This article reads works of Audre Lorde, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, and other writers through what I name a palimpsestic practice of crip reading . The very way in which we must find and read the voices of Black gay men is by locating anthologies and reading those contributors in palimpsestic relationship to one another and to Black feminist writers and organizers. Although Black gay men and Black feminists of the 1980's and 1990's engaged with cancer and HIV in their writings, they are often considered as part of different political, cultural, and intellectual legacies than is often included in the field of Disability Studies. A palimpsestic reading of their works as entangled with each other reveals new genealogies of crip activist and cultural work. By this I mean that Black queer and/or feminist writing exist in a palimpsest relationship with Disability Studies; one can read the layers of thought through one another. A palimpsestic reading also proposes that cultural workers presumed to be outside the sphere of Disability Studies are, in fact, central to creating a crip-of-color theory.
This article reads works of Audre Lorde, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, and other writers through what I name a palimpsestic practice of crip reading. The very way in which we must find and read the voices of Black gay men is by locating anthologies and reading those contributors in palimpsestic relationship to one another and to Black feminist writers and organizers. Although Black gay men and Black feminists of the 1980's and 1990's engaged with cancer and HIV in their writings, they are often considered as part of different political, cultural, and intellectual legacies than is often included in the field of Disability Studies. A palimpsestic reading of their works as entangled with each other reveals new genealogies of crip activist and cultural work. By this I mean that Black queer and/or feminist writing exist in a palimpsest relationship with Disability Studies; one can read the layers of thought through one another. A palimpsestic reading also proposes that cultural workers presumed to be outside the sphere of Disability Studies are, in fact, central to creating a crip-of-color theory.
Jina B. Kim identifies Lorde's essays in Burst of Light as an ideal entry point to thinking about a crip-of-color critique, which is an alliance of "queer of color/women of color and disability theorizing." 1 Kim writes, crip-of-color theory is "a mode of analysis that urges us to hold racism, illness, and disability together, to see them as antagonists in a shared struggle, and to generate a poetics of survival from that nexus" (1). To read for a crip-of-color critique is to look for the "relations of social, material and prosthetic support" and to look for ways the state itself operates as an "apparatus of racialized disablement" (1). Hemphill and Beam highlight how the state's negligence of the HIV crisis has led to an inordinate amount of Black deaths in communities such as Washington, D.C. while Lorde writes how comparing the state's lack of environmental protections led to Black women having a disproportionate share of cancer diagnosis. Lorde compares cancer to Apartheid and her own struggle to the then on-going anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa; Beam and Hemphill compare their experience with HIV with gun and police violence and their resistance to that of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. In their writings, the three write to and for one another, explicitly as times naming one another and, at other times, implicitly by referencing themes and symbolism in one another's work. This practice demonstrates intergenerational support central to Kim's elaboration of a crip-of-color theory. Racism, disability and illness cannot be untangled from one another.
Because of this entanglement, I argue for palimpsestic reading, a reading method that can best reveal these entanglements and the social relations between these writers and their movements. I borrow this strategy from Michele Janette and her work in Asian American literature and Critical Ethnic Studies. To read through a palimpsest is to read for multiple layers of identity, each with their own meaning but inherently affecting one another; on their own, these layers of identity are incomplete (155-156). To extend Janette's hermeneutic, I argue that we can read through a palimpsest to understand not just an individual's layers of identity, but an individual's layers of social relations that inform those identities.
This palimpsestic reading strategy allows us to deepen queer theorist Cynthia Barounis's formulation of "antiprophylactic citizenship." This term, "antiprophylactic" accounts for the permeability of body boundaries, for the way in which one's own experience with illness or disability cannot be contained within one boundary but can envelope communities and generations. Antiprophylactic citizenship takes this understanding and expands it to the citizen-body, arguing for a politic that embraces messiness and communal relations over a neoliberal, profit-seeking and individualistic model of health and illness. A crip-of-color politic centers the antiprophylactic citizenship model, honoring social and material relations in the liberation project of disabled, queer people of color.
In this article, I do not address Lorde's work quite so directly as many of those writers before me have; instead, this paper looks at Lorde's work through a palimpsest, that palimpsest being the literature of Black gay men writing about HIV and AIDS in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Specifically, I read Joseph Beam's collection In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology and Joseph Beam and Essex Hemphill's collection Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men in/to a crip-of-color critique. That slash is intentional—for many, like myself, it is through this writing that I entered Disability Studies as a field, it has always been "in" the field for me; yet for others, the poetry and essays of Beam, Hemphill and their generation of Black gay male authors is a new arrival. Understanding the work of Beam and Hemphill as a palimpsest also allows us to center the earlier generation of Black feminist thinkers, some of whom, like Lorde, are read in the Disability Studies classrooms and others, like Barbara Smith and Cheryl Clarke, who are not. But to read disability through a palimpsest, a very crip strategy of reading, 2 is not just about centering work of previously-marginalized bodyminds (though it is also that); it is also a way of resisting a defaulting to the opacity of disability. We both cannot know the experience at the same time that we must know the experience of disability. Each figure in the palimpsest is partial and incomplete and yet dependent on the other for meaning, an ultimate antiprophylactic 3 embodiment. This reading strategy also removes us from linear temporality, forcing us to hold simultaneous temporalities at once; my experience and your experience, reader, of Hemphill and Beam's work is neither older nor newer in our theoretical formulations of embodiment for the old and the new are simultaneous configurations within the palimpsest; the into becomes the in becomes the in/to.
In the first section, I analyze two memorial poems written for Beam, one by Lorde and the other by Hemphill to articulate the explicit relationships between these writers. In the second section, I read two key anthologies, Beam's In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology and Hemphill's Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men in the tradition of Gloria Anzaldúa Cherríe Moraga's A Bridge Called My Back and alongside Randall Horton and Becky Thompson's Fingernails Across a Chalkboard in order to theorize how a palimpsest provides an entry point for engaging with an anti-prophylactic politic. In Part III, I analyze Lorde's collection A Burst of Light to argue that a palimpsest requires us to resist this idea of legacy, which relies on a past temporality that conflicts with an anti-prophylactic politic and a crip-of-color theory.
I. Understanding the palimpsest through two memorial poems
In her published writings, Audre Lorde mentions HIV/AIDS only once. In a poem titled "Dear Joe", Lorde gives us one of the few glimpses in her writing in specific reference to the AIDS crisis ("Dear Joe" 50-51). The poem, published posthumously in 2000, was written and dedicated Black to gay HIV-positive activist, Joseph Beam (50). Lorde writes:
How many dark young men at 33
left their public life becoming a legend
the mysterious connection
between those we murder
and those we mourn? (50-51)
In the first stanza of her poem, Lorde recognizes the systemic crisis of AIDS first by her questioning of how many young people will die because of AIDS. But her second recognition of the systemic crisis is in looking at AIDS infection conceptually, as a kind of murder, a direct connection to her conceptualizations of cancer in A Burst of Light (discussed in Part III of this essay). The "Joe" that Lorde references is Beam, a writer and cultural worker who published the first collection of Black gay male literature in the United States, In the Life. A Black Gay Anthology, which came out to moderate acclaim. Beam was still living paycheck to paycheck in the Washington D.C. area when he began putting together a second collection. This collection would be completed by Essex Hemphill, with the help of Beam's mother, after Beam's death from AIDS-related illness, an illness he kept in the shadows of his public life (Duberman 166-167; Mumford 181-184).
In the late 1980's and 1990's, Essex Hemphill also writes about the death of Beam, his colleague and friend. Like Lorde's use of Apartheid to understand cancer in Burst of Light, Hemphill uses war imagery to understand dying from AIDS (Hemphill and Beam 110-112).
When my brother fell
I picked up his weapons
And never once questioned
Whether I could carry
The weight and grief,
He shouldered. (110)
Hemphill continues this imagery, comparing life to "marching" and standing "on the front lines" while lamenting the lack of "strategic coalitions" (an allusion to civil rights movement work) (111). Hemphill then refers specifically to AIDS death in the lines, "I realize sewing quilts/will not bring you back/nor save us" and speaks to the lack of "strategic coalitions" specific to AIDS activism (111). As both Duberman and Mumford have theorized, this poem specifically references the failures of the Names project to engage in more strategic and political coalitions. (Though Black feminist activist Evelynn Hammonds's article calling for coalition between Black Feminist activists and HIV activists was published in Radical America two years previously, 4 activist coalitions were only in their beginning stages at the time of Joseph Beam's death in 1988). 5 Hemphill concludes his poem by returning to his opening stanza's tropes:
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
I found (112).
The poem's conclusion forcefully condemns the Names Project, which, as queer theorist Karma Chavez reminds us in her discussion of the International AIDS Conference boycotts of 1990, "The Names Project had far less radical politics than groups like ACT UP or ACT NOW" (116). if we couple this allusion with his other writing of Malcolm X and critiques of respectability politics, we could even read this allusion to the AIDS quilt as a disrepute of mainstream left movement building in general. Given the iconography of Hemphill and Beam, it can be assumed that the weapons of Beam's that Hemphill "picks up" in the poem are the weapons of words—the compiling of these Be Bllack gay writings, a project Hemphill inherited from Beam (xv-xxxi). In this way the poem speaks to the activist potential of writing, especially when giving voice to an oppressed group, specifically here gay black men affected with AIDS. By giving voice to multiple oppressions, Hemphill's poem becomes a form of Black Feminist activism and a precursor to a crip-of-color critique.
I propose that reading these poems as a kind of palimpsest provides the readers an opportunity to see Beam at a complicated intersection of race, class, disability and gender. At the same time, readers can also understand Beam as an incomplete figure, distinct but also a hybrid figure reliant on the work of Black feminist writers and traditions. Beam, through his use of first-person, becomes himself is a literary figure who is interactive and synergistic. Reading palimpsestically, as scholar Michele Janette theorizes, provides a hermeneutic for conceptualizing the layers of identity construction while also understanding these layers as mutually-constituted and dependent upon one another for meaning (155-156).
This palimpsest of Beam and Lorde expands through Hemphill in the second anthology Beam began, Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men. In his Introduction to Brother to Brother, Hemphill recognizes the legacy of the Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde and Joseph Beam. Published in 1991, Brother to Brother: New Writings By Black Gay Men specifically works with understanding the AIDS crisis as a social justice issue, much in line with the work of Combahee and Lorde's Burst of Light. This social justice issue begins with understanding how intersecting oppressions, informed by a Black gay identity, affect the health of an individual and collective body. Like Lorde with her connections to the political body through Apartheid, Hemphill also makes connections to the political body with allusions to the Civil Rights Movement through his poetry about male homosexual desire.
Gunshots ring out above our heads
as we sit beneath your favorite tree
in this park called Meridian Hill,
called Malcolm X, that you call
the "Tomb of Sorrow"
(and claim to be its gatekeeper);
in the cool air lingering after the rain,
the men return to the Wailing Wall
to throw laughter and sad glances
into the fountains below,
or they scream out
for a stud by any name,
their beautiful asses
rimmed by the moon. ("The Tomb of Sorrow" 75). 6
Connecting homosexual desire conceived in the form of anonymous intercourse with the figure of Malcolm X (whose public name offers a kind of anonymity in itself) connotes the violence and activism of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. The poem itself is riddled with violence, for example in the repeated line of "gunshots ring out above our heads" while bodies the midst of queer desire are targeted by homophobic violence (75-83). This violence also alludes to the gun violence of Philadelphia and Washington D.C. in the 1980's and 1990's, collapsing temporalities between generations. The fact that the very place in which homosexual desire can become reality in the poem is known as "Tomb of Sorrow" speaks to the complicated realities of passion, especially passion that is kept secretive, anonymous, closeted (75-83). With his lines, "Slouching through Homo Heights/I came to the Tomb of Sorrow/seeking penetration and Black seed.", Hemphill specifically connects this place of sorrow with race; for Hemphill's speaker, it is the black closet specifically that is sorrowful (82). By connecting closeted homosexual desire with blackness, and more specifically with Malcolm X, Hemphill is proclaiming the existence of a Black gay identity within the context of anti-racist left activism. In his final lines, Hemphill's speaker searches "through/ancestral memories/in search of the/original tribes/that fathered us" and connects past and present: "I strive to see this/in each of us—/ O ancient petals,/O recent blooms." (83). This poem speaks across generations, once again collapsing temporalities.
Reading through a palimpsest provides us an opportunity to understand a poem about sexuality, with no obvious reference to AIDS or a disability politic, as a part of crip genealogy. This crip genealogy is riddled with a politic of loneliness in Hemphill's work. In a recent analysis, Darius Bost proposes that for Hemphill, "loneliness is a bodily desire, a yearning for the attachment to the social and for a future beyond the forces that create one's alienation and isolation" (355). This loneliness is a form of political longing and collective feeling and can be seen in the cadre of Black gay male literature of the 1980's and 1990's (356). Bost analyzes another poem by Hemphill written in Beam's honor, "Heavy Corners", which reads, "Don't let it be loneliness/that kills us" in order to highlight that it is, ironically, through loneliness that Black gay men share a collective experience amidst the AIDS crisis (360). 7 References to and through loneliness provides a more complicated picture of desire and queerness; at the same time we can see the roots of an expansive crip politic and expression.
II. Reading the antiprophylactic in anthologies
In Becky Thompson's essay, 8 "Way Before the Word: Queer Organizing and Race when beauty still counts", she includes her own poem for Hemphill, "Invisible Man" (538), beginning:
The gay man
who is out but not out
tells me he wants a book
that is not about sex or gay men
or history or choir boxes
or Essex or Joseph or Bill T. Jones
or Ailey or … He wants a book about everybody
except anybody I ever knew (537).
Thompson tells her readers in this essay that this poem comes from a time when she is putting together a collection of poetry and prose about AIDS across the Black diaspora 9 and an accompanying feeling of disorientation as she considers media representations of a mainstream "gay and lesbian movement" (537). Thompson here is wrestling with her own queer whiteness while she considers the erasure of Black queer bodies in media representations. By beginning the poem with a contradiction "out but not out" and elevating-commemorating-hailing the names of several Black gay cultural workers with HIV, Thompson resists respectability politics and embraces a crip positionality. The poem ends with Thompson's declaration that "Essex's spirit is still warm/to my touch" (538). While Thompson is collecting and curating writings from the Black diaspora in the early 2000's, she engages in a kind of palimpsestic reading; her poem provides us a partial figuration of Hemphill seen through this process of anthologizing. This kind of reading strategy reflects what Barounis conceptualizes as antiprophylactic, a term that understands experience itself as uncontainable within bodily and temporal boundaries (3). Barounis writes within crip theory because crip theory is a theoretical apparatus that includes a political commitment to addressing sexuality and disability in relation to one another (McRuer 16-20). Crip theory is a term and field that, in Carrie Sandahl's formulation, is meant to be expansive and open-ended (2003) and, in Allison Kafer's understanding, is meant to disrupt the binaries of social and medical models (2003). In my own formulation, to crip a practice is to locate it at the intersection of sexuality and disability, allowing the practice to inhabit an on-going state of becoming through a set of open-ended relations. Ultimately, that Thompson pens a commemorative poem for Hemphill (which is also about more than Hemphill and more than Black gay cultural workers, but about the embrace of crip subjectivity) in the midst of anthologizing is a reflection of the power of anti-prophylactic reading, the muddiness of temporal and bodily boundaries, between her work and that of Hemphill, who himself began anthologizing through the work of his memorializing of Joseph Beam.
Earlier in her essay, Thompson writes of Hemphill's last public speech in 1995, a speech about finding love despite impending death. Hemphill writes, "As I try to love myself for the first time, he comes challenging me to claim a higher ground than I ever imagined. As I try to love myself for the first time, he comes along encouraging me to love him too … as I sing and dance as fiercely as ever" (536). Thompson writes of a growing multiracial feminist movement, complete with canon-making collections like This Bridge Called My Back and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, during the AIDS crisis that created ghost neighborhoods. She also writes that this same movement is what galvanized gay men, as "they pushed the doctors aside, taking charge of the space, knowing that advocating for their own lives and healthcare was their only option. Partly from women who had built the women's health movement, gay men learned that their lives depended upon peer education" (234-235). Indeed, much of the work of Black gay men in relation to AIDS activism stemmed from the influence of their Black lesbian sisters. As Mumford writes in his biographical work on Beam, In the Life itself was inspired by Bridge Called My Back and, like Bridge, Beam anticipated that it would have significant historical meaning: "black gays are soon to follow the lead of Black lesbians; our voices from a whisper to a scream" (140). Beam was directly inspired by Bridge. Later, in his work editing Brother to Brother, Hemphill relied significantly on the mentorship of Black feminist writer Barbara Smith (editor of Home Girls), "from questions of copyright to questions of copyediting" (Duberman 168-169). So, while Thompson remarks on the irony of canonical Black feminist collections emerging in the height of the AIDS epidemic that kills so many Black men, we can also understand how it is precisely these canonical collections that inspire and provoke an urgency in publishing for Beam and Hemphill.
This relationship between four edited collections (This Bridge Called My Back, Home Girls, In the Life, and Brother to Brother) is significant, though often obfuscated. When each collection is read through a palimpsest, the reader can find a firm intersectional and coalitional relationship between Black gay men and Black lesbian feminists. This reading strategy also helps us understand how reading through a palimpsest gives us an antiprophylactic reading strategy, a strategy that looks for the porousness between authors and collections. As Barounis writes, within the antiprophylactic the body remains "porous and permeable, it is defined by its receptivity to potentially contaminating outsiders" (Barounis 7). Thompson, in her 2013 essay, shares portions of her own poetry alongside the words of Hemphill and Black feminist organizers, inviting us to understand the ways the written work, much like the bodies from which it is summoned, is a contagious canon.
Others, too, commune with these vectors of contagion, particularly in the 10 years following Hemphill's death. Thomas Glave, in an essay written to a deceased Hemphill, invokes Lorde and Hemphill palimpsestically, writing, "It has been said and we recall: we were never meant to survive. Not here. No, not then nor now" (278). By invoking Lorde's infamous poem, Glave claims a temporal lapse between then and now. He continues,
Not in the gorge of a grasping empire poisoned by the recurring
venoms of its own antihumanity. Here, now, we can never forget
that as you did not survive, others still are falling. Falling beneath
the policeman's baton, or others are raped by it; expiring in the
electric chair; decaying along lonely roads after a body has been
chained and dragged—the body historically and contemporarily
fetishized, sodomized, demonized; now again whipped, sawed,
beheaded, carved, and marked with swastikas this week or with
whatever the terrorism and terror that prevail and fester in
depraved human imaginations will next resurrect and refashion
from those dis-eased realms (279).
By describing the many realms of oppression and violence that Black (gay, queer) men (people) face, Glave places HIV/AIDS within systemic and political oppression. 10 By calling out violence most often experienced by Black bodies, Glave expands crip politic. Glave is careful not to call the individual perpetrators of such violence crazy or abnormal. It is the political project that is dis-eased. If the political body itself is the body that needs to be reckoned with, then the crip politic that Glave professes in his memoriam to Hemphill is an unruly and unsanitary body. As Barounis tells us, the antiprophylactic political project embraces the unruly and 'unsanitary' citizen (Barounis 2019: 13). By reading with an antiprophylactic analytic, we must arrest any notion of separate spheres of oppression and understand illness/disease/disability through a palimpsest where all figures are partial and all relationships in a constant, crip state of becoming. , one embraced by Lorde in her work "A Burst of Light."
III. Resisting legacy, embracing palimpsest
Audre Lorde's book length collection, "A Burst of Light" is organized like Cancer Journals and begins six years after Lorde's mastectomy (49). The collection includes journal entries in this section are from Lorde's first three years of living with liver cancer (50). In her introduction to these journal entries, Lorde writes, "The struggle with cancer now informs all of my days, and it is only another face in the continuing battle for self-determination that Black women fight daily, often in triumph" (49). Through her journal entries, Lorde thematically develops this idea that cancer is comparable to other forms of racial and gendered oppression. In this way, Lorde is making room for the reconsideration of boundaries between oppressions, as well as between bodies and nations. As Lorde decides that, instead of medically treating her cancer, she is going to learn to live with it, her journal entries take on an increasingly international focus. It is this understanding of living with illness that asks us to read palimpsistically and antiprophylactically, and the boundaries between bodies and nations into a temporal uneasiness.
It is shortly after her news of cancer spreading to her liver that Lorde develops her concept of an African Diaspora:
Last night I gave a talk to black students at the University
as coming to see ourselves as part of an international community
of people of Color, how we must train ourselves to question what
our blackness—our Africanness—can mean on the world stage.
And how as members of that international community, we must
assume responsibility for our actions, or lack of action, as americans. Otherwise,
no matter how relative the power might be, we are
yielding it up to the opposition to be used against us, and against
the forces of liberation around the world (53).
It is immediately after these lines that Lorde writes about being "held hostage" by her fear of recurring cancer: "The mass in my liver is not a primary liver tumor, so if it is malignant, it is likely metastasized breast cancer. Not curable. Arrestable, not curable" (54). The methodological arrangement of excerpts from her journals to repeat this oscillation—of two distinct ideas, African diaspora, and metastasized breast cancer—suggests Lorde's intention that the relationship between the two is significant. The initial pairing of these two ideas seems like a stretch in that cancer is considered life-taking, while Diaspora is about giving life or extending life through connecting peoples around the world. But this structure of directly comparing these two ideas or circumstances sheds light on how Lorde is continuing to reconsider boundaries in her own conceptualization of wellness. The first boundary that is up for reconsideration for Lorde is the boundary of location. Just as breast cancer can move from the breast to the liver, causing the concept of breast cancer in the first place to become flexible, so can people with roots from the African continent, and the oppression accompanying these people by association with these roots, be dispersed to other geographies. In this way, the concepts of Diaspora and Cancer are linked. This does not mean Lorde is calling the Black Diaspora cancerous; more clearly, Lorde is asking readers to reimagine geopolitical space through the porousness of the body that cancer reveals. The boundary between breast and liver are reconsidered in the same way that the physical boundaries between nations are reconsidered with the concept of Diaspora. The boundaries are not rigid, but flexible and permeable.
The other pairing of concepts that this Cancer/Diaspora duo works with is Life and Activism. Lorde writes that her Cancer is no longer "curable" but a condition with which she must learn to live (54). The idea of living with a condition that will eventually cause death blurs the boundaries between life and death but also, more importantly, establishes the parameters of life. For Lorde, Cancer becomes about determining a quality of life: "Yet, if this tumor is malignant, I want as much good time as possible, and their treatments aren't going to make a hell of a lot of difference in terms of extended time. But they will make a hell of a lot of difference in terms of my general condition and how I live my life" (55). In this way, Lorde decides against Western medicine in favor of "Finish[ing] the poem 'Outlines.' See[ing] what Europe's all about. Mak[ing] Deotha Chamber's story live" (54). Cancer, as both a condition and a concept, gives Lorde the opportunity to assert agency over her own body and define the parameters of Life, with a capital L. In this way, Cancer becomes paired with Life, questioning the boundaries between Life and Death and creating a disorienting temporality for the reader. Where Life itself is in some ways defined by temporality, Death is a release from temporality all together.
If Life can stand in, at times, for Cancer in my analysis of Lorde's work, so can Activism, in the same way, stand in for Diaspora. Lorde specifically connects people with African roots across the globe to create a political, activist force:
There is quite a different reality in defining Black as a
political position, acknowledging that color is the bottom
line the world over, no matter how many other issues exist
alongside it. Within this definition, Black becomes a
codeword, a rallying identity for all oppressed people of Color.
And this position reflects the empowerment and the worldwide
militant legacy of our Black Revolution of the 1960's, the effects
of which are sometimes more obvious in other countries than in
our own (67).
It is with this activist sensibility that Lorde works to create an organization "that can be a connection between us and South African women" which she calls a Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa (61, 78). It is in the founding of this organization that Lorde writes, "For the first time I really feel that my writing has a substance and stature that will survive me"(61). In formulating this concept of the African Diaspora, Lorde builds connections between countries, slowly breaking down the political barriers of separation through her anti-Apartheid activism. "It takes all of my selves, working together, to integrate what I learn of Women of Color around the world into my consciousness and work. It takes all of my selves working together to effectively focus attention against the Holocaust progressing in South Africa and the South Bronx and in Black schools across this nation. […] It takes all of my selves working together to fight this death inside of me" (99). By comparing the South Bronx with the scope of South Africa's Apartheid, Lorde breaks down barriers between the United States and South Africa. She is also comparing this external battle against racism with her internal battle against cancer. The political body, for Lorde, becomes comparable to the individual body and the boundaries between the two are reconsidered, asking us to read the individual and the political palimpsestically and antiprophylactically.
In her journal entries, Lorde directly compares racism and cancer: "Racism. Cancer. In both cases, to win the aggressor must conquer, but the resistors need only survive. How do I define that survival and on whose terms?" (111). By making Cancer and Racism comparable to each other, Lorde is both politicizing individual health and individualizing structural racism. Lorde uses this comparison between institutional racism and cancer thematically throughout her journal entries. "I spend every day meditating upon my physical self in battle, visualizing the actual war going on inside my body. As I move through the other parts of each day, that battle often merges with external campaigns, both political and personal. The devastations of apartheid in South Africa and racial murder in Howard Beach feel as critical to me as cancer" (125). By recognizing that external battles, those of institutionalized racism specifically, can be internalized, Lorde is reconsidering the boundaries between the internal and external; she is also situating disability outside of an individual body similar to a social model of disability. In this way, Lorde not only empathizes with her sisters enduring South Africa's Apartheid, but she becomes one of them. The borders between country and individual bodies are reexamined for the sake of a palimpsestic and antiprophylactic experience.
Yet Lorde herself warns us against taking this comparable sameness of experience too far. She writes, "While we fortify ourselves with vision of the future, we must arm ourselves with accurate perceptions of the barriers between us and that future" (64). Here Lorde is writing specifically about a multi-racial feminist community, warning against an assumption of similar experiences. And yet, the next page, Lorde insists on the coming together of a Black to a community comprised of intersecting identities of Black and Feminist (65). Lorde examines this concept of Black Diaspora writers as a collective body: "Sitting with Black women from all over the earth has made me think a great deal about what it means to be indigenous, and what my relationship as a Black woman in North America is to the land rights struggles of the indigenous peoples of this land […] and how we can translate that consciousness to a new level of working together" (74). For Lorde, it is in identity differences that one can find common ground and strengthen the collective body. For Lorde, individual strength comes from this collective whole. As a result, it makes sense that Lorde proposes the same root for health: "I think of what it means to be a Black woman living with cancer, to all women in general. Most of all I think of how important it is for us to share with each other the power buried within the breaking of silence about our bodies and our health" (118). Health, for Lorde, is essentially a shared, communal experience. This community transcends the political boundaries of nation while recognizing the shared oppression of individually marginalized bodies, specifically the bodies of Black women. In conceptualizing health as a shared experience, Lorde locates her own health in the realm of other shared experiences of oppression, blurring the boundaries between the individual and the whole. Lorde conceptualizes individual health as the health of the collective body, a key contribution to crip-of-color theory.
While Lorde has always been a political writer, it is in her journal entries from A Burst of Light that Lorde takes on explicitly global focus. This focus is accompanied with her observations that Cancer is political. Lorde writes, "Our battle is to define survival in ways that are acceptable and nourishing to us, meaning with substance and style […] What would it be like to be living in a place where the pursuit of definition within this crucial part of our lives was not circumscribed and fractionalized by the economics of disease in america?"(98). Lorde's use of the lower-case in "america" is a clear way to devalue a country name, making illegitimate the political constructs of that country. This entry, for Lorde, is about taking control of her own body—her own wellness—when the country of her citizenship is only concerned with health as a capitalist enterprise. In this way, Lorde understands her own body as part of a collective body that resists nationalist boundaries.
This collective body can be seen in the connections between writers like Lorde and Hemphill in both referencing the same Black gay activist figure, Joseph Beam. This collective body is also apparent in the work of poet and essayist Cheryl Clarke, as she comments on Essex Hemphill's creative projects and Audre Lorde's legacy. For Clarke, Hemphill, who died of AIDS himself in 1995, stakes his place in the canon of African American literature by, "taunting the black heteronormative canon with his homo-lyric blues. Hemphill faces off black macho prescriptiveness by asserting his phallocentric masculine 'place'" (392). Clarke and Hemphill both attribute Audre Lorde with setting a tone and context for black gay writing. Clarke writes that Lorde was "one of the first feminists to insist that integration of identities is crucial to politics, culture, activism and 'feeling deeply'" (301). In her writing, Lorde "dissolves the silence" around and gives "public voice" to sexuality, death, illness and intimacy (303). Lorde very much viewed her writing as a form of activism and, as Clarke writes, "She considered herself a 'traveling cultural worker,' going and reading her poetry, dropping 'seeds' and then leaving—hoping they would spring into something, finding out they did, sometimes never finding out, having 'faith and fun along the way'" (304). In this context, Clarke questions how we resist canonizing Lorde, "resist immobilizing ourselves with false comparisons"(305)? What is important in Lorde's legacy is action and activism (305). In fact, for Clarke, Lorde "leaves us this legacy of uneasiness and refusal to be consoled" (313). By reading Clarke's work through a palimpsest, we can see partial figurations of Lorde and Hemphill; what the palimpsest does for our understanding here, in addition to partially obscuring and partially revealing their figures, is create a temporal messiness, where the past is the present and the present is the past. Through our readings, Lorde and Hemphill occupy one disorienting temporality. This temporal disorientation is essential for a crip-of-color critique.
By emphasizing the importance of converging identities (Black, woman, lesbian, etc.), and focusing on the importance of action, Lorde's work, and Clarke's essay reflecting on this work in 1996 (317), are both contributing to a crip-of-color theory. Crip-of-color analysis develops not in the isolated work of one theorist, but in collective, multi-generational literary conversations, demonstrated here in the conversations about HIV/AIDS and Cancer.
It is Lorde's understanding of living with illness, and the boundaries between bodies and nations that she deconstructs in the process of this consideration, that becomes a key intervention in crip-of-color theory, an intervention that, through the work of Essex Hemphill, emerges in the conceptualization of HIV/AIDS in the early 1990's. Cancer, as both a condition and a concept, gives Lorde the opportunity to assert agency over her own body and define the parameters of Life, with a capital L. In this way, Cancer becomes paired with Life, questioning the boundaries between Life and Death, at the same time she questions the boundaries between individual bodies and political bodies by comparing Cancer to Apartheid. This reconsideration between political bodies and individual bodies requires a suspension of temporal specificity and is best understood through a palimpsest.
In conceptualizing health as a shared experience, Lorde locates her own health in the realm of other shared experiences of oppression. Lorde conceptualizes individual health as the health of the collective body. Lorde's understanding of Cancer as not just connected to, but inseparable from, other forms of oppression, resonates with the HIV writing of Essex Hemphill. By giving voice to multiple oppressions, Hemphill's poem becomes a form of crip-of-color theory and a means to establish wellness through his anger with the AIDS crisis. By both writers centering the experience of Joseph Beam, Audre Lorde and Essex Hemphill are centering a Black gay experience with AIDS as transcendent of an individual body and representative of a large collective body. Hemphill's collection, Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, published in 1991, like Lorde's writings of Cancer, specifically works with understanding the AIDS crisis as a social justice issue. Hemphill links past anti-racist activism with a current un-closeting of Black male sexuality, palimpsestically connecting activism from two spheres of oppression into one movement. It is in this context that Hemphill writes of HIV/AIDS; this also removes us from linear temporality, forcing us to hold simultaneous temporalities at once, blurring boundaries of embodiment itself in the formation of a crip-of-color theory.
- Anzaldúa, Gloria, and Cherríe Moraga. "This bridge called my back." Writings of Radical Women of Color. Watertown, Ma: Persephone Press, 1981.
- Beam, Joseph, ed. In the life: A Black gay anthology. Los Angeles, CA: Alyson Books, 1986.
- Bolaki, Stella. "Challenging Invisibility, Making Connections: Illness, Survival and Black Struggles in Audre Lorde's Work." Blackness and Disability, ed. Chris Bell. Michigan University Press. 2011.
- Bost, Darius. "Loneliness: Black Gay Longing in the Work of Essex Hemphill" in Criticism 59: 3, 2017. 353-374. https://doi.org/10.13110/criticism.59.3.0353
- Brier, Jennifer. Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2009.
- Chavez, Karma. The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance. WA: University of Washington Press. 2021.
- Clarke, Cheryl. The Days of Good Looks: The Prose and Poetry of Cheryl Clarke, 1980-2005. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers. 2006.
- Dunhamn, J., Harris, J., Jarrett, S., Moore, L., Nishida, A., Price, M., Robinson, B., & Schalk, S. (2015). Developing and Reflecting on a Black Disability Studies Pedagogy: Work from the National Black Disability Coalition. Disability Studies Quarterly 35(2). https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v35i2.4637
- Duberman, Martin. Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill and the Battlefield of AIDS. New York: The New Press. 2014.
- Glave, Thomas. "(Re-)Recalling Essex Hemphill: Words to Our Now" in Callaloo John Hopkins University Press. 2000. 2778-284.
- Gould, Deborah. Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight Against AIDS. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2009. https://doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226305318.001.0001
- Hemphill, Essex. "When my brother fell." Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men. Ed. Essex Hemphill. Boston: Alyson Publications, Inc. 1991. 110-112.
- Hemphill, Essex. "The tomb of Sorrow." Brother to Brother: New Writings By Black Gay Men. Boston: Alyson Publications, Inc. 1991. 75.
- Hemphill, Essex, ed. Brother to Brother: New Writings By Black Gay Men. Boston: Alyson Publications, Inc. 1991.
- Horton, Randall and Becky Thompson. Fingernails across the Chalkboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS from the Black Diaspora. Chicago, IL: Third World Press. 2007.
- Kafer, Alison. 'Compulsory bodies: Reflections on heterosexuality and able-bodiedness' in Journal of Women's History 15.3 (2003): 77-89. https://doi.org/10.1353/jowh.2003.0071
- Kim, Jina B. "Toward a Crip-of-Color Critique: Thinking with Minich's "Enabling Whom?"," Lateral 6.1 (2017). https://doi.org/10.25158/L6.1.14
- Lorde, Audre. A Burst of Light. New York: Firebrand Books. 1988.
- Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Press. 1980.
- Lorde, Audre. "Dear Joe: For Joe Beam" in Callaloo, Vol. 23, No. 1. John Hopkins University Press. 50-51. Winter 2000. https://doi.org/10.1353/cal.2000.0040
- McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. NY: New York University Press. 2006.
- Mumford, Kevin. Not straight, not white: Black gay men from the march on Washington to the AIDS crisis. Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books, 2016. https://doi.org/10.5149/northcarolina/9781469626840.001.0001
- Pickens, Their Alyce."Pinning Down the Phantasmagorical: Discourse of Pain and the Rupture of Post-Humanism in Evelyne Accad's The Wounded Breast and Audre Lorde's The Cancer Journals." Blackness and Disability, ed. Chris Bell. Michigan University Press. 2011.
- Sandahl, Carrie. "Queering the crip or cripping the queer?: Intersections of queer and crip identities in solo autobiographical performance" in GLQ: a journal of lesbian and gay studies 9.1 2003. 25-56. https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-9-1-2-25
- Schalk, Sami. Black Disability Politics. NC: Duke University Press. 2022. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781478027003
- Thompson, Becky. "Way Before the Word: Queer Organizing and Race When Beauty Still Counts" in Feminist Studies 39:2 "Categorizing Sexualities" 2013. 526-548. https://doi.org/10.1353/fem.2013.0037
Audre Lorde has been central to many feminist and Black disability studies scholars; see, for instance, Theri Alyce Pickens's Essay "Pinning Down the Phantasmagorical: Discourse of Pain and the Rupture of Post-Humanism in Evelyne Accad's The Wounded Breast and Audre Lorde's The Cancer Journals" and Stella Bolaki's Essay, "Challenging Invisibility, Making Connections: Illness, Survival and Black Struggles in Audre Lorde's Work", both of which appear in Blackness and Disability, ed. Chris Bell. Michigan University Press. 2011. See also the 2015 article by Dunham, Jane et al. "Developing and reflecting in Black Disability Studies pedagogy: Work from the National Black Disability Coalition" Disability Studies Quarterly 35:2 2015.
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Crip theory is a theoretical apparatus that includes a political commitment to addressing sexuality and disability in relation to one another (McRuer 16-20). In Carrie Sandahl's formulation, is meant to be expansive and open-ended (2003) and, in Allison Kafer's understanding, is meant to disrupt the binaries of social and medical models (2003). I understand crip as a practice to inhabit an on-going state of becoming through a set of open-ended relations.
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In her contributions to crip theory, Cynthia Barounis conceptualizes antiprophylactic citizenship, an idea of belonging that comes from an openness and vulnerability that only sickness can offer (2019).
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Essex Hemphill. 1991. "When my brother fell" in Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men. Boston: Alyson Publications, Inc. 110-112, vi.
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In Sami Schalk's Black Disability Politics, she writes of Byllye Avery and the work of the Black Women's Health Project in addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis in 1988 as a political, not personal, problem. As such, the organization took a two-pronged approach to the crisis: first, prevention and education campaigns; second, support for those already infected (117-119).
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Thanks to an anonymous reviewer who provided the following insight regarding Hemphill's reference to Meridian Hill: This Hill is named Meridian Hill because it's the original site of DC's milestone marker, and former president John Q. Adams had a home there. By renaming" of Meridian Hill to Malcolm X, the poem is commenting on the anti-blackness on which "America" was erected.
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Bost's essay does a marvelous close reading of all of Hemphill's memorial poems to Beam to complicate ideas of social death theorized in afro-pessimism and ambivalent futurity theorized in queer theory.
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As a former student, I am indebted to Becky Thompson for introducing me to the work of Hemphill and Beam.
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Horton, Randall and Becky Thompson. Fingernails across the Chalkboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS from the Black Diaspora. Chicago, IL: Third World Press. 2007.
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While written more than 20 years ago, Glave's essay for Hemphill feels even more relevant in light of contemporary BLM organizing, reminding us that police violence, non-police hate crimes, and carceral death is not a newly emergent phenomenon.
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