Johns Hopkins University Press

The Counter Narrative Project (CNP) was founded to shift narratives and shatter stereotypes about Black gay, bisexual, and queer men to advance social justice. This paper describes three programs CNP implemented that were organized around collective memory as a strategy to respond to collective trauma experienced by this community.

Key words

HIV/AIDS, collective memory, racism, Black, queer

I rummage throughancestral memoriesin search of theoriginal tribesthat fathered us.

—Essex Hemphill, "The Tomb of Sorrow"

At the 2018 National African American MSM Leadership Conference on HIV/AIDS and other Health Disparities hosted by NAESM, Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia, the Counter Narrative Project (CNP) was invited to present at a session focused on the leadership development of young, Black, gay and bisexual men. The Counter Narrative Project did not want to center a biomedical approach in the session. Instead, we wanted to capture and leverage the power of collective memory. From its inception, CNP has been rooted in an understanding of the importance of collective memory and movement history as discursive interventions in public health. Thus, CNP has used collective memory,1 defined as engaging with the shared pool of memories, knowledge, and information of a social group, as both a strategy to respond to collective trauma experienced by Black gay, bisexual, and queer men, and as a tool for community mobilization and political education. [End Page 1]

At the NAESM conference session, we chose to perform a dramatic reading of six poems by Essex Hemphill (April 16, 1957–November 4, 1995), who was a poet, essayist, and HIV activist. His poetry provided a connection between the past and the present and offered a lens to imagine HIV as a racial justice issue, anticipating the current discourse around the acknowledgment of racism as a public health issue. As a partner of the Gilead COMPASS Initiative, and through their generous support, CNP has been able to scale up a number of emerging innovations, including our work based in collective memory. This partnership provided CNP with an excellent network of technical assistance providers and thought partners, helping us frame our commitment to collective memory as an HIV intervention and expand our impact. Over the years, we have continued to build on this through the development of several programs, three of which we will highlight in this paper. These programs are 1) the Tongues Untied 30th-anniversary series, 2) the Second Sunday Remembrance Collective, and 3) the Tony Daniels Day of Remembrance. This paper will highlight these programs and explore how using collective memory in program development can serve as an intervention to address collective trauma.

Overview of the Counter Narrative Project (CNP)

The Counter Narrative Project was founded by Black gay men in 2014 in Atlanta. With a strategic interest in the South and a commitment to shifting narratives and shattering stereotypes affecting Black gay, bisexual, and queer men, from its inception, CNP has centered racial justice in the organization's HIV advocacy efforts. This included responding to such issues as HIV criminalization,2 harm reduction, and challenging anti-Black practices within HIV organizations. However, CNP learned through our efforts that we could not properly respond to the issues we faced in the present until we considered the collective trauma that still haunted our community. This inspired CNP to develop a guiding theory that incorporated collective memory as a critical response to collective trauma, which is in and of itself a form of structural violence. We wanted to build on existing community rituals such as the observation of national HIV awareness days (e.g., World AIDS Day, National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day) and public displays of the AIDS quilt. We recognized the power of collective remembrance to mobilize, convene, and empower our community, and to serve as an innovative strategy to respond to collective trauma affecting Black gay, bisexual, and queer men. Through our efforts, we also learned that collective memory is a unique tool for historically marginalized communities and is a critical self-empowerment and discursive intervention, because it fosters self-esteem and inspires a sense of self-efficacy and agency.3,4

HIV in the Black Gay, Bisexual, and Queer Male community

Societal advancements and medical breakthroughs have decreased rates of HIV acquisition for most, but this has benefited historically underserved populations less than others. Black gay men continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV when compared with their White counterparts.5,6 For example, in 2019, Black gay and bisexual [End Page 2] men accounted for 26% of all new cases of HIV and maintained the highest number of new cases among gay men.5 More troubling, modeling studies suggest that unless substantial efforts are taken to alter the trajectory of the HIV epidemic, Black gay and bisexual men will experience a one in two risk of acquiring HIV within their lifetime.7 Despite these HIV rates, Black gay men do not engage in behaviors that have the potential to transmit HIV (e.g. condomless sex or substance use) at higher rates than their White counterparts; rather, HIV inequities experienced by Black gay men are due to multiple oppressive social-structural factors.59 These include stigma and racism as well as structural barriers such as lack of medical insurance and neighborhood characteristics such as barriers to public transportation.10 Taken together, these structural factors contribute to the disproportionately high rates of HIV among Black gay men and suggest that structural and community-level solutions are needed to address the root causes of these persistent HIV inequities.

Collective Memory and HIV: Connecting the Dots

Queer communities have a long history of organizing around HIV and using narratives to propel issues into collective memory.11 The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) is a well-known example of community activism and collective memory in the HIV response in the United States. ACT UP's work is credited with bringing about changes in federal policies on HIV research and treatment, medical care, and prevention resources.11 It projected HIV into the forefront of public memory as multiple controversial public protests and projects were held and televised.12 The Counter Narrative Project is a deliberate attempt to offer a collective memory that is rooted in the historically underrepresented Black gay, bisexual, and queer male experience. The next sections illuminate three CNP projects and offer insight into counternarratives that augment the power of collective memory among Black gay, bisexual, and queer men.

Tongues Untied @ 30

In 2019, CNP, in conjunction with partner organizations, organized a series of screenings across the United States to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the film, Tongues Untied. These screenings highlighted the impact of the film and used it as a convening tool for intentional dialogue about anti-Black racism, homophobia, and HIV stigma through the lenses of movement history and collective memory. Tongues Untied is an important intervention in collective memory because the film is a vital part of our movement's history. Not only is the film historically significant due to its depiction of Black gay men in a manner that centers their voices and lived experiences, but it also provides documentary evidence of how Black gay men responded to HIV in the early years of the epidemic. Well-respected documentaries depicting early HIV activism, such as We Were Here and How to Survive a Plague, and artistic works depicting the early HIV epidemic, including Angels in America and The Normal Heart, mostly centered on the experiences of White gay men. Tongues Untied is a film that makes the experiences of Black gay men in the early HIV epidemic visible and provides an intersectional perspective on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer+ (LGBTQ+) [End Page 3] and HIV justice. Participants in the screening series were able to share their stories and reactions to the film, which bonded the group.

Second Sunday Remembrance Collective

Created in Atlanta, Georgia in 1993, the organization Second Sunday was a physical safe space but also functioned as a consciousness-raising group where individuals rallied their social networks and leaned on friends/colleagues for social support. From the time that the group was created, Second Sunday attracted Black gay and bisexual men from across the city. Throughout the course of its existence, Second Sunday organized programs and workshops on a range of topics including dealing with domestic violence, HIV prevention, coming out, and finding romantic love.

The recorded history of the HIV and LGBTQ+ movement struggle far too often ignores the contributions of Black leaders. This erasure contributes to the collective trauma that Black gay, bisexual, and queer men experience. Healthy identity development, personally and collectively, and especially for people with marginalized identities, must be coupled with a sense of culture and legacy. In 2020, CNP convened the Second Sunday Remembrance Collective as an effort to commemorate the work of Second Sunday but also in the service of racial healing as a public health imperative. The Counter Narrative Project hosted an initial meeting where alumni of Second Sunday were convened to share memories and brainstorm commemorative activities. These meetings led to a series of programs. Sample events included a digital exhibit, a virtual Second Sunday reunion, and an archive at Georgia State University. The Counter Narrative Project believes that the remembrance of groups such as Second Sunday provides an important blueprint for community mobilization strategies and cultural affirmation for Black gay and bisexual men that contributes to a greater sense of agency in the service of enhancing positive health and wellness outcomes.

Tony Daniels Day of Remembrance

The Counter Narrative Project has sought to integrate cultural activism in contemporary HIV awareness and advocacy strategies through community mobilization and engagement. Another crucial event that we wish to highlight is: "Tony Daniels: Architect of the Black Gay Mecca," which was hosted on National Black HIV Awareness Day in 2019 at the Auburn Avenue Research Library in Atlanta, Georgia. This event brought our community together to consider the legacy of Tony Daniels. Daniels was a poet, organizer, and cultural worker, and his contributions to HIV advocacy provide an important guide for contemporary efforts. Daniels shaped the HIV movement landscape in Atlanta in several important ways: 1) He developed a series of poetic works that elevated the humanity and dignity of Black gay men. 2) As an artist and activist, Daniels shared his experiences as a Black gay man living with HIV and inspired many others to share their stories. This was at a time, particularly in the 1990s, when such actions were not only defiant but potentially deadly. Finally, 3), as an organizer and cultural worker, Daniels was able to bring communities together through his innovative cultural activism. [End Page 4]

The commemoration CNP hosted consisted of a performance from members of the performance poetry group of which Daniels was a member, an exhibition of his papers (which were donated to the Auburn Avenue Research Library), and words from his family. The Counter Narrative Project was able to activate community members, expand its network of community partnerships, and engage local media with coverage in the LGBTQ+ digital publication Project Q.

Conclusion and Implications

Taken together, this series of CNP's programmatic activities—Tongues Untied @30, The Second Remembrance Collective, and The Tony Daniels Day of Remembrance—provides a model for how Black HIV movement history can be integrated into efforts to elevate leadership in public health and inspire members of the HIV workforce to learn from and build upon past efforts to address HIV using strategies beyond the biomedical.

There are three key lessons to be learned from this series of CNP programming. 1) Black gay, bisexual, and queer men are eager to build community around collective memory. 2) Black gay, bisexual, and queer men are empowered and inspired by learning about collective memory. Finally, 3) Black gay, bisexual, and queer men can use collective memory spaces to grapple with and unpack trauma that shows up in response to structural violence in the lives of Black gay, bisexual, and queer men.

Collective memory and other types of cultural interventions are sorely needed and can be developed in tandem with next-generation biomedical strategies. Invoking collective memory and integrating artistic works such as films and poetry into HIV-related social marketing, health communication, and bio-behavioral interventions have promise for making progress against the impact of HIV on Black, gay, bisexual, and queer men.


Supported by grant funding from Gilead Sciences, Inc. Gilead Sciences, Inc. has had no input into the development or content of these materials.

Charles Stephens, Justin C. Smith, and Deion S. Hawkins

CHARLES STEPHENS is affiliated with the Counter Narrative Project, Atlanta, GA. JUSTIN C. SMITH is affiliated with Positive Impact Health Centers, Atlanta, GA. DEION S. HAWKINS is affiliated with Emerson College, Boston, MA.

Please address all correspondence to: Charles Stephens, Executive Director, Counter Narrative Project, 1530 Dekalb Avenue, NE, Suite A, Atlanta, GA, 30307; Phone: 404-550-4697; Email:


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