The Heartbeat: Womanism, HIV and the Freedom of Everyday

The HUB at Union Theological Seminary recently served as the venue for “The Practice of Everyday Freedom: Wave, Womanism and Villanelle” an evening of short films as part of Dirty Looks: On Location. In the essay below curator and current Union MA student Theodore Kerr writes about the films, putting them in context of womanism, current events and the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis.

“This is not just a battle over flags,” wrote Bree Newsome regarding her successful scaling of the South Carolina State House flag pole and cutting down the Confederate flag, “this is a battle over historical narratives. This is about those American experiences too long ignored, deliberately suppressed by those in power. We will no longer allow the narrative established by slave masters to be passed off as the official record.” In destabilizing narratives Newsome is participating in what Womanist scholar Emilie Townes may call counter memory, which she says can

“provide hope in the midst of degradation, and strength to continue to put one foot in front of the other in movement for justice. Counter memory has the potential to challenge the false generations of gross stereotypes often found in what passes for history.  Counter memory is a strategy within the Christian Social Ethics tradition towards liberation, disregarding outdated ways of doing things producing a conversation between the unsaid and the things we need to hear.”

            Like Newsome, filmmaker Hayat Hyatt is also participating in counter memory.  Curious about life for queer black men before he was born, he went looking for images, voices, stories from the past, which led him to learn about the early days of the ongoing AIDS crisis and the impact on the body he has, the bodies he loves, and the bodies he will never know. From this he made Villanelle, an experimental short film. At one point in the film abstract fields of color and remixed found footage of Black bodies frolicking on a beach play as a man’s voice says—as he understands it—“AIDS is a manifestation of something that has always been for black men that finally had a name, a shape and consequences that could be measured.” That which has plagued Black bodies outdates AIDS—and it could be said—is older than the Confederate flag.

Hyatt’s instinct for history speaks to the violence of erasure related to the ongoing legacy of the H I virus, and the stories we tell and don’t tell about the early response to the virus. We are just now recovering from what I often call the Second Silence of HIV. If we can understand the first silence being President Reagan’s silence around AIDS during the epidemic’s first official five years, I am suggesting the Second Silence is the twelve-year period beginning in 1996 with the introduction of life saving medication which prompted a severe decline in the space HIV/AIDS took up in the public sphere. This silence was present even in the midst of scientific and political breakthroughs, ongoing artistic and cultural productions around the epidemic, and many new cases of HIV.

After much activism and loss, AIDS went from a public concern to a private experience. Services for people living with HIV were systemized (for better and worse), and generations that followed grew up with AIDS in the ether, taking up little space in real life (even when folks found themselves living with the virus). By 2008 and the release of the Swiss Statement (which tried to make it common knowledge that if on appropriate treatment someone living with HIV may have an undetectable viral load, thus making transmission of the virus nearly impossible), the Second Silence started to break. There was an increase in production and dissemination of culture by people looking back at early responses to the AIDS crisis. This I call the AIDS Crisis Revisitation. Examples include the films: We Were Here by (David Weissman, 2011), United in Anger (Jim Hubbard, 2012) How To Survive A Plague (David France, 2012); books: Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father  (Alysia Abbott, 2013), Fire In the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Cynthia Carr, 2013); exhibitions: AIDS in New York: The First Five Years (New-York Historical Society, 2013);  and an uptick in AIDS activist activities in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New York.

But for all this activity within the Revisitation, stories still go untold. If one took a survey of the Black people represented in the Revisitation one would think no Black people have HIV in the US, which is profoundly untrue. Since the beginning, Black people have been over represented in the epidemic. The first confirmed HIV related death in the US was Robert Rayford, a Black teenager from St. Louis, who died in 1969, a fact confirmed in 1987 when his saved tissues were tested. More recently, according to Center for Disease Control 2010 statistics Black people “account for almost half of all new infections in the United States each year (44 percent) as well as more than one third of all people living with HIV (41 percent).”  This, of course, is not because Black people engage in behaviors that are radically different than other Americans. Instead, it is because of the impact of structures and systems on Black lives that reduce life chances.

In his book Anti-Black Racism and the AIDS Epidemic Adam Geary illustrates the ways the AIDS Movement’s focus on behaviors, specifically related to sex between men, has diverted attention to what needs to change to end the crisis. “Talking about gay men and other queers (homophobically) has been a way of NOT talking about the structured inequality and violence that have made some bodies susceptible to viral infection: things like ghettoization, environmental toxicity, endemic untreated infections, lack of access to primary healthcare, mass incarceration, and other forms of state and social violence.” In the book he explores how his list of what we are not talking about relates to anti-black racist systems and structures. Through Geary’s work we can begin to see how the cultural output of the AIDS Crisis Revisitation is also informed by anti-Black racism, and how claiming, reclaiming, inventing, creating history—as Hyatt and others are doing—is a womanist tool against the white supremacy that plagues much of the culture around AIDS. Counter memory digs deeper and in different places for stories we may not be able to hear or recognize that we need, often more than we can imagine.

Chief among the stories not being told are those about the role caregivers, women, and Black people have long played in the AIDS crisis. Bringing these narratives together is the collective of primarily Black women known as the Women’s AIDS Video Enterprise (WAVE). Active in the early nineties, members Marcia Edwards, Alexandra Juhasz, Aida Matta, Juanita Mohammed, Sharon Penceal, Glenda Smith, Carmel Velasquez, were caregivers to people living with HIV at a height of the AIDS crisis in the US. They made media for themselves and others as a way to process what they were going through and share information. Their work is a reminder of the larger role community played in earlier AIDS movements. WAVE, like independent videographer James Wentzy and collectives like DIVA-TV, made tapes of actions to share with news stations, created educational videos to share in community centers, and documented each other during intense times.

Watching WAVE’s work twenty years after it was created feels like a flourishing that the moment we are currently in needs. Among their work is an instructional video entitled “We Care”, in which a cross section of humans in their lived environments learn about HIV together and how to care for each other. A choir of voices mark each movement within the film by stating “WE CARE!” WAVE also produced a series of Self-Portraits where every member of the group created what we may now call a video selfie, a short film of who they are for the world to see. The portraits echo a womanist ethos in recognizing, “women are survivors in a world that is oppressive on multiple platforms, it seeks to celebrate the ways in which women negotiate these oppressions in their individual lives.”

Womanism is a theology for Black women by Black women, rooted in an understanding that Black women in the US have a specific world view due to racism and misogyny. From this view, stories and strategies emerge that may benefit all women and girls, all men and boys, all people. When it comes to the ongoing AIDS crisis, this is true in a way not yet explored. When Newsome took down that flag she understood it was a bold and symbolic act that would not end State sanctioned racism. She did it because she had enough, and because she could. She created her own story. When Hyatt began looking for a past he didn’t know he was going to find HIV/AIDS, but there it was and he did not shy away. When WAVE convened they had each other and a lot of trauma and practical issues to sort through, which they explored by creating a public body of work. In the face of violent history, no history, and creating history, Newsome, Hyatt, and WAVE took matters into their own hands to craft and tell their own story. They embody Pablo Freire’s concept of the Practice of Everyday Freedom, “the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”