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  Counter memory is a strategy within the Christian Social Ethics tradition towards liberation, disregarding outdated ways of doing things producing a conversation between the unsaid and the things we need to hear.”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.”

The Heartbeat: The Petri Dish, Ministry, and Protest

The Union Community joined together to protest the non-indictments of the police officers who killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown.  Collective effort empowered the support of a multidimensional protest hub, affectionately known as the “Love Hub.” Students, faculty, and staff worked the jail support hotline, offered temple massages and prayers, organized study sessions, led teach-ins, baked bread, cooked pasta, poured coffee, and listened to the laments of a hurting community. We’ve been clear that this project was appropriate for this particular stage, and we are working to sustainably transition this model. As proud as I am of our collective effort, I have also been disappointed.   I’ve never believed that anything happened by accident. So this break, I asked myself, “What was God trying to tell me here?”

Well, that hit me after a friend got strep throat.

When someone is suspected to have strep throat, the doctor swabs the patient’s throat with a cotton swab. The swab is wiped onto a Petri dish. Eventually, the sample reacts and displays a positive sign in the Petri dish. Doctors can then move forward with the treatment. The Love Hub was a Petri dish, and this is what it taught me. I’m writing these down because I need to remember these tips for my future (and I suppose, present) ministry. No good doctor keeps information to herself:

1.     Everyone can participate. But everyone’s participation won’t look the same.

All the protest doesn’t happen in the street. And not everyone can be out at night at each action. We need to check our ableist discourse of what counts as “worthwhile” protest. We are a diverse community, and we should respect the choices people make with their bodies and hearts. One student wanted to come out with us one night, but couldn’t because she would need to hire a sitter. Instead, she and her family cooked an awesome pasta casserole. And the young daughter of a professor donated her allowance so that we could buy snacks for people headed out.

Each share made the stone soup richer. The Love Hub would not have been as powerful or as productive without the people who made the space as it was. For some, sitting and praying in the space was the most meaningful contribution. For others, it was helping to create signs.  No one can do everything. But everyone does need to feel useful. And everyone does need to contribute something. The trick is in discerning the gift.

2.     Even the most sacred spaces can be contaminated.

Our Protest Hub was not the antibiotic of our ailment. It was the Petri dish, a microcosm, a snapshot. And that’s okay. One thing has remained clear to me even through explicit participation in protest activities—Oppression is so deeply rooted into our conditioning that it inhabits even the most sacred of spaces. Sometimes worship is hurtful, sometimes protest is underwhelming and triggering, and sometimes the classroom can be hostile. But, what do we expect? I have come to abandon the idea of “Safe Space”. I believe it is a worthwhile goal, and I still choose to hold people accountable. But if I got mad and took my toys home because I didn’t want to play anymore, I’d never get a chance at bat. Is the game rigged? Is it unfair? Is it toxic? Absolutely, that’s exactly why we are here. There’s work to be done. I don’t have the luxury of abandoning it. And truthfully, this is why we carve out spaces of friends and loved ones. Because someone needs to hear our cries at midnight, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like God is listening.

3.     Mindfulness takes time to craft.

In the Love Hub, we were reminded of the very names and faces of those we’ve lost to police brutality. A shrine displayed the faces of Renisha McBride and Michael Brown. Every time I walked into the room, I felt their eyes on me. Their presence, even in this way, energized us. We watched professors, students, friends, and family take the time to craft a mindfulness about the urgency of now.  I’m grateful for professors who offered gracious extensions and for administrators who bought us pizza. I am still thankful for the common language and muscle memory we have developed. Now, I feel that I can hold my peers accountable to the cause of anti-racism efforts, and I trust them to hold me accountable, too. The very presence of a headquarters created an opportunity for people to come and share things they might not have shared otherwise. What would happen if we could replicate this practice in our other communities? It was impossible for anyone at Union to pretend that everything was normal in the world, because we purposefully disrupted campus with this project. Certainly, this is what #ShutItDown is all about. We will continue to disrupt life as usual until the world understands that Black Lives Mater.

We learned a lot. The task isn’t over, either. I’m glad to see us jump in and be of use as we are able. We must be cautious of the instinct that imagines all evil outside of our homes. Hopefully we can apply what we learned in this experience to the ways we interact with people in the halls, in the classroom, in our field education assignments. I believe we all learned something valuable for our ministries through this process. As for me, I’m much more aware of the multiplicity of spiritual and vocational gifts. I want to make sure all people feel useful and empowered to build something beautiful. I’m much more aware of the treacherous nature of oppression, and I’ve learned that we will always have to fight this Beast. And more than anything, I’ve learned that living out the practice of mindfulness does not happen magically. And we won’t always get it right every time. I’m learning to have grace for myself and others.

I still don’t think anything happens by accident. I know that we are here at this time for a reason. Perhaps we are being taught something special about ministry.

Jeremiah is in the Streets

“And all I get for my God-warnings
are insults and contempt.
But if I say, “Forget it!
No more God-Messages from me!”
The words are fire in my belly,
a burning in my bones.
I’m worn out trying to hold it in.
I can’t do it any longer!
Then I hear whispering behind my back:
“There goes old ‘Danger-Everywhere.’ Shut him up! Report him!”
Old friends watch, hoping I’ll fall flat on my face:
“One misstep and we’ll have him. We’ll get rid of him for good!”
(Jeremiah 8-10 MSG)

The above words come from a powerful passage in Jeremiah, as the author laments over the burdensome weight of prophetic visions. These words  happen to be the origin of Charles Blow’s most recent book, Fire Shut Up In My Bones.  Though I’d never call myself a prophet, I can certainly empathize with the core of this passage. What do you do with words that threaten the world as it exists? And what do you do when people try to silence you?

This is the beauty of collective response to the recent non-indictments of the killers of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Jeremiahs of today have been urging us to see daily the race, oppression, and the pain of those who mourn. The sadness I feel reading Jeremiah is real. When you try to warn a nation, through scholarship, activism, and sermons it sure does hurt when we see the gut-wrenching pain caused by the very oppression we speak against. It hurts, partially because mourning is heavy. But mostly, it’s painful because we predicted this.

We have been screaming about this. The critique of White Supremacy and its capitalist interest in the prison industrial complex has been on our lips for some time. We told the world that systematically pushing poor people into public housing and then policing those buildings was a bad idea. So for many of us, Akai Gurley’s death was painful because we predicted it. We have been yelling that over-policing Black communities only results in pain and sorrow. And now, sadly, we have a case study, a hashtag, and a footnote to elucidate what we’ve been trying to say for years. This is the Prophet’s pain. No one listens until it is too late.

It is why we write, why we create art, why we teach. And yes, it is also why we protest. Because many of us have found comfort in the prophet Jay-Z who declared “the scales was lopsided, I’m just restoring order”. Each child we tutor, each college student we push to read Audre Lorde, each independent artist we support at a show, each sweet potato pie we share with a friend, each loving action is a dismantling of the system we’ve created. Year-round, we do this work lovingly because we know there is no other option.

I know this feeling all too well. Many of us do. In fact, I’d even say that is the very thing that brought us all to Union. We are, or at least we understand ourselves to be, progressive believers committed to social justice. We wouldn’t need to name that thread of values if it wasn’t already in opposition to the status quo. We are dissenters. If I were to name one thing that unites us all as Union students, it is the “Collective Powerful Side-Eye” to business as usual. Kudos, kinfolk.

But that’s not enough. As much as we push boundaries outside of our institution, we must have the grace and the courage to aim at least some of our energy inwards and in love. It will not be easy, it will not be comfortable, and it will not be glamorous all the time. After all, that “fire shut up in our bones” is hot. But I promise, caring for the fire is worth it.

I look forward to participating in a panel with Charles Blow and President Serene Jones on December 10 at 6:30 in James Chapel. You are more than welcome to attend and to participate in this discussion. May the fire burn bright and hot.

The Strongest Call of My Life

This Thursday is the second installment of the Keeping Ferguson Alive series, titled “Not Worth Saving: Why is the Black Body Expendable?

I went to Missouri a few weeks ago in support of #FergusonOctober. When the opportunity was first announced, I felt a warm sensation in my belly that told me to go. It was the loudest Call I had ever felt. We packed a bus and nineteen of us headed to Ferguson. I found that we would soon bond in a way that none of us could explain. We had all felt a different Call to be on the bus. This is the story of mine.

I worried that going to Ferguson for a weekend would feel like drive-by activism. And if I was being honest, in some ways it was.  We discussed, more than once as a team, the importance of lifting up the voices of local organizers and deferring to their leadership. Still, nothing would prepare us for the experience of standing in the street where Michael Brown was shot.

We gathered around the wet pile of teddy bears, candles, and memorial t-shirts in a small street. This street was no wider than one of the divided halves of pavement near Union. This was a tiny community. Though it looked different from the community I call home in Brooklyn, it felt eerily familiar. I looked at the street until it finally hit me—this precious child was murdered here.

I could not stand in the street any longer. I walked back to our bus alone. I had finally allowed myself to feel the things I had tucked away in a box inside my heart.

“Why would a police officer be here? Why would anyone who doesn’t live here, be here? How could this happen, logistically?”

As I hit that last wonder, I saw the answer. A Ferguson police car was parked in the leasing office parking lot.

That’s how this happens, or at least, it’s one of the reasons. We have infographics, data, charts, and personal anecdotes to remind the world that communities of color are over-policed and under-protected.

I remembered the sight of cops in plain clothes, waiting at the turnstile for a young kid to hop over without paying. I thought of the ways certain schools are encouraged to police their students.  Like bees buzzing outside a honeycomb, police forces (and people who believe they are police) hover around Black communities in the hopes of “protecting and serving.” Except, unlike bees, they aren’t too sweet about their methods.

As a teacher, I couldn’t separate this experience from memories of my students. I felt their presence every time we said Michael Brown’s name. I saw Alaya’s big eyes, heard Jayden’s Knock-Knock jokes, and smelled the peanut butter on Josiah’s breath. I thought about my not-so-little brother, who happens to be 6’8”. I could not deal with the thought of mourning over them. And while I usually enjoy exploring language, all I could say that weekend was “this isn’t right.” It’s not.

The students in Keene rioted violently during #pumpkinFest, but were framed as “kids” making “poor decisions.” The protestors in Ferguson have been mischaracterized in the media as looters or “thugs.” What other explanation, besides a gross understanding of race and a denial to acknowledge that we haven’t solved that problem yet?

The illusion is that all the work is happening in Ferguson. A good amount of it is, but it’s right here, too. We chanted often that weekend that the “whole damn system is guilty as HELL!” But what would happen if we took that chant seriously? If we really thought of ourselves as part of a system, just as guilty as anyone else? When we continue to see people of color as more threatening, more sexual, less worthy of protection, we are guilty. And as people of faith, we spend our lives wondering how to reconcile that reality.

I do not pretend to have all the answers. But I do appreciate that Union is making a space for this very discussion. This Thursday, November 13 at 6:00 pm, members of the Union community will lead us in an honest conversation about the ways Black bodies are seen as dangerous. If you are unable to attend the event, it will be livestreamed.

We’ll talk about the legacy of lynching, but we’ll also talk about the ways their murders have been rationalized by the media. We might not all be able to go to Ferguson, and honestly, I don’t know if we all should. As we await some decision from Ferguson in the coming days, we can be accountable to responding from where we are. The whole system is guilty.

The Heartbeat of Union: Seven Last Words

When I hear the phrase “Seven Last Words”, I smile. I have fond memories of sitting in church to hear a pastor (actually, seven pastors) engage in a sermon series that draws upon Jesus’ seven last statements before he died. It is a Holy Week tradition in which seven preachers participate in a preaching relay race of sorts. I say that, not intending to trivialize this tradition, but to highlight the aesthetic of the event. It is an event that invokes a myriad of emotions and thoughts. This is not your standard church service.

A few weeks ago, I saw the phrase “seven last words” pop up on my Facebook newsfeed. “It’s only October”, I thought to myself. “Why are we talking about Holy Week in October?”

And then I was amazed.

This Friday, October 24 at 6:30 p.m., The Center of Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, along with several noted co-sponsors, will host a Seven Last Words series.  It will be hosted at Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, and the event will be live streamed. Yes, in October. But this event does not intend to raise the last words of Jesus. Instead (or perhaps, in addition), these seven preachers and activists will raise the seven last words of Black women and men killed by police, security, or vigilantes. Wow. Now that’ll preach.

The very organization of such a series raises several feelings for me, many of which I cannot name. I am relieved that my pain will be understood and made legitimate from the pulpit, especially since religious leaders so often make headlines by cosigning oppression. I am frustrated that this event exists, and I wish we didn’t have to mourn life.  I am grateful to be in a space where theory and practice converge in sermons. I am affirmed in my Blackness and am reminded of the Blackness of the Jesus I imagine. I am reminded of the many parallels between the Jesus story and of the story of Black American experience. Black Americans, like Jesus, are seen as outsiders. We are misunderstood, both by peers and by authority figures. We are considered to be an enemy of the state and a threat to the Empire.  And yet, as much as I wish these seven words represented only seven deaths, I know better. I am scared for the Eighth Word, though I know it will come.

I look forward to this series. I will be keeping up with the twitter discussion and live stream. And I thank, in advance, the people who are doing the work to raise the slaughter of Black people as an issue of sin.     Seven Last Words