Harriet Browne was an elegant, attractive, 63-year-old black woman who I met for the first time in 1995. My brother Harry introduced her to me as someone he met at an AIDS service organization in New York City. "Quicksand" was the name she gave me. She later explained that she took the name from her style of tap dancing on sand that creates a sound like brushes on a snare drum. "That's the sound of jazz," she said. She discovered her HIV-positive status in 1991.
I learned that Harriet had been dancing since she was three. She'd shared bills with such jazz greats as Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday, and later appeared with such luminaries as Flip Wilson, Betty Carter, Dinah Washington, Della Reese, and T-Bone Walker. She danced at the Savannah Club in the chorus line called the Savannah Peaches. She danced at Carnegie Hall, and with such talented dancers as Gregory Hines, Bunny Biggs, and Savion Glover, the star of the Broadway hit, "Bring in Da' Noise, Bring in Da' Funk." In the early '90s, she formed the Aristacco Tap Company, and as the younger member at age 64, danced with the Silver Belles, a company of one-time chorus line dancers.
It was during our new friendship that The New York Times ran an article about her life. Suddenly, Harriet was getting more attention and accolades than she ever received as a young dancer. She received a choreographer's fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a proclamation from Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, calling her an "ambassador of the art of tap." These acknowledgments led to her finally receiving the recognition that she deserved.
It was around this same time that my brother Harry and I began educating Harriet about the AIDS epidemic. For years, she had been afraid to disclose her HIV status to friends and business associates out of fear that they would discriminate against her in her profession. She had heard and observed two kinds of reactions to people with AIDS in the minority community: People either didn't want to associate with them or they denied that it existed and wouldn't talk about it. To her credit, and the benefit of hundreds of women of color, Harriet overcame that fear. She not only went on to disclose her positive status to close friends and the public, but accepted a position as Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Black and Latino AIDS Coalition, a grassroots HIV/AIDS organization founded by my brother and I.
Harriet's life shattered many of the myths and stereotypes in the Black and Latino community about AIDS. She was not an ex-whore, prostitute, or drug addict. Quite the contrary, she was a loving single mother, grandmother, church member, world traveler, and a consummate artist who found time to teach tap and jazz dance to inner-city youth. Of course, being an ex-whore, prostitute or drug addict does not exclude a woman from being all of the things that described Harriet. Unfortunately, in their ignorance, people think only certain people can become infected with the virus.
It's ironic and tragic that her lifesaving work and the courage she exhibited as an HIV-positive woman was not acknowledged at her funeral nor by the press. The fear that she managed to overcome took center stage.
Harriet's death on September 1, 1997, brought together a diverse crowd of 150 people as St. Peter's church in Manhattan. There was a touching song by Yvette Glover, the mother of Savion Glover, and a tribute by Mercedes Ellington (granddaughter of Duke Ellington). The pews held Sammy Davis Junior's mother, the wife and son of Gregory Hines, and Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx Borough President. In spite of the walk down memory lane and an attempt to put Harriet's life in perspective, nobody acknowledged that she had been living with HIV since 1991 and had been working hard to raise AIDS awareness in communities of color for the last few years of her life.
My brother Harry was one of the people asked to speak at her memorial. He had prepared a three-page speech about Harriet's work in the AIDS community. The night before the event, Harriet's daughter called Harry to plead with him not to talk about Harriet's HIV status or her work in the AIDS community. Another phone call from Harriet's son convinced Harry to respect the wishes of the family and not speak about Harriet and AIDS. During the following weeks, The New York Times, The Daily News, and The Amsterdam News praised and saluted Harriet's life as an artist, but not one newspaper mentioned her HIV status or her AIDS work. On the behalf of thousands of people infected and affected by HIV, Harry and I salute Harriet Browne, an exceptional black woman who will be irreplaceable. We believe that Gregory Hines said it best in a letter to Harriet a few months before her death. "You are a shining example of courage and sacrifice to all of us in the entertainment field who must do our part to end this terrible epidemic." Right on, brother. Right on.