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The Evolution of African American Awareness About HIV/AIDS

November/December 2000

If it's true that the first step to recovery is acknowledging that you have a problem, then the black community's sobriety about AIDS has begun. The 1990s began with a reality check: On November 7, 1991, b-baller Magic Johnson dropped a bombshell about his HIV diagnosis and inadvertently created the largest AIDS awareness campaign targeting blacks in the history of the disease. Although African-Americans have accounted for nearly a quarter of HIV infections since 1985 and have exceeded whites in AIDS deaths since 1993, Johnson brought AIDS from the fringe of African-American concern and entered it into our dialogues at barbershops and beauty salons in 'hoods across the nation.

Listening to all of the talk that ensued about how to stay negative, however, seemed too late for me. I'd already beaten Magic to the pos punchbowl over a year earlier. But if Magic's disclosure wasn't enough to persuade blacks that AIDS was partly our problem, the death of tennis pro-turned-human rights activist Arthur Ashe five months later reinforced the message. A year later, as I danced my worries away at a nightclub, a new for-charity remix by rap queens Salt-N-Pepa swapped lyrics from their hit song "Let's Talk About Sex" to "Let's Talk About AIDS." On the strobe-lit dance floor, folks shook their rumps all the same as the prevention message penetrated our collective conscious.

By March 1995, gansta rapper Eazy-E shocked the hip-hop community when he announced that he had AIDS before dying of the disease later that month. If a hardcore rapper with a bulletproof public persona fell to this disease, I wondered, how am I still here? A handful of Eazy's fellow hip-hip artists -- a genre that had been notorious for AIDS-phobic lyrics -- joined Red Hot Organization to produce the under-appreciated rap album "America Is Dying Slowly" about safer sex. When I heard rapper Method Man spit: "Wu Tang on that AIDS thang," I knew nothing would be the same again. The AIDS landscape was transforming all around me -- for better and worse. My friends who used to chatter about folks that they knew with HIV were now chatting with me about their own positive status. I began understanding the magnitude of the problem when the number of people I knew with HIV grew from a couple to a full-flanked posse. But a grassroots push was still lacking.

By 1996, with African American devastation dominating nearly every major AIDS category, few could deny the need for organized community-based action. By May 1998, after many phone calls and much arm-twisting by a handful of black AIDS advocates, African-American leaders finally mobilized against the disease. The Congressional Black Caucus led the charge on Capitol Hill, wielding their influence with President Clinton, and eventually secured over $400 million to target the problem.

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With the cash, longstanding black AIDS organizations, like the Balm In Gilead in New York City, are better-positioned to engage black churches seeking to start AIDS ministries. Black Gay organizations, like New York's Gay Men of African Decent, have been empowered to begin an AIDS off-shoot to carry forth forward-thinking safer sex messages snuffed by the loss of filmmaker Marlon Riggs in 1994 and poet Essex Hemphill in 1995. As for me, I've found the courage to disclose to my family and community, whose ideas about AIDS acceptance have improved over the last decade. And our evolution continues.

LeRoy Whitfield, former Positively Aware Associate Editor, is now Senior Editor of POZ magazine.



  
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This article was provided by Positively Aware. It is a part of the publication Positively Aware. Visit Positively Aware's website to find out more about the publication.
 
See Also
TheBody.com's HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
HIV and Me: An African American's Guide to Living With HIV
More Personal Accounts on African Americans and HIV

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