Campaign billboard, AIDS, it's what you do, not who you are.

Review of To Make the Wounded Whole: The African American Struggle Against HIV/AIDS by Dan Royles

As we approach the eleventh month of the COVID-19 pandemic, the death rates for Black, Indigenous, and people of color are disproportionately high and rising daily. The national response to the virus echoes the long-term HIV/AIDS pandemic that continues today to rattle the Black world. Dan Royle’s monumental new book, To Make the Wounded Whole: The African American Struggle Against HIV/AIDS, speaks directly to the ways that Black people have struggled against medical neglect, supported each other, and created space for the most marginalized for over three decades.

Studies on the HIV/AIDS crisis in the US rarely discuss transnational efforts in the fight against the virus. To Make the Wounded Whole examines national and international Black responses to the HIV/AIDS crisis from the 1980s to the present. Royles centers on Black activism to change the narratives of the pandemic, using sources ranging from oral histories to Black gay magazines. He engages conversations with scholars across Black and LGBT+ Studies, histories of HIV/AIDS activism, and Black Internationalism. Black activists fought against “injuries of inequity” that produced poor health outcomes by using culturally specific messaging, using Black organizations to spread information, and connecting their struggle against the pandemic to a diasporic fight against inequality. He highlights Black religious fights against the crisis as well, strange bedfellows for the Black gay community, who often emphasized Blackness over queerness in their activism. The struggle against HIV/AIDS was fought alongside the struggle for Black “authenticity.” Black people engaged in HIV/AIDS activism transformed the material conditions of Black people by providing lifesaving information about HIV/AIDS.

Cover of To Make the Wounded Whole
Cover of To Make the Wounded Whole. (UNC Press)

Royles’s seven chapters consist of overlapping case studies that engage the various ways Black people sought to address the crisis. The role of Black women in the dissemination of information, development of care networks, and continuation of the fight against the pandemic is prominent in his text. From Rashidah Hassan, a Black Muslim nurse and founder of the Philidelphia based organization Blacks Educating Blacks about Sexual Health Issues (BEBSHI), to immuniologist and activist Pernessa Seele founding The Balm In Gilead and the “Harlem Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS” to address the HIV/AIDS crisis globally, to Dazon Dixon Diallo’s Atlanta-based SisterLove, which focuses on Black women’s public health, Black women’s activist work is highlighted in his text. Royles gives each of these women and their organizations a chapter of their own, shifting conventional beliefs of activism away from the white male archetype.

Royles begins in Philadelphia, the seat of gay activism since the Annual Reminder demonstrations of the mid-1960s. Here, Hassan created BEBSHI in response to systemic discrimination of Black people by medical professionals. She observed that medical officials treated Black gay patients with the virus more as specimens than as humans. She sought to engage the entire Black community, often on the outskirts of the city, to reach beyond those who were “out” and to focus on “racial solidarity over sexual difference.” African activists sought to replicate BEBSHI’s culturally specific programming for their own communities. Hassan targeted efforts at the Black community, the highest population of new cases in Philly; but, because it ignored the largely white gayborhood downtown, even Black gay people saw BEBSHI’s actions as homophobic.

National Task Force on AIDS Prevention, Team from 1991, Alan McCord, Gavin Morrow Hall, Steve Feedback, Al Cunningham, Juan Rodriguez, James Fondeux, and Reggie Williams.
NTFAP Team from 1991, Alan McCord, Gavin Morrow Hall, Steve Feedback, Al Cunningham, Juan Rodriguez, James Fondeux, and Reggie Williams. (Photo by Michael Emery/Advocated for Gay Men of Color)

Chapters two and three focus on Black gay men’s responses to the crisis. The second chapter centers on Reggie Williams, leader of the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention (NTFAP), and the San Francisco-based Gay Men of Color Consortium (GMOCC), a multicultural organization which “developed cooperative strategies” through culturally specific methods to address HIV/AIDS prevention. Chapter three interrogates the ways Black gay men claimed a Black gay identity in African and US history in a fight against internalized racism and homophobia. Darius Bost’s Evidence of Being argues the Black Gay Cultural Renaissance was the artistic response to oppressive systems of the 1980s; Royles extends this examination of the renaissance’s influence on HIV/AIDS resistance and the development of organizations like Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD), which focused on Black gay men’s identity and self-esteem.[1] These chapters reveal the ways Black gay men sought to address the crisis intracommunally to provide mutual support to each other. However, grants from federal and private organizations, staffing issues, and the HIV/AIDS crisis itself had devastating effects on these organizations, leading to the end of the grassroots efforts and, ultimately, the organizations themselves.

During the HIV/AIDS pandemic, conspiracy theories spread about the virus among Black people globally who sought alternative methods of treatment. Royles recently pointed out that many of these conspiracy theories have found new life today as some Black people have made connections between the COVID-19 vaccine and medical experiments on Black people such as the Tuskegee Experiment. In response to both the COVID-19 vaccine and antiretrovirals in the 1980s and 1990s, Black people have suggested alternatives to medical interventions, such as “better nutrition, good exercise and a low stress level” (108); such suggestions are important but also open people up to the effects of the disease or early death. Royles demonstrates that this rightful skepticism is alleviated with a community-specific approach.

Chapter four discusses how Black Americans responded to the HIV/AIDS pandemic by highlighting Kemron, the Kenyan AIDS drug, as a treatment. Royles’s inclusion of both the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) commitment to promoting African remedies to the virus and the existence of Kemron is an important intervention in the historiography of HIV/AIDS activism and resurgent Black activism of the early 1990s. Despite their beliefs in conspiracy theories and homophobic rhetoric regarding the spread of the virus, their commitment to fight global anti-Blackness, promote African medical inventions, and provide economic stimulus to the diaspora was lauded. However, Black gay and lesbian activists successfully pushed the leader of the the NOI, Dr. Abdul Alim Muhammad, to contend with his homophobic statements. While Kemron turned out to be non-effective, this attempt to promote Black excellence deepens the history of Black resistance against HIV/AIDS.

Chapter five centers on Pernessa Seele and The Balm in Gilead’s work helping Black churches address the stigma of homosexuality and drug use in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The organization—named for the same Black spiritual the book’s title comes from—created a network of Black churches and successfully lobbied for federal funding to expand its outreach across the nation and the African diaspora. Royles argues that American governmental officials saw HIV/AIDS funding as cultural imperialism and as a way to spread faith-based “compassionate conservatism.” Seele saw her role, in contrast to the NOI, as providing humanitarian aid to African nations. The Balm in Gilead continues to operate in the US and Tanzania but the emphasis on HIV/AIDS prevention took precedence over the acceptance of homosexuality when the program transferred overseas.

In chapter six, Royles returns to Philly to highlight how ACT UP Philadelphia transforms our previous understandings of HIV/AIDS organizing. ACT UP Philadelphia’s tactics persisted and shifted into the early 2000s as its middle-class white members began to actively recruit from Black affected communities. The new young members—poor, subjects of incarceration, or former drug users—connected their struggle with those across the African diaspora and found solidarity with people of color globally who were victims of neoliberal and capitalistic policies. The group’s interracial and intergenerational disagreements ultimately ended the organization.

Royles ends his text with SisterLove, an important organization focused on Black women’s fight for Black women’s public health. Founder Dixon Diallo saw the struggle against the crisis as a global fight, as Black cis and trans women are some of the most vulnerable yet underserved populations in both HIV prevention and AIDS care. SisterLove’s intersectional work on women’s rights, sexuality, and reproductive health engages “the ways that power work[s] along many different axes.” Dixon Diallo’s recognition that both region and nation play equally important roles that must equally be interrogated. Royles celebrates SisterLove’s efforts to change not only health outcomes but the economic and social inequities that increase Black women’s risk of HIV/AIDS.

Royles’s conclusion reflects on how studying Black responses to the HIV/AIDS crisis points us towards “a more radical vision of AIDS politics,” outside of the traditional biomedical framework to remedy “the deep inequities that have shaped” our world. He meditates on the diverse ways Black activism against HIV/AIDS—grassroots organizing, faith leadership, policy makers, poor, incarcerated, middle-class  people from the global North and South—continues to manifest itself and provides a pathway towards combating climate change and global capitalism.

It may seem this review offers more applause than critique but To Make the Wounded Whole and the accompanying oral history archival project are masterful achievements. Undergraduate and graduate students, twentieth century historians, scholars of LGBTQ history, historians of medicine, activists, and scholars of the African diaspora would all benefit from this timely text.

Notes

    1. Bost, Darius. Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence (University of Chicago Press, 2019).

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