1986: An Elegy for Our Coldest War
Ballroom Freedom School (7/7)

1986: An Elegy for Our Coldest War

Brad Walrond’s debut collection Every Where Alien is published by Moore Black Press. The themes here explores the author’s own black queer exploration of the world, domestic and abroad and how these experiences map onto the discovery of co-occurring and overlapping art and resistance movements among New York City’s underground communities.

1986: An Elegy for Our Coldest War

Commemorating Gay Men of African Descent’s (GMAD) 30th anniversary alongside the legacy of black gay men organizing on behalf of themselves in response to homophobia, racism, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Could Be The Ballroom was always our Nuclear option
A rock scrabble bunker become a threshing floor
How we survived our Coldest War

A Mother a Father an entire house full of babies
tucked into mangers woven out of street corner filament
limber enough to parent those of us:

born with and with out parents
with and without islands

begat inside flags with and without stripes
while reading for A-level exams

stretched astride Empires and Queens
too Black to be British
too gay to be queer—

too poor for the crowns we deserve


Boys and girls born beyond signage
onto intersections above and below 42nd street
where hormones traffic themselves,

Run all the rules. Busts all the lights
cum shot out of blackness too Pentecostal
for its own beneficence

Could Be the Ballroom Scene laid its own bedrock
atop an inference. As if by subterfuge.
As if by stagecraft. As if by premonition:

The way we live
The way we die
The way we transition

In and out of space
In and out of time
In and out of academies & boarding schools
With and without degrees.

In and out of dimension
The lives we all span is a performance


1986: What a performance it was!
In the year of our Lord June 30, 1986
adjudicating case: 478 U.S. 186 otherwise known as Bowers v. Hardwick the Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s Sodomy laws in a 5-4 decision.[1]

This year 1986 according to dissenting Justice Blackmun—enjoined by William Brennan Jr.,
Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens—our nation’s highest court became “obsessively focused on homosexual activity”

So happens this same year 1986
a midsummer night’s dream is bequeathed
to Reverend Charles Angel;[2] a new faith begins its practice inside the living rooms of Black Gay men
fagged playing Russian roulette with their secrets the waters break. Gay Men of African Descent[3] is born

June 14, 1986
Daniel Garret[4] freebases on a James Baldwin line:
“Our history is each other” and a group of Black Gay Men
exhale enough pride inside a writer’s workshop
to inscribe for themselves a new nation:

Other Countries[5]

write themselves out of a BlackHeart
Collecting the floodlit life-force condensed
inside Joseph’s Beam[6]

In some ways we all still live huddled, impatient,
un-relented inside Joseph’s hologram

If There’s a Cure For This I Don’t Want It[7]


October 1986
Craig Harris[8] black gay living
with AIDS and walking realness

grabs the mic from the San Francisco Health Commissioner at the American Public Health’s Assoc. first AIDS workshop speaking for all of us he proclaims: “I Will Be Heard”

before Craig’s mic drops
National Minority AIDS Council is born
Craig Harris, Paul Kawata, Gil Gerard,
Suki Ports, Marie St. Cyr[9]

invite our colored selves to the Ball
because the rainbow was never enough.


On this runway Audre Lorde cries Dear Joe[10]
& the tinny juke box music comes up
through the floor of our shoes

This runway is a Battle
This runway is an Extravaganza
Watch listen learn
This Battle Is and Is Not Yours

The Old Way : The New Way :
either way spells perseverance
crafted out of imaginary high school diplomas

The Old Way : The New Way :
either way spells perseverance
out of nothing besides our poverty, our disease,
our sex, our privilege, our shame, our death,

A people a culture an art form a wellspring is born.


When lifespans splinter into foreshortened seasons
a phallus engorged pandemic goes jackhammer & rogue
sometimes God opens the second door

1986 is a second door
a portal in time manned by the
Queens of the Damned

a middle passage collects itself onto dry ground
An ADODI[11] river collapses alongside a
New York City Nile

Shamans sing:

in & out of gender
in & out of place.
Yoruba priests
walk bizarre


When My Brother Fell[12]

I cared not how rich he was
How Caribbean he was
How Ivy League his poison oak
How much southern fruit pickled his veins

When My Brother Fell

I cared not how many Prospect Park trees[13]
bear witness to his lovemaking. I paid no attention
to which butch-queen-voguing-fem
he was fucking
in between bushes

Or to how big
how thick
how heavy
the thorns

he let ride his back into Heaven

When My Brother Fell
I picked up his weapons and never questioned
The category he walked
how much make-up he had on
or which label she wore
behind closed doors

I never questioned
If his momma knew
If his daddy cared

I kept walking


Essex said, “there was no one lonelier than you Joseph”
30 years later, we not gon’ do it that way this time
The Ballroom collapses whole classes into nations

Every call gets a response
Every name every category
every non-binary
is an intention

A Universal law makes its own rules
Divines its own boundaries
causing legends to be born

While Paris Burns
Assoto’s Saints[14] and Willie’s Ninjas[15]
stand guard

a whole river of boys born without bones
boys born without spoons let alone silver

bright boys born on islands in between boroughs
that rupture beneath their salt water promise

Somehow the Ballroom always knew why
Boys and Girls born too-fluid-for-homes

need Houses

Essex said, “If we must die on the front line
don’t let loneliness Kill us”

If There’s a Cure For This I Don’t Want It


1986 1986 1986 is a house song at morning mass a break beat, a beat box, a carol, a love song, a dirge
a Brooklyn Children’s Museum born again
inside a Donald Woods’[16] forest

1986 is
a GMAD, an NMAC, an ADODI
a god-accented ebonic surviving for Joseph,
for Essex, for Donald, for Willie,
for Assoto Saint, for Craig Harris

For all Us born Survivors of the Coldest War
With and without parents.

Born too gay,
too queer for the crowns
we deserve.


Endnotes

[1] In Atlanta, Georgia, August 1982 Michael Hardwick was issued a citation for drinking in public. Hardwick missed his court date and an arrest warrant was issued. However, before receiving the warrant, Hardwick paid the $50 fine. Nevertheless, two weeks later, police arrived at Harwick’s home, were admitted by roommate, and found Hardwick in his bedroom having sex with another man. The police arrested Hardwick and his companion for sodomy, a felony under Georgia law. Hardwick challenged the statute’s constitutionality in Federal District Court with the support of the ACLU. The case challenging the constitutionality of Georgia’s sodomy laws reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986. The Court issued a divided opinion holding that there was no constitutional protection for acts of sodomy, and that states could outlaw those practices. The case drew attention to sodomy laws across the country and in the years that followed several state legislatures repealed such laws. Finally, in 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas the Supreme Court overturned its ruling in the Bowers v. Hardwick case and invalidated the 13 remaining state sodomy laws insofar as they applied to private consensual conduct among adults.

[2] Charles Angel (1952-1986), a Pentecostal minister, community organizer, social advocate, and activist, who helped found the organization, Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD).

[3] Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) was founded in 1986 with the mission of advancing the welfare of black gay men through education, social support, political advocacy, and health and wellness promotion. (For more information see the NYPL Archives and Manuscripts)

[4] Daniel Garret was a member of the Blackheart Collective, founded in 1980 by the Harlem-born Isaac Jackson. Blackheart members, all New York City-based black gay artists, produced a literary journal. The publication sought to queer dominant black intellectual traditions such as Afrocentrism and extend the gay liberation movement’s concern with prisoner rights and prison reform to a broader race- and class-based critique of carceral state power. The Blackheart collective disbanded in 1985.

[5] Other Countries was a writer’s workshop formed to develop, disseminate, and preserve the diverse cultural expressions of black gay men. The group produced two journals in the early years of the AIDS crisis, Other Countries: Black Gay Voices (1988) and the book-length Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS (1993).

[6] Joseph Beam was born December 30, 1954, in Philadelphia. He studied journalism at Franklin College in Indiana where he was an active member of the Black Student Union. Back in Philadelphia in the early 1980s, Beam got a job at Giovanni’s Room, a GLBT bookstore and began writing news articles, personal essays, poetry, and short stories that reflected the life experiences of black Gay men. In 1984, the Lesbian and Gay Press Association honored him with an award for outstanding achievement by a minority journalist. Disappointed at the lack of published gay black male voices, he edited the pioneering anthology, In the Life (1986). Beam helped resurrect the flagging National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays—originally founded in 1978—joining the executive committee and editing the organization’s journal, Black/Out. He died of complications related to AIDS in December 1988, just three days shy of his 34th birthday. After his death, Beam’s mother and his friend Essex Hemphill completed a second anthology of black Gay men’s writing, Brother to Brother (1991), which Beam was working on when he died (extract from Liz Highleyman’s article, “Who was Joseph Beam?” for Seattle News.)

[7] The refrain from Diana Ross’s 1976 hit song, “Love Hangover,” written by Pamela Sawyer and Marilyn McLeod. The song is one of the anthems of the House and Ballroom community.

[8] In 1986, the American Public Health Association (APHA) had its first AIDS workshop, and neglected to invite any HIV/AIDS or medical leaders of color to the event. Craig Harris crashed the meeting, taking the stage and the microphone from Dr. Merv Silverman, the San Francisco Health Commissioner. This was the genesis of a national movement and the founding moment of the National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC) that quickly became a voice for communities of color, spreading awareness of the disproportionate impact that HIV/AIDS had on their communities (see https://gay-sd.com/the-national-minority-aids-council-they-will-be-heard/).

[9] Leaders of prominent minority AIDS organization nationwide – including Paul Kawata, Gil Gerald, Calu Lester, Don Edwards, Timm Offutt, Norm Nickens, Craig Harris, Carl Bean, Suki Ports, Marie St.Cyr and Sandra McDonald – started the National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC) in response to the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) failure to invite anyone of color to participate on the panel at its first ever AIDS workshop in 1986. NMAC members met with U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop when he was writing his historic report on the AIDS. Originally scheduled for just 15 minutes the meeting lasted nearly two and half hours. More than three decades later, HIV still disproportionately impacts communities of color and NMAC continues to provide public policy education programs, conferences, treatment and research programs initiatives, trainings, and electronic and printed resource materials (see http://www.nmac.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/History.pdf).

[10] Audre Lorde (1934-1992) dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. Lorde was born in New York City to West Indian immigrant parents. She earned her BA from Hunter College and Master in Library Sciences from Columbia University. She was a librarian in the New York public schools throughout the 1960s. She had two children with her husband, Edward Rollins, a white, gay man, before they divorced in 1970. In 1972, Lorde met her long-time partner, Frances Clayton and began teaching as poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College. Lorde articulated early on the intersections of race, class, and gender in canonical essays such as “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984) collected Lorde’s nonfiction prose and has become a canonical text in Black studies, women’s studies, and queer theory. In the late 1980s Lorde and fellow writer Barbara Smith founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, which was dedicated to furthering the writings of black feminists.

[11] ADODI was born in 1986 in Philadelphia as a movement of same gender loving men of African descent. “Adodi” is the plural of “Ado,” a Yoruba word that describes a man who “loves” another man. The Adodi of the tribe are thought to embody both male and female ways of being and were revered as shamans, sages. and leaders. Adodi currently has chapters in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Washington, DC. (see: http://www.adodi.org/)

[12] Essex Hemphill (1967-1995) was a writer who addressed race, identity, sexuality, HIV/AIDS, and the family in his work. His first full-length poetry collection, Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (1992), won the National Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual New Author Award. He edited the anthology Brother to Brother: New Writing by Black Gay Men (1991). His work is featured in the documentaries Tongues Untied (1989), Black Is … Black Ain’t (1994), and Looking for Langston (1989). Hemphill died of complications from AIDS in 1995.

[13] The Vale of Cashmere is a secluded patch of wilderness in Prospect Park that’s been the unofficial locus of gay cruising in Brooklyn since the 1970s. In his short story, “Summer Chills” in Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, Rory Buchanan writes: “When I got there, I found the park filled with men in the same horny, hungry state of mind I was in … I can’t remember ever seeing so many gorgeous black men in any one place.”

[14] Assotto Saint (1957-1994) was a Haitian-born, pioneering poet, author, performance artist, musician, editor, human rights and AIDS activist, theatrical founder, and dancer. Saint was among the first Black activists to disclose his HIV positive status, and one of the first poets to include the AIDS crisis in his work. After graduating from Jamaica High School in New York City, he enrolled as a pre-med student at Queens College. In 1980, Saint fell in love with Jaan Urban Holmgren, a Swedish-born composer with whom he began collaborating on a number of theatrical and musical projects. Their relationship would last 14 years. They were both diagnosed as HIV positive in 1987. The death of his partner Jaan Urban Holmgren in 1993 profoundly affected Saint. In his poem, “Wishing for Wings,” he concludes that no words can convey his despair over Holmgren’s death. Saint died of AIDS-related complications on June 29, 1994. He had requested that, in protest of the indifference of American society to those dying of AIDS, that the American flag be burned at his funeral and its ashes scattered on his grave. Holmgren and Saint are buried side-by-side at the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn.

[15] Willi Ninja (1961-2006) was a dancer, performance artist, and choreographer who was featured in “Paris is Burning.” He was a self-taught dancer who was perfecting his vogueing style by his twenties. As mother of the House of Ninja, he became a New York celebrity, and give modelling stars like Naomi Campbell pointers early in their careers. He also inspired Madonna and her 1990 hit song and music video, “Vogue.” In 2004, Willi Ninja opened a modelling agency, EON (Elements of Ninja), but continued to dance, appearing on the television series “America’s Next Top Model” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” and dropping in at local clubs. Willie Ninja died of AIDS-related heart failure in New York City on September 2, 2006, at the age of 45.

[16] Donald Woods (1958-1992) was a poet, singer, and creative worker based in Brooklyn. He earned a bachelor’s degree at The New School and did postgraduate study in arts administration. His work as a writer began with his involvement in the Blackheart Collective. He studied with Audre Lorde and participated in Other Countries, a black gay men’s writing workshop. Woods was one of several authors of “Tongues Untied,” Marlon T. Riggs’s film about black gay men. He also appeared in Riggs’s film, “No Regrets.” (see: https://www.nytimes.com/1992/06/29/obituaries/donald-w-woods-34-aids-film-executive.html)

Responses


Michael Roberson is a public health practitioner, activist, and leader within the LGBTQ community who created The Federation of Ballroom Houses, co-created the National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Group and the nationally diffused CDC behavioral change HIV prevention intervention “Many Men, Many Voices.

Preface

We are coming home. It is not enough to tell us that one was a brilliant poet, scientist, educator, or rebel. Whom did he love? It makes a difference. I can’t become a whole man simply on what is fed to me: watered-down versions of Black life in America. I need the ass-splitting truth to be told, so I will have something pure to emulate, a reason to remain loyal.

– Essex Hemphill [1]

When The Living Can No Longer Speak…The Dead Speak for Us.

– Bob Rafsky[2]

At the onset of the AIDS epidemic, many medical experts, journalists, politicians, and others defined it as a “gay disease,” specifically a white gay male disease. Indeed, GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency Disease) is the acronym that preceded AIDS. This formulation, rooted in homophobia, justified the delayed and inadequate public health response to the epidemic, which Ronald Reagan’s seven years of silence on the crisis helped extend. Presidential silence was, for many, a death sentence. Actions by Reagan’s successor, George Bush senior, were also inadequate to addressing the national crisis.

Similarly, local leaders, like Mayor Ed Koch of New York City, displayed no sense of urgency and did little to prevent discrimination by medical providers when they denied treatment and care for gay men infected with AIDS.

Besieged by messages of hate, such as those asserting that AIDS is a “gay cancer” and “God’s punishment,” gay men, almost all of them white, and their allies, collectively mobilized to create prevention and intervention models that were suited to their communal norms. This organizing leveraged gains from the grass root efforts of the pre- and post-1969 Stonewall uprising. Stonewall, a signal act of communal defiance, began in the early morning of June 26 when gay, lesbian, and transgender patrons of the Stonewall Inn, many Puerto Rican and black, refused to allow the NYPD to enter the bar and conduct a customary and legal raid. The five days of protests that followed affirmed that, when united, the community had power.

Over the decade that followed, LGBT activist and autonomous community infrastructures were strengthened in neighbourhoods across the country, such as the West Village and Chelsea in New York City, the Castro in San Francisco, West Hollywood in Los Angeles, and Boys Town in Chicago. These “gay ghettos,” centered on the communal norms of white gay men, exercised political, affective, and cultural power to be what Queer Theologian Gary Comstock terms “saving grace” and “salvific” action.[3]

For the white gay and lesbian community these places and movements were akin to a New Jerusalem, the reward for the grand march out of oppression into liberation and self-determination. At the onset of The AIDS epidemic, these communities and movements were just about the only hope. Yet, even at the radical boundaries of this movement, the needs and welfare of black queer bodies and black gay men and the House Ballroom community remained almost entirely invisible.

Black gay men wandered in a wilderness of invisibility. We were either silenced or exiled from black communities by systems of homophobia that black churches helped establish and legitimize, or we were whited-out or tokenized by the white gay community’s systemic racism. Consequently, black gay men reaped few of the benefits of the post-Stonewall era. On the one hand, white gay communities demanded that black gay men water down their blackness in exchange for limited inclusion. On the other hand, African American communities demanded that they tone down their gayness in the interests of racial harmony and integrity. Without witness, advocate, or community, black gay men were invisibly and silently becoming infected with HIV.

Brad Walrond’s bold and audacious poem 1986: An Elegy for our Coldest War pays homage to the moment when this silence was broken and the veil of invisibility lifted. This was the jarring moment of consciousness and action by black gay men caught in the vice grip of twin epidemics, AIDS and crack cocaine. This was the moment when the community began collectively bargaining a way forward between grass roots organizing and the capital consumption of black and queer bodies. This moment is epitomized by 28-year-old Craig Harris’ demand—”I will be heard”—issued at the 1986 American Public Health Association meeting in Las Vegas where no person of colour was invited to participate in the Association’s first session on HIV/AIDS. Just a few months later, Harris would coordinate the first ever National Conference on AIDS in the black community.

In the 1980s, black communities across the United States were being ravaged by the crack epidemic. Invisibility for black gay men was entrenched by the wide spread association of crack with poor, inner city communities of colour, and HIV with white, gay urban enclaves. Although black gay men were impacted by both epidemics, they were either unacknowledged or of marginal concern to those who responded to these crises.

Suffering and forsaken, black gay men organized.

In 1986, the author Daniel Garret invoked James Baldwin’s assertion that, “Our history is each other”[4] to found the collective, Other Countries, which grew out of a weekly writing workshop for black gay men that met at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in Greenwich Village. This was an unprecedented, far-reaching, and deliberate foregrounding of community expression. Brad Walrond continues this commitment by embracing the black prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power with regards to our communities, and our suffering. (This here is what Cornel West calls the Black Prophetic tradition).

1986 was also the year Reverend Charles Angel created Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD), the first community-based organization to address the social and health needs of black gay men. And, it was the year Adodi, a spirituality-based black LGBT group, was founded. AIDS, ironically, became a venue and source of power.

AIDS, ironically, became a venue and source of power.

The movement that began in 1986 made it possible two years later for John Michael Herrington and a group of West Indian black gay men to found People of Color in Crisis (POCC). POCC organized support systems for black gay men ravaged by HIV/AIDS. Those it supported died with dignity even as churches and families turned their backs on them in this, their greatest time of need. By the end of the 1980s, kindred agencies had formed across the country.

The actions of that moment, 1986, marked the redirection of the crisis from one of helplessness to one of action. AIDS, ironically, became a venue and source of power. The AIDS killing fields revealed unforeseen lifelines for black gay men and other marginalized groups by creating both political and economic capital. The scourge that was meant to kill also ushered in new resources and inspired new forms of organizing and empowerment. In this sense, the pandemic becomes a “saving grace” and “salvific” for black gay men. This paradox—AIDS as both a biomarker for certain death and a generator of life-giving cultural and community action—marked another transgressive rupture in the black experience of the United States.

Walrond summons the power of black poetics and the black radical tradition to articulate the contradictions of that moment. In doing so, he has us continue to wrestle with them, continue to find in them guidance, in the long struggle for our emancipation. It is right and fitting, therefore, that 1986: An Elegy for our Coldest War enunciates an existential challenge to Black Theology and the Black Church to rethink its historical and theological approach towards emancipation in the black struggle for freedom.

The black church denied its Black LGBT congregants the historical refuge it afforded black people during slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights and Black Power eras. What’s more, in most instances, the church became the storehouse and progenitor of the pain, trauma, and terror exercised on black queer bodies. It was the church that weaponized the word “abomination” under the guise of obeisance to scripture and divine will. This abomination theology is itself an agent of disease, for it gave the black church and larger African-American community license to turn its back on its LGBT members. I call this “genocide by neglect.”

We become what we think.

Implanted in the consciousness of black gay men, the abomination theology threatened to deify the AIDS crisis for those it most directly affected. This confronted our cultural and public health institutions with theological and existential crises they were ill equipped to address. The gap in understanding grew as the AIDS industrial complex expanded into a complex culture-producing, political, professional, and economic system. Community based organizations, Black Gay Pride events, and public health research, prevention, and treatment initiatives shifted the centre of healing and refuge away from the black church and toward the new bastions of advocacy and systems of support. In doing so it reproduced the divide within and did little to hold accountable or facilitate healing reconciliations between black communities and their cherished institutions of care, most notably, the church.
And let me be clear, this healing is in the interests of all, not only for the benefit of black gay men. The rupture of the AIDS crisis cuts to the heart of black communities and their institutions. In The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (1999), Cathy Cohen asks, “Why, when faced with a disease that was threatening significant numbers of African-Americans, traditional black leaders seemed to do nothing, or very little?”[5] The task she sets out in response is

to investigate fundamental relationships between power, status, and action within African-American communities. To understand the response to AIDS in African-American communities entails an exploration of the intragroup, as well as intergroup, relationships that structure opportunities and information and that correspondingly influence the responses of groups and communities to crisis. (ix)

What work does the community and black church need to do to address the crises inherent in the notion it collectively embraced and supported that black gay men are not worthy of care, indeed, not worthy of life.

1986: An Elegy for our Coldest War embraced this problematic. Walrond points to the classist hypocrisy of black gay organizing while indicting both the larger black community and the white gay community for ignoring the Reagan era’s interlocking practices of oppression: on the one hand, the failure to act in response to AIDS while, on the other, setting in place the foundations for our current era of mass incarceration. 1986 also reminds us of the fundamental ethic formulated by the late great James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, that redemption for the masses is always guided by the very least of these, those who are often most marginalized, most driven to the peripheral. In this case, the guides are members of the House and Ballroom community, who, Walrond notes, were neglected and ostracized by those we often lift up as pioneers in the fight against homophobia and the AIDS epidemic. “Black men loving Black men is a revolutionary act.”

We have what we need to do this work if we remember that alongside the violence and oppression are extraordinary creative acts of community building. These continue to light our way. The 1990s saw the emergence of Black Gay Pride celebrations, first in Washington D.C and then Los Angeles. Archbishop Carl Beam created, out of an indigenous movement of affirming gay churches, the Unity Fellowship Movement in 1982. They began addressing the AIDS Epidemic in the late 1980s out of Los Angeles. In San Francisco, Bishop Yvette Flunder, under the United Church of Christ, created The City of Refuge. Joseph Beam, Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Assoto Saint, Donald Woods, Audre Lorde, Ron Simmons, to name a few, became our resident artists, revolutionaries, theorists, scribes, and theologians. They used their writing, performance art, and film as a means of community mobilization and to make meaning of the lives of black gay men in the face of such ravaging stigma, trauma, and terror.

During these decades, black gay clubs became a refuge and place to assert the political and theological visions that poet Joseph Beam defined by stating, “Black men loving Black men is a revolutionary act.” House music,[6] full of tribal and gospel rhythms, with lyrics of love and freedom, became the preaching word, and our dance was the worship. The DJ, situated in the upper part of the club, was a preacher in the pulpit before whom we, the congregation, gathered. The DJ would put out the call. Our response: black queer bodies giving alms in the form of dance and moans and exclamations. In fact, house music is so relevant to the healing, mobilization, and resiliency of black gay men that Bishop Carl Beam, in 1977, created a house song on the Motown label, that proclaimed, “I’m black, and gay, and was born this way.” This became an anthem within the community. Vogue, the signature dance of the House and Ballroom scene embraced the theological potential expressed in House music.

Vogue, the signature dance of the House and Ballroom scene embraced the theological potential expressed in House music.

1986 is the year the House Ballroom community expanded out of New York City, serving as a place of refuge, a migration for freedom. This move mirrored the larger black community’s great migration in the early 1900s when, as refugees from the violence of the south, they headed west and north, transforming places such as Harlem in New York City into creative hubs. Paul Wright, Arbert Santana, and Gary Paul Wright engaged the House Ballroom community by creating the House of Latex Project through Gay Men’s Health Crisis. It was the very first organized HIV intervention targeting the House Ballroom community.

Vogue, the signature dance of the House and Ballroom scene embraced the theological potential expressed in House music. The Performance became the worship. The Beat and the Commentator became the spoken word. The Stage became the Pulpit. The Ball became The Church. The Crowd became the Congregation. All together it became—and still is—God in motion. Vogue speaks to how communities at the brink of extinction and annihilation generate agency; the determination to survive terror, soul-crushing stigma, and imminent death, opened new creative spaces from which healing gushes forth.

1986: An Elegy for our Coldest War is a testament to the ethical imperative of truth telling, an ethic that allows the suffering to speak. Such an exercise constructs a politics and theology of the forgotten and offers radical and militant tenderness. This healing epitomizes our humanness and our freedom. 1986: An Elegy for our Coldest War is a dialogue… a church hymn… a Hip Hop invocation… a vogue beat… a break dance line… a gospel riff… a hallelujah… a call… a response… deep listening… an ethical formation… an ancestral cry for freedom. Essex Hemphill, Assoto Saint, Craig Harris, Eric Christian Bazaar, Rev. Charles Angel and a choir of others, all of them giants. Too many black people may never know their courage, genius, life work, and sacrifice, not because they weren’t black or radical enough but because they were gay and queer and victims of an epidemic we dared not claim.


[1] Hemphill, Essex, ed. (2007) Brother to Brother: New Writing by Black Gay Men. Washington D.C.: RedBone Press.

[2] See: France, David, dir. (2012) How to Survive a Plague. New York: Public Square Films.

[3] Comstock, Gary (2009) Gay Theology Without Apology. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

[4] Baldwin, James (1979) Just Above My Head. New York: Dial Press.

[5] Cohen, Cathy (1999) The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[6] Beam, Joseph (1986) “Brother to Brother: Words From the Heart.” In: Beam J, ed. In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology. Boston: Alyson Publications, 230–242.


Robert Sember works at the intersection of art and public health. He is a member of the international sound-art collective, Ultra-red, which helped establish Vogue’ology, an initiative by and for members of the African-American and Latino/a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community in New York City.

Interview with poet Brad Walrond

Conducted by Robert Sember in May 2018


Where were you in 1986?

I was 16 living in Long Island in a suburban community.  My family was very into the church and I myself became a born again Christian when I was 12 years old.  So my church community was very much a part of my life.  I am sure by then I knew I also liked boys.  I am pretty sure I was in love with my best friend.

My conversion experience was very personal and real to me.  As I began to grow and realize I was contending with thoughts and feelings of boys, it was an enormous source of conflict.  It presented a deep spiritual and existential question for me.

Did you have a sense of what was happening in the broader world in 1986?

I remember many, many conversations with both of my parents about Reagan-era politics.  We talked about trickle down economics and the racism and inequality built into those policies.  Also, our church was predominantly folks of color—black, many Caribbean, African American, and Latino—but the leadership was by-and-large white.  The denomination was Assemblies of God.  This was the white arm of the Pentecostal movement with headquarters in Missouri.  We were definitely aware of issues around race and discrimination.

How did you navigate these tensions and contradictions?

The sexuality piece was the hardest for me.  I did not know how it would end.  I was learning about it as a part of me yet hoping and praying that I could expunge it—be delivered from it.  That it would be a phase.  I was also interfacing with the deep homophobia embedded in my Christian and Caribbean family.  Hearing my parents and others up high talk about gay people, people who are different was difficult.  But it also created a landscape for understanding.  I was a deeply empathetic person.  In my leadership role in church I counselled a lot of young people who were in crisis.  My struggles helped me to hear what they were going through.

Was poetry a part of your life at this point as well?

My mother is a poet and a playwright.  She had started her own little business writing poems.  My dad would frame them and they would sell them.  She would also write plays for church.  I played the piano and wrote songs.  I wrote my first poem a few years later after I had graduated high school.  I was youth pastor in a church in East New York, Brooklyn.  I would have long, long discussions about spirituality with the minister of music, a well-known musician who performed with Harry Belafonte.  He invited me to contribute to an arts festival he organized at the church.  Harry Belafonte gave the keynote at the event.  I wrote a poem that others referred to as “the epic” because it traced the history of the Atlantic slave trade and how our music emerged from this journey and subsequent suffering.

You poem, 1986, an Elegy for our Coldest War, also holds an historical breadth.  Why take up history with poetry?  What does poetry do for your and our understanding of history?

Poetry centers memories and events in the body.  I remember tapping into a sense of sorry and longing as I wrote this poem.  Poetry is a language, a word-filled space and a wordless space.  It gives permission for the moan, for things that cannot be spoken.  It is the voice as song.  That is why I see it as a powerful container.

What is the unspoken space of 1986 that the poem brings into the present?

This is a hard question.  I think about what centered me in the writing.  I lived through a collection of histories.  I need to embody these histories.  I do embody those histories.  I lived them in my own way.  In particular, toward the end of the poem, I mention Donald Woods who, for me, was a very close childhood friend of the family.  His mother is my younger sister’s godmother.  She is a friend of my mom’s from Barbados.  I remember when Donald died of AIDS.  I was privy to some of the family discussion of that behind closed doors.  And then, at the funeral, the church was divided into, on one side, a bizarre world of trans, gay, black queerness while the family on the other was conservative and restrained.  Donald’s mother had a closed casket.  She did not want mentioned that he was gay and that he had died of AIDS.  Assotto Saint stood up in a wedding gown and interrupted the funeral and said, “For as long as I’ve known Donald I’ve known him to be a proud, black, gay man.”  I am sure he also said that Donald had died of AIDS and that he, Assotto Saint was also dying of AIDS.

The poem brings these bodies back into presence?  Am I right in saying that the poem remembers those who continue to be silenced and made visible?

Yes.  The trajectory my life took is odd.  I was confronting in my own way the struggles of the age.  Like the silence of the Reagan years, the gossip that surrounded the death of Rock Hudson, and the messages that AIDS was some kind of retribution.  The internal and external world I inherited required that I dissociate my sexuality from the rest of my life.  I lived with the impending feeling that I could become sick.  Just as I seemed to stumble on elements of gay life, such a cruising spots in parks or certain movie theaters, so I found myself doing AIDS work.  I saw a friend on the street one day and our conversation started a process that resulting in my getting a job at Minority AIDS Task Force.  That is the space, the milieu and my place in it that I recalled as I wrote the poem.   I learned this history by working with black, gay men in the city and hearing from them the stories of what they had lived through.  It is almost as if I retrospectively came to embody collective memories and ideas.

You are gifting these poems to the House and Ballroom Scene as a text to learn with and learn through.  What can this poem do?

To orient ones values inside history is very powerful.  Although, as a black gay man, I knew of the Ballroom Scene, I was not part of it.  I was, however, privy to the classism of some members of our community toward that scene.  So, it is one thing to understand how stunning and beautiful the community of black, gay men is and what we have contributed to the world at large.  It is another thing to witness how stunning, beautiful, and immense are the achievements of the Ballroom Scene and how it has sustained itself.  One of the significant, driving messages of the poem is that the Ballroom Scene is the discarded among the discarded yet it has literally sustained itself by giving to the world.  Last week, I was talking with the artist, Steve Williams, about the community-based organization model and the Ballroom Scene structure.  We observed that the characteristics that have undermined community-based organizations—narcissism, drugs, infighting—abound in both realms but the family structure of the Ballroom Scene seems to have enabled the Ballroom Scene to remain strong.

You studied politics, right?  What motivated this inquiry?

I have always been very engaged with politics and social movements.  It was part of the conversation in my house from a very young age.  My mother was a librarian at Newsday on Long Island.  I remember my father having us sit down and watch the beginning of the Gulf War and he was leading us through the arguments for and against the war.  A sense of ministry centers me in the world but I also want to understand how power works in the world, how racism magnifies inequalities and disparities.  This invested me with an activist spirit.

Is poetry a way of being an activist?  For many, poetry is considered contemplative, internal, slow, characteristics that are different from the force and energy of activism.  My sense is that you have a very different understanding of the action of poetry.

For me, it is always profoundly political.  We cannot deny words.  We cannot deny ideas.  Even people who think that their poetry is not political live a kind of privilege.  Even that is political.  As a poet, one is always imagining your audience.  One is splicing ideas and thoughts with a concern for who is listening.  These are political choices.  For black folk the way we give ourselves permission to feel, to emote, to process trauma, to process a daily onslaught against our very being, I think one would struggle to find any black art form that is not political.  But underlying even that is the way poetry witnesses to our survival.  We can hear ourselves utter what a larger society would not recognize as plausible.  Poetry is at once a sacred space.  A sacred space troubles the ordinary.

In some way 1986 could be any year.  Maybe that is the actual power of it, the actual power of story is that they give individuals and communities the power to collect and pronounce their histories.  1986 happens to be the year when very personal experiences intersected with movement to ensure that something has happened.  Those who lived that year may not have seen this conjunction.  Those of us who look back, do.  This is how memory works.


Usually we encourage ourselves to forget things that have happened in the past that have traumatized us. We bury those memories in the darkest corners of our thoughts and attempt to stack new memories over them.

Timeline

You have to understand the struggle to be a part of the fight.

You see,

Some of us fight for a cause unseen,

because others choose to go blind until it affects them.

But my fight,

isn’t going to end.

You see this clock of mine reads exactly this:

It was two years,

two months,

seven days

and 21 hours ago that i decided to own up to who i am

and it was

two years,

six days,

and fifteen hours ago,

that i was first judged.

Exiled for my preference and emotionally slain,

discouraged from following the path that i had previously lain

and it was one year and two months ago that my life on the street began.

Never knowing the hustle,

never knowing the dangers on the streets so i had to grow up fast.

Believing,

life would get better so simply put i thought to myself

“man, forget the past”

But you see this clock of mine it must be broken,

because it was one year and one month ago today that i was raped.

Some people believe it’s hard for men to get raped

but ask me how easy it was to break free,

from three angry men,

punching,

kicking,

screaming,

pleading for God’s help i lay beaten.

Beaten as the result of my mother’s inability to protect her young because her man came first.

No.

You see,

This clock of mine it must be broken

Because it was one year and seven days ago that i discovered a high.

And as i allowed every drug to run its course through my veins,

Numbing the pain,

i was sold for profit so that i didn’t go hungry.

You see that

was modern day slavery.

Street corners marked with my blood and bed sheets stained with a grown man’s will to be pleased.

and it was one year ago that i caught my first charge.

Not only making me a statistic five times over,

but breaking my spirit as i gazed at the people on the other side of the bars.

That was the zoo,

and i was the young man caged for the rage that finally erupted.

You see this clock of mine it must be broken,

because all this time i’ve been calling my mother.

Begging for money to eat,

and a way home

“Please!”

I cried,

i screamed,

self-mutilated,

and deemed

myself unworthy.

Alone is a feeling i’m much too acquainted with,

Discomfort is a feeling i’m much too acquainted with,

Anger is a feeling i’m much too acquainted with,

but,

at the time see,

where was my joy?

And it was eleven months ago that i made my way out.

Nine months ago that i found myself on Florida A&M’s campus,

and eight months later,

which is today,

that i speak the words that need to be heard.

“Judge carefully”

“Welcome wilfully”

And listen to the cries of those around you ‘cause,

remembering the pain of not being heard can disintegrate the soul and every day,

i remember.

You see,

This clock of mine it isn’t broken.

It’s just that the arms of my mother refuse to move,

refuse to get into a position in which time reads that she is ready for me to fit into her life again.

The embrace i’ve been waiting for.

Nevertheless, she refuses to comprehend these words that i’ve spoken

“Love unconditionally, although you may not be loved in return”

For this is the lesson that even I had to learn.


A Philly native, Nikki Powerhouse is a creative force that speaks to the human spirit. She is a 2018 recipient of the Leeway Foundation Art and Change Grant. A Temple University graduate, she received her BA in Theater and Communication.

I Am Because of You



Enmanuel Candelario graduated from Fordham University and wrote his thesis on Urban Studies and Spoken Word Poetry. His Political Science and Urban Studies background served as a foundations for his 6 years of youth development work at BHSS as a full time chapter leader offering 24-hour service and support to his young people.

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