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.

There they were, ancestors from four hundred years ago, on a zoom call. Four boxes, gallery style on my screen, each with a family name in the lower left corner. Tilley—an older mother and father with their young daughter. Rogers—an older father and teenage son. Howland—a young man on his own. And me, in my eighties but twelve generations younger. They were calling to see how I was doing in the pandemic. 

Unmuted, we chatted excitedly. “I’m amazed to see your faces at last,” I said. There was no photography in their time and even now the light around them was dim, and the men’s facial hair obscured their features. I hoped my uneasiness about being a Mayflower descendant wasn’t showing through.

“We are curious to see YOU, Daughter,” one of the older men answered. “We have wondered which one of you was thinking about us. It means a lot here.” I struggled with the intonations in the older English and hoped I hadn’t offended with my critical thoughts. But they wanted news of our family in the crisis. I told them about my 97-year-old uncle and the zoom birthday party with my sister’s grandchildren. 

After the first flurry of conversation, it seemed like a time to ask one of the big questions that had troubled me in my research. “Dear Relatives,” I began, “you also went through a time of sickness and death. I’ve been trying to imagine what that was like for you. Elizabeth, you lost both your parents.” I looked hard at her family on the screen: John and Joan Tilley were around fifty, Elizabeth only thirteen. “And Joseph, you lost your father.” I watched the younger man draw closer to Thomas Rogers. “Half of the ‘first comers,’ dead in a few months. I can hardly imagine that level of loss. Please tell me how it was for you.” I had weightier questions to ask, but I wanted to understand their pain first.

Their stories began to pour out, first John Howland’s. At twenty-eight he’d taken ship as indentured servant to another passenger and looked strong and in good health. “It will be hard for you to picture, Cousin,” he said. “Your world has so many protections from sickness and death. We had nothing. No Lysol, no ventilators, no masks, and very little food. Less understanding of disease than your people have. It was the beginning of a winter much colder than we were used to and we were coming off a difficult voyage with no shelter on land. Almost 150 people were crowded onto a ship just 100 feet long and losing its caulking. Sea-water came in everywhere. Even our bunks were damp and cold. Many had scurvy from sea rations with no fresh foods. As you know we were blown off course, hundreds of miles north of our destination, and decided to settle near Cape Cod, but many were sick. We called it ‘the general sickness’ or ‘distemper.’ Your people say it was a mix of scurvy, tuberculosis, and viruses like flu and pneumonia. Our immune systems were weak from the rough voyage.”

As my relative spoke, I could feel the discomfort and sickness of the Mayflower in my bones, more than ever in all my reading. The close quarters, stressed immune systems, lack of good information, and uncertainty about the future all struck a chord with our times. I wanted to ask how they’d dealt with the emotional side of it, but others chimed in. Father and son whispered in the Rogers’ corner and young Joseph spoke. “Dear Relative,” he said looking into space as if his gaze could penetrate all the way to my living room. “It was very, very hard. I was eighteen, the only family member traveling with him.” He turned to the man beside him. “My father died in February, in what they called ‘the first sickness,’ the first wave, while we were still sheltering on the ship.” “Waves of disease,” “sheltering”—it all sounded so familiar. 

The screen was quiet for a long while before I heard the girl’s voice—Elizabeth Tilley. “I was thirteen that year,” she began, “and it was very hard for me too. My uncle and aunt both died on board in the second wave and then, when we finally went ashore in the spring, my dear parents John and Joan Tilley died too. The winter made it much harder for the older ones. I was left alone in this place, with no family.”

A roaring sound arose at that moment, some kind of zoom static. I heard the voice of William Bradford, later governor of the colony, speaking words that have become famous: “They die sometimes two or three a day,” he intoned, “the living scarce able to bury the dead, the well not sufficient to tend the sick.” I shuddered, thinking of endangered medics around the world today.

Then Elizabeth’s fresh young voice again, her parents nodding agreement as she spoke. “This is why we wanted to be in touch with you, dear Relative. We know your people fear this same kind of collapse—that the caregivers will not be strong enough, that many will die without spiritual assistance. That is the kind of panic we felt. We are concerned that this fear is bred into you somehow, into your bones.” 

“Yes, Daughter,” her mother broke in, “we think the fear may be unhealed suffering you inherited from us. We are here to help you release it.”

Hands on my heart, I looked back across the years at the six of them. “Dear Family,” I heard my voice tremble with emotion, “it is healing already to hear your words. I’ve wondered whether our suffering is some replay of what you felt, even though our situation is so much milder. We fear the very scenes you describe. And our scientists tell us now that trauma like yours becomes embedded in what they call our DNA. Some say we can release it from our bodies if we acknowledge our feelings—no matter how painful. To think that you have come to help us do this! Dear Relatives, I am so moved by your understanding and care for us.” 

I might have stopped there, but my heart was urging a deeper question. “Can you tell me more about your emotions and how you dealt with them? Were you able to grieve? Knowing this could help us a lot.”

The screen was silent for a very long time, and I remembered that Puritans were known for suppressing emotion. Finally John Tilley spoke, one of the elders on the call. “Daughter,” he said sadly, “We couldn’t do anything like that. We thought we had to stay strong. No matter how many of us died, we wanted to believe we were God’s chosen people, destined to make a home in this new land. We had to numb ourselves to the fear and the grief.”  

There was a murmur from his wife that I couldn’t hear, and he added, “Our spiritual leaders told us the only way we could get through this was not to break. Sadness and grieving over death was to question God’s will. It was something the Pagans and Savages did—not ourselves. Our people were called to hold fast against grief.”

“Oh my God,” I burst out, forgetting who I was talking to. “I don’t mean to offend,” I continued, “but we are learning that expressing grief is necessary—the only way to honor the pain and protect ourselves from this inherited trauma you spoke of. For most in our culture today, grief is still suppressed.”

Joan’s voice floated into the mix with words from the New Testament: “’Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ Our hearts knew these things, Daughter, but we were unable to practice them.” Then a sweet silence.

“Could we do it together, dear Family?” I said impulsively. “Just let it out, whatever way seems natural?” It wasn’t the kind of thing you say to your Puritan ancestors, but already the sobs were welling up in my own throat and I let them come rumbling out, choking and gasping, moving my body as it seemed to want. Sobbing out all the bottled up fear, sadness, anger, and horror that had not been spoken for four hundred years, for all the violent ways we had displaced our trauma onto others, and for all the fear, suffering and death happening around me now. For those crowded together without food or clean water under freeways, in prisons, bombed-out cities, and locked-down borders.  

My own sobs were so loud they drowned out the others—that’s how sound works on zoom. But I could tell I wasn’t sobbing alone. Looking up at the screen, I saw each of those bodies bending and shaking in grief. It had been terrible to be stuck that way in fear and loss, and for so many loved ones to die. My relatives seemed aware of all the suffering that had stemmed from theirs. I felt my common ground with these first comers who had finally shared their grief with me. At last my heart warmed to them, and as our sobbing calmed, I knew it was time for the much bigger question I needed to ask. 

“Dear Family,” I began with some hesitation, “there’s something more I hope we can grieve.” I took a long breath and let it out slowly to calm my heart. A deep wrong had troubled me most of my life. The six of them looked at me in that strange way that happens on zoom—everyone’s eyes trained in a slightly different direction. Elizabeth and her parents held each other. Joseph leaned close to his father. John Howland sat alone in his frame and I stumbled on with my question.

“Most Americans know little about your deaths on the Mayflower, but even less about the terrifying epidemic that hit the Indigenous people before you arrived—far more lethal than our pandemic today. Descendants of survivors tell of a mysterious “great dying” that killed 90% of the coastal people, even before you came ashore. Beneath your own fear and grief, you must have felt the impact of their deaths too. How was that for you?” I took another deep breath, knowing this could be challenging for them. “Did you feel the pain of these fellow humans?”

Again the screen was quiet and I hoped I had not gone too far. John Howland broke the silence. In a few years, he would marry Elizabeth and both would live into their 80s with ten children and 88 grandchildren. Genealogists estimate ten million descendants. “Your information is accurate, Cousin,” he said quietly. “I was one of those sent out in a small boat to choose a site for our settlement. Storm winds blew us into Plymouth Harbor, where a village called Pahtuksut lay in ruins—beautiful corn and pumpkin fields with little pine trees starting to grow back. As we walked the land looking for water sources, we found the mounds of many graves. Elder Rogers can tell you more, as he was also with us.”

My eyes shifted to Thomas. “Yes, Daughter,” he began. “It’s good you ask about this part of the story. Before we got to Plymouth Harbor, our people spent a month exploring the outer regions of Cape Cod. Our own dying times had not really begun. Though we’d lost a few to sickness on our voyage, we had no idea what was coming. Just imagine what it was like ashore, feeling the strange earth under our feet as we made our way through the sandy woods of the outer Cape. Trying to sense the lay of the land and wondering when we would meet the savage people we had been told were all around us. As you know, European trading ships had plied this coastline for ten years, circulating reports back home. Even though we hadn’t planned to come this far north, we knew of massive illness in these parts the past several years. We didn’t know the diseases were of European origin and contact with us was spreading them. Reports told of empty villages with piles of human bones, unburied and unsanctified in the rapid onset of sickness.” I thought of the ‘makeshift morgues’ in today’s pandemic. “We didn’t see piles of bones, Daughter. Only clusters of abandoned bark houses and mounds of fresh graves. I felt a tingling in my very flesh to see how many had died here. After passing many graves, we came to one that looked so unusual we found ourselves opening it.”

I gasped, and Thomas must have heard me because he stopped to explain. “Yes, Daughter,” he continued. “The act feels wrong to us from where we are now. With the other graves, we’d felt respect and awe for the sheer fact of so much death. But with this one, some strange energy rose in us. We were not ourselves.” There was a stirring in John Howland’s quadrant as he nodded agreement. “We touched the bodies,” Rogers continued, shuddering. “We even took artwork from the mound back to our ship, the ‘prettiest things’ someone called them. We found ears of corn buried too—beautiful blue and rose-colored and ivory—and took them too. Now we know that corn was seed for the survivors’ crops or food for the journey of the dead. Our theft likely prevented them from reaching the place of their ancestors.”

He paused, bending forward as a wave of emotion passed through him, but John Howland took up the narrative. “Thomas speaks truly, Cousin. We violated a grave and stole corn—completely against our spiritual principles. And we exchanged fire with Natives at one point. We justified these things with a story our leaders began to weave after we reached the empty village near Plymouth Harbor. ‘God promised us this homeland as He did the ancient Israelites. He’d cleared the land of savages through this dreadful pestilence.’ This was wrong thinking.” He paused for a moment, bowing his head as I sat spellbound to hear him speak so critically of his own beliefs. “Throughout the ordeal of settlement, we held tightly to that story. It became our foundation, explaining our title to this land and why we could steal and kill for it.” He paused again. “Most of our descendants still feel this entitlement, dear Cousin. Most are frozen numb in it, unable to feel grief for these deaths or the four centuries of killing that followed—the burning of villages, our quest to wipe out a whole population we saw as ‘savage.’ There is a terrifying word in your language for it now—‘genocide.’ We have not been able to grieve this action or forgive ourselves, and we need your help.”

Hands on my heart again, I looked slowly around the screen for confirmation. All six ancestors were nodding agreement. My head spun with the implications. It sounded like they wanted us to change our founding legacy—or what we had thought was that legacy. Malidoma Somé had been right about ancestors—once they leave the earthly world, their vision clears. They see the harm they caused and yearn to repair it, to restore the balance they disrupted. They’re ready to acknowledge, restore and repair, but can’t do this without the help of their living descendants. And most of us are still stuck in false stories, unable to assist. 

Now it was Joan Tilley who spoke. She hadn’t lived to see how their early relationship with the Wampanoag people near Pahtuksut would deteriorate into distrust and warfare, how her descendants would want more for themselves and use the land in ways that harmed its delicate balance. “No one of us on this call personally caused the disaster,” she began. “But we all share the misguided mind that came from Europe. We thought we were separate from, wiser than, this land and the other humans here. Our ideas have led to sickness and distress for you now, your loss of connection to the earth. All of us who share this mind of entitlement are accountable. From our side, we stand ready to help our living descendants do what is needed to restore the balance.” A general murmuring of agreement rose from the others.

I looked at Joan, marveling at her freedom to speak while our male relatives listened with attention. It hadn’t been so in her day. “Thank you dear Family,” I said, “Restoration and repair will mean a big shift in consciousness for us—and maybe the pandemic will help. It is teaching many of us to deepen our relationship to life on earth and learn the Indigenous version of this history. But at the same time, our leaders are exploiting the turmoil, taking even more land and autonomy from the First People. Just recently officials used the courts to take land from the very Wampanoag people we’ve been talking about. The Wampanoag are responding, as other tribes face renewed attempts to build oil pipelines through their remote communities—bringing infection like the trading ships did. There are many actions we can take as citizens to stand with them.” I paused for breath because I knew of some remarkable healing initiatives underway as the Mayflower commemoration drew closer, but the ancestors on my screen had something of their own in mind.

Several of them started to speak at once. Then the noise of voices fell away and I heard Thomas Rogers say four words, “Grieve, apologize, repair, forgive. This is how we hope our descendants will commemorate Mayflower history, Daughter. Go deeply into your grief for the harm we initiated. It is our grief too—we welcome the tears we could not shed in our lifetimes. We need release from the stuck suffering—as you do too. Acknowledge, offer apology for all you have gained from our misdoings. Make your apologies public, share them widely, and find ways to give back. Please understand that to move forward without shame, you will need to forgive yourselves and your ancestors. Already some First People are responding to apology with forgiveness for the most heinous acts of this history. We hope for our sakes, yours, and our entire earth system that you can live into this vision.”

I was sobbing gently now, with something like relief, for this seemed the kind of deep change we could make as the pandemic opened our hearts. Where I had once felt loathing and even shame, I now felt love for these six people who had come to share their need for healing with me. “Thank you, dear Relatives,” I said, reaching toward them on the screen. Alas, I must have clicked an unfamiliar zoom signal. All of a sudden, with a “bing,” their faces faded into bright light that hurt my eyes. Zoom had cut us off, with no link to get back. But we had connected at a deeper frequency than zoom, and I knew they would be around to help.

© Louise Dunlap 2020

Louise Dunlap
Louise Dunlap

Louise Dunlap is a writer, Buddhist practitioner and active elder living in a place once known to the Ohlone people as Huichuin (now Oakland, California). She knows B.Michael only through this website but feels a deep connection across time and space and into the spirit world. Back when B.Michael was teaching, she was also an activist teacher—in the Boston area at MIT and with communities of resistance. In the years leading up to 1992—like B.Michael—she worked to counter the colonialist narratives around the Columbus quincentenary. Her forthcoming book, Inherited Silence, looks at her ancestors’ role in colonization of the continent and how descendants, ancestors, and our country can heal. It’s an honor for her to contribute a story to What I Miss? Learn more at www.louisedunlap.net. Photo: Skip Schiel

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 intentions 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 vibrant and moving 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 hereby 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.

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

Tribute to B.Michael (aka Bert) Hunter

I had the pleasure and honor to meet you in June 1994 during my visit to New York City. You and John Manzon were so very kind and gracious to let me stay with them for a few days while I was attending the National Gay and Lesbian Health Conference and the historic Stonewall 25th Anniversary LGBT Pride Parade and Celebration.

Since you passed away in 2001, you missed the emergence of the transgender community becoming more visible within the LGBT and mainstream communities. The transgender community can be inspired by the timeless African American National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which resonates with me because this song reflects inclusion, visibility, civil rights advocacy and activism, and lends a voice to underserved people or others who have been or are currently ignored and disrespected by society.

I am honored to contribute some of my creativity to this project. More and more transgender artists are sharing their talents with the world through live and recorded performances, social and print media, television, radio, and other formats. Please enjoy my piano performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Lift Every Voice and Sing
Lyrics by James Weldon Johnson
Music by John Rosamond Johnson

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Paula Santos
Paula Santos

Paula Santos is a social worker, public health scholar, LGBT and people of color activist, musician, figure skater, gymnast, dancer, baton twirler, writer, and tech geek. Connect with Paula on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and on her Figure Skating and Piano YouTube channels. Photo: Harold Johnsen

Meeting in Clouds, thinking ∞G might reach you

Dear Bert,

I remember the last time you called me. It was 1999 or 2000. Your T-cell count had fallen to a dangerously low level and your doctor had again suggested that you take medication that could possibly keep you from developing full-blown AIDS. Several promising options had been tested and proven to be effective at controlling the replication and spread of the virus once it was inside an HIV+ person. You were aware one of several Highly Active Antiretroviral Treatment (HAART) regimens, combinations of medications commonly referred to as “drug cocktails,” could slow or stop HIV from overwhelming your immune system, but you were also concerned that since you’d lived so long without taking medications that the sudden about-face might do more harm than good. Was one right for you?

We met. You asked about my experience with HIV medications. I shared my medical history with various treatments, such as AZT, an early protease inhibitor Norvir, and several combination therapies my doctor had prescribed since 1996. While AZT had proved worthless, at best, the others had increased my T-cell count and nearly stopped “my viral load” to a clinically undetectable level. I could only suggest the same process I’d used: be your own best advocate, research all the available medical and alternative treatments, and make well-informed treatment decisions. We both knew that no one could say if a HAART that worked for me or another person living with AIDS (PLA) would work for you, or for how long. You left our meeting undecided, but later I learned that you’d started a HAART; that it seemed to have shocked your system and inadvertently accelerated your demise.

Did you ask, “What I miss?” Lemme tell ya.

First and foremost, because the last thing we discussed was HIV/AIDS, I’m sorry that the HAART you tried was fatal. However, it may console you to know that some NYC gay men who were infected with HIV in the early to mid-1980s continue to thrive today. Some are rare “non- or slow-progressors” whose ability to cope with HIV invasion and/or seeming immunity provides hope: If medical science can isolate the cause of their survival, they could find a cure or, at least, an inoculation. Most of us long-term survivors benefit from treatments that didn’t exist when you died in early 2001.

The current state-of-the-art anti-HIV medical treatment is a once daily, fixed-dose, multiple-drug, single pill HAART! One pill containing 24-hour doses of four anti-HIV medications effectively stops HIV replication, thereby extending the lives of people living with AIDS (PLAs) for years. In addition, the single-pill formulation means PLAs don’t have to leave home with a backpack full of anti-HIV meds. My doctors prescribed a single pill HAART in 2014 after a decade of taking multiple pills at different intervals throughout each day. My viral load was already clinically undetectable, which means no disease progression, and the single-pill kept the viral presence in my blood so low that labs couldn’t find it. I had expected the convenient one-pill HAART to keep my viral load down. I also got an immediate and unexpected benefit. Taking the four-drugs-in-one pill once daily in the morning reduced my PLA depression and fear, and gave me hope. I rarely curse my medicine cabinet anymore because the single-pill relief continues to this day. I wish you could have experienced this feeling. I miss you and hate the fact that modern medicine didn’t advance quickly enough in the right directions to extend your life.

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. Here’s an example. The other night I binge-watched a season of a new release on Netflix. That sentence meant nothing during your lifetime when the only seasons you could watch in one sitting were reruns on tape or DVD. Today people take the existence of Internet broadcasters like Netflix for granted. People expect constant access at home and on the go, and subscribe for access to Internet entertainment and sports. A viewer can watch all the episodes of a new season in a single day. That’s “binge-watching.” It’s only one example of the high tech activity made possible by several digital advances, such as, smartphones – 5-ounce hand-held computerized communication devices, high-speed Internet service, wireless private networks, and high-speed mobile phone connectivity. Internet service is now available to Wi-Fi devices on every continent at every socio-economic level.

These developments have accelerated the dissemination of non-conventional points of view across the world and have had a direct impact on Other Countries, Black Gay Expression. Our NYC creative collaborative established by and for Black gay men in 1987 to tell our stories celebrated 30 years in 2017, but our membership has dwindled steadily due to AIDS deaths, member relocation and a wide-spread changing sense of urgency for Black gay men to gather and support each other. We failed to attract significant numbers of younger Black same gender loving writers to our group and could no longer afford the rent at The Center. However, several of us wanted to continue meeting, to critique, to use our shared interest in creative expression from our many Black LGBTQI+ points of view and to sustain each other. Thanks to widespread cheap or free video-conferencing portals, Other Countries moved its workshop to the World Wide Web in January 2014.

I wish you were here. It would be great to see your headshot on my laptop screen beside the others on our Other Countries Virtual Workshop. I’d like to read your new work, hear your critiques and share some shade and more laughs with you. Moreover, I want your voice back in the struggle for equality for People of Color and LGBTQI+ Rights in the U.S.A., and the world. 

With Love, Respect and Acceptance,

Robert


© Robert E. Penn 2019

<strong>Robert E. Penn, Jr.</strong>
Robert E. Penn, Jr.

Robert E. Penn, Jr. is a New York City-based writer, digital filmmaker and producer. His fiction and non-fiction appear in magazines and anthologies, including Essence, Voices Rising, Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS, For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough, and Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call. His digital films include public service announcements, documentaries, projection design and ephemeral video remixes.

Robert is currently completing a novel that chronicles the life of a brown girl who survives U.S. border family separation, and also developing a film/TV series based on a West African legend. Photo: Michael Cho, CHO Media

I Missed You

More than these bodies
Connects us

Words seem inadequate
To capture
What is
Between us

Somehow I miss you
Even though
We never met
We never were
We are nonetheless
Beautiful

In between
Us
Lies the distance between
Life and death
Black and white
Queer and trans
One generation
And another

Longing
For something more
Than words
To tell us
How different we are
How much the same

Our lives have been woven together
From a distance
Through the body of another
Through the echoes of love
And of loss

Enduring connection
Shared hope
Community emerging
From beyond either
One
Of us

What did you miss?
You missed me
Missing you
But I will remember
You
With gratitude


© Chris Paige 2019

Mx Chris Paige
Mx Chris Paige

Mx Chris Paige is an OtherWise-identified writer, educator, organizer, and coach, who authored OtherWise Christian: A Guidebook for Transgender Liberation. Chris was founding executive director of Transfaith (http://www.transfaith.info), a multi-tradition, multi-racial, multi-gender advocacy organization by and for people of transgender experience. Chris continues as operations director for Transfaith and Dean of the Transfaith Institute. They have also launched OtherWise Engaged Publishing, where they provide a platform for prophetic, transgender, intersex, and OtherWise voices. Chris has been a catalyst and/or contributor to several other ground-breaking projects for and by transgender faith leaders. Previously, Chris had been publisher and co-director of the (now defunct) award-winning progressive Christian magazine, The Other Side. Photo: Dezjorn Gauthier

With Whom Will I Teach The Children?

For Bertram Michael Hunter: Teacher, Colleague, Brother

I keep thinking I hear your voice in this place —
Not words, exactly, but the resonance that is exclusively yours here.
I always know when you’re around a corner or on the next flight of stairs,
Because I can hear your bass booming in conversation.
It doesn’t matter how quietly you think you’re speaking,
I always know you’re there …

But now you’re not
And I miss you indescribably.
The kids miss you, too;
they ask for you every day.

Because you respect them
Because you challenge them
Because you listen to them
Because you won’t take their nonsense.

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.
With whom will I teach the children?

Grading the history tests made me cry.
Everyone thought it was because our students did so poorly.
It was that, too, but really, I was missing you.
Your humor
Your honor
Your power
Your integrity in the face of a system that totally lacks it.

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.
With whom will I teach the children?

I keep thinking I hear you calling me, “Ummi, is that you?”
Reading me, “Don’t even try it, Miss Honey-One.”
Encouraging me, “OK, Miss-get-her-Masters-go-right-back-to-school-with-a-baby-to-take-care-of-and-gotta-get-all-A’s!”
Teasing me, “G’head and work that second job, girl.”

Again and again, the students say,
“I’m doing this because Bert told me to, that’s why.”
‘Nuff said.
They quote you like World Book, Wikipedia and their favorite rap artists.
They look to you for guidance and a reflection of themselves.
They see you as hope for what they might become.

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.
With whom will I teach the children?

R. Ummi Modeste


© R. Ummi Modeste 2019

<strong>Rhea Ummi Modeste</strong>
Rhea Ummi Modeste

R. Ummi Modeste is proud to be both a native of Brooklyn, New York, and a graduate of the same New York City public school system in which she now teaches. Ummi is a college advisor and teacher at City-As-School High School, a unique alternative high school. She is an alumna of LaGuardia High School for Music and the Arts, Performing Arts Division, where she majored in Drama. Ummi earned her BA from Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY, her MSEd from Hunter College in Manhattan and completed the American Sign Language/English Interpreter Education Program at LaGuardia Community College with a 4.0 GPA. Ever the student, Ummi recently earned a second Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services/American Sign Language Interpreting from Empire State College of the State University of New York, where she is also an adjunct professor of educational studies.

In addition to her full-time job at City-As-School, Ummi is an active member of the Breadloaf Teacher Network, an international group of teachers who strive to provide innovative and engaging ways for their students to become stronger readers and writers. Every summer, she is one of the facilitators of the Andover Breadloaf Writing Workshop (ABL), a two-week professional development workshop held in Andover, MA, that focuses on social justice work through literacy. The program helps urban teachers find the writers within themselves, in order to do the same for their students. Concurrent with the teachers’ workshop, ABL also hosts a workshop for students from the neighboring school district in Lawrence, MA, where the majority of ABL teachers are based. ABL teachers are proud to have breathed new life into that struggling school district. ABL provides professional development for teachers and workshops for students in cities all over the US and has also held international conferences for teachers and students in Karachi, Pakistan; Nairobi, Kenya; and most recently, in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. 

A founding member of the group, East Brooklyn Poets (EBP), Ummi seeks to create opportunities for herself and her friends to grow in their own creativity and share it with others. EBP has performed in Brooklyn, Harlem, Lawrence and Andover. Its members are always looking for a chance to facilitate workshops, coach other performers and work with young writers. She gives honor to the memory of fellow founding members and dear friends, Tray Jackson and Keith “Just Sayin” Richards.

During the solitary time created by the COVID shutdown, Ummi published her first book, Because I Knew, an anthology of poems written over the course of many years. In it she reflects on her identity as a Black woman, a mother and a child of the Diaspora. Because I Knew is published by Muse City Press, and is available through The Book Patch Bookstore.

Ummi is the last of four children; her sister Wendi Alexis Modeste was an internationally recognized speaker on behalf of People Living With AIDS/HIV; her brother Keith is a retired stagehand and gifted photographer; brother Leon Adrian is a veteran coach, teacher and recently retired athletic director at Phillips Academy in Andover. Ummi’s mother, Daisy R. Modeste, was also an educator until the day she died, and her father, Leon E. Modeste, MSW, became a college professor at Albany State University (ASU) in Albany, GA, after retiring from many years of social justice work at The New York Diocese of the Episcopal Church, Manpower Foundation and The Urban League. He retired from ASU in 2009 at age 83, but continued to be a voice for social justice reform in Albany until his illness and death in 2017 at age 91.

Ummi is proud to be the mom of her daughter, Adunni, second mom to her “bonus baby”, her son, Tarence, loving mother-in-law of Jean Marie and Grammie to Nasir and Skyler. Photo: Melissa Beech

The Doors that Many Friends Opened Long Ago

Dear Bert,

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. You may remember that the last time we got together was in the fall of 2000 to go to an afternoon screening of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled at the Magic Johnson Theater on 125th Street. You had finally moved into a new townhouse just a few blocks from the theater. I know it was years in the planning, and I remember hoping that your health would improve once you were settled so you would have an opportunity to enjoy living in your own place in Central Harlem.

The Magic Johnson Theater was probably half full. I thought the movie, a satire of race seen through the lens of a contemporary blackface game show, was pretty funny. I don’t remember if we went out to eat afterward, but when we spoke by telephone a few days later, you said the movie gave you nightmares. I felt guilty since I knew that the HIV medication you had begun taking was having a range of effects on you, and I hadn’t thought about how the imagery in the movie would have affected you. I think I had invited you to the movie as a kind of formal “Welcome to Harlem!” gesture, and I guess I thought what better movie to see than one by a Black filmmaker riffing on the history of blackface? I guess in reality there really is a lot more pain than laughs in that history.

Harlem

We now know that, at the time you left us in 2001, Harlem was entering what might be called a final phase in the decades long process of gentrification. By the time of our movie outing I had opened Harlemade Styleshop on Lenox Avenue between 118th and 119th Streets, with two partners, Patricia and Murphy. It was a gift shop featuring tee shirts designed by Murphy, knicknacks designed by Pat and her niece Toya, and books and posters I selected.  We had signed our lease in the fall of 2000 under the Old Harlem economy, but pretty soon, the cost of housing, that had been increasing gradually in previous years, began to climb dramatically. Lower crime rates, and better city services, meant that white people were no longer afraid of Harlem. Besides, as they were getting priced out of the Upper West Side and parts of Brooklyn, for a while Harlem was still seen as relatively affordable. A range of new restaurants opened on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Lenox Avenue (Malcolm X Blvd) in the 2000s, becoming Harlem restaurant rows. People began to talk about the New Harlem.  

By 2008, the owner of the building where our store was located, was well underway in renovating the apartments above, and in the process Harlemade Styleshop, the only commercial tenant remaining, was squeezed out. We were told that we needed to close for a month while they worked on the water line. Over a year later they were still working on it when our lease expired. We tried to argue that our lease should be extended for the time the store was closed, but we were only given the opportunity to remove our things. The three of us had all moved on to other things and we didn’t have the interest, energy or money to fight the City. A couple of years later a hardware store took over all of the first floor space in the building. 

If you were to walk through the streets of Harlem today, you would notice many of the new stores and restaurants I’ve mentioned. Contrary to the impression given by some newspaper stories on gentrification in Harlem, the pedestrians are overwhelmingly Black with a somewhat greater sprinkling of white and Latino people. I moved to New York in 1982 and to Harlem in 1985. Once I was there, I loved the people, the history, and the culture so much that I assumed I would never leave. But I did, in 2012, to take a job teaching History at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, population 3,500. The transition has been surprisingly smooth. I’ve found a community of Black people with a rich history, and am drawing back on my Ohio roots since I was born in Toledo, where my parents, sister and nieces live. But when I think back to Harlem, I’m reminded of the last line of the poem “Mr. Flood’s Party”. As Mr. Flood looked down on the city where he had lived for so long “where strangers would have shut the very doors that many friends had opened long ago.” 

Other Countries

Bert, another thing you missed, but directly influenced, was the revival of our writing collective Other Countries. I know you were there in the early years following the 1986 founding of the writing workshop where Black gay men in New York City met weekly to share and critique each other’s work. By the early 1990s, when I joined, Other Countries had already published an anthology (Other Countries: Black Gay Voices, 1988), and was accepting work for a second, (Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS, 1993, that you edited). The Other Countries performance program was thriving with workshop members traveling to college campuses and other venues to perform work based on material from workshop members. Just as important as the workshop sessions were the after-sessions. Each week after the workshop we went out to dinner at an area restaurant, traded gossip, laughed, and got to know each other, a critical component in building a community of writers. Twice a year, at the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice, we hosted open readings at what was then called the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center.

You probably remember that by the late 1990s, the energy of the Other Countries workshop had declined. Attendance dwindled, and we reserved smaller meeting rooms at the Center. Challenged by the onslaught of deaths from HIV and AIDS, aging of the members, personal disagreements, and decisions by some to seek inspiration elsewhere, we were losing momentum. You and I were both serving as Other Countries Board members when we as a Board agreed to fold Other Countries into Gay Men of African Descent. GMAD had started the same year as Other Countries, by some of the same people, and was in an expansion mode, receiving fairly substantial grants to provide HIV prevention services. I was executive director of GMAD at the time, and we thought that the workshop could continue under the guidance of a GMAD staff person and that we could make the case that the writing of the workshop could be an important component to an HIV prevention toolkit. I think there were a few meetings under this arrangement, but things weren’t the same. The old guard of Other Countries members weren’t interested since the structure was so different from the self-facilitated workshop that they knew. There was also nothing to attract new members, since those interested in writing were not necessarily interested in going to a workshop as part of an HIV prevention program. For the most part the workshop stopped meeting.  

From what I remember, around 2003 or 2004, Chris Adams, a former workshop participant put out a call regarding reviving the workshop. I think around the same time, we were made aware that in your will you had left a bequest to Other Countries. A small group of those interested in reviving Other Countries came together for several planning sessions, I believe facilitated by the Community Resource Exchange. We came out of the sessions with the understanding that there was a need and interest in the writing workshop and that we were also interested in reviving the publishing arm of Other Countries. We approached Tokes Osubu, then executive director of GMAD, with the request that Other Countries regain its independence and also recover the balance of funds that Other Countries had obtained from your bequest for a future anthology that had been given to GMAD when Other Countries was subsumed by GMAD. Tokes and the GMAD Board agreed to the change. Once more independent, the Other Countries funds were placed in a separate bank account. The workshop began meeting again, probably around 2004 or 2005, but rather than meet weekly at the Center, as we had in the past, I believe we met twice a month, with facilitation rotating among those present. 

A small group also began meeting to plan the third Other Countries Anthology, the printing of which would be made possible by your bequest. An editor was selected, and a Call for Submissions was issued. The book, Voices Rising: Celebrating 20 Years of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Writing was published in 2007 and a launch party was held in Brooklyn. The anthology, a good book, was much larger than the planning group had approved, and there was frustration and disappointment that the editor had not informed the group of the changes that had been made to the original concept.  

The workshop continued to meet regularly, but sometime after 2010 with attendance declining again, and some longtime participants moving out of New York, we decided to shift to meeting digitally through Google Hangouts twice a month. We continue to do this today maintaining the continuity of the workshop, and usually spending some time at the end of the session for general conversation and updates.  

Although I no longer live in New York, I suspect that there is still a need as well for a face-to-face workshop, particularly for new writers, both for feedback on their work, and also for community building aspects that a digital workshop just can’t provide. I hope in the future that Other Countries can make this happen. In the meantime, I really appreciate the tremendous contribution you made, even in your absence, to reviving the publishing aspect of the workshop, and really the workshop itself, through your bequest. Thank you Bert.

Love,

Kevin
December 28, 2017


© Kevin McGruder 2017

Kevin McGruder
Kevin McGruder

Kevin McGruder is Vice President of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of History at Antioch College. He has a B.A. in Economics from Harvard University, and an M.B.A. in Real Estate Finance from Columbia University. His interest in community formation led to a career in nonprofit community development that included work as Director of Real Estate Development with the Abyssinian Development Corporation, and Executive Director of Gay Men of African Descent. After receiving a Ph.D. in U.S. History from the Graduate Center of City University of New York, now as an academic, his research interests include African American institutions, urban history, and LGBTQ history. He is co-author of Emancipation Proclamation: Forever Free (Urban Ministries, Inc, 2013) and of Witness: Two Hundred Years of African-American Faith and Practice in the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem (W.B. Eerdmans, 2013), and is author of Race and Real Estate: Conflict and Cooperation in Harlem, 1890-1920 (Columbia University Press, 2015). Photo: Dennie Eagleson