Art, AIDS, America: NYC Black Gay Men Fight AIDS since 1980s

Robert E. Penn, Voices Rising Book Launch, January 20, 2007
Click the image to stream on Vimeo, See 7:48-8:44

Good evening,

Cary asked me to say a few words about my personal history with Other Countries and my friendship with B.Michael Hunter. Thank you for this opportunity to reflect upon life “in the life.”

Growing up in the fifties and sixties, straight talking was the norm. I learned at age four, when my first “little boy friend’s” older brother caught us hugging and kissing, that I had to repress my innate desire for another boy. I did my best to walk and talk heterosexual, but I always wondered if I got it right.

Clever colored contemporaries compared my bookishness to our smartest girl classmates or white boys, who could “afford to be ‘funny.'” Some brothers promised they would kill the first “sissy” they met and others laughed behind one Boy Scout’s back because his favorite color was bright yellow. I joined in and joked about the bright yellow boy: He had to be “one.”

I grew up fearing black men who preached the Lord’s damnation on boys “like that”

Reached adolescence lusting for handsome males in neighborhood or school but dared not act

I wanted one other brother to go ahead let me hold him and enjoy holding me through the night

But none of us could, or would break animated suspension that seemed itself to protect life.

Manhattan in 1975, promised artistic community, a fortune and at least one other everyday, black man who could and would fall in love with me as hard and long as I did him. I met my first New York brother at the Christopher Street piers. He introduced me to his parents, but our thing did not last.

I befriended two men of African descent at Man’s Country, before that bathhouse became an early casualty of New York City’s over-reaction to G.R.I.D – Gay Related Immune Deficiency. I visited one of them, Harry Burrison, at the hospital in 1982 or three, when doctors examined his swollen lymph nodes and wondered what his condition could be. He died of AIDS in August 1987.

I had already tested HIV-positive in December 1985: The combination of Harry’s fatality and this “dying man’s” wish to connect with other gay “brothaz” brought me to an early meeting of Gay Men of African Descent. I think it was at the home of Rory Buchanan, who told me about Other Countries. I did NOT want to hear a critique or even read in public, but I NEEDED to meet more black gay men involved in self-expression. I attended the next workshop and have never looked back!

Allen Wright, Ali Wadud, Cary Allen Johnson, Colin Robinson, David Frechette, Donald Woods, Len Richardson, Yves Lubin (a.k.a. Assotto Saint) and B.Michael Hunter were among the first I met at Other Countries’ Saturday afternoon sessions.

B.Michael Hunter — Bert, except in print — could compete on all significant levels: face, brains, wit, body, talent, black consciousness, sensuality, readiness to work, loyalty to family and friends, community commitment — staying out remaining proud . . . and hair.

I remember hearing Bert perform with Sheilah Mabry at an Other Countries presentation. They traded passages that recreated sequences from their shared childhood as lesbian and gay cousins. I wanted their experience.

Bert met many young, college queers during Other Countries performance tours. In 1994, he introduced me to one: a 21-year old black, gay poet, John A. Frazier. A few months later, John gave me my first ever father’s day card.

I remember Bert’s brilliant smile and broad laughter. He put anger in his poems and a lot of hope, too. For example, “Every time a brother I know / Dies from AIDS / My dick gets hard.”

I remember speaking one-on-one with Bert, about seven years ago. He was debating whether to start taking anti-HIV medications. There was no clear answer. There still isn’t. I described treatment modalities I had researched and detailed my personal combination of allopathic and alternative therapies. He listened, but left undecided.

The last time I remember hearing Bert recite his work, he stood before a small crowd at Cornelia Street Café and intoned as-yet unpublished verses about swimming in the Caribbean.

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. Before I found New York City’s black gay community, I feared a brother would someday attack me and beat me beyond recognition. Who would have thought black men would save my life?

Yet, here I stand today with the women and men of Other countries celebrating twenty years of selected writing by black LGBTs and all of our lives; paying tribute to one who put his effort and money where his mouth was. Bert Hunter devoted years of his life editing the second Other Countries volume, Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS. His bequest made both the publication of Voices Rising possible and this book party necessary. Without his generosity, this third anthology might still be in development. In Bert’s honor, let our memories grow longer and deeper so that, as Cheryl Boyce-Taylor’s poem for dead sons insists, we “never forget, never forget” our ancestors, young and old, upon whose shoulders we stand today in love and dedication.

© Robert E. Penn 2007

Other Countries Turns Ten!

Together with fellow Other Countries member G. Winston James, B.Michael co-emceed this groundbreaking celebration on June 18, 1996. (The video’s date-stamp of June 19th is an error.) This day was proclaimed “Other Countries Day” by Ruth Messinger, Borough President of Manhattan, as B.Michael recites from the podium [05:36].

While the above footage does not capture the entire program, we do get to see, and hear read, five of Other Countries’ “veteran voices” in Christopher-Dana Rose, Allen Wright, Len Richardson, Guy-Mark Foster, along with B.Michael [07:16]. The evening includes remarks by New York City Councilmember C. Virginia Fields [02:16] and powerful performances by four literary giants, who also happen to be Black and Queer — Samuel R. Delany, Jacqueline Woodson, E. Lynn Harris, and Sapphire.

In addition to acknowledging Jacqueline Woodson and Sapphire, B.Michael gives shout-outs to some of the fierce women artists who supported Other Countries over its first decade [01:22:34], including Jacquie Bishop, Hattie Gossett, Gale Jackson, Sheilah Mabry, Mariana Romo-Carmona, and Pamela Sneed.

B.Michael’s Eulogy for Haruko Kuroiwa Brown

B.Michael shares his remembrances about Haruko Kuroiwa Brown [b. 12 December 1921, d. 06 June 1996] at her Celebration of Life on June 17, 1996, in Manhattan, New York.

“Hello everyone, my name is Bert Hunter. I’m a New York City high school teacher and happen to be John’s lover. 

It was through John that I met Haruko. And what I didn’t want to do was just deal with her on a level as John’s lover / through APICHA. I was really trying to find some kind of way to connect to her in the boundaried way that I am sometimes and in the boundaried way that she is. Interestingly enough, because she worked at the Board of Education, we were able to build some kind of relationship around that.

We talked a lot about different books. She would lend me some books and I would lend her some books. And we talked a lot about, actually, my mother. I didn’t necessarily realize that she was a social worker. She’s like social working me sometimes. (laughter) It was interesting that she was able to do that because I’m usually the person who’s the ear for other people. So it’s rare that somebody has an opportunity to social-work me, if you will, or to counsel me and I believe that she, in fact, did do that. She gave me some incredible advice.

In addition to that, because I have a natural ability to social-work other people although I’m not a social worker, we actually did talk a lot about her family, her children, her life and her grandchildren. I knew her granddaughter immediate because of the red hair because I also have a brother who is a carrot top. No offense! (laughter) One trip, she was coming back talking about her granddaughter with the red hair. “My brother had red hair … ”

I’m kind of angry because of the power of this woman. This was an incredibly powerful woman, and this is a loss. I had the opportunity — I teach American History — and during the 50th anniversary of “the bombing,” I was trying to put that in perspective for my students and was running my mouth to John. “Oh, you should talk to Haruko.” I was almost like, Why? Because you meet people and you talk to people, and someone who’s so rich, has so many different sides of themselves to share with you that you don’t necessarily always tap into the sides. “You know, she was interned.” I was almost floored because, as a history teacher, it was hard for me to believe that someone who was interned was still alive and accessible, if you will.

She came to school the first time and she talked to the students. I should say the majority are Black and Latino, we have some white students, very few Asian students. And she held their attention for 20 minutes easy, talking about her life and experience and it was incredible. She came back a second time to a different type of class a year later, actually, last year. Again, she held their attention. She actually read her testimony that she gave to Congress on her experience as a person who was interned. Again, the room was silent. She asked me for feedback, how I thought it went. I told her it was phenomenal. I said it’s the kind of thing where, years from now, they will realize that they touched history. That she, in fact, was history and that they had an opportunity to experience it.

We again exchanged … I just found a new reader so I gave her a book, I think it was Family or The Matter of Life from J. California Cooper, a new author who I was exposed to. Even for myself, I was moved by the power that I recognized in her … ”

Bill T. Jones: Still/Here

[Choreographer Bill T. Jones’] Still/Here (1994) is an evening-length work exploring the experience of receiving and living with a life-threatening medical diagnosis, rooted in Jones’s responses to being diagnosed HIV-positive. It features a video score by artist Gretchen Bender based on excerpts from interviews with people who had received such diagnoses, together with a commissioned musical score, spoken text and movement. [Wikipedia]

B.Michael is one of the interviewees whose words are included in this work.

Click image above to access video. B.Michael’s voice begins at 0:43.

Source : Maison de la Danse Programme, 1994

Domestic Partnership

As a public school teacher and thus New York City employee, B.Michael was eligible for certain benefits that were hard-won by his teachers union, including domestic partnership for same-sex couples. (See bulletin from Lambda Legal below.) In February 1994, B.Michael and John Manzon-Santos officially became domestic partners, in large part to access and secure their rights as a couple. For example, as domestic partners, John could be added to B.Michael’s health insurance and be acknowledged legally as B.Michael’s decision-maker in the event of loss of capacity, and vice versa. There had been too many horror stories about the wishes of long-term, same-sex intimate partners being dismissed and dishonored.

In the above vid clip, B.Michael and John complete their Domestic Partnership application, a necessary first step, on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1993. This occasion is joyfully witnessed by cousins Sheilah Mabry (notary), Nikki Harrison (videographer), and Kimberly Wright, along with Kimberly’s scene-stealing son Travis.

Indeed, even though the sound was off during the recording, the blissful vibe is palpable!


On January 7, 1993, then Mayor David Dinkins expanded the definition of domestic partnership through Executive Orders 48 and 49. For B.Michael and John, their first steps to registering included filling out an application as well as an optional Statistical Data Form, about which they gave robust feedback.