Stacy recommends: To Make the Wounded Whole, by Dan Royles

Last month, I moderated a book discussion with Dan Royles, an assistant professor of history at Florida International University and author of To Make the Wounded Whole: The African American Struggle Against HIV/AIDS.  Royles’ book highlights the lives of African American AIDS activists whose voices and work have gone unacknowledged and unappreciated for decades. The book really embodies all the values that I treasure and try to promote in my own work: inclusiveness, diversity, critical inquiry, empathy, and respect. Besides that, it is just damn good. Royles gives an expert, in-depth analysis of the public and private battles that Black patient-activists and their allies were fighting as they advocated for healthcare access and built up community spaces where they could be safe and whole in the beauty of their identities. It took him over 10 years to write it, but it was definitely worth the wait.

Reading To Make the Wounded Whole was an intense and moving experience for me. It took me back to when I was a teenager in the deep woods South watching televised clips of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) protestors spilling into urban streets and buildings to disrupt the status quo that was sending them and their friends to early graves. It is hard to explain the impact that those images had on me. I was too young and naive to grasp the full gravity of the situation, but I understood death and the fear of dying young. I knew that what the protestors were doing was bigger than I was, bigger than themselves, deeply controversial and very necessary. AIDS activists really made me understand the power and the value of marching-yelling-impolite-in-your-face protesting. Don’t tell me marching is meaningless. Watching people march for their lives can change a person’s heart forever. It certainly did mine.

“[B]attles over treatment access were part of a larger war to change the social determinants of health that put Black communities at risk for HIV in the first place.” – Dan Royles, in To Make the Wounded Whole

What Royles has done in his book is to open the doors to a whole other universe that got nowhere near as much coverage as ACT UP. Black activists were taking part in a widespread movement and doing their own thing, working to get culturally specific public health messaging into black communities, speaking up about the socioeconomic challenges and discrimination that were blocking black folks’ access to good living conditions and healthcare, and forming their own collectives to foster empowerment amongst themselves. Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) counteracted shaming and negative stereotyping of black gay men by studying and honoring the lives of black gay males like civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin. They cultivated life-saving spaces and created works of intellect and art that would outlive them. The whole idea of legacy, always important to me, took on a whole other level of meaning for me as I read about the lives of GMAD’s members. How do you exist and thrive as a thirty-something artist with the Hitman Death staring you down from the corner each day? The sense of urgency is obviously a motivator, but how do you put aside preoccupation with survival and find the will to keep living your truth? To create a legacy in spite of all the forces telling you you have no real time left is the ultimate act of resistance.

Royles takes the act of unearthing unappreciated history a step further by devoting significant attention to the work of African American women activists who led crucial efforts to limit the spread of AIDS and HIV among adults and children. When they recognized that Black people at high risk for contracting HIV were not receiving the support they should have from established public health organizations, these Black women stepped in themselves and did what needed doing, often with extremely limited resources. One example of this work is SisterLove. Started by activist Dazon Diallo in 1989 to provide HIV education in the Atlanta area, the organization strives to end HIV and advance reproductive justice. SisterLove’s work is focused on women and girls, a population for whom they advocate while also training them to be effective advocates for themselves. The efforts of organizations like SisterLove are extraordinary and, at the same time, business as usual. It is what black women have always done, providing essential services in our own communities during times when government could not be depended upon to step up to the task.

In my post Figuring Out Blackness, I write about the never-ending journey of learning African American history. I thank Dan Royles for being another guide on this journey. The stories he documented deepened my understanding of African Americans’ life experiences and U.S. public health history. My hope is that his book will be incorporated into health sciences course reading lists throughout the United States.

Below is a link to the discussion I had with Dan Royles on October 15. The recording only captures 42 minutes of our hour-long talk, but I think it still gives you a good sense of Royles’ insight and the importance of his work.

My discussion with Dan Royles

References

Royles, D. (2015, February 5). The other half has never been told: AIDS and African-American history. Notches. https://notchesblog.com/2015/02/05/the-other-half-has-never-been-told-aids-and-african-american-history/

Royles, D. (2020) To make the wounded whole: The African American struggle against HIV/AIDS. University of North Carolina Press.

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