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Charles Stephens: A life of ideas, activism

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Oct. 11, 2013

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Charles Stephens, Whose Beloved Community Program Coordinator for the Center for Women at Emory and the James Weldon Johnson Institute. Emory Photo/Video.

As a college student, Charles Stephens recalls attending a book reading for Emory American Studies Professor Rudolph Byrd and finding it transformative — it was affirming to discover another black man committed to issues that Stephens cared for so deeply.  

Stephens introduced himself that day, promising that although at the moment he couldn't afford to buy the anthology Byrd had co-edited, he would eventually.  

In response, the professor grabbed a book, signed it and handed it to him.  

Today, Stephens views that gesture as the passing of a torch.  

As the new Whose Beloved Community Program Coordinator for the Center for Women at Emory and the James Weldon Johnson Institute (which Byrd founded), Stephens is helping realize a vision grounded in the late Byrd's work. The culmination will be an international conference at Emory this spring: "Whose Beloved Community?: Black Civil and LGBT Rights Movements" — made possible, in part, by the support of the Arcus Foundation.  

Stephens has deep roots in Atlanta — he grew up in Adamsville, attended Georgia State University, and has worked for several local nonprofits.  

But he was shaped by Emory long before he arrived here this past summer, including the academic support of several Georgia State professors who graduated from Emory's Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts (ILA).  

Long a voice of activism in Atlanta, challenging issues of racism, classism, sexism and homophobia, Stephens was recently surprised  — and flattered — to be invited to serve as a grand marshal in the Atlanta Pride Parade on Sunday, Oct. 13 in Midtown.  

Emory Report talked with Stephens about a life of activism and ideas:  

How did you find a voice around community activism? 

Certainly as far back as high school I was interested in working with intersectional politics and working against racism and sexism and classism and all of these "isms." In college, I found that women's studies classes were grappling with those same kinds of questions. There was a really supportive community there to help guide me in that.  

Ten years ago this month a group of us at Georgia State founded an organization called "BlackOUT," a black LGBT student group that eventually went national. It just really made sense for me. I really wanted to be part of a community of scholar activists who were engaged in this really incredible work that allowed them to be both intellectually engaged but engaged as activists, too.  

What's the origin of the "Whose Beloved Community" conference?

Certainly it was part of Rudolph Byrd's vision. He was very passionate about really thinking through the civil rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, and the convergences and divergences of those movements. It was an extension to his commitment to those issues, just this amazing, beautiful final act. There are so many political forces that are taking shape around these issues now.  

I'm really proud of Emory's commitment to this conference. I also think the community of scholars and activists that I've been working with to plan it have inspired me. This is an important conference; these are important issues. The level of commitment, the fact that Emory is willing to do that, is absolutely encouraging. I just think it's a phenomenal opportunity and we're seizing it.  

Why here? Why now?

Atlanta is a really great place to do the kind of work that I've been committed to, both as a writer and as an activist. It's also part of why I'm really excited that this conference is coming here — there is this amazing history. Both an official history that is more well known and also other histories that have been less institutionalized, stories that we tell in our community that have been passed down.  

The political and cultural climate is right for this — particularly with regard to questions around race and LGBT rights and civil rights. One of the opportunities we have in bringing this conference to the University — with the scholars and artists and activists who will also be here — is that it will allow us to keep those conversations going. Thought leadership around these issues is extremely important; we're uniquely positioned to offer some significant and critical insights.

What has shaped your passion for inquiry in that area?  

There are a number of forces — one was gratitude. I feel enormously grateful for people who came before me who had the courage and the vision to put their lives and bodies on the line. As a young person, I felt that so much of the freedom that I had was because of those who came before me. So I felt accountable to them, responsible to continue that work. Particularly as a black gay man … I just felt I owed it to them, quite frankly.  

There is an incredible history of black LGBT activism in Atlanta, and I came of age in that context. Very early on, I had the opportunity to meet and work with these central figures doing innovative amazing work politically. So I decided very early on that I wanted to be someone who used my voice to work for social change. I've been fed by that work; it's been nurturing for me in so many ways.  

What are your thoughts about serving as a grand marshal in the Atlanta Pride Parade?

In some ways, it's hilarious. I still can't believe it. I'm actually an introvert; I have to push myself sometimes to be out there.  I've always said that I should teach a workshop called 'Leadership for Introverts.' (laughs)  

Also, I didn't know I was nominated. It's a community nomination process, so I received a call and they told me I'd been nominated to be one of the grand marshals for the 2013 Atlanta Pride Parade, and I was like … sure! I think the assumptions around what it means to be gay or what it means to be LGBT — we don't always see black people in that, or sometimes there is the assumption if you're black and gay you're less likely to be out. I just think it's important for me to show that. I'm a black gay male, a writer and activist committed to these issues. Those things are important to me.