This post continues our December series on the life and work of AIDS activist Chuck Selber.
Chuck was, as his mom Flo Selber puts it, “ahead of his time.”
In Shreveport, Louisiana, in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the Selber family had a clothing store for men, women and children. Chuck was in charge of the fashion show and included black citizens as models. This was one of many times when Chuck stood up to discriminatory norms.
In 1988, he wrote a letter to his family: “In the event that I, Charles Paul Selber, predecease my father and my mother, I would appreciate that upon both my parents’ death…. [my nieces and nephews] shall be asked to donate volunteer time to a human rights organization other than a Jewish one on a regular basis.”
He was never one who cared only for “his own” group. Chuck was an AIDS activist and a human rights advocate and he often tried to engage others in this holy work too.
Chuck did attribute his deep commitment to human rights to his Jewish upbringing. He was, as he explained, taught to never forget the Holocaust, and to never let it happen again. “I took that Judaic instruction very seriously, and I have based my entire consciousness on it,” he wrote. In addition to regularly attending religious school, Chuck was First Vice-President of the Southern Federation of Temple Youth, SOFTY (now NFTY-Southern), a regional Reform Jewish teen network, and took his role very seriously. He served alongside Macy Hart, founder and President of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
Chuck was a writer, and like many writers, he wrote with the goal of bringing about social change. Chuck clearly believed in the power of writing. According to his mother Flo, he was always at his typewriter—feverishly writing. In 1990, he wrote to Dr. Louis Sullivan, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, requesting that he consider certain medical expenses to be approved as itemized deductions. In a collection of his writing, a pile of responses to letters he wrote to people in positions of power demonstrates his commitment to bringing about systemic change.
Chuck used his writing skills, his experience as a director, and his work in the entertainment and film fileds to advocate on behalf of people living with AIDS. He wrote a play, “In Defense of the Committee,” based on the premise that if policy makers were affected by AIDS, the treatment of AIDS would be a greater priority. In the first scene of his play we learn about “the committee” that went around infecting the sons and daughters of politicians with the AIDS virus. The message is clear: when we feel that we are being treating unjustly, we take greater responsibility for bringing about change.
Complacency, he seems to say, is the outcome of having little, if any, connection with the issue. He distinguishes people with AIDS from people who retired and infers that people who have retired receive more generous benefits because every congressman knows that they will be in the position of a retiree one day. It’s inescapable when it’s personal.
Do you have ideas about how to raise awareness among people who are not directly impacted by an issue? What are your ideas?
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For many years, social activists and academics have pontificated on the role that anger plays in the pursuit of social justice. Is it possible that until injustice leads to an escalation of anger, the status quo will be maintained? Do we really have to get angry to be in a position to make a difference? And once we are fired up and ready to make a difference, is it the people with the most anger who can make the greatest impact?
There are no absolute answers to these questions. However, it is clear that anger has its place in the process of social change.
In honor of World AIDS Day, marked on December 1 each year, I wanted to share some words from an activist who was energized by his anger and was able to make a difference. Often, activists hide their anger for fear that it may negatively affect the outcomes they are trying desperately to achieve. But sometimes, anger cannot be hidden – and perhaps it shouldn’t be.
Charles “Chuck” Selber, a Jewish man from Shreveport, Louisiana, didn’t keep his anger inside. He wrote a play, countless letters, and newspaper articles as he repeatedly tried to explain—never defend—the anger that he embodied as an AIDS activist in the 1980s. Chuck was one of three individuals who founded ACT-UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power). In a letter Chuck wrote to his dad in 1990, he stated “ACT-UP has succeeded because of people who are angry and because of people who get mad.”
In the 1980s there was no shortage of reasons for someone living with HIV/AIDS to be angry. Chuck’s mom, Flo Selber, explained to me that in all of Shreveport, there was only one pharmacy that sold AZT (then the only “cocktail” for treating HIV/AIDS). Dentists would not take patients with AIDS. Their ophthalmologist would only see Chuck after office hours, when other patients wouldn’t know about it. Regarding medicine, Chuck wrote “We won’t allow toxic poisons into our community. We don’t want gangs or drug pushers or neo-Nazis in Shreveport. Why don’t we want life-saving medicine?”
Chuck Selber passed away December 22, 1991 at the young age of 43. One of the many obituaries published at the time of his death provides a glimpse of the reach Chuck had during his short life: “There is hardly an effort in this community involving AIDS victims that did not bear the imprint of Mr. Selber’s activism.”
Anger, it seems, was one of the tools he used to raise awareness and find his voice. In honor of World AIDS Day, and with permission from Chuck’s mother, Flo Selber, we are going to share two more blog posts with excerpts from Chuck’s play, In Defense of the Committee.
Though World AIDS Day is today, throughout the month of December this social justice topic will be explored deeply, through Chuck’s words and legacy of righteous indignation at a world not willing to grant him the help and dignity he deserved.
On World AIDS Day, how is your community acknowledging the impact AIDS continues to have on the world? Are there specific injustices that make you angry, and if so, how do you channel your anger?
As I get ready for my Southern family’s traditional Thanksgiving celebration, which this year will overlap our celebration of Hanukkah… well, there’s been all this talk of “Thanksgivukkah,” but right now it’s the annual menu that’s on my mind.
Thinking about all the foods we eat, and how this night too is “different from all other nights,” I realized this holiday needs its own four questions:
1) On all other nights, we eat only one carbohydrate. Why on this night do we have sweet potato casserole with a gooey marshmallow topping, mashed potatoes, bread, cornbread dressing, stuffing, and rolls (oh, those many, many delicious dinner rolls)?
2) On all other nights we eat raw, steamed or sautéed vegetables. Why on this night do we serve our green beans in a casserole that loses nutritional value with a can of cream soup and crunchy onion rings on top?
3) On all other nights, we don’t dip our chicken, turkey or meat in gravy. Why on this night do we generously smother everything in gravy?
4) On all other nights, we eat sitting upright. Why on this night do we eat and eat and eat, then eat some pie and recline in front of a football game?
Of course, this year, in addition to the regular old Four Questions of Thanksgiving, we have another one: On all other Thanksgivings, we don’t light a menorah. Why on this night…
Well – that one has a really clear answer, at least.
As for the others, well, the holiday in the United States began as a feast and giving thanks for a good harvest. Today, the holiday has become about families gathering around a table and giving thanks for being together – which isn’t an excuse for the overly-decadent food.
So there may not be a truly satisfying answer to each of the 4 Questions of Thanksgiving, but the overall answer is that we do it to celebrate with our families, enjoying what we have and hopefully also remembering those in need and sharing in the bounty.
And as for all the carbs and calories, well… it’s only once a year, right?