Charles Stephens: Collective memory is an act of resistance

I am a black gay man from the South. I came of age in the ’90s and early 2000s. Like most of my generation (those of us in the gap between Generation X and Y), I grew up with a vague notion of what it meant to be gay, and none of what it meant to be both black and gay.

Years later, this would become both the fuel and the fire for my writing and my activism, especially upon learning that so much of our movement history as black gay men had been erased or fragmented. Collective memory is not an exercise in nostalgia, but an exercise in healing. And in that spirit, I hope to channel the strength of the black gay men that came before me, knowing they were not silent, they were were not passive bystanders, and they demanded to be heard. As we grapple with the impact of HIV on our communities, not unlike those before us, I hope to extract lessons and blueprints from our ancestors to clarify, order and inspire our next steps.

Childhood was an endless winter, an emotional life frozen under the expectations of those around me to conform to appropriate black maleness.  Then in my mid-teens, as my self-awareness around my sexuality evolved, and the feelings I was having became less whisper and more shout, the vast interior of my emotional life expanded. The fear and terror of the unfamiliar thawed. I walked into this new self that had formed and out from under the armor and mask I adorned, a little bit for safety and a little bit for survival, to explore this new terrain that opened up before me.  Through the works of James Baldwin, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam and Craig Harris, I found a blueprint to navigate the new terrain, and lacking a social safety net, I found a cultural one.

I wrote. I organized. I spoke out. I wanted to be heard. My reading life and my social life began to converge and form context. The painful parts of my story were not just infected wounds, but battle scars. Reading, thinking and writing gave my pain meaning.

I was able to align myself with a political and intellectual community that I mostly felt supported by. I went to Second Sunday and My Brothers Keeper meetings in Atlanta. I started joining various advisory boards and committees. I became a sort of go-to on the panel circuit. And yet even in all of my activity and efforts, my almost compulsive productivity, I felt like there was something missing. In grappling with this, the thing missing, I found myself dreaming about what would later become the Counter Narrative Project.

As the HIV funding landscape shifted and community-building gave way to our current obsession with finding “high-risk negatives,” the network of workshops, programs and events that were so instrumental in the development of my political consciousness as a black gay man disappeared. Our community work started being starved and our efforts suffered. Neo-liberalism isn’t just about the conversion of citizens into consumers, but grassroots movements into sprawling bureaucracies. Neo-liberalism is also about forgetting. That’s why collective memory, for so many of us, is an act of resistance. And any consideration of movement history, and collective memory as an act of resistance, conjurs up the force that was the writer and activist Craig G. Harris. His act of defiance, taking the stage of the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting, grabbing the mic and proclaiming “I will be heard,” is the inspiration behind the “I Will Be Heard” day of action, and also in the DNA of all of our efforts as black gay men to respond to the impact of HIV on our lives and communities.

We, at Counter Narrative Project, celebrate the courage and legacy of Craig G. Harris, and we also celebrate the generation of black gay men that built the ground we stand.

Charles Stephens is the director of The Counter Narrative Project.