In the latest installment of our new series of scholarly writing engaging with the Visual AIDS Archive Project, Olivia R. Polk considers the role of the "Black gay ordinary" in the work of Michael Slocum (1956–1995), an editor of the early AIDS magazine PWA Newsline and a comics artist.

Michael Slocum (1956–1995) was a Black gay man who served as the Director of Publications and Editor for the newsletter-turned-magazine Newsline, published by the People with AIDS Coalition of New York. As an editor and a comic illustrator, Slocum left a two-fold legacy in the community of Black and gay men committed to using publishing to build power and community in New York. Slocum created the comic strip Zander Alexander, PWA for the backpages of each issue of Newsline. The strip ran there from November 1993 until Slocum’s death in April 1995. Each installment depicts Zander’s daily doings as a person living with HIV, and later as a person living with AIDS (PWA). Slocum, like his character, lived with HIV for 8 years. Month after month, Zander brings his readers through everyday scenes depicting how he negotiates the virus’ role in his life—with friends, family, lovers, his thwarted career as a hair model, and with his own sense of his mortality—in a dry, sometimes self-absorbed, and wryly funny tone.

I come to Michael Slocum as Black feminist scholar who is well-versed in the aesthetic and representational tendencies of culture produced by Black gay, lesbian, queer and trans subjects during the first decades of the HIV/AIDS crisis (what Jafari Allen has recently marked as "the long 80s"—beginning with the boom in Black diaspora lesbian anthologies in the late 1970s through the mid-1990s).1 Ground-breaking works like Marlon T. Riggs’ films Tongues Untied (1989) and Black Is, Black Ain’t (1994), or the poems of Essex Hemphill in Conditions (1986) and Ceremony (1992) offer poignant and emotional representations of Black gay PWA life. They traffic in scenes of longing, loss, or heightened political antagonism that describe and explicitly resist systemic conditions that regard Black life as disposable, and produce open daily violence and deadly institutional neglect.

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Left: Marlon Riggs and Essex Hemphill in a publicity still for Riggs' 1989 film 'Tongues Untied.' Right: Michael Slocum, 'Zander Alexander, PWA,' 1993. Published in PWAC NY Newsline, November 1993.

Zander Alexander, PWA excites me because of it defies my expectations of what forms appear in the archive of Black gay men’s cultural production in response to HIV/AIDS, and what tones they might strike. When my colleague and friend Alex Fialho first introduced me to the comic, I immediately took note of how funny the strip was, and how it touched down into a reality of Black gay life in the long 80s that less frequently holds the attention of Black studies scholars (myself included) invested in recalling the period as a template for Black queer artistic and political experimentalism. In his 2018 book Evidence of Being, Darius Bost coins the term "Black gay cultural renaissance" to refer to this moment borne out of the anti-Blackness and anti-gay violence of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s that shaped Black gay identity in terms of profound structural and bodily vulnerability, but that also ignited an urgency among Black gay men (as well as Black lesbian and trans people) to use literature, poetry, and experimental film to articulate Black gay identity on its own, radically defiant terms.2 For Bost and others the cultural work of Black gay men during this period is defined by a poetics of race, memory, and a complex politics of difference that maps—and imagines beyond—conditions of systemic abandonment from multiple sides (the US government, black communities, and predominately white gay communities). That life affirming labor manifested in a body of aesthetic work that prioritized experimental forms in literature, poetry, and performance.

Organizations like Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) and Other Countries, performance collaborators like Essex Hemphill and Wayson Jones, and filmmakers like Marlon Riggs intervened in the necropolitics of Black gay male hyper/invisibility during the first decades of the HIV/AIDS pandemic by discussing their lives through a deep history of Black liberatory politics. However, the aesthetic terms associated with the frame "Black Gay Renaissance" retain a consistent code across them. The paradigmatic look of this Renaissance—in the instances when it is visual—are rich, dream-like frames that emphasize the beauty of the Black body as they insist upon the fullness of Black gayness beyond non-Black sexual fetishization or sensational criminality; think of the imitable choreographer Bill T. Jones dancing in Riggs’ Tongues Untied behind audio of Hemphill reciting a poem, or Rotimi Fani-Kaoyde’s self-portrait photographs styled as Yoruba orisha. By contrast, Zander Alexander—especially because of its particular visual medium, the comic strip—breaks with some of these representational codes of Blackness, without sending up Zander as a so-called universal, racially unmarked subject. Recalling contemporary artist Christina Quarles’s surreal figures, Zander doesn’t look Black in a definite, phenotypical way. His head has the un-real shape of a kidney bean, sometimes curved to an extreme of a cashew nut; his nose variably appears to be hooked, broad, and unnaturally long; and finally, his shoulder length, straight black hair. In his debut in Newsline, Zander boasts that he has fabulous hair, and that upon developing a lump on his neck that would turn out to be a symptom of HIV laments, "I was a hair model. So of course it couldn’t be cancer. It wouldn’t be timely."

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Zander Alexander, PWA, 1993. Published in PWAC NY Newsline, November 1993.

Slocum’s sensibility for visualizing Black gay being may not be gravely serious, but the serial action of the comic is about negotiating life with the virus on an everyday—quotidian—scale.

Zander Alexander upends our expectations around what living with HIV and AIDS as a Black queer person looks like by refusing to exclusively focus on the spectacular and abject events of diagnosis and death that overdetermine so much popular media about HIV and AIDS.3 Slocum turns those affectively overdetermined events on their heads by using Zander to depict the anxiety and sadness that come with diagnosis and the prospect of mortality in terms of over-the-top escapist scenarios. In one installment, Zander is convinced he will die within days of being diagnosed with HIV and spends all his money to go to Mexico, only to have to call his dad for money to come back to New York.

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Zander Alexander, PWA, 1993. Published in PWAC NY Newsline, November 1993.

Slocum doesn’t deny the consequential nature of these key events in a life lived with HIV or AIDS, but uses comedy and the comic form to help us to see such events as part of an everyday life that is made up of a multiplicity of mundane as well as affectively charged scenes. His work echoes the experimental quality of the better-known works of poetry and film from the Black gay cultural renaissance, but enacts a practice of Black gay being that situates the concerns of mortality and the interpersonal dynamics of belonging on the racial-sexual margins on an "ordinary" register.

After visiting Slocum’s papers at the Visual AIDS archive, one way I tried to make sense of Zander’s play with representation of Blackness, PWA life, and their political implications was to return to scholar Kathleen Stewart’s writing about "ordinary affects"—which is her term for the public feelings generated by our everyday encounters with the complex (and often violent) structural conditions of our world. She describes ordinary affects as a frame that brings the entangled systems of (racial) capitalism, globalization, neoliberalism that saturate our everyday into view. Stewart says, simply, "They’re things that happen. They happen in impulses, sensations, expectations, daydreams, encounters, and habits of relating, in strategies and their failures, in forms of persuasion, contagion, and compulsion, in modes of attention, attachment, and agency, and in publics and social worlds of all kinds that catch people up in something that feels like something… They give circuits and flows the forms of a life. They can be experienced as a pleasure and a shock, as an empty pause or a dragging undertow, as a sensibility that snaps into place or a pro- found disorientation. They can be funny, perturbing, or traumatic."4 That ordinariness might prove productive for those of us who are thinking and creating across the theoretical and lived (always! LIVED!) trajectories of Blackness, queerness, and living-and-dying in the context of the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic and the racial capitalist systems that have always exacerbated it.

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Zander Alexander, PWA, 1994. Published in PWAC NY Newsline, December 1994.

Slocum’s work for Newsline in both the Zander Alexander, PWA strip and his regular editorial column "From the Editor" collectively attest to the idea that a playful representation of the Black gay PWA ordinary does not paper over these systemic concerns. For example, a strip from December 1994 shows Zander in two panels saying "I used to think that AIDS would change the world. – That we would finally shed all our 'isms' and fight for our lives with mutual respect together. Then again, I used to think Liberace was straight."

Within a few months, his "From the Editor" column turned from biting criticisms of AIDS policies to a profoundly personal—and at times crushingly visceral—account of his 21-day stay at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in New York City with "double pneumonia and an aggressive lymphoma."5

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Zander Alexander, PWA, 1994. Published in PWAC NY Newsline, July/August 1994.

In contrast to the pithy, slice-of-life humor that Zander brought to health complications resulting from AIDS, Slocum’s written account of his experience negotiating care in the hospital ranges from scenes where he advocates for himself after receiving treatment that is invasively, painfully, insensitively administered by doctors, to strident critiques of the Clinton and NYC Mayor David Dinkins administrations’ willfully ineffective policies on HIV/AIDS care and prevention. Across the Zander persona and Slocum’s own writing, the ordinary takes on a consciousness-raising, and evidently consciousness-sustaining effect. In spite of the more visceral tone, Slocum’s columns deliver practical advice out of diaristic writing. Nowhere is this more evident than in the first installment of his writing from the hospital, which ends with Slocum realizing that "I could and must take charge of this experience [of medical treatment]. Things did not have to happen to me. I could say no. I could say not now. I could say only with supportive drugs."6

Zander Alexander, PWA is rough, absurd, and in keeping with the genre of comics, loud. Meanwhile, Slocum’s Editor’s column also frequently espoused an introspective spirituality that readers today might associate with the scholar Kevin Quashie’s landmark theorizing of black interiority, The Sovereignty Of Quiet. Quashie writes that quiet "is a metaphor for the full range of one’s inner life—one’s desires, ambitions, hungers, vulnerabilities, fears. The inner life is not apolitical or without social value, but neither is it determined entirely by publicness. In fact, the interior— dynamic and ravishing—is a stay against the dominance of the social world; it has its own sovereignty. It is hard to see, even harder to describe, but no less potent in its ineffability."7 Slocum’s own approach to quiet-as-resilience is evident in his final column, which I came across on my visit to the Visual AIDS archive in May 2022. In the March 1995 issue Slocum devotes four pages to describing the experience of 5 days out of a 21-day hospital stay with "double pneumonia and an aggressive lymphoma."8

He describes a sense of quiet that comes over him on the fifth day, when he is finally alone and able to meditate:

Wednesday Day Five - Heaven

During the afternoon, I had some of my first hospital quiet time. No doctors, nurses, visitors, phone calls - and a closed door. It was a perfect time to meditate, and I needed it because I was beginning to feel pretty lousy, physically and emotionally. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to be silent. Soon, I had the sensation of floating away. I found myself in a remarkable space-not a physical space, but a dimension of existence. It was unlike any space I had ever known. It was pure peace. There was no emotional pain, confusion, doubt -- no hurt, no history, no questions-- nothing but the sensation of pure peace. I had never experienced anything like this. Quite literally, every bit of pain or hurt that I had ever experienced in my life no longer seemed a part of my experience…. I began to think of death.

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Slocum's column in the March 1995 issue of PWAC NY Newsline

Slocum’s disclosure is bookended by Zander Alexander’s reintroduction in the issue’s final three pages. It was that first comic that I found in the slides in the archive, and the one that I immediately thought to share for this piece of writing: Zander’s panicked flight to Mexico after being diagnosed with HIV, certain his death is mere days away. Zander recounts his reaction to developing "a lump on his neck"—lymphoma like Slocum was being treated for in the hospital—that led to his HIV diagnosis "eight years ago."

This is what the ordinary helps us to think through: the complex and often irresolvable nature of the circumstances of living and dying.

Zander’s escapist response to his diagnosis plays on the fantasy space that a comic provides, and the resolution returns us to a quotidian scene of the frivolous (read: queer) child asking for money from a conservative/responsible parent. The juxtaposition between the comic panic and deadpan closure of the action in Zander, and the earnest diaristic column in Slocum’s own voice are tied in part by the gravity of their shared circumstance. That shared circumstance is the question of mortality, and the capacity for a Black subject to access an imagination or interior life that exceeds death and dying, even momentarily. This is what the ordinary helps us to think through: the complex and often irresolvable nature of the circumstances of living and dying. To tarry with Slocum’s Black ordinary through Zander Alexander is to allow for an expression of that irresolvable tension that neither denies the gravity of those circumstances—both in the systematic sense and in the moment—nor allows the irresolvable mortal nature of those circumstances to hang heavy over the meaning-making of a scene in a life (Zander’s or Slocum’s).

In their totality these two iterations of Slocum’s voice make palpable the ordinariness of living with AIDS’s chronic uncertainties. They are neither harrowingly miraculous nor abject. Their draw comes from Slocum’s willingness to frame Black queer survival—which necessarily requires earnest sentiments like hope and diverse practices of resistance—in terms of the wry mundanity and absurd fantasy of Zander’s comic life. We can think of Slocum’s contribution to the archive of Black gay men’s cultural production in the long 80s as a "minor," yet deeply engaging experiment of "Black gay being," which as Darius Bost argues "attends not only to the forms of structural violence that usher black bodies to corporeal death but also to the foundational violence" that leads us to primarily represent the Black gay man as forever "imperiled."9 Zander Alexander, PWA can be understood as an account of that imperiled-ness on other terms. Slocum asks us to find value and solace in the forms, feelings, and strategies of survival that emerge from his Black gay ordinary.

Works Cited

1. Jafari Allen, There’s a discoball between us: A Theory of Black Gay Life (Durham, Duke University Press: 2021), 8.

2. Darius Bost, Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 4.

3. For more on the relationship between the comic form and representing the "affective intensity" of living and dying with HIV/AIDS, see Ramzi Fawaz, "Stripped to the Bone: Sequencing Queerness in the Comic Strip Work of Joe Brainard and David Wojnarowicz," ASAP/Journal, Volume 2, Number 2, May 2017: 335-367. The 2021 Visual AIDS exhibition on comics and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, “Comic Velocity,” curated by Paul Sammut, also addressed how comics have been used to “create and shape conversations about HIV and AIDS over the last for decades.” The essays featured in the catalog, in addition to the works shown (including Zander Alexander) most frequently dealt with narratives around infection, dying, and disclosure (frequently around the previous two events) in terms of high dramatic narratives. (eds. Paul Sammut and Kyle Croft, Comic Velocity: HIV and AIDS in Comics. New York, Visual AIDS, 2021.)

4. Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 1-2.

5. Slocum’s "From the Editor" column in Newsline, December 1994, Visual AIDS Archive Project, New York, NY.

6. Slocum’s "From the Editor" column in Newsline, February 1995, Visual AIDS Archive Project, New York, NY.

7. Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 6.

8. Slocum’s "From the Editor" column in Newsline, March 1995, Visual AIDS Archive Project, New York, NY.

9. Bost, 12.

About The Author

Olivia R. Polk is a Black dyke, Cancer bb, and PhD Candidate in American and African American Studies at Yale University, where she is completing a dissertation on Black lesbianism as a queer ethic. She is also a member of What Would an HIV Doula Do? (WWHIVDD). Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, and Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

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Michael Slocum