On the Greatest Generation: The Black Gay '80s

Those men, those sons of Audre Lorde, all writers and activists -- Joseph Beam, Essex Hemphill, Marlon Riggs, Craig Harris, Donald Woods, Assoto Saint, and others -- provide so much perspective that it's a shame that in our current HIV/AIDS moment, their legacy is nearly extinct.
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I don't run into black gay men as much that talk about the books, and films, and art that saved their lives. Works like In the Life and Brother to Brother; and films like Tongues United and Looking for Langston, that seemed to be at another point, in another moment, in another world, indispensable to our existence. These were certainly the norms of the activist and intellectual communities I came out into as recently as the early 2000s. But that history, that spectacular history, embedded in those books, carried the burden almost singularly of trying to save a generation of black gay and bisexual men. It's a shame that so much of that legacy has not been better integrated in our current HIV/AIDS programmatic and advocacy landscape.

To be fair there has been some consideration of AIDS activism history, broadly speaking. There have been community screenings, wide and well-deserved acclaim for films like We Were Here and How to Survive a Plague, that tell very important stories. These narratives are valuable and provide necessary insights into several histories that form how we imagine the 80s. But the story of black gay and bisexual men's activism in that same period, the height of the Reagan/Thatcher era, those tremendous and breathtaking revolutionary acts also need to be told and told again, because it gives us a fuller picture of the many kinds and forms and manifestation of AIDS activism in that period.

The lie that we tell ourselves is that we didn't exist. Perhaps collective trauma isn't just about the repetition of remembering things too horrible to forget, but the repetition of forgetting things too horrible to remember.

Resilience has been a topic that's been tossed about in some HIV/AIDS prevention conversations. However, there is no resilience without remembering. And the starting point for that remembrance is the activism that sprang up in the 1980s among that generation of black gay and bisexual men. They were at war. Perhaps we still are.

Of that era, that decade, of organizations forming, books being published, conferences organized, events coordinated, that we sometimes refer to as the black gay renaissance, those men, who also disrupted funerals, when their brothers' lives were being "de-queered" and sanitized for heterosexist families (see writer and activist Assoto Saint for more information), and conferences where their presence was marginalized (see writer and activist Craig Harris for more information), offer important strategies for resilience and resistance, against the Empire, in the face of despair. These examples also provide texture and depth to a community for which in our current imagination gets depicted almost singularly as disempowered and passive. There are models of resilience for black gay and bisexual men, and models of despair, that we must excavate from the ruins.

I resist romanticizing these men, though it is difficult at times not to. They were superhuman men with very human needs. One can just examine the letters of Joseph Beam, editor of the anthology In the Life, in particular, to recognize in the midst of leading a movement, he was also extremely fragile, and suffered from a loneliness that consumed him. Activism isn't just triumph and bravery, but alienation and suffering. Most of us don't learn until it's too late, that you cannot take on the dominant culture, the systems of oppression, without being poisoned by it, and Joseph Beam's life is in many ways I think, an example of that. So we all chant "When My Brother Fell," but forget the other Essex Hemphill poem "Heavy Corners," and the lesser referenced but equally consequential Audre Lorde poem "Dear Joe," both of which are absolutely beautiful as works of literature, and at the same time, serve as a kind of cautionary tale for our current generation of activists. When you have blueprints you have some sense of what's ahead of you.

Those men, those sons of Audre Lorde, all writers and activists -- Joseph Beam, Essex Hemphill, Marlon Riggs, Craig Harris, Donald Woods, Assoto Saint, and others -- provide so much perspective that it's a shame that in our current HIV/AIDS moment, their legacy is nearly extinct. Black gay men face many dangers, but to try to do this work, particularly any kind of HIV/AIDS advocacy work, and not know Marlon, and Essex, and Joseph, and the many others, I think is dangerous.

And we bang our head against the wall about what to do to save black gay men. But we should be asking ourselves, for that generation of black gay men, those who died and those who walk this earth today, it's important to note that not all of our bravest died, what wisdom can we extract from them? What blueprints can be provided? There is certainly wisdom in their resilience. We just have to extract it.

Our artifacts are our anthologies. We must return to those poems and essays, stories and aphorisms if we are to ever effectively grapple with the collective trauma that we've experienced. That is not to suggest the work that is happening now, present and emerging, but we should not ignore that which has happened before either. There is also a huge need for intergenerational dialogue. And not just one-sided either. The 80s generation has much to learn from those of born in that decade.

We must restore, not only our cultures, but ourselves. This is particularly crucial since in our current moment, which is dire in many cases for young black gay men, we need to better understand how in the 1980s that generation of black gay men, survived their plague, or didn't; and how they coped, how they failed themselves and each other, and how they triumphed. History is many things, and certainly it's a series of lessons that can be either mastered or mistakes repeated.

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