Archive Remembers Heroes and History of Black HIV/AIDS Activism

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Several projects are attempting to archive the history of AIDS activism -- there's the ACT UP Oral History Project, Visual AIDS' Archive Project, and a number of LGBT archives, including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture's LGBT archive. And yet much of what has emerged as public memorials of the AIDS epidemic and its heroes has focused on a handful of mostly white activists and organizations.

The long history and impact of black AIDS activists, particularly during the early years of the epidemic, are less known. Dan Royles, a writer and assistant professor of history at Florida International University, wants to make sure we know about those stories.

Royles is finishing his book, To Make the Wounded Whole: The Political Culture of African American AIDS Activism, which is part of the Justice, Power, and Politics series at University of North Carolina Press. He also created an oral history project among African-American AIDS activists, as well as an online archive about HIV/AIDS and African-American communities.

The book and other projects grew out of information Royles gathered for his research seminar while studying for his Ph.D. in History at Temple University.

"I wanted to write about AIDS in Philadelphia, and one of the stories I found was about BEBASHI," Royles said, referring to the organization Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues. "It was the first, or one of the first, black gay service organizations in the country."

Right away, Royles recognized the sometimes fraught relationship between white activists and organizations within African-American communities.

"I thought it was a very interesting story and a really important story, because you have these tensions among people who are in marginalized groups, and it was different from the popular narratives I've seen about the AIDS epidemic," Royles said.

As he kept digging, Royles found that the narratives around the response from African-American communities to the HIV/AIDS epidemic needed to be interrogated.

"The book is important because even today, so many decades into the epidemic and having known for so long that AIDS has a disproportionate impact on communities of color and black communities in particular, a lot of those narratives frame black communities either as ignorant or passive, or as powerless," Royles said. "It's about how homophobic the black church is ... all these ways that black communities are inadequate in response to the AIDS epidemic."

"And I think that all those narratives are rooted in ignorance of what black communities have actually done."

Through his historical research, Royles has found a vibrant legacy of black AIDS activism going back to the beginning of the epidemic. And various groups were approaching the issue with a "really diverse and creative set of approaches."

Inside the archives and oral histories, readers will find pamphlets for AIDS actions and rallies, along with handouts and flyers about fundraisers. It's a plethora of information across time about the active participation of black AIDS activists concerning AIDS.

Royles, who is white, thought hard about telling this very complex story about another culture.

"I think I've actually become trepidatious about it over time," Royles said. "As you dig deeper, a lot of the story is about white people not getting it -- then it's like, trepidation about, "What are my own blind spots?'"

"But the way I think about it is, the story was not out there. I'm happy to be doing a project that I think is important and speak to really fundamental issues about justice and American society today."

The book is not meant to be the definitive tome on the subject, Royles added.

"I don't want my book to be the final word on any of this," he said. "It absolutely should not be. I see it as the start of a conversation, rather than 'the' conversation. I hope that people will respond to it, will grapple with it. I hope people will critique it and point out things I got wrong."

Royles added, "There's a whole other set of sources, some of which are not even touched by the book, that people can use, whether they are scholars or people in the general public or activists or people with living HIV. The hope is that they can use them [the archive and oral history project] as a point of point of entry to this much bigger story."

While the book won't be released until late next year, the archive and oral history project grow every day.

And what is the goal for all the dedicated people who offered their stories to Royles?

"I hope that those people get to see their work being recognized as important," Royles said. "And what I found in talking to people is there is a really palpable awareness among black AIDS activists that their work has not been recognized."

"I hope they at least get the sense of being seen and hailed for the important work they've done."