Every week Khafre Abif is at the barbershop getting his mustache and beard trimmed — and sometimes talking about HIV. “I often talk about HIV and other health disparities in the barbershop,” says Abif, an activist, author, and the editor of Cornbread, Fish and Collard Greens: Prayers, Poems & Affirmations for People Living With HIV/AIDS. “My barber knows I am positive because I am asked what I do and because I share the articles in which I am featured. I have shown a copy of [the book] to my barber, and he has in turn shared it with the other barbers. Now I get questions from barbers and clients when I am at the barbershop about HIV, prostate cancer, and many other health issues.”
It’s not a surprising story. Black-owned barbershops have always been a community hub, one in which some guys are more willing to shoot the breeze about health issues than in a clinical medial setting. But it wasn’t always the case for Abif.
Abif was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, and he didn’t tell his mother that he was positive until five years later. She hugged him, they prayed, and she cooked — hence the title of Cornbread, Fish and Collard Greens. “She put her arms around me; she prayed for me and prayed over my life. And then she went downstairs to the kitchen and pulled out a cast iron skillet and started cooking cornbread — she wanted to fatten me up, I guess.”
He still had to find his voice as a poz man, though. Abif was an HIV and AIDS activist on behalf of other people, with work centered around his local Ryan White CARE Act Planning Council, statewide community planning, and other forums where he kept his status confidential. He had a voice, he says, but his advocacy focused on the needs of children, youth, and families, particularly black families, he says.
In 2005 he left his career as a librarian and returned home to Pittsburgh “to care for my MaDear [mother], who had cancer for the second time. While caring for her, she spoke with me about my calling/assignment and my need to step out of whatever was holding me back from walking into what God has for me to do. It was like she was freeing me from the shame, stigma, and fear by letting me know how proud she is of me and the fact that, at the end, what matters most is what I have done for the Kingdom of God. It was then I began to speak and share openly, publicly, about my status and sexuality. My activism came out into the public.”
Abif was able to speak openly about being bisexual and HIV-positive and to gather 125 authors and poets (some famous, many not) to offer their words about HIV for a book that’s now available worldwide in several languages, including English, Spanish, French, Xhosa, and Zulu. “We wanted to create a quilt of words to wrap around people to combat the negative words we living with HIV often hear from family, community and just the media,” says Abif.
It still hasn’t reached as many people as he’d like — though it’s used in support groups and by several organizations — but readers who’ve reached out to him via social media have been demonstrably impacted. One message read, “When I ordered my copy via Amazon it arrived on the fifth anniversary of my partner’s death. I began reading Cornbread and I needed to reach out and share with you how it is the medicine I so desperately needed today.”
He started the book after launching his pet project, Cycle for Freedom, which he began working on five years ago when “two very dear friend and warriors in this fight against HIV made their transition,” he recalls. “They were both long-term survivors. I sat in quiet contemplation asked God, ‘Why am I still here?’ I began to receive the answer.”
Abif envisioned Cycle for Freedom as a national mobilizing campaign meant to reduce the spread of HIV among African-Americans and Latinos by confronting the three critical issues that fuel the HIV pandemic: HIV-related stigma, homophobia, and lack of education. Participants will do so over 75 days this year on a bike trip along what they call the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route, with working groups in 14 cities to offer rapid HIV testing and counseling and an antistigma component specifically tailored to meet the needs of the populations who bear the brunt of stigma in the host cities.
Of course, it’s not all activism for Abif. He’s raised two sons, both college students and, he brags, both on full scholarship. “My oldest is 6 foot 8 and on the men’s basketball team at Drexel University, while my other son is studying neuroscience at Georgia State University with a 3.85 cumulative GPA,” he says. “I have always wanted to be a father, and I have been blessed in that regard.”
This busy dad works as a parent liaison for Atlanta Public Schools, leads an HIV support group weekly, is a fiber artist (“I made quilts and have made several for the Names Project”) and wicked cook (“I love to cook and folks love what I cook”), and a man of faith (“I love the support I give and receive from my church home”). But at the end of the day he’s a storyteller or, rather, a story sharer. He’s got plans to curate and edit five more collections of stories by LGBT people or people with HIV (one for women, another for straight men with HIV, whose voices are rarely heard), and there’s a memoir in the mix too. It’s all a wonderful mash-up of community, church, and family. And don’t forget, love. The once-divorced author-activist-leader and his partner, his youngest son’s mother, have been together nearly 15 years now — and, he reminds us, “she remains HIV-negative.”
Photo by Duane Cramer