Rebuilding Community as HIV Prevention
"How does it feel to be a problem?" W.E.B. DuBois invoked this question as it applied to the state of black people at the turn of the century in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, back in 1903. In 2014, this question can be posed to black gay men in the South as it relates to the HIV epidemic. However, we know that Black gay men living in the South are not the problem. Black gay men coming together to build stronger communities is a key component in curbing the alarmingly high rates of HIV we see in our community, particularly among young Black gay men.
It seems that in this current moment when virtual community spaces have at once highlighted the continuing need for real community spaces and replaced them, perhaps our task is less about reinventing the process of community building and more about remembering, since we do not have to look too far back in our history to see examples of how Black gay men created beloved community in the face of this epidemic. At a recent conference at Emory University, Professor Darius Bost of San Francisco State University presented his work on black gay men's HIV/AIDS activism in Washington, D.C., during the early 1980s. I was moved by the stories of how Black gay men came together as a community, and with few resources, provided care and support for their brothers who had fallen ill. The late 1990s in Atlanta saw a similar creation of a number of community spaces dedicated to promoting black gay men's wellness, including but not limited to HIV. While we can certainly see the contemporary legacy of these earlier moments of community-building in some of the programs offered by AIDS service organizations, most of these spaces have disappeared. The loss of leaders of many of these spaces and the lack of intergenerational dialogue that could transmit the knowledge of what had been done before created a context that would make it difficult to sustain these vital community spaces. While I acknowledge that the exigencies of the HIV epidemic during earlier times called for a different response than it does now, and at the risk of sounding like I am romanticizing the past, how can we bring back some of the love ethic that appeared to characterize these earlier moments into our contemporary HIV prevention efforts?
James Baldwin once said that "The place in which I fit will not exist until I make it." Black gay men are responsible for and capable of building the communities that we know will support us in living full and healthy lives. Perhaps a deeper appreciation of our history as a community, as well as a commitment to creating better institutional memory and intergenerational dialogue in the future, may offer paths towards building stronger community in our present.
"We Are Here: Black Gay Men in the South," is a blog tour curated by the Counter Narrative Project and the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance to amplify the voices of Black gay men in the South. For more information feel free to contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Justin C. Smith is an Atlanta-based HIV prevention researcher. He has been working in the HIV prevention and care field since 1998.