Acts of Kindness
A Reflection on the Writing and Activism of Craig G. Harris
by Chael Needle
Introduced as a supplement to local Albany paper, Metroland, Art & Understanding,the magazine founded by David Waggoner, sought to archive literary and artistic responses to AIDS. The archival aspect became part of the magazine’s mission because writers, artists, and activists were dying from opportunistic infections and other conditions related to AIDS, and yet, by the light of candle-bright vigils, some of them found enough energy to create, using the time they had left.
And some were creative in more ways than one—some were not only powerful writers but also powerful activists and advocates, outside of and within institutions. I want to focus on the twining of the two modes of expression because in today’s social media landscape, arguably the dominant way we connect with others, we can easily participate in the displacement of action by words. Social media and television news punditry seems inundated by talk, talk, talk—but where’s the walk? Thoroughly reflect and thoroughly discuss, yes, but then we need to act.
Words can sometimes be action—the performative coming out (adding #MeToo to a post, for example)—but mostly words are used to express ideas, experiences, knowledge. But knowledge needs to be translated into action if the world is to truly change for the better. And by change, I mean there needs to be an improved material difference in the lives of people in need.
Someone who was adept at words and action, who enjoined them in a marriage of equals, and tapped their ability to dazzle circuits of power, was Craig G. Harris.
His work first appeared in the Winter 1992 issue of Art & Understanding—a poem, an essay, posthumous publication.
His poem, “No Private Matter,” a mediation on the union of two men, ends:
the closing couplets of a sonnet,
the lingering hint of costly cologne,
the tongued Pentecostal flames
is not incubated in isolation
it achieves fullness
in the loosely knotted
casement of community.
His essay, “Homily,” had been delivered to the Sunday congregation at the Church of St. Mark the Evangelist in New York City on October 7, 1990. In one part of his homily, he describes his educational workshop during the just-concluding 2nd Annual Harlem Week of Prayer. Sent to the Bahá’í Center, he was met with ten members who had come to workshop unprepared to learn about HIV/AIDS but instead to pray for “AIDS victims.” For the congregation, Harris cleverly flips the script on this politically incorrect term:
“In New York City alone, there have been 17,413 reported AIDS cases among African Americans and Latinos/as. They are Gay men. They are IV drug users. They are heterosexual men. They are heterosexual women. They are children under the age of 13. They are our co-workers. They are our fellow parishioners. They are our friends. They are our family members. They are children of God who are sick. They are children of God who are suffering. They are children of God, this time coming in the form of our African American and Latino brothers and sisters—17,413 strong—and they are bringing us a message.
“They are not AIDS victims. They are simply people who struggle daily with the manifestations of Human Immunodeficiency Virus infections. But we will be the AIDS victims if we continue to ridicule and torture and resist hearing the message which is being sent through these children of God.”
Harris had a powerful voice, whether as a poet, an orator, or an activst. He disrupted the first American Public Health Association (APHA) plenary on HIV/AIDS to protest the exclusion of any people of color, taking the stage and proclaiming, “I will be heard.”
He fought for his communities—African American, LGBTQ+, people living with HIV/AIDS.
He was a member of Other Countries, the black gay writers collective founded in 1986 and based in New York City. As a journalist, he wrote for The Advocate, the New York Native, and Ebony, among other publications. His short fiction and poetry are included in anthologies such as In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, Gay Life, New Men New Minds: Breaking Male Tradition, The Road Before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets, and Tongues Untied.
In 1986, Craig G. Harris, a son of the South Bronx and Vassar grad, served as the coordinator for the first conference on HIV in the black community, organized by the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, an organization based in Washington, D.C. In the late eighties, he served as the executive director of the Minority Task Force on AIDS in Harlem and also worked for GMHC, where he became Assistant Coordinator of Prevention Education in 1989.
He was working on an unpublished volume of AIDS-related poetry, Hope Against Hope, when he died in November 1991 at age thirty-three.
Harris reminds me of the important interplay that praxis demands—thoughts (words set down, discussion and dialogue) and action, energized by love that breaks the mold. It was certainly evident that Harris loved his brothers and sisters, his romantic partners, his communities, his family, his higher power, and himself.
It’s a lesson in love that we should take to heart in today’s disaffected world, where cruelty seems more handy than compassion—Craig G. Harris and his purposeful acts of kindness.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.