Black artists have always led AIDS activism. This tribute wants to give them credit

Black artists have always led AIDS activism. This tribute wants to give them credit

3:11pm May 27, 2022
Robert E. Penn (L) and B.Michael Hunter (R) at the OutWrite Conference in Boston, October 1993.
Robert E. Penn (L) and B.Michael Hunter (R) at the OutWrite Conference in Boston, October 1993.
Johnny Manzon-Santos
  • Robert E. Penn (L) and B.Michael Hunter (R) at the OutWrite Conference in Boston, October 1993.

    Robert E. Penn (L) and B.Michael Hunter (R) at the OutWrite Conference in Boston, October 1993.

    Johnny Manzon-Santos

  • Still from Ira Sachs's film Last Address.

    Still from Ira Sachs's film Last Address.

    Last Address

  • "Last Address" Tribute Walk in Times Square, at 328 W. 44th St, the last address of Reinaldo Arenas.

    "Last Address" Tribute Walk in Times Square, at 328 W. 44th St, the last address of Reinaldo Arenas.

    Alex Fialho

  • Artist submission: "Lenox Lounge" (Before) 2010 Harlem, NYC.

    Artist submission: "Lenox Lounge" (Before) 2010 Harlem, NYC.

    Ruben Natal-San Miguel

In his 2010 short documentary Last Address, filmmaker Ira Sachs streamed images of the exteriors of the houses, apartments, and lofts where New York City artists had lived at the time of their deaths from AIDS-related complications. When Alex Fialho saw the elegiac film as a young curator in his mid-20s, it struck him as a powerful meditation on loss, and a statement about the ongoing presence of these artists in memory and history.

Having just moved to New York, Fialho says he was inspired to visit these sites himself. "Keith Haring's address at 542 LaGuardia Place, Felix Gonzales-Torres's address at London Terrace on W. 23rd Street," Fialho recalls, "That personal ritual of remembrance really gave me a sense of the lived experience of these artists who I greatly admired."

As programs director of the nonprofit arts organization Visual AIDS (a position now held by Kyle Croft), Fialho wanted to make that experience public, so he started approaching cinemas and museum partners to hold "Last Address" tribute walks in neighborhoods across the city, events to collectively memorialize key AIDS-related sites and recognize the ongoing presence, contributions, and impact of queer artists.

Beginning in 2014, tribute walks took place in the East Village, then Chelsea (2015), the Lower East Side (2016), the West Village (2017), the Meatpacking District (2018), and Times Square (2019). Before the pandemic forced a pause, Fialho says the walks grew from year to year. "At our last event, in Times Square, we had over a hundred people."

When Last Address resumes this year, on Saturday, May 28, the approach will be a little different. The location, Harlem, was suggested by the poet and activist Pamela Sneed, who points out that Black artists have always led AIDS activism, but their losses and contributions have often been overlooked or erased from AIDS narratives. At the same time, Sneed notes that Harlem's queer legacy hasn't been fully recognized, "You would go to Lenox Lounge, and even though you knew it was a Black queer spot, you wouldn't think of it as such."

Blake Paskal, who's affiliated with Visual AIDS and the Studio Museum in Harlem, says both organizations have been planning the 2022 tribute walk for a year. In addition to conventional archival research, they sought input from Black LGBTQ+ elders such as Antionettea "Dreadie" Etienne, Luna Luis Ortiz, and Lee Soulja Simmons, and used oral histories, conversations, personal correspondence, and photographs to document people and places of creativity, community, and care.

As in past years, Harlem's Last Address tribute walk will kick off with a screening of Sachs' film, which will be followed by opening remarks from Sneed. Doorstep tributes will commence along an established route, led by those who have a close relationship with the site or artist.

Ballroom icons Tracey "Africa" Norman and David Ultima will speak at the former site of the Elks Lodge, one of the central locations in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, paying tribute to a venue that fostered identity, community, and support for people living with HIV/AIDS. Historian Michael Henry Adams will speak at the former address of Lenox Lounge, where greats such as Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane once performed, spotlighting how the iconic jazz club also became a significant LGBTQ+ social spot in the early 2000s.

The writer Robert E. Penn will also honor their late friend B.Michael Hunter outside the home in Malcolm Shabazz Gardens where he died in 2001 with his husband Johnny and other loved ones at his side. Penn and Hunter became friends as members of Other Countries, a close-knit collective of Black gay writers founded by Daniel Garrett in 1986. Also known as Bert, B.Michael Hunter edited the group's work for publication, including the 1993 Lamda Literary award-winning anthology "Sojourner: Black Gay Voices In the Age of AIDS."

Penn says they were particularly impressed by B.Michael Hunter's 1991 poem "Bridgetown." "He was basically talking about intersectionality 20 years before it became a term that lots of people recognize and can discuss," Penn says. Speaking of his nom de plume, they explain, "It makes sense that B.Michael is 'Be Michael': Be Michael to the fullest you can be, be Michael authentically, be Michael without needing to explain yourself."

Saturday's route will stretch for more than a mile, yet Sneed says it only represents a fraction of the history that Visual AIDS and the Studio Museum have mapped. She describes the tribute walk as a starting point for mourning loss and recovering legacy.

Daonne Huff, Director of Public Programs and Community Engagement explains, "For a lot of people, when we think of Harlem we think of art, when we perhaps think of queer art histories it stops in the Harlem Renaissance. I think this project was an opportunity to really spotlight the fact that queer creatives never left."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This weekend in New York, an arts organization is once again hosting what is called the Last Address tribute walk. The Last Address - it allows people to pay tribute to artists lost to AIDS by visiting the last places they lived. Allyson McCabe reports.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: In past years, Alex Fialho of the arts organization Visual AIDS has hosted Last Address tribute walks in Greenwich Village, Chelsea and Times Square. On Saturday, May 28, Last Address will come to Harlem at the suggestion of poet and activist Pamela Sneed.

PAMELA SNEED: The official face had always been ACT UP. You know what I mean?

MCCABE: Although AIDS disproportionately impacted Black communities and Black artists have always led activism, Sneed says their losses and contributions have often been overlooked in AIDS narratives. At the same time, Harlem's queer legacy has been half hidden in the shadows.

SNEED: You would go to Lenox Lounge, and even though you know it's like a queer spot - you know, it was a Black queer spot - you wouldn't think of it as such.

MCCABE: That dual erasure was the catalyst for a collaboration between Visual AIDS and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Blake Paskal, who is affiliated with both organizations, says over the past year they have collected a trove of oral histories, personal letters and photographs documenting people and places of creativity, community and care.

BLAKE PASKAL: As, like, a Black queer person myself, Harlem is, like, really special and important to me. It is connected to this thing of how queerness is very much a part of the fabric of the community of Harlem, but it always kind of exists below the surface a little bit, and it's not entirely visible.

MCCABE: At this weekend's tribute walk, icons Tracey Africa and David Ultima will speak at the former site of the Elks Lodge, a center of Harlem's 1980s ballroom community, which also provided support for people living with HIV/AIDS. Robert E. Penn will honor their late friend, the writer B. Michael Hunter.

ROBERT E PENN: One of the things that really impressed me about Bert as I grew to know him better during the '90s was a poem that he wrote that was basically talking about intersectionality 20 years before it became a term that lots of people recognize and can discuss.

MCCABE: Penn and Hunter were both members of Other Countries, a collective of Black gay writers founded in 1986. Penn says Hunter's nom de plume, B. Michael, was a reflection of his approach to life.

PENN: That makes sense that B. Michael is being Michael, being Michael to the fullest you can be, be Michael authentically, be Michael without needing to explain yourself.

MCCABE: The walk will stretch for more than a mile, yet it only represents a fraction of the unseen connections that are finally being brought to light, says Daonne Huff, director of public programs at the Studio Museum.

DAONNE HUFF: For a lot of people, when we think of Harlem, we think of art. When we perhaps think of, like, queer art histories, it stops in the Harlem Renaissance. And I think this project was an opportunity to really spotlight the fact that queer creatives never left.

MCCABE: Last Address will be livestreamed on the museum's Instagram, and it's built an online resource page with an expansive interactive map where visitors are invited to share their own stories. Pamela Sneed, who inspired the walk, sees it as a starting point for an inclusive history to be written across New York and around the world.

SNEED: Let's go to Newark. You know, Let's go to Watts. You know what I'm saying? Like, let's go through Soweto.

MCCABE: And it doesn't just stop there.

SNEED: You know, in the AIDS narrative and the official one that's being, you know, sort of promoted, like, women were not in that story, right? Part of my drive, too, was to also say that I'm a woman, you know, I'm a lesbian, and, like, women were impacted by HIV/AIDS, too. And so hopefully this will be the beginning of, like, freeing some narratives as well.

MCCABE: For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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