We must disabuse ourselves of the need to create monsters from viruses. The archetype of the “HIV carrier” is the monolith on which fear and doom rest and creates a caricature of HIV-positive people. This has been true since the infamous “Living on the Down Low” episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which aired on April 16, 2004. On this episode, J.L. King, an author, discusses the community of DL men who are often married, making their heterosexual partners vulnerable to HIV because of their secret double life. This was a cultural watershed moment of the worst kind. And after that episode, the seeds of that conversation grew to an unimaginable mythological construct: a modern-day monster. Malicious intent was attached to the action of not fully disclosing sexual desire, and therein Black men secretly fucking other men became the epitome of a disease vector. Taking dick—and taking HIV back to unsuspecting Black women.
[Read: 5 Ways the ‘Greenleaf’ HIV Storyline Missed an Opportunity to Educate Viewers]
It made me cringe then, but I didn’t have access to the language that I have now, because this was four years before my personal seroconversion. On December 16, 2008, I tested HIV positive, and my life was then shaped forever—molding my future to my new viral reality. Hellbent on stopping new infections, it was a crisis of consciousness for me. I stepped into every role that I could in HIV prevention, wanting to save us all from the growing disproportionate burden of HIV infections in the Black community. I was naive and passionate, feeling like when I tested positive, I had to end being desirable and become the one that ends an epidemic. That burden should never be held by just one person—and surely not just one poz person.
Last week’s episode of the popular show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), Greenleaf, provided a storyline that’s become all too familiar—the disclosure of HIV status as a spicy and scandalous plot twist.
This involves spoilers, so don’t read on if you aren’t caught up on Greenleaf. Grace Greenleaf is the once-estranged daughter of a pastor and first lady of a Memphis megachurch who’s moved home to help uncover the mystery of her sister’s death, and a number of family secrets are overturned in the process. During the current season of Greenleaf (which is the final season of the series), Grace is confronted with her own history, a baby boy named AJ she gave birth to while young but gave up for adoption. He returns to her life now a young and troubled adult and in need of her support.
Eventually she tells her family about him, and he comes to stay with his newfound family. AJ is often closed off, and the show slowly unravels the story of his life outside the upper middle class life his birth family is accustomed to. He spent time in prison and is now free. AJ attempts suicide and is found by Grace, nearly dead, and is hospitalized. During this season, at the end of episode three, a shocking reveal happens: AJ was raped in prison, and the person who raped him transmitted HIV to him. AJ is now suffering from HIV disease and finally tells Grace. That’s how the episode ends. As an HIV-positive Black person, my heart sank, because again, the failure to hold any nuance with HIV emerged, 16 years after the “down low” and HIV plot twists of the early 2000s. It’s as if we’re frozen in time.
But I want to say this to the writers and producers of Greenleaf, and other Black creatives: HIV is not a plot twist device. HIV is not a caricature, and HIV is not predatory. Yes, there are the very real stories of people contracting HIV after being raped, and yes, there are some people who are not fully open to their partners and who may have transmitted HIV. But the narrative of HIV as a hidden monster and prison rape are not what drive the epidemic in Black communities.
Unfortunately, Greenleaf is just using an already tried-and-true trope, as there have been many harmful representations of HIV stories in the media. Let’s start with Tyler Perry’s 2010 film For Colored Girls, a film adaptation inspired by poet and playwright Ntozake Shange’s 1977 choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf. In his film adaptation, Janet Jackson’s character, “Lady in Red,” is married to a man named Carl Bradmore (played by Omari Hardwick). His character is struggling with sexual desire and can be seen cruising for other men in the film, and ultimately there is a scene where oral sex is performed in a car. Hardwick’s character Carl Bradmore is in a BMW under a bridge and gets head from another Black man.
This is interrupted by cops, who arrest him for public lewdness. Throughout the film, Lady in Red has a scarf tied around her neck, and toward the end, the scarf is red. She coughs frequently and drinks tea, ostensibly to soothe her throat. The drama erupts toward the end of the film, when they are both sitting on a bed and not facing each other. She says something to the effect of, “You can keep your sorry and your HIV”—which is saved as a grand reveal, to provide shock and melodrama to the story. Shange’s original play includes no down low men, and it was written before HIV, so these aspects were specifically added by Perry.
I watched this film in shock. I remember seeing it with my mother and being disturbed by this. My mother was a Tyler Perry fan; she thought his desire to (and practice of) giving leading roles to Black actors was something to celebrate. I on the other hand felt that his writing was shallow. And here again is another media representation of the DL monster as a viral operative to drive the drama of the plot, and to both titillate and disgust. There is data that suggests that Black people aren’t doing anything behaviorally different than white people when it comes to intimacy or other vulnerable ways to become HIV positive. The difference in disproportionate infections comes from anti-Black racism that discourages trust of systems and incarcerates and criminalizes Black people. Our vulnerability is undergirded by the lack of infrastructures of care and the breakdown of food systems in the hood and in the rural South.
Until we truly consider the truth about HIV and not the easily propagated myths, we are doing more harm to our communities and aren’t standing in solidarity with HIV-positive Black people. A shift has begun to happen in the theatre, with more HIV-positive Black writers telling their own stories, such as with works like one in two by Donja R. Love. Isn’t it time for TV and film catch up and stop with the same tired use of HIV as plot twist or cautionary tale?
Do better, please.