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Monday Reflection: Always Be Authentic!

By Rae Lewis-Thornton

May 9, 2011

Monday Reflection: Always Be Authentic!

This piece originally appeared in Rae's blog, Diva Living With AIDS.

Saturday was one of the biggest days of my life. I put it right up there with winning my Emmy Award, receiving my Master of Divinity Degree, being licensed as a minister and of course being inducted into my sorority Delta Sigma Theta as a honorary member for my lifetime achievement to help improve the human condition.

To receive the Distinguished Alumna Award from my college, Northeastern Illinois University, and deliver the commencement address was a milestone in my life. The fact that my alma mater recognized my work and accomplishments around HIV/AIDS was just wonderful. I mean HIV/AIDS is still a taboo topic, people are still living in shame sealed in stigma. And let's be honest... I do go around the country talking a whole lot of mess. But like I told them, "You cannot save lives sugar coating shit." And that's a fact!!

But honestly, I was a nervous wreck trying to decide what to tell these graduates. I mean, should I be true to myself, or should I become someone who I didn't know or never met to make everyone happy?

Just trying to get a direction I even watched some commencement addresses of others to see what they had said. And in the end, I decided to be true to myself. Watching Ellen Degeneres deliver the commencement address at Tulane University confirmed for me what was in my heart. She was truly herself. Funny, endearing, and most of all, she didn't waiver ideologically. Not one bit. She addressed the issue of homophobia and her sexuality with boldness, and then she sent them on their way. I'm sure deep in the South there were some saying why would they bring her to speak? And why would she talk about homophobia and her sexuality at a commencement? But she didn't let potential naysayers deter her.

And when I really think about it... Isn't that why they choose a speaker? Because of who they are and what they are? At least I think so... So anyway... I went forth in the same kind of spirit as Ellen, being essentially the core of who I am.

I never write speeches but I sat down to make sure that my thoughts were clear. I've been fasting now for almost a month to receive guidance from the Lord and, in the end, I was content. Content with what God had given me to say. I was authentic, honest, candid and transparent.

Monday Reflection: Always Be Authentic!

But isn't that who I am? Isn't that the core of my ministry and work? Isn't that why I received such a wonderful honor in the first place? To do or try to be something that I was not would have been a disservice to the very core of who I am and a disservice to my recognition on that day.

But it appears that I have created a tad bit of controversy... Someone tweeted me today that, "I also thought the commencement speech was a little bit too much. Your speech made me cringe in disgust."

I will be posting the speech later this week. Not for you to judge me. Remember judgments kill... But so you can discuss what I had to say in it's fullness.

I know I'm provocative, there's no way around that fact... But like President Hahs said to me at lunch, "Provocative is ok within a particular context," and that my context was very much appropriate.

But then in the middle of writing this blog... With tears streaming down my face... I got a wonderful email... Yes I did! God knows exactly what you need... and to back it up, phone calls from my friends Luke and Dwana who were reading those mean tweets... I sort of felt like today was not the day for this. I mean, I really really really don't feel good and those tweets hit me hard.

Monday Reflection: Always Be Authentic!

But then the email made me cry even harder... An email from a woman in the audience who told me that my speech touched her. But that something I said in particular hit the very core of her. The part where I said, "Ladies, don't let a man waste your pretty." In a relationship herself for three years and no engagement in sight... WOW...

And then, yes, one Facebook message said, "Thank you so much for your powerful address at the NEIU graduation today. POWERFUL is an understatement."

And another... "Amazing speech today!!! I am truly inspired." And the good messages continue to come in via Facebook, Twitter, my blog and email... So I'm sure there will always be critics. There will always be people who disagree... But I was taught a long time ago, it's ok to agree to disagree.

Monday Reflection: Always Be Authentic!

In fact, my hope is that my speech would generate discussion on important topics I mentioned in my speech. HIV/AIDS, perseverance, childhood abuse, and all in the context of the importance of an education. How could people see only disgust in my story and not perseverance? Anywho... I welcome the dialogue...

But there is a fine line between constructive criticism, productive dialogue and attacks. I hope each of us will learn the difference. Oh, and by the way, someone sitting on the dais leaned over to me after I was done and said, "Thank you, my mother is also living with AIDS." If I did nothing that day, but make that one man proud and unashamed... then my task was accomplished!

With that said... I take all of my hits standing and I never fall down. At the end of the day, like with AIDS, all I can do is stand! If I had to do it over again I wouldn't change not one damn word!! It is what God laid on my heart and I am always obedient to the will of God for my life.

In the end, I will always be authentic to who I am and the work God has called me to do. If my truths make you cringe with disgust all I can say is I'm sorry that you cannot handle my truths... But ummm, like I used to tell my ex-husband, "Don't make me lie because you can't handle the truth!"

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Rae Lewis-Thornton Speaks

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.

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