“You, then, are charged by the possibility of your good health, by the broadness of your vision, to remember us.”
Black gay writer Melvin Dixon made this call in 1992, in a speech entitled, “I’ll Be Somewhere Listening for My Name,” during an OutWrite conference in Boston. These are among the last words he would deliver during a public speech before his death from AIDS. Darius Bost, Ph.D., professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah, has noted that the title of the speech is “drawn from the sorrow songs of slaves, who used them as an expression of collective trauma and as a catalyst for fugitivity in their attempts to escape slavery.” The message in Dixon’s speech, to remember us, resonates loudly today, and especially so during #BlackHistoryMonth, in a moment that is marked by both dramatic medical advancements and lingering inequities surrounding HIV within the Black community. In 2018, African Americans accounted for 42% of new HIV diagnoses in the United States, despite comprising 13% of the population.
This list of five books about HIV in the Black community is in honor of Dixon’s charge. Spanning from the earlier periods of the AIDS epidemic to today, they provide a good foundation for understanding the history and present state of the virus. One thing that these books make clear is that Black people have been publicly calling attention to the disproportionate infections and death rates within the Black community since the earliest stages of the epidemic.
To read these books is also to gain insight into the sustained resilience of the Black community despite HIV/AIDS. In the face of stigma and death, the people who emerge in these pages created community and art. These selections illuminate a remarkable but unsung tradition, including figures like Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, Assotto Saint, Marlon Riggs, and other individuals who should be more often commemorated during #BlackHistoryMonth.
Standing on the shoulders of our ancestors.
Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, edited by Essex Hemphill, conceived by Joseph Beam (Alyson Books, 1991; new edition from Redbone Press, 2007)
This first selection is a landmark book, not only in the history of HIV and AIDS in the Black community, but also in Black gay literature. Brother to Brother collects writings by Black gay men—and includes a mix of poetry, essays, interviews, and short stories written during the AIDS epidemic. The book is a follow-up to In the Life by Joseph Beam, who died of AIDS in 1988 while he and Hemphill were working on Brother to Brother together. Dorothy Beam, his mother, helped Hemphill complete it. The topics covered in the collection don’t only include HIV/AIDS—they also include sex, gender, desire, brotherhood—but one section, “hold tight, gently,” features different pieces that do center on the virus. Hemphill’s introduction to the book calls out the exclusionary aspects of the white gay community, and underscores the necessity of cultivating Black gay community. The book includes Black gay icons, some who have passed, like Melvin Dixon, Marlon Riggs, and Assotto Saint. It also includes people who are leading in various fields today, like Robert Reid-Pharr, John Keene, Isaac Julien, and Charles Nero. Essex Hemphill beautifully describes Brother to Brother as telling “a story that laughs and cries and sings and celebrates; it’s a quartet of saxophones blowing red-blue squalls; it’s a sextet of a capella voices searching out notes under smoky light; it’s a conversation intimate friends share for hours.”
Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS edited by B. Michael Hunter (Other Countries Press, 1993)
Another groundbreaking collection, Sojourner is a publication of the New York City–based writers’ group the Other Countries collective, which was founded in 1986. The anthology brings together the writings of Black gay men, many who were living with HIV/AIDS and all of whom were impacted by the virus. The book is a somber time capsule and a memorial: The mix of poetry, prose, and illustrations documents the sorrow, bravery, strength, and talent of the contributors as they mourn the death of their loved ones and in many cases are dying themselves. The pieces consist of letters, poems, personal essays, and short fiction; authors include prominent writers and activists. This one might be hard to find, and it’s a tough read, but the book is vital for the way it preserves an often-overlooked history.
The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics by Cathy J. Cohen (University of Chicago Press, 1999)
As AIDS claimed the lives of more and more Black people, especially Black gay men, Cathy Cohen, Ph.D., currently a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, was struck by the whiteness of the literature, images, and general representation of the virus. She also saw an absence of a notable response to the disproportionate number of Black gay men who were dying. These unsettling observations prompted Cathy Cohen to write Boundaries of Blackness, now held as a fundamental work of social science in this area. In the book, Cohen focuses on the political response to HIV/AIDS within the Black community. She describes HIV/AIDS as a cross-cutting issue that affected and came to be associated with an already marginalized subgroup within the Black community. The book draws on interviews Cohen did with activists, community leaders, elected officials, and people living with AIDS—and captures the response to AIDS into the early ’90s. Cohen also looks at how AIDS was depicted in Black newspapers and magazines, like Essence, Jet, and Ebony. This book provides a unique window into the response to AIDS within the Black community at the time.
Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence by Darius Bost (University of Chicago Press, 2019)
Taking its title from the introduction to Hemphill’s Brother to Brother, this recent book offers an indispensable record of the resilience and ingenuity of Black gay men during the harshest periods of the AIDS epidemic. Bost sheds light on how Black gay men created selves, community, and art in the face of death and antigay and anti-Black violence during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Focusing on Washington, D.C. and New York City, Evidence of Being brings into view what Bost identifies as a vibrant and urgent period of gay culture and history. Bost looks at poetry, performance, essays, speeches, gossip columns, diaries, and anthologies from some of the legends at the time. He provides insights into Blacklight Magazine, a Black lesbian and gay themed magazine based in D.C., and the Other Countries collective. The back of the book includes a list of notable people, organizations, and publications that were a part of a Black gay cultural renaissance. Evidence of Being demonstrates that even as they and their loved ones lost their lives to AIDS, Black gay men created artistic records to ensure that their stories would survive.
Remaking a Life: How Women Living with HIV/AIDS Confront Inequality (University of California Press, 2019) by Celeste Watkins-Hayes
In the United States, women account for one in five new HIV diagnoses and deaths caused by AIDS. And Black women are disproportionately affected: Of U.S. women who were diagnosed with HIV in 2015, 61% were African American. And yet, women, for the most part, have not been centered in research and initiatives that focus on HIV/AIDS. Drawing on over a decade of work, in Remaking a Life Celeste Watkins-Hayes shows how women who have HIV/AIDS manage to enact radical transformations from dying from to living with to thriving despite the virus. Watkins-Hayes weaves together the alternatively harrowing and inspiring stories of women with a detailed history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, charting the early years of the virus and the emergence of the HIV safety net. This book doesn’t only focus on Black women, but they do form a core part of it—and Watkins-Hayes’ study is driven by intersectionality, an indispensable contribution of Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw. The women’s stories that emerge in this book detail the conditions surrounding their diagnoses and how they remake their lives in order to survive and, often, thrive.