“I dare myself to dream of us moving from survival to potential, from merely getting by to a positive getting over.”
As we approach World AIDS Day on December 1, we should look back toward the horrifying first waves of AIDS deaths that threatened many peoples, but particularly an entire generation of queer men.
Current accounts too often told in the States appear as though only white gay men were there. This is a false narrative. Many others were in the trenches, fighting for and creating health care services; demanding AIDS research and fair drug distribution from the heartless and the incompetent in governmental, medical and corporate institutions; providing basic life needs and resources, from meals to pet care to help with bills and troublesome but legally powerful family members; and wiping up messes, tuning TVs, and holding hands.
These represented life preservers thrown out into those terrifying riptides. And a very large preserver was imprinted specifically for Black gay/same gender loving men: Joseph Beam’s seminal 1986 anthology, “In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology.” Thousands of men wept and celebrated the contents provided by 29 authors, poets, artists and playwrights.
Joseph Beam himself? A man as proud of his gayness as his Blackness, no matter the rooms he entered and the people he encountered. He’d already been a journalist and activist for well over a decade when this hand-dragging-you-down-below-the-waters struck with its collection of dreadful and disgusting maladies and appalling medical ignorance and social opprobrium that left people to die untended and apparently unloved in hospitals, apartments, prisons, and streets.
It was hard to keep your sanity, looking at dwindling friendship groups and now absent lovers, hard even to express positive feelings and affection for your still-living brothers.
Joseph saw and recorded it all. But how did he become that man?
He was born and raised in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. Baptized Catholic, his brightness and curiosity were apparent early, and he attended parochial schools with “accelerated” classes, where he was often the only Black boy in a sea of whites. He grew to be six feet tall, with mustache and keen eyes, sturdy and self-assured.
Upon graduation, he went to Franklin College in Indiana, where he played roles in Black Power and civil rights work. He returned to Philly in 1979 and began writing ardent and elucidating articles about all kinds of queer life.
He worked at Giovanni’s Room, the still-standing gay bookstore founded in 1973, named for a James Baldwin novel. But the shelves were filled with whiteness.
Where were books by and about Black gay men? The Black lesbians had produced important volumes by authors such as Audre Lorde and in anthologies like, “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave,” and “Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology.”
Meanwhile, Beam’s work appeared in all the major and local queer publications, including The Advocate, New York Native, Philadelphia Gay News and Gay Community News.
He received multiple awards, including from The Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists for outstanding achievement by a minority journalist.
He helped revitalize the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays in 1985, and founded and edited their award-winning publication, “Black/Out.” He produced shake-the-ground and laser-the-issues journalism.
Two pieces standing on both those tracks are his expansive interviews with Bayard Rustin, our national touchstone, and Pat Parker, the Black lesbian poet and visionary, who tirelessly advocated for women’s health and the varied queer and people of color communities.
Joseph compiled, edited, and in 1986 published “In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology.” Nothing like this existed before it. Men described their actual lives, interior and exterior, their hopes and visions. Thousands wept over it; many others celebrated it.
He was in the process of doing it again with “Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men,” but he died before completion. Poet and friend Tommi Avicolli Mecca wrote “For Joe Beam”:
They found you dead on the floor of your bathroom
three days dead
found you alone
xmas eve dead …
His good friend, the poet Essex Hemphill, moved in with Joseph’s mother, Dorothy, so they could complete the tome. It was published in 1991, to great acclaim.
In 1992, Dorothy donated her son’s papers and works to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. This collection led to the curation of the In the Life archive, a major vein dedicated to all manner of Black LGBTQ experiences.
Essex wrote “When My Brother Fell.” You can find multiple recitations of this poem on YouTube. Here are excerpts: