One in a weekly series about the Black AIDS Institute's Greater Than AIDS ambassadors, who are using their VIP status in Black America to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS and HIV testing and treatment.
"If my water breaks, don't panic. Just boil some water," said Essence Atkins with a laugh, 38 weeks pregnant at the time of this interview in mid-December 2011. Nevertheless, she made it through the conversation without incident, delivering her baby boy, Varro, two weeks later on Christmas Day. It is the first child for the 39-year-old Are We There Yet? star and Jamie Mendez, whom she married in September 2009.
Invited to participate in a series of interviews and photo shoots for the Greater Than AIDS campaign, Atkins admitted that labor would have been the only thing to keep her out of the studio that day. "As I begin my own journey to become a mother, I recognize that the community is so important, and making sure that we look out for each other," she said.
Atkins then reflected on the 13-year-old honor student who had recently been denied admission to the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania because he was HIV positive. According to the school, the young boy was a "direct threat" to the other students. "These are the kinds of things that are happening 20 years after Ryan White that drive me to be a part of this," said Atkins.
Having started her career as a ballet dancer in New York, and growing up in the 1980s, when AIDS took a devastating toll on the arts community, Atkins is encouraged by the progress being made in science and medicine. "We just have to know our status first of all and seek access to the proper treatment," she said. "The thing that keeps African Americans from empowering ourselves is ignorance; the things that keep us from eradicating this disease and stopping people from spreading this disease are ignorance and fear."
Atkins was a Hollywood newbie, and single, when she first became involved as an HIV/AIDS ambassador nearly a decade ago, making her among the first celebrities to heed the call to action to spread the word among African Americans about the importance of testing and treatment. And although married and juggling the new demands of motherhood, she has vowed to remain vigilant -- which includes appearing in a series of PSAs that she shot later the same afternoon of the interview. "The longer we're silent, the more people die. I don't have that luxury," she said. "We don't have that luxury."
Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist, author and documentary filmmaker.