When my brother fell
I picked up his weapons.
I didn’t question
whether I could aim
or be as precise as he.
A needle and thread
were not among
-Essex Hemphill, When My Brother Fell, Ceremonies (1992)
The final verses of poet and activist Essex Hemphill’s powerful work invokes both a stark criticism of the AIDS movement and a call to family, connectedness, brotherhood in a battle that he himself would ultimately lose against HIV/AIDS.
This National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, invoking Essex’s poem represents a larger battle against HIV/AIDS that has expanded on many fronts facing Black gay men across the United States, ranging from stigma, criminalization, racism and homophobia. Now more than ever, addressing structural violence and investing in the lives of Black gay men must be strategies to win this battle against HIV/AIDS.
Essex’s poem and his own story sheds a spotlight on where the epidemic is most pronounced. Research has demonstrated consistently that the epidemic continues to rage among Black gay men.
This National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day we must commit to achieving justice for Black gay men and all vulnerable communities impacted by the epidemic. In doing so, when our brothers fall, such as Michael L. Johnson currently serving 30.5 years for criminalized transmission of HIV, we must be brave in ending systems of mass incarceration that target and maim Black bodies through movement-building with powerful racial justice movements. When our brothers fall to an inaccessible system of health care, we must push for the expansion of Medicaid particularly in the South and target resources that invest in the lives of Black gay men. When our brothers fall to depression and loneliness, we must build social capital, celebrate the sexual liberation, value and culture of Black gay men as part of the larger Black social fabric.
Threading these strategies together requires a brave and new vision to how we reallocate resources and address the epidemic beyond testing, treatment and biomedical prevention. We can no longer ignore mounting research that continues to reinforce and acknowledge that social and structural factors as a root cause for the rising epidemic among Black gay men. Inaction and indifference only reinforces the truths that research resonate. To take aim, to be precise in this era of epidemic, to honor our brothers that have fallen, we must end stigma, criminalization, racism and homophobia.