Author Jennifer Dominique Jones visited Yale on Thursday to give a talk on civil rights groups’ responses to HIV/AIDS at the height of the epidemic in the late 80s to early 90s.
For a little under an hour, Jones covered how black civil rights organizations failed to sufficiently address topics of sexuality and intravenous drug use in their response the crisis. The talk was followed by a question-and-answer session, during which Jones stepped out of the traditional Q&A mold by asking for feedback and suggestions on her work. About 15 people attended the discussion, which was sponsored by the Yale Research Initiative on the History of Sexualities.
“I think there’s one style of academic presentation that’s about presenting the most polished piece of work one can, and I think that’s really valuable,” Jones said. “But, I also find that presenting work that is a bit rougher around the edges allows me to hear things from scholars and students about the arguments that I’m making that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered.”
Jones focused on how the women’s auxiliary group of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC/W.O.M.E.N. Inc., took a leadership role in addressing HIV/AIDS through a nationwide social campaign. By reframing AIDS as a danger to women and children, she said, the organization attempted to downplay the stigma surrounding the disease as a result of its association with gay men and intravenous drug users.
In doing so, they convinced churches and communities to address the crisis but unintentionally reinforced a culture of silence on the topic of homosexuality and drug use, Jones added.
“Overall, I think what the SCLC/W.O.M.E.N. was trying to get across was that HIV/AIDS is an impediment to African-American political and social progress,” she said. “They put the focus on collective destiny.”
After the speech, Jones welcomed both criticism and suggestions from the audience, composed mostly of graduate students and professors. She made note of audience members’ questions and comments in a small notebook and told the News after the talk that she intended to follow up on the advice from the audience.
Established 10 years ago, the Yale Research Initiative on the History of Sexualities hosts lectures, symposiums and workshops. The program brings in scholars from around the world to inform the Yale community about the history of sexuality, said Joanne Meyerowitz, a history professor and the organizer of the event. It was Jones’ current book project on the intersection of black liberalism and queer politics that prompted the program to invite her to speak, Meyerowitz added.
Jones first began navigating the complex historical relationship between the LGBTQ and black communities when she was a graduate student at Princeton University. Now a postdoctoral fellow in Department of History at the University of Michigan, she is working on a book titled “Queering An American Dilemma: Sexuality, Gender, and Race Relations in the United States, 1945–1988.”
In that book, Jones said she plans to explain how the civil rights movement, still contending with institutional racism, was cautious in addressing the causes of HIV/AIDS in black communities. More specifically, she researched the ways SCLC/W.O.M.E.N. handled a crisis that disproportionately affected the black community while contending internally with the additional pressures of homophobia and the politics of respectability.
Student attendees appreciated the intersectional lens through which Jones approached the topic of HIV/AIDS in the late 20th century.
“I thought it was a really interesting combination of histories of blackness and queerness, which are not really brought together in the literature,” said Beans Velocci GRD ’21. “So, it was really great to meet a scholar who’s bringing two frequently divergent fields together.”
In 2015, African Americans accounted for 45 percent of HIV diagnoses, despite comprising only 12 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Maya Chandra | firstname.lastname@example.org