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 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
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.
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
We know you’ve been here all along and haven’t really missed anything, but we’ve missed your physical presence.
Remember when you noticed Adunni was left-handed like you? I kept that secret until you could witness it for yourself, just so I could see the joy on your face when the realization hit you. My goodness, was it ever worth the wait!
Adunni’s been spared dangers that I know you and her other guardian angels averted:
remember when she got separated from her Daddy and the neighbor scooped her up?
or the time the school bus let her off at the wrong place and time and another neighbor kept her safe for us?
and all the times she didn’t get in a car full of teens or DID volunteer to be the designated driver to get everyone home safely? We know you were in all of that!
And I often remember your prophetic words when I was waiting to have a baby until I finished grad school. Without your little nudge, I might never have had that little lefty who fills my life with more meaning, love and absolute joy than I could have ever dreamed. You said, “Miss Honey One, Hunter College will always be there, but those eggs of yours will not!” Thank you, BNoSpace!
Lefty to lefty (you know, Mom’s favorite thing about us lol), here are some of my accomplishments with you watching over me.
After my freshman year in high school, I traveled to Europe for three weeks without either one of my parents and had a great time. I had an allergic reaction to something (really, I got bit by a spider but let’s go with the allergic reaction) and the chaperones had to call home, on top of taking me to the French urgent care. It was an interesting experience and it’s now safe to say I am TERRIFIED of any spider I see.
In my second high school, El Puente Academy, I got to participate in a documentary entitled, I’m Not Racist, Am I?. It was really cool and it’s even cooler to see myself in an actual movie and have friends text me when their schools/jobs use the movie.
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!
Even though Mom really wanted me to go to Ithaca College like she did, I chose Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, the first degree-granting HBCU. It took me some time but I graduated May 5, 2019, at 10am with my BS in Business Management. Everybody was there–and I know you were too!
I finally got my license this summer. You know Mom was over the moon with excitement and I was too. Hopefully I’ll get a car soon.
We’re doing pretty well down here; don’t worry, you’re still the best Godfather. I love you always.
Adunni AA Hall-Modeste was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. At 22, Adunni successfully obtained her BS in business management from The Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, with motives of starting her own beauty businesses. Despite being a Brooklyn native, Adunni currently resides in Maryland where she enjoys spending time with family and friends when she isn’t working towards her dreams and goals. Photo: Jada Davis
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?
Remember, it was early spring 1999. Mom had passed away nearly 4 years earlier and Dad’s prostate cancer, he’d neglected while she was ill, had become untreatable. I decided to return to my parents’ house in Chicago, as I said then, to reconcile a few father/son differences, care for him when he needed it and, maybe, heal some old wounds. Noble right?
My being there made him happy. We got some stuff done before he died.
But, it wasn’t the only reason I left New York. After 12 years, the city had finally worn me down and I didn’t know how to break from the deadly routine I was living. Could barely cope with all the ghosts: brothers from Other Countries* taken by the plague, our group of writers seemingly exhausted by the losses, my “marriage” that crashed and burned, a slowly fragmenting sense of community, and maybe the necessary hardening in preparation for being a full-on orphan had just become too heavy.
We had lunch the afternoon before my flight. You were the last person I saw before leaving. Seemed only right. Having started off as rivals for the affections of a guy neither of us won; working together feverishly to publish Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS, before too many more contributors died without seeing their work in print; getting to be a guest writer in one of your classes, LOVED that!; being caretakers for our respective parents, exposing ourselves as a couple of hopeful, old romantics and comforting each other through those regrets and wrong turns, ours was a friendship of weathered survival.
What I remember most is saying goodbye. You headed east on 14th Street and I headed west. I never mentioned it before, but I stopped, turned around and watched you walk away. The wind had picked up and blew a lot of loose newspapers in your direction. With the traffic, all the people out and about and the blowing papers, it looked as if you and the typical chaos of the city were a movie receding in the distance, and I had just written myself out of the script.
Fast forward 18 years. I’d just been thinking about you the morning I got John’s email about this remembrance project so many years after your death. A coincidence I suppose, maybe not. There are any number of these Bert moments in my life. Some leave me smiling, some lonely or needing to talk. Can’t say what triggered it that time. They just come and I go where they take me.
One word: “Kwanzaa.” I know, right? Too funny.
That morning, I was left smiling, remembering you joking about a consuming romance that had me all caught up in – what? – longing, exhaustion, frustration over empty nights waiting for my great love to return from his 6-month UNICEF assignment in Somalia. And there on a street corner, some warm West Village evening, you had me laughing at myself by imitating — very poorly I might add — my distant lover’s Chilean accented baritone calling my name. That memory is well over 20 years old, yet pulling it up still raises a smile, and that morning, some welcome laughter.
What I can’t remember, though, is what that kind of heartache felt like. Walking through the day raw and exposed, brittle, about to crack, dazed, needing to cry or get drunk or sleep away the minutes, hours, days, months alone or with some substitute hero. It’s too far away to see or touch, but I can still laugh with you about it.
These days, surrounded by boxes, bags, rolled-up rugs, displaced furniture and an upended water-color of Marrakech serving as a vibrant window screen, I’m settling into my 10th New York apartment. Brooklyn, of course. A layover on my way to somewhere else? – maybe. The rent is insane, and, yet, I’m paying it. Still not sure about “home” now that I’m back, or if I fit.
Last year, the Bronx Museum of the Arts presented Art AIDS America, “the first exhibition to examine the deep and ongoing influence of the AIDS crisis on American art and culture.” Among the paintings, photos, sculptures and other installations were Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied projecting our younger selves on the wall of a passage that led into the larger exhibition space, and Robert Penn’s 2011 25th anniversary visual compilation, Art from Adversity, celebrating our Other Countries family, projected in another room.
Yes, the enormity of those years must be faced squarely and honestly, and can never be forgotten. But, it is no less disconcerting to see people I knew and loved exhibited as if part of a lost civilization.
Nevertheless, there you were, in a clip lifted from the 1989 video Acquired Visions. You spoke of your greater concern with “the issue of living as opposed to the issue of dying of either AIDS or any other illness or pathos that we as black people and black gay people have to be confronted with…” You said that specific concern with “living” helped you be “a little bit more centered, a little bit more grounded…”
So, the next month when I received my own prostate cancer diagnosis, I heard you. The doctor, a very nice man, was properly sympathetic, though a bit longwinded. While appreciative, I was a bit short, “Are you trying to say I’ve got cancer?” He was.
I studied my options and chose (thank goodness for NYC employee health insurance) a cutting-edge, minimally invasive, short-term radiation procedure that promised few (if any) side-effects, exclusive to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The machine was kinda cool. I was anchored to the treatment table by a plastic mold of my lower torso and the technicians played jazz music (at my request) while I got zapped. I slept through two of the five treatments. We finished up in February, showed good results in my follow-up and I’ll check-back again this December.
With all that radiation, though, hoped some latent mutant super-power would have manifested by now. No such luck.
I’ve lived alone a long time. If I don’t do it, it won’t get done, has been a guiding principle for most of those years. It’s how I handled the cancer treatment, scheduling it in between work, picking up the dry cleaning, tuning-up the car, recycling on Wednesdays, getting a haircut, it was an appointment, a chore, just another thing to get done. In fact, I told very few people about it. Didn’t see the point. “He’s the independent one,” my parents’ used to say. Old habits die hard.
Eventually, though, I stepped back from Monday thru Friday/9-to-5 monotony enough to make some space and get some distance from it all. Trying to be good to myself in ways I often am not.
That idea of space, making it, claiming it, taking it in our grief or whatever struggles we may confront, is something you taught me. I share it repeatedly, but sometimes forget to listen. So I’m now finishing this letter from my fiancé’s apartment in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Yeah, you heard me right, Mississippi. Finally took a couple of weeks for me.
Oh – yeah – fiancé, complete with a major southern twang. We’ve now got official, joint income tax, legal in all 50 states, though not everybody’s cool with it, marriage equality.
His name is Wayne. My sweetie was right there for me throughout the whole cancer thing. We met at the Adodi** summer retreat back in 2012 and are planning to “jump the broom” next year. Small ceremony. Nothing fancy. And, that’s where the new apartment comes in. He’s soon moving to New York.
Usually when I find myself smiling, it’s about him. And, Bert, he bakes. His German Chocolate Cake is amazing. Even got me in the kitchen working on a recipe or two. He also insists on working-out. There go my plans for growing old, fat and happy. But, two out of three is pretty damn good.
Home? That’s the idea.
By the way, 2018 also marks the 25th anniversary of Sojourner. I think we’ve got some work to do.
I miss you.
September 2017 Brooklyn, NY
P.S. About two blocks from the house in which I grew up, lived Illinois’ ambitious Senator with the funny name and his family. You’ll be hearing more about them I’m sure.
* Other Countries: Black Gay Expression is the NYC writer’s collective, founded in 1986, where Bert and Allen met and spent several years collaborating on publishing and performance projects.
** Adodi is an organization founded in Philadelphia in 1986 in response to the AIDS epidemic to support same-gender-loving men of African descent. It now has chapters in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, DC; and a faction representing the nation’s southern region.
Allen Luther Wright, born on the Westside, raised on the Southside, lived on the Northside, only side left was East, but that was Lake Michigan. Allen left Chicago for New York to join Other Countries: Black Gay Men Writing. He now lives with his soon-to-be husband, Wayne, in Croton-on-Hudson. His work can be seen in the Lambda Literary Award-nominated anthology Black Gay Genius: On Joseph Beam and In the Life (Vintage Entity Press, 2014); and has appeared in numerous publications including BLOOMMagazineonline.com; Corpus, the art and literary journal collaboration of AIDS Project of Los Angeles and Gay Men’s Health Crisis (2004); the Lambda Award-winning anthologies The Road Before Us: 100 Black Gay Poets (Galiens Press, 1991); and, Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS (Other Countries Press, 1993) and for KICK – The Agency for LGBT African-Americans (Detroit, Michigan, 2010).
Other writings were featured in the first Other Countries journal: Black Gay Voices (Other Countries, 1988); and as part of the Lifestyles Genesis teaching guide sponsored by the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (1991). He also co-wrote Kevin’s Room, Part 2 (KR2): Trust (2003) and Kevin’s Room, Part 3: Together (2007), the provocative, educational television productions of Chicago’s Department of Public Health, featured at numerous film festivals, including NewFest: The New York LGBT Film Festival. Allen is also proud of his small but significant role in Tongues Untied, (1989) the late Marlon Riggs’ award-winning and congressionally condemned documentary. Allen is presently shopping STAGED, his full-length play about love, grief, chosen family, ambition, and second-hand drag. Photo: Olubode Shawn Brown