I.A. Division #330 meeting.

Dr. Fraser considers his dramatic works much more nourishing than the stale and bland diet promoted by the mainstream. His says his plays are “gems waiting to be discovered” for any play director ready to be challenged and develop them. They are works which come from many influences, including his Temple University dissertation adviser, Dr. Heather Thompson, who won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in History for her book “Blood in the Water,” about the 1971 Attica prison rebellion. The book was optioned and selected by TriStar Pictures last year to be produced as a film by Amy Paschal and Rachel O’Connor.

Dr. Fraser is also a scholar of the novel. He is a member of the Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins Society and the Toni Morrison Society. Fraser completed scholarly book reviews about the work of novelists Paule Marshall and Elizabeth Nunez. The “Journal of Pan African Studies” is publishing a special issue on the fiction of Nunez, edited with an introduction and a critical article by Dr. Fraser. He is also completing a manuscript for publication which is a literary criticism of the four novels by the Boston-based journalist and dramatist, Pauline Hopkins.

Fraser appreciates all novels and nonfiction by Professor Ishmael Reed. He presented a paper about the novels “Batty Bwoy” by Max-Arthur Mantle and “Here Comes the Sun” by Nicole Dennis-Benn at a conference organized by Antoine Craigwell called “In My Mind,” dealing with mental health in the queer community of color.

Fraser, true to the values of Lorraine Hansberry and Malcolm X, makes Black liberation from race and class oppression a priority in his dissertation and his historical drama. He sees this as the root of all oppression, including homophobia, and ties themes of liberation theology into all his plays. He is featured in the “Modern Day Black Gay Project” by Donja Love.

Like the thinkers he studies and teaches about, Fraser eschews the two-party system, and supports the formation of a political party that supports the interests of the working class and not the current ruling capitalist class named by George Jackson in his book “Blood in My Eye.” Fraser supports the kind of revolutionary nationalism endorsed by Malcolm X and Jackson, and is increasingly resistant to reforms to the current two-party system because of its clear advancement of austerity and increasing mass incarceration of Black youth.

Fraser is also a staunch supporter of Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, whom he believes is an important example for all other U.S. soldiers to follow, because she challenges the repression of the U.S. military, and the military dictatorships across the globe that they support. You can learn more at Rhone Fraser’s blog.

The Black SGL/LGBTQ community is very important to Fraser, who cherishes open dialogue about racism within and outside the U.S., such as the struggle for LGBTQ youth in Jamaica to be heard in a way that does not stigmatize them. He resists the gay tourist industry’s privileging of white experiences, and supports a U.S. State Department boycott of the Tourist Board of Jamaica, until the nation repeals its English colonial anti-buggery (anti-sodomy) laws. Fraser applies the anti-colonial theories of Martinican Frantz Fanon to understanding the endemic homophobia in Jamaica, and is working with CAFE to further that.

Fraser was disappointed in Jamaican church leaders rallying hundreds against the repeal of anti-buggery laws, yet being unable to rally against the Jamaican Minister of Agriculture’s sale of thousands of acres of Jamaican land to the Chinese government. On his blog, Edifying Debate, Fraser has described this as behavior of a tragically “colonized bourgeoisie” (to borrow Fanon’s term).

As a Marxist, Fraser is also suspicious of the American government’s use of “pinkwashing,” a term coined by Jasbir Puar to express the promotion of gay rights as only a cover for supporting corporate interests that enforce racist practices, such as Shell Oil, which prides itself on being tolerant, yet has a history of supporting a military dictatorship in Nigeria. As a Christian, Fraser is also highly critical of the lack of political education and consequent ignorance that the Western church promotes, in order to privilege homosexuality as a moral issue instead of what he sees as the more serious problems within the United States: militarism, austerity, and mass incarceration. He is a staunch supporter of a Free Palestine, and supports the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement against the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Fraser believes it is important for Black SGL/Queer men and women to be proud of who they are because, true to James Baldwin’s teachings, “it is our responsibility to support revolution of this morally decaying system, while at the same time teaching those who are uncritical supporters of American hegemony about its racist and capitalist nature in order to ultimately dismantle it.” According to Fraser, part of this means rejecting hetereonormativity, not just for its own sake, but to restore the leadership of women to its rightful place in human history, and to stop the increasing concentration of wealth and power that denies most people the right to self-determination.

Dr. Fraser makes his home in the Philadelphia area. He says he has yet to have the pleasure of meeting his life partner, however by loving himself and the intellectual path that life has allowed him, he believes he will find that special someone. He is also grateful for the conversation that Stephen Maglott and the “Ubuntu Biography Project” have begun.

We thank Dr. Rhone Fraser for his outstanding contributions, and for his support of our community.