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Black Radical Tradition and HIV-decriminalization

Written by Jordan Mulkey


But he had a wife. That’s what truly perplexed me. How did my beer-breathed, big-hearted, tender-touching, heterosexual(?) Grandfather die of it when he was in a long-standing marriage with a Woman?


HIV/AIDS: It is what took the man who laid me before big screens and taught me that film distills time; entrances so, just for the moment, one forgets their need to be held, rocked, coddled, and constantly; Anastasia, Mufasa, Mulan, Cruella De Vil and uncountable Dalmatians, Aladdin and Jasmine enrapture with their worlds and eventually, the dark and the tired of this one slips from under you. He would lift my pruned and nude body out of tub water still foamy at the top. Wet danced from my crown, down and over the curvature of black and bare back, splashing the tile. Suds gather at my fragile feet after lapping more vulnerable peeks–places which, unlike for so many, never seduced him. On countless holy nights, he’d swaddle my sopping, prepubertal nakedness as if my innocence was frail–a vulnerability to behold and be held and not devoured; but oh, how the devourers would come.


“One night he was fine,” my mother once said “he told me he was going to wash his hair and go to sleep. The next morning he had pneumonia and had to be rushed to the hospital.” That was always hard to grasp and even now I hold it out at a distance, turning it about in my mind, searching for angularities that cut between confusion and catastrophe. What was always clear, however, was that my relationship with it would forever be an intimate one. To know it was and is to demystify that man, rememory him; re-member an us prematurely severed by sickness and remembrances hopelessly marred by time.


Soon, hushed tones and pregnant pauses, billowed above the naïveté of my hows, whats and whys. Before he and/or I was aware, he was caught in a crusade that bountied his blood. To be HIV-positive–even years after Beam, Hemphill, and, even, Magic Johnson–meant pariah and furthermore portent; insofar as HIV positivity heralded and yet herald social collapse. Pos folk still register as threats to civil, whereby we imagine healthy, society and HIV/AIDS still is impetus for what Stuart Hall, Simon Watney, and Stanley Cohen would call moral panic. As Hall, in his ground-breaking exposeé Policing The Crisis, looks at Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panic, it is evident that pos-folk are a cornerstone in monstrosity/anti-monstrosity, crime/criminal/criminalizing social imaginations and discourses:

“A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right­ thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condi­tion then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel… at other times it has more serious and long lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way society conceives itself.”

In a post-13th world, it is almost self-evident that the criminal, along with criminality, is constructed to buttress, “to serve and protect”, a social order with white supremacy as its centripetal force. Mass-media and [Euro]American visual cultures writ large have been participatory in the propagandization of the Black criminal, so to legitimize the objective and subjective, historico-political and socio-cultural, structural, systematic, institutional, pedagogic, philosophic, and epistemic, spatiotemporal, discursive, ideological, private/public, psychological, corporeal and metaphysical violences Black persons must brave. As Saidiya Hartman suggests in Scenes of Subjection, Black folk–the enslaved; socially dead subjects–are “legally recognized as human only to the degree that [one] is criminally culpable.” To make normative the quotidian and gratuitous nature of campaigns of violence and terror on Black flesh, moralizing processes by the names of “The War on Drugs”, “Law and Order”, “The War on Terror”, had to be orchestrated and mobilized, subsequently assuaging white consciousness/nonchalance and legislating Black criminality/death. Withal, it appears lost on intracommumal/intramural Black social-psyche how pos folk are implicated in both white supremacist and Black Radical agenda-making. As Stuart Hall illuminated on mugging, criminality and Blackness in Britain and America, as Ava DuVernay, almost four decades later, narrativized the criminal as born of a prison-industrial complex in the genealogy of Slavery, the proverbial light that limns such analyses seems to dim when approaching pos-criminality. Said again, our prison abolitionist, antifa politic takes vacation at the site/sight of HIV/AIDS.



I intend to declare this most wholly:

Black movement/community identity and building that circumvents pos-liberation is anti-Black and in collusion with carceral culture, which makes state violence and surveillance sanctioned and business as usual.  


When interrogating, as done by Hall, Hartman, and countless others, the imputing processes used to criminalize Blackness, one is simultaneously observing the imputing processes used to criminalize seroconversion. Both become the self-signifying ontologics that make Black death permissible.


In 1989, ads–implicitly and explicitly–calling for the death of Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise–better known as the Central Park Five–began circulation in undeniably similar fashion to how news stories/ads/propaganda like “I’d Shoot My Son If He Had AIDS, Says Vicar!” did only 3 years before. Leo Bersani pontificates, in his provocative essay Is The Rectum A Grave?, on the true function of the latter with such acute and familiar precision that I must quote him at length:

power is in the hands of those who give every sign of being able to sympathize more with the murderous “moral” fury of the good vicar than with the agony of a terminal KS patient… To put this schematically: having the information necessary to lock up homosexuals in quarantine camps may be a higher priority…than saving the heterosexual members of American families from AIDS. Such a priority suggests a far more serious and ambitious passion for violence than what are after all the rather banal, rather normal son-killing impulses of the Reverend Robert Simpson. At the very least, such things as the Justice Department’s near recommendation that people with AIDS be thrown out of their jobs suggest that if Edwin Meese would not hold a gun to the head of a man with AIDS, he might not find the murder of a gay man with AIDS (or without AIDS?) intolerable or unbearable. And this is precisely what can be said of millions of fine Germans who never participated in the murder of Jews (and of homosexuals), but who failed to find the idea of the holocaust unbearable.”

Black death is not quotidian or bearable simply because white people are violent, afraid, and avaricious; rather, concurrently, if not by majority, it is spineless, disaware, and supreme apathy that moves mass-murder into mundanity (which is to mean that the apathy is the ferocity). Similarly, HIV-pos criminality is admissible, more or less, because Black Radical movers/movements with their insouciance have, too, made it so, or simply haven’t attended to its (in)admissibility in any radical way. This is the disquieting truth: Black radical movements have been dispassionate or intentionally negligent vis-a-vis understanding seroconversion criminalization as under the aegis of the Prison Industrial Complex, manufacturing literal and figurative Black/Brown death. When we imagine mass-incarceration and the figure of the criminal, both, as socio-politically necessary for neoliberal-in/as-necropolitical technology, HIV criminalization escapes our calculus. We simply do not as readily decode the incarceration of HIV-pos folk as indicative of the production of Black death via criminalization and carceralism as we do almost any other racially implicated criminalized act–as if to believe most pos arrests and prosecutions are not of Black folk. We account for the ways “War on Drugs” and “Law and Order” juridico-institutional methods pathologized, criminalized and traumatized the Black nuclear family, yet, a collective or epic amnesia seems to disallow a Black radical analytic that attends to the ways the war on AIDS–which, yet and too, rages on–conterminously systematized the imprisonment of Black folk–the demographic disproportionately affected by the epidemic. HIV-specific laws and prosecutorial tools are birthed from the same superstructure that Stop-and-Frisk and mandatory minimums are and as long as our politics remiss those interstitial places in which Black HIV-pos folk are enmeshed, it is not a Black Radical politic. In fact, such a politic erases–mediates, muddles, mutes–the lives of countless Black folk in the crucible of a juridical order that presupposes Black criminality and legislates pos-criminality so to make carceral culture unyielding, far reaching, and whiteness’ native son. Consequently, such a politic is anti-Black.



I find myself, again, forced to echo Baldwin when I say “I am terrified of the moral apathy, the death of the heart, that is happening.” Particularly, this time, in our Black movement spaces, in our Black social [media] spaces, represented by our disremembering of the Black pos-folk, in prison and being imprisoned. 1 in 7 persons living with HIV pass through a correctional or detention facility. Black men and women are imprisoned seven times the rate of white men. Black men account for, as of 2015, one-third of all of HIV diagnoses; it is no wonder how HIV rates are highest amongst Black prisoners. When we fight for the liberation of Black people from prison, it is necessary that we understand that we are also fighting for the liberation of HIV-pos folk. Prison abolition means seroconversion criminality abolition and the moments in which we renege on that are the moments we recapitulate to the systems of Domination that demand our incarceration to function.


Pos folk are prosecuted and imprisoned for things that are perfectly legal or only minor crimes for non-pos folk. 34 states have HIV-specific laws, 23 states have laws against communicable diseases including HIV, and since 2008 over 300 people have been charged and arrested under such laws. Just this year 50 arrests and prosecutions for HIV exposure have been made. Being that Black people are incarcerated five times the rates of whites and make up over 40 percent of people living with HIV, we can imagine how many of those arrests and prosecutions are of simultaneously Black and seroconverted folk. In fact, The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law this year declared that 67% of Black and Brown Californians were criminalized under HIV criminal laws, irrespective of if they are actually living with HIV. They also found that white men were generally charged 13% of the time, while all other demographics are charged 33% of the time. To reiterate, white men, under California’s felony solicitation while HIV-positive law, were not charged 70% of the time. In places like Georgia, Ohio, and California, one could spend just as much, if not more, time for vehicular homicide as one could for alleged HIV exposure. In Tennessee, “criminals” face 3-15 years for both vehicular homicide and HIV exposure by statute, however, based on actual prosecutions of HIV exposure, one could be imprisoned for 26 years. Notwithstanding, California’s recent HIV-decriminalization gesturesHIV-positivity as a tool of biological warfare in the arsenal of Black and Queer folk still coheres to the State.


Even in the instance that one concedes legitimacy to any facet of carceral culture, HIV is not easily communicable. The average transmission risk, without preventive actions, is less than once out of 100 per single sexual contact. Seven in 10,000 tops risk any exposure if their bottom is pos; though much higher, at 82, bottoms whose tops are pos remain at less than 1% chance of exposure. Moreover, there are pos-folk in prison and being prosecuted under HIV criminalization laws for biting and spitting though, as declared by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), HIV can not be transmitted through saliva, urine, vomit or feces, for that matter. Howbeit, not so ironically, actual transmission and exposure is relatively of no consequence in HIV criminalization cases: The Williams Institute further reported that, in California, none of the HIV crime convictions required actual transmission to constitute offense; better yet, 93% of cases required no proof of conduct that likely could transmit HIV.


This year, Doctors of the CDC assessed whether there is a correlation between criminal exposure laws and HIV/AIDS diagnosis rates in the U.S.; do laws that criminalize pos folk decrease and/or increase HIV/AIDS exposure and diagnosis? They discovered no such correlation: “unemployment, poverty, education, urbanicity, and race/ethnicity were associated with HIV and AIDS diagnoses. In final models, proportion of adults with less than a high school education and percentage of the population living in urban areas were significantly associated with HIV and AIDS diagnosis over time; criminal exposure laws were not associated with diagnosis rates.” The law is not and has never effectively, whereby justly, attended to the HIV/AIDS crisis (and such as a commentary on the inherent ineffectiveness of the law en masse, can be tabled for another analysis).


The Clinic has failed as well: HIV was classified by U.S. Public Health Services as a “dangerous contagious disease”, which, as recently as 2010, banned pos immigrants from entering the country. In Black Gay (Raw) Sex, Dr. Marlon M. Bailey, with unprecedented acuity, critiques the raced, classed, and gendered, biomedico-institutional barriers obstructing a revolution in HIV/AIDS prevention. He illumines that the CDC’s primary focus is identifying, treating and preventing, altogether ignoring the “development of cultural and communal interventions.” This, he proffers preserves the capitalist ichor of the biomedico-institution or the Clinic:

“This move from the cultural and communal forms of prevention to the biomedical is also about shifting prevention resources and fund from community-based organizations and agencies that are on the frontlines of the struggle against the epidemic, particularly among poor communities of color, to expensive treatment/medication that fills the coffers of pharmaceutical companies. For working-class or poor black gay men, biomedical prevention and treatment services are often cost prohibitive.”


We have failed pos folk; and that we is constitutive of those communities of othered, abject, surveilled, injured, criminal, fugitive, dark entities who smudge the line between subject and object; those communities that have inherited a tradition whose politics were flawed but ethos was freedom–the type which is a constant struggle; a prophetic tradition, a radical tradition, a Black tradition, lambent beneath the constellation: Joseph Beam, Essex Hemphill, Marlon Riggs, Fela Kuti, Alvin Ailey, Arthur Ashe, Max Robinson, Sylvester James, Gil Scot-Heron, and a subaltern more. A collective bequeathed the duty and honor of (re)narrativizing stories, (re)forming strategies, (re)articulating possibilities by/for those most at the margins.



We have failed pos folk; and we know who we are. Though we can/must pontificate on White Supremacy and its place, we have acquiesced to its technology in our permitting to silence and invisibility the lives/voices/influence of those socially badged sexually grotesque by HIV/AIDS. We can gesture as if we don’t agree or we can be self-reflexive about why, for instance, we don’t [care to] know that Michael Johnson recently took a plea deal of 10 years in state prison, how we missed the recent arrest of Rasheem Bodiford, why the murder of Cicely Lee Bolden didn’t make it to our hashtags or everyday feminisms. We must not be simple or arrogant enough to think it innocuous. Black Radical Tradition has always been in tension with its cisheteropatriarchal shadow. Queer political schema have always been derelict, if not disrespectful, to the matter of race (they have not been, by majority, Johnson’s ‘Quare’).


Black Queer Radical Tradition has been discursively eclipsed by both a Queer political movement troubled by [white] homonationalism and a Black radical movement plagued by queerphobia. Bailey, Baldwin, Lorde, Johnson, Weheliye, Reid-Pharr, they have traced paths to “shifting the narratives we have rehearsed, toward a future in which we are indeed ‘fluent in each other’s histories’ and conversant in each other’s imaginations,” as Jafari Allen, extrapolating from M. Jacqui Alexander, says; they have offered political cartographies  “recognizing the link between the ideological, social, political, and economic marginalization of punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens,” as Cathy J. Cohen demonstrates. We have dismissed them to inherit assimilationism and [reproductive] Afro-Futures. Kimberle Crenshaw explains nigh on 30 year ago with Demarginalizing The Intersection, the Black femme socio-political bottom positionality as being stage for intersectional economic revolution. I, too, wish to suggest that pos folk–disproportionately Queer, Black/Brown folk–must be centered in our analyses of those occupying the bottom (and Bottom), to approach a transformational, radical pragmatics.


As today is World AIDS Day, I await an assembly of intersectional analyses around the struggle for seroconversion decriminalization qua anti-carceral, anti-colonial, anti-imperial, anti-racist work to end White Supremacy across the globe. Black coalition building must include HIV-positivity as radical analytic from which it imagines and figures Black liberation movement. Black radical world-making, which houses HIV-decriminalization, robustly architects an Afro-Possibility that resists restructuring racialized, gendered, classed, queer antagonisms for social ordering; instead, imagining Black sociality and spatio-temporality in tension and beyond the now; freeing more radical futures.


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Written by

Jordan Mulkey. Writer. Theory. Morehouse College


  • I can’t wait until you’re published. You address intersectionality in a way that has conviction, introspection, accountability, and revelation written all over it. I’m very proud of you.

  • NinaSimone

    I cried the first few minutes of reading this article. This article is vivid with memories that resurrect feelings buried just to move through life. Your article speaks truth to power and calls for our community to face the way in which we ourselves choose to step over and forget our most vulnerable. The loss of my father still stings like an open wound if you pour alcohol in it… I’m moved by your writing. I pray this article reaches into dark places and begins a conversation that leads to reform and liberation.
    With all my love,.

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