Meeting in Clouds, thinking ∞G might reach you

Dear Bert,

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. 

With Love, Respect and Acceptance,

Robert


© Robert E. Penn 2019

<strong>Robert E. Penn, Jr.</strong>
Robert E. Penn, Jr.

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

The Doors that Many Friends Opened Long Ago

Dear Bert,

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. You may remember that the last time we got together was in the fall of 2000 to go to an afternoon screening of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled at the Magic Johnson Theater on 125th Street. You had finally moved into a new townhouse just a few blocks from the theater. I know it was years in the planning, and I remember hoping that your health would improve once you were settled so you would have an opportunity to enjoy living in your own place in Central Harlem.

The Magic Johnson Theater was probably half full. I thought the movie, a satire of race seen through the lens of a contemporary blackface game show, was pretty funny. I don’t remember if we went out to eat afterward, but when we spoke by telephone a few days later, you said the movie gave you nightmares. I felt guilty since I knew that the HIV medication you had begun taking was having a range of effects on you, and I hadn’t thought about how the imagery in the movie would have affected you. I think I had invited you to the movie as a kind of formal “Welcome to Harlem!” gesture, and I guess I thought what better movie to see than one by a Black filmmaker riffing on the history of blackface? I guess in reality there really is a lot more pain than laughs in that history.

Harlem

We now know that, at the time you left us in 2001, Harlem was entering what might be called a final phase in the decades long process of gentrification. By the time of our movie outing I had opened Harlemade Styleshop on Lenox Avenue between 118th and 119th Streets, with two partners, Patricia and Murphy. It was a gift shop featuring tee shirts designed by Murphy, knicknacks designed by Pat and her niece Toya, and books and posters I selected.  We had signed our lease in the fall of 2000 under the Old Harlem economy, but pretty soon, the cost of housing, that had been increasing gradually in previous years, began to climb dramatically. Lower crime rates, and better city services, meant that white people were no longer afraid of Harlem. Besides, as they were getting priced out of the Upper West Side and parts of Brooklyn, for a while Harlem was still seen as relatively affordable. A range of new restaurants opened on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Lenox Avenue (Malcolm X Blvd) in the 2000s, becoming Harlem restaurant rows. People began to talk about the New Harlem.  

By 2008, the owner of the building where our store was located, was well underway in renovating the apartments above, and in the process Harlemade Styleshop, the only commercial tenant remaining, was squeezed out. We were told that we needed to close for a month while they worked on the water line. Over a year later they were still working on it when our lease expired. We tried to argue that our lease should be extended for the time the store was closed, but we were only given the opportunity to remove our things. The three of us had all moved on to other things and we didn’t have the interest, energy or money to fight the City. A couple of years later a hardware store took over all of the first floor space in the building. 

If you were to walk through the streets of Harlem today, you would notice many of the new stores and restaurants I’ve mentioned. Contrary to the impression given by some newspaper stories on gentrification in Harlem, the pedestrians are overwhelmingly Black with a somewhat greater sprinkling of white and Latino people. I moved to New York in 1982 and to Harlem in 1985. Once I was there, I loved the people, the history, and the culture so much that I assumed I would never leave. But I did, in 2012, to take a job teaching History at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, population 3,500. The transition has been surprisingly smooth. I’ve found a community of Black people with a rich history, and am drawing back on my Ohio roots since I was born in Toledo, where my parents, sister and nieces live. But when I think back to Harlem, I’m reminded of the last line of the poem “Mr. Flood’s Party”. As Mr. Flood looked down on the city where he had lived for so long “where strangers would have shut the very doors that many friends had opened long ago.” 

Other Countries

Bert, another thing you missed, but directly influenced, was the revival of our writing collective Other Countries. I know you were there in the early years following the 1986 founding of the writing workshop where Black gay men in New York City met weekly to share and critique each other’s work. By the early 1990s, when I joined, Other Countries had already published an anthology (Other Countries: Black Gay Voices, 1988), and was accepting work for a second, (Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS, 1993, that you edited). The Other Countries performance program was thriving with workshop members traveling to college campuses and other venues to perform work based on material from workshop members. Just as important as the workshop sessions were the after-sessions. Each week after the workshop we went out to dinner at an area restaurant, traded gossip, laughed, and got to know each other, a critical component in building a community of writers. Twice a year, at the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice, we hosted open readings at what was then called the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center.

You probably remember that by the late 1990s, the energy of the Other Countries workshop had declined. Attendance dwindled, and we reserved smaller meeting rooms at the Center. Challenged by the onslaught of deaths from HIV and AIDS, aging of the members, personal disagreements, and decisions by some to seek inspiration elsewhere, we were losing momentum. You and I were both serving as Other Countries Board members when we as a Board agreed to fold Other Countries into Gay Men of African Descent. GMAD had started the same year as Other Countries, by some of the same people, and was in an expansion mode, receiving fairly substantial grants to provide HIV prevention services. I was executive director of GMAD at the time, and we thought that the workshop could continue under the guidance of a GMAD staff person and that we could make the case that the writing of the workshop could be an important component to an HIV prevention toolkit. I think there were a few meetings under this arrangement, but things weren’t the same. The old guard of Other Countries members weren’t interested since the structure was so different from the self-facilitated workshop that they knew. There was also nothing to attract new members, since those interested in writing were not necessarily interested in going to a workshop as part of an HIV prevention program. For the most part the workshop stopped meeting.  

From what I remember, around 2003 or 2004, Chris Adams, a former workshop participant put out a call regarding reviving the workshop. I think around the same time, we were made aware that in your will you had left a bequest to Other Countries. A small group of those interested in reviving Other Countries came together for several planning sessions, I believe facilitated by the Community Resource Exchange. We came out of the sessions with the understanding that there was a need and interest in the writing workshop and that we were also interested in reviving the publishing arm of Other Countries. We approached Tokes Osubu, then executive director of GMAD, with the request that Other Countries regain its independence and also recover the balance of funds that Other Countries had obtained from your bequest for a future anthology that had been given to GMAD when Other Countries was subsumed by GMAD. Tokes and the GMAD Board agreed to the change. Once more independent, the Other Countries funds were placed in a separate bank account. The workshop began meeting again, probably around 2004 or 2005, but rather than meet weekly at the Center, as we had in the past, I believe we met twice a month, with facilitation rotating among those present. 

A small group also began meeting to plan the third Other Countries Anthology, the printing of which would be made possible by your bequest. An editor was selected, and a Call for Submissions was issued. The book, Voices Rising: Celebrating 20 Years of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Writing was published in 2007 and a launch party was held in Brooklyn. The anthology, a good book, was much larger than the planning group had approved, and there was frustration and disappointment that the editor had not informed the group of the changes that had been made to the original concept.  

The workshop continued to meet regularly, but sometime after 2010 with attendance declining again, and some longtime participants moving out of New York, we decided to shift to meeting digitally through Google Hangouts twice a month. We continue to do this today maintaining the continuity of the workshop, and usually spending some time at the end of the session for general conversation and updates.  

Although I no longer live in New York, I suspect that there is still a need as well for a face-to-face workshop, particularly for new writers, both for feedback on their work, and also for community building aspects that a digital workshop just can’t provide. I hope in the future that Other Countries can make this happen. In the meantime, I really appreciate the tremendous contribution you made, even in your absence, to reviving the publishing aspect of the workshop, and really the workshop itself, through your bequest. Thank you Bert.

Love,

Kevin
December 28, 2017


© Kevin McGruder 2017

Kevin McGruder
Kevin McGruder

Kevin McGruder is Vice President of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of History at Antioch College. He has a B.A. in Economics from Harvard University, and an M.B.A. in Real Estate Finance from Columbia University. His interest in community formation led to a career in nonprofit community development that included work as Director of Real Estate Development with the Abyssinian Development Corporation, and Executive Director of Gay Men of African Descent. After receiving a Ph.D. in U.S. History from the Graduate Center of City University of New York, now as an academic, his research interests include African American institutions, urban history, and LGBTQ history. He is co-author of Emancipation Proclamation: Forever Free (Urban Ministries, Inc, 2013) and of Witness: Two Hundred Years of African-American Faith and Practice in the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem (W.B. Eerdmans, 2013), and is author of Race and Real Estate: Conflict and Cooperation in Harlem, 1890-1920 (Columbia University Press, 2015). Photo: Dennie Eagleson

Hey Bert

Hey Bert,

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.

Allen

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 2017

Allen & B.Michael, OutSpoken, B.Dalton Bookseller, Sixth Ave + Eighth St, Greenwich Village, Manhattan, 05 October 1994
From Left to Right: Steve Williams, Robert E. Penn, Robert Vasquez-Pacheco, Allen Luther Wright, Bryan E. Glover, Nhojj Song at Art AIDS America, Bronx Museum, 2016. Photo: Joey B. Pressley
Allen Luther Wright
Allen Luther Wright

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

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

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

Good evening,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is my favorite B.Michael Hunter poem. The narrator, swimming off the coast of Barbados, suddenly gets tired. He goes under: once, twice, three times. Just when he believes all is lost, he sees a black man tossing a life preserver to him. His mind hesitates, but his body grabs hold. Once pulled ashore, catching his breath, the storyteller admits, “I didn’t think a black man could save my life.”

It sent and still sends chills through my body. In the closely-knit, God fearing, upstanding, self-righteous Black community, I often felt a black man rebuke me, deny me, make fun of me or abuse me. I never thought a black man would want to save my life. Before I found New York City’s black gay community, I feared a brother would someday attack me and beat me beyond recognition. Who would have thought black men would save my life?

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


© Robert E. Penn 2007

Coalitions Across Queer Differences

1994D-swarthmore-poster

B.Michael was invited to participate in the Panel on AIDS Service [sic] of the Sager Symposium at Swarthmore College, which took place in mid-April 1994.

He would have been invited in his capacity as board chair of Other Countries, which had recently released their journal, Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS. At the time, their volume was nominated for, and ended up receiving, a Lambda Literary Award. B.Michael’s intention in this conversation about coalitions, queerness and difference would have been to complexify the notion of what people, particularly Black gay men, living with or at risk for HIV/AIDS need with regard to “services,” and to elevate the role of art, storytelling, and bearing witness in the HIV movement.

The above poster (original 11″ x 17″) highlights a range of programming brought by a compelling roster of LGBTQI activists, most from the Northeast, including What I Miss? contributor Colin Robinson. The Symposium took place just 2.5 months ahead of the historic 25th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City.

Roy Gonsalves ~ Obituary | Poem | Inscription

Roy Gonsalves was one of B.Michael’s Black Gay brothers whom he met in Boston in the mid ’80s and, subsequently, in New York through Other Countries in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

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REMEMBRANCE

When my voice does not speak
And my tears no longer fall
Sew my spirit into a quilt
Add silk for the woman
I used to be
Rhinestones for my arrogance
But whatever you do
Sew one of my poems
With red thread
And remember me.

~ Roy Gonsalves, Perversion, 1990


B.Michael’s copy of Perversion, Roy’s collection of poems and three stories with an inscription:

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Other Countries – 1991 Spring Workshop & Performance Schedule

During the first half of 1991, the gifted brothers of Other Countries took turns leading the weekly Saturday afternoon workshop. The roster is packed with brilliance and culminated in the Summer Solstice performance on June 8.

B.Michael took the April 13 slot (see page 2 below). Other contributors to What I Miss? also led sessions: Colin Robinson (January 12), Robert E. Penn (March 9), and Allen Luther Wright (April 20).

Some of the writers/performers listed here died of HIV within a couple years, including Craig G. Harris, Roy Gonsalves, Sabah As-Sabah, Jr., and Assotto Saint.

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Other Countries – Volume II – Breaking Ground

Since the publication of Other Countries’ first journal in 1987, the Board of Directors discussed in earnest if/how/when to manifest their second volume. Once they decided to move forward, job one was to identify a managing editor, a role eventually taken on by B.Michael. The announcement was circulated across Vice-Chair Roy Gonsalves‘ signature.

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The initial invitation for work had a submission deadline of February 15, 1991.

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With a subsequent call for submissions by June 15, 1991.

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Other Countries ~ “A Page from a Black Child’s Diary”

This special Other Countries program was jointly sponsored with Gay Men of African Descent and coordinated by What I Miss? contributors, Allen Wright and Bil Wright. It showcased the voices of a dozen writers, including B.Michael, who probably read a couple of poems along with his piece, “Cousins”, which he co-wrote with his mother’s younger sister’s oldest daughter, Sheilah Mabry.

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“Probable Cause” (earlier draft)

These three pages were tucked away in a folder that B.Michael had brought to an Other Countries workshop, most likely in December 1988.

Per the practice of the standing, bimonthly Saturday workshop, he would have made copies of his poem for distribution to workshop participants (see version A). Then he would have taken notes on folks’ comments (see version B), and then rewritten it, incorporating their feedback (see version C), which appears along with B.Michael’s other writing here.

On version B, B.Michael jotted the date and address of what sounds like a New Year’s Eve gathering. Did you attend either this workshop or that party? If so, please let us know!

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