Being Michael

B.Michael Hunter considered himself a poet long before he came out as a writer. In 1970, he wrote his first poem, “My Problem,” at age 12. At 17, he wrote a poem for his mother, who would be his muse at different points over the next two decades. “Writing poetry” appears among his hobbies on college applications and, later, as part of his Personal Profile on his résumé.

As he explained to a publisher in 1991, he would claim the stylizing of his writer’s name with intention:

Please note I deliberately do not put a space between the period and M when I write B.Michael Hunter. Michael is the name which my family uses when they refer to me. I am trying to “Be” Michael when I write. Namely to be more natural / true / childlike / innocent / real.

Brothers of Other Countries: (L-R) Cary Alan Johnson, Colin Robinson, Olubode Brown, B.Michael Hunter, Donald Woods

B.Michael wrestled with “being Michael” in his life, aware of the pressures and limitations he perceived early on, particularly as a Black Gay man. In his essay, I’ve Come Here to Die, B.Michael is introspective about the challenges in fully embracing his creative sensibilities:

I have always wanted to teach, to dance, to act in the theater, and to write. But these were things that “faggots” did. And I was not a faggot. So I chose careers that were strong, tough, and highly principled, like accounting, law, and computer sales, professions you might identify with your father. In fact, people relied on me and I was very comfortable in the role of provider. In turn, I was rewarded with a career and incredible security. I wanted to be a respectable man in a respected profession.

As an undergraduate at Adelphi University, B.Michael took advantage of the range of extracurricular offerings. He would befriend classmates who were steeped in the arts and engaged politically. He saw how being in decision-making roles influenced the flow of resources. He stepped into leadership positions in student government and helped decide who came to lecture and perform on campus. With a keen commitment to uplifting the experience of African-American students, he co-hosted the radio program “The Black Reflections” on WBAU, chaired the Black Student Union, and pledged the local chapter of the African-American fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, serving as historian, dean of pledges, and president. In 1980, he spent a life-changing summer in Kenya, which he wrote about in his essay on Operation Crossroads Africa

After Adelphi, he moved to Boston to attend law school at Northeastern University, where he was exposed to legal writing and further developed as a critical thinker. B.Michael was the first in his extended family to pursue a post-undergraduate degree. Included in this collection is a paper he wrote in 1983 on the compelling topic of “Homosexuality and The Immigration and Naturalization Service.”

Upon graduation, he was recruited by IBM and excelled in the realm of sales and marketing. With a steady corporate salary, he supported the arts as a donor. He was also that beloved uncle, brother, cousin, godfather who made sure to expose his younger relations to the worlds of music, theater, dance, and film and the likes of Sweet Honey in the Rock and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Then in 1986, a turning point for B.Michael, thanks to Sheilah Mabry, his beloved Bisexual cousin and roommate for a time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who “introduced me to the work of Kate Rushin, Lorraine Bethel, and Audre Lorde, as well as Joseph Beam’s Black Gay anthology In the Life. I met many of my closest New York friends as a result of Joe Beam’s book.” B.Michael wrote these lines in “Cousins,” a collaborative piece with Sheilah about their journey toward healing in their extended family of origin.

The following year, after effecting a transfer to IBM’s midtown Manhattan office, B.Michael discovered Other Countries, a New York City-based collective of Black Gay writers. He might say that writing broke him open, and the communities he found as a result saved his life. He was emboldened and inspired by fellow Black Gay men who threw down artful, dramatic, and raw. A participant in the Other Countries weekly writing workshop, he found siblings who provided him a channel for authentic and vulnerable self-expression. Over time, he would gain confidence reading his own work at open mics and stage performances.

B.Michael’s name appears as marketing and finance committee chair on the masthead for Other Countries: Black Gay Voices, its first volume published in spring 1988. It was no coincidence that, by September 1989, after five-and-a-half years with the company, he left IBM in order to deepen his quest to “be Michael” and pursue a life with more truth and realness. His next chapter consisted of exploring jobs with nonprofit agencies and academic institutions, before realizing his dream of teaching at a public high school.

His experience with Other Countries and organizations like Gay Men of African Descent, which he joined around the same time, led him to organize more intentionally in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People of Color spaces. His contributions to cross-movement work were considerable. Leveraging his training in finance, law, and sales and marketing, he was intrepid with bylaws, budgets and fund development strategies. He had a head for navigating systems and skill in managing group processes. B.Michael could chair a meeting like nobody’s business, and keep a classroom engaged and on task.

I first met B.Michael in 1990 at a community meeting to determine the order of People of Color contingents participating in the New York City Pride March that June. I recall his efficiency in facilitating the agenda; he also stressed the importance of recruiting and training enough volunteer marshals along the parade route to ensure that our communities were safe as well as visible. In other words, he understood that the river’s banks were just as important as the river’s flow. He got shit done, he made infrastructure sexy.

In 1992, he took up the role of managing editor of Other Countries’ second volume, Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS. This journal won a Lambda Literary Award in the category of Small Press Book Award, about which he was exceedingly proud. In Sojourner’s Introduction, B.Michael disclosed for the first time his HIV-positive status, which he had learned just months prior. For him, his determination to see the project through — during which time Black Gay men he knew personally became ill or died — was more potent than any cocktail of antiviral medications.

B.Michael wrote about the things that shaped him: love and trauma, a complicated relationship with his mother, family life growing up in Spanish Harlem, navigating being a Black Gay man in the U.S., self-care decisions as a person living with HIV, injustice, joy and rage, sex and relationships, activism, and more. As his friend, poet Donald Woods opined about the power of writing, which was increasing true for B.Michael: “Wherever you land your sea-tossed vessel is a strategic location.”

He ended up embracing writing as a critical tool in education. He was thrilled to discover Andover Bread Loaf, a summer program designed to bring creative writing to teachers, and ultimately, for him, to the inner-city young people in his high school classrooms. Like Other Countries, this experience offered B.Michael a unique opportunity to hone his writing craft while further integrating different parts of himself. A number of poems included here emerged from those Bread Loaf summers spent alongside his fellow teacher and cherished sister-friend, Ummi Modeste. He was about democratizing writing as technology, as healing balm and, as he would often quote, “passing on to others that which was passed on to me,” a line from “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

B.Michael’s writing appears in chronological order. Thirty-two poems and 11 essays and other pieces in all, most of which were written during the late ’80s and ’90s.

Various contributors to this anthology reference his work. Jacquie Bishop in her short story mentions the enduring impact of his poem, “When Mommy Breaks Down.” And Robert E. Penn, at the launch event for Voices Rising, Other Countries’ third journal in 2007, lifted up “Bridgetown”

It is my favorite B.Michael Hunter poem. The narrator, swimming off the coast of Barbados, suddenly gets tired. He goes under: once, twice, three times. Just when he believes all is lost, he sees a black man tossing a life preserver to him. His mind hesitates, but his body grabs hold. Once pulled ashore, catching his breath, the storyteller admits, “I didn’t think a black man could save my life.”

It sent and still sends chills through my body. In the closely knit, God-fearing, upstanding, self-righteous Black community, I often felt a black man rebuke me, deny me, make fun of me or abuse me. I never thought a black man would want to save my life.

B.Michael’s literary bones had been resting in the sediment of some 70-odd stored file boxes. And even just a few months before publishing What I Miss?, I unearthed a handful of poems from notebooks I had not previously opened. Clearly they weren’t meant to be seen until now. Like cicada nymphs, his writing was hibernating underground for almost two decades before finally bursting out here in a dazzling brood.

Poet Colin Robinson writes about remembering as excavating grief. Archeology requires time, care, and patience.

Johnny Manzon-Santos
11 November 2019

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