Art Is ...

By: Monte J. Wolfe

Race and sexuality are strange bedfellows. No one knows this better than a Black gay man. There are pitfalls, trappings, and intricacies that come along with this life and can easily be considered insurmountable. Add living with HIV into the mix, and it can oftentimes become even more complicated.

I'm convinced that the wellspring of Black gay literature, theatre, and performance art that I’ve been exposed to over the past twenty years has served not only as a lifeline, but also as a source of strength and pride that I didn't even know I possessed until it had to be exercised through life experiences. Whether it's been film, literature, theatre, poetry, or most importantly music – the arts have always served a valuable purpose in helping me take this walk in Black gay (& HIV-positive) skin. Poetry and theatre in particular, have both been instrumental in helping to express the loneliness, anger, sadness and frustration that oftentimes come along with being Black, gay and HIV-positive. Works from Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, Assotto Saint, and Marlon Riggs were my introduction into the world of Black gay artists who lived, loved and created art during a time when HIV/AIDS was considered to be a death sentence. In the mid to late-90's when I first discovered all of their works, I was in my early twenties and attempting to understand, embrace and express my sexuality - all while trying desperately to avoid contracting HIV. Around the same time, I was also discovering more contemporary artistic works from Black gay authors such as E. Lynn Harris and James Earl Hardy. Both of these authors spoke to me in different, yet similar ways, that gave me hope and allowed me to envision a "Black gay existence" that I had never known or imagined possible before discovering their writing. As a result of my exposure to all things Black, gay and artistic, I was inspired to begin creating and expressing myself in a number of varying artistic manners, which is one of the most important reasons why I am an artist today.

As advances continue to be made in HIV prevention and treatment, use of the arts as “weaponry” is invaluable in the lives Black gay men because of art’s innate ability to provide room for discovery, growth and personal development. In today's society, arts and activism can show-up and be executed in a number of useful ways. Some may be more traditional such as literature, film, theatre and spoken word. Some can also take advantage of tools like social media which allow people to engage and communicate in quicker, easier and more cost-effective ways. Regardless of the form, the most important factor in this equation is connection. The more people identify with someone, their story, their experiences – the more they tend to be drawn in and thus may feel compelled to allow the artistic output to mutate in their own lives. 

Art is truth. Art is questioning. Art is uncomfortable. Art is confrontational. Art is engaging by nature, because art is a dance. Sometimes that dance is one that is best done with self, as a means of exploration, understanding and acceptance. When taken to an even higher-level by being shared and offered up to others, it then can become an agent of change, healing and empowerment for large communities of people. 

It's my personal belief that nothing can serve Black gay men living with HIV better than art in various forms. This is because it gives us all an opportunity to be honest about everything that we carry inside of us - regardless of where it falls in the spectrum of life experiences. Shame, guilt, lack, and fear are all things that many of us as Black gay men have experienced. Using the arts to shed light on all the ways that those things may have a negative impact on our lives can be powerful beyond measure. Because once confronted and acknowledged, what we're then left with are opportunities to do and/or choose something different, which can yield more healthy, ideal and desirable outcomes.

Monte J. Wolfe is a trained actor, singer, songwriter, playwright, director and producer who graduated from Howard University in 1999 with a BFA in Theatre Arts Administration. He is the Founder, Artistic, and Managing Director of Brave Soul Collective, an arts, education, and outreach organization with a focus on HIV/AIDS, and issues affecting the lives of LGBTQ people, through the performing and healing arts. He currently resides in Washington, DC where he has lived and worked professionally since 1995.