This year, World AIDS Day will mark 28 years since the crisis began. Today, AIDS in the gay and lesbian community seems like a distant memory, even if we haven’t quite forgotten the years when it was impossible to get hospitals to take the dying. The demographics of AIDS shifted, and with that comes a shift in how much the LGBTQ community sees AIDS as its problem. Half of U.S. HIV patients are African-Americans, and AIDS is the leading cause of death among Black women aged 25-34 years.
This is compounded by the fact that a disproportionate number of African Americans are in prison. While Blacks account for 12 percent of the population, they are 44 percent of the prison population. In the mainstream media, AIDS in the Black community is often seen through the sensationalistic lens of the “down low syndrome.”
In the early years of the AIDS crisis, the disease was seen as a white man’s problem, and this resulted in Black men with AIDS remaining invisible and neglected. Now, with the rise of AIDS in the Black population, Black gays contend differently with an epidemic that occupies the lived reality and imagination of African Americans.
In this context, what does it mean to be Black and gay, and to live in the shadow of AIDS? How does one disentangle the reality of AIDS so that it’s not automatically assumed to be “the” Black gay experience while also acknowledging the prevalence of the epidemic?
In 1986, Joseph Beam edited In the Life, a groundbreaking anthology of Black gay writing. Following its success, he began working on its sequel, Brother to Brother, but died before its completion. In 1988, the book was completed and published by the poet and activist Essex Hemphill and went on to acquire the same canonical status as the first book.
These two books have literally entered the language of queer life. But they were both out of print until their recent republication by RedBone Press.
Hemphill died in 1995 from complications related to HIV, as did Beam. AIDS is a constant theme in both books, but so is the ongoing narrative of what it means to negotiate being Black and gay. In the short story “Obi’s Story,” by Cary Alan Johnson in Brother to Brother, Stu roams around Africa looking to connect to an African past as he confronts the reality of race. Both books presented Black gay sexuality in uncompromising and graphic terms, resisting the exoticization of Black male sexuality so prevalent in white gay culture while reclaiming its complexity without the gloss of pathos. The books are also essential snapshots of a constantly unfolding Black gay literature; In the Life includes a lengthy and revealing interview with Samuel R. Delany. But Beam also interviews “Emmett,” who lives as a gay man in Russell County, Alabama. It’s an ethnographic approach that portends the recent Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, by Northwestern University’s E. Patrick Johnson.
There’s a relative dearth of work by and about Black women and AIDS. According to Lisa Moore, the founder and editor of RedBone Press, this is in part because “there’s no community around Black women with HIV and AIDS,” leaving women isolated and vulnerable to the stigma of the disease.
Several other books deal with AIDS in the United States and outside. The following is hardly an exhaustive list, but it does indicate that the AIDS crisis is not over:
—The After-Death Room: Journey into Spiritual Activism, a memoir by Chicago-based Michael McColly. The book won the 2007 Lambda Literary Award for Spirituality
—The Day I Stopped Being Pretty: A Memoir, by Rodney Lofton. Lofton writes about living with HIV
—Fingernails Across the Chalkboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS from the Black Diaspora, edited by Randall Horton and M. L. Hunter (the latter is based in Chicago)
—Sizwe’s Test: A Young Man’s Journey through Africa’s AIDS Epidemic, by Jonny Steinberg
—To Be Left with the Body, a collection of poetry edited by Cheryl Clarke and Steven G. Fullwood. This includes work by the Chicago native Raymond Berry.
—Vital Signs: Essential AIDS Fiction, edited by Richard Canning