“They’re only quasars, dying stars, much too far to see. They’re only quasars, dying stars, much like you and me. Behold, black holes in the sky.”
— from Black Holes in the Sky written by Nona Hendryx and performed by Labelle
I met Ken soon after I started volunteering at AID Atlanta in 1992. He was a member of the AIDS 101 committee and without dispute, a bonafide star volunteer. A natural born cheerleader, Ken made everyone on his team want to do their best. His commitment to educating people about AIDS was unshakable as was his faith. He had lost many to what he called “those four deadly girls — Aida, Ida, Dedra and Sandra.”
In spite of bouts with opportunistic infections from which he would bounce back, Ken was always making time to visit an ailing friend at home or in a hospital bed. A native of Houston, Ken graduated from Texas Southern University, the first in his family to earn a college degree. Neither his sexual orientation nor his health condition was hidden from his mother and his sisters.
“He would take me with him to see friends in the last stages of AIDS,” says Keith Kennard, one of Ken’s closest friends. “I didn’t like it because I thought there goes me one day.” Despite his anxieties, Keith would accompany Ken and learn to appreciate the care he provided. Keith admired Ken’s openness about his HIV/AIDS experience. “Now many people talk about being HIV positive, but you couldn’t really do that back then. He and others like him generated the blue print for us to walk on.”
Ken taught me by just being himself. I was a transplant from Queens, New York, who did not appreciate the slower pace nor the time people took to talk to one another in the South. From his AIDS 101 table, Ken would greet seminar attendees bearing questionable cure theories with grace. “People would come up to him so scared and he would be so caring. He would put them at ease,” Keith recalled.
The last time Ken and I hung out was in Atlanta at Mick’s Restaurant in Lenox Mall. He told me nothing he tried seemed to help with his diarrhea and, in the same breath, he ordered a fried chicken dinner. Within moments of the first bite, he had to go use the restroom. When he sat back down I asked him if he would try the fish oil based shake in a can I was using. “Ooh no, that mess is too nasty!” I told him that the supplement should be worth the bad taste if it would help him get better, but he would have none of it.
I tried to hide my anger, wondering how he could be so close-minded, without considering his right to choose for himself. Then he uttered it plain. “Honey, I just want to be happy and enjoy myself while I can.” In my mind, he was just giving up. It took years for me to realize that he was accepting what he saw as his fate.
The first years following the development of multi-drug combination therapies were uneasy turnings. It felt too soon to exhale, too unsure for optimism. Yet many who had fallen off the social scene were climbing out from the shadows of the valley. The local seminar Operation Survive was renamed THRIVE Weekend because more and more of us were coming back to robust health. It was an age of miracles and broken promises.
In those changing times, I dared imagine that older men in groups like Brothers Back 2 Back and Men of Color in Motion might live to tell in the new millennium. Most of them would not. I let myself hope that Ken would put meat back on those pretty calves of his. But the cocktail came too late for him. Ken died in 1997. Keith remembers. “His family allowed his friends to take care of everything. They respected us. They had his body shipped back and gave him a good funeral.”
I wonder what Ken would have thought about THRIVE SS, an advocacy organization for HIV-positive black gay men whose founders were frustrated by the limitations of local AIDS services. The group’s frequent social activities and online chats weave durable bonds between members. They regard each other as brothers to whom they feel fully responsible. I believe that in THRIVE SS Ken would have recognized the torch passed on from his generation to the next.
Ken was neither closeted nor compromised. His determination to not let his friends die alone, to advocate and recruit was extraordinary, but not unique. Ken was part of a tribe whose altruistic practices required no exceptional skills to adopt. All that was needed was the will to love and to endure unimaginable loss.
We acknowledge the feats of lofty figures and their abilities to clear the highest hurdles. In singling out our celebrities, we often overlook the collective power of the communities that sustained them. Being a 57-year-old HIV-positive black gay man, I cite the sidelined histories of black queer folk in reflex response to whitewashed records such as And The Band Played On.
To lay claim that we too were there, I invoke Joseph Beam, Marlon Riggs, and Essex Hemphill. But how do we remember the friends who inspired them, the audiences who supported their work, the families and lovers who fed them and each other. All generations of black gay men deserve to know how we took care of one another long before AIDS service grants were offered for others to do so. Not only did we fight to survive. We fought for each other’s lives.
“It’s important that we remember,” Keith notes. “If we allow his memory to die, if we allow all those people who were a part of our lives to be forgotten, then we have missed the point of it all.”
Craig Washington is a community organizer and a writer based in Atlanta. He was lovingly born and raised by Anna and Leon Washington. He is a long-term survivor with AIDS who works with older residents at an independent living facility.
To read a 2016 op-ed by Craig, click here.