Back in 2003, a couple years after B.Michael’s passing, I sketched an idea in my journal for his AIDS quilt. How might a 3’ x 6’ panel emblazon his name and capture his essence? He loved to travel and I thought about his fascination with maps-atlases-globes, which he shared 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, bordered by kente cloth. I began with the Atlantic-centered version ubiquitous in U.S. classrooms, but thought he would appreciate the Pacific-centered Peters Equal Area Map, an atypical perspective for those of us based 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 wondered how we could indicate the cities he lived in, the countries he was able to visit, and the spots where his ashes were dispersed.
I partnered with a brilliant quiltress, Cherrymae Golston, 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 some of my own grieving. People are open to opportunities to connect. Virtual village is real. Grief can be generative. Healing has no plateau or half-life.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
“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.”
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
“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 . . . .”
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.
Jeffrey M. Birnbaum – Resistance, Repentance & Responsibility
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Archaeology requires time, care, and patience.
Colin Robinson interviewed by Nadia Wynter on 23 August 2019 via Zoom
Nadia Wynter: So I’m Nadia. I’m a New Yorker now living out in California. Wynter is my last name. I’m born to a Jamaican mother and an Antiguan father. They met in the ‘60s in New York, had my brother and I, split up, etc. . . . I identify as a bisexual woman, Black woman, currently in a relationship with a lovely woman whose family is from Haiti, so we have a lot of Caribbean culture going on in our relationship, for better or for worse. (laughter) We’re both strong-willed people. It’s a gift, really, all of it . . . . I met Sheilah [Mabry] through my aunt. My father’s brother is married to a woman named Paula. And they love to host at the table, breakfast, and things, and one time, when I [was] living in New York, Sheilah was there.
Colin Robinson: I’m Colin Robinson. I was born and grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, though I spent two years in Yorkshire, England, while my father was at university. My grandparents are from Grenada on one side, and [on the other side] my great-grandmother’s from Venezuela, and another great-grandmother’s from Martinique. So a little bit of a cocktail going on.
I came to the U.S. in 1980 to go to school. That did not work out very well. Ended up in New York at the beginning of ’81 and found these communities of black gay men and lesbians who were doing this exciting thing with words and with politics and with building community, and that became the center of my life at one point.
In 1986, [two] significant organizations formed in New York, one of which was Gay Men of African Descent, one of which was Other Countries, and I worked with Bert in both of them. More closely in Other Countries, which was this writing community that started as a writing workshop and then began to do print publications, and also, cross-cuttting both of those, to take both the written word and the performance of work into different kinds of community spaces: gay bars, elite university spaces, a giving the book away to LGBTI kids, various things like that. Other Countries was this amazing space. Fought a lot with different people over the years and stuff.
Met John [Manzon-Santos], and I know him through my HIV work, which I started doing after I left school. He did some amazing kind of pioneering work, as a very young man, with Asian and Pacific Islander HIV organizations in New York. And we worked together at the Audre Lorde Project. We were both co-founders I guess. We’ve remained in touch. And he’s tried to get me to take much more leadership around What I Miss? and I made all these promises, none of which I’ve kept.
N: I get it. But yet, here you are, right now!
C: Yes, the shame! (laughter)
N: Promise is kept! Sometimes it takes a while, that’s all. . . . The time is right because it’s happening right now. Is there anything that led to this pulling you back a little bit, or anything you’d like to share?
C: There are other things that have been going on, in life, for me. I do quite a lot of organizing work in Trinidad and Tobago. Well, have been. When I first talked to John about the project, I thought the concept was really brilliant and I definitely wanted to commit. I was in the U.S. at the time, because I’ve been spending more and more time here for healthcare. The part I didn’t tell was, since 2007, I’ve been spending most of my time back in Trinidad and Tobago doing leadership work in the LGBTI movement, and writing a newspaper column on a weekly basis. So just the demands of doing that, I kept foot-dragging.
I was thinking, today, that I hadn’t thought about what I wanted to tell Bert that he missed — and wondering what that was about.
So Steven [Fullwood] and Charles [Stephens] co-edited this volume called Black Gay Genius, which was a memory project for Joseph Beam, who edited In the Life and began Brother to Brother, and was a friend of mine.
I wrote a piece called, An archaeology of grief: the fear of remembering Joe Beam. And that’s how I billed the story because Steven gave me the call [for submissions] and I went back to my apartment and I began just pouring out this stuff [and] wrote with the windows closed for probably a day and a bit:
I don’t remember Joe Beam. I had put him away, with all the unmourned AIDS grief of the 1980s and ’90s, with all the trauma of working for black gay groups and networks, swimming at the bottom somewhere of so many daily drinks. In one of my most poignant poems, where I write about the community of imagination and language the New York City writers’ group Other Countries provided for me in a new land, I reminisced about a childhood schoolmate whose Caribbean language I was afraid of forgetting. In the case of Joe, I am afraid of remembering.
I guess there is on one hand the fear of remembering the beloved community we, young, employed, educated, urban, knew we were creating in those heady years of the mid-’80s. Fear of slipping into the hopefulness my therapist now counsels against with the words of Alice Walker: “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.” And then the fear of having to face its betrayal, to relive the loss. To account for the places of toxicity and narrowness and failure that most black gay organizations led by people of my generation ended up. To become revictimized by my own unhealed trauma of being robbed and lied about and demeaned and unrecognized. To confront the role in this violence of my own character, my too bright West Indian smugness, my capacity for emotional treachery . . . And, ultimately, to confront . . . a bitterness that I am alive minus so many of the men of that era, and waking with the same demons that killed them.
I do not look back with nostalgia. To remember Joe Beam is to unpack a nested grief. At our failure to connect. At our failure to save each other. At our failure to be enough . . . The next part is a reference to a piece that Joe wrote about the idea of us being worth wanting each other . . . At our failure to be worth wanting. That, as Marvin White . . . Marvin’s an amazing poet, and preacher these days, who’s published a number of books and who lived in New York for a period, he was at one point part of Pomo Afro Homos . . . has captured, we aren’t the ones we’ve been waiting for.
A lot of that stuff still swirls around . . .
N: Tell me, in that time where you met Bert in the ‘80s and ‘90s, what was in the air? What connected you two, not just the art? How would you describe your initial connection?
C: I think both Bert and I found Other Countries at different times. I remember that more than I remember how we connected through GMAD, or when he connected to GMAD. I was at the initial meeting of Other Countries, [which] was founded by Daniel Garrett, a man who I had a very complicated and messy relationship with, but with whom I’ve worked in other writing-based frameworks.
And I think Other Countries had been going for a little bit and had begun to do performance work when Bert showed up at the workshop, which was this quite magical space in the 1980s for young, mainly younger — and some older — black gay men in their 20s and 30s living in New York at a certain point in the HIV epidemic that I think was catalyzing public discourse about sexuality and sexual diversity and a certain kind of fear at the same time. Our friends had begun to die.
It was a moment, post that Stonewall-into-’70s [period], where there was this kind of renaissance of queer organizing in general, but specifically queer people of color organizing. In the wake of the March on Washington in ’79, there was all this intersectional organizing that was happening in cities. And some of it was about language, some of it was about publishing, some of it was journalism, some of it was creative work.
Daniel started Other Countries as a workshop, with a call to people and a very specific and literary and, for me, politically problematic vision of what writing and writing community were and meant. That’s one thing we struggled around.
But it was this peer workshop that met every Saturday in a public space and there was this ritual of going out to dinner afterwards. And it became the center of this amazing community of black gay men who ended up in friendships, in some cases in sexual relationships, but in these relationships of support and tenderness and creation in relationship to each other. Y’know, it wasn’t all sweetness and light. There were struggles, particularly when we decided to do a publication. There were struggles around whether to do it separate from the workshop or not. And people decided that it would ruin the workshop and it needed to go do itself somewhere else. And then there were struggles within the publication around roles people would have. Even within the workshop itself, there were struggles around aesthetics, some struggles around how democratic things were, and so on.
Bert landed in that space, in some ways, like me, not as a writer. My relationship to language, I think, may have been a little different than his in that I had been a technical writer in different roles in my young career. Writing was part of my cultural tradition, not necessarily creative writing, but literacy in a different kind of way. I’m not sure how that worked for Bert.
But he came as a businessman to this space at a point where, after a year in the workshop, I had begun to see myself as a writer and to develop a practice as a poet. And I was producing work, some of which has been amazingly enduring.
And so Bert and I came into this space at the same time. He came, I remember, with a certain kind of masculine and brash energy that I’m not sure always worked well. But I remember a particular event. It was some upstairs space on Fifth Avenue. It was 1987, I think. I remember the poem that I read. I remember his presence, and I think he also read there as well. That’s what I remember most about meeting, coming into Bert’s orbit. I remember being immediately attracted and, you know, I wasn’t the only one. (smile)
N: I’ve seen pictures. You’re definitely not the only one. (smile)
C: I remember that we shared certain kinds of closeness, but i don’t remember anything particularly distinct or special about it.
I remember him joining the Other Countries board at one point. I remember giving up my role as editor of Sojourner, which was this publication we decided to focus on HIV, in a bit of a huff and I think I wrote some famous epistle in response to that, that was grand and dramatic. And Bert stepped into those shoes and edited the publication. I don’t think I had necessarily full confidence in him in doing that . . .
N: Why not, you think?
C: I think I still saw him as not a creative. But it was interesting to witness his process. I think around that time he learned and began to disclose his HIV [positive] status to those of us in the group. But again, my memories of the period are so faded. They’re marked by these stories that have been retold.
GMAD has a different history. It was started by Charles Angell and I was his co-chair — but he was the founder — in July of ‘86, weeks after Other Countries, as an activist organization. It didn’t last. About a year after that, it was revived as a social support entity. And then, kind of in its third, and not final, incarnation, it attracted the attention of an ambitious, Ivy [League]-educated lawyer, Elbert Gates, who sought to transform it into a poltical platform for Black and Latino gay men.
Bert and El entered the space around the time and were in quite a bit of conflict. And so [I] was also witnessing the masculine struggles and the plotting (laughter). So that was another experience that I had of Bert of being in the minority within this organization where people had different visions of where it ought to go. And he and I were part of a team that swept El from office in an election. So that was another interesting history.
And I thought of all these things, and I actually made a list of all the things: social media, smartphones, cybersecurity, bitcoin, Wikipedia, Airbnb, Uber, Obama, Obamacare, marijuana legalization, ISIS, Boko Haram, Katrina, GMOs, climate change, the Mars rover, the African American Museum — that he would want to know about!
Then things in the Caribbean, globally, politically: Chavez, Fidel’s death, the new pope, Mandela’s death, Usain Bolt, Rachel Dolezal! (laughter) . . .
Two of the things I thought would interest him most were the Obergefell decision and the Supreme Court work on marriage. But also because it’s been one of the most contentious things in my own activism outside of the U.S. and the way in which marriage has undermined some of the other goals that Global South movements have had, and the way in which it has inflamed culture wars and made what might have ordinarily been domestic struggles. . . . It’s prevented the domestication in some ways of queer struggles because they now exist in this globalized queer framework that has to account with this demon of marriage. Yeah, it’s a conversation I’m not able to have with a whole lot of people. And I was at Bert and John’s commitment ceremony.
But I think one of the most interesting things Bert would want to learn about was PrEP. The idea of, not just HIV medication being available for HIV-positive people, but the way in which it’s saving the lives, and also complicating the lives in some ways, of HIV-negative men.
I think I’d want to tell him about my turning my back, in some ways, on the movement we were both part of. My sense that my work with other black gay men in the U.S. had ended, and that it ended with a sense of frustration and failure. And that I’m excited that I found spaces where the work has been reinvigorated. I mean it’s had some of the same challenges, but it’s had different kinds of successes that I would want him to experience.
I would want to tell him a story. John was doing this thing of sending different people his ashes to take different places. So when I went home to Trinidad in, I want to say 2002, but I’m not sure if the date is right. John gave me this cologne bottle — I’m not sure the story of the cologne bottle — with Bert’s ashes in it. I took them in to the sea at Maracas Beach which is the, not too great, but best beach [on the] North coast of Trinidad. So I went into the water with Bert’s ashes and my brand new glasses on from the Korean optical store in Midtown [Manhattan], where I got them for this fabulous price. They were rimless and a wave came and they disappeared. I always wondered if he had something to do with it. (laughter)
Bert would’ve wanted to see Children of God and Play the Devil, two films by queer Bahamaian filmmakers that have gotten a lot of attention. They’re deeply problematic, both of them, but they’re also groundbreaking in different ways. Talking about them would have been interesting. Some fascinating things that are happening with the Bahamas. The referendum that got politicized, again around cultural wars, when it was supposed to be about Bahamian women being able to pass on nationality to their children.
Yeah, I think those are some of the things. But again, what I struggle with, more than anything else, is this idea of forgetting, this idea of less than firm hold on this swath of my life where so much happened, and some of the memory is quite dim.
N: I was thinking about that earlier today, Colin, just the distortion of memory, the fading of it, but it feels like we have some choice about what sticks and often, for me, it’s tied to emotion. Highs and lows, those kind of stand out more than the stuff in the middle.
C: Yeah, 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. That the ways in which I remember, and am deeply convinced of remembering, the stories that I have told over and over, I keep discovering are legends. Yeah. They’re the legends that I have. (laughter)
N: Where have we progressed in terms of what it means to be gay and love oneself? How Bert might see it? How do you see it?
That’s a very hard question. Because the meaning is so very different for people in very different spaces. At least two or three things are going on at the same time. On the one hand, there are these young people who are coming of age, or entering puberty, without the sense that who they are and how they want to express themselves is impossible. In earlier generations, we struggled with the idea that who we were and what we wanted to do was taboo, or difficult, or challenging, and they’re not constrained by that negative imagination in the least. And that’s just been amazing to watch. It’s also true of non-LGBTI young people who don’t have to imagine homophobia as part of who they are.
On the other hand, it’s tough to watch — I don’t have good language for it — the ways in which what I call the resilience that generations like mine had. And I’m not an advocate of “beat children and they’ll grow up strong” or any of that crap. There was abuse, there was horror, I’m not minimizing any of that. But I think, on balance, I think our generations had so much more resilience in dealing with adversity than I see young people able to muster. That’s a very, very complicated thing. I’m sure people have explained it and I just need to read what they wrote. That struggle for self-love, the rise of certain forms of self-harm. The challenges of social media that young people face where they’re unable to retreat from spaces that are consistently evaluating them. I think those are all really, really difficult challenges at arriving at self-love. I think the different kinds of challenges that working families face in parenting so that certain kinds of quality time loving kids, it’s shrinking in some ways. But we’ve created the tools, Bert and I and so many other people have created the words that new generations can read that make those acts of self-love easier.
I think that we’ve created different kinds of spaces, institutionally. But, again, we’ve invested so little in queer youth compared to the other issues that the movement has prioritized for resources.
N: Thinking about his life and how his presence is no longer in New York City schools. What are the children missing by [Bert] not being there?
C: It’s not a question I can answer. I know very little about New York City classrooms. I have spent very little time in New York since 2010. I have too many ghosts there. But I want to imagine that there are more teachers like him in the system. I want to believe that the school system in New York is a safer and more generous place for LGBTI kids. I don’t know that.
N: Well anything else you want to say about what he’s missing and anything in your heart that’s a burning desire that you’d like to share, Colin?
C: I would want to ask him, “What’s up with [him]?” (laughter) There’s this idea when we create this fiction of Bert sitting next to us, that he’s not witnessed what we’ve witnessed. I think maybe the missing part is more our own transitions and developments that he may not have been able to see, or we may not have been able to share with him.
I would also tell him how much I miss Donald. He became close with somebody who was, at one point, my best friend Donald Woods and there are many stories I can tell of the three of us . . . .
N: I was wondering about personal transformations and progressions that you would share with him.
C: Well, I’d tell him I have cancer and how that sucks! I would tell him how proud I am of John, and how proud I am of John’s attentiveness to his memory. Yeah.
N: Great. This has been a pleasure. (smile) I want to go on about some things . . . I’m thinking about my own heart right now, which has its own scars. Why, especially as a survivor of the 80s and 90s, a lot of trauma, as many of us are, especially Black people in the world. Why do we love if it inevitably can cause some pain?
C: I think we’re just wired to love. There’s got to be something good about that, some sort of intelligent design or evolutionary purpose to that. But I think that the reward of the loving, on balance, as I look back, outweighs the pain. Not for everyone, not in every instance. But on balance. I think our challenge is how to love better. There’s always risk in loving. It’s also about finding different ways to love. Different as in plural ways to love, so that we experience love with different people differently. So it doesn’t become just one thing. So as love threads through our lives, that some of those threads may burn, some of those threads may pop, but there are other threads that are strong and weave together.
N: It’s true. I feel like we don’t break completely. We may crack and come together as a new form. It’s not just love of people. There’s love of art, love of . . .
N: And the question isn’t so much, is it pointless? I believe in what you said too. Life is joy and pain and hopefully we end up with a little more love and joy than we have pain. That’s a good life, I think. We can’t avoid these things, but we can reflect. And that’s what this piece, What I Miss? is inspiring. It’s inspiring the reflection of people’s connection, which I think is key to life, and the connections that Bert made. Reflecting also on how his work still connects to today. I think with these reflections, and even what you said, we get better. And that’s subjective, it’s not always neat, but we expand, I think.
C: Yeah, there’s this idea that joy ends and pain lasts. Joy can also be enduring, and pain can end.
Colin Robinson (1961-2021) was a writer and LGBTI activist from Trinidad & Tobago (T&T) who lived in New York, as part of the 1980s Black Gay Renaissance, and for over a decade illegally. He has a 2016 poetry collection You Have You Father Hard Head, is featured in Marlon Riggs’s Anthem, author of the 2012 Commonwealth Opinion “Decolonising Sexual Citizenship,” co-editor of Think Again, a 2003 collection of essays rethinking HIV prevention, New York field producer for the film Tongues Untied, and wrote a newspaper opinion column from 2014 to 2020, most recently in Sunday Newsday in T&T. He served as Director of Imagination of CAISO: Sex & Gender Justice in T&T, and in management roles at the Caribbean Forum for Liberation & Acceptance of Genders & Sexualities, Gay Men of African Descent, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, T&T Ministry of Labour HIV Advocacy & Sustainability Center, New York State Black Gay Network, T&T Health Training Centre; and on the boards of the Audre Lorde Project, Out|Right International, Other Countries and the PanCaribbean Partnership against HIV & AIDS. Photo: Rashmi Mathur
Johnny Manzon-Santos:How are you connected to Michael, first of all?
Sheilah Mabry: How am I connected to B.Michael Hunter? I. Am. His. Favorite. Cousin. Until he died.
J: So if we were to interview him somehow, in the Black Gay Beyond, and we asked him, “Who was your favorite cousin?” he would say you [are]?
S: Without a doubt, it would be me. And there might be some people jealous, but they would know it’s true! (laughter)
I am outside the house that he so proudly bought. [He] died less than a year of having it, but this was a very significant place for him. He [would] take pictures as they broke the ground and as they built it.
The day of the opening for this block of houses, Malcolm Shabazz [Gardens], 117th between Lenox and Adam Clayton Powell, my sister Kimmi was with me. [Then Manhattan Borough President] C. Virginia Fields was here, and Aunt Sheila was here. We took a picture.
J:Who was Aunt Sheila?
S: Aunt Sheila was his mother, and my aunt, and my mother Frieda’s favorite sister. And that’s why I was named after her.
J:You’re standing in front of the house where he lived and died on the 23rd minute of the 23rd hour of the 23rd day of January. 1/23, right? And what’s the address of the house?
S: 123 West 117th Street. He specifically chose this house because of its number. He was really into numerology and he chose the 1-2-3 for that reason. I think it’s kind of cra-cra that all of that happened with the numbers when he died.
And that also was a memory of mine. How a lot of us were with him when he died, when he took his last breath. His home attendant was a very religious Christian woman and she “got him ready,” in her language. I waited until they came and picked him up and I watched the car drive him away. They took him to the morgue before he went to the funeral parlor.
J: This project is partly to honor Michael, the writer, and also to invite voices of people who knew him, or were impacted by him. If he were to walk out the door of his house right now after 18 years, and he would say, “Hey Sheilah, my favorite cousin, what I miss?” What would you want to tell him about the life you’ve been living for the last 18 years?
S: Well, it’s really weird to think about him in terms of what he missed because, a lot of times, I actually feel that he’s with me, watching what’s going on. And yet, if I think about what he missed, in my life at least? He missed breakups, and he missed a marriage, and of course, relationship before breakup. He would definitely have been at every kind of transitional graduation type of event that I was in. He was at my graduate school graduation. He was gone by my post-graduate training in 2002. He missed my car accident that I had at the end of 2001. I think he would have missed a lot of my struggles to achieve the things that I achieved because sometimes I have a lot of anxiety doing different things. He would be very proud of my “success” in terms of what I put into it and what has come of it.
I have a way of seeing my responsibility to gift money to causes that matter to me. He missed the National Queer and Trans Therapist of Color Network that was created by Erica Woodland, which is a really wonderful resource that I’m sure he would have been proud of and he would have given money to. He would miss the changes in the Audre Lorde Project. He’d miss the changes in The Center, the changes in Callen-Lorde over time. There’s all these places that we spent time in or utilized. I think of the Community Health Project² when it was at The Center and what that meant. And how there’s [now] some big building that he never set foot in, that I know of. SO many things . . . .
He missed [my nephew] Little Kevin being married to Jillian, and now they have two girls and then they have a boy on the way. He missed [nephew] Darryl’s wedding to Liz. He’d be very happy that Darryl found someone that he loves a lot, that loves him like a real partner in life. And he’d miss my sister Kimmi, [her son] and his godson Travis. And his godson Anthony, and Anthony’s children he’s raising with Sunshine. He’d miss . . . Joey died after Michael, right? . . . I don’t remember the year Joey died. I know he missed Uncle Bert, his dad’s death. He missed the very loving way his dad went out. So many deaths and losses. And also a lot of successes in the family. But I don’t know why I want to name everybody who’s died! It’s terrible. Oh, he missed Obama’s presidency.
J: What would’ve he been like knowing that Obama was president, twice?
S: I think that would have been something special to him. But I also think that the things [Obama] had done around immigration that weren’t good, I don’t think he would have been happy. He would feel it was fabulous that we had a Black president and he would appreciate all the things that he did, that his Administration did, that was good, but I don’t think he would be happy with anything that wasn’t OK. And definitely immigration policies that started then and before, he wouldn’t be happy with.
Because he was someone who not only marched. He loved and taught history, and he wanted the students that he had to be civically-minded. He also put his money in causes that he felt was important. He just cared, he really cared a lot about a lot of things. He was very smart. He would’ve been involved in things that weren’t OK, to try to make a difference.
Oh, I think that he would think it was really special that you had [your goddaughter] Mimi and that you all still have a relationship with her. I think he would love, love, love, LOVE Andrés! I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever. I do know he would appreciate, possibly be a little jealous but manage it, that you have Mickey. He would think it was funny that you went with two Michaels after him.
J:Yeah, prolly. (Sigh) You mentioned Andrés, our son, who’s 7. I see Michael in him.
S: Me too.
J:One thing I’m curious about: Talk about Sheilah, the Artist.
S: Oh my god. That is crazy. I think that he would appreciate that I’ve always been an artist in the sense of enjoying writing, and then later, you know, I performed with him, “Cousins,” that we wrote together. And have been in places reading that he got to watch me in. At The Center [for] “A Page from a Black Child’s Diary” that we were a part of, that Sapphire was a part of and a lot of other writers. That was a wonderful night of writing, of reading, of Black Queer folks.
And later that I liked to do collaging. But, this crazy twist thing that happened in my brain, that I am drawing, when I never learned how before, and producing such beautiful pieces. I think that would blow him away, and he would want one of them. He would be somebody I would give it to without reservation. And I have given some things to people and I’ve only created something specifically for one person in the family. But I haven’t really given away a lot of the work I’ve produced. I think that, in the physical realm, he’s missing it, but then, on some level in the spiritual realm, I feel like he’s getting it.
Because some of the images that come to me feel very African. That was another thing. He encouraged me to go to Operations Crossroads Africa [in] ‘89 and he had gone to Kenya prior. That was such a turning point in my life. I feel that travel, that kind of travel, has made me more sensitive to people who come to the U.S. because I know what it is to be a foreigner in another country and to try to manage through language and all that other kind of stuff. I just think he would appreciate my art, he would appreciate how much I’ve traveled. And he would appreciate that, you and I together, went and dropped [his] ashes in Bondi Beach in the water, and that dog was screaming when we let them go, in [Sydney,] Australia.
J:What’s important to you about the art you’re doing?
S: Well, one thing is, on some level, the art tells me that I can trust myself, because through the process, I don’t always know what I’m gonna end up with. And throughout the process, sometimes, I’m like, What did you do that for? Oh, no, I can’t believe you used that color! Oh, no, I gotta fix that! Oh, no . . . . At a certain point, I’m in a groove and I know it’s going to be wonderful. And there’s something about that perspective. There’s also something about that I appreciate because there are people coming through me. I mean, I rarely draw white people. They don’t come up for me. I think I might have done one person that’s white, maybe a couple. But I’ve even done a South Asian person and I didn’t know that that was gonna come. I’ve done East Asian folks. I don’t know how it happens, because I’m not going, I’m gonna draw this-color person.
There’s something about how I start with the mouth. You know Michael had nice, beautiful, juicy lips (smile), and I loved his nose, and I’m fascinated by our noses. People’s noses in general. I’m definitely fascinated by the noses of people of color, which is a range. And so I start the mouth and the nose generally, and maybe the eyes, and then work my way to a body thing. And I don’t know, it’s just kind of incredible, the stuff coming out of this. So I’m just kind of flowing.
I just think he would appreciate it, because I think that’s how he wrote. All the pieces that you found of his, some started and some finished. 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, depending on the piece. Why I am creating you and who I’m thinking of and how I want to connect and what comes back to me in it. That I think he would appreciate a lot.
Because he was all about the body. He was an artist, he was a writer, he was a lawyer who didn’t pass the bar but, for him, he understood the law a certain kind of way. And he was a dancer. He was a communication kind of person. He chose accounting in undergrad for stability or whatever, right? Just like he chose teaching at a certain point for stability and for tenure and because he loved to teach young people. But if he could do whatever he wanted to do and not worry about money, I think he would have been a dancer. He was a runner. But he had an incredible body and he loved to dance.
He loved to sing too. He wasn’t very good at that (smile). That’s the other thing I learned from him — and it didn’t stick until years later. Basically I was telling him he sounded terrible one time he was singing and he said, “I like singing, Sheilah, it makes me feel good.” Like, “Eff you!” And he was right! He was right because everybody can sing and everybody can do art. So even my process of doing the art has taken me to bring it to team-building exercises in organizations.
S: Like how they can think about something that’s important to them over the course of their work in a year. And think of the values of what they learned in training, or in their work, or from their community, or what they love or appreciate about community, to be in process about that as individuals and then, collectively, talk about it, and then create pieces of art individually that get put together as a group. They share in what that means, to their respective program or team. For some people who didn’t see themselves as artists, that they can articulate what’s important to them and put it on a panel, on a 4” by 4”, but that becomes a collective thing because it’s in the name of a team. And they’re talking about what’s important to them as a team together and then sharing that in the larger organization with several teams . . . .
I went to a leadership training [and] there was a thing called the Story of My Purpose. To come up with symbols and ideas or phrases that speak to that, and to then narrow it down to one phrase. Then to give them a panel and have them write their purpose — create their purpose panel, their purpose tile. And I’ve done that with coaching clients and with therapy clients, to ground them around their purpose, to be able to bring the art into that. And see how people who say they’re not artists, or they don’t like to draw, and to encourage them to put whatever they need on there and that’s what matters. [It] is really special.
How do you use the things that I have found to be helpful to me, but also see each person, a group that I’m working with, unique to making something that’s their own [and] whatever comes of it is what’s important . . . .
And that’s the other thing. I think he would be really proud of how I’ve taken on leadership in a particular way. How I know there’s a difference between leadership and management and how, through years of experience, but also experience with Leadership that Works with folks primarily from Oakland, and how I learned about power, privilege, rank, and culture a particular kind of way, and how I learned, even though as a social worker and a therapist, I have to deal with clients’ strengths, that I learned in coaching that I must always trust that the person I am working with will collaborate, and that they have what they need. We’re on a journey together, but I’m helping them facilitate a process. But that it’s theirs, not mine, you know? And even being able to do this other leadership training, which is where my art came after working through a trigger, Rockwood. See, this is the thing: Oakland be doin’ it! Even doing that training and working on a trigger, and I think that that is, in fact, what allowed the art to be able to come, because it wasn’t coming before that.
And it’s like I can’t stop! There’s sometimes when I am working with people, or I’m on a train and I’m looking at their faces very intensely, their nose, their eyes. I want to capture that in my soul so that it comes out at some point somewhere. I think he would be really proud of me that I love helping people develop, be the best people they can be, that I can be in a process with people like that and that I appreciate how I grow from it, so I even understand him a little bit more.
S: Because he was a very encouraging person and he was actually impatient, but he was more patient than impatient. He could see the best in people and he could see what struggle was. I think he struggled himself, and I don’t think he always reached out for help. He wanted to be a helper, but he didn’t always take help himself. He would let me help him with certain things, but not just everybody, right? There’s a way he wanted to be seen . . . .
I appreciate about him how he helped in the family. And how he helped people outside the family. How he helped as a leader in community, like with Other Countries and with Gay Men of African Descent. All the places that he showed up for things that were meaningful to him . . . .
Because I see a lot of people who achieve things, but they’re very self-centered and they’re not trying to give anything back. Everything is about what they can get. But most of the people that I am in contact with, that I’m close to, they’re give-back people. And so I just appreciate him more now . . . .
I remember when he got sick, and he was impacted mentally, he said to me one time, [when] we were getting on a train. He lived over here, and the train was at 116th and Lenox, and what comes through there is the number 2 train or the 3, and the 3 is coming pretty much close from the yard, whereas the 2 is coming far from the Bronx. So we were at the station and we were going downtown — I believe he had a medical appointment — and he wanted the 2 train to pass and he wanted to wait for the 3 because there’d be less people on at the time we would get on the train. And I said, “Why don’t you wanna get on another train?”
“Sheilah, you know I don’t like people; you know I don’t really like people.”
As he was losing his mind, the intensity of how he made himself available to so many people in so many ways was weighing on him. And he had no filter for it, but I know in his best mind, he loved people. But with his mind closing in on him, people became too much.
So that’s something I kind of appreciate because I’m in my right mind (and not so my right mind sometimes) in a different way. This self-care piece, the importance of having time and being still — that’s something that he used to do that was very incredible. I remember at one time in his apartment at 528 [East 11th Street, Manhattan], he had yellow sticky notes that said “FOCUS” all over the house. I didn’t really appreciate it then. I thought he was crazy! But as I got older, I’m like, “Wow, he was really centering himself in his way.” (laughter)
I remember one time he told me. You know how you analyze all the movies. You see things with it. He’s like, “You know, sometimes you just gotta go to the movies and watch the movie. You ain’t got time to . . . . (laughter)” [He would] go see some dumb movie that, you know, is so internalized, racially oppressive shit and sexist, and even homophobic, to some degree. I guess because he felt he was doing the work, he could do that. But like, for him, sometimes something like that could have been a relief. “Chill out. People need to chill out with that.” But that’s not how he lived, in terms of causes and stuff. He was like, “I could do that, and this is wrong, and I’m gonna watch this show!”
J:What would you say is your purpose on that 4” x 4” tile, Sheilah?
S: Well, I did one, and it is a little Black person with a little flat belly, arms outstretched, that says over it, “Endless Possibilities,” and sunlight coming in. It had “Family, Blood and Chosen,” on it. It had “Abundance.” I think it had “Health.” But if I think about it now, like if I were to make one right in this moment as you ask that, I would say, “My purpose is to live healthily, to have flexibility, to show love, to be seen in the fullest of who I am and to see others in that way, to never forget the people here and gone who have given me so much, to never think I have to do anything alone, and to gift myself with alone time, something that I need.”
J:Sheilah, is there anything else?
S: The world is not the same without him, but I know people got to go. But my greatest gift from him, besides him and what he gave me, is you. And I know that without a doubt. And I think he would be happy that we love each other the way we do. And that he gave us to each other. Because you’re the only person that really knows the range of who he was to me, and who he was, period. Not just all the fabulousness, but also the challenges, the things he struggled with, but we have a love that he’d have us laugh at those things. Just like he laughed at us too! Loved us and laughed at us too. And was frustrated with us. I miss him really a lot. But he really is a part of who I am, and a lot of what I give is the part that he gave me.
And to not forget what it was like for him to be a Black Gay man in his family, and in our family, and in the world. And to do his best, to bring the best. And to get as much as he could.
He left a legacy to many, and different people have done different things with that. There’s a whole lot of people and probably people we don’t even know ….
Sheilah Mabry, LCSW-R, CPC (she/her/hers) is a consultant, facilitator, leadership coach, licensed clinical social worker, writer, artist, and B.Michael Hunter’s favorite cousin.
Grounded in curiosity, creativity, and joy, Sheilah believes in the inner resourcefulness and resilience of people to work collectively to transform systems. As a bisexual woman of color, she centers equity and anti-racism in all of her work.
Sheilah received her professional coach certification from Leadership that Works, and is a past board member of the National Association of Social Workers-New York City Chapter. She is a proud member of the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network.
Sheilah is a graduate of the Ackerman Institute for the Family’s Foundations of Family Therapy and Gender & Family Project. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston and a Master’s degree from the Hunter College School of Social Work.
Bert participated in an interactive teaching seminar sponsored by the Center for Media and Learning at the Graduate School and University Center of CUNY. During this April 1997 session, his offering was to demonstrate “how he concludes his unit on the Civil Rights Movement with blues and jazz music and lyrics.”
Concurrently teaching at City-As-School, Bert operationalized his learning from the seminar in real time. Fortunately, we have one way to appreciate how innovative and impactful his teaching of high school US history was. Below are observations of his American Social History Project classes conducted by his administrative supervisors on two separate occasions — one during the spring semester that he was engaged in the above seminar, the other later that fall.
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.