Personal Histories – Diepiriye Sungumote Kuku-Siemons (OC 97) (page 1 of 2)

Audio clip:

[Transcript of the full interview]

Oral history conducted at Oberlin College, Oct. 7, 2007, by Catherine Janis. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted. A huge thanks to Judy Stein for transcribing.

With Nancy Dye. Photo courtesy of Diepiriye.

With Nancy Dye. Photo courtesy of Diepiriye.

Since coming here to campus, my uniform was a crop-top and Daisy Duke shorts. And I have a group of friends, most of them lived at African Heritage House at that time, and they told me the first day of…orientation week…they were like, Oh, he’s really cute. And then they took a second look, and they’re, like, Oh, my gosh. And it wasn’t, Oh, my gosh, he’s a fag, it was, like, Oh! [surprising but ok]

But having the ability to do that, to be safe here on this campus, develops a sense of agency: to have people listen to you, to have things that you say be taken seriously and [to] have an impact on your environment …

I come from Kentucky … I found out that every educated African-American that I knew had heard of Oberlin, had a very deep respect for Oberlin … and the fact that there was need-blind admissions made me think that I would be taken at my value, and based on my credentials, and not the money that my parents are able to produce. And that was eliminated my first or second year here at Oberlin. And, of course, it’s a wealthier campus now, wealthier student body…

My mother and I came here for ‘All Roads Lead to Oberlin’ [the prospective student visiting weekend sponsored by the Office of Admissions] … and there were queer student groups, there was the LGBU, as it was called at that time, its name had and continues to evolve.

And I will never forget, because I had only come out to my mother, I think, about a month earlier…But there was a chalking, like writings one the side walks and sometimes on buildings. And just in front of King…there was a chalking that said: You can come out after your parents leave. I just remember walking down, and there was just this silence, like, Yes! You know, I’ve arrived. It convinced me that, yeah, I’m coming here, this is the right place to be.

I was a campus activist, and I chose to be active in antiracist and anti-homophobic struggles, … however they found themselves on campus. So I was involved in LGBU, I was involved in Zami, I was involved in Abusua, I was involved in an organization that later became known as Burnt Siena, because Burnt Siena’s a color that you have to use to paint any skin color…

At Third World House. Photo courtesy of Diepiriye.

At Third World House. Photo courtesy of Diepiriye.

Any one of us [Obies] would tell you, I’m sure you’ve heard this over and over again, that it’s outside of the classroom that we develop [a] sense of agency. And so it’s radically important that these organizations continue, that they be well funded. OSCA is the most invaluable experience that people can have on this campus … I was also part of Student Senate and Student Finance Committee … It’s those kinds of things where you have people to challenge you, but also care for you, to also– to be consistent. And that’s, for me, that’s how it did it for me. Who would have ever thought that I could be president of Abusua [the Black student union] and, you know, some black gay man, and yet here I am. And I think that there are many … many since, from what I can see …

I ended up majoring in biochemistry and minoring in African-American studies … I remember even when I first came here, Deirdre “Dee-Dee” Wells was a few years ahead of me, and she was a chemistry major, and she would just walk up to, you know, queer students, and queer students of color that she’d seen at the LGBU meeting, the open house meeting at the beginning of each semester where there are, like, 50 people, and all the upperclassmen come to check out the fresh meat.

And she just spoke to us individually about Zami, and we came, and Zami was a great organization [for queer people of color], because … you cannot know what it means to be isolated, to not know that there’s someone else like you out there … And so Zami became that kind of support group, like, we’re not alone …

In the racist society and a classist society and a sexist society, it’s not enough to just deal with one issue. Now, we have this intersectionality. We didn’t have that kind of word back then. And so someone like me, who was determined to be involved in the Black Students Association, the African Students Association, but also, you know, be an out queer man, I was frightened to death. And I — and it still frightens me, because I don’t know, I think I believed the messages, people think that African-Americans are so homophobic. And I believed it.

But I decided that I wouldn’t let that determine my activities here on campus. And low and behold, it was unpopular to be homophobic. So those who were, you know, did keep it to themselves—kept their mouths shut.

I didn’t have a lot of black male friends. I had acquaintances. And even the black gay men, we talked about it, I mean, individually. By senior year, we thought, Why aren’t we friends with each other? Why don’t we at least know each other? And we didn’t have anything against one another. But when you talk about being terrorized in this nation, and learning an internal homophobia, internal racism, there’s a lot to get over …

bell hooks, who taught here for a while and came back a lot, she’s a fellow Kentuckian, and she writes about this a great deal, and it’s in her interview that you can find on YouTube, about how teaching at Oberlin and Yale and teaching in New York, the only differences that she found were not that the students were any differently abled, but that the students in the lower-income areas, the poor areas in New York, didn’t understand that what they knew amounted to a great deal, that they … basically, they lacked agency …

Photo courtesy of Diepiriye.

Photo courtesy of Diepiriye.

And I left Oberlin, and I moved to Mali in West Africa, I joined the Peace Corps. And people told me that there were no gay people there. And I even met other Peace Corps volunteers who told me that there were no gay people … When I first came out to my father, who comes from Nigeria, he said, “Don’t tell anybody from our village. And there’s no one — there are no gay people in our village.” And I just know that that can’t be true, and I firmly believe that …

And of course, in my own little village, I managed to find the gay people. And then in the capital, Bamako, a great deal. But I only believe that these things are possible because I have the source of strength, and that’s knowing that it’s possible to create a society that has different values, I’ll just say different values, like Oberlin.

And so having gone to Oberlin, it’s possible for me to now live in India and be the only black man that I know … to be involved in a queer media collective there, and to assert that people need to know about African-American history. Because Indian people know a lot about American culture per se, but what they know is very generic, what I call Generica, kind of a generic American culturally available, popularly available culture …

Now, maybe you would ask why would I go to the edge of the Sahara Desert, why would I plop myself in the middle of Seoul, South Korea, you know, why would I go to the middle of Sri Lanka, or now, you know, go to India…where legally- it’s not illegal to be gay- but … the antiquated sodomy laws still exist all over the British Commonwealth.

Why would I do this? But it is because I felt safe here for four years, you know. And it…helped me to develop that agency to go anywhere, to feel that the world is my home … I’m here sitting on a couch in Oberlin, Ohio, and tomorrow I’ll be back on my sofa in New Delhi, India. And there– it’s my world…

And so I want to document that. I really want to document the experience of queer people in different parts of the world, and how queerness comes into existence, and how the behavior goes from a behavior to an identity. And it won’t necessarily all be gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender. I mean, even in India now we have a term called “Hidjra,” or “Aravani” and I was in a newspaper, because I went to an Aravani Festival. And I was referred to as Miss — I mean, I was wearing a Sari. Not a surprise. And I was labeled as an Aravani …

There are many queer men of color [on campus] now … I remember in the Con, in my class year, there were four men that I can think of off the bat, and they were just obviously gay and queer, and only one of them was out. And the rest, the other three, they were just so closeted. Which meant that they often would stay away from Black community organizing and queer community organizing, and just kind of live their lives in the Con. And I just could never understand what was behind this, why they would so strongly want to remain in the closet on this campus.

But when it’s secret, or when it’s stigmatized, then … that’s when you run into problems. That’s when people make decisions based on fear, have hasty sex that’s unsafe, try to mimic very rigid hegemonic gender roles, which, of course, still say that men control and own violence and should be violent towards their feminine partner, be that a woman or a feminized man. And it’s frightening.

And so this, I think, is another motivation behind me wanting to document these things. And I think this is something else I’ve learned as a chemist, it’s just how to be a researcher and how to document things and go about that. So it’s been — it’s invaluable, the lessons I’ve learned on this campus, both in and outside of the classroom, to what I do now.

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