Ever since B.Michael’s passing in 2001, I’ve had an abiding wish to honor his legacy in artful and community-accessible ways. But first, as executor of his estate, I had to deal with the business of his death, an unexpectedly complex process that took five years.
Still, early on, during rare moments of quiet, I was able to lean into meaningful rituals of grief. I had his name entered into the Book of Remembrance at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine’s National AIDS Memorial in New York City, and etched into the Circle of Friends at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco.
B.Michael’s cousin Sheilah received his ashes from the crematory and, after holding a portion back for herself, forwarded them to me when I was living in San Francisco. I remember them arriving in an astonishingly nondescript cardboard box containing a thick plastic bag of mostly gray powder with varying sizes of bone fragments mixed in. B.Michael loved traveling to new places so Sheilah and I decided to distribute his ashes whenever we were able and ask friends to do the same. Sheilah took a portion on a trip to St. Croix in 2001 and Colin Robinson distributed some near his home in Trinidad and Tobago. Together, Sheilah and I scattered ashes at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, where we attended the Gay Games in 2002. I dispersed more into the East River of New York City, the waters off Long Beach, California, Iron Creek in Spearfish, South Dakota, and the Rio Reno in Bologna, Italy.
Juxtaposed with this process of releasing, of letting go, was the dilemma of what to do with B.Michael’s things, his worldly possessions. He was a bit of a pack rat, a tendency we shared. As someone whose mother lived through the scarcity of military occupation during World War II, I brought my own version of holding on to stuff of all kinds, especially paper. From early on in our relationship, we diverted part of our paychecks to Keepers Self Storage and, later, Manhattan Mini-Storage.
Each of us ended up stewarding the files for various grassroots groups we were involved with. As board chair of Other Countries, B.Michael became, not unwillingly, the de facto repository for outreach materials, meeting agendas, and other organizational memorabilia, all of which took up an increasing amount of space. In the early ’90s, when he stepped into the role of managing editor for Other Countries’ Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS, he became the clearinghouse for submissions by writers and artists from across the U.S. and beyond, as well as the reams of paper generated, pre-Google Docs, in readying a book for print publication. At a certain point after B.Michael’s death, I delivered several boxes worth of Other Countries files to the archives at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York.
What remains is the stuff of a person’s life, the real-world quotidian evidence that someone existed during a historical moment, a member of his generational cohort. What insights can be gleaned from the cultural artifacts one leaves behind? What might they illuminate about what influences one’s values, vision, unique purpose, and decision-making, not to mention the culture and politics of the times during which they lived?
I began to ponder the idea of an art installation. B.Michael was an educator, an organizer, a bridge-builder, an interpreter, a code-switcher; I wondered how best to curate the matters of B.Michael’s Black Queer life in order to surface connections with the broadest of audiences, including young people he might have taught in high school as well as whole swaths of people who don’t identify as Black or Queer.
B.Michael’s belongings conjured up for me possible creative exhibits, in no particular order:
- His extensive collection of social justice-themed T-shirts might occupy one wall, representing the intersectional issues he took a stand for.
- One station might highlight his awards and accolades from community-based institutions he championed, as well as campaign materials from political candidates he supported, and how they aligned with his values.
- His diplomas and certificates, yearbooks and textbooks, and decades of schoolwork and pedagogical materials, might give us clues about how he viewed education and educational systems through his journey as a lifelong learner and teacher.
- His track meet trophies, together with his ballet slippers and dance belt, might form an exhibit that sheds lights on his kinesthetic intelligence and his relationship to sport, dance, and movement in general. Choreographer Bill T. Jones included B.Michael’s voice in his 1994 multimedia piece, Still/Here.
- His AIDS quilt might hang prominently, the design an homage to his love for cartography, recording all the places he lived and countries he visited. This exhibit would be an opportunity to raise visibility about people living with HIV and sensitize people to the crisis that continues into the 21st century.
- His last set of prescription vials containing the remnants of his ultimately too-strong HIV medications would seed another exhibit. Tracing his journey of exploring complementary therapies from 1992, when he tested positive, until 2000, when he took a leap of faith (on Feb. 29, he called it “leap day”) and began a two-medication cocktail.
- A comprehensive family tree might represent his family of origin, including his Bahamian and Indigenous roots, braided together with his political, literary, racial, and spiritual ancestors.
- His datebooks, journals, and handwritten letters and postcards — even unopened mail! — might form a compelling, interactive exhibit. He taught history and the U.S. Constitution; what current events was he experiencing? What social movements was he participating in, helping to shape and being shaped by? Particularly during the Black Gay Renaissance of the ‘80s and ‘90s? How could viewers be invited to pause to reflect on these questions and contribute to a more collective and nuanced account of the times?
- I imagined convening a group of lawyer friends and inviting them to transform the dozens of acronym-filled notebooks he populated during his bar review courses. A Statue of Liberty made of paper maché?
- Visitors might sit down to make collages out of his raft of sales receipts, paystubs, cancelled checks, and bank statements. Not to mention movie theater ticket stubs, punched train tickets, unchosen lottery tickets, and scraps of paper with phone numbers of ex-trade!
- And what of his staggering collection of programs and playbills from decades of performances he attended, ranging from On-, Off- and Off-Off-Broadway to school musicals involving his nieces, nephews, and godchildren?
- And all the mementos from life transitions and rites of passage to which he bore witness — graduations, memorials, christenings, celebrations of life, commitment ceremonies, and weddings?
- And the music! How might his vinyl LPs, reel-to-reels, cassettes, and 8-tracks represent the soundtrack of his life and times and give audio texture to the installation? With special shoutouts from B.Michael to those he saw live: Sweet Honey in the Rock, Patti LaBelle, Nina Simone, Stephanie Mills, Rachelle Ferrell, Tuck and Patti, and many others.
The good news is that What I Miss? — a kind of prototype for this art installation experiment — provides some digital real estate for his many photographs, original documents, pieces of audio and video, and for his collection of poetry and other writing.
B.Michael’s Black Queer life mattered, still does. Like a comet streaking across the sky growing brighter as it collects more stardust and cosmic debris, What I Miss? — and this section of Black Queer Life Matters in particular — will radiate more and more heat and light as we continue to upload bits of media that originate from B.Michael’s storage, as well as whatever you might discover in your own archives that you are willing to share.
11 November 2019