Life Story Interview of Charles I. Nero
I was born in the South, in rural northern Alabama. At that particular time, in terms of world events, it was the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Brown versus the Board of Education had just happened in 1954. I was born two years later. Both of my parents were school teachers in rural northern Alabama so this was a very momentous decision. In terms of at the national level that was what was going on. In terms of the international level, the cold war was in full swing. So it was for me a momentous time at which I was born and also to be born in the rural south. My family in northern Alabama, on the maternal side, was all members of Fundamentalist Christian churches and so to some degree they were insulated from issues involving the Cold War. In some measure, they were not active in the Civil Rights Movement, but they were very conscious of its presence. Of course, a few years later, Alabama would become a hot bed of civil rights activity.
I guess the major thing that happened to me in the first years of my life was the death of my grandmother. And I don’t have any particular memories, very strong memory about that because she died when I was four years old. But, she and my grandfather were the primary care providers for me. My parents, my father was from Louisiana and my mother was from Alabama, decided that for their own upward mobility that New Orleans would be a better place for them for their own economic security since they had a child and my parents married in their thirties so they were not a very young couple. So they decided to move to Louisiana and I remained with my grandparents. When I was almost five years old, my grandmother died. I don’t have very much of a memory of that except that I was sent to New Orleans on a train and my parents, my mother came to get me, one of the two came to get me. So that’s the memory that I have.
My parents tell me that I was very, very upset at the death of my grandmother and they didn’t take me to the funeral. One of the things that I was really very upset by was the fact that, somehow, I figured that they would have to bury my grandmother. That really upset me. Those are about the very few memories I have of life before the age of five. Actually, it’s interesting because I was once telling a friend of mine who is a child psychologist about that. She told me actually that was a very good sign because she said not to have memories of life before you are four years old is a good sign. It means that really everything was rather happy and kind of usual? that nothing was odd or stressful in your life. I remember shortly after I arrived and I have a picture of it, my parents bought a house in the suburbs in a new suburb that was created for Black people. I arrived and a man came around with a pony and chaps. And so he took a picture of me in front of our house on the pony in the chaps. I have a picture of me on the pony. It was interesting because it was an all Black neighborhood. Actually, it still is an all black neighborhood.
Growing up in that neighborhood, on the one hand, I could say it was an isolating experience because I was an only child and many of the people who were in this neighborhood were also people who had moved from the rural areas to the city and in the ethics of the rural areas many people have lots of children. It was growing up around families where most people had four, five, six, seven children and I was an only child. That was something that made me aware that I was different from a very early age. My house was the only family on our block where there was only one child.
Cultural values that were passed down to me by my parents … One thing” was really important was religious faith. My parents were very active in a church, the Methodist church. They’re still active. That was very important to have religious faith. It was important also to be a part of a community. Tolerance of others was important because the community I grew up in was a mixed community of working class people who in many cases only had high school educations. My parents had graduate degrees. There were school teachers, ministers, but I would say mostly from lower middle-class people to working-class people. So that was important to not look down upon people and to be tolerant of people who were different who came from different economic classes than we did. Another important value that I think my parents passed on to me was the importance of being respectable, of both respecting others and respecting yourself and respecting your neighborhood, and your community, and your family.
Probably at least two or three times a year we made trips back to northern Alabama. We kept very close ties to my family there. All of them in northern Alabama were all rural people. All of my uncles, my mother had three brothers, and the two that lived in my hometown, both had very large families, over seven children. And one also, my Uncle Theophilus, he and his wife also had foster children. So you are by yourself, where as I would always go by them and there would just be constantly people in the house.
I felt nurtured as a child. My parents made what I think was a difficult decision, but a necessary decision at the time. Both of my parents worked. I think that was difficult because, on the one hand, and they were school teachers and they came from a tradition where it was not unusual to have two people, especially young professionals working and so I know my parents both worked and part of the reason for that was they wanted to make sure that we were able to have a middle-class life. M parents expressed nurturing for me through their ability to be good providers. The most important relationship I had was with two other boys when we were from like about third grade to about sixth grade. We were just very good friends. We did everything together. That was probably the most important or at least the most intense friendship I had and it lasted for about four years.
Being a teenager was an isolating experience for me because when I became a teenager integration had finally come to our racial tradition just come to the suburbs of New Orleans. As a consequence of that, schools in black neighborhoods were being closed. And Black kids were then being bussed to what had been all White schools and as a result of that there would be massive overcrowding in the schools because the black schools were being closed. So the schools now went into this thing that they called the Platoon system. So there would be one building but it would house two schools. One school would go from seven am to about twelve or one o’clock and the other school would go from about one thirty to about seven o’clock pm. So my parents did not want me to participate or be in that because they thought the education was not a very good one. And this was a difficult decision because they were public school teachers themselves. So they made a decision to send me to a private school -to a Catholic school. And as a result of that I ended having to go to a school where I really didn’t know many people. And there weren’t people from my neighborhood there. So high school became a fairly isolating experience. My teen years were an isolating experience. What was a constant were the people from my church and the kids from my church. It was a day school only about a mile from the public high school.
I think that my experience is one, in terms of Biblical; there were two kinds of guides. There were guides who were real people and something else became my guide which was literature. I realized I enjoyed reading a lot. I turned to books a lot and so I read a lot. In terms of teachers, I had a wonderful English teacher in my senior year who really imparted to me a love of literature. Then in terms of other kinds of guides, I think they were probably the people in my church, my church members, who cared about me and because we weren’t a very large congregation so it was a congregation where everybody knew everybody. It was very active in rearing the children in the church.
I was raised in a Christian tradition and I was raised to believe that I had a spiritual life and it was something that had to be nurtured And so it is not something that for me is very easy to be outside a religious community but it’s also … I also cannot imagine myself as a part of a purely Christian community either. The traditional, more orthodox, Christian denominations like the Methodists, Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, and Catholics. I can’t be a part of any of those primarily because, of course things are changing now, but for the most part, no matter how progressive many of those organizations are there are J.::ertain kinds of hierarchies that they have and philosophies which I just can’t agree with and as you can obviously tell I have never willingly submitted to being a second class citizen, of course, that’s my own past, my own upbringing, awareness, coming into consciousness in the Black Power Movement so the issues of being a second class citizen is something I would never accept. I would never willingly participate in a denomination that made other people second class citizens. Denominations like the Baptists or Catholics because either their beliefs about gender inequity, their beliefs about sexual orientation I could never accept those.
I went to an undergraduate Black Catholic C\Mlege in New Orleans. And I did my bachelor?s degree there in theatre. I did my Master?s degree at Wake Forest and I did a PHD at Indiana. I left New Orleans when I was twenty-one. It was wonderful. I loved leaving home! For me leaving home meant I would be independent. I have never had any fear about independence, whatsoever! I mean there are some people who probably said,” you’re going to miss home”. No, no, no! Home is there and that’s good. That’s perfectly fine with me. I love my independence and I’ve always loved my independence. The wonderful thing for me about college was that I am so glad that I went to college in New Orleans. It was a city, an urban area. Urban areas just had so much to offer, so much to give; and so many opportunities. It was important to be able to leave college and go downtown or go to the movies or go to the theater. There were clubs. It was the height of the disco movement. I love to dance. Then when I went to Winston-Salem in North Carolina to Wake Forest, it was a smaller town, but nevertheless it was a town and I was living on my own for the first time. That was exciting. I always loved living on my own.
Coming out as a gay person I did when I was in college in New Orleans. It was a good time to come out because it was in 1976 the American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality was no longer a treatable mental illness. I remember that. I remember going to gay book stores, and finding out about gay life, gay culture, reading about gay identity and gay history. It was the kind of first formation of a very public and visible gay culture. For me it was just a very exciting time and so I guess part of the reason that I always connected independence with being gay and being gay with being happy. I take the pursuit of happiness clause … I hold it very much to my heart in our constitution. The pursuit of happiness is very important. .. life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
For me, at least, I have always found education to be a liberating experience because through education, but really through reading, you learn about so much that is not what you were raised with. You really come to a point and what I think education does is it brings you to that point that you have to make a decision for yourself what is going to be the relationship between your past and then what is your future going to be. Your future can become one that you decide looks exactly like your past. You can make that decision. But education and literacy and for me the love of books is something that says, “but look there are at least fifteen hundred choices you can make that nothing from your past has prepared you for.” You can make those choices. For example, for me being gay, and I realize one of the big differences between myself and my family, for example, is most people would assume that we don’t know anybody gay and so whatever choices you’re making in your life … how do you know you’re going to make it? Well, I know I can make it because I’ve read all these books that tell me that look -there’s this, this, and this. Whatever you believe about the Bible, here, I have books that tell me other stories about what the Bible means so I don’t really have to accept what it is I heard when growing up. Or I can choose to accept it and I can change it, I can modify it. To me that is what education does. It liberates. It liberates you from your past and allows you to make a future that is of your own creation.
I loved the theater. And yet I was also kind of realistic that I didn’t want to be in the professional theater and once I made that decision somewhere around my first year in college I began to think about theater and culture and how to teach them. Part of the reason for that was that in the early seventies when I was coming of age was the sense of the Black Power Movement had really made culture a political imperative. Culture was something you had to think about, culture was something you had to make choices about. And the Black Power Movement really taught us that. If you’re going to do theater, are you going to do a play by Tennessee Williams or are you going to do a play by Mary Biraca? That was really radical. Because we grew up in a time when theater meant you did the classics and that was that. Or you did what people defined as a classic and that was usually White. The Black Power Movement said you don’t have to go down that road. There are other choices. And you have to then justify and explain you’re going to do Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare or Marlowe. For me it was around my first or second years of college that I began to think that I really wanted to teach about culture. Theater is just another aspect of culture of cultural traditions so it became things like teaching literature.
What I teach now is mostly film, teaching performance traditions, literary traditions, teaching theater, teaching about music. For example, I teach primarily about either race or sexuality. So I teach a course for first year students called White Redemption. The focus of that course is how to read and interpret films that seem to be very progressive in talking about race, but actually may not be very progressive and that eventually in telling the stories particularly in films that have as their purpose narrating the history of Black people often tell us much more about White people than they can ever tell us about Black people. Case in point, many of my students will see Steven Spielberg’s movie Amistad and think what a wonderful, great movie and then suddenly we have to ask ourselves why let’s look at things that happen in this movie. Why does a movie that takes its name from a ship that was about a slave insurrection and a successful slave insurrection … Why is that activity reduced to a cameo? So in the first five minutes of the film it’s over? Why is the decision made to put the film in court … that the majority of the film takes place in a courtroom because that’s going to make choices about who gets to speak and the people who get to speak tend to be White people and so in a movie about Black people, Black people are curiously silenced. Those are choices that a film makes. That raises questions about what does a progressive film mean and ways in which narrative about race is so central to our country and to our culture. Film is one of the ways that we can look at how race is constantly talked about, but talked about to the advantage of one group and the disadvantage of another group.
In high school, reading McBeth and Hamlet … those were really wild because I was told that it was OK to dislike Hamlet and I truly don’t like Hamlet. And I’ve always maintained a very critical approach to that play. I truly loved McBeth. And more important than anything, I was just overwhelmed by Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward the Second. It was my first time ever of encountering a play where it’s written in the Renaissance and yet this is a play about homosexuality. I was shocked. That was, “Whoa!” That was, “wow!” Reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy was an eye-opening experience. It seemed to say so much, to speak so much. It was one of the first books that I read about Black life. Lorraine Hansberry’s, A Raison in the Sun is a book I have read ever since I was in college. It was her autobiography, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black that was just deeply moving to me. There were passages I memorized. Then one of the most conscietizing (1) experiences I had in the theater was watching Intezaki Shanghi’s (not sure of spelling) For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enough. I had never, ever witnessed a performance quite like that. The play I saw in about 1979. It was just overwhelming. People were upset. I remember people walking out of the theater. There was this guy that was a Muslim and he had these two women with him. He walked out with two women with their heads turned around. These women were narrating these stories about violence, surviving, happiness, music and then finally it got down to these women started singing this song, “1 found God in myself and I loved her”. God is a woman. It was an amazing night of theater. That just blew me away. That was a pivotal moment.
In terms of as an adult being asked to participate in an anthology which became a very important anthology in terms of the social movement. There was a book that came out in 1991 called Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men and I contributed an essay about Black gay literature. And it was one of the first essays ever written about Black gay literature. I didn’t know at the time. It became an extremely popular essay and it continues to be widely read and taught in college curriculums. It’s been republished in about five different places so that was really rather exciting. It’s been a pivotal moment in my life. In terms of thinking about reading ifI had to add one more book to that list I would say reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eyes was, “Wow!” I had never come across a book like that. Once I picked it up, I was not going to bed that night until I finished that book. When I was in graduate school in Indiana, I was taking a class in Caribbean history and the professor told me I might enjoy this book. It was by a Cuban writer Carpentier and called Kingdom of the Squirrel. Can anyone write this brilliantly? How? Never stop reading.
I have a partner. We met in 1983 and we have been together ever since. What brought me here was a job offer. Both my partner and I were in the job market. He was at the University of Florida. I was here at Bates. I received an offer from University of Florida and he received an offer from Bates. Then we had this choice to make -Bates or University of Florida. We decided to take Bates for a couple of reasons. One was economic. There had been wage freezes in the Florida economy. The second reason was that Gainesville, northern Florida, was just too much like the lower south which was an area I did not like at all. That is, if I was to live in the south it had to be in an urban area like New Orleans or Atlanta or maybe Nashville or Memphis, but I could not live in the rural south. Especially to live as an openly gay and interracial couple I didn’t see that as being very positive. So for those reasons we decided to choose Bates.
Love of literature, independence, and learning about new things, I would add to them to live a life of integrity. For me living a life of integrity means being able to respect others; being able to respect myself being able to know that I have made choices that I can affirm and that do not make me ashamed choices that respect who I am. That matters in a number of ways that I honor my past, where I came from, that I am honest to who I am today. I just cannot accept a life in the closet. That I’m honest to being an African American, that I’m honest in terms of relationships I have with people and that those are relationships of integrity. Very important to me is having an experience that happens over time, not a single experience, and that is with my partner, having a relationship that has lasted as long as it has and that continues to be a satisfying one. That is what makes me very happy and brings great joy to my life and one that I don’t see ending. I really don’t. But of course all things come to an end. Sort of like death or some process, right?
In Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young Gifted and Black one of the most powerful sections I always remember is when she talks about this she calls it a bridge across the chasm and on one side there were all of these angels of black art who were creating black art and they were pulling all these other artists on the other side with them She talks about people like Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey. They were just all just like coming across this chasm making art and on this bridge. And so I guess if I think about that particular image, literacy has always been there for me. It’s been like that bridge of opening up new possibilities. Theatre has always been that thing that has opened up new possibilities, new ways of thinking about the world. And I think that in the 80’s I had to think about the world in terms of death and dying because so many people that I knew were dying of complications from aids and so that was something I had to really process and think through a lot about what life meant because I lost so many friends. Most of my friends from college I lost. And so that was something that I had to deal with on a daily basis about what that means and I guess if you think about death as a bridge itself, what was it that in dying and witnessing so much death I had to think about was on the other side of that bridge and that other side was what my life was going to be like in the face of so much death.
Well, if! had to say anything at this point I guess I might call it, “Maine, the exile years, the years in exile. This is not where I’m from. I have had to create community here. So I guess I would call this, ” Maine, the exile years, the years in exile and all the things you have to do when you’re in exile from wherever you came from. I think, like most exiles, you really don’t know because, of course, wherever you came from is not exactly what it was and, you know, you have your memories about that and of course my partner is not from this country. One of us would always be in exile. There are challenges that you have to deal with. You have to deal with the challenge of forming community, forming relationships, the real possibility that those relationships will not last a long time because people change jobs or if you end up with other people who are also in exile and they change jobs that’s a reality. You have to create something that resembles constancy. Exile also means that for me at least that I have to maintain contact with other people who represent something that I call home.
And so I end up having a lot of community that is without nearness so that means I travel a lot. I travel to be with other people who come from my background, my place, and my kind of community and what I remember and call it that so whether or not that’s going with my partner to his country whether that means returning to the South frequently whether it means going to a lot of conferences, whether it means visiting friends and other people who act as a part of my community and family. That’s a challenge. Well, I’m a good tax payer. I’m a good tax payer. I think that I bring, especially to the place that I work, I bring a knowledge and I enrich the place I work because I teach things that students care about and I help produce knowledge and new ways of thinking. I think I bring to my religious community my own integrity and the kinds of contributions that I had growing up whether they be organizing events. I think I bring with me a certain degree of pleasantness to be around an enjoyability and happiness to others.
Birthdays are very important traditions. Our holidays are extremely important because those are the times in which that we pull together family. And family for us is always very complicated. And I think for this kind of curious mixture of the two of us this whole kind of which I never even knew about growing up because my partner was also Catholic is this idea of Saint’s Days. This has become very special. I never remember when my Saint’s day is. My partner always remembers so I always get this wonderful surprise. It’s my Saint’s day. It’s like a party and a feast.
My family gave to me a belief in and a need for stability. That stability doesn’t always look like what they think stability. Stability can take many forms. I think they’re surprised. The most crucial decision for me was to come out and to stay out of the closet because there were many pressures to live a closeted life style, to not be openly gay. That was a crucial decision. It’s something that you face constantly because we live in a culture that is very rigidly oriented around heterosexuality and that constantly tells you if you can be heterosexual the world opens up to you and whatever you do on the side that’s your own business. That, of course is not a life of integrity. I think coming out was a mistake. I would continue to make that mistake. Coming out has been a tremendous source of pain and ill feeling for many people in my family. And it has hurt many people and it wasn’t my intention to and at the same point its just it’s the way it is. It is one of those things that is both … the lesson that you can learn from it is has something to do that integrity is not easy and you have no control over how other people will perceive choices that you see that are central to what it means to be a person of integrity and you don’t get to control that you don’t get to control how other people are going to deal with that and I guess that goes over into so many areas of your life.
I hope I never forget that when you make a choice other people will whatever you perceive as a positive choice or good choice may not have the same impact on everybody else and that you just don’t get to control that. You don’t get to control how people perceive your choices, nevertheless, you have to make choices and you have to be prepared to live with what happens you have to keep going across that bridge and trying to get to the other side.
I am certain of the inevitability of making choices. I am certain of the possibility for happiness. I am certain of the possibility for profound unhappiness. I am certain of the possibility of good and certain of the possibility of evil. My biggest worry is, “Will I ever live in a city again?” So I can walk and lose weight. This car culture is just crazy. When I hit forty-five, that was a real surprise. So ways in which the body disappoints and does not do what you want it to do whenever you want it to do. That’s a major change. I was talking to my doctor and he told me well I’m sure in the next ten or fifteen years there will be tremendous advances made about men and how their bodies change after forty-five but right now we don’t know them. Is this like a menopause or what?
What matters most to me now is my partner, his health, my family, my parents are getting older now, my ability to provide and take care of them as they get older. My successes within my profession, that my research, my writing is well thought of.
He was a person of integrity. He was a person who loved and was loved. Make choices and accept them as choices and be prepared to move through the consequences and come out on the other side of whatever consequences there are. My life is fulfilling. If I can just get these two or three books out in the next five years I’ll be happy. Life has been an enjoyable experience. It’s been one that has allowed me to be reflective and to think about some of the things I’ve said and I think most helpful to me is being able to think more about my focus on choice-making. I had an unusual theology professor, who was a Dominican priest He was an Existentialist and he talked about the difficulties of being an Existentialist and being a Catholic. Existentialism always talks about choice-making. Having to think about those things … one thing you cannot avoid in life is making choices. And I think the other impact on my life about choice-making was when I very seriously began to read Martin Luther King Jr,?s essays and speeches. He was a very profoundly Christian man who made very similar observations about choice-making and the contingent nature of good and evil and that we all have the capacity for those and that’s just the way it is. I’ll go back and reread Martin Luther King again and reread Albert Camus and people like that.
Interviewed by: Elizabeth Ayotte
December 15, 2003