Reach Back & Bring Forward
Kerrigan Black and the Importance of Our AIDS History
by Chael Needle
I keep knocking my videocassette of Kerrigan Black’s Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: African American Spirituals and the Crisis of AIDS to the floor. It sits on a stack of CDs to the right of my desk and my stretching arm often sends the CDs flying, too. I apologize to Nhojj’s Soul Comfort, Everything But the Girl’s Idlewild, Sylvester’s Mighty Real: Greatest Dance Hits and several others as I collect them off of the not-very-soft tight-knit carpet. I never play them anymore—my computers no longer have slots for CDs. I never play the Kerrigan Black performance anymore, either—no videocassette player. Even if I had transferred the video recording to DVD, as I have with my home movies (the only moving pictures of my mother that I have), I have not been able to watch DVDs until recently, when my roommate retrieved his player from deep storage. Old technology and the treasures it guards often feels like a high school friend on Facebook who has unfollowed me—there, and potentially accessible, but perhaps lost to time.
That’s not to say that, with enough effort, we cannot reach back into the twilight of the past, hold hands with our Polaroid ghosts, and bring them forward into the morning light of the present. Making history, especially for those who are marginalized within or erased from the official records, is often a salvage operation. Often under the cover of night. A graveyard shift on a surrealistic pillow—that’s when memory has enough peace and quiet to animate our beloved friends, family members and lovers, like shadow play on the bedside wall.
Reaching back and bringing forward is necessary—not only to honor those we may have lost but to appreciate how the present connects to the past in all of its meaningful ways. That appreciation formed one of the aims of Kerrigan Black’s Swing Low video essay—situating the impact of AIDS on African-American lives within a geneaology of song, community and resistance that stretches back to the times of American slavery and before. Like Sonia Sanchez’s epic poem, Does Your House Have Lions?, which incorporates the voices of the ancestors (and present-day family members) in her elegy to her brother who died from AIDS-related causes in 1981, or like Marlon Riggs, whose film Tongues Untied expresses, amid its many theses, a sustenance drawn from activists like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as his black gay male compatriots of today, Black seeks to represent HIV/AIDS through an Afrocentric historical lens.
A cursory glance at his biography and you will understand why we need to keep Black’s name, work and legacy alive.
A Stanford grad with a Master’s in folklore from UC Berkley (his thesis explored the meaning of African American blues and spirituals), the Chicago-born ethnomusicologist and scholar composed and performed music and, as an educator, he developed a one-man show, Tryin’ to Get Home: A History of African American Song, a journey that takes viewers from spirituals to ragtime to Motown to rap (“Ya Gotta Know Somethin’ ‘Bout History So the World Isn’t Just a Mystery!”). He brought his educational show to schools and other venues. With his partner, Larry Cross, whom I interviewed in the early 2000s for A&U, he started a production company called Heebie Jeebie Music and together they committed Tryin’ and Swing Low to video. He also appears in Tongues Untied in a doo-wop performance of “Come Out Tonight” as part of the Lavender Lovelights (Blackberri, Gene Garth, Arvid Williams). Black strengthened his communities as a member of Black Gay Men United, a discussion group founded in the Bay Area in the late 1980s.
He strengthened his communities in other ways. In a safer sex video, Kerrigan Black performs the song “Children of the Night” (written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed). Al Cunningham, who wrote the video and at the time served as media coordinator for the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention, has posted “Children” on YouTube and wrote: “This video was produced by the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention in 1991, to promote safer sex among men of color who have sex with men, especially condom use. It was considered ‘too sexually explicit’ for release; no one was willing to underwrite the cost of licensing and distribution.” The YoutTube post is a video taped off of a video screen, as if the only way to make a copy was to film the TV, and it reminded me how tenuous our grasp is on the past. We must ask: What is outside of the AIDS archive, not part of our official AIDS history? We must look for what has been overlooked, stories that have not been told, materials that have not been digitized.
We must continue to do the work of history, reaching back and bringing forward those individuals of African descent who put their voices on the record about HIV/AIDS. Reach back and bring forward those who lived and loved.
Some time after the turn of the century, he NAMES Project/AIDS Memorial Quilt discovered it had a scarcity of panels—fewer than 400 out of 47,000 panels—representing individuals of African descent, who, in America, have been disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. In 2003, the project created the Call My Name program to promote inclusion of black individuals who had died of AIDS-related causes. Worskhops were set up and hundreds of new panels were sewn and added.
Sheryl Lee Ralph spoke at The NAMES Project’s Call My Name AIDS Memorial Quilt event on the Washington Mall during the 2012 International AIDS Conference and I recorded her speech, which reflected on the early days of HIV/AIDS, filled with animosity toward those who lived with the virus:
“…That was thirty years ago in America. But it wasn’t until people found the exact opposite of that great hate and discovered deep, endless, uncompromising, unconditional love to remember their family, their friends, their sons, their fathers, their nephews, their daughters. So, today, we’re here to call some names and lay and dedicate some new names to the panel ’cause in thirty years this disease has changed, but it has not changed in its test of our humanity and how we discover who it is that we hate or who it is that we love and at some point through this disease we will realize that we must love each and every one of us because if one of us suffers we all suffer. And had we cared more thirty years ago when gay people suffered and died under stigma, shame and silence, we would not be where we are right now, where/when thirty years ago just a little bit south of where we stand there are HIV infection rates here in Washington, D.C., that rival certain parts of sub-Saharan Africa. And that is unacceptable.”
The test of our humanity continues and it is forged not only in whom we love and nurture today but whom we hold dear in our history.
Kerrigan Black died of AIDS-related causes in 1993. Only thirty-nine. Shortly after, his father, Timuel D. Black, Jr., a civil rights activist and historian, established the Timuel Kerrigan Black Scholarship at his son’s grammar school, the Charles Kozminski Academy in Chicago. As of this writing, his father is still alive (age 102) and still putting the history of Chicago’s African-American residents down on paper. Well, also, in pixels. Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black, by Timuel D. Black, Jr., as told to Susan Klonsky, edited by Bart Schultz, is available from Northwestern University Press as an e-book, ready to be downloaded to your device.
Watch “Children of the Night” by logging on to:
https://bit.ly/3pXpY8i. Check out Tongues Untied for “Come Out Tonight.”
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Each month, he honors thirty years of A&U’s publication in this column. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.