In December, 2016, I visited Jackson, Mississippi for the first time. I had several meetings that included an inspired conversation about what a National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD) weekend of events could look like with My Brother's Keeper, Inc. (MBK). In 2014, the Human Rights Campaign reported that Jackson had the fourth highest rate of HIV infections in the country. I wanted to learn more about the city and HIV activism there. I also wanted to learn ways we could assist and possibly participate in activities. I was grateful to get the call for Counter Narrative Project to thought partner and come in to participate in a weekend of events for NBHAAD.
How do we manufacture joy? This became the question as I boarded the plane.
My first task was to lead a closed town hall conversation with local black gay men. The objective was to have an open forum to identify issues in the community, raise potential solutions and discuss collaborations that could be undertaken to improve the lives the black gay men in Jackson. I chose the title Joy Is the New Currency for the presentation. The title spoke to the idea of seeking out and relishing in joy as a means to strengthen and embolden us to improve our community. It was also my hope to create a joyous memory through the conversation we'd have.
The town hall consisted of about 20 brothers, and it was co-lead by staff from MBK's Recruitment & Retention team. I used passages from In The Life: A Black Gay Anthology and poems from Essex Hemphill to anchor the conversation. Familiar issues arose -- employment, housing, HIV stigma and mentorship. The brothers of My Brother's Keeper expanded the conversation by raising specific topics such as safety when meeting people through online apps and acceptance of men who identify as femme. In the end, the success of the discussion was more about the feelings it created for those in the room. Everyone in the space shared something, and there were lots of smiles and laughter throughout.
On Day 2, MBK hosted an artistic day full of poetry and singing from local community members. The room soared with energy from the sounds and words, but also from the delicious food that was served. I took the opportunity to wear my artist hat. I read a piece from Marcus Emel called "M.A.Z.E." and took photos of the experience.
I left Jackson encouraged to keep doing this work. Even more so, I was emboldened to be even more unapologetic about it. So, how do we manufacture joy? We can and must create inspired spaces for black gay men to express, connect and learn from one another. Through this we can create magic, joyous and transcendent memories.