Kevin Alexander Gray was a contributor and good friend to the Black Agenda Report team. His passing is a huge loss to BAR, and to the Black liberation movement. Dr. Jemima Pierre shares her remembrances of a family man, movement leader, author, and restaurateur. Kevin Alexander Gray was a brilliant man who loved his people. In addition to this tribute we reprint three of our favorite essays from Kevin, "Obama and Black America," "The Soul Will Find a Way," and "How to Help Haiti," which he co-wrote.
I met Kevin Alexander Gray the only way I could have: through his writing. It was 2008. It was election year, the U.S. presidential race was in full swing, and Barack Obama was all the rage. On June 15th, soon after the first-term Illinois Senator had just secured enough delegates to clinch the Democratic Party nomination to run for president, Obama delivered his infamous “Father’s Day Speech.” In this speech, as the New York Times put it, Obama “Sharply Assail[ed] Absent Black Fathers.” He did more than that: Obama conjured up some of the most invidious, insidious, and racist stereotypes about Black people in the U.S. He accused Black fathers of “acting like boys instead of men,” Black families of being broken (and run by single parents), Black juveniles of bad behavior and practically choosing prison over school. He concluded that the government could not help the African American community unless Black families learned to raise their children. Obama said this to the congregation of the Apostolic Church of God, one of the oldest and biggest African American Churches in Chicago. On Father’s Day.
Kevin’s response to Obama’s speech was published in Counterpunch magazine a month later. In the essay entitled, “Why Does Barack Obama Hate My Family?” Kevin likened Obama’s Father’s Day speech to Bill Clinton’s “Sister Souljah” moment when, in 1992, Clinton denounced rapper Sister Souljah to prove to his white audience that he wasn’t close to the Black community. Kevin could have also said that, in his speech, Obama was playing “‘kick-a-nigger’ politics,” a term he learned from old Black democratic South Carolina State Senator Kay Patterson who said that when in a tight space, (white) politicians would fight to see “who could kick-a-nigger the hardest to secure white votes.”
But what was most amazing about Kevin’s essay was the way he responded to Obama’s racist attack on Black families. In his folksy and warm language and tone – the markers of his unique prose – Kevin spoke of his own family structure, the various connections and forms it took beyond the accepted heterosexist models, and the necessity of community. Through this story we understood a whole lot about the structural conditions that impacted intimate relationships in Black communities and how, despite seemingly insurmountable circumstances, Black people lived and loved and cared for one another.
Finding Kevin’s essay was like finding water after living through a long drought. From the moment Obama came on the political scene it seemed as if folks in the Black community had lost their minds. While the Black community was initially timid about his prospects, once Obama had won the Iowa Caucuses primary, it was clear to Black people that white folks saw him as a viable candidate. Therefore, they could have hope. “Obama-mania” soon ensued. There was no room for critical thinking and certainly no way one could say anything unfavorable about Obama for fear of actual excommunication. The Obama Father’s Day Speech was especially egregious for me. But back then, though I was a leftist, I lacked the analysis and language to put into words my gut feelings about Obama. In this context, I scoured the internet and independent news sites for alternative analysis. This is how I found Kevin’s article.
Kevin was the first writer or journalist I had ever contacted after reading. I emailed him and thanked him for writing the perfect response to Obama’s speech. Kevin was extremely gracious in his response. After this first contact, we kept up communications via email – I would share articles and ask for his opinion; he would send links of articles or information about protest actions and events. In all honesty, my conversations with Kevin during the 2008 election year was my lifeline. I was a young professor living in Texas with my young son far away from family and friends. And my critiques of Obama further isolated me even – or, perhaps, especially - from liberal colleagues. Kevin was like a big brother in terms of helping me to sharpen my political analysis at a time when Black folk were expected, explicitly and implicitly, to toe the line of the Democratic party message as articulated by Barack Obama. I remember one particular conversation right before the elections when Kevin jokingly suggested that we form a group called the “Five Percenters” (and get t-shirts made) representing the 5% of Black folk who would not vote for Obama in 2008.
Kevin and I stayed in touch over the years, though it was not as consistent as the second half of 2008. Then in January 2010, a massive earthquake hit Haiti, killing more than 200,000 people. Western media was consistent in its racist and dehumanizing treatment of Haitian people – showing the Haitian dead on loop and filling the air with the usual analyses of presumably innate Haitian dysfunction. I was devastated by both the earthquake and its western representations and decided that I needed to find ways to help and to bear witness. I called Kevin and asked him if he would be willing to be part of a delegation of journalists, activists, and scholars to travel to Haiti within 4 days. He accepted immediately. By January 24th, we were on the ground in the Dominican Republic, and by the 25th our team drove across the southern border into Haiti. Once in Haiti, we met with our local counterparts, distributed food, and bore witness to the ways people dealt with such devastation.
The trip to Haiti was the first time I met Kevin in person. It was a tough trip – the devastation was unfathomable, and peoples’ distress was palpable. But Kevin seemed to be in his element. He talked (or tried to talk) to everyone. He went everywhere he could, asked questions of and listened to everyone, and made connections that the rest of our team could only imagine. He also had extreme compassion and respect for the people still reeling from the earthquake. Kevin was the lead writer of the article we wrote about that trip, “How to Help Haiti.” In that article, you can hear Kevin’s voice and feel its cadence, and you can see his storytelling skills and recognize the gentle way he handles the people of Haiti. The writing of this article represented something else about Kevin: He didn’t have to get all the credit. This is what he said recently about his work and what would soon be his legacy: “See I don’t have to be in the front of everything. I like to just help people organize something and see how far it goes. I don’t have to be leading nothing.”
After our trip to Haiti Kevin worked to get us to present on Haiti at the Left Forum conference in New York in the spring of 2010. It was at this conference that Kevin introduced me to the amazing comrades at the Black Agenda Report – Glen Ford, Margaret Kimberley (who, I remember, was wearing her union jacket!), and Bruce Dixon. It was a set of connections from which I have learned so much and for which I will forever be grateful.
In the fall of 2012, I invited Kevin to be a guest lecturer in my African Diaspora class at a small university in Tennessee. True to form, while visiting me, Kevin found out about and took me to the Green Party meeting in the suburbs of Nashville where presidential candidate Jill Stein was speaking. Later in the spring of 2014, Kevin would return to Nashville as a guest speaker in a conference, “Black Folk in Dark Times,” organized by myself and Dr. Peter James Hudson. This was an unforgettable conference as it included key activists and scholars such as Margaret Kimberly, Glen Ford, Rinaldo Walcott, David Austin, Christina Sharpe, Johnny Williams, Kevin Edmonds, Maboula Soumahoro, and others. My partner and I still talk about seeing Kevin and Glen Ford striding through the middle of a Nashville street at night, in deep conversation, on a quest to find cigarettes.
Thinking about the moment I first heard about Kevin’s death brings back the pain I felt in my gut and the hole that opened in my soul. At first, I couldn’t understand why his death affected me so deeply. In hindsight, Kevin played a big role in my political life – a role that he probably never knew he played. He not only helped me to sharpen my political analysis, but also helped me clearly see the beauty in community and in struggle. When I went to re-read his essay against Obama’s Father’s Day speech, what stood out for me was Kevin’s compassion for his people. In the essay, Kevin also explored how and why, despite this latest horrible speech-act by Obama, the Black community continued to support him. When you read this essay, you could hear both Kevin’s anger at Obama’s words and frustration with the Black community for putting up with Obama’s antiBlackness. You could also see the patience, compassion, and love for a people, a community, that he knew intimately. He didn’t always agree with the people, but he understood the structural and material conditions that made their decisions understandable.
I recently watched a wide-ranging interview (for the Julian Bond Oral History Project) about his life as an activist. In it, Kevin reflected on his relationship with Julian Bond:
"Julian related to people at every level. Even as an intellectual, he raised the level of thinking about things. The idea of being thoughtful. The idea of being selfless as an organizer…as selfless as you can because everyone has an ego. Julian was a good senior brother. I’m trying to be a good senior brother at this point in my life."
I’m not sure that Kevin realized that he was describing himself. He is the absolute best senior brother I could ever have had. I miss him so.
Sleep well, my friend. Thank you for being my senior brother.
Dr. Jemima Pierre is an editor and contributor to Black Agenda Report, the Haiti/Americas Co-Coordinator for the Black Alliance for Peace, and a Black Studies and anthropology professor at UCLA.