- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
James was a man of small stature, but with much pizazz. He would come into the record store where I worked during undergrad to check the billboard charts once a week and purchase a few records here and there. He became my friend somewhere through mid to late nineties contemporary rhythm and blues. He had spunk. The first time he invited me to his little apartment I fell in love. He had built an amazing shrine of Diana Ross there, and as we sat and sipped tea he told me all about his relationship with The Boss- the front row concert seats, them meeting. He just seemed much too beautiful a man to be alone.
He contended that AIDS had done it, made him lonely. He teared up as he told me about all of the friends, and some lovers, he had lost to the disease in the eighties. He would relate to each friend with a funny antidote, a story about why his friend was so fantastic, and how he watched them suffer a tragic death at the hands of some sort of gay man’s cancer. “That’s what they called it then” he said, “We didn’t know what it was, but we knew we were dying”. This, I believe, is when I was able to place on the statistics and research that I read concerning the disease, a human face, and more so the face of a really fantastic one.
The disease would hit closer to home with the sudden illness and death of a favorite cousin, Troy. To this day, my family will not discuss how he may have contracted the disease. Not that the acknowledgment would matter in that it would expose his imperfections, but that, like James’ friends, it would paint a picture of his life, the real one, that he didn’t trust many of us, I’m sure because of our own bigotry and biases, to share. There are rumors of closeted homosexuality, of drug abuse, but we will never know, none of us. If there is pain surrounding him not being here, it is the fact that he had to suffer in silence, that we all did and continue to. Myth and lore have stolen his story and legacy. Somehow his humanity was diminished because he was sick, not a sickness unlike the cancer that James spoke about, just like it actually, without a cure and an end in sight. It is the stigma though that prevents us from healing and making peace, with Troy and with all who suffer with the disease.
I remember HIV/AIDS being, supposedly, a gay White man’s disease. The idea that it has since become a straight Black woman’s disease is not lost on me- a Black girl from a community where the disease has become such a pandemic that organizations literally go door to door begging residents to be tested. In our lifetimes, according to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 15 Black men will contract HIV, and 1 in 30 Black women will become HIV positive. Black women, however, are contracting the disease at the highest rate of all. Now these statistics are representative of testing conducted within the US. They do not include other Black and Brown people within the Diaspora- in Africa, in the Caribbean.
If we view HIV and AIDS from a global perspective, how it affects the world we are trying to save, the statistics are much more staggering. Consider two words: Our babies. It is believed that over 370,000 of the children who contract HIV annually do so through Mother to Child Transmission (MTCT), a statistic that could change immensely, that could cease actually, with the availability of the anti-viral medications that should be accessible to all battling the disease. It is a shame and a sham that these statistics exist, it is heartbreaking that many of the children affected are Black, Brown and poor. One desires to dismiss the conspiracy theorist that claim the spread of HIV and AIDS is part of a larger plan to extinguish the world’s poor people of color, but when she looks at statistics like these, she at least pauses to reflect on the idea.
The theme and goal of this year’s World AIDS Day is “universal access and human rights.” We are working towards a generation without new HIV transmissions. We want to yell from the rooftops that contracting HIV/AIDS is NOT a death sentence. We can live. Sure, it will be a tremendous battle, but what battle have we faced that has not been? I am reminded of a quote from James Baldwin, whose death anniversary coincidentally is also today:
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Be safe. Know your HIV status. Have compassion for those living with HIV and AIDS and contempt for those who promote stigmas that stifle their living. Donate what you can- your voice, your money, your heart- to the struggle to free our communities and world from this disease. I believe in you enough to know that you can do it.