Historical Society of Pennsylvania: Anonymous No More

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s digital exhibit Anonymous No More, about the life and times of gay psychiatrist John Fryer, is now live! I contributed the essay “HIV/AIDS, Gay Communities, and the Struggle for Gay Rights” and the exhibit also features excellent work by Christina LaroccoTimothy Stewart-WinterRebecca Alpert, and Jack Drescher.

John Fryer in disguise as “Dr. Anonymous” at the 1972 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. Source: Wikipedia.

At the 1972 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), Fryer delivered a speech in disguise as “Dr. Anonymous,” in which he disclosed his own sexuality as a gay man and urged his colleagues to treat their gay and lesbian patients with sympathy and understanding. At the time, the APA classified homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder—that would change the following year, thanks in part to Fryer’s activism. Anonymous No More is part of a broader series of public engagements exploring his life and legacy.


How to Survive a Plague

The ACT UP/TAG documentary How to Survive a Plague, which has a theatrical release set for September 22, has an official trailer…

…as well as a tumblr of ACT UP images that also invites users to submit their own artwork about current issues. 25 years later, the posters that ACT UP and the associated art collective Gran Fury put together are not only arresting, but sadly still relevant.

Gran Fury poster from 1988. Source: How to Survive a Plague
Gran Fury poster from 1987. Source: How to Survive a Plague

All signs point to this film being an out-and-out tearjerker; the trailer alone made me cry. But the larger point seems to be not just to elegize a movement and the millions lost to AIDS, but to inspire a new generation of activists to address their own social justice concerns. In his review, Frank Bruni testifies to the film’s sense of hope for the potential of mass action to effect real change. Indeed, last year’s Occupy movement seemed to echo ACT UP in its tactics and targets, if not in the precision of its message, and the two groups collaborated on an action in April and one over the Fourth of July, and members of ACT UP Philly helped train Philadelphia Occupiers in direct action methods when the encampment was in place late last year. While ACT UP has largely faded outside of a few strongholds in the urban mid-Atlantic (ACT UP Philadelphia being the only continuously active chapter, by their own claim) the growing economic inequality in the United States coupled with the energy of Occupy protesters has some hoping that a new truly progressive politics might be possible in this country. Whether it will materialize, and whether it will in the end look anything like ACT UP or Occupy remains to be seen.

Incidentally, my goal in undertaking the African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project and African American AIDS History Project is also to inspire, as well as to inform. Of course, the interviews that I conduct are a critical piece of the research for my dissertation. But beyond that, by recording voices that have been left out of many popular and academic accounts of U.S. AIDS activism and collecting digital copies of materials through the African American AIDS History Project site, we’re creating a repository of materials that will not only be available to scholars, but will hopefully inspire people to get involved with important issues at a grassroots level.

Cross-posted at the African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project.

FRONTLINE–Endgame: AIDS in Black America

Last night, PBS aired Endgame: AIDS in Black America, the latest installment of its documentary series FRONTLINE. Viewers unaware of just how prevalent HIV and AIDS are in black communities may be shocked to learn that today half of new HIV cases in the United States, including two-thirds of those among women and 70% of those among youth, occur among African Americans, who make up only about 13% of the national population. These numbers are nothing new. As filmmaker Renata Simone makes clear, when doctors initially identified AIDS among gay men in 1981, they built a case definition for the new disease around the opportunistic infections presented by those first patients, inadvertently precluding many women, who suffered from different ailments, from receiving AIDS diagnoses. By the time that the Centers for Disease Control added female-specific infections to the case definition in 1993, the severity of the AIDS crisis among women had been undercounted for twelve years. Given that black women account for the majority of women with HIV and AIDS in the United States, the underrepresentation of women with AIDS led epidemiologists to underestimate the severity of the disease among African Americans as well. Moreover, as white gay men became the public face of AIDS in popular media accounts of the epidemic, many African Americans came to see the epidemic as one that would never affect them personally.

In Endgame, this sense of insulation from AIDS comes across most poignantly in the firsthand stories of women contracted HIV through unprotected sex with boyfriends or husbands who either did not know or did not disclose their own HIV positivity. However, Simone also gives voice to a wide range of experiences of AIDS among African Americans. Viewers hear from HIV positive gay men, a social worker illegally distributing clean syringes in Atlanta, young adults who contracted the virus in utero and now are coming of sexual age, as well as a host of public health experts, doctors, preachers, and activists.

Simone connects these individual stories to broader the broader social, cultural, and political forces driving the AIDS epidemic in black communities. For example, viewers see Alabama educators discuss their commitment to the state’s abstinence-only sexual health curriculum and then meet Marvalene, a young HIV-positive woman who explains that the textbook for her wellness class in high school showed only pictures of an African child and an emaciated white gay man in its discussion of AIDS. Viewers also hear from HIV-positive black gay men of different ages who trace their drug use and risky sexual choices to the various degrees of homophobic rejection they faced at home, school, and church. Failed education and homophobia represent only two nodes in a dense web of interrelated factors that underpins the racial disparity in HIV/AIDS in the United States, which Simone ably elucidates through interviews with longtime researchers and activists such as Robert Fullilove of Columbia University, Phill Wilson of the Black AIDS Institute, and Dázon Dixon Diallo of Sisterlove, Inc.

Putting the epidemic in historical context, Fullilove testifies to the economic dislocation that many black communities faced in the 1970s and 1980s, which fueled a growing drug trade as a source of income for black men who couldn’t find jobs in the licit economy. The explosion of crack in particular during the 1980s left many infected, as users (particularly women) hard up for a fix turned to sex work to satisfy their habits. Blaming crack for urban crime rates, lawmakers passed harsh sentencing laws for possession and distribution of the super-addictive drug, landing many black men in prison, where sex among inmates is common but condoms nearly absent. Upon release, they return to communities experiencing gender imbalance due to the disproportionate incarceration of black men, in which women feel disempowered when it comes to negotiating monogamy and safe sex, in part because there are so many fewer men than women. Two interviewees from late in the documentary hit the nail on the head. Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick argues that the structural factors driving the epidemic demand structural solutions, while another interviewee describes AIDS as a “string” running through the fabric of black communities, highlighting the lingering racial inequalities in American society.

Both women are right, although like the statistics on AIDS in black America, their arguments are nothing new. For much of the epidemic, AIDS activists of color in particular have used AIDS as a means by which to draw attention to persistent issues of inequality in their communities, often putting issues like access to housing, education, and basic medical care at the forefront of their efforts. As Jennifer Brier has argued, they sometimes couched their work in an international context, advocating for global justice in the epidemic by addressing the structural inequalities faced by African Americans and people throughout the global south alike. As Bambi Gaddist of the South Carolina AIDS Coalition tells Simone (though in a different context), “I’m in Africa right now. As a state, I’m there. Sometimes, my staff feels like we’re there. Every time we test another young person positive, we’re there.”

Though Simone spends a great deal of time and care laying out the context for the disproportionate impact of AIDS on black America, in the film she gives very little attention to the political response of African Americans to the epidemic. In an early oral history for my own dissertation on the political culture of black AIDS activism, an informant lamented that to read what has been written on AIDS politics, one would think African Americans let the disease “steamroll over” their communities, and to some extent Endgame reinforces that myth. However, the supporting materials, including an excellent timeline, on the FRONTLINE website begin to flesh out that history of activism.

Also absent from Endgame are the voices of HIV-positive straight black men, save for Magic Johnson and the “bornies” who contracted the virus before birth. Otherwise, they appear (or rather do not appear) as duplicitous off-screen figures who fail to protect their female partners, or in the case of incarcerated men, as possible vectors of infection once they re-enter their home communities. Even the inmates who do appear on screen are shown speaking only to a doctor, who in turn addresses the camera in discussing their potential for spreading the epidemic further. Representations like this arguably do more harm than good. Making a serious dent in AIDS numbers means empowering everyone who is affected to openly talk and engage in safer sex, and that means straight men as well as women and gay men.

Altogether though, Endgame is a thoughtful and emotionally powerful examination of AIDS among African Americans that does justice to the complexity of the epidemic and the challenges that lie ahead in the fight to stop it. For a crisis that, thirty years on, is all too rarely discussed, that’s no small thing.

UPDATE: Kenyon Farrow also has a more critical review of Endgame on his personal site. For some reason Gawker (they are a gossip site, after all) is putting up cash to find out who gave HIV to Magic Johnson. Not to overuse a tired phrase, but if that’s the big question you took away from this film, you’re doing it wrong.

Sh!tstorm @ Brainstorm

Since Monday, my Twitter feed has been blowing up with (brief) commentaries about Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent post, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” on the Chronicle of Higher Ed‘s group blog, Brainstorm. Riley attacked the discipline as a whole based on the brief profiles of five Northwestern University doctoral students that ran alongside a longer article on the changing nature of black studies as a new generation of African American scholars comes up through ranks amid reaching budget cuts, broadside attacks on the humanities, and the so-called “post-racial” moment of Obama’s presidency. She called their dissertation topics “so irrelevant no one will ever look at them,” and singled out (by name) specific students for engaging in “sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery,” all because they’re investigating topics like the racial dimensions of the subprime lending crisis and the history of black conservatives in the post-Civil Rights era. To the contrary, Riley pointed out, the president is black*, lots of white people lost their homes when the housing bubble burst, and “there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people,” ergo racism isn’t really a big problem in the country today.

The original post predictably touched off a whole lot of negative response, including a call by some Twitter users (e.g. @tjowens) for the popular CHE group blog ProfHacker to issue a statement disavowing Riley’s original post. Riley herself responded to critics, specifically addressing the charges (among others) that she is racist, and has no business attacking graduate students since she does not have a Ph.D. and has not read their dissertations. On the point of racism, I would like to direct you to the quote at the end of the above paragraph–’nuf said. On the other points, she says:

there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it. And the same holds true for the others that are mentioned in the piece.

Just off the top of my head, at Temple we have the wonderful Susan Klepp, who built her career on writing about women healers in early America, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwive’s Tale was the kind of cross-over history book that academics of all disciplinary stripes yearn to write, so I wouldn’t go counting out a dissertation on black midwifery. I would also guess that more than twenty people would be interested in reading about the deep roots (racial or otherwise) of the economic crisis that led us into a seemingly intractable recession, but don’t quote me on that. (Okay, do.)

I don’t doubt, however, that Riley herself would never read them. That would take the kind of intellectual curiosity that pursuing a career in the academy requires, a trait that she herself clearly lacks. That does not however, justify a sweeping attack on an entire field. Although she interprets her critics as responding from a place of personal injury, I would argue that many are equally, if not moreso, offended by the way she deploys pernicious arguments that are often trotted out to discredit the humanities in general. Thus, the problem is not just personal–it’s professional as well. Our job is not to produce work that appeals to everyone, although many of us do think about ways to present our research to audiences beyond the ivory tower, an endeavor greatly aided by people doing excellent work in the fields of public history and digital humanities. Our job is to create new knowledge, and yes, that does mean producing monographs that can seem hopelessly narrow and specific. However, good scholarship always tacks a focused narrative to broader historical trends and can illuminate connections among seemingly disparate phenomena. Not only does the field move forward, but new research (including our own research) pushes us to reformulate the ways we teach our students about the past, providing the kind of “broad liberal-arts education” that Riley thinks we “never get trained to do.”

Riley certainly wouldn’t be interested in reading my dissertation in progress, which deals with African American AIDS activists as they connected the disease to the multiple political, social, and economic problems facing their communities. No doubt, she would see this as more “left-wing victimization claptrap,” evidence that the academic disciplines are becoming too specialized and too liberal in their political outlook. Hell, I’ll be the first to admit that my work is political. I write about politically active people to whom I am admittedly sympathetic, although I try very hard not to let that get in the way of my analysis. But for Riley to pretend that her seemingly intended provocation was not political would be either disingenuous or totally self-unaware, and I’m not sure which would be worse. In any case, maybe she’s right (far right, hyuk) about the academy being very left-wing, because I can’t think of a better way for a publication like the Chronicle to discredit conservatism than to elevate such an anti-intellectual hack as that movement’s mouthpiece. Incidentally, I have a similar theory about Ross Douthat and the New York Times.

*One might forgive Riley for trotting out the Obama presidency as evidence that racism is no longer a big problem in America if she had fallen into a coma on November 4, 2008 and reawoke five minutes ago, but this does not seem to be the case.

UPDATE: ProfHacker has indeed put up a long post commenting on the Riley piece, and it’s definitely worth a read.

Alondra Nelson and the Black Power Mixtape

I’m watching this installment of Mark Anthony Neal’s Left of Black, in which he interviews Columbia sociologist Alondra Nelson about her forthcoming book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination.  Although my copy of the book hasn’t yet arrived (I pre-ordered it!), I saw Nelson speak at Temple last spring about her work on genealogical testing and African American identity, and her thinking on race, medicine, and the human body is really interesting, and speaks to my own work on black AIDS activism.  Check it out, and when the book arrives I’ll try to write more about it here.