Come summertime every year, the costumes, dances, parades and hordes of smiling folks-from Albuquerque to Zurich-are the celebrated signs of our global Pride rituals.
While there may be as many definitions of Pride as there are celebrants, few would disagree that the term closely relates to how much we’ve overcome and how far we’ve progressed, both as individuals and communities.
For a sober minority, though, Pride is a time to ponder how much farther we still must go. For fewer still, Pride is the key moment to lament, to admit how badly we’ve failed to build a truly inclusive and accepting community.
Orville Lloyd Douglas stands firmly in that smallest of camps.
His first book, You Don’t Know Me (Tsar $17), gathers together 58 free verse poems that seethe with rage, and expose readers to the sorts of awful experiences that lead the poet to one sad conclusion, best encapsulated in his poem “Worse”: “There is nothing worse in this world than to be black and gay/It’s a maximum security prison sentence of unhappiness and/shame it is a century of pain.”
As titles like “Unhappiness Now,” “Uncompromising Pain,” “Before You Commit Suicide” and “The Trail of Blood Stops Here” testify, the world Douglas depicts is inhabited by men and women ravaged or destroyed by profoundly entrenched homophobia and racism.
In Douglas’ view, gay culture, with its objectification of black men (see the poem “Big Black Cock” for clarification), is no exception to that broader national truth. Overall, the sentiments of You Don’t Know Me-fueled by a potent mixture of fury and disappointment-are illustrative of a man alienated from society (that is, mainstream white, black and gay cultures) and angry because of it.
Many of the experiences-whether something as simple as walking down a city street or as complex as having an affair with a married white guy-lead the poem’s anguished speaker to arrive at an inescapable conclusion: despite the impressive claims of Canadian multiculturalism or the dazzling colours of the rainbow flag, racism and homophobia are as corrosive as ever.
Douglas is not so much a poet who agonizes for years polishing a poem into a precious and delicate gem of language, as one using verse as a vehicle for venting raw emotion and making searing accusations.
Born in Ontario in the late 1970s to Jamaican immigrants in Toronto and a recent graduate of York University, he says that growing up was hard, and that his adulthood is not enviable: “I am serious; I wouldn’t wish anyone to be in my shoes.”
Writing, however, allowed him to focus his thought and find solace in a literary community. “I started writing poetry when I was around the age of 20; actually I was a very late bloomer. I just wrote poems to myself in my diary.
“I’ve been inspired by the Harlem Renaissance writers of the 1920s,” he continues. “These writers were all gay and black; this is what I find so fascinating and interesting.”
Looking over his semi-autobiographical volume, Douglas can chart the course of his own development and experiences: “I definitely see an evolution; the beginning of the book is just plain straight rage and frustration.
“I will be honest: I had a lot of anger to get out of my system. But then as the poems progress you see different layers of my life, and me recognizing I can’t just blame everyone for my life. Yes, there is racism, but I also understand I have to take responsibility for my actions as well.”
For Douglas, writing is an action that can usher in change. And his everyday experiences in Brampton confirm that he’d welcome change of all sorts: “I hate being invisible. I can’t be more blunt than that. I hate shows like Queer as Folk because I do not like gay black men being treated as sex objects.
“I don’t like Six Feet Under on HBO because the show is not written from a black gay male point of view,” he adds. “Queer culture, lesbian and gay, is all white. Look at the queer movies, books, magazines: there is still not enough representation of black gays and lesbians.
“This is my challenge, my battle,” he continues. “The reason I decided to get this book published was to give a black gay male point of view to the world. I also realize that as a gay black man I have to take action. This is the reason I started to get published professionally-because I realize only I can make social change.”
With memoir and novel manuscripts now completed, Douglas aims to use his art to make the world habitable for everyone: “I would like to live in a world where there is simply more. More representation of black gay people and queers of colour in books, television, movies. Less stereotyping of us.
“I also believe people need to take the politically correct bullshit about Canada being ‘accepting’ and dump that in the trash can. Canadians regardless of race and sexual orientation need to get more real. If we don’t, then we are doomed.”
“I believe it is imperative and crucial now that our voices be heard through art. Art has the power to capture the world’s imagination, and also draw young people in and obtain their interest.”