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Yasmin Nair, Windy City Times AIDS: War Diaries: An Interview with Ernest Hardy
by Yasmin Nair, Windy City Times
2011-05-11

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Ernest Hardy's influential and outspoken body of work includes fiction, poetry, film and music criticism that has appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, LA Weekly, Millennium Film Journal, Rolling Stone, the Source, Vibe, and the LA Times.

A Sundance Fellow who currently resides in Los Angeles, Hardy is a contributor to the reference books 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die; Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide; and Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey. His 2006 volume of criticism, Blood Beats Vol. 1, which he has described as "melanin-based, pro-people-of-color, pro-queer, and unabashedly-leftist," won the PEN/Beyond Margins award in 2007.

Most recently, Hardy co-edited, with Tisa Bryant, the Lambda Literary Award-nominated anthology War Diaries, about the experiences of LGBTQs within the African diaspora, with an emphasis on their relationship to HIV. Hardy is working on Blood Beats Vol. 3, his third volume of cultural criticism. He will be in town May 12 for a talk at DePaul, and we interviewed him via email.

Yasmin Nair: Could you tell us what impelled the creation of War Diaries—what historical moments, what kinds of narratives did you think needed to be examined?

Ernest Hardy: War Diaries came about simply because Pato Hebert [ senior education associate with the Global Forum on MSM & HIV and at AIDS Project Los Angeles ] reached out to Tisa Bryant and me and asked if we'd be interested in co-editing a literary anthology for APLA. APLA publishes several literary lines ( available free of charge ) that target queer youth, the Latino community, and so on—communities that historically have fallen through the cracks or been poorly served in terms of HIV and AIDS outreach services. He told us they were putting together their latest anthology targeting the African American male segment of the LGBT community, with an emphasis on HIV/AIDS in that community, and asked if we'd be interested in co-editing.

Tisa and I both immediately said yes. We knew we wanted the collection to have a wide-lens focus because the issue of HIV/AIDS and the various struggles around them exist in a layered context of racism, classism, cultural redlining within the LGBT community, homophobia in all its permutations ( large-scale societal; within the African American community; internalized, etc. ) , as well as the huge issue of violence directed toward LGBT folk in horrifying ways and proportions. Issues of depression, suicide and bullying are major components at work in the community. ( The volume is dedicated to the memories of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover and Jaheem Herrera, two pre-teen boys of color who committed suicide within less than two weeks of each other in 2009, well before the recent wave of queer teen suicides. )

We wanted work that encompassed all of that, on a very large scale. But we also wanted work that was playful, erotic, multi-generational, international in scope, written by lesbians as well as gay/SGL men, and ultimately celebratory of our lives. We wanted to create a time capsule of now, something that captured both the insane tenor and the concrete complexities of the time in which we live. But we also wanted balance. What we didn't want was to create a world mired in gloom, doom and despair because that's very one-note and nowhere near the width and breadth of the realities of Black LGBT folk—neither historically nor in contemporary terms.

YN: In your introduction with Tisa Bryant, you begin with the words, "We're in a war," and go on to expand on that. Did the metaphor/idea of war come to you at the start? Is that what shaped the anthology? Or is it something that emerged as you gathered the materials?

EH: I wish I could give you some dazzling recap of long, theory-driven conversations between us to arrive at the title but the truth is simply that when Deborah Richards' amazing poem "War Diaries ( loose leaf ) " arrived, I turned to Tisa and said, "That's our title." It just fit the work that was already trickling in to us. And then in the cosmic way things like this happen, the rest of the work we received from that point on just sort of naturally fit the title and the narrative that was emerging unforced.

YN: In M.R Daniel's prose piece "Why I Needed You: Max Robinson ( 1939-1988 ) ," she talks about the complex legacy of Max Robinson, expressed most vividly in the words, "He could simultaneously inhabit the postures of pretty-man and bad-ass motherfucker." In "In the life on the down low: where's a black gay man to go?" Keith M. Harris writes about the period of time between Joseph Beam's In the Life, and J.L King's On the Down Low. Others write about the complicated intersections between love and homophobia in Black Jamaican families, and Nimblett's "To the Mother of My Openly Gay Son," asks a woman to never stop loving a child because he is gay. Does War Diaries attempt to draw a portrait of the complicated realities of Black gay life since and in between Robinson, Beam, and J.L King?

EH: That specifically wasn't a conscious decision on our part but I do think it does that. And I'd just like to say that J.L. King, an undeniably noteworthy cultural figure for his charlatan's part in perpetuating that DL nonsense, doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as brilliant, complex and important men like Mr. Beam and Mr. Robinson.

YN: What decisions informed your choice of works for the anthology?

EH: We just wanted good work. It's as simple as that. We wanted quality work—both the visual and the written fare. As I said before, we were after a massive canvas of issues, politics and aesthetics to be represented. And we were thrilled and pleasantly surprised to get poems, short stories, cultural reportage in the form of essays, great photographic work, and experimental writing that anchored the collection in history, that looked forward, and that did such a wonderful job of capturing the complex emotional, psychological and material worlds of Black queer/gay/SGL men around the world today.

YN: Clearly, AIDS manifests itself differently—socially, economically, politically—in the Black queer community than it does in the white queer community, where it is one more chronic disease. How does that manifest itself in the care accessed by Black queers and in the literary representations? Is there a difference?

EH: That's actually a very complex, layered question. To answer the first half of it with any degree of intelligence—before even getting to the question of literary representations—I would have to be much more versed in up-to-date, hard factual data about healthcare services/funding/resources in various arenas, about the real allocation of and discrepancies in those resources, and so on. Even to the casual eye there are obvious fucked up, fatal differences between the healthcare of African Americans and white Americans—though healthcare in this country is abysmal for most people regardless of race. But historically it's always been true that African Americans are horribly served by the medical community/industry ( see both Harriet A. Washington's Medical Apartheid and Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ) , and when you factor in institutional ( and other ) homophobia as well as racism within the queer community, it's a recipe for disaster for the Black queer/SGL community.

I think our literature has long reflected the fallout of that reality, explicitly and implicitly—from the seminal work of people like Essex Hemphill and Assotto Saint up through and including many of the poets in War Diaries. But in my opinion this question, as posed, really needs to be answered with and centered on serious data from studies across disciplines. That's not my field of expertise and I'm uncomfortable speculating. But as I said before, APLA does this kind of literary outreach work because the rates of infection amongst and the levels of treatment for people of color are depressingly and dangerously life threatening, even fatal.

YN: Your addendum is a series of missives from the White House regarding its commitment to LGBT issues. Why as an addendum? In a book that demonstrates a great awareness of the construction of language, it's difficult to read them without the gloss of irony. And yet, of course, the election of the first Black president has enormous significance on the community of Black and LGBTQs in particular. Could you expand on that section and why and how you came to choose it for inclusion?

EH: President Obama was elected around the same time that War Diaries was taking shape. Due to funding snafus that almost killed the project altogether, it didn't actually come out until a year and a half—maybe almost two years—after it was supposed to. The president had made history by addressing and acknowledging the LGBT community the way he did, by making certain promises that no president had made before. That was historic and fit our self-scribed mandate to capture a time capsule of what was happening in the U.S. and the world as the collection was being put together. Now, the way a lot of those promises and the hope they engendered played—or fizzled—out ( even though a lot was followed through on ) has resulted in cynicism and disappointment for a lot of LGBT folk, but not necessarily as deeply or significantly amongst a lot of Black LGBT folk as for others. The ironic reading you give the addendum is, I think, not uncommon. I also think, however, that reaction is very different to what it might have been had War Diaries been released on schedule. But that's the beauty of this kind of politically charged work. Its meanings are not static. They will continue to shift and hopefully deepen as the world around it changes.

YN: Do you think those promises, if we may call them such, made in those missives, have been kept? Or can they be kept? Should we even think about them as promises?

EH: The president is a masterful politician.

YN: And we'll leave it at that. Several of the works are strongly erotic, and record moments of desire and laughter even as they nod to the complications of characters' lives. How do we write about AIDS in the Black LGBTQ community while also keeping alive that eroticism and laughter, as you point out in your introduction?

EH: We just do it. Don't over think it. Don't turn it into an academic exercise. At the risk of sounding corny, if you as a poet or novelist are truly in touch with the human spirit, with human nature, it will come to you. You may still suffer writer's block and still have to wrestle with whatever you wrestle with simply to be a good writer, but because laughter and eroticism exist in real life, even in the face of the most dire circumstances, they will come and be present in the work of the writers who are open to them. Just know that both the laughter and eroticism may be dark as fuck. And that's cool too.

Ernest Hardy will give a talk entitled "Don't Believe the hype: Refocusing the Lens on Hip-Hop, Masculinity and Queer of Color identity." The event takes place at DePaul Student Center, 2250 N Sheffield Ave, Room 325, May 12, 3-5 p.m. War Diaries is available as a free download at: apla.org/publications/publications.html

Hardy's website is ernesthardy.com .

Yasmin Nair can be reached at welshzen@yahoo.com . Her website is at yasminnair.net .


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