What He Missed

Back in 2003, a couple years after B.Michael’s passing, I sketched an idea in a journal for his AIDS quilt. How might a 3’ x 6’ panel emblazon his name and capture his essence? I thought about his love for maps-atlases-globes, and how he shared this passion especially with the young people in his classrooms and in his life. He would extol the Mapparium in Boston, one of his all-time favorite destinations.

I envisioned the quilt as a world map, which would indicate all the places he was able to visit. Though I began with the Atlantic-centered version ubiquitous in U.S. classrooms (see below), I thought he would appreciate the Pacific-centered Peters Equal Area Map, an atypical perspective for those of us in the Western Hemisphere. The continents would be a solid earthy orange color against a mosaic of greens and blues — teal was his favorite color — to somehow create a shimmering sunlight-on-the-water effect since AIDS panels are often seen from a distance.

I partnered with an amazing quiltress, Cherrymae Gholston, to execute this vision. Quilting is done in community: manifesting B.Michael’s would necessarily involve the village.

I first invited people who knew B.Michael to send me a piece of fabric, solid or patterned, on the green-blue-turquoise-teal spectrum. I set up a Facebook site to locate potential contributors and generate momentum. In so doing, I learned that folks who knew B.Michael had continued to hold him in their hearts, even years later, and were motivated to participate.

I also solicited people who didn’t know B.Michael; their participation invited them to reflect on their own tender places. By the 10th anniversary of his death in 2011, I had received 108 swatches from friends and acquaintances from across the U.S. and a half-dozen other countries!

Through the process I was able to compost my own learning. People are open to opportunities to connect. Virtual village is real. Grief can be generative. Healing has no plateau or expiration date. 

When it came time to compile B.Michael’s writing, I leaned in to this model of communal creativity. It had to be a “we” endeavor, a way to call forth and refresh B.Michael on our collective screen. He would not be the sole focus of tribute, rather he would be the organizing principle — the batting, if you will — for people to share about their lives because their stories matter too.

Colin Robinson helped draft a call for submissions, which we first disseminated mid-2017. We were bowled over by folks’ heartwarming responses. People reported feeling deeply inspired, some moved to tears.

After an initial flurry of submissions, I entered into conversations with a couple dozen more would-be contributors. Though their spirits were indeed willing, it turns out that people lead full lives, and are no longer in their 20s and 30s with boundless reserves of time and energy. Others were triggered, encountering their own versions of unexcavated grief, which made it challenging to follow through.

I could totally relate.

My own situation included a partner who had recently retired, a spirited kindergartner who I am co-parenting in my 50s, and a live-in mom living with Alzheimer’s, all of which eclipsed my capacity to move What I Miss? forward. I got swept up by the undertow of overwhelm. As a result, I carried around this low-grade guilt-fever that would periodically spike: I underestimated what was required; I left something so important unfinished; I wasn’t able to do it all; who am I to do this?; I’m not communicating about it. With self-compassion, I recognized that each of us has our version of this. I blinked only to realize that more than a year had gone by.

Then a shift. In March of 2019, for my 54th birthday, my partner, Mickey, surprised me with tickets to see Hamilton in San Francisco. I showed up for the most part uninitiated, hearing only that the creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, had absolutely brought it. Despite this YouTube age, I was wholly unfamiliar with the music and libretto. Soon after intermission, Thomas Jefferson returns from France asking everyone, “What did I miss?” The final line of the final song is “Who tells your story?” Clearly these messages originated from the great Black Gay Beyond! With more pep in my step, I reconnected with my original intention for doing this project, and revisited the project with more ease and joy.

Contributors who I had left hanging in 2018 were incredibly gracious and free of judgment. For our inaugural launch in November 2019, thirteen villagers ended up providing moving and vibrant swatches for this What I Miss? literary quilt. Their themes are varied and compelling — love, marriage, grief, politics, aging, HIV, memory, healing. I am grateful to and for these artists, most of whom are blood and chosen family of B.Michael. They include teachers, organizers and co-conspirators in intersectional social change movements whom I deeply admire.

By design, What I Miss? has no expiration date. Everyone who engages with this site is automatically in relationship with B.Michael and is encouraged to send him a message. Your offerings continue to arrive in a plethora of genres, including poems, letters, interviews, essays, short stories, musical offerings, and visual art pieces.

B.Michael, ICYMI, this trove of messages is for you!

Johnny Manzon-Santos
25 May 2020

Robert Penn - Meeting in Clouds, thinking ∞G might reach you
Robert Penn – Meeting in Clouds, thinking ∞G might reach you

I’m sure you’ll want to know what children and “the children” are doing these days because that would make you a more effective teacher and community organizer.

Rhea Ummi Modeste - With Whom Will I Teach The Children?
Rhea Ummi Modeste – With Whom Will I Teach The Children?

I understand why you can’t come back/shouldn’t come back/mustn’t come back . . . But your empty chair, clean desk, quiet phone make my heart ache.

Bil Wright - THAT'S WHAT I BEEN MISSING BABY
Bil Wright – THAT’S WHAT I BEEN MISSING BABY

I knew when I thought it might be a short piece that you might say, “I don’t do no short pieces” . . . .

Jacquie Bishop - 58 Minutes
Jacquie Bishop – 58 Minutes

I arrive early and take a seat on the bench that overlooks the East River — on the Brooklyn side, the only concession you would make in order for us to meet.

Susan Raffo - Love and marriage, not the same thing
Susan Raffo – Love and marriage, not the same thing

You’ve missed this moment when love turned from something generative and unapologetic, the radical compost of having to find it deep within ourselves to fierce-claim our love of another person, to something that has the necessary legal support needed to make its revolutionary nuances disappear. I am talking about marriage.

Alexander Alvarez - Crying
Alexander Alvarez – Crying

What are we truly here for? We work / we create / we bond / we multiply / we survive . . .

Allen Luther Wright - Hey Bert
Allen Luther Wright – Hey Bert

I moved back to New York. Nine years in Chicago – impatient, detached, restless, the dutiful son to his dead parents, obligated, filling the gaps with too many handsome distractions (my expiration dates?) – only to finally accept, you really can’t go home again. At least, I couldn’t. But, can you go back to the home you left home for?

Paula Santos - Tribute To B.Michael (aka Bert) Hunter
Paula Santos – Tribute To B.Michael (aka Bert) Hunter

Since you passed away in 2001, you missed the emergence of the transgender community becoming more visible within the LGBT and mainstream communities.

Kevin McGruder - The Doors that Many Friends Opened Long Ago
Kevin McGruder – The Doors that Many Friends Opened Long Ago

It really is hard to believe that almost seventeen years have passed since you left us. Since you’ve asked: “What I miss?” I’ll give you an update on some of the changes that have happened in Harlem, and the ups and downs of our writing collective, Other Countries.

Chris Paige - I Missed You
Chris Paige – I Missed You

More than these bodies
Connects us
Words seem inadequate
To capture
What is
Between us

Colin Robinson - We Are Worth Remembering
Colin Robinson – We Are Worth Remembering

“I think all our storytelling is a fiction in some way, even when it’s history. It’s how we create significance and meaning that is unique and is different from others’ stories. And I realize how much the histories that we think we remember are subject to our work as practitioners of fiction.”

Ummi & Adunni - Dear BNoSpace/Uncle Michael
Ummi & Adunni – Dear BNoSpace/Uncle Michael

I danced all through college (and high school, of course) where I joined Onyx Dance Troupe. I became secretary sophomore year and by senior year I was president! A lot of work but definitely worth all the stress it came with at times. I would 100% do it again!

Sheilah Mabry - The Presence(ing) of My Fears: Art Unmasking Strength and Possibility
Sheilah Mabry – The Presence(ing) of My Fears: Art Unmasking Strength and Possibility

“When I first started with my art, I had to start and finish pieces. But I’m learning how to leave a piece alone, when it can’t be completed yet, and I think that’s special. And also the expression, using art to deal with what’s good and what’s challenging and also to deal with passion. There’s something about the ways that my art goes through my body, in all parts of my body . . . .”

Louise Dunlap - Healing Our Founding Pandemic
Louise Dunlap – Healing Our Founding Pandemic

As virus panic mounted in the United States, I was already researching the psychic and actual sickness that came with the Mayflower four hundred years ago. Appalled to find myself descended from six of its passengers in a year when big celebrations were planned, I wanted Americans to see our history through the lens of disease. A full ninety percent of the Indigenous Wampanoag people had died from European illnesses even before the ship landed—and our founders themselves faced a deadly mortality crisis. I also knew that healing was possible, even now. Then one morning it became a story.

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