How do you create a history out of paper scraps and ashes? It took six years for Darius Bost, associate professor of ethnic studies, to complete his book Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence. Much of the history was lost or burned after writers and artists died from AIDS, and their families either thought there was no need to keep records or were too ashamed to do so. The book pieces together Bost’s meticulous research to examine the confluence of activism and literature during the AIDS epidemic in the gay Black communities of New York City and Washington, D.C., in the 1980s and ’90s.
Why is examining literature from this time so important?
Literature allowed these men to hold onto trauma and abjection, and at the same time to be hopeful and optimistic. Narrative can reckon with the systems that would pathologize and devalue entire groups of people. By focusing on these men not as statistics but as subjects who experience the world from their embodied perspectives, we challenge racial, gender, and sexual stereotypes. Fiction and poetry are just as important to understanding the HIV and AIDS epidemic as the biology of the virus.
What does violence mean in this context?
I’m not just talking about Black gay men who were beaten in anti-gay violence. We need to ask ourselves, “why are these things happening?” and situate contemporary occurrences in a longer view. The consequences of slavery continue to affect Black people in the form of structural violence. Black people never really achieved full humanity in the eyes of the state. That continues to haunt us as we grapple with questions around police violence. So the question becomes, how do we dismantle a social structure that organizes bodies in hierarchical ways?
How do we effect real change?
When I get on the elevator in my building where I work as a professor, people often grab their purse or bag. Folks have to actively engage in anti-racism. And it’s those in the majority who have to do the work. That’s why the U’s School for Cultural and Social Transformation [which houses ethnic, gender, and disability studies] is so important. Anti-racist, feminist, and disability studies pedagogy is more important now than ever.
Why did you choose to write this book about this topic?
This book started as a dissertation about Black men’s experiences of trauma. I saw that two Black gay writers who died of AIDS, Essex Hemphill and Melvin Dixon, were marginalized in the academic literature. I wanted to show that these men and their contemporaries were not writing in a vacuum. They were writing to survive the pandemic, to sustain themselves, and to leave something for future generations. Most of the history of HIV and AIDS is focused on white gay men. If we included these men in the story of AIDS and racial trauma, then how does that make us see those things differently?