It was the shot heard around the world.
“Richard Pryor slept with Marlon Brando, he was gay?!” I saw someone on social media post. I quickly thought to myself, “this is news?” as I scrolled down to look for the source.
World-renowned industry titan Quincy Jones apparently held back no punches in a recent interview with Vulture as he dissed The Beatles, outed the private sexual male partners of actor Marlon Brando, accused the late Michael Jackson of stealing concepts, and claimed he once dated Ivanka Trump, along with other things. To say that Jones, 84, had any cares left to give is an understatement. He dropped bombshells that went viral across the internet, leaving many to question some of their longtime faves.
But none of the interview reveals had as much of a bite as his claims that the legendary Brando and Pryor had a sexual relationship, claiming that Brando would “f— anything. Anything! He’d f— a mailbox. James Baldwin. Richard Pryor. Marvin Gaye.” The situation escalated once Pryor’s widow Jennifer confirmed Jones’ claims, telling TMZ that her late husband was always open about his “bisexual experiences” with friends and wouldn’t be ashamed if it was revealed to the public. (Brando’s son, Miko, has since denied claims that his father and Pryor were sexually intimate in a separate interview with TMZ.) But as many have jumped on the bandwagon to react to Pryor’s bisexuality as a major scandal, it serves as another example of how far our community has yet to grow.
For one, Pryor had already suggested that he was into the same-sex as he often told stories in his stand-up acts about having sex with other men. Perhaps history chose to adopt a collective selective memory of these details back then given that it did not fit the image they wanted to have of the iconic Black comedian. But in 2018, as more Black entertainers are beginning to live their lives openly and freely, society has to now reckon with how they treated past legends who weren’t given the same level of acceptance and inclusion.
Earlier this year, there was media uproar when singer Patti LaBelle confirmed ongoing speculation that her friend and musical colleague, the late, great Luther Vandross, was gay and that “he wasn’t going to come out and say this to the world [because] he had a lot of lady fans and he told me he just didn’t want to upset the world.” Like Pryor, Vandross was an entertainer during a time when the industry would have retaliated against him for being open about it. Even though Vandross’ sexual orientation was often speculated before LaBelle’s remarks, some on social media still reacted in disbelief and shock that another Black entertainer we grew up with could possibly be LGBTQ.
Here’s a not-so-hard-to-comprehend-fact for you: There has and will always be Black LGBTQ entertainers. This fact is also nothing for you to be be surprised, confused, or upset about. LGBTQ individuals, like every other population on the planet, have been around since the beginning of time, and just because you are finally coming to terms with their existence doesn’t mean it’s new. We cannot have an honest conversation about Black history during Black History Month if we aren’t willing to speak on the role in which erasure has played in the retelling of it.
Throughout our history, there has been various Black figures who have been “straightwashed” in our collective memory. Game changers like Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, Ma Rainey, Audre Lorde, and many others have been stripped of their LGBTQ identity in textbooks and public narratives. Even while living, civil rights icons such as Bayard Rustin were often forced to keep their openly gay experiences private as they fought for the liberation of all Black people. It will take several decades, policy changes, and a paradigm shift in society for individuals like Rustin, Angela Davis, and James Baldwin to be fully embraced and recognized for their duel identity.
So while it’s disappointing that many within our community are still fascinated that Black LGBTQ people existed back in the day, it makes sense given that our current conversations pertaining to Black history has made it a point to exclude them from the celebration. Perhaps it’s time to stop erasing them and correct our past errors altogether. Companies, organizations, and schools should make it a point to include all types of Black historical figures in their conversations of our history if they actually want to accurately depict our stories. We are not a monolith of heterosexual movers and shakers but a very incredible mix of straight, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people who have made extraordinary contributions to the world. Let’s stop telling the straight story, but the full one.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
Ernest Owens is the award-winning editor of Philadelphia magazine’s G Philly and CEO of Ernest Media Empire, LLC. He has written for USA Today, NBC News, The Grio, HuffPost and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and ernestowens.com.
(Photos from left: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage for The Recording Academy, Fotos International/Getty Images)