Resistance, Repentance & Responsibility

So, Bert, what HAVE you missed?  

You and I never met in person so I feel like we have a lot of catching up to do. I’m Johnny’s cousin Jeff. We are cousins by way of Johnny’s Grandma Ettie, who was my great-aunt. Although I knew all about the Manzons from my Aunt Ettie, Johnny and I first met at her 90th birthday party. We instantly became family. During Ettie’s final years, and especially during her final days in hospice care, Johnny and I became even closer, bonding over the very special woman who connected us. After all these years of learning about you through Johnny, it’s time you and I got to know each other better. We are more interconnected than I ever realized. I consider you my cousin as well!

So let me tell you a few more things about how we’re connected. In reading “What I Miss?,” I came across a photo in the piece “Being Michael.” The photo had the title “Brothers of Other Countries,” and it had Cary Alan Johnson in it. What a surprise that was! I’ve known Cary since I was 9 years old. My mother, who was white, was a wonderful elementary school teacher, and Cary was the only Black student in her 5th grade class. She took Cary under her wing, seeing that his light, potential, and promise needed a certain kind of nurturing. My brothers and I got to know him when we were all kids. Both Cary and my mother’s love for him made a deep impression on me in my youth. When I got to junior high school, Cary was also enrolled there. He was a bit of a school celebrity, always starring in the school musical productions. He was quite a talented singer and I was quietly proud to have him as my “brother.” Though Cary and I never spoke much, we always said hello and shared the connection of my mother. Even at that age, Cary took his identity very seriously and my mother often talked about the importance of supporting Cary’s exploration of his Blackness. My mother, and my father too it turns out, kept in touch with Cary and his mother well into his adulthood. I’ve kept in touch with Cary all these years as well. I last saw him at my mother’s funeral five years ago and we embraced as brothers mourning the same mother. It’s hard to explain the sense of connectedness I felt with you, Bert, when I saw him in the “Brothers” photo.  

My mother’s relationship with Cary is such a strong example of the impact a teacher can have on a child’s life. I am sure this extends itself to you. The fact that you were a high school teacher at City-As-School, a New York City school that offers students who never fit in at a traditional high school a fighting chance to get a quality education, makes so much sense to me. Here’s where the interconnectedness of things comes up again. When my own son Manny enrolled at City-As-School to finish high school, I told Johnny all about it. Johnny became all animated, telling me about your years as a teacher there. Manny was assigned to your close friend and colleague Ummi Modeste as his college readiness counselor. When Ummi and I discovered the connection between us through you, I regarded her as yet another cousin. Her attention to Manny made a huge difference in his struggles with school and enabled him to start at LaGuardia Community College last fall. The two of them have kept in touch since he graduated, and cousin Ummi will remain part of our family. I wonder how many students you took under your wing and made a difference in their lives by making the light that shined in them burn even brighter.  

I think you’d approve of the life that I’ve lived. I became entwined with HIV from the moment I entered medical school in 1982. We were immediately taught about this mysterious new disease killing young gay men in New York City. It wasn’t even called HIV yet but it was the defining health condition for medical students and residents of that era. Fighting AIDS was more of a calling than a career decision on my part. Fighting complex diseases requires expertise, intelligence, insight and straightforward humanity on the part of the treating physician. No doubt. But at the time, no other disease demanded the level of passion needed for the fight the way AIDS did. Jumping head first into a fight against a disease that had no treatments had great appeal to me. There was a war to be fought out there and I wanted in. I viewed people doing this as “HIV warriors.” It was all about staying and fighting when so many others were afraid to treat AIDS patients.  

Several years later, in 1992, I took on the job of running a clinic for adolescents and young adults both with and at risk for HIV. While I took great pride in having successfully provided care to so many young people over the years, I had a lot to learn. It is with great humility that I have learned so much about Black queerness through my work. While I take care of a diverse group of young people in my clinic, it is through the lives of young Black gay men and transgender women that I have learned the most. I would never have been able to serve these young people in the way that I have without understanding their lives. As a straight, white, Jewish man, I have had to open my mind to the experiences of others which I would not otherwise have known existed had I not chosen this path in life. I needed to see their lives from the inside to be accepted by them as a healer. It was by historical coincidence that I was right there in New York City at the dawn of the AIDS pandemic, and the things I needed to learn surrounded me on every side. It was apparent to me that this was a disease that was spread by social injustice, fear, stigma, racism, homophobia, and inequality in our society. A virus can do as much damage to a weak social order as it can to a weakened immune system.  

Health & Education Alternatives for Teens, or “HEAT,” became and remains more to me than just a clinic and community outreach program for young people. It is a reflection of my personal values, a part of who I am. Not many people in life get to do what I have been able to do through HEAT. HEAT is committed to fighting so many evils in this world, and having created a platform for so many other like-minded people to share in this fight gives me a depth of gratification that is not so easy to describe. Having a sense of purpose in the world makes it much easier to get out of bed in the morning.   

Things have changed over the decades I’ve been in this fight. We started with an untreatable disease called AIDS, which was a death sentence, and now have “a long-term manageable chronic disease caused by HIV.” I use quotes because it is a line I use every day in my work, scripted but true. Bert, I’m sorry you aren’t around to see how things have gotten so much better in treating HIV and AIDS, but I’m sure you’re smiling about the progress wherever you are. Not only are the medications life-saving in the way they stop the virus from doing its damage, but we’ve also learned so much about the impact of stigma, structural racism and the internalized fears of people living with HIV, and how addressing those systematically can make a huge difference in engaging individuals in care and treatment.    

When the newest plague of coronavirus and its acronymic disease COVID-19 descended upon us, it felt natural for me to dive into this fight head first as well. If you’ve spent almost 40 years fighting one pandemic, it is not that much of a stretch to feel you can take on another. “LET’S DO THIS!!!” was how I felt about COVID-19.

This new pandemic had both similarities as well as some stark differences to the previous one. Much like HIV getting nicknames like “the monster” and “the kitty,” the young people I treat immediately started calling coronavirus, “the Rona.”   

Also, we were fighting a virus we had never seen before, striking terror into society at large. We had no treatment and, much like the early days of the AIDS pandemic, it filled hospital wards with the sickest of patients. Although an equal opportunity offender, it disproportionately killed Black people and exposed inequalities in our society. The doctors and nurses treating these patients had little but supportive measures to offer.

I wanted to be a part of this effort so I volunteered to take on additional duties. My hospital was repurposing every unused corner for COVID care. All of our pediatric patients were either transferred to another hospital or sent home to make space, and the hospital redeployed the pediatric inpatient staff — including me — to take care of very sick adult COVID patients.    

Once part of the inpatient team, I offered my perspectives on terminal illness and called families who could not visit their loved ones to give them updates, both good and bad. The experience was otherworldly. While the rest of the planet was being told to stay home and stay at least 6 feet away from people outside their household, the team of ten or so doctors I was assigned to would be doing rounds in a small room, sitting on top of each other, talking about treating a disease we knew nothing about that could kill us in the act of doing so. We were wearing so many layers of gowns, jumpsuits, gloves, masks and face shields that you couldn’t escape how surreal the experience was.   

I have never really considered myself to be a religious person, but COVID-19 may have turned me into one. The many personal experiences I had dealing with suffering and death related to AIDS over the years had already brought me to a certain level of religiosity. But with HIV no longer being perceived as a death sentence, the intensity of treating it has lessened greatly over time. Then COVID-19 was right in my face no matter which direction I turned. It required faith and belief in something. I turned my thoughts inward.  

I spent months thinking about this without speaking to anybody about how I felt. Sure enough, as Yom Kippur was approaching, I was asked by Rabbi Sam at the Kane Street Synagogue to share my thoughts during Yom Kippur services about my experience as a physician who worked as a front-line provider during COVID and the sorry state of the world. This would all take place on Zoom (a video-conference platform that became a household name in 2020). I wrote and rewrote my thoughts to articulate exactly how I felt about the experience. As requested, I prerecorded what I had to say and didn’t watch it again until Yom Kippur. It was devastating for me to hear and watch myself on a screen express my thoughts so publicly. I realize now how deeply and permanently COVID-19 has imprinted itself on me. (Click here for the video, and here for the transcript.)

It is a brave new world we are living in, Bert. I know you have been and are still missed by those whose lives you’ve touched and the people you’ve loved. I’m sure you are missing them too. I’m not sure you really “missed” out as far as COVID-19. I know you certainly didn’t miss the abomination of the Trump presidency, although I’m sure you would have enjoyed joining the resistance against it. What a nightmare! I am really curious to know what you’d have to say about the world today if you saw it.  


© Jeffrey M. Birnbaum 2021

Jeffrey M. Birnbaum<br>
Jeffrey M. Birnbaum

Jeffrey M. Birnbaum, MD, MPH, is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Public Health at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University and currently serves as the Principal Investigator and Executive Director of Health & Education Alternatives for Teens (HEAT). HEAT is the only program of its kind in Brooklyn to offer comprehensive medical and mental health care, supportive services, and access to clinical research for HIV+ and at-risk youth, aged 13 to 24. Jeff has built HEAT into a system of care that provides age and developmentally appropriate, culturally competent care for heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who are living with or at very high-risk for HIV/AIDS, with a particular focus on serving communities of color.

A pioneer in the realm of transgender health, Jeff has championed the health care needs of young people in the House Ball Community. His leadership in advocating locally and nationally for the health care rights of transgender youth has been recognized with several prominent awards. On World AIDS Day 2009, he accepted an award from New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, in recognition of HEAT’s outstanding work with HIV+ adolescents in New York City. In 2012, also in commemoration of World AIDS Day, he received the Linda Laubenstein Award for Excellence in HIV Care by the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute. Jeff was also awarded the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Professional Service in 2013.

Since 2005, Jeff has served on the board of Coney Island USA, a nonprofit arts organization which exists to defend the honor of American popular culture through innovative exhibitions and performances. Coney Island USA operates a multi-arts center in a landmark building in the heart of Coney Island in which dwells the Coney Island Museum and the Coney Island Circus Sideshows. One of Coney Island USA’s signature events, the Annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade, is one of New York City’s largest parades and draws followers globally. Photo: Justine Cooper

Bert’s Tanka

Iridescent winged _
turquoise sea sapphire sky _
moths flame as night turns
to dawn in the south lands like
one love on your poet’s tongue…

With love…

© Gale Jackson 2021

Gale Jackson
Gale Jackson

Poet, writer, storyteller, cultural historian, interdisciplinary humanities scholar and librarian, Gale Jackson is the author of Put Your Hands on Your Hips and Act Like a Woman: Song, Dance, Black History and Poetics in Performance (UNP); MeDea A Novella (Glad Day); Suite for Mozambique (Ikon); Bridge Suite: Narrative Poems Based on the Lives of African and African American Women in the Early History of These New Black Nations; and A Khoisan Tale of Beginnings and Ends (Storm Imprints). Her work has been performed, exhibited, presented and anthologized widely in publications including The African American Review; Freedomways; The Journal of Black Studies; American Voices; Callaloo; Tribes; Artist and Influence, Ploughshares, and Essence. She is a contributing writer to The A-Line; editor of Collaborative Voice: Art in a War Time anthology (, and co-edited Art Against Apartheid: Voices for Freedom. She facilitates the Ehecatl Olin Learning Studio and The Poet in the House Collaborative with New York City students, serves as a professor on the graduate faculties of Interdisciplinary Arts and Education at Goddard College, and has been awarded an NEH fellowship for her work in griot traditions. Photo: Shelia “Chela” Anozier

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

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

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
Of us

What did you miss?
You missed me
Missing you
But I will remember
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 (, 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


What are we truly here for?

We work
we create
we bond
we multiply
we survive

I try to understand the sadness in me
but can’t figure out why

I am giving
and fun

I have a wife who really loves me
               and fights for me
                              and stands beside me

Yet I cry

I have debt and still no job of my own
I have children that choose not to talk to me
friends that see me when it’s convenient
as everyone is so busy
but busy doing what?

Yet I cry

Is it a fear of getting old
or realizing I can’t do the things I used to
or feel the way I used to feel about life?

Is it all based on work
interacting with people who are mean and selfish
people opposite of me
or am I just too sensitive?

Why can’t I say leave it be?
Or shrug my shoulders and say your opinion means nothing to me?

But yet I cry

I have to find a way to smile again
I have to stop living on the clock
I have to stop crying

© Alexander J. Alvarez 2019

Alexander J. Alvarez
Alexander J. Alvarez

Alexander J. Alvarez is one of B.Michael’s many cousins. He is back in college working on a degree in Accounting, but continues to write poetry whenever he can.

“Once in a blue moon, Michael would babysit my brothers and I in Astoria, Queens. Whenever he did, it was always fun as he would read stories and play with us. He was impartial, a great person to talk to about anything, and made me feel like I could do anything. He called me ‘Alexander’ (whereas my other cousins call me ‘Alex’ ). I miss him. Thank you, Michael, for empowering me.”



I knew when I thought it might be a short piece
that you might say, “I don’t do no short pieces”
but then I’d have to remind you
just cause you big and pretty
don’t give you the right to discriminate.
Big and so damn pretty.
Smile that sly smile
just once more
so I can go home
and remember it.
That’s what I be missin baby
That’s what I be missin.

© Bil Wright 2017

Bil Wright
Bil Wright

Bil Wright is a novelist and playwright. His is the author of Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy (Lambda Literary Award and American Library Association Stonewall Book Award), When the Black Girl Sings (Junior Library Guild selection), and Sunday You Learn How to Box (New York Public Library Choice for Young Readers and Coretta King Celebrating the Dream List). His plays include Bloodsummer Rituals, based on the life of poet Audre Lorde (Jerome Fellowship), and Leave Me a Message (San Diego Human Rights Festival premiere). He is the Librettist for This One Girl’s Story (GLAAD Media Award nominee and La Mama Playwriting Award).