Essay written 2006
Awakening at Oberlin College
It was so exciting, being the first to arrive on campus that sunny, end of summer day, in September of 1979. Finally, having the opportunity to leave home to “go away” to college was a dream come true. Walking around the immediate grounds of African Heritage House was like a new world opening up to me, especially being the first person in my family to go to college. I was filled with all of the wonder and anticipation of embarking on a new and wondrous journey.
Being the naïve, top academic, gospel choir member, church going, sixteen-year-old “goodie-goodie” Black boy from Amityville, New York, that I was, it was a non-issue for me to smile and start an innocuous conversation with the skinny, light-skinned 30ish year-old Black man who was jogging around (what I would later learn to refer to as) “The House.” “Hi, what’s your name?” I said like an inquisitive first grader, making friends with a classmate on the first day of school. “My name is John and this is my first day here at Oberlin.” The man stopped and with a slight devilish grin said, “My name is Thrulow Tibbs. My aunt owns a historic house here in town. I’m here helping her out with it. She’s kinda up there in age. Well, it’s nice to meet you.” Being the saved, good Christian boy I was, I told Thurlow that I wanted to stay in contact with him and write him, so I asked him for his address. I don’t remember where he got the paper to write his address down, but he jogged off with me holding an address located in Washington, D.C.
Adjusting to Oberlin was an extremely traumatic experience for me those first several months. Although I had taken three AP (Advanced Placement) courses in high school, had taken honors level classes all through out middle and high school, it seemed that none of that preparation from my blue-collar, working class school district came near to adequately exposing me to the level of academic rigor that was so typical of Oberlin. Consequently, I spent my days that first year unhappy and depressed.
The one uplifting moment for me, during that entire first semester, was receiving beautiful and colorful postcards from my new friend, Thurlow. Those postcards were absolutely stunning, with beautiful works of art on them that were painted by up-and-coming African American artists. Later, he told me in one of the cards, that his passion and second job was working as an art dealer, where he bought and sold works of art by many African American artists. One time, I remember him writing and telling me that a friend of his, Romane Bearden, had stopped by to see him and he was excited about handling some of his work. At the time, I didn’t know who this person was, but I liked the collages on the postcards Thurlow sent of this Romane Bearden person.
The writing between the two of us went on for over a year. I soon grew to look forward to hearing from Thurlow. While on campus, the activity that lifted my gloomy spirits was being a part of the general Abusua (the African American student organization). I loved being with other Black students and participating in their campus activism; that was the main reason why I wanted to live in The House. Because my parents and older brother had taught me to always know, respect and appreciate my heritage, I grew up with a deep love and concern for the well-being of Black people. Living in The House, there was this definite feeling, sort of a residue air of the late 60s, early 70s Black Panther activism that permeated the building. Along with that sentiment was a very unambiguous attitude of homophobia that was particularly prominent with the men who lived and visited there. It was understood that in order for the Black community to be ready for the “revolution,” only strong, Black men (read straight) need apply. So if you had feminine tendencies or inclinations or even if the brothers of The House thought that you might be Same Gender Loving (SGL), you were excommunicated from the group. Consequently, there were Black students who didn’t set foot near African Heritage House, especially those SGL brothers who were conservatory students.
I didn’t know where I stood because I had never had a sexual experience, being the good, saved Christian boy that I was. By my second semester of that first year I did know that something wasn’t right because I didn’t feel right around women. I dated two women that first year but never touched them. I didn’t even want to kiss them, but there where several men on the football team that I saw in Dascomb Hall during dinner and at Mudd library that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. The ironic aspect of all of this is that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) connect the dots together concerning my dating and being with women and naturally being attracted to men. I guess I was so caught up with being a part and accepted in Abusua that I hid and denied my inner sexual desires.
Sophomore year started off a little better. I was starting to find my groove academically and realized that I just could not spend all of my time studying. So I started to take swimming lessons, worked out at Phillips Gym and ventured over to The Cat in the Cream to listen to the jazz that was being played by what was popularly considered the “cool” White kids. Finding my footing in this alien place of Oberlin College was getting a little easier, but I still was not doing well or making intimate connections with the sisters. Of course, I had sisters for friends in some of the classes we took together and there were always the wonderful, heated conversations we had over dinner sometimes at Dascomb, sometimes at South Hall and always at The House. But I was beginning to realize that there was something wrong with me. That there was something that just didn’t work right, but I didn’t know what it was.
The cards kept coming so I had decided during the second semester to take my Spring Break and visit my friend Thurlow in D.C. Since I worked for the Charter Bus program during past breaks, I could swing my position to the D.C. route and not worry about paying for travel there. Thurlow gave the green light for my visit. Now I was on my way to visit our nation’s capital for the first time. Taking a cab from the D.C. bus station to Thurlow’s home was a short ride. His home was located a few blocks north from the burned out section of U Street, North West that fell victim to the ravages of the 1968 rebellion that was sparked immediately after the assignation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His home was one of those beautiful, 19th century brownstones that looked old but stately even though it had been painted beige. It turns out that Thurlow’s house was once owned by his deceased grandmother and grandfather, Madame Lillian Evanti, the world famous African American opera diva of the 20s and 30s and Roy Tibbs ‘12, Oberlin Conservatory alumnus and the former chairman of the Music Department at Howard University.
I rang the door bell and a tall light skinned man in his early 30s opened the door. I said “Hi, my name is John Young. I’m Thurlow’s house guest. He’s expecting me.” He answered “Oh yes, he’s expecting you. Come on in.” I walked through the front door and passed the man. On the stairs leading to the second floor to my immediate right (after moving to D.C. eight years later, I would learn that almost all of the row houses had the same stair set up) another man saw me and walked down the stairs. I smiled at him but didn’t say anything. Finally, a third man walked from the kitchen, through the dining room into the parlor. I thought to myself “What’s going on here?” Then I realized “Oh, he’s that way.” But what was much more profound about that moment was the epiphany that came over me. It all came together. All of those years of not understanding why I felt so different from the other guys, of being so uncomfortable around women when it came to physical intimacy; at last, I finally understood that this is what I am. I am just like them: gay. It seemed like the burden I had been carrying for so long had just been lifted. I was relieved of the weight I had on my shoulders since being an eight grader in middle school. When Thurlow eventually greeted me we went up to his room and talked. I asked him if he was gay and he confirmed my suspicions and I and told him that I was too but didn’t know it until just a few minutes ago. That week was an introduction to a world I had no knowledge of. Thurlow and his friends took me to the Nob Hill, the Clubhouse, and the Bachelor’s Mill. Clubs that were known across the country as “The Places” SGL brothers frequented.
Upon returning to Oberlin, one of the first missions I had was to visit my friend who was enrolled in the conservatory and lived off campus. I had to talk with him because he was one of the “banished” brothers from the Black community on campus because of his open homosexuality. I shared with him my experience in D.C. and we talked for hours. Before I knew it, I experienced my very first kiss, which lead to my very first sexual encounter. That night I learned just how beautiful and fulfilling making love was.
This is problematic. I could never admit that I was SGL and remain living at The House, let alone continue my activist work with Abusua. What am I going to do? For the next two years I creped around campus carefully orchestrating twists with men on campus, hoping that none of my Abusua brothers or sisters would see me, let alone find out that I was ”that way.” Finally my senior year, I moved out of The House and into East dorm where it was a little safer. At least there, I thought none of the General Abusua would see who was coming out of my room early in the morning. Little did I know I was living in a glass closet. People were starting to talk about me but no one would actually confront me about my sexuality. I decided that year that Atlanta would be my savior after graduation. I had heard that the city was “the place” to be for SGL brothers. There, I could live my life as a SGL man and not have to worry about what anybody thought. After graduating from Oberlin, I moved to Atlanta to begin my new life.
Thurlow Tibbs transitioned on a cold, winter day in January of 1997, leaving $1.3 million of art work to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Although he is no longer with me physically, I carry his spirit with me and the memory of the gift of self-discovery he gave me.