"The beginning of the end of life is when we remain silent about things that matter."
-- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
HIV/AIDS is the number one cause of death for both Black males and females, between the ages of 22-45. In the U.S. African Americans make up about 14% percent of the population, yet they comprise over 50% of the newly infected. In one study of young gay men, 30% of the African-Americans were HIV-positive. That's like the numbers in sub-Saharan Africa. If these statements do not surprise you, you are one of the few. African Americans are becoming infected and dying of AIDS in record numbers. The question to be posed is, why?
Our nation has been in the fight against HIV/AIDS for over 20 years now. The government pours millions of dollars into care, treatment and prevention. Why are there still so many Black people becoming infected and dying from this virus? We know from reports that there are health disparities between communities of color and the white population. We also know that in communities of color there is an inherited mistrust of the system. Do these reasons equate to the disproportionate amount of black people infected by this disease? Yes, they do play a part, but only a part. African Americans have other obstacles, which put them on the frontline of this virus.
Many people in Black communities are under the misguided perception that AIDS is a disease that only affects the gay population and those people who misuse drugs. In the 1980s, the gay and lesbian community did a great job of putting a face on this horrific virus, and should be commended. They refused to let their brothers die in silence. Now the time has long passed for the other faces of AIDS to be brought to the forefront. Black communities around the country need to rise up and refuse to perish without a fight. We should not pass silently into the night.
Many of those who lose the battle to AIDS in the Black community are not counted as those who have fallen to this virus. Cancer, pneumonia, or heart attacks are causes of death that we tell our family and friends. Those who are infected still fear letting others know on the chance they may be ostracized from family, friends, and the community at large. Many continue to die alone with no one to hold their hands or wipe their brows. Far too many do not seek care fearing that family and neighbors will discover the secret. Still others do not test, wrongly believing that ignorance is bliss. Shame is robbing our community of its lifeline and its future.
Even our churches, which have been a bastion of support in the Black community for many worthy causes, have not risen to this fight in appropriate numbers. Ministers continue to blame those who are infected for being immoral and sinners. How sad it is that some of our churches take this view. Some of our politicians are saying teach abstinence-only in our schools. Abstinence-only has been taught for many years and we still have a problem in this country with teen pregnancy. We cannot allow our children to die using antiquated solutions, which have never proven effective. If we do not become educated about this disease, if we do not drag AIDS out of the shadows where it has been able to fester and grow in our communities, then we will perish. The shame and ignorance surrounding AIDS in Black America could lead to the demise of us all.
We are in a burning building and only a few are shouting for all of us to get out.
What do we need to do to survive this epidemic? We need to shatter the stigma associated with HIV, homosexuality, and substance use. We need to destroy the ignorance that has allowed HIV to grow uncontrollably in Black America. We need to become educated about HIV/AIDS. Teaching abstinence is good, but we should also teach our children how to protect themselves if they are engaging in sex. To do this is not condoning sex. It is condoning life. We must stop treating those with HIV/AIDS as though they are lepers, and give them the support, love and respect that all who have a chronic disease deserve. Our churches and community leaders must be at the frontline of this battle. We need to stop worrying about how an individual became infected and concern ourselves with how those who are infected can live long, loving and productive lives. We need to become the great caring people that we are possible of being and have been for generations. Most of all, we need to stop allowing our mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers from dying alone and in silence.
Get tested, even if you feel as though you are not at risk for this virus. Get information about treatment options, if you are HIV-positive. Play safe.
Charles W. Martin is the Executive Director of the Julius Adams AIDS Task Force, located in Key West, Florida. He can be reached at Jaatfed@aol.com or (305) 295-2437.