and white men together
How the Pygmies figure into gay history
Bay Area Reporter
The search for truth takes constant
vigilance and reworking of ideas. Sometimes those who search get
lost in details, only to recover their bearings, stepping back
to consider the whole picture, and coming to a conception of what
is true that is far grander than anything they'd considered at
Roy Richard Grinker, anthropologist, set out in the mid-1980s
to seek truth among the Ituri Forest Pygmies of the Congo, following
in the footsteps of his famous predecessor, Colin Turnbull, one
of the world's most renowned and influential anthropologists,
whose name ranks right alongside Margaret Mead's in professional
and popular stature. But the truth Grinker found was a far cry
from what he had expected. It had only partly to do with the nature
of the Pygmies, much to do with the nature of anthropology as
a professional and academic discipline, and everything to do with
the nature of love, in particular, gay interracial love.
The story of how Grinker came to the truth and resolved to present
it to the world in the form of a biography, In the Arms of
Africa: The Life of Colin M.Turnbull (St. Martin's), is quite
a remarkable journey in itself. As a seeker after the truth of
human nature, Grinker has struck a vein of gold. Grinker seems
an unlikely candidate for writing what must be one of the most
powerful descriptions of a gay relationship ever written. He set
out originally to bury Turnbull, not to praise him. He sought
to debunk Turnbull, decrying his work as shoddy, aiming to present
what he considered a more grounded, less fanciful description
of Pygmy culture. Yet Grinker ended up writing a book transcending
his own limitations as a straight, white male. He dived into the
true story of Turnbull and his deep, abiding love for an African
American man, Joe Towles, and came up with a story that anyone
gay especially anyone open to interracial love could find relevant
to their own lives.
While the Pygmies themselves play only supporting roles in this
book, their spirit galvanized three anthropologists who lived
and worked among the Pygmies.Turnbull; his lover of 30 years,
Towles; and their biographer, Grinker leading in a very roundabout
way to this book, which could well come to be recognized as one
of the most important works of gay anthropology ever produced.
Our contemporary gay culture owes a debt to Turnbull, Towles and
Grinker, three men with a passion for the truth, who in their
very different ways came to embody and disseminate what they all
saw as the beautiful, relatively harmonious spirit of Pygmy culture.
It's also fair to say that this book, once it gets pored over
by scholarsand ordinary folks, will generate a fair amount of
controversy. The portrayal of the love between the brilliant,
passionate Turnbull and the beautiful, stubborn Towles was not
without conflicts of all sorts. In detailing these troubles, Grinker
plops himself into the thick of myriad social and cultural issues.
That he brazens his way through, trying his best to make sense
of it all, is a credit to his diligence as a scholar. Whether
or not his portrayal of the two men, Turnbull and Towles, characterizes
them as they would have characterized themselves remains for posterity
to decide. And as we well now, posterity is full of harsh critics.
likeliest criticism will focus on Grinker's portrayal of the professional
and intellectual stature of Towles relative to his partner/patron,
Turnbull. In this portrayal, Towles comes off as a lightweight
intellectually, far from the keen mind everyone agrees was Turnbull's.
Towles seems difficult, erratic, pompous, yet at the same time
immensely down to earth, perhaps far more so than Turnbull, who
only got his grounding late in life, becoming aBuddhist monk after
Towles' death from AIDS in 1988.
In Grinker's view, Towles would have amounted to little except
for Turnbull, who with a zeal bordering on obsessiveness sought
to remake his lover in his own image. As Grinker portrays it,
Towles became an anthropologist only because Turnbull pushed him
to do so. Turnbull so loved Towles that he wanted to give him
the world, and the best way to do that was to make him a fellow
anthropologist. Turnbull pushed his career with a fervor that
made universities cringe. Any department that wanted to capture
Turnbull and his huge cachet had to accept (always in a lesser
position) Towles as a fellow teacher. The two came as a package.
The universities almost always bowed to Turnbull and his whims.
They knew Towles was Turnbull's lover, utterly inseparable. Turnbull
insisted the relationship be known and openly acknowledged. Because
Towles was African American and Turnbull of Anglo origin, their
partnership was all that much more problematic for the universities.
But it was Turnbull, after all, so what could they do?
Towles anywhere near as brilliant as Turnbull declared him to
be? No, he wasn't brilliant, says Grinker, speaking with a reporter
at Cafe Flore, following his recent reading at A Different
Light Bookstore. He was a nice guy who collapsed under the
burden of having to be something he couldn't be.The story of Towles
falling apart, of how dementia overtook him and led to torment
in the final years of the couple's often tempestuous relationship,
is one of the most harrowing, heart-rending stories I've read
in the annals of AIDS reporting, or for that matter, in the annals
of love. The way the story resolves is equally powerful for its
beautyand humanity. Whether Grinker is right that Turnbull was
a shabby excuse for an anthropologist, but a great humanitarian,
is a question academics and the reading public must sort out.
There's almost an imperative contained in this book, for other
scholars to take up the mantle and figure out the complexities
of this beautiful, earth-shaking marriage of a white man with
a black man, both of whom had developed their conception of love
among the most loving people on Earth.
the mere fact that Grinker has taken up Turnbull's torch and elevated
Towle's name into public consciousness speaks volumes about the
righteousness of Grinker's quest. He, like Turnbull, with whom
he shares many traits (both went to elite prep schools, went on
to become anthropologists, studied the Pygmies, lectured at the
same university, and played keyboards as a pastime), came to recognize
that ultimately what matters in Turnbull's life is not his professional
work, but his love for Joe Towles. That is what Turnbull came
to consider his most important achievement. Whatever he learned
among the Pygmies, it was only relevant insofar as it influenced
his passion for Towles. That is what Turnbull wanted the world
to know. And now, thanks to Grinker, the world has a chance to
receive that message,and appreciate why Joe Towles mattered so
much to Turnbull.