Finding Our Voices, Claiming Our Power
August 23, 2010
Serving the World
During the press conference, the taste question hung in the air -- no journalist asked the obvious. I summoned the courage to pose it myself, but a Black woman can't just walk up to a mic and say, "How does the microbicide taste?" Or can she? I asked my friend and mentor Linda Villarosa, whose pedigree includes Essence magazine and The New York Times, for advice. She suggested asking the researchers to describe the gel's properties. Perfect!
My turn. "Last question -- quick question, quick answer," the moderator said.
As I deep-breathed, the voice in my head recited the Marianne Williamson line that I'd memorized years earlier (and often erroneously attributed to Nelson Mandela's inaugural address): Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking ...
"Can you characterize the nature of the gel for me, please? What does it look like? What does it smell like? What's the touch-feel? How does it taste? Take me through the five senses," I said.
Then principal coinvestigator, epidemiologist Quarraisha Abdool Kareem, Ph.D., startled me by inviting me to the dais to see for myself. A panelist passed the applicator to me, and I squirted a dollop of gel into my hand. When I looked up, I found myself encircled by TV cameras, digital cameras, notepads and pens, a sea of (mostly) White faces lined up several rows deep.
Then I witnessed something remarkable: Black women, followed by several White men, shoved their way through the reporters to sample the gel for themselves. Stunned and now humbled by what their determination implied, I placed a small blob into several hands, then displayed my microbicide-filled palm to the cameras.
Brilliant or Basic?
But my ancestors warned me not to sample the gel. "Your job is done," they whispered. I left the on-camera taste testing to somebody else. With the media's attention elsewhere, I examined the microbicide discreetly: It is clear, odorless, the consistency of K-Y jelly, and has a slightly saline, body-like flavor. A woman could use it without her partner knowing. (It has not yet been tested for men.)
Afterward, a White South African television cameraman told me that my question was brilliant -- a right-brain question in a left-brained room. Perhaps. Yet I had merely asked what any woman who might use the gel would want to know. The fact that I needed to pose the question at all underscored the importance of my presence in that room and of our delegation's vital role at the conference.
Of course, I was not the only Black journalist who brandished a braver voice that week. Each member of our delegation became progressively powerful. Whether refuting mainstream-media claims that poverty, rather than race, drives the U.S. epidemic; demanding the same advance access to experts that mainstream outlets obtain; or representing underserved people by voicing their interests, we asserted ourselves as analysts and advocates for Black people throughout the Diaspora.
The international AIDS community took note. People inquired who we were and why we had come, considered our perspectives, honored our concerns, granted late-night interviews and even admitted being unable to address all of our queries because they'd never considered such questions before. Opened eyes and honest dialogues proved that we'd earned universal respect.
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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