Kali O'Ray's Memorial Service

Updated: Feb 2

Kali O'Ray, executive director of the San Francisco Black Film Festival, died suddenly and shockingly of heart failure on August 7 at the age of 48. (This was a congenital condition of which he was unaware, not anything related to Covid-19.) I've written elsewhere of my personal relation to Kali and of his unwavering support for Shoga Films.

Last Saturday the family celebrated the life of Kali O'Ray in the parking lot of the African American Art and Culture Complex in San Francisco. In spite of the dystopian weirdness of grieving in a parking lot, masked, six feet apart, and unable to hug, the joy and sadness of the occasion was borne along the human tide of laughter and tears that could not be stanched.

The form of the memorial service was familiar to me, though it was pretty much unheard of when I was growing up. Back in the day, religious "authorities" (priest, rabbis, etc.) shepherded these rites of passage. They followed ossified forms that provided little to no platform for anyone but a few select members of the immediate family. When my first lover died of AIDS in 1991, his family -- I'll never understand why -- asked me to be a pallbearer at his funeral. Since his family was homophobic and had abandoned him during his illness, I wasn't going to legitimize the hypocrisy of a fundamentalist Christian funeral. I knew from experience that the preacher would not mention that he was gay or that he had died of AIDS and would tell us that he was in a better place. I had seen it before, and it turned my stomach.

In the 80s, we developed a memorial service that dispensed with homophobic disapproval and religious hypocrisy. We came together and offered a platform to anyone who wanted to speak -- a Quaker meeting about the departed. If a religious figure was present, all the better, but memorials could be held anywhere and convened by those whose authority sprang from love, not tradition.

So as I sat in the parking lot, I was impressed by the family's use of this looser communal expression. The DJ's music was upbeat but not overwhelming; the Reverend Arnold Townsend offered a pithy prayer and scripture reading sending a message of love rather than one of doctrinal adherence (I'd been subjected to that too in religious funerals); the Black rite of pouring libations not only invoked the ancestral lineage but was itself inspiring and a performative tour-de-force. I'm going to incorporate that into my memorial service! (Ashe)

Then there were the words of grief and love and anecdotes and laughter from family and friends. The great thing about these communal expressions is how one spirit is refracted in its many facets -- father, husband, son, artist, friend, lover of cinema and music (our connection), outpost of the Black experience in an increasingly embattled Fillmore. But there were smaller revelations that revealed new hues. Kali loved skateboarding; one of the personal artifacts on display was a Jovontae Turner skateboard featuring John Contrane. He DJ'd twice a week at the Boom Boom Room. He had his "bad boy" behavior from time to time -- all of it pretty innocuous but funny nonetheless.

The piece I was able to add was another detail, but I don't know that it would have come out otherwise. As far as I could tell, Kali didn't have a gay bone in his body -- nor did he possess any residual homophobia. Although he knew little about queer culture, he insisted that his film festival have LGBTQ representation. It was small attribute of inclusion in a remarkably expansive spirit, but I was glad I could express it publicly.

During my brief remarks, I quoted from what I had written upon learning about his death. "It did not matter that I was white and gay; it did not matter that he was Black and straight." The bond that Kali created, not just with me but with everyone, came from his heart, and, although he was what the older generation would have called a "race men" (a term of praise), his heart knew no race, no class, no division. He loved who he loved, and his memorial service reflected that.