For Day With(out) Art 2017, Visual AIDS commissioned seven new and innovative short videos from artists Mykki Blanco, Cheryl Dunye & Ellen Spiro, Reina Gossett, Thomas Allen Harris, Kia LaBeija, Tiona Nekkia McClodden and Brontez Purnell. Curated by Erin Christovale and Vivian Crockett for Visual AIDS, the video program ALTERNATE ENDINGS, RADICAL BEGINNINGS prioritized Black narratives within the ongoing AIDS epidemic.
Here, Darius Bost responds to Cheryl Dunye & Ellen Spiro's, "DiAna's Hair Ego REMIX."
In 1989, Ellen Spiro directed the short film, DiAna’s Hair Ego: AIDS Info Up Front, which documents the AIDS education and prevention efforts of two black women in Columbia, South Carolina—cosmetologist DiAna DiAna, and public health educator Dr. Bambi Gaddist. The film focuses on their grassroots activism, based in DiAna’s hair salon, DiAna’s Hair Ego. According to historian Tanisha C. Ford, beauty shops have long been places of refuge and sisterhood for black women, and during the Civil Rights era became a space to organize and mobilize other women, and a space to find emotional support in the face of the demoralizing violence of racism and sexism. DiAna and Bambi extend this work into the early era of the AIDS epidemic, focusing on sex positive prevention and education strategies, and a holistic approach to health in the midst of racial, gender, sexual, and regional ideologies that rendered Southern black heterosexual women an invisible, yet highly vulnerable population impacted by AIDS. What stood out to me most about the film was their creative educational and prevention strategies. The team used innovative methods to teach black women and men to say words like fellatio and cunnilungus, things rarely talked about, but certainly performed in black Southern communities. DiAna and Bambi also administered programs and created coloring books for local school-aged children to teach them about the pleasures and dangers of sex. Their pioneering approach to sex education filled a gap between state-produced knowledge about sex, sexual identities, and sexual health, and black sexual cultures and practices in the urban South.
In 2017, for Visual AIDS’ Day With(out) Art ALTERNATE ENDINGS, RADICAL BEGINNINGS, Spiro and fellow feminist filmmaker Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman; Stranger Inside), created a follow-up short film, titled DiAna’s Hair Ego REMIX, which revisited DiAna DiAna and Bambi Gaddist at DiAna’s Hair Ego salon thirty years later. Displayed in white font on the black spaces of the film are a number of recent statistics representing the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS in black communities. According to a 2017 South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control report, black people make up 28% of the population of South Carolina, but make up 69% of people living with HIV. While the rate of new infections for African American women has declined since the early years of the epidemic, they are still disproportionately affected in terms of the number of people living with HIV/AIDS and in the rate of newly diagnosed cases. Black men in the United States currently comprise the greatest number of new diagnoses, the highest proportion of people living with HIV/AIDS, and the highest percentage of people who die from AIDS related complications. In DiAna’s Hair Ego REMIX, Dr. Gaddist expresses frustration with these abysmal statistics, after thirty years of activism, and due to the lack of public interest regarding AIDS, now that the face of HIV/AIDS has changed from white gay men to poor people of color, across genders and sexualities, particularly in the American South and global South.
DiAna’s Hair Ego REMIX grapples with this frustration, exhaustion, and despair through the art of remixing. By remixing I mean the recombination, reinterpretation, and reworking of the aesthetic forms, emotions, histories, and politics associated with the AIDS epidemic. One can see this remixing in the form of the film, which mixes footage from the original film with the new narrative. The film also remixes the negative emotions generated by the epidemic through its representations of collectivity, conviviality, and care in the salon, invoking the beauty shop’s historical role as a space of emotional support. Another way we can interpret the film’s remixing is in its staging of a conversation between a new generation of youth activists and an older generation of artists and activists. While DiAna DiAna and Dr. Gaddist embody a history of sustained grassroots movements against AIDS in black communities, the appearance of young black LGBT activists in the film demonstrates how sustained social movements must be remixed in order to confront the epidemic in the current historical context. As political scientist Cathy Cohen argues, “Black youth can help us remix our democratic principles and practices, recognizing that full membership and the participation of all must be the basis for American politics in the 21st century.”
In the face of a state government that has all but divested funds from public prevention efforts, a public health apparatus that has become more punitive than preventative, rapidly rising costs of pharmaceuticals, and precarious access to affordable care under the current administration, Diana’s Hair Ego REMIX offers us a fresh vision—a multilayered, intersectional, and malleable approach to ongoing struggles against AIDS. The film asks us to remember and to build on the legacy of black women’s labor, knowledge production, and creativity in the fight against AIDS, while asking us to consider what must be remixed in order to sustain local and global social movements against AIDS. Throughout the film, DiAna washes and styles Cheryl’s twists, Bambi’s short-cropped do, Bailey’s platinum tresses, and Stacy’s gold-tipped locs. With each wash and set, DiAna demonstrates that sustaining social movements requires artists and activists to make space for “other” bodies, stories, identities, and practices; and with each new encounter, possibilities for ending HIV/AIDS in black communities emerge.
Darius Bost is Assistant Professor of Sexuality Studies and Assistant Director of the Center for Research and Education on Gender and Sexuality at San Francisco State University. His research focuses in the areas of Black cultural studies, LGBT and queer studies, feminist, gender, and sexuality studies, trauma studies, and HIV/AIDS. His book, Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence (forthcoming, University of Chicago Press), is an interdisciplinary study of black gay cultural movements in Washington, D.C., and New York City at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. His research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the President’s Office and the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at San Francisco State University, the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Social Sciences at Duke University, the Martin Duberman Visiting Scholars Program at the New York Public Library, and the Penn Predoctoral Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. Related research has been published or is forthcoming in Journal of American History, Criticism, Journal of West Indian Literature, Occasion, and several edited collections.