H(e)art of Gold: A Conversation with Hartsel Clifton Shirley

Influenced by writers such as Langston Hughes, Beverly Cleary and Richard Wright, Bishop Hartsel Clifton Shirley is a multi-talented singer/songwriter, author and HIV activist. To date he has published three books. The War Within: Frankie’s Story published in 2012. Three Words, Four Letters published in 2015. And The Night Eddie Sallis Died published in 2019.

“I write the fiction stories and do the music not so much for money, but for the same gender loving young man or woman, teenager who may be out there thinking that they can’t do it, “he said.

Mr. Shirley received his master’s degree in business from the International Business Management Institute based in Berlin, Germany.

He is a bishop of New Directions Overcomers International Fellowship. He became a bishop after having a conversation with a friend on Facebook. Since 2002 Hartsel has been involved with HIV advocacy. He’s an open book when it comes to revealing his own status and has participated in numerous HIV conferences and workshops. He shared his life’s journey with the hope of helping others.

PrideIndex (PI): Talk about your journey and how you became the man you are today.

Hartsel Clifton Shirley (HCS): My journey wasn’t an easy one. I am from Waterloo, Iowa and as you might imagine, the Black community isn’t huge, but it’s big enough. In my teen years, when I was very aware of my same sex attraction, I kept it to myself. I was into music and not sports, which seemed to lend for the opportunity for some teasing by my male teenage peers. I was even approached by a couple during those years, but denial was my choice and protection. After graduating from high school, I managed to venture out and act upon my true nature which led to my 1st relationship. That relationship was mentally, sexually and physically abusive and in the end left me positive, petrified, and living on auto-pilot. Every relationship after that was mostly physical, and add to that I had started going to church because of how bad the 1st one was – this had me even more conflicted about my sexuality. In the end, I realized I had to be true to myself and things got remarkably better for me after that.

PI: How did you come out?

(HCS): I didn’t really ‘come out.’ I just eased myself into things. ‘Coming out’ was not a viable option for me. I would’ve been greatly ostracized by my peers and family. I witnessed some who came out and the way that they were treated and it was absolutely horrifying.

PI: How many books have you published to date? Provide names and dates of each book.

(HCS): I have three books published. The first is The War Within: Frankie’s Story published in 2012. The second is Three Words, Four Letters published in 2015. The last is The Night Eddie Sallis Died published in 2019.

PI: What themes do you cover in your writings?

(HCS): I write about relationships, same gender loving and straight. I write about love and I intertwine HIV into the storylines because it’s a fact of life. It may not be the flavor of the minute anymore, but it still very prevalent in Black America.

PI: Name at least 3 writers that have most affected your writing style.

(HCS): Three writers that have affected my style are Langston Hughes, Beverly Cleary and Richard Wright. Langston was highly conservative and poetically descriptive of what he saw and felt. Beverly Cleary created characters that were memorable, lively and relatable. Richard Wright wrote fearlessly about the reality of existence as a Black man.

PI: I’ve read that you were a bishop. Talk about that and what was like to keep your lifestyle under wraps?

(HCS): I became a bishop by way of a conversation with a Facebook friend who I didn’t know was the founder of a fellowship. It was through conversation with him that I was offered the opportunity to become a bishop. It wasn’t ‘poof, you’re a bishop.’ I had to take an abbreviated seminary course, write numerous papers, take numerous tests, and be approved to become a bishop. I am not a part of the ‘good ole boys’ network of big-name bishops, and don’t want to be. I never, ever considered being a same gender loving man to be a “lifestyle”. You choose lifestyles just like you choose what color underwear to put on. Being a same gender loving man is a gift from the Creator and it took a minute to realize it, accept it, and embrace it. There’s so much bullshit to wade through that Black American culture puts one through.

PI: Tell us about all your current book.

(HCS): My current book, The Night Eddie Sallis Died, is based on a true story. It is about the murder of a Black man in my hometown of Waterloo, Iowa. He was murdered by the police while in jail in police custody, but the report from the police was that he hung himself in the jail cell. I got wind of him in the one and only NAACP meeting I went to in my hometown in 2002 during a study circle with the NAACP and the police department. A city council person asked me to ask the sheriff about Eddie Sallis and when I did, the sheriff refused to talk about him. This piqued my curiosity and from then on I searched for information on Eddie Sallis. It was through a conversation with a Junior High/High school friend who works for the local newspaper there that I was provided every article that appeared in the newspaper. This allowed me to piece together the story of Eddie Sallis and to be able to reveal the truth about his death.

PI: Describe any notable challenges you have encountered while writing this book and how you have overcome them.

(HCS): The main challenge I had writing the book was the lack of information available to me until I talked with my classmate. Up to that point, the information was scarce. The story was big enough that it is noted in the city’s history, even making Jet magazine back in the 60s when it happened, but due to many unfortunate circumstances it got buried with time.

PI: What advice would you give other aspiring authors?

(HCS): I would tell aspiring writers to be true to themselves as they write. Do not try to write like someone else. There is no cookie-cutter way to write, although we have been taught so in school. The most important part is the purpose that you’re writing about. You have an audience waiting for you – hopefully you find them and they find you!

PI: Where can our readers find your book?

(HCS): My first book is available on Amazon. Three Words, Four Letters has to be purchased from me directly. I can be reached on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The Night Eddie Sallis Died is available on Lulu.com.

PI: What’s next for you on the horizon?

(HCS): Next on the horizon is to get the second and third parts to Three Words, Four Letters out this year. I am also going to be working on my 4th music project. The 1st project, Stay with Me, is available on Amazon and most other music sites. My 2nd music project is only available by download on Bandcamp.com. Songs that would be the 3rd project are also available for download on Bandcamp.com.

I write the fiction stories and do the music not so much for money, but for the same gender loving young man or woman, teenager who may be out there thinking that they can’t do it. Though we have big name folks now such as Lil Nas X, not become as big as he did. I remember being in Iowa searching and looking for books, movies, poetry, anything that I could relate to as a same gender loving man. It wasn’t until the Internet that I was able to access any of it and find my tribe.