Teaching HIV and Black Queer Studies During Crisis

Essex Hemphill. Photo: Poetry Foundation.
Essex Hemphill. Photo: Poetry Foundation.

A common phrase we hear currently, “these unprecedented times,” is often deployed as a shorthand refrain to convey the total impact of a pandemic that has shifted society and impacted culture. During the spring semester of 2020, institutions of higher education reacted to an outbreak of the novel corona virus, proven to disproportionately affect Black communities and lay claim to over 100,000 lives in the US alone. COVID-19, the disease caused by this virus, has forced those of us teaching in Humanities to shift, if not our expectations of students, then at least our pedagogy. ‘These unprecedented times’ required that I, along with every other educator, revisit my syllabi, to be sure. But I found that the subject matter and pedagogy of my Black Queer Feelings course reflected the ways previous generations worked through other ‘unprecedented times’ and demonstrated the necessity of a humanities education that has at its core Black art, theory, and studies.

Due to COVID-19 and the abrupt transition from face-to-face learning to remote teaching, I realized how well suited Black queer theory is for dealing with the unprecedented. From the imagination of theorists and artists who lived and died in many catastrophes throughout history, crisis management is literally built into this pedagogy. More precisely, the legacy of Black lives in crisis bears upon the experiences of my students and COVID-19 as they quarantined, cared for loved ones, and met the demands of the institutions that conscript them. Below, I reflect on teaching about one crisis – that of Black queer life – while another one arose. The artistry and human toll of HIV/AIDS, as a crisis, which to this day impacts Black LGBTQ+ communities most acutely, belies the ruse of claiming the problems of our current cultural climate as wholly unprecedented. As such, those of us teaching in the wake of this newer pandemic would do well to consider the struggle of Black queer peoples as pedagogically significant.

I began Black Queer Feelings hailing it as a space for thinking critically about affect as a productive enterprise for theorizing humanity on the margins of society. I said so with my chest, making the claim that this is a class centering Blackness, queer sexuality, and the culture of those who we might identify within the bosom of Black queer sensibility. While there was no way I could predict COVID-19, it was a lucky coincidence that the class discussed the politics embedded within the poetry of, for one, AIDS activist Essex Hemphill while face-to-face teaching was still in effect. His poem, “Heavy Breathing” (1992), for example, represents the existential questions brought upon by the decimation of Black gay communities due to HIV/AIDS.1 It reads,

At the end of heavy breathing

who will be responsible

for the destruction of human love?

Who are the heartless

sons of b*tches

sucking blood from dreams

as they are born?

Who has the guts

to come forward

and testify?

Who will save

our sweet world?” (15)

The words of Hemphill provided a historical backdrop for the legacy and power of Black queer feeling as a methodology for communicating a politics when things seem impossible. The testimonial qualities of his poetry speak to the dehumanization of Black gay men as the objects of sexual fetish for white gays and whose decimation by HIV/AIDS concentrated the deleterious effects of race, class, ability, and homophobia. And where Hemphill’s work served as a lesson on this fraught history, contemporary Black queer poet Danez Smith’s work showed my students the ways “Heavy Breathing” is a political project that has yet to reach completion. Smith’s poem, “Recklessly” (2017), dedicated to Michael Johnson who served time in prison for exposing a consenting white sexual partner to HIV, posits that

the bloodprison leads to prison

the jail doubles as quarantine

you got the suga? the clap? the mumps?

i say mercy, danger, & white boys hear what they want

it was summer & everyone wanted to be in love

i been drankin, i been drankin” (41)

It is unclear if the “bloodprison” in Smith’s poem is Johnson’s Blackness or HIV status but this ambiguity is precisely the point of much of Don’t Call Us Dead. By connecting race, sickness, and prisons, “Recklessly” draws readers’ attention to the demonization and subsequent criminalization of Black sexuality. HIV thus dramatizes the intimate relationship between Black life, the prison industrial complex, and white willful ignorance.

While teaching Black queer studies can expose students to a viewpoint seldom discussed, the real-world stakes within Black queer studies can be challenging to covey for a host of reasons. My goal as an educator is to show that theorizing within and about feelings is, to paraphrase bell hooks, for everyone who is willing to have honest and accountable conversations. However, while teaching Black Queer Feelings at a predominantly white university, I sensed a set of divisions growing among my students: those who came to listen; those who came to perform allyship; and those who came to feel.

Before these divisions became an impasse, I conducted an exercise in which groups of students from each of the aforementioned camps openly dialogued on prompts I created beforehand, an exercise commonly known as a ‘fishbowl’. To one such prompt which read, ‘why is the professor making us do this?,’ a self-identified Black queer student mentioned how isolated they felt even in this class in which non-Black and non-queer voices were given space that led Black queer students to feel de-centered. For Black queer students, the class was a space for them and by one of their own. For them, having to deal with out-group newness of the material besmirched the entire learning enterprise, and they simply retreated inward.

But the aforementioned student had this to say as well: “We had a chance to talk about casual sex,” referring to the week we read adrienne maree brown’s brilliant work Pleasure Activism, “and we dropped the ball, guys.” Many students outside of the fishbowl nodded in agreement. Some looked disappointed in themselves. Others laughed. The contradictions between the two sentiments were rife with nuance and, as an educator, I found this exercise had the effect of airing out the tension and discomfort that is possible when publicly grappling with Black and queer subjectivity. The fishbowl exercise revealed that students who came to listen saw themselves divorced from the issue; others came to be better allies but were scared to mess up in front of those whom they saw this space to be ‘really’ for; and Black queer students were instinctively claiming this object of knowledge as proprietarily theirs, leading them to feel what Jennifer Nash explains as an “exhaustion” particular to Black feminist thinkers. At the end, naming the problem, being present with each other’s discomfort, and valuing one’s humanities education created an environment in which radically open dialogue could be staged in the latter half of the semester.

Opportunities for candid conversations I facilitated during the normal semester were altered after my course transitioned to remote teaching, however, grounding the classroom experience as a space where one’s discomfort, ignorance, or exhaustion is welcome proved invaluable as students’ navigated learning during a crisis. In teaching a course on Black queerness, the first half of which took place in the traditional college classroom and the latter half was online, I learned the value of practicing vulnerability with strangers and in good faith because demonstrating its centrality to my teaching ultimately led to increased student honesty, even when their education became more self-guided. At the end of this semester my students submitted final projects and have gone on to publish about this very topic.2

To take Black queer feelings seriously is to refuse leaving behind the bits of our humanity that were thought to have no place in the hallowed halls of academia. This position becomes even more critical during a pandemic. As university systems weigh the pros and cons of reopening in the fall, educators in the humanities should take stock in the value of an educational experience deeply impacted by the ways any crisis will affect an increasingly diverse student body in ways that are uneven but predictably so.

  1. Hemphill, Essex. Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry. New York, Plume, 1992.
  2. See Fletcher, Leilani. “Queer in Quarantine: The Reality for LGBTQI Students During COVID-19.” Whosoever.org. May 09, 2020. https://whosoever.org/queer-in-quarantine-the-reality-for-lgbtqi-students-during-covid-19/
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William Mosley

William Mosley is Mellon Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities at Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, NC). His forthcoming book project, tentatively titled Tenderness: Black Queer Feeling, Politics, and Intimacy, examines the local and global implications for the study of kinship and diaspora within contemporary hip hop, fiction, and podcasts, theorizing these examples of expressive cultural forms as enactments of tenderness. Follow them on Twitter @willinthehaus.