Living with HIV in a poverty-stricken community made me who I am. Who would I be if life had been easy for me? What would my eyes hear and my ears see if I had not had those experiences? My life has humbled me, molded me, in ways many cannot understand. Through my poetry I try to create the canvas of my childhood encounters.
At home I shed tears.
Long days in buildings with smells like spillings of death.
Her eyes glazed over.
AIDS lay her to rest in ashes all scattered ’round bays as she insists.
She always told me she’d be missed…
At 24 years old, I have led many lives. Growing up I always had an un-quenching thirst; I knew the world had much to offer. I was overpowered with curiosity: inundated with questions about how, why, when, and where; and obsessed with understanding why my family had been plagued with HIV. I spent much of my time as a child pondering—and being aged by—questions such as these. My adult-like behavior often made people refer to me as an “old soul.”
With disease comes an unspoken wisdom—a greater responsibility. I was the child who spoke to every adult with great inquisition and never moved quickly. Once my stepfather told me I walked as if I were floating. He didn’t understand that my grandfather taught me never to hold my head low; “You might miss the daisies,” he’d say. I couldn’t verbally interpret his wisdom but internally I knew it was important.
However, I was always bothered by the mystery of money. I knew it played a powerful role in society, yet didn’t understand why. I became convinced that it was the answer to many of my questions. “Are we rich?” I’d ask my mother at the oddest times. She’d always tell me, “We are vastly rich with curiosity; our payment is knowledge.” My mother answered many questions in metaphorical statements, usually beginning and ending with “Look it up!” I thank her tactics for my own way of thinking and responding. The only thing she made explicitly clear was that education is the answer to all of our inquiries. My mother believed knowledge was the key to escaping poverty; a state of being I did not know affected me until I entered college.
I was 15 years old when my mother passed away from AIDS complications. A few months later I lost my pet rabbit, stepfather, grandmother, and great-grandmother. I continued to go to school every day. I kept up my good grades. Of course, I strayed into drugs and alcohol to ease my pain, but my mother had hardwired the importance of education so firmly into my makeup I couldn’t let her down—not even in her death. It was no surprise (to me) that I ended up at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006. As one of the top students in my high school, I felt equipped academically for a four-year university.
However, I hadn’t fathomed the social shock awaiting me. I noticed two things after living in Madison for a short period of time. First, I was poor. I grew up poor but hadn’t fully understood this because everyone around me was also poor. I, also, felt rich because I benefited from many programs due to my HIV status that continuously gave me experiences unlike my peers. Second, I was black and that meant more than the color of my skin. It was much more than hip-hop and baggy jeans. There was a world full of social issues I had not anticipated. I believed that every person was judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, but after the fourth or fifth conversation about affirmative action with my new peers, I felt as though white students thought of my presence as a form of charity, not an earned success.
Once my view of humanity had shifted, I was not enthused or ready to continue the journey ahead. I tried to live with rose-colored lenses for as long as possible. One day I suddenly remembered my mother’s words, “Running from life is never an option.” I couldn’t continue to hide from the world I saw. But what could I do to make a difference? I had been an AIDS activist for years. What could I do differently? I was desperate and fuming. I remembered as a child I found it useful to write out my frustrations and created a file on my computer—“My List of Frustrations.” I wrote whatever came to mind. It was evident that I was angry. I was angry because I felt like I had been deprived of life; the people I loved were and are being deprived of a life. I remember watching television as a child and telling my cousins I could not wait until I lived like “those” people. Cynically they’d assure me “those” people do not come from where we did. “They only on TV, Fool,” I vividly remember my older cousin telling me. Lack of resources (e.g., jobs, good schools, healthy food) has left my community dry of material and mental prosperity.
After I successfully released my anger, I needed to be proactive with my approach. I knew, without reference, that healing must begin on the inside. I used my many facets to guide me through my mental rebirth by writing poetry from the depths of my soul.
I am Black
I am Black, therefore
I think in Black,
I speak in Black,
I write in Black …
I was born with HIV
…The Devil laughing. Girl,
stop while you’re ahead.
You too will soon end up dead…
I am queer
I am queer.
Not quite man or woman.
I just am.
Why are you uncomfortable?
Poetry is my voice. Often I am asked, “Would you change anything about your past?” Needless to say, I had spent much time reflecting on this question before anyone ever inquired about it. Every time I ponder it, I emerge with the same answer, “No, I would not change anything I have been through. For it is that which has given me voice.”
Doesn’t matter a roaring boom or gentle whisper.
The voice is like a shooting pistol.
Aim it high and shine its light.
It quivers not when dangers near.
If challenged watch it stick its spear.
This voice is justice it holds no fear.
Yet never forgets its listening ear.
From experience it bellows lost demands.
Hear respect and pride in its stance, the eyes and ears as its guide. Oh voice be filled from what you feel, let no one tell you it isn’t real. A voice for those lost childs.
Speak loud for forgotten worlds; continents, countries, streets, our people.
Lift up your voice and sing.
In English or Spanish, Ebonics or canvas use your gift your soul demands it.
As the descendants of slaves forgotten, let us pray.
Remember our ancestors and speak as they’d say.
Look deep in your heart find words to part seas.
Believe your voice has many degrees.
Your voice shall set you free.
As I learned to heal my wounds I yearned to teach others how to heal theirs as well. I decided to take the world along with my journey of self-discovery by blogging. I started blogging under the name “Average Joe” with a pretense that I am only one human searching for answers just like everyone else. After a few entries of confessions and venting, I felt arrogant for writing as if I had lived a complete life, so I began to post my poetry while outwardly searching for more answers. While looking for answers, I stumbled upon a group of queers who seemed to rejuvenate my soul as well as push me to develop my writing skills.
Through this group, I found the power of meditation and a greater understanding of self-awareness. Meditation has taught me to turn off the thinking brain and enjoy the moments around me. This is a practice life taught me without proper vocabulary. I also learned that having a childlike demeanor is healthy for recovery and survival. I feel enlightened after finding a balance between tragedy and beauty in life. Our world is very chaotic and easy to be swallowed by, but there are so many ways to counteract such negativity. We each have our own special gifts to help us emerge from this madness as beautiful butterflies—if only we take the time to discover our talents. It is not about ignoring the world we live in but accepting that the only control we have over it lies within our being. In order to access the power we posses, we must be able to function on a clear field. This does not include denying our emotions toward the world and/or events but consciously being able to respond effectively to those things. The patience I am gaining has offered me emotional intelligence. With this new intelligence I have been able to constructively release my passion while finding sustainable joy. I feel more youthful then I ever did as a child. In fact I often refer to myself as Benjamin Button—wiser yet younger.
I am more confident in my ability to paint a vivid picture for my readers. I have dared to be true to myself and write the world as I see it. The destitution I see does not frighten me anymore. Instead, it inspires me to live and write along my journey. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to rebuild my structure with the frames of my past. I am privileged to say I have cleared old weeds to make room for springing flowers. My once-beaten soul is now a glowing-fiery spirit. I have also been able to break new boundaries within my own imagination and write in other genres such as erotica, submitting short stories to many queer publications.
My words, my writings, are the greatest gift I can offer. As long as I stay truthful to my core and speak fearlessly, I am sure my words will positively impact those who need them most. I can only dream that my poetry will spark a movement of interdependence, breaking the need to “otherize” one another. More importantly, I hope my work answers the childhood query, “Are we rich?” The answer is “Yes,” as my mother used to tell me. As long as we strive to be happy from within, as long as we are kind to our fellow brethren, as long as we are brave enough to search for our own answers, we are vastly rich in this life. I finally realize that money is not what is important. Our passions are what should drive us. If we follow the sparks in our souls, we will be lucrative in ways we can never imagine.
A year after graduating from UW-Madison, I wonder what I would tell myself as an incoming student. I think I would tell myself, “Happiness is closer then you think. It is not the destination but the journey. When you feel overwhelmed, find a pad and pencil and write. Write everything you feel. Do not deny yourself your valuable emotions. When you feel angry, it is okay as long as you use that rage to positively impact the world around you. When life seems too tough, remember why you should be grateful; write about the good in your life. Find a balance. When you feel confused and lonely, take a walk, listen to the birds, feel the grass, and become connected with the earth. Live each moment as if it is your last.”
As I speak these words to myself, I would like to pass them on to you, reader. We have to be the change we want to see if we are to make a difference. Writing and public speaking are my assets—what are yours?