We're Still Here, Graying With HIV -- and We Must Bear Witness

The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memories. This is how people care for themselves.

-- Barry López, Crow and Weasel

Khafre Kujichagulia Abif
Khafre Kujichagulia Abif
Rameses Frederick

I have been asked, "Why do you work independently to publish anthologies?" My first response is usually: "I don't have a choice. This work is one of my assignments from the God I serve." In 2010, I lost two friends who were warriors in this fight against HIV/AIDS. They both were long-term survivors who, in my mind, did a great deal more activism than I did. I was in pain after Richard Anderson and Floyd Cooper's transition. I wished I had taken the time to gather their stories into an oral history or some other format. In my attempt to move past the pain and hurt, I asked God, "Why I am still here? What is my living supposed to accomplish? Not long after asking these questions, I began to receive what I believe are assignments and a purpose for my life.

I first spoke openly about my calling -- about the why -- after the publishing of Cornbread, Fish and Collard Greens: Prayers, Poems & Affirmations for People Living With HIV/AIDS. I began to speak openly about my belief, which is that the lived experiences of people living with HIV who have endured, struggled, thrived and lived through the epidemic need to be captured in the form of storytelling.

This storytelling is important not just for those in years to come who want to know about HIV/AIDS, but also, more importantly, for those who are living with HIV in the silence, shame, stigma and discrimination that may prevent them from finding their voice, from self-advocating for their own best health outcomes.

I live the U.S. South, and I see, hear and know that there are far too many people struggling to access health care. Many people in the South have not yet pushed past the shame and stigma of living with HIV to seek care and treatment. I know that the lives of some of us living in the rural South may become unbearable on many fronts if our communities find out we are living with HIV. Nine Deep South states lead in new HIV/AIDS diagnoses, HIV prevalence, death rates from HIV, and HIV racial disparities, according to a 2016 report from the Southern HIV/AIDS Strategy Initiative.

I believe the lived experiences of people living with HIV/AIDS are important -- important enough for me to dedicate my time, talent and resources to collect, edit and publish for our brothers and sisters who are living their lives behind the veil of silence, shame, stigma and fear. I believe our collective experiences can inform -- and, in some cases, change -- the way of thinking of many who are blind to us and to what we continue to overcome. I believe our stories have power to support one another, and I believe our stories can combat shame and stigma, which continue to serve as drivers of this epidemic.

Since the 2013 release of Cornbread, Fish and Collard Greens: Prayers, Poems & Affirmations for People Living With HIV/AIDS, I have been working on my assignments. I am excited to release another anthology, Sistah's Speak, the stories and voices of women who are living with HIV, in September of this year. As the editing of Sistah's Speak was nearly complete, and June 5 (HIV Long-Term Survivors Awareness Day) was approaching, I was given another assignment: We are still here, graying with HIV, and our stories need to be told.

We Bear Witness is the working title for a new collection of short non-fiction stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, personal narratives and critical essays from HIV long-term survivors and persons over age 50 who have lived and borne witness. Submissions are open to people who have been living with HIV since before the modern era of effective HIV drugs, and to persons over age 50 who bear witness to that era. Submissions will be accepted through Nov. 30, 2017. This is a hard deadline, as I would like to have the project complete and published before HIV Long-Term Survivors Awareness Day on June 5, 2018. All submissions should be emailed to Khafre Kujichagulia Abif at WeBearWitnessHIV@gmail.com.

The power of stories is to bring facts to life. Stories hold within them the influence of emotion in decision-making and the ability to evoke a connectedness between the teller and the listener.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

-- Maya Angelou

Khafre Kujichagulia Abif, M.L.S., is an Atlanta-based AIDS and bisexual activist, writer, editor, blogger and artist who has been thriving with HIV for 28 years. Khafre now serves as a community organizer with the Southern AIDS Coalition, whose mission is to end the HIV epidemic in the South through federal advocacy, capacity building, education and grassroots organizing. Khafre has been honored to be selected one of HIV Plus magazine's 75 Most Amazing People Living with HIV in 2016 and POZ Magazine's 2015 POZ 100: Celebrating Long-Term Survivors.