Michael Jai White: Actor, Fighter, Educator
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.
"I feel like I'm one of the luckiest people on Earth," says Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Michael Jai (pronounced "Jye") White, one of Hollywood's most respected actors (best known for his high-profile roles in Black Dynamite, The Dark Knight and Spawn).
But as a teen, he garnered a reputation for being a much-feared street fighter. "I hung precariously out of line when I was a kid," he says. "I could have gone in another direction had it not been for some intervention from positive role models at the right time. And the blessings that I have now, I have to share them."
It is why the 44-year-old former middle-school teacher has long been active in causes involving African American youths, most related to diabetes and obesity prevention -- and why he is getting more active in the HIV/AIDS movement.
"Being a former schoolteacher, I do a lot of work with at-risk kids and work on motivating them to go get education and prosper from that point on," says White, who found his voice as an actor though his work as an educator.
He concedes that his platform as a performer enables him to "teach truth" to a wider audience. "And I think that with something like the HIV/AIDS movement that can use my help, I can't think of anything else more worthy of my time."
White knows firsthand the power that celebrities can have in spurring action among young people: Former NBA star Magic Johnson first inspired him to get tested for HIV/AIDS. "That hit home," says White, "and I thought, if he can contract the virus, so can I. That got me into the clinic."
Like many people at that time, White believed that "the high-risk groups for AIDS were homosexual men and intravenous drug users," he admits. "In fact, I had gotten some false advice early on from a physician who actually said, 'You're a straight man, and you can't get it unless you're a gay man or a drug user,' so I'm thinking, 'Okay, I'm cool.' That was until Magic Johnson made that announcement."
White says that he was particularly moved by the campaign message "Greater Than AIDS" because he feels there have been generations of people believing that they are "less than." "We call ourselves by names that are less than who we are," says White, who eventually channeled the fighting spirit of his youth into martial arts: He holds black belts in shotokan, ITF tae kwon do, tang soo do and four other karate styles. "I feel that there are people in our communities who really don't feel that they deserve clean bills of health. I really try to encourage Black people to respect their bodies and work out. I live as an example of someone who believes in physical fitness and being healthy."
Because, he adds, "we're descendants of the strongest of the strong, and I believe that's something to be very proud of. We are worthy of so, so much."
Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist, author and documentary filmmaker.