AIDS Archives: Black, Gay Writers and Reagan’s America
Content Warnings: HIV/AIDS, death from HIV/AIDS, anti-Blackness and racism.
Through their writing Beam, Hemphill and Saint captured not only the trauma and violence of the early years of AIDS, but also the heat and joy of Black, same-sex desire.
By Emily Roach
Having an extensively archived history is a privilege that eludes those who hold marginalised identities. As Jaclyn Pryor puts it, “lives of queer and trans folk slip from history because there are few institutions devoted to collecting, protecting and committing their history to collective memory.” The poetry, diaries, and documentary films produced by Black, gay men who lived and died during the HIV/AIDS crisis contain multiple references to the very real possibility of erasure from history’s archives. The works of Joseph Beam, Essex Hemphill, Assotto Saint, Marlon Riggs and Melvin Dixon demonstrate a pressing need to publish and record, emphasising the importance of creating their own tangible archives to document the experiences of Black, gay men in Reagan’s America.
During the 1980s gay men in America had little to no legislative protection. Homophobia and moral outrage dominated media narratives which had already begun to turn against the Gay Liberation movement after the progression that followed the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Although the HIV virus is widely understood to have been present on several continents prior to the 1980s, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1981 of a cluster of deaths of gay men from Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and Kaposi’s sarcoma marks the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis in America. However, it was not until 1985 that Republican President, Ronald Reagan, mentioned the word ‘AIDs’ in public. In a climate of fear and stigma, the wildly disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS on marginalised groups including gay and bisexual men, intravenous drug users, transgender women of colour, sex workers and poor, Black communities, perpetuated the silence and neglect from the highest levels of government. The most affected populations were left to develop their own research, provide essential care to the sick and dying and faced battles to bury their dead with many funeral homes refusing to handle the bodies of AIDS victims.
Whilst all gay men suffered intense homophobia during the early decades of AIDS, Black gay men experienced the double oppressions of homophobia and anti-Blackness. Darius Bost comments on the “racial retrenchment affecting urban black communities during the Reagan era” that further exacerbated the urgency that writers and anthologists such as Joseph Beam felt to create, collect and compile evidence of a frenetic period of Black cultural production. In his 1986 text In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, Beam writes about the need for “archival permanence” achieved through the publication of written works, to counter history’s straight, white bias. Beam sought to publish anthologies that would memorialise Black, gay lives and said “[w]hat is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”
One of the poets featured in Beam’s In the Life was Essex Hemphill, who Bost describes as “one of the most prominent of the black gay intellectuals of the 1980s and 1990s.” In his poem ‘The Tomb of Sorrow’, Hemphill calls on his “angels” the “Black diva drag queens” and juxtaposes the imagined moment of his own funeral with the vivacity of life through references to “go-go music” and “dance and sweat.” He ends with the promise that his “sequined and divine” Black drag queen angels “will come back / to haunt you.” Hemphill’s poetry frequently featured the lives of those obscured from mainstream view, like the regulars of a gay bar in Washington D.C., The Brass Rail. The bar provided the name for one of Hemphill’s best-known works performed with Wayson Jones and Larry Duckette, who together formed the performance group Cinque. The poem (accessible here on YouTube) has a heady, erotic charge with the undercurrent of violence permeating throughout: “The boys danced, darling / (I have been naked with you)”. Together with his creative interest in featuring underexplored lives and communities, like Beam, Hemphill recognised the importance of anthologies and archives and he worked to publish Beam’s sequel to In the Life, the anthology Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, following Beam’s death in the late 1980s.
Another contemporary of Hemphill and Beam was Haitian born Assotto Saint, one of the first Black activists to write about being HIV positive. His poetry featured in Beam’s anthology and Saint curated his own edited collections. Poet and writer Victoria Brownworth who knew Saint personally, remembers him as a “a poet of the black voices of the AIDS war, the unheard, unmentioned voices that he was desperate to keep alive in any way he could.” Saint, like other Black, gay creators of the early decades of HIV/AIDS considered the archiving of literary contributions from marginalised voices a matter of pressing urgency. Brownworth writes that Saint “had to collect the bits and pieces that would create a different kind of names quilt—the angry verses, the embittered stanzas, the breathy last couplets of the dying.” Through their writing Beam, Hemphill and Saint captured not only the trauma and violence of the early years of AIDS, but also the heat and joy of Black, same-sex desire.
It was not just writers that sought to document the experiences of Black, gay men during the Reagan years and beyond. Documentary filmmaker Marlon Riggs created multiple films during the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis. In one of those films, Tongues Untied (1989), Riggs merged poetry, song, vogueing and documentary footage to capture Black, gay and gender nonconforming experience. The film featured the writers discussed above and caused controversy amongst outraged conservatives for its frank depiction of sex and love between Black men, captured through Beam’s famous quote, “Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act.” Riggs said the film was to “shatter the nation's brutalizing silence on matters of sexual and racial difference.” He further explored the diversity of Black experiences in Black Is…Black Ain’t (1994) which captured his own ailing health. Riggs died before the film was completed.
Today, the anthologies, essays and poetry produced by Beam, Hemphill and Saint are much harder to access, at least in the UK, than notable works of their white contemporaries such as Paul Monette, who died of AIDS related illnesses during the same era. That is not to detract from the importance of works like Monette’s, but rather to emphasise how the archival erasure these creators spoke so vociferously about during their lifetimes has been perpetuated through the narrative of HIV/AIDS and related activism in America. Although the prevention and treatment of HIV is significantly advanced today, the Black AIDS Institute (BAI) explains how Black Americans continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV, including the “profound” impact on Black transgender people. The BAI noted that if Black America were a country in its own right, “its HIV epidemic would rank among the world’s largest.”
In terms of HIV/AIDS literature, the works of Hemphill, Beam, Saint, Riggs and professor and poet Melvin Dixon remain vastly understudied and Darius Bost’s Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence fills a necessary critical gap. His invaluable research makes clear that the works of these poets, writers, essayists, diarists and filmmakers speak to both the past and present and they sought to humanise the marginalised and stigmatised, to put their own writing and the writing of others into print so historians could not whitewash, erase or forget. To complete his text, Bost undertook extensive archival research which included accessing Dixon’s private diaries and public speeches through the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. Bost cites a speech given by Dixon in 1992, the final public address before his death: “I may not be there for the development of gay literature, but I’ll be somewhere listening for my name…you, then, are charged by the possibility of your good health…to remember us.”
Emily Roach is a PhD candidate and teaches Law and English Literature at university. Their research focuses on twentieth and twenty-first century American fiction, LGBT poetry, fiction and memoir, slam and spoken word poetry and queer aspects of popular culture.