Remembering Bill Hawkeswood ’89 (1951-1992)
When a 32-year-old anthropologist arrived at International House from Auckland, New Zealand, in September 1984, he could not have foreseen the role he would play in the community during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, nor the impact I-House would have on him and his subsequent work.
William G. (Bill) Hawkeswood had received a President’s Fellowship to pursue his PhD in Anthropology at Columbia University. An openly gay man, his eventual scholarly focus would be the gay community in Harlem, which would result in groundbreaking research that became a posthumously published book.
Few who lived at the House in the latter half of the 1980s would forget Hawkeswood’s dynamic presence on the 9th floor, where he lived, or throughout the building where he worked as a senior House Manager, back when residents filled those Public Safety roles.
A burly, bearded redhead with a great sense of irreverent fun, Hawkeswood strode the halls with assurance, made friends easily, and was as well-liked by fellow residents as by his classmates and colleagues at Columbia.
His I-House residency coincided with the scourge of AIDS in the United States, with New York City being particularly hard-hit. Health and advocacy organizations such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis had started efforts through educational programs and counseling to stem the spread of the disease.
Alarmed that uninformed I-House residents might be vulnerable to infection, Hawkeswood urged then-Programs & Resident Life Director Ellie Spiegel to embark on an effort to educate the community about awareness, prevention, and safe practices. At the offsite Training Weekend for resident position holders in September 1985, and at subsequent meetings and roundtable discussions, he spoke passionately on the topic.
“He was really the first person at I-House to speak out and call attention to it,” recalls Spiegel. “We all learned so much from him.”
In addition to his advocacy, his studies and his other responsibilities, Hawkeswood enjoyed an active social life in and out of the House, as recalled by a close friend he described as his “adopted little brother” from New Zealand, Sashi Meanger.
“Bill absolutely loved I-House,” says Meanger, a business and education consultant in Wellington, “to the point that he insisted I come visit him there. It was my first time in New York, and he wanted to make sure I was looked after. We ate in the Dining Room, and of course straight away, people came up to us at the table to say hello.”
By this time, one of Hawkewood’s best friends, longtime Claremont Receptionist Marshall Swiney, had introduced him to gay nightlife in New York — something practically unknown in his native Auckland at the time. (The shy, younger Meanger likened the experience to “Alice in Wonderland.”)
“Bill was such a wonderful social anthropologist,” says Swiney. “I took him dancing with some friends at the Paradise Garage. We were the same age, nobody judged. Bill was fabulous.”
It was this legendary dance club in Greenwich Village, and his subsequent forays with Swiney into Upper Manhattan, that propelled Hawkeswood’s interest in the topic which would define his career: the lives of gay black men in Harlem.
As he would later write, Hawkeswood sought “to capture some of the complexity and extraordinary vitality of a vibrant, colorful, and expressive culture and to convey the importance of social networks and personal relationships to the survival of a population of men often neglected not only by social science but by American society at large.”
His extensive research and interviews with 57 subjects over many months resulted in a study about gay black identity, and its expression in the social construct and lifestyles of men in Harlem. His findings offered a broader context for the gay black experience, a previously unexplored topic.
David Patterson ‘89, then pursuing his PhD in Historical Musicology at Columbia, was another close friend at I-House, and after the two moved out in 1989, they shared an apartment on West 112th Street. For the next two years, Hawkeswood conducted his research while also teaching at Columbia, SUNY Purchase and John Jay College, and he moved to Jersey City in 1990.
Patterson, now an independent scholar based in Oak Park, IL, recalls Hawkeswood’s research which, he notes, had no precursor and paralleled the same period as the documentary film “Paris is Burning,” which chronicled the drag ball culture of New York in the late 80’s.
“I was often one of the first to hear his accounts of his many research experiences in Harlem — tales that were as entertaining and outsized as his own personality,” writes Patterson in an email. “I always admired not only his passion for his work but also his genuine concern for the people whose lives he would ultimately weave together in his dissertation.”
Hawkeswood completed his dissertation and was awarded his PhD by Columbia in the spring of 1991. He then began the process of converting it into a book, One of the Children: Gay Black Men in Harlem, published by University of California Press in 1996.
In her Foreword to the book, his mentor at Columbia, Katherine Newman, PhD, described Hawkeswood as one of her favorite anthropology students.
“Indeed, he was beloved by everyone in the Anthropology Department,” she wrote. “He was always larger than life, but was also capable of great intimacy and warmth, and he was always unfailingly generous with his time, his considerable expertise, and his spirit.”
Hawkeswood would not live to see the publication of his work. In the summer of 1992, with financial help from his friend Sashi Meanger, he embarked on a trip to Africa, which he had long wanted to visit. The trip was cut short, however, when he fell ill.
In mid-August, Hawkeswood phoned David Patterson to say he was hospitalized in Brooklyn with pneumonia — “a word that for gay men almost always meant pneumocystis pneumonia, one of the most common opportunistic infections associated with HIV or AIDS,” says Patterson.
Patterson went to the hospital to meet his friend when he was released on August 21st and accompanied him as he closed his local bank accounts before heading back to Jersey City. (“The last time I’ll be in New York,” he said as they rode in a taxi past the World Trade Center).
By then, Hawkeswood was quite ill and severely depleted. Patterson and other I-House friends took turns staying with him until he flew home to Auckland, where Sashi Meanger held his hand in the hours before he died on September 13th.
“Understanding the importance of his work, others took up the final tasks of editing the book manuscript, and today the final product is rightly recognized and admired as a cornerstone in the study of both the black and gay communities,” says Patterson.
Among those mentioned in the book’s acknowledgments, Hawkeswood thanked Marshall Swiney “who introduced me to life on the streets of New York City – Greenwich Village and Harlem in particular,” as well as Patterson and Sashi Meanger, all three of whom took part – Meanger by speaker phone — in a memorial service held in the Dodge Room at International House on October 31st.
“He would have been pleased not only to see his work put before the public but to take his place among social scientists committed to the analysis and understanding of gay life in America,” wrote Katherine Newman in 1996. “For Bill, this was a passion, an expression of his own identity and his intellectual center.”
Hawkeswood’s legacy continues in other ways. Los Angeles-based writer James Latham ’89 remembers his “rare combination of great knowledge and the ability to share it effectively with diverse people. His sense of humor, openness, and curiosity were great lubricants for engaging on important and difficult subjects with all sorts of people, myself included.”
“While at I-House, I studied engineering, but afterward I went to NYU to study more personally meaningful subjects involving race and film,” says Latham, who earned an MA and PhD in Cinema Studies. “My first published article was on early film exhibition in Harlem, and my doctoral dissertation examined early Hollywood’s depictions of race, ethnicity, and nationality. Memories of Bill were part of my inspiration for doing that work.”
“And now, decades later, I have been showing my Ethiopian-born daughter films like “Paris is Burning,” and the documentaries of Marlon Riggs — introducing one of my own children to some of the cultural richness and real-life issues I initially learned from Bill Hawkeswood.”
(Photos courtesy of David Patterson ’89)