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Marvelyn Brown: The Accidental Activist

May 11, 2011

Marvelyn Brown

I stood in the huddle during a time-out of a vicious basketball battle against a rival high school as the coach told us that the game-winning shot should go to our team captain. Once the time-out was over, I in-bounded the ball to her. Our captain was heavily guarded yet ran the play. When she realized that I was wide open and had the better shot, she passed the ball back to me. As the clock wound down, I looked at the basket, then I passed the ball right back to her. Before she caught my pass, the clock ran out. They won. I'd blown the game.

I had been capable of making the game-winning shot, but I hadn't had confidence in myself. In those days I was not a leader: The captain had more faith in me than I'd had in myself. And winning felt uncomfortable to me. I would rather cost us the game than win.

As a result of consistently hearing that I was not good enough from teachers and my mom, I felt like a failure back then. The fact that I was one of the best defensive players in the state of Tennessee just wasn't enough for my mom. She would overlook that and tell me that I was not excelling on offense. She wanted me to excel at both. No matter what I did, I heard only what I was doing wrong. In many areas of my life, I became scared to succeed, and comfortable with failing.

Then, at 19, I found out that I had HIV. Not knowing about the stigma that surrounded the virus, I told five people, but within weeks, hundreds knew of my HIV status. Immediately, family and friends disowned me, and before I knew it I was alone. People went from telling me that I was not good enough to telling me my life was over.

But even though people counted me out, God did not. God believed in me when I did not believe in myself.

Now that no one was around to give me their opinion, the only person's opinion that mattered was mine. Being alone helped me come to terms with my true self. I was okay with who I was; it was everyone else who had the problem. They say that you don't know how strong you are until you have no choice. Well, I grew tired of being told, "You are dying" and "You are getting skinny and ugly." The fighter in me came out.

Since so many people knew my status and everybody had something to say about it, I decided to put my story in the statewide newspaper. I wanted to prove them wrong: I was growing into a beautiful young woman, and I was healthy. Looking back on it now, putting my story in the paper was selfish. But I was tired of listening to other people's negative thoughts and knew that if I told my story myself, I could stop all the gossip.

The story was published in October 2003. I used my real name, and the article included pictures of me participating in everyday life, from me at the gym to me sitting and thinking. The rumors stopped, and people started getting educated about HIV. I'd thought, if anything, that because of the article, people would find more negative things to say about me. I'd had no idea that they would call me a hero and an inspiration.

For much of my life, I had fed upon negative energy. I'd been unaware of my strengths and too scared to tap into the ones that I knew about. But once the article came out, my purpose became clear and I discovered that I am a born leader. I began to grow more confident. Today I use my personal story as a tool for helping others.

Sometimes I think back on that basketball game that I blew and how far I've come as a result of this big disease with a little name. I now understand that I had the potential to lead -- we all do. I just did not have the heart that I do today. Take me back to the game now -- five seconds on the clock, ball in my hand -- and I guarantee you, we win!

Marvelyn Brown, the author of The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful, and (HIV) Positive, has been living with HIV for seven years.

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This article was provided by The Black AIDS Institute. Visit Black AIDS Institute's website to find out more about their activities and publications.
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