Khafre Kujichagulia Abif

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The Fierce Language of Self-Determination
Khafre Kujichagulia Abif talks about his anthology of poems, prayers, essays and affirmations for people living with HIV/AIDS
by Larry Buhl

Photo by Duane Cramer
Photo by Duane Cramer

On the Facebook page for the anthology Cornbread, Fish and Collard Greens, editor Khafre Kujichagulia Abif says “Thank you God for blessing me much more than I deserve.”

Many entries in his Cornbread anthology have that humble, spiritual quality. Others are angry. Others are intimate and confessional. Some are African-American spirituals. Abif says he hopes all of them, together, will take the reader on a journey through words and experience themselves, whether or not they have HIV.

Abif, a librarian turned author/editor and AIDS activist, is the founder and executive director of Cycle for Freedom, a 2,028-mile national HIV/AIDS mobilization campaign.

I spoke with Abif about Cornbread, Fish and Collard Greens, which was released in September 2013.

Larry Buhl: The title keeps making me hungry. What’s it about?
Khafre Kujichagulia Abif:
When I shared with my mother that I was HIV-positive, after she prayed for me, she pulled out a cast iron skillet and cooked some cornbread. She wanted to fatten me up. It’s kind of a take off of the Chicken Soup books. People with HIV need more than chicken soup. My mother’s cooking was her ministry. When she cooked she poured her love into it, and it was nurturing for me.
Throughout the anthology there are common themes that I think readers can internalize and get strength from.

There hasn’t been an anthology like this in some time. I was trying to fill a gap in AIDS literary history. Some are artists, some are writers, some are spoken word [poets]. Some are people who have a concern for people with HIV.

Is every contributor positive?
The ones I included were not all positive. There are some. The majority of the contributors are not positive. I wasn’t looking to exclude or include. I wanted people to respond to what I put the call out for.

I have high school friends in there, college friends, colleagues I’ve worked with. Both of my sons have a piece as well. It became people wanting to respond after they learned that they didn’t have to be positive to speak about this issue.

There are very strong Afro-centric and African-American themes and tones. How many of the writers in this anthology are black? Or LGBT? Or do those categories even matter?
They actually don’t matter so much. There are white, black, Latino, African-born writers, and someone from Colombia. It is a plethora. The majority [of contributors] are of color, and there is a strong presence of women, who are positive and who are not, who have something to say and contribute. But the reader doesn’t know who they are until they read about the contributors at the back of the book.

What was your process for compiling the entries?
When I started the project, I sent e-mails to people I knew who were positive writers. It was a really slow process. People hadn’t bought into it yet. When I continued to push through Facebook, other writers spread the word through their social networks as well. There was a point that I shared with an elder that I wanted 365 pieces in the anthology, one for every day of the year. Her response was, “when it’s done it’s done.” Regardless of how many, it will do what it’s supposed to do. When I let go of that particular number, the floodgates opened up. I was amazed. I look at this book at 600 pages and I’m amazed.

I’m a quilter as well. Anything artistic—whether with fabric [or not]— has to talk back to me. So the order, the entries, the contributions in the book, have an order—a pattern that I can’t explain—but it is from the writer and contributor talking to me, from the themes talking to me.

You also include different languages. Creole, French, Spanish. You have the Lord’s prayer in different languages.
Yes, I wanted it to be for the world community. If someone got it in Haiti or China, to let them know we’re thinking of them as well.

On the other hand, the Lord’s Prayer is Christian. Would you say the anthology is Christian-centric?
No, I wouldn’t. There are some entries from a traditional African faith. Some of the writers express their relationship with their higher power but we don’t know if it’s the Christian higher power or not.

With so many of the contributors not being HIV-positive, how does that change the theme, and the experience for the reader, since the anthology is ostensibly about HIV/AIDS?
Everyone might not be infected [by HIV], but everyone is affected. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know somebody who hasn’t been affected by HIV in the past thirty plus years. The contributors from Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, it’s prevalent there. They had family members who were infected and died. They didn’t like the experience of how family handled the transition of their loved ones. So they’ve been longing to say something.

Also, we can’t have a conversation about HIV and not include everyone. We can’t have a conversation without the people who are HIV-negative right now. It’s important for all of us to be in this relationship and this dialogue together. It’s good to understand that people who are not positive want to share something with those who are positive, something uplifting.

In your intro, you cite Joseph Beam and Essex Hemphill and their efforts in the 1980s to publish the perspectives of Black gay/bi men. And you also include the Denver Principles, another text that calls for self-determination of people who are HIV-positive to be involved in their own advocacy.
The folks who have been around for a while, among the people who purchased it, said it’s amazing that I included the Denver Principles. Because we don’t remind ourselves enough about that time in history. But that time is now. How we need to be treated and deserve to be treated is now.

When Essex Hemphill and Marlon Riggs and Joseph Beam were writing, they wrote because they absolutely had to tell their story. They were in the space that they probably believed they weren’t going to live for very long. That created the need for self-determination, to tell their own stories.

Did that self-determination influence your decision to self-publish, rather than shop it around?FRONT COVER (1)web

I decided to self-publish from the beginning. Part of it was the fickleness with publishing and what people want and don’t want and people believing that there might not be a big enough market for this. With self-publishing I don’t have a marketing team behind me. This is to culturally spark other people who have something to say.

I’m already working on other projects, a memoir and other anthologies. I’m working on a book of voices of heterosexual men who are positive. We don’t hear enough about them. I’m collecting stories for an anthology of women who are positive regardless of where they live in the world. If we don’t tell our own story we will be at the mercy of other people telling it for us or not telling it at all.
My first career was as a librarian. I know how to put a book together. I know what I wanted it to look like. Even the pieces like [renowned photographer] Duane Cramer [A&U, May 2013] doing the back jacket. The cover is by Javaka Steptoe, an award-winning children’s book editor. I had a twenty-year relationship with him in my time as a children’s librarian and I knew he would get it. I just told him the title. I knew the type style. I knew a gift page had to be in it, so people who are not positive could purchase it and give it to people who are.

You don’t have a marketing team. How are you promoting this?
My biggest tool is Facebook. I’ve had some interest from a playwright who wants to create a play from the anthology. I’m talking with a professor who wants the book included in her curricula. That will help stretch the reach of the book, and, once it’s in people’s hands, people will [click] “share,” I hope. And I was recently at Howard University at the International Stigma Conference and I shared two poems from the book. I’m using the social network I have to really push it out.

Five Servings of Cornbread
Selections from Cornbread, Fish and Collard Greens: Prayers, Poems & Affirmations for People Living with HIV/AIDS, edited by Khafre Kujichagulia Abif

Wholeness

God, I used to think to be whole I had to be what others
wanted me to be; that I had to wear my hair in ways
others liked, that I had to dress in a style that others found
attractive and appealing, and that I had to speak and act
in ways that others found acceptable. In other words, my
feeling of wholeness was tied to how others viewed and felt
about me.

I have since come to learn that wholeness comes from You
and only You, and wholeness can only be felt and enjoyed
from the inside out; not the other way around.

I pray for Your children to experience wholeness, I pray that
all my friends and family will someday know what it means
and feels like to be whole. I especially pray that those who
are not whole would cease their desire to make others feel
anything less than whole—and loved.

I pray we become more like You!

This is my prayer.

In the name of Jesus,

Amen!

—Rev. Nazim B. Fakir

You Are The Brave

You are the brave who do not break.
It’s reported that one out of every three black MSM are positive.
You are the brave who do not break.
I’ve revisited my sexual experiences from the past years.
You are the brave who do not break.
Dismiss physical symptoms altogether.
You are the brave who do not break.
Recognizing your fear from the usual amount of anxiety.
You are the brave who do not break.
So this is what a panic attack feels like.
You are the brave who do not break.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the results yet.
You are the brave who do not break.
I returned to the clinic two weeks later.
You are the brave who do not break
Sitting in the waiting room,
You are the brave who do not break.
“This is it, I’m HIV positive.”
You are the brave who do not break.
Still here twenty-­four years later.
You and I are the brave who do not break.

—Khafre Kujichagulia Abif

While He is Knitting You Together

All this time, you were in God’s mind.
He knew you were coming, but I didn’t.
And He knew my heart longed for you.
And here you are, so busy growing!

Your little heart and its secret pumping
still has so much work to do. You are
folded in your mother, hidden inside her,
as God has carried me throughout my life.

What I want for you, my precious blessing,
is you never doubt God made you in love.

I am impatient—I so want to see you.
But I will be staying busy too.
I’m praying that you will come to know
the God who has always known and loved you.

—Catherine Zickgraf

Purpose
inspired by Ephesians 1

I had an epiphany that my life isn’t meant for me
This struggle is destiny for the message I must speak.
I had an epiphany that this year is the year where I catch all
tears,
block all fears, and make dreams come true!
I had a dream that things are just as they seem,
but I come in between and mend all seams and heal all scars
by running the longest yard of my life to end your strife.
I had an epiphany that your problems where meant for me
because
I was manifested, trialed, and tested to bear the woes of the
weak,
allowing all to turn the other cheek that once was slapped,
knocked down,
scared, left helpless, weak and broken. I speak for the
unspoken.

—Shalanta R. Wright

The Fight

This fight has but begun,
will continue for life
until I’m defeated
I’ll not surrender to strife.

Fighting each battle
one day at a time
with the help of true soul mates
forever entwined.

Times will be good,
and times will be bad
but together one hopes
it won’t be so sad.

I’ll fight for my life,
trust in my soul,
have faith in love,
and hopefully grow old.

The support you bring
enables my courage.
Together we’ll beat this
of that I am certain

We will fight for hope
and hope for life.
There will be no surrender
in the fight for life.

—Denis J. Murphy

Cornbread, Fish, and Collard Greens is available in print and ebook. It can be ordered on Amazon, on Barnes and Noble, and Author House.
The Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/CornbreadFishCollardGreens.

Larry Buhl writes A&U’s monthly Hep Talk column.