As we have just closed out on what may be the greatest black history month in some time, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the power of my feelings for my blackness. From Beyonce's politically charged video "Formation" to her Super Bowl performance adorned in Black Panther-esque attire, and Kendrick Lamar's visually stunning Grammy performance displaying African roots intertwined with American black men's mass incarceration problems.
These great moments seem to happen day after day, year after year, but there is one event that seems to be forgotten among all this greatness: the epidemic known as HIV/AIDS. Although this event has brought hurt, death and tragedy, after 35 years I feel it is important to discuss how far we have come as a race while honoring those we have lost along the way.
1981 is a year that will be remembered for many great triumphs and achievements in the United States of America: Ronald Reagan taking office as the 40th president; the debut of MTV, a 24-hour music-video channel pioneering a new era of musicians and talent across the world; Pac-Man sweeping the nation. Together with all these major events, another was happening, although at the time no one knew it: The first report of a new virus that had caused the deaths of seven gay men was published, and so began the epidemic.
It was 1981 when Dr. Gottlieb and his colleagues alerted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of rare cases of pneumocystis pneumonia, and the CDC published an alert about the mystery illness on June 5th. By the time this notice was published, over 250,000 Americans had already become infected and deaths were happening by the day. Patients number six and seven happened to be Haitian and African American, and they were the first to have their race reported. But the virus, which became known as AIDS the next year (and HIV a few years later), was limitless and boundless. It knew no racial, financial, educational or economic status that it could not infiltrate and infect.
African Americans played a major advocacy role over the next 35 years. In 1985, the first black AIDS organization Bebashi (Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues) was formed in Philadelphia. In San Francisco, Black and White Men Together, a task force led by activist Reggie Williams, was formed, while in Los Angeles, Rev. Carl Bean and members of his Unity Fellowship Church founded the Minority AIDS Project (MAP). By 1986, the first black AIDS conferences were taking place. With a grant from the U.S. Public Health Services, The National Conference on AIDS in the Black Community was held in Washington, DC. The conference was designed to address the specific needs of African Americans, as most existing AIDS organizations had grown out of the white gay movement and were ineffective in serving this demographic.
By the late '80s, the virus was now affecting black celebrities -- Alvin Ailey, Max Robinson, Sylvester, Will Smith (fashion designer) -- forever changing their legacies. People in music, fashion, dance, television, and other industries were getting infected and being given life expectancies that none of them would reach. The fact that the virus could touch such powerful people was a wake up call to the black community that money, fame and success could not buy one's way out of this virus. By the '90s, the virus was taking the lives of many more black celebrities and pioneers: gangsta rap pioneer "Easy E," tennis champion Arthur Ashe, dance legend Fela Kuti. As some of the early public causalities of this war against HIV, it is important that their narratives are not forgotten in the landscape of who they were before and after diagnosis.
However, it was on November 7, 1991, that the black community and world finally took notice of just how powerful this virus was. On that day, as the world took a deep breath, superstar basketball legend and Olympic gold medalist Magic "Ervin" Johnson held a press conference announcing that he too was HIV positive. This event would single handedly change societies' and black communities' views of this virus. Magic Johnson was not just a black icon, but an icon for all races. Children and adults across the world looked up to him and wanted to be like him. Captivated by his basketball prowess, they were now stunned and fearful that his death too would be imminent.
If nothing else, his announcement empowered black communities to get educated, get protection and stay protected. Messaging would forever be changed as more black celebrities joined the fight against the epidemic, starting foundations and charities in an effort to educate black communities whose elites were now falling prey to HIV. Television even took notice in a powerful episode of the hit show A Different World that was dedicated to a young woman living with HIV and the lack of knowledge among the black community on college campuses. The conversation was now growing within the black community, and the veil of silence was beginning to lift. As the virus was disproportionately affecting not only gay men, but also black women, the black community's voice became louder and services and resources were demanded.
As we embarked on a new millennium, there was hope in the form of planning, implementation and action. February 2001 marked the first National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, a day that forced the world to understand that, even within the epidemic, there were still marginalized groups whose needs required a special focus. It was during this time that some headway was made on treatment, with newer, better drugs introduced into the market to slow the death rate.
By 2005, over 565,000 people had died of HIV/AIDS in the United States. Although we are forever scarred by those deaths, the resiliency of the many who survived became the reality of the newly diagnosed: They could beat the virus. What once was a death sentence was now for many a second chance at life, and they jumped at the opportunity. Once 30-pill-a-day regimens had become one-a-day doses with minimal side effects. The black communities that once shunned their own began to accept them back into their homes.
We were recently hit with the devastating news from the CDC that one of two black gay men will contract HIV over his lifetime. Although this came as a severe blow to the work we do, we also know that it is the wake-up call needed for many of us to step up and take appropriate measures to make sure that doesn't become true.
I often imagine what the world would be like for the black community without AIDS. How much history have we lost to this virus? How many "firsts" could there have been had it not been for this virus rapidly taking many of our people away before their time? I take pride in how strong and resistant our community has been in fighting against this epidemic. We have come a mighty long way since 1981. In this 35th year, I honor the many legends we have lost, the many who have survived and future generations that will lead us to an HIV/AIDS-free world.
George M. Johnson is a writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. He has written for Huffpost, Ebony.com, Pride.com and Diverseeducation.com, and has a monthly column in A&U magazine. He is a loyal member of the Beyhive and you can follow him on Twitter @iamgmjohnson.