And Then He Went Out Like a F*ing Meteor: A Tribute to Dr. Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé
I used to say he was the most brilliant person I'd ever known. He certainly was. But as I reflect back on the life and legacy of my friend Dr. Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé, I am reminded of his courage: His courage to continue to dissent when the privileges of assimilation would have tempted a lesser person; his courage to live in opposition to the dominant culture and face the costs with grace and compassion; his courage to show up in the world and in the work as a queer, polyamorous, kinky, mystic and also a theologian, university administrator, HIV activist and faith leader. He was and will always be one of the most important mentor figures in my life. He has been my greatest influence.
My first encounter with him was a documentary he appeared in, video footage from the historic Black Nations, Queer Nations conference. While visiting Oakland, California, for a conference, I reached out to him and we connected. He drove this van that he called the "queer mobile" or something like that. We hung out and spent the day together. He even made me dinner. I remember his genius, but I also remember his generosity, a lesson I try to live by and recommend to others. Being smart leaves an impression, but being kind? People never forget that.
After our initial meeting, we kept in touch. For a period of about a year, we spoke almost every morning. In these conversations, I learned so much from him. He told me about the black science fiction writers Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler. We discussed our mutual love for Bell Hooks. He told me about his interest in Sufism. He let me read this science fiction/erotic story he wrote, probably one of the only science fiction stories focused on two black male lovers. Most critically, he shared with me stories about how HIV impacted his generation of 1980s black LGBTQ artists and activists. He was the first person to share with me the stories of having to attend funerals every week. He downloaded his memories on me, and I received them. Now I carry those memories, and they shape my work. These stories are the architecture of my organization, the Counter Narrative Project. And though, up to that point, I had read the poetry of Essex Hemphill and the essays of Joseph Beam, it was Dr. Farajajé that helped me understand not only the beauty of their words, but also the urgency. And, it was through these stories, that he would change my life.
He was one of the most dissident black voices in academia. As a black (though he also embraced his multiracial heritage), queer, bisexual, polyamorous anarchist, doing his work in religion and simultaneously engaged in HIV activism, his very presence was an affront to the gatekeepers of black respectability activism and scholarship. His own intellectual lineage, particularly some of his major influences -- black lesbian feminism, postcolonial theory, anarchist politics and the writings of Samuel R. Delany -- culminated in his being a founding voices of what we know as black queer theory. As a shaman, a practitioner of both kink and mysticism and a "butch queen," his worldview was one of plurality and heterogeneity. He was a shapeshifter.
Though he made many, many, many substantial contributions as a scholar and an activist, the one that stands out to me in this moment was his early HIV work as a faculty member at Howard University in the 1980s. Based in the divinity school, he taught one of the first courses on HIV in the country and he even encouraged his students to become trained in HIV test counseling. He was also probably the only member of the Howard University faculty, or the faculty of any historically black college and university, not only to be an active member of ACT UP, but to lead a direct action at a mayor's office.
During this period, Dr. Farajajé began to emerge as an important HIV activist, queer theologian and public intellectual, exemplified by his appearance in Newsweek in 1995. In his keynote speech at the 1995 Creating Change Conference, he put forth an intersectional vision of queer and HIV activism that was the culmination of what he had been doing as a scholar and activist up to that point. This speech is one of the more important moments in our movement's history.
On the day I learned that he passed away, one of my steering committee members called me to possibly gossip and just catch up. I had literally just gotten the news of Dr. Farajajé's passing. As I began describing what he meant to me, meant to all of us, I was overwhelmed with tears because I knew there would never, ever be another like him.
Charles Stephens is an Atlanta-based writer and activist. He is also the founder and executive director of the Counter Narrative Project.