An Oral History of the Counter Narrative Project
Charles Stephens founded the Counter Narrative Project in April 2014 after several years working in local and national organizations. CNP’s mission is to “build power among black gay men and stand in solidarity with other movements committed to social justice.” Stephens’s vision for CNP is large and engaging offering black gay men a political platform and political home. Part of that clear-headed, unblinking advocacy is effectively connecting Black gay men to their past through the works of Black gay activists and artists of the past. What follows is a look at the roots of CNP from its collaborators and staff, including: Alvin Agarrat, Jeff Graham, Johnnie Ray Kornegay, III, Ayesha McAdams-Mahmoud, Suraj Madoori, and, of course, Stephens himself.
CHARLES STEPHENS (CNP Founder and Executive Director): In the early years, when I just had an idea of starting an organization, I imagined a place where the principles that were part of my leadership pretty much since high school could be exercised. Principles like brotherhood, community building, affirmation, and a sense of moving history. Like, I really started to imagine what it would look like to have an organization where I could really amplify those issues. And, so I started to have a series of conversations, probably roughly about seven or eight years ago, when I ran the Deeper Love project at AID Atlanta, dialogues that would later inform the foundation of Counter Narrative.
ALVIN AGARRAT (filmmaker): The first time I actually heard about Counter Narrative, I was having a conversation with Charles when he worked at AID Atlanta. He wanted me to help him videotape a proposal for the concept of CNP. I helped him craft the video part of his overall proposal and we shot it. That was the first time he relayed his plans to me going forward, just as he branched off on his own. He was literally like, "Here's this proposal. We're submitting to…" He was looking for his initial funding and trying to make his dream a reality.
CHARLES STEPHENS: I was the Program Coordinator for a program called The Deeper Love Project, which at the time was the African-American Gay Outreach program of AID Atlanta, and after three or four years running the project, 2009 or 10 or so, I began contemplating my future. My professional direction. The work that I wanted to do. The impact I wanted to have. And, that's when I had the idea and really started having conversations with trusted colleagues about perhaps starting an organization on my own.
AYESHA MCADAMS-MAHMOUD (former Steering Committee Member and Ph.D. student at the Harvard School of Public Health): I feel like CNP has been around for a lot longer than it has, but I was going through my email the other day and I actually found the first email that Charles ever sent to me about it. I think he was requesting some of my time for us to talk about the HIV/AIDS landscape and how different it looks for Black gay men. This was back in 2013. Even though he was just sort of just thinking about innovative advocacy that can use narrative and art to promote healing, I could tell that he had been thinking about this for quite some time, even in 2013, and it became official about a year later.
CHARLES STEPHENS: Throughout 2013, I kept working and working and working on the vision for Counter Narrative. I created a folder on my computer where I would put all my hopes and dreams for this thing that I was creating. And, I think it became real for me I would say around 2014 when I reached out to the Executive Director of the Equality Foundation of Georgia (based in Atlanta), Jeff Graham. I reached out to Jeff about being my fiscal sponsor. Jeff has been such an amazing supporter. He was one of the first people that believed in me.
JEFF GRAHAM (Executive Director of Georgia Equality): I knew of Charles' interest in creating the Counter Narrative Project. I'm not exactly sure where along the timeline it really happened, but Charles and I were both at a convening of Southern HIV advocates that was being sponsored by AIDS United. Charles did a session where he asked folks to go back decade by decade and to think about specifically...did they know any Black gay and bisexual men living with or working in HIV?
JOHNNIE RAY KORNEGAY, III, (CNP Director of Mobilization): One of my fraternity brothers posted this event and said, "Hey, Johnnie, I think you might be really interested in this." And, its timing was just perfect as I happened to be available that evening. And, so I sent an RSVP to Charles, this man who I didn't know but I totally looked up before I sent the email and decided, like, "Oh, he seems like he might be okay. Let me go." And, that was it. So, yeah, December 2014 was the first time I'd heard about Counter Narrative and met Charles later that night. The conversation that we were having was about building a more cohesive Black gay community in Atlanta, and so the CNP sponsored events. It was kind of fascinating because I had all but pretty much left the community for a lot of reasons and entered this room where a lot of amazing minds were gathered around a table.
SURAJ MADOORI (Former Steering Committee Member and the U.S. and Global Health Policy Director for Treatment Action Group): In 2014, I had taken over the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance. One of the earliest supporters for me was Charles, and at that point, he was also forming the Counter Narrative Project. I was sort of new to running my own thing, and here's Charles, also running his new organization with an incredible angle and lens on issues that impact Black gay men.
JOHNNIE RAY KORNEGAY, III: So, when I came to work for CNP, I had left the community where house music saved my life, literally. I started my artistic career on the dance floor. Charles knew that. He knew that I had an interest in house music and he would always be curious about my knowledge of and interest in it and why I felt so passionate about it. And, not only that, he understood that so many other people had this interest, right? So, I knew that I would end up doing something around house, we just didn't know what at the time. So, we would often ask these questions, and we still ask them at events, you know, what brings people joy? In fact, I ended up doing this presentation earlier in the year called "Joy is the New Currency." It came directly from us asking this question a lot. In January 2016, we decided that we were going to embark on this art as resilience, and we knew that we were gonna do something around music later. And, what Charles pushed me to begin thinking about at the beginning of last year was, "You need to do something around house music and let me know what that's going to be." Right? Later on, it became, of course, you know how Charles's mind works... He was like, "Okay, but what I really want you to do is write a piece." So, I said "alright." The thing that happened last June  was that I got the opportunity to not only spearhead curating an entire month around art as resilience but around the idea of music as a source of resilience for Black gay men. I wrote a well-received piece that ended up becoming the Huffington Post blog, "Black Gay Men of the AIDS Generation Invented Your Party."
SURAJ MADOORI: Charles and I just started talking a lot more, and I got an understanding of what he was doing with CNP. I can tell you I was just so impressed, to tell you the truth, because in many ways he was shifting the paradigm around how we first do a lot of this work, especially around HIV, coming from a cultural organizing angle, and really lifting Black gay men and the issues faced by Black gay men from a standpoint that I had never actually seen anywhere else. And, I think another aspect of it is the fact that he was raising the [historical] narrative of Black gay men, especially in a whitewashed movement history where many of these narratives have been lost or haven't been claimed or have been ignored by many of the scholars of that knowledge, that history. So, I think what he was doing at that time was particularly brave, particularly innovative, and cutting edge in my opinion. So, I think even just talking with Charles about how passionate he was about this, I couldn't help but want to be a surefire CNP supporter. I have really sought to support the work of Counter Narrative as much as possible.
ALVIN AGARRAT: We have these great discussions amongst, sometimes, smaller groups, sometimes much larger groups. There's one in particular, "The Blueprint Dialogue." It was a great discussion. Charles was on the panel. He had two younger men, members of the younger Black community. I think they both went to Morehouse at the time. Another time, I know that Craig [Washington] was speaking. It's great and it's frustrating sometimes. We all can't get together as much as I think any of us would like or as much as our bleak community needs.
SURAJ MADOORI: When I was a student at the University of Illinois, also in the closet as a writing major and primarily doing pre-med at that point, I did a lot of writing classes in poetry and things like that. So, as part of a lot of my work, I was seeking to fuse humanities writing with healthcare and all those sorts of science issues. And, in doing so, one of the earliest inspirations that I found was the work of Essex Hemphill in my university library. At that time, I didn't know anything about him and was unaware of the wider issues of what was then happening to Black gay men or the AIDS epidemic at that time. In coming across his poetry and reading it, [I remember] being completely floored by such a different sense and visual of the HIV/AIDS epidemic at the time in a way that I never thought, [in a way] that no other sort of book or narrative or any kind of media would ever portray. It would be through the eyes of a Black gay man, Essex Hemphill, that would really galvanize for me what I thought was a crisis for Black gay men especially. I'll get to the point as to why this has had such a personal impact. For me, I've held onto Hemphill as a kind of totem, in a way, like a beacon. And, I claim him as a Chicagoan, because I've lived and worked and did all my school in Chicago, so it's very much tied to that community [for me]. And, so I would bring Hemphill's poetry into this project that I had developed that was focused on writing and youth empowerment (I used to be a case manager for LGBTQ youth in Chicago). And, for a while, I felt like I was the only keeper of Hemphill, the only one understanding how critical his poetry was. It wasn't until CNP came along where things just instantly crystallized, that the narrative of Essex Hemphill is part of a larger narrative of lost Black gay culture that did significantly shift the AIDS movement and is not recognized in the way that it should be. [Learning] that Essex was clearly not alone, there was Joseph Beam, and so many others that also came around that were in arms with him at the same time. And, so I think for me, it really kind of was a...it kind of came full circle in some ways. I would never have thought that a Black gay man who was a poet would sort of inspire me to take the career path of activism. And, I did, and I think Counter Narrative really helped crystallize that connection that these stories...the ones that you encounter when you're a young college student, not even really knowing what you're doing at that time, that these narratives are important, that they are inspirational, that they are being worthy of being read and seen and being inspired by.
CHARLES STEPHENS: I was 18-years-old when I sort of came out publicly. And, I was like, this moment of, "What did I do? Why did I do that?" And, I just remember grabbing a copy of Brother to Brother and just reading it and it was almost like Essex was saying, "Charles, you did the right thing." And, I felt, "How dare I not give back to them?" They made it possible for me to do the work that I do, and I feel like I owe them so much. And, so the Counter Narrative Project is in many ways a love letter to those figures. They are very much in the DNA of our organization.
JEFF GRAHAM: These are some tangible examples of how the work of CNP itself has influenced the work at Georgia Equality. Certainly, through the partnership, again, we're an organization that's been around since 1995, so in our 22-year history, understandably so, we get labeled as an organization by and for white gay men. And, you know, even though we have always had a broader advocacy agenda, and we have had broader membership and staff on board, certainly in the work that we do...[however,] that critique of us is again not necessarily unwarranted or unjustified. Just by being able to work with Charles allows us to have a greater presence with an important constituency that we need to represent. It's a source of information so that we can do a better job of representing all of the communities that make up this broad umbrella, the LGBTQ.
AYESHA MCADAMS-MAHMOUD: I think one other thing that CNP is really great at is expanding the canon of what is considered high literature. You know what I mean? Because we have all these people that we praise as great directors or great poets and so often Black gay men, wonderful Black gay men are left out of that canon. And, so CNP is sort of reclaiming those narratives and reclaiming the icons and saying, "You know, you forgot about this person. You forgot that at the beginning of the movement, we were there, and we had very particularly voices and we stood up and made waves." And, even now, as people try to tell us that we're being apathetic and we're not stepping up for each other, we're not supporting each other. No! CNP is here and we're going to be next to our brothers who are struggling in prison in having injustice committed against them. We're going to make sure that we help people get out and vote. So, I mean, it's just incredible. Incredible!
SURAJ MADOORI: I think something that we really felt strongly about that was a big issue with the broader HIV criminalization movement was the fact that there was really no intersectional discussion around ending mass incarceration altogether and ending the criminalization of Black and Brown bodies. That conversation was really getting lost when we talk about criminalization and, in particular, we were seeing this with the Michael L. Johnson's case. One of the things that we really sought to do was try to create and develop a narrative that would actually do justice for Michael. We really started thinking about how we can bring more of an intersectional perspective to the HIV criminalization movement, whether it was at the "HIV Is Not A Crime Conference" or doing webinars, things like that, collaborating on think pieces, recruiting others in how we can approach Michael's case. But, also the fact that a lot of attention was being paid to Michael's case in the way that other HIV criminalization cases were being portrayed, so also elevating Michael's case as much as possible in the HIV criminalization movement so that it could be appropriate advocacy and resources and attention to fight for his liberation.
JEFF GRAHAM: It's harder for me to gauge the external impact of CNP as an older, White gay man. But, I can certainly speak about how partnerships with CNP have impacted our work here at Georgia Equality. Today, so this is what, probably four years after Charles started doing this work? We are now into our third year of a leadership development program for young people living with HIV, that we call our Youth HIV Policy Advisor Program. And, while that was developed by just a brilliant woman that I have on staff named Emily Brown, I would say that much of the spirit of that has really been influenced by some of the work that Charles has done.
SURAJ MADOORI: Take [again] the case of Michael L. Johnson. CNP was the lone voice for Michael for a very long time. And, I think you can just point to the fact that, what was it? Twenty-five thousand dollars was raised in the name of Michael. So many of the histories seemingly lost now that people wouldn't care about, or Joseph Beam or Craig G. Harris, all these figures that tend to get lost in the history of AIDS activism are now taking their place, are now being revealed as sort of a larger [part of the] tapestry of a vibrant, Black gay culture. I think it's really important because I don't see anyone else doing that. And, I think for that reason, it's really empowering to see this, especially for Black gay men that may not realize they have a cultural home in a place like CNP. And, CNP is also demanding more of it, reclaiming these narratives and demanding that these histories are sanctified and revered and are part of our overall history as a nation. So, I think that CNP is in many ways doing this work, continuing to do this work, and is currently the only entity that's doing it in a very powerful way. I can say that quite honestly CNP's impact is pretty immeasurable at this point.
ABOUT THE ORAL HISTORIAN
STEVEN G. FULLWOOD is a public archivist, oral historian, and the former associate curator of the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. In 1998, he founded the In the Life Archive (ITLA) to aid in the preservation of materials produced by and about LGBTQ people of African descent and in 2004, donated the collection to the Schomburg Center. For three years he managed the BNY Mellon Pre-Professional Development Program, which offered graduate and undergraduate students an opportunity to gain professional experience at the Schomburg Center. He has led several oral history projects for organizations including Gay Men of African Descent, People of Color in Crisis, and most recently, SAGE Harlem, the latter of which was covered by The New York Times. Fullwood’s published works include co-editing the following anthologies and bibliographies: Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call (with Charles Stephens, 2014), To Be Left with the Body (with Cheryl Clarke, 2008) and Carry the Word: A Bibliography of Black LGBTQ Books (with Lisa C. Moore, 2007), and articles, essays and reviews published in Library Journal, Africana.com, Africana Heritage and other publications.
NOTE: Interviewee responses have been lightly edited for clarity. The original, unedited transcripts for all six participants (Agarrat, Graham, Kornegay, McAdams-Mahmoud, Madoori, and Stephens) are on file at the Counter Narrative Project. See Charles Stephens for details. (forthcoming). All participants have a copy of their copyright agreements for future use at CNP or repository/library. CNP Participants need to sign a release for their narratives to CNP.