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."
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?
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.
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.
Whether overseas or in the United States, publicly or in our bedrooms, the AIDS epidemic requires us to step beyond our comfort zones. We must be braver than we've been before; we must locate our most powerful voice. Black people in particular must start expressing the previously unspeakable, communicating about subjects we've never discussed before and advocating for ourselves, our loved ones and our communities. Each of us must find the courage to ask:
If my Vienna experience taught me anything, it taught me this: As our community finds its collective voice, the world will treat us with the respect we deserve, and we will end this curse upon Black communities. In the process our offspring will witness our courage, empowering them to conquer the plights they will face during their lifetimes. At that point, people like me will step from the spotlight and return to our work in the background. But not until then.
Hilary Beard is a Philadelphia-based freelance health writer and editor and the editor-in-chief of the Black AIDS Weekly.