Thomas Allen Harris, About Face: The Evolution of a Black Producer, 2017. Still courtesy of the artist.

Thomas Allen Harris, About Face: The Evolution of a Black Producer

ALTERNATE ENDINGS, RADICAL BEGINNINGS is the 28th annual iteration of Visual AIDS’ longstanding Day With(out) Art project. Curated by Erin Christovale and Vivian Crockett for Visual AIDS, the video program prioritizes Black narratives within the ongoing AIDS epidemic, commissioning 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. 

Below, Day With(out) Art artist Thomas Allen Harris discusses his contribution to the program, About Face: The Evolution of a Black Producer

All seven artist statements are also printed in our Day With(out) Art 2017 publication, available here.

It's really important to think about the narrating of our history as a tool of empowerment. That is what I am trying to do by returning to the public television programs I produced for The Eleventh Hour and Thirteen Live public affairs shows as well as the essay I wrote entitled “About Face: The Evolution of a Black Producer.” Revisiting this material with the perspective of almost 30 years, a generation, I am thinking about what it means in light of where we are today. This video has allowed me to come full circle, to access my archive in two ways: First, I’m using public television segments that I saved of my work at WNET/Thirteen from 1987–91. Second, I’m drawing from an essay written very close to that time about the work I had been doing there, a kind of metanarrative I am able to understand as a document. This Visual AIDS project brings together the present and the past, the archive and my current work—which focuses on looking at a people's history, allowing people to narrate their own stories and write themselves into history.

The traditional way people think about the fight against AIDS, or the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, is almost exclusively through the narratives of white men. But people of color and LGBT+ folks working across gender were right there and were changing the entire landscape, and those stories rarely get the visibility. It was also a time of young, LGBT+ media-makers of color who were pushing for visibility through their work. The vanguard in the ‘90s, including Marlon Riggs, Cheryl Dunye, Yvonne Welbon, Raul Ferrera Balanquet, Shari Frilot, myself and others, were breaking open festivals and making space and resources available, laying the foundation for the acknowledgement of those narratives. If we had not written our own history then it would be even more of a white movement. I'm really happy that we were able to come together and produce a document: Narrating Our History: A Dialogue Among Queer Media Artists From the African Diaspora. This piece will receive its first publication in the US in Yvonne Welbon’s forthcoming book: Sisters in the Life: A History of Out African American Lesbian Media-Making, as the oldest document of queer female and male filmmakers of color in dialogue with one another.

I started my professional career as a photographer, taking pictures of exiled and immigrant communities in Europe in the mid ‘80s. I came back to New York and was working very closely with an amazing out gay producer who was my mentor, Ellis Haizlip, who had a show in the ‘70s called SOUL! and was producing events with The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Opportunities through Ellis opened up for me to start working in television. First with Children’s Television Workshop, and later I did a couple of projects that combined science and identity because I had studied biology at Harvard. I produced a show called Who Is In Science? which explored the reasons why people of color and women were constantly ejected from the science fields. I had never produced a taped or live public affair show but WNETexecutive producers offered me a production role.

I come from an activist background. My parents were very much involved with the African National Congress and the global South Africa anti-apartheid movement, so that was something I had grown up with from a very young age. I was out from the time I entered college, and in my work—whether photography, writing, or, later, film and television—I was very much interested in bringing voices that had been suppressed to the fore. At WNET, I embraced my role of activist and artist in addition to being a journalist, and in the process I began breaking stories and pushing the boundaries. There was a large response to HIV/AIDS among communities of color, so that was something I felt I really needed to focus on, as well as the ways HIV/AIDS awareness connected with artists, as there were a lot of artists who felt the urge to shift their practice in support of the AIDS activist movement. I was on a panel at the Black Popular Culture Conference where I talked about the work I had been doing with WNET. That essay, “About Face: The Evolution of a Black Producer,” was subsequently published in the seminal Black Popular Culture book and serves as the source of the inspiration for the Visual AIDS video.

It's amazing how much things have changed but also how much they have stayed the same or even regressed, especially in terms of the fights to give certain populations representation through media (which determines policy). A lot of my own shows on HIV/AIDS addressed structural healthcare inequity. Today we have the same underlying issues. HIV/AIDS is still being ignored in certain populations, particularly in the South and marginalized populations. In terms of care, it's important to fight to give platforms for these voices. HIV/AIDS in relationship to people's rights; the level of incarceration of African American and Latinx communities; scapegoating LGBT folks; funding being cut for awareness globally; people with HIV in Africa and certain parts of Europe or Asia; all of this is interconnected for me.

There's definitely a lot of work to do. While there is representation on the one hand—groundbreaking films like Moonlight—there is also tremendous marginalization of LGBT narratives, histories and realities. It seems like a retrenchment in terms of bullying and LGBT folks finding space where they can be affirmed after coming out within their families, where they don’t have to remain hiding or in exile. One of the reasons that I like to teach is because I connect with young LGBT folks, people of color, HIV+ folks, artists. How can we be of better service to folks coming up? I wonder, in New York City, what's happened to the culture post-gentrification of certain neighborhoods? As queer people of color, what spaces do we occupy? Where are the spaces that reach back? What makes a community cohesive?

I come from an intersecting African and queer diasporic perspective. Methods of marginalization the mainstream uses against LGBT+ folks are replicated in the LGBT+ community, particularly towards trans and gender non-conforming people of color and indigent communities. It's important to talk about who gets to tell a story and who has the resources, while also looking at how certain narratives or movements get co-opted. Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied or Yance Ford’s Strong Island center personal perspectives and leadership within our community as essential to breaking silences. My artistic craft is a participatory one, often working with other people towards collective empowerment to tell stories publically and through photography, whether in the United States, Brazil, South Africa and beyond. I’m looking to open up spaces. Foregrounding first person testimonial is so important.

~As told to Erin Christovale

Thomas Allen Harris is an award-winning director and President of Chimpanzee Productions, Inc. a company dedicated to producing unique audio-visual experiences that illuminate the human condition and the search for identity, family and spirituality, including feature length films, performances and live multimedia productions. Harris is a prolific gay artist who has shown at the Whitney Biennial and won Guggenheim and Sundance fellowships. Harris has recently shown in the AfroPoP series produced by the National Black Programming Consortium at PBS. His personal and innovative films- Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People (2014), Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela (2005), E Minha Cara/That’s My Face (2001), VINTAGE-Families of Value (1995) have received critical acclaim at International film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Toronto, FESPACO, Outfest, Flaherty, Cape Town and Melbourne Arts Festival. Harris lives and works in New York City, NY.