Finding Our Voices, Claiming Our Power
August 23, 2010
When I was asked to lead the Black AIDS Institute's Black media delegation to the 2010 International AIDS Conference in Vienna in July, I assumed that I would work in the background, as an editor often does. I would assemble the team, research, plan, assign, edit and coach writers as they penned their pieces, and if lucky, I would attend a few sessions and perhaps even write a little. Our journalist team would be out front, researching and reporting on issues important to Black people worldwide, particularly Black Americans.
But on day 2 the groundbreaking CAPRISA research, in which a microbicide gel made with an antiretroviral drug dramatically reduced women's HIV (and genital herpes) risk, captured my attention. Women the world over struggle to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS, in part because of unequal gender demographics and dynamics, and because greater authority -- for example, the power to refuse to use condom -- often rests in men's hands, increasing women's infection risk.
Many African American women experience this reality as they fall in love, bear children and build families in communities decimated by our government's "war on drugs" and its consequent criminalization of Black males, whose incarceration wrenches them from relationships, families and communities in devastating numbers. This cycle wreaks havoc upon millions and costs America a high price that it doesn't even acknowledge it pays.
I wanted to know how this microbicide would play, not just in Peoria (or Pretoria, for that matter), but in Black Philadelphia -- Pennsylvania and Mississippi. Would women use it under real-world conditions, in which they may fear not only losing love but also jeopardizing their economic stability; placing their children in harm's way; experiencing verbal, emotional or physical abuse; or just experiencing less of such a basic human pleasure in their (often anguishing) lives?
I, too, have experienced such trepidation -- in my case worrying that my persistence about using condoms might strain a romance, but nothing more severe than that. I am well educated, provide for myself, don't have children to worry about and have never been abused. Such privilege demands that I advocate for others. Both the Bible and African proverbs guide me: To whom much is given, much is required.
"What does the microbicide taste like?" I asked a friend who attended the session where the researchers had announced their results.
"I don't know," he replied. "I wanted to ask but was chicken shit."
Feeling No Ways Tired
We both knew that lives lay in the balance. If women -- and, hopefully, men -- are one day to use such a gel, their partners cannot detect it; nor can it interfere with the sexual experience. Someone needed to inquire what the gel tasted like, whether feeling timid or not. The South African principal investigators were not fainthearted and had not backed down when their seven previous clinical trials had failed to prove that a microbicide could work. The Black South African female clinical-trial volunteers hadn't chickened out but, rather, had risked the well-being of their most intimate selves in an effort to end AIDS' devastation.
My parents hadn't wavered after deciding that our family would integrate our neighborhood despite neighbors' threats to burn down our home. My great-great-grandmother, enslaved in Georgia, had fearlessly chopped off her own big toe, undercutting her market value, after hearing that she would be sold away from her children -- a lineage that would, in time, include me. I knew that, if necessary, I would leverage this heritage. The question would be asked in the press conference that afternoon.
But how does a Black woman pose such an indiscreet query in the presence of men whom she does not know, and before media that consistently exploit her likeness and refuse to see beyond Black women's body parts? Might asking dishonor me, my race or my ancestors whose bravery had forged my pathway into that room? Could my honest question be distorted into a shameful but all-too-common image: Black woman hypersexualized? And what would Jesus do?
This article was provided by Black AIDS Institute. It is a part of the publication Black AIDS Weekly. Visit Black AIDS Institute's website to find out more about their activities and publications.
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