This creative piece will be part of my upcoming book Our Viral Lives: A Primer on Digital Storytelling Practices for HIV/AIDS Justice. Simon Nkoli was the first Black gay activist in South Africa. I spoke about him previously in New York City. You can listen to that talk here.
But now, we are on the verge of a new South Africa. Now we are in the process of planning a non-racist, non-sexist future, and the protection of gay and lesbian rights must be part of that planning…As a black man, I am telling the system that I will no longer stay in a little box in Soweto or any Ghetto. As a gay man, I am telling the system that I will no longer stay in a little box in the closet. –Simon Nkoli
on the 7th floor of a large, rectangular building, in a cluttered wood-paneled room, I stare out at the city of johannesburg, sprawling and geographically isolated neighborhoods running all the way to the horizon. this is the city where simon nkoli was born and where he would die of aids-related complications in 1998.
what was I doing there, a white American man, in the South African LGBTQ archives?
what did I hope to get from accessing the mementos of Nkoli’s life, the traces of his body I would then have to reconstruct as an outsider?
I had, for a long time, wanted to visit south africa without really knowing why. But now, in this archive, I realized I was interested in the ability of a country to transform itself so quickly, that this space I was sitting in was just over 20 years old, and in that 20 years one of the most repressive political regimes in history had turned into a plural democracy, run by a majority black party.
& still, despite this progress
despite the representation of black voices in all levels of government
queer and black and poor bodies dying of aids, even as people like simon spoke out
enter simon, the man imprisoned in a high profile travel for his activism against the apartheid, who came out to his brothers, and created a space for what it meant to be lgbtq and revolutionary. who would later, in the black townships, plaster his naked body, cock wrapped in a condom, for sex-positive messaging when he led the township aids project. simon, one of the few activists who really embodied the “gentle angry activist” – soften spoken, but intense, directed, and focused on empowering communities within.
simon, who died, and largely seems to be forgotten in history, except by a few people privy to just how impactful his legacy was.
on the 7th floor of a large, rectangular building, in a cluttered wood-paneled room, i only get a taste of who he is, fragments, but this is the burden and challenge of traditional archival research. I, as excavator, get the bone fragments and must make a skeleton that I breathe to life through narrative.
but do I understand the pattern of the bones?
can I say I know simon?
whose history and cultures do I betray in a crisis that is, without doubt, a global pandemic?
these are the questions I must ask in order to form an ethical consciousness as archivist. they are also questions that guide me, in my white cisgender male body, to communities disproportionately affected by HIV. the moment I step outside of wits university, people will warn me to be safe on the streets. they warn me that I will be viewed differently in my skin. but they don’t understand how I have always been viewed differently in my skin, so I find myself unafraid, like simon was unafraid, to challenge assumptions in this city.
today I pour over the international correspondence to simon. far flung, these letters and postcards elicit laughter, tears, optimism, and love. there’s a surprising letter signed by sir ian mckellen that thanks simon for his voice and encourages him to write his book (that will ultimately never materialize). a writer from toronto shares his treatment regime (is he still alive?). another man gives one of those sexualized joke cards, men dressed up in leather, as I try to imagine what their relationship could be.
despite all of the historical information I could access in the archives, this act of sorting through correspondence is the one I find most exciting. I examine every postmarked stamp, the quality of the writing, all of the different addresses, presumably as simon cycled through various lovers, and most of all the intimacy, bodies undiminished by contagion permeating every other aspect of their lives.
hope that even I don’t experience
now, in 2016
as an HIV negative man
living with access to preventative medicine
hope for me is the message of my dialogue with simon, why I’ve come to south africa at all, why I need south africa right now, as I’ve built out this archive. hope. because my brothers and sisters are dying. because simon died when he didn’t need to die. because…I break off from this thought…
I sometimes wonder if I have the wherewithal to sustain my activism in a time of crisis. I wonder because I project an image of strength when I feel vulnerable inside. I project an image of strength because I am the activist committed to this digital archive, an activist raising awareness about hiv/aids and I have to be strong. But I am as uncertain as anyone else, even as I have a language to express this uncertainty, a language that others may not have.
simon, simon, please speak to me if you are there
I don’t believe in ghosts or miracles or anything supernatural
but I believe you are present
here, in the lines of this text I read, written to you
simon, simon, know I’m listening to you even if I don’t understand everything
know I’m listening to you
you inspired a generation of activists in south africa
you inspire a new generation worldwide
the ones who have the chance to visit you, here, in Johannesburg
simon, simon, I am worried about the future
I’m worried about where activism will go
but I look at your body, often naked and vulnerable,
a body that vehemently resisted the closet
and find hope again.
I spoke about your legacy in 2016 in new york city
I hope I did you justice,
simon, we will do you justice—
every day I find hope again because of you
but now, we are on the verge of a new South Africa, you said in the mid-90s
today we are on the verge of a new world
where your stories are as much a part of that futurity as my own.