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One Thing AIDS Can Never Take Away: My Books

By Rae Lewis-Thornton

November 17, 2010

Mama had a third grade reading level so reading was not a part of my household in my early childhood. I can't even remember reading a book until 7th grade, that's when my world changed. Mama was a maid at the Evanston Inn and we moved from Chicago's Englewood to Evanston's North Shore community so she could be closer to her job.

Seventh Grade at Chute Middle School changed my life for the good and the bad. The good was this whole new world that opened up to me. I had a 5th grade reading level when I entered 7th grade. But my homeroom teacher, Mr. Murphy, got me all the help that I needed. I was pulled out of class to work one on one with a Language Arts specialist. And then in 8th grade, I landed Dr. Lorraine Morton as my homeroom teacher. And Mama Morton, as we called her, opened my world to literature, and that opened my mind and touched my heart. I learned Sojourner Truth's speech Ain't I a Woman in that class and it gave me life, and sent me on a search for more.

By the time I reached freshman year at Evanston Township, one of the top public schools in the state of Illinois at the time, I was on my path beyond anything I could have imaged. Education, books, and reading took on an entirely new meaning for me. It became my way out of an abusive home that only got worse with time. The bad took center stage. Mama sent me to school everyday, but she didn't like the fact that I was learning new words that she didn't understand.

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The tension mounted and only got worse after I told Mama that her husband was grabbing my breasts and pushing me in corners. Instead of being a mother to me, she tightened her grip on being a woman to him. I became not her daughter who was being violated, but her competition. The only way she could approach the situation to keep the man she wanted was making me the problem. In her eyes her husband wouldn't want me if I wasn't me. That fast ass bitch who now thinks she's white; acting white with her new learning and flaunting her maturing body in front of her man. In her eyes, I was his temptation not his victim. It was sick and twisted, and the only place I could hide was in a book, school, and church.

I spent hours in my bedroom sequestered with the door closed reading the classics from the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes, Larsen, Hurston, Wright and Baldwin. Books became my escape and my salvation. Reading was a way to transcend my own painful world. Taking the focus off me, I began to focus on the plight of my people. It was a catalyst for the political work I would do years later.

I wanted to know more and the more I read, the more I wanted to read. The fiction of this period was powerful and empowering all at the same time. It spoke to my own degradation and gave me hope for a better tomorrow. It gave me purpose for my own life and the courage to fight the good fight and never surrender. Not to my Mama and not to my Mama's husband. No matter how many times he grabbed my breasts I never let him see one tear. I held my head as high as I possibly could. I took Mama's beatings and kept it moving. I was determined to be better than my situation.

Reading is the one thing that the pain of my life could never take away from me. It was the thing that helped to make it better. In my darkest hour a book became my protection. And even today, living with AIDS, books continue to be the safest place for me. It's the one thing that belongs to me that AIDS cannot take away from me. I read at least a book a month to three books a week.

I love to read! Inside a book I escape into someone else's life. There is something wonderful about turning to the next page of a wonderful story. Something intoxicating about the smell of the book and the story it brings to life. I don't think I will ever be an electronic book person. I love the actual book itself. Reading brings me joy, and these days with my health in the balance, I find solace in my books. So here goes... I'm organizing a book club! I find that every time I tweet that I'm reading, one of my followers wants to know what I'm reading.

So I've decided to organize a Twitter Book Club. It's not limited to people on Twitter, but it certainly evolved out of Twitter. It will be an online book club with a live feed through my blog and Twitter. If it goes well then maybe the Chicago readers will meet in person. This book club will be reading and tea with Rae. They are two of the things that bring me joy that AIDS can never take away as long as I have a breath in my body that I want to share with you.

The RLTReads book club will be books that I choose. It's me sharing a part of me with you that has nothing to do with AIDS. It's actually in spite of AIDS. I have read hundreds of books from many different genres and I will pick the best of my reads over the years. I warn you, it will not be exclusively white or black, male or female, fiction or non fiction, it will be all of them.

The first book I will announce on December 1st, World AIDS Day. I am choosing a book that I have never read but have been told it's a great book. I've tried a few times, but I always put it down. We will read it together and we will get through it together and decide if it's as good as everybody wants me to believe. After that the books I choose will be the best of my reads over the years starting back in 7th grade.

So far, 50 people have signed on board from Twitter. Let me know if you want to join. We will be reading a new book every 6-8 weeks depending on the size of the book.

I'm so excited and I'm grateful to everyone who wants to be a part of this new venture. You can email me @ RLTReads@raelewisthornton.com. The Twitter hashtag is #RLTReads. I can't wait to get started! We can make this book club as wonderful as we want to make it. I hope that it will be yet another legacy I leave behind. Who says that Oprah has to have the only ownership to a wonderful book club?

Everyone who has already joined or who wants to join, please send me your email and the top five books that you have ever read in your life. I will at some point choose a book from your list.

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Rae Lewis-Thornton

Rae Lewis-Thornton

Rae Lewis-Thornton is an Emmy Award-winning AIDS activist who rose to national acclaim when she told her story of living with AIDS in a cover story for Essence Magazine. She has lived with HIV for 27 years and AIDS for 19. Rae travels the country speaking and challenging stereotypes and myths about HIV/AIDS. She has a Master of Divinity degree and is currently working on her Ph.D. in Church History. Rae has been featured on Nightline, Dateline NBC, BET and The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as in countless magazines and newspapers, including Emerge, Glamour, O, the Oprah Winfrey Magazine, Jet, Ebony, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, to name a few. She earned the coveted Emmy Award for a first-person series on living With AIDS for Chicago's CBS News.

Rae is an active user of social media -- read "Long-Term HIV Survivor Discovers the Power of Twitter," an article on TheBody.com about Rae's social media activities.

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