Table of Contents
- Personal Bio
- HIV Diagnosis
- African-American Identity and HIV
- HIV, Health Care and Treatment
- Disclosure, Relationships and Sex
- Resolutions, Adventures and Wishes
Tell us a little about your life.
I live in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood. It's a tight-knit community, within walking distance of my church and the Farragut housing projects where I grew up and where my mother still lives. My block has all nationalities, religions and races -- it's a nice place to live.
I am an artist and an AIDS activist. I sculpt, paint, speak and write about living with HIV and coordinate the AIDS ministry at my church, The Church of the Open Door. My sculptures have been exhibited throughout the world, from Brooklyn to Uganda in East Africa, where slides of my work were displayed to HIV-positive artists. I've also shown my work in women's shelters, churches and hospitals and done presentations in churches. I've been on TV and in POZ, Our Time Press, the Daily News and Amsterdam News.
Both my daughters have college educations and they're both married. I have two wonderful sons-in-law. I also have six grandchildren now, who are the lights of my life! As for a partner -- the Lord is my All, and I'm very fulfilled with Him leading my life.
Where did you grow up?
I was one of seven growing up in the 1960s in the Farragut housing project in Brooklyn. I was happy. My father made a point of taking us everywhere. Every Saturday, he'd pack us in the station wagon -- people used to call us the black Brady Bunch. He'd take us to Chinatown, museums, parks, everywhere. And each Sunday we would go to the Church of the Open Door, an inter-denominational place of worship near where I was a member of the children's choir. I often passed the time sewing my own clothes and reading through two favorite art books -- one on Leonardo da Vinci, the other on Pablo Picasso -- that my father had given me. I also loved Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I wanted to be a ballerina, an artist and a nurse.
What kinds of work have you done?
I've been a mother, I started my own successful hat and clothing business -- Small Business Opportunities magazine pinned me as one of the industry's "new designers on the rise" in the late 1980s. But my life was ruled by injecting heroin, and the profits only funded that.
I lived a dual life: During the day I would sell my hats in shops in downtown Manhattan, then head up to Harlem and buy drugs. By the time my daughters came home from school in the afternoon, I'd be there, quietly sewing at my sewing machine.
Beginning in 1980, I sought treatment for my addiction, and failed, 12 times. In the early '90s my eldest daughter gave birth to a daughter of her own -- my first grandchild. Her birth made me consider living. I felt terrible during my years of drug use. I would wake up sick every morning from the drugs, and every night I would pray for death.
After my HIV diagnosis in 1995, I went to the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services AIDS day program. There I realized I was really an artist. Shortly after my art therapy began, I started creating small sculptures without being able to stop. I became a conduit -- God's spirit guides my hands. Most of the time I don't plan any work, I don't have control over what I do. In it is a lot of fear and pain that I experienced from my past life. But I also express the love from my family and from God that has guided me. When I did my first art pieces, I couldn't stop. Not long after I started sculpting, I joined the Visual AIDS archive, and began exhibiting work at churches, hospitals and private shows throughout New York City. Seven TV programs have displayed my art or interviewed me about it.
I am a testimonial artist. My art is one of the tools used in the ministry God has entrusted me with. In my ministry, "From The Shooting Gallery To The Art Gallery," I use art, motivational speaking, singing, poetry and the Word of God. I speak about how He changed my life. I'm a living witness -- we can overcome shame and embarrassment and be healed from the pain of the past and have peace, hope and joy for the future.
Many people see my work and simply begin to cry, because they see themselves and their own suffering. My creations serve as a sort of passageway made of the earth, they connect these once-lost souls to one another, and to God as well. One of my works in clay is of a woman with a thin person sitting on her lap. They have both deteriorated physically, mentally and spiritually. The woman is looking to her right, passing this spirit on to God.
What work did your parents do?
My mother spent her days at home raising us kids. She's loving, compassionate and strong in the Lord. She's also emotional and used her love as a sort of blanket to protect us. My father was a self-taught tailor, cobbler and philosopher who spent 30 loyal years working for the U.S. Postal Service. He did all he could to lay open to his four sons and three daughters the possibilities outside our housing project. He was a great father.
Who are the most influential people in your life?
My parents, who always raised me right and were there for me through my addiction. All my brothers and sisters are on the right track. My sister, who lives in Paris, is a writer. My pastor, Reverend Dr. Mark Taylor, has been my mentor. My mother made and continues to make a profound impact on my life.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Art. But I haven't been able to do much this year because I haven't been able to get any grants. I love reading the word of God and being with my family.
I write testimonial songs. This one came to me in my sleep:
My family loved me
But there was nothing they could do
Because Satan was holding me around my ankles
He said, "Joyce McDonald, I got you!"
He tried to make me wanna die
I cut my wrists many times
But I know my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
He came right on time
You can see some of my artwork and hear my songs on the others on my Web site, which was donated by Min Thais Jackson.
How did you find out you were HIV positive?
In 1995 I was diagnosed with HIV. Even with my high-risk lifestyle I'd led since I first ran away from home in 1969, when I was 17 -- prostitution, injecting drugs -- I never even considered the possibility that I may have been infected. But I know I was infected in 1985.
In spite of their lifestyle, a lot of people are still in denial -- they believe they don't even need to get tested. In my case, I should've been the first one saying, "Please test me!" I went back to church and was getting counseling from Reverend Taylor at The Church of the Open Door, and he said, "Um, excuse me, Sister McDonald, but have you gotten tested?" I'm like, "Huh?" with a shocked look on my face. I almost felt insulted.
I said, "I'm not going into no health station." I didn't want anybody to see me go to a public health clinic near my home -- it'd make me feel ashamed. So he told me he would take me to his private doctor. He said, "If it'll make you feel better, I'll get tested, too." His love, concern and compassion touched my heart. So I said, "Well, if I ever think about doing it, I'll let you know." But I still wasn't interested.
Shortly after Christmas two months later -- the 17th anniversary of my father's death, I woke up and heard his voice, "Joyce, go get tested. Go pay homage to life." And I did. They tell you that you shouldn't go by yourself to get tested, but I had the Lord inside me. Ever since that moment I've never felt alone.
What were your feelings when you were first diagnosed?
I remember the day exactly -- January 13 -- when I went to the clinic to hear the results. The counselor said, "We have some not-so-good news for you. You have tested positive for the virus that can cause AIDS." I said, "Thank you." I was really thanking God, because I know if had I not received Christ at that time, I wouldn't have been able to deal with it -- I would have killed myself. I told my mother and pastor first.
I consider myself doubly blessed. As well as finding God, who was always there through all the trials of my past life, my family -- especially my mother, who prayed for me every day -- never gave up on me. My family embraced me without a second thought when I told them I was HIV positive. During the '80s and early '90s I went in and out of detox, and each time I'd come out they'd have signs up -- "Welcome Home!"
What advice would you offer someone who has just tested positive?
There is hope. There are many support groups and there is help available. Don't panic! Pray and get information. Some people turn to drugs, others hurt themselves. But I say, "Hold on, you're not alone. There are more people than you think out there with HIV." Get some spiritual support, from God and from your family.
In the early '90s, many people in my Brooklyn housing project believed that if you found out you're HIV positive, you've gotta hide. I know a lot of stories where people were feeding their HIV-positive family members from outside their bedroom doors or saying, "You can't live here." Fortunately many of those attitudes have changed over the last decade, because ministries have been taking the stigma out of AIDS.
I've been coordinating my church's ministry for the last three years now. I felt it was my responsibility to give something back, to help others who weren't lucky enough to get the kind of family support I had when I was diagnosed.
What conditions in your life put you at risk for getting infected with HIV?
For 23 years I went through rapes, abusive relationships, abortion, heroin addiction, prostitution and depression. Sometime after I turned 21 -- two years into my time as a call girl -- my pimp moved away all of a sudden. I moved back in with my parents for a little while, but I wasn't doing good. Sometimes I still took drugs -- sniffing heroin it was most of the time -- and I became involved in a new relationship. A year later my daughter was born. The following year, I gave birth to a second daughter. They were both born addicted to drugs -- the older to heroin, the younger to methadone -- that I took as a heroin replacement when I tried to get clean at a detox center. My parents helped raise them. Slowly I began to regain control of my life. To this day my daughters still show me the unconditional love they always had and still have for me.
When you look back, what would you have needed in order not to have gotten infected?
To not use drugs, and to have been more educated about HIV and understood that it could happen to me. Without God in my life, I was a mess. I remember when I received Jesus, though -- like a beam of bright light through the darkness. It was a Sunday in November 1993. I heard a voice in my head as I stood on a street corner waiting for a drug dealer, and instead I went to church and received Christ. I had not been to church in 30 years.