My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Saturday, February 18, 2023

February 18-19, 2023: Hettie Williams’ Guest Post on Black Writers & AIDS

[This is Dr. Hettie Williams’ third excellent Guest Post, tying her with Dr. Emily Lauer for the lead in the clubhouse. All you other Guest Posters, past and potential, take inspiration!]

Out of Our Silence 

Black Writers Confronting the Stigma of Homosexuality and AIDS in the 1980s

“He has to be remembered for helping to lead us out of our silence...”[1]

—Essex Hemphill on Joseph Beam

                                                                Photo by y y on Unsplash

              “When Essex came over to finish the book, he stayed at my house and got himself a job and an apartment….Essex wanted to finish the book because he loved Joe…one of the things Joe wanted was for gay people to be gay people,” stated Dorothy Beam, mother of African American writer Joseph F. Beam, in a 2007 interview.[2] Joseph Beam, journalist, writer, literary critic, and civil rights activist advanced a multidimensional praxis of politics that encompassed Black gay identity making, community building, wellness, and social justice. In doing so, he built upon a tradition of activism first shaped by the work of civil rights activists such as Bayard Rustin and writers such as James Baldwin and Audre Lorde.

In the early 1980s, a core group of Black intellectuals waged a serious assault on the stigma of homosexuality in African American society while, eventually, also confronting the AIDS epidemic. These intellectuals did this by relying upon Black feminism as their primary epistemological framework. Focusing on writers James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Joseph F. Beam, this essay provides a historical analysis of how African American intellectuals confronted the stigma of homosexuality and the AIDS crisis through their writings and public intellectualism from the Civil Rights era through the 1980s. Here public intellectual is defined as one who speaks to a broad public, typically through the written word, beyond the confines of academia, ideally, with the public good in mind. During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, this public intellectualism among members of the LGBTQ community often involved an activist dimension and ethics of care that meant writers helping writers find work, outlets for one another’s work, with LGBTQ themes, and, at times, providing one another with food and shelter.

                                                    James Baldwin; Attribution: R. L. Oliver, Los Angeles                                                                                                     Times, CC BY-SA 4.0 

James Baldwin ultimately espoused a gender-queer politics within an intersectional framework that was largely pragmatic in essence when compared to other writers at the height of the AIDS crisis. Baldwin’s concerns about LGBTQ rights were in many instances secondary to his concerns about Black equality as expressed in his civil rights activism and public intellectualism. Here I am primarily making a delineation between Baldwin’s literary Black queerness, as juxtaposed with his public intellectualism, and his activism as a civil rights advocate. His social justice activities never completely encompassed his queer politics. He did not audaciously immerse himself in LGBTQ+ activism and community in the ways that other queer writers and activists did though these subjects were clearly central in his writings. This was not the case for writers such as Audre Lorde and Joseph Beam who actively operationalized their queer blackness beyond the utility of literary convention to advance a praxis of politics that encompassed community building and social justice work through the height of the AIDS crisis. Baldwin and Lorde were interlocutors who often discussed with one another the major issues confronting Black Americans.

Audre Lorde, poet, essayist, writer, and activist, advanced a queer praxis in her writings and social justice work. Subjects such as racism, sexism, illness, self-care, motherhood, and feminism feature prominently in her work through the 1980s as she became a more prominently recognized literary voice. In the 1980s, Audre Lorde was a central figure among a group of writers who shaped the rise of Black lesbian literature. These writings include essays, poems, and novels by women such as Ann Allan Shockley, Cheryl Clark, and Barbara Smith. This genre of literature emphasized an intersectional approach to understanding Black women’s experiences by focusing on racism, sexism, and homophobia as overlapping social systems of power and privilege. Lorde’s work paralleled the intersectional framework that defined Baldwin’s writings as they both emerged from the same tradition of Black women’s intellectualism. Lorde, at this time, became a well-known essayist and outspoken supporter of LGBTQ rights amid the rising AIDS crisis. 

                                        Audre Lorde; 
Attribution: Photo by Elsa Dorfman, CC BY-SA 3.0 

In her work, for reasons more obvious than not, Lorde aligns more succinctly with the tradition of Black feminism later embraced by Beam with whom she maintained a regular correspondence. Lorde was more attuned to the functioning of patriarchal white supremacy and the erasure of Black lesbian voices in the queer Black literary imagination. By relying assiduously on the tradition of intersectionality developed by Black women intellectuals, Lorde wrote about race, gender, and sexuality including about the violence and exploitation experienced by Black women in patriarchal societies. An interrogation of patriarchy is at the center of much of her writings. For Lorde, Black men were a part of the patriarchy and this afforded them a certain level of male privilege as compared to the position of Black women in western society.

In her conversations with Baldwin, Lorde astutely points out the masculinist nature of his protest epistemology. She reminded him in an interview published in Essence magazine in 1984 that, “there are power differences that come down” between Black men and women despite the common foe of racism.[3] In this same interview, Lorde also points to the struggle between Black men and women over these power differences including the violence sometimes leveled against Black women from cross-gender conflict within the Black community.

              Lorde was a committed grassroots organizer. Her activities as an activist intellectual were intersectional and transnational. She was a part of the ground-breaking Combahee River Collective of Black women feminists organized to criticize the shortcomings of white feminism and amplify the concerns and needs of Black women from the mid-1970s through the 1980s. Lorde also helped to establish the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix in 1981 that was dedicated to assisting women who suffered sexual abuse and SISTA (Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa), a group organized to help Black women who were impacted by Apartheid. Beam, like Lorde, understood that solidarity across sex/gender boundaries within Black society meant Black survival. In Black feminism, he found a praxis of politics that included ideas about collective work, self-care, and systems of shared support and co-nurturing.

In the early 1980s, Joseph Beam’s work began to appear in the leading newspapers and magazines consumed by the LGBTQ community at the time, including Changing Men, Blackheart, Gay Community News, Philadelphia Gay News, and the Advocate. He won an award from the Lesbian and Gay Press Association in 1984 for his work as a writer. While addressing the concerns facing the gay community in his writings through the mid-1980s, Beam also became noticeably involved in several LGBTQ associations concerned with social equality (such as the Gay and Lesbian Task Force of the American Friends Service Committee and the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays) while he worked to compile an anthology of writings by Black gay men. He became the editor of the journal Black/Out published by the National Coalition in 1985, and this put him in contact with a broad community of Black gay writers with whom he sought to build alliances to improve social equality and representations of African Americans in the larger LGBTQ society. In his writings, he expressed a concern for the alienation of Black members of the LGBTQ community and issues of social justice from an intersectional point of view that included a discussion of race, gender, class, and sexuality more broadly. Beam stated in the “Introduction” section of In the Life (Red Bone Press, 1986) that he had “grown weary of reading literature of white gay men” because none of their work “spoke” to him as a “Black gay man.”[4]

Audre Lorde was a friend, mentor, supporter, and patron to Joseph Beam. Lorde and Beam maintained regular correspondence, and Beam interviewed Lorde for several literary outlets. In one of their interviews, both expressed concerns about the lack of visibility of writers from the LGBTQ community.  “It’s not only the literary establishment that renders us invisible” Beam noted.  “The gay and lesbian community contributes to this invisibility.”[5] Both agreed in this interview that the LGBTQ community needed to build their “own institutions.” This was demonstrated with Lorde’s creation of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press that was developed in association with the National Black Feminist Organization in 1980. Lorde was active in the Combahee River Collective from 1974 through 1980 and formed the Women of Color Press with Black feminists such as Barbara Smith in response to what they saw as the failures of liberal white feminism. In the writings and actions of Lorde and Beam, we see a commitment to active grassroots level community building and shared support between members of the LGBTQ community.

[Annual non-favorites series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think?]

[1] Stephen A. Maglott, “Joseph Beam,” Ubuntu Biography Project,, December 30, 2017 Found at: Accessed January 1, 2019.

[2] Maglott, “Joseph Beam,” Ubuntu Biography Project,, December 30, 2017.

[3] Audre Lorde, and James Baldwin, “Revolutionary Hope: A Conversation Between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde,” Essence, 1984.

[4] Joseph Beam, “Introduction,” in In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology: A Black Gay Anthology edited by Joseph Beam (RedBone Press, 1986), xix.

[5] Joseph Beam, “Audre Lorde: The Lost Interview,” Lesbian News February, 1997, 22, no. 7 p. 39-41.

No comments:

Post a Comment