Roses for World AIDS Day

I’m always late for World AIDS Day.

Each year I promise to write something on it, during it, but it slips away, and I remember, too late. Yet, this lateness describes a temporal relationship to AIDS, and to the communities of men who embodied it, and who I can never meet except through their works.

Melvin Dixon once charged us to keep alive the names of the many thousands gone, to read and re-read, to circulate and re-circulate, to teach and re-teach, to publish and re-publish their works. To understand the value and importance of black gay archives: evidence that we have been here. It is partly for this reason that I return, every few months, to the same names, and it is partly because I know how easy it is to be erased that I blog under my given name. Even when I want to stop, when I take a long hiatus, I return.

And it is mostly because Nairobi can be so silencing, so proscribed, that I have been writing as much.
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The Black homosexual is hard pressed to gain audience among his heterosexual brothers; even if he is more talented, he is inhibited by his silence or his admissions. This is what the race has depended on in being able to erase homosexuality from our recorded history. (Essex Hemphill, “Loyalty”)

Essex Hemphill grounds me. I bought my first copy of Ceremonies in 1996 and have held on to it ever since. On trips home, it has eased the loneliness created by compulsory heterosexuality and the anxieties created by homonormativity. After being preached to and preached at, I have found healing in his passion, his anger, his tenderness.

How could he have known this?

Occasionally I long
for a dead man
I never slept with. (“Heavy Breathing”)

Essex’s re-burial haunts me. His family wanted to erase all signs of what had perturbed them. At the end, they wanted him to have found religion and lost his orgasms. When I first read Essex, I started writing my eulogy, a desperate act to forestall what I feared might happen in some distant future, when loved ones erased me to keep me, lost me to find me, bleached me to accept me.

This time around, re-reading him—I was in a workshop and the heteronormativity exceeded anything else I’ve experienced since I returned; I needed to read him to remind myself of me—the passage from “Loyalty” jumped out at me.

Entangled by “silence” and “admissions.”

I am incredibly fortunate. In the middle of a conservative, Catholic undergraduate college, I found teachers who saw me reading queer theory and mentored me. Encouraged me. Offered me opportunities that they could so easily have denied. Graduate school mentors worked with my idiosyncratic thinking and interests—and they have been and continue to be idiosyncratic. The history of pornography lived alongside the history of medicine; postcolonial theory filtered through fisting; queer theory re-processed through African histories; the conceptual apparatus of diaspora re-thought via theories of intimacy; Shakespeare in frottage with Hemphill; Mapplethorpe in dialogue with Malek Alloula; my insistence on routing Gikuyu epistemology through diaspora (still not sure how this one worked, but it does).

And I have written. A lot. Much of it not very clear, I grant. It is less a record of profundity and more feeling my way through thought, thinking through feeling, learning to name what nags and needles, probes and pries.

Kikulacho.

Yet, the threat and promise of Hemphill’s life is that if silence will not protect me, neither might admission. That in choosing to pursue one research agenda I might find myself in empty conference rooms; that, as has already happened, following presentations, I might be the one panelist who is not asked questions, and I will be filled with crippling doubts about my arguments, my style, my topic, my academic value.

That, among my black heterosexual peers, especially the black U.S. and African men who still hold the keys to the academy, I will be “hard pressed to gain audience.”
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Ceremonies is filled with roses.

At the end of the day,
through some other vision,
perhaps the consequence
of growing firm and older,
I see the thorns of the rose
are not my enemy.
I strive to see this
in each of us—
O ancient petals,
O recent blooms. (“The Tomb of Sorrow”)

Out of this confusion
I bring my heart,
a pale blue crystal,
a single rose,
a kiss long held for you
before the myth of Atlantis
was created to challenge
the genius of
Memphis and Senegal (“So Many Dreams”)

Our kisses are petals,
our tongues caress the bloom. (“Black Beans”)

A field of flowers blossoms
where we gather
in empty warehouses. (“Where Seed Falls”)

What the rose whispers
before blooming
I vow to you. (“American Wedding”)
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And longing.

Don’t let it be loneliness
that kills us. (“Heavy Corners”)

Being here, now, I think a lot about what it means to be lonely.

Nairobi is a whispering city, where homo-secrets are always open. We “always already” know who is gay. And we whisper. It’s amazing how isolating whispers can be.

Were it not for the love and refuge offered by some amazing people, almost all of whom I met through Concerned Kenyan Writers, I’m not sure how I would have survived the past few months. But this, this is still too raw to be written.
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I believe what I feel
moves unsaid in the air
between us. (“Romance is Intrigue”)

How does one name the intimacy between strangers across the thresholds of life and death? How does one mourn what one has always known as absence?

These questions resound through the histories of the black diaspora, anti-colonial activism, and civil rights

These are the histories within which black queer life, love, and activism is embedded, finds its being, defines its strategies, attempts to negotiate.
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I am always late for World AIDS Day.

I miss the speeches, the statistics, the progress reports, the promises.

I miss the erasures, the official silences about “men like me,” black and gay, especially here in “Africa” where AIDS is “heterosexual.” I miss the promised negation, the invitation to be a dumb partner in a chorus of activist voices.

I forgo the pledge to save “our husbands, our wives, our children,” pledging myself, instead, to other intimacies, to plant roses in unmarked graves, to mourn over blank pages, to return to the men who first gave me language.

Essex. Melvin. Craig. Assotto.

The many thousands gone.
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This year I will not be writing elegies. Not for my beautiful friend Gerald. Not for my amazing mentor Phil. Not for my cousin who discovered his status and killed himself.

This year I plant roses.