October 12, 2010
Oprah Winfrey and I share a favorite Maya Angelou quote: "When you know better you do better." Oprah uses Dr. Angelou's words as inspiration; I use them as a personal challenge. I am constantly asking myself, "What is it that I need to know in order to do better? And what is the evidence that I am, in fact, doing better?"
Six years ago I appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." To this day I regret that TV appearance more than almost any other. The episode was on the subject of the down low (DL). The primary guest was J.L. King, author of On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of "Straight" Black Men Who Sleep with Men. Going into the show I knew there was no data (and there still isn't) supporting the idea that the DL is either the primary mode of transmission for Black women or even a major engine driving the AIDS epidemic in Black America.
I also knew that my appearance on "Oprah" offered a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to engage Black people in discussing HIV/AIDS and to provide information that might save Black women's lives. After the show was over, I felt we had failed on all counts, and that I had participated in that failure.
The show contributed to a depiction of Black men as amoral sexual predators and Black women as helpless victims. It created yet another boogey man, providing our community with yet another excuse to avoid taking responsibility for preventing the spread of the disease. The media devolved into a DL frenzy -- covering the down low ad nauseum -- while neglecting meaningful issues about HIV testing, prevention, treatment, research and stigma.
Today, I wonder how many Black women were infected with HIV while we obsessed about the DL rather than discussing substantive issues that could help women and men protect themselves and each other. Black people's lives depend upon our ability to do better.
Last week Oprah revisited the subject by inviting Bridget Gordon, an HIV positive woman who was infected by her DL husband, onto the show and bringing J.L. King back. My heart sank when I received the press release announcing the show. "Here we go again," I feared. But true to Maya's maxim, Oprah knew better and did better. This episode exemplified why Oprah is the most powerful person on TV today: This time around, she took this extremely complicated and nuanced issue and led a masterful conversation that increased our knowledge about how HIV looks in Black communities.
The show focused on meaningful information we need to know and conversations we need to have. We need to know our HIV status and the HIV status of our partners. Black women need to trust their gut. When they think that something is not quite right, walk away from unhealthy or abusive relationships. We need take responsibility for protecting ourselves from HIV -- it is nobody else's job to protect us but us. We need to move from blame and shame to responsibility and accountability. We need to create a culture that embraces all of us regardless of gender or sexual orientation. We need our wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters to know they are beautiful and complete whether they are partnered or not. And we need Black men to step up to the plate, be honest about who we are, regardless of sexual orientation, and provide the leadership this issue demands from Black men.
AIDS in America today is primarily a Black disease. The only way to end this epidemic is for Black people to take ownership of it. We have to stop pretending it's someone else's problem; stop waiting for someone else to solve it; stop believing that the government is going to save us; stop using other's inaction to rationalize our lack of action; stop complaining that corporations, foundations, and other institutions don't care about us and using that to justify us not caring enough about ourselves.
Over the next several weeks, we will visit some of the ground Oprah covered in more detail -- complacency about HIV, the realities of every day Black folk living with HIV/AIDS, responsibility and accountability, prevention and stigma, and how Black culture contributes to the DL. I hope you will join us by sending us your comments, tweeting on the subject, and putting up posts on Facebook.
Because now that we know better it's time for us to do better.