I begin in the streets of my childhood in Baltimore. I remember the joy and love. We were all related by blood, common experience, or mutual care. I was a little feminine creature, a soft boy with a big heart and an even bigger need to love and be loved. The village gave me that love. It was filled with characters—cardplayers and garbagemen, hairdressers and seamstresses, car mechanics and factory workers, domestics, teachers, and preachers, people from the South who came to Baltimore and did their best to adjust to the brick-hard reality of urban life.
My neighbor Mrs. Jordan, sensing I wanted to help, showed me how to scrub her stoop. While we scrubbed, she talked about Lionel Hampton and the man called Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. Other neighbors, like Mr. and Mrs. Wise, had Duke Ellington records on 78 vinyl discs that they played for me. I loved going over to Aunt Nellie’s. She wasn’t a blood relative but treated me like one. At her house, I learned to read music, read magazines like National Geographic, and cut fried chicken to the bone. Aunt Nellie was an elementary school teacher who later became a principal. She and her husband, Uncle Andrew, had no children. An oil painting of their dog Chubby hung over their fireplace. There was Ms. Florence, whose skin was whitening and turning her into an albino and who always had time for me. Mr. Johnson, with his secret stack of nude-ladies playing cards; the drum majors in their fabulous costumes; Jewish merchants like Morris Ginsberg, whose wife taught me words in a strange language called Yiddish.
And there I was—singing doo-wop with the boys, jumping double Dutch with the girls, shooting marbles, moving from house to house where I was always welcomed, wanted, and appreciated. They saw my girlish ways and never once chided me. I never felt the need to hide in a closet. I thrived among my people. They gave me the emotional stamina to be me—the authentic me.
Looking back, I see that the village was founded on the love of God.
God was there before I knew what to call that spirit.
God was there to convey the unspoken words that I heard not in my ears but in my heart: It’s all right. You’re all right. Yes, Carl, you’re safe.
Among the poorest of the poor, among the frightened and the lonely, among the scorned and rejected, among families that were broken and on the brink of destruction, God was there.
God was there in my eyes as I looked at the world around me.
Baltimore, Maryland, 1947, a city of row houses. A city marked by strict racial and social divisions. And a city within a city where a people, cut off from all wealth and privilege, struggled to survive.
The creator was there as I, a chubby child, sat on those worn marble steps and felt sounds coming across my vocal cords. God was there in my voice as I started to sing the first few notes.
I hadn’t been to church all that often, but often enough to fall in love with God’s music. As I stood up and started marching, singing all the way, I pretended to be a member of the choir walking down the main aisle while women in wide-brimmed hats waved handkerchiefs and cried out, “Sing, boy! Go on and sing!” In reality I was walking down the alley between the two houses that would define my childhood.
Once in that same alley I found an old beat-up umbrella. I tore the black nylon material from its frame and threw it over my shoulders. This was my robe. I was singing God’s praises before I knew what those words meant.
God was in my mouth, in my song, in my make-believe.
I can’t tell you why I felt this connection to God.
I can’t tell you why I picked up that tiny ant crawling on the pavement and placed it in the palm of my hand. Why in that creature did I feel a connection to all things? Why did that connection give me a joy that had no name—a joy that kept me calm when I had every reason to be crazy?
Why did I see God in the ant?
Why did I see God in the little green buds on the branches of a scraggly old tree?
Why did I see God in the puffy gray clouds racing across the sky?
Why did I feel God in the first drops of gentle rain falling on my face?
God was with my family when we assembled in the living room to watch the gathering storm.
He was there when the lightning cracked and the thunder rolled.
The elders turned off the radio—even to interrupt their favorite program—and said, “God is speaking through the storm.” The elders believed that God was alive in the power of the storm. The elders prayed silently while we children sat in reverence until the storm passed.
© 2010 Carl Bean and David Ritz
Excerpted from I Was Born This Way: A Gay Preacher's Journey Through Gospel Music, Disco Stardom, and a Ministry in Christ by Carl Bean
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.