Photo Credit: Reenie Raschke
San Francisco Bay Area writer and speaker Robert C. Quintana Hopkins’ debut collection of poems and essays “Glass Closet Poems and Essays” is about one man’s experience and self-discovery of his identity as an Afro-Chicano, being of both African American and Mexican American descent. “Glass Closet” speaks to anyone interested in race, culture, and sexuality. The book is being used as a resource tool at many universities. Prideindex spoke to Hopkins about growing up, coming out and his self-imposed vulnerability.
PRIDEINDEX (PI): What was it like growing up Afro Chicano?
ROBERT QUINTANA HOPKINS (RQH): I grew up in California in the 1970’s with an African American father and a Mexican American mother. That’s significant because my birth was just two years after the Supreme Court declared that state laws that prohibited interracial marriage were unconstitutional, so racial identity options for me growing up were very different than what multi-racial kids today have. I grew up with a Black and Mexican identity and was primarily socialized to be Black. My parents knew my sister and I would be perceived as and treated as Black so they made sure we had a strong sense of who we were as Black people. My mom also insisted that we always remember that we were half Mexican. So, I grew up knowing that I was both, Black and Mexican, yet it was within the context of the “one drop rule” and a U.S. society that told me I was only Black.
PI: When did your consciousness about race change? What provoked that change?
RQH: In college I was exposed to how within different cultures in the African Diaspora such as Haiti, Cuba and Brazil enslaved Africans integrated their original African cultures with the European cultures of the colonizers and created new, blended cultures. Their worldview was less polarizing than the worldview here in the U.S. Here you are black or white, male or female, etc. Other cultures allow for more fluidity and grayness; they recognize that there is black, white and gray. I started to see myself as the gray. I also became aware of Black Mexicans, who are called Afromestizos and are descendants of the African slaves in Mexico. For the first time I saw other Mexicans who looked like me. I decided that I too could celebrate and embrace both of my cultures and didn’t have to chose one heritage or the other, but instead could “be” both even though there would be people who feel I don’t have the right to claim my Mexican heritage due to phenotype and there will also be people who feel that my claiming both is an attempt to escape blackness. Being both has been an act of resistance for me in a society that narrowly identifies me racially and still doesn’t have the language to recognize or understand my identity. For the most part, its an identity I’ve had to create.
PI: Tell us about your earliest memory of writing.
RQH: I wrote for the junior high school newspaper and had a few poems in a book that my junior high school published. I also wrote for the high school yearbook. The first time I ever admitted to being Gay was in writing. I wrote it out on a piece of paper and hid it under the pad and carpet in my bedroom when I was a teenager. Amazingly, all these years later my work is about using writing as a tool for healing. I had never connected how I first used writing this way as a teenager until you asked this question.
PI: Who does your book “Glass Closet,” speak to?
RQH: The book potentially speaks to everyone. I write about my identity as an AfroChicano, so anyone interested in race and culture will find the book valuable. The book has been used in several university classes related to race, culture and sexuality. I also write about being Gay and coming out, so the book resonates with the LBGTQ community. I write about my struggles growing up with poverty and my parent’s substance abuse, so the book has brought many readers to tears as well as filled them with hope because they see the journey I have undertaken: They see the arc from my childhood pains to my current life, which I love. Anyone wanting to read about hope and healing will be inspired by the book.
PI: Why did you choose to write this book as poems and essays rather than as a story?
RQH: I actually never set out to write a book. I started writing essays when I attended grad school and studied anthropology. As an anthropologist I’d have to effectively communicate to the reader what I observed and experienced in the field. So as practice I began writing about the world around me. Later, I started writing poems and ended up with a substantial body of work. My master’s thesis was an autobiographical ethnohistory. I plan to eventually expand it into my PhD dissertation and then publish it after that, so eventually my life will be recounted in a narrative form.
PI: Where did you find the inspiration for this book?
RQH: I attended several retreats for Black gay writers sponsored by an organization called BGLAM (Black Gay Letters and Arts Movement). The organization was started by Marvin K. White, Cedric Brown and Tim’m T. West, all very talented artists. I was an essayist prior to attending the retreats and was introduced to poetry at the first retreat and started using it as a method to express myself. One of the rituals was that on the second night we would each share a piece we wrote. One of those nights Marvin recommended that I consider putting my work together in a collection. So I did. I met Alan Miller at that retreat. He is a talented poet and wonderful mentor who became my editor; a year and half later I published Glass Closet. I was also inspired by the fact that we support each other’s healing and growth when we share our stories. So many people have experienced what I’ve experienced, although the specific details may be different. I reveal a lot about myself in the book, but every time my honesty about myself helps some else come to terms with or accept their own experience I feel that the vulnerability I self-imposed by writing the book is worth it.
PI: What specific LGBT issues do you talk about?
RQH: I write about coming out, gay marriage, my HIV status, dealing with a parent whose religious beliefs are not very accepting of my lifestyle and the affects of heterosexual socialization on a young gay person. I write about how I came to accept and love who I am in spite of all of those things.
PI: You’ve said that 2011 was a year of “positive changes” for you. What does that mean?
RQH: First of all, I returned to grad school to earn my PhD, a dream I’ve had for a very long time. I received a promotion at work. Now I do work that I really enjoy and love, work that positively impacts many people’s lives. I witnessed close friends and family members survive serious health scares and am so grateful to still have all of them with me. I also found myself in the place where my husband and I chose not to exchange Christmas gifts. Instead, we celebrated the gratitude we felt knowing that all of the essential things we want and need we already have. The experience of that contentment, I feel, is greater than any material gift we could ever give or receive. I had never felt that before.
PI: Talk about the Afro Chicano Press. Do you plan to publish books by other authors?
RQH: The Black and Brown communities have aIways had their own cultural institutions. For example, I love Chicano theatre and see Chicano theatre companies as excellent examples of community based arts organizations that created venues for art expressed within its own cultural context, such as how Teatro Campesino performed plays on the back of a truck for migrant farm workers. Black institutions have served the Black community in similar ways in relation to film, music and dance, etc. I created AfroChicano Press because I want to build a cultural institution that bridges the Black and Brown communities. I would definitely consider publishing books by other authors whose work is in alignment with AfroChicano Press’ purpose and goals.
PI: You’ve just appeared at Blatino Oasis in Palm Springs, do you plan on doing more signings any time soon?
RQH: Recently I’ve been facilitating writing workshops with LGBTQ youth and will continue that this month. I’ll also be facilitating a writing workshop focused on using writing as a tool for healing that will be open to the public. That will occur during the summer.
PI: Do you plan on coming to the Midwest anytime soon?
RQH: I’d love to come to the Midwest. All I need is an invitation and I’ll be there.