The Story Of AIDS In Black America


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On the 25th anniversary of the discovery of AIDS, I conceived and spearheaded this 360-degree look at what the disease has meant in the lives of African Americans. It was executed brilliantly by a team of Essence writers and won an industry award.

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The Story Of AIDS In Black America

  1. 1. PA RT O N E OF A TWO-PART SERIES THE STORY OF AIDS IN BLACK AMERICA A quarter century after the first AIDS diagnosis in America, the disease has become a global pandemic, and the rates within our community are staggering: African-Americans account for half of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses, and the disease is the leading cause of death for young Black women. ESSENCE dispatched writers and photographers across the country to gather 25 different perspectives on how HIV/AIDS has touched our lives. Standing at the crossroads of progress and pessimism, denial and truth, these sisters and brothers take a hard look at where we’ve been and the long road ahead. —THE EDITORS ESSENCE 177 11.2006
  2. 2. THE STORY OF AIDS IN BLACK AMERICA “I thought it was ridiculous, isolating a baby like this. So I took off the mask and gloves, and I held and cuddled that child.” CHIVON MCMULLEN-JACKSON THE NURSE > Chivon McMullen-Jackson, 44, a pediatric nurse in Houston, Texas, saw her first HIV-exposed baby nearly 20 years ago. Back then, she says, some nurses were afraid to touch the HIV-infected children, but not McMullen-Jackson. When I was a staff nurse at Texas Children’s in the 1980’s, people didn’t know much about HIV. We had never taken care of HIV patients before, so when we received our first infected infant, she was put in strict iso- lation. I thought it was ridiculous, treating a baby like this. When no one was looking, I took off the mask and gloves, and I would just hold that child and cuddle her. That lit- tle girl is 16 years old now. Since I became an administrator, I don’t spend as much time with patients. But in the summer I volunteer at Camp Hope, a program that allows children with HIV to just behave like children. The saddest thing is the children whose parents have died from the disease. One year two little boys showed up and one said to the other, “My mommy and daddy are dead.” And the other little boy said, “Mine, too.” No matter what a child’s family situation is, it’s so good to see them hiking and biking, smiling and hav- ing fun. They want to be just like any other child, yet they have to live in secrecy. So when they come here, we hug them, we play SMILEY POOL with them, we swim with them, and we give them a place where they know they will never be rejected. —AS TOLD TO MEGAN TENCH . ESSENCE 178 11.2006
  3. 3. THE STORY OF AIDS IN BLACK AMERICA WILLIAM BRAWNER THE LADIES’ MAN “In high school I decided I didn’t At 18 months old, William Brawner, 27, was accidentally scalded with hot water over 40 percent of his body. A blood transfusion left him HIV-positive. As a young man, he hid care what anyone thought his status from women he dated. His is a cautionary tale. Growing up, I played sports, did well in school, and rarely about my being HIV-positive. I got sick. But I hated that I had HIV. When I became sexually active with my first girlfriend, we had a few mishaps with a told my grandma, ‘I can’t live condom, and I knew I had to tell her. Her complete accept- ance surprised me; she still wanted to bear my children. But after I left for college we grew apart and I started dat- my life as a secret anymore.’ ” ing other women. Then someone—I suspect it was my ex— sent an E-mail to my school accusing me of sleeping around and infecting everyone. Since the E-mail was anonymous, ANDRAYA HUNTER administrators just told me to be careful. But I was devas- THE TEENAGER > tated. I decided that I would never tell anyone else my sta- Born HIV-positive, Andraya Hunter was taught to conceal the tus. Women never guessed; they thought I looked too good truth from everyone she knew. Desperately wanting to live to have HIV. I’d mostly use a condom, but sometimes I’d a full and open life, Hunter, an 18-year-old student in Los get caught up in the heat of the moment like anyone else. Angeles, decided she would no longer be silent. About two years ago, I got so tired of hiding. I got in I’m sure many people have opinions about me. I hear it some- touch with all the women I’d slept with to let them know times in the hallways. Some think I got HIV from being out the truth. Thank God none has ever tested positive. These there, hanging out on the streets and having unprotected days I share my experience with college students. I want sex. I try not to get caught up in what people say, because un- them to understand that you can’t tell if someone is in- less they get to know me, they don’t know anything. fected by just looking at them. That’s why you have to prac- My mom was a drug user who died of AIDS when I was tice safe sex, every time. —AS TOLD TO ZULAIKA JUMARALLI 5. When I was little I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody that I was HIV-positive. Back then, I’d heard about AIDS, but I didn’t understand it. So, me and my big mouth, I told one SHARON WILLIAMS THE WIFE of my friends that I had AIDS, and he, of course, told his Sharon Williams, 39, was a soror with a master’s degree and parents. Other parents found out, and I was kicked out of a Mercedes, a woman with the perfect husband and the per- my elementary school. My grandmother was really worried fect life. Then her husband, an Evangelical minister and a cor- about people finding out at my new school. This time I rections officer, was diagnosed with HIV. didn’t say anything. But it was hard on me, too. I had been married three years when I found out my husband, There was a time I got really sick. I was in the hospital now my ex, was HIV-positive. He was having breathing prob- with all these tubes in me. I couldn’t walk; I couldn’t sleep; lems, so I checked him into the hospital. One day after church I couldn’t use the bathroom on my own. I became a little I went to see him and he said, “They think I have HIV.” Then suicidal. I just didn’t want my grandma to have to worry he started to cry. I told him they must have made a mistake. about me so much. I told her how I was feeling, and I talked But right away the pieces started coming together. Night to counselors. They helped me see that life is too precious. sweats, skin rashes, weight loss—he’d had all those symptoms. If there’s an opportunity to still live, I have to take it. By the time my husband was released from the hospital, In high school I decided that I didn’t care what anyone I had the results of my own HIV test, which was negative. thought. I sat my grandma down, and I told her, “Now it’s But I still didn’t know how he’d contracted the disease, so up to me. I’m going to go talk to my principal and counselors I screamed, “How could you put my life in danger?” He must and whoever. I can’t live my life as a secret anymore.” The have thought he’d infected me, because he broke down and teachers were really supportive, and my grandma was really told me that years before he’d slept with a male friend. That proud of me—that kind of made me feel whole. It was like friend died in 1996, the year we were married. winning a Grammy. I told kids at school, and I answered their I just didn’t understand. If you’re gay, why marry? I’ve questions. If I sensed people were too shy or afraid to ask, I asked gay Black men about it, and they say, “If we don’t lie, told them to write their questions down on a piece of paper. we’re put out of our families, ostracized.” They feel they have My friends were shocked. I told them, “I’m still the same per- no choice but to pretend they are heterosexual. I’m sorry my son today as I was yesterday. I am very much alive, and I don’t DARIEN DAVIS ex-husband had to live in secrecy, but he put my life at risk, plan on dying anytime soon.”–AS TOLD TO MEGAN TENCH . so that’s where it ends for me. —AS TOLD TO JEANNINE AMBER Six months after this interview, Andraya Hunter died of com- Subject’s name has been changed. plications related to AIDS. ESSENCE 180 11.2006
  4. 4. THE STORY OF AIDS IN BLACK AMERICA LOUIS FARMER AND DERICK BROWN THE SOUL MATES > They met online, both of them looking for Mr. Right. At first it was just phone calls and E-mails, but soon their relation- ship turned serious, complete with a marriage proposal and promises to love forever. For Louis Farmer ( far right), 40, a social worker, and Derick Brown, 43, an account manager, their commitment to each other is more important than the fact that one of them has AIDS. Farmer: Shortly after I moved to New York in 1996, I started to get sick. I had contracted HIV from a previous long-term relationship, and one night I was having so much trouble breathing I ended up in the hospital with an oxygen mask and IVs in both my arms. The doctors called my mother and told her I wasn’t going to make it. She came to the hos- pital and started praying for me, and right away my tem- perature went down and I was fine. I like to tell that story SHERYL LEE RALPH THE WITNESS > because even though my mother, who died five years ago, As the red curtain rises on Sheryl Lee Ralph’s one-woman show, didn’t approve of my being gay, I know for a fact that if it Sometimes I Cry, the Tony-nominated actress appears onstage weren’t for her love, I wouldn’t be here. with a thick piece of masking tape across her mouth. Once her After I recovered and moved back to Cleveland, I even- silence is broken, she embodies an array of characters affected tually got enough confidence to start dating again. A friend by HIV/AIDS—from a Jamaican transsexual whose new life is suggested I try the Internet. On my profile I said upfront being cut short, to a high-powered executive whose nauseating that I had AIDS and that I was looking for a relationship. medications keep her from a life of normalcy. I got many more responses than I thought I would. One of Losing friends to AIDS propelled me to become an activist. those replies was from Derick. And I didn’t lose just one friend. I lost many. This was in the Before I met Derick, I had stopped taking my HIV drugs early eighties at the height of the epidemic, when people because of the side effects—I was experiencing fat de- just started dropping dead. There was no thought of living posits throughout my body and having gastrointestinal with the disease—they got sick, they died. It got so I simply problems. But Derick really wanted me to go back on could not cross one more name out of my phone book. meds. He has lost so many people to the disease, I can’t Back then there was a deafening silence about the dis- dismiss his feelings. In the past I’ve dealt with men who ease, and it was not until gay men got fed up, took to never really cared for me. Derick is someone I know I can the streets, and started demanding their rights that spend my life with. things changed. Now we’re back to where we started. This Brown: When I saw Louis’s ad, I was impressed that he was RALPH, NICKY WOO. FARMER AND BROWN, ANTHONY BARBOZA. time it’s hitting the African-American community the so honest about being HIV-positive. I was even more hardest, and once again, no one is saying anything. Well, intrigued when I saw his picture—he’s gorgeous. So many of I can’t take it anymore. This is why I created the Diva us still see HIV as something to be ashamed of, but I don’t. Foundation, which generates resources to fight HIV/AIDS, I know HIV is an illness that can be treated. As long as you then my ensemble concert “Divas Simply Singing,” which has run for the past 16 years, and now my one-woman can be straightforward with me, and I know what I’m getting myself into, I’m pretty much okay. Louis and I expect to have “Last June we were married in a beautiful show. I use my voice to speak up and sing out about the good days and bad days, but the main thing is we’ll work disease because silence will not heal you or save you. I’m through those hard times. African ceremony with 100 friends and family. talking about a revolution, a movement. I’m talking Last June we were married in a beautiful African ceremony about making a change through education and by em- powering our people. And though my friends have died, with 100 friends and family. As soon as Louis finishes graduate school, we’re planning to adopt. Children are the Now we’re planning to adopt. Children are the natural though Black women continue to die, I know hope is the last thing to die. —AS TOLD TO LASHIEKA PURVIS HUNTER natural progression of life. We’d like to have at least three. —AS TOLD TO KAI WRIGHT . progression of life. We’d like to have three.” ESSENCE 182 11.2006
  5. 5. THE STORY OF AIDS IN BLACK AMERICA JOHNICKA HARRIS THE SINGLE WOMAN Johnicka Harris, 24, grew up in the South Bronx at the height “I’m not ashamed of having of the crack epidemic in the early nineties. She would wake up to prostitutes and addicts on her stoop, many dying of AIDS. AIDS. I did nothing wrong.” Yet no one told her how to protect herself—until she got the kind of comprehensive sex education most teenagers never receive. When I was 14 I won a raffle to participate in a program called Higher Vision. It was supposed to help at-risk kids TOM MORGAN THE SURVIVOR > with homework and skills like writing a résumé. Three times a week we had sex ed. They taught us how to iden- Retired New York Times reporter Tom Morgan, 55, was diag- tify different STDs, which STDs you can catch from oral sex, nosed with HIV in 1987 and full-blown AIDS in 1994. He’s which lubricants can ruin a condom, and a lot about AIDS. been close to death several times. Even during periods of rel- It was stuff our parents didn’t know, and no one else was atively good health, he says he feels as if he’s walking around going to tell us. It changed my perspective on everything. on shards of glass—the soles of his feet are just that sore, his Now when I am with a man I don’t expect him to have a body just that frail. condom. I’m responsible for my health, so I go to the store, I suspect I got AIDS from a former boyfriend. When he died I get the condoms, I get the lubricant, I make sure the con- in 1985, I thought, Oh, God. I was diagnosed two years later dom’s on. It’s not as if I’m saying, “I think you have a dis- and by the summer of 1995 I was very much at end-stage AIDS. ease. I have to quarantine your penis.” Besides, if you put I remember my friends and I took a vacation on Fire Island. I it on right, it can be very sensual. was so weak my legs wouldn’t carry me the short distance I get tested every three months, and I definitely never down the boardwalk to our house, so they rolled me there in have sex with anyone unless we both have been checked. a cart. One of my friends told me later that he went to the A guy can’t just tell me the results either. I want to see his beach and just cried. I looked that bad. papers. My friends think I’m paranoid, but I don’t care. I But AIDS treatments got better and I rallied. I’ve been on think you have to do what works for you, and this is what all sorts of medication. I line them up in a toolbox; the com- works for me. —AS TOLD TO JEANNINE AMBER partments help me make sure I’m not missing anything. Right now I take five pills a day for AIDS and another six to manage the side effects. Then I take two pills and insulin AZIZA JACKSON THE EX-GIRLFRIEND by injection for hypertension and diabetes. AIDS aggravates When she was in college, Aziza Jackson, 35, was so in love that every aspect of my health. One day recently I woke up on she’d do just about anything to keep her man. But when he fell the kitchen floor. I’d blacked out for hours. I’ve been hos- back into drugs and ended up in jail, she had to let him go. A pitalized eight times in the past 12 months, and nobody can year later she received a letter that changed her life forever. explain what’s going on. I wish I had more time to spend Before my boyfriend and I ever had sex, he said to me, “I with my partner of 22 years. But I’m not ashamed of hav- don’t like condoms and I’m not going to use them.” I asked ing AIDS. I did nothing wrong. People have to get over feel- him if he’d been tested and he told me he’d taken two tests: ing ashamed. —AS TOLD TO KATTI GRAY One came back positive and one negative. Right away a red flag went up, but right behind that came denial. I didn’t ask him about it again the whole year we were together. Then my boyfriend was convicted of drug possession. I was like, “Nah, Boo, I can’t be dating no jailbird,” and we broke up. He would write me from jail. One day I opened MORGAN, ANDRE LAMBERTSON. CONGREGATION, JEFFREY SALTER a letter and it said he’d tested positive for HIV. My heart just sank. I was shocked, angry and ashamed. But my mother was so supportive. She said, “We’ll get through this but you need to get tested.” I was 26 years old. A week later I learned I had HIV. Looking back I realize there had been warning signs. My boyfriend was a drug addict, in and out of jail, and I’d never seen anyone so insistent on having anal sex, which made me wonder if he might be having sex with men. But every time I got a feeling something might be wrong, I’d just push it away. I was so needy I didn’t protect myself. I didn’t listen to my intuition. —AS TOLD TO JEANNINE AMBER Subject’s name has been changed.
  6. 6. ST. JOHN NO. 5 FAITH CHURCH THE CONGREGATION “As people of > The Reverend Bruce Davenport (above, with Bible) took over as pastor of the 200-member St. John No. 5 Faith Church after ending his affiliation with a local Baptist organization upset over his passing out condoms and sermonizing on AIDS. With his wife, Deborah Davenport, faith, we believe and his daughter, Tamachia Davenport, he runs St. John’s AIDS outreach ministry, which in 1993 became the first church-based AIDS project in New Orleans to be granted city funding. we have no Our youth director was a gay man so afraid of being cast out that he didn’t tell anyone he had full-blown AIDS until he was in the hospital. Our church just embraced him. We choice except DUMMY CREDIT, ANOTHER CREDIT AND MORE MORE MORE knew that if this kind of silence was going on in our midst, it was also going on in the community. We chose to step into the gap. to do this work We are right across from the St. Bernard housing projects, which we call our vine- yard. Before Hurricane Katrina struck, they would have five or more AIDS diagnoses a month. We will serve that community as New Orleans reopens those houses to res- until God tells idents, and we’ll also continue our work in other neighborhoods. We offer testing and counseling. We help residents buy medicine, help them manage their limited us to stop.” household budgets, and arrange for hospice care when that time comes. We do what- ever is needed. We are a Bible-based church, teaching the word of God. And the word says we must help. As people of faith, we believe we have no choice except to do this work until God tells us to stop. —AS TOLD TO KATTI GRAY . ESSENCE 185 11.2006
  7. 7. THE STORY OF AIDS IN BLACK AMERICA PHILL WILSON AND PERNESSA SEELE THE ACTIVISTS Phill Wilson, 53, and Pernessa Seele, 52, cross paths often on their mission to stop the spread of AIDS by stopping the spread “My pimp started getting of ignorance. Wilson, who has lived with HIV for 25 years, founded the Black AIDS Institute. Its motto: Our People, Our sick in 1999. At the hospital, Problem, Our Solution. Seele founded the Balm in Gilead, a nonprofit focused on helping Black religious communities of all I walked in on the doctor faiths respond to the crisis. Wilson: The Institute’s mission has always been to fight AIDS. Now we want to end the spread of AIDS in five years. telling him he had AIDS.” We can do this if we are able to cut the annual HIV/AIDS rates, raise the percentage of African-Americans who know their HIV status, increase the number of HIV-positive African-Americans who are in care, and decrease the num- BRANDY BALDWIN AND LUCRETIA CLAY ber of people who receive an AIDS diagnosis within a year THE FORMER PROSTITUTES of their HIV diagnosis. I spend most of my time on the road trying to build a Black mobilization movement. If Black Brandy Baldwin, 27, and Lucretia Clay, 42, both HIV-positive, America has learned nothing in the last few years, we should have painful pasts that include childhood sexual abuse, drugs have at least learned that we have to take care of ourselves. and prostitution. They live in recovery housing in Chicago. Seele: The way we address HIV has to do with our rela- Baldwin: I was 8 or 9 when I was first molested. It went on tionship with God. Do we see God as an inclusive fa- for years, involving men close to me or my family. I was 12 ther–mother where everybody has a place in the king- or 13 when one family friend was giving me $50 here and dom? Or do we see God as a hellacious person who punishes $100 there just to play with my vagina or to suck my breast. you? The church has such a major role to play in disman- I’d take him his lunch, and he’d invite me to the back of tling stigma and disseminating information to the Black his shop. I believe that the people he was working with community regarding HIV. This year, for the first time in 18 knew what he was doing, so I thought there wasn’t any- years, we had the leadership of every major historical Black thing wrong with it. I thought that maybe if I brought church endorse the Balm in Gilead’s Black Church Week of money in the house I would get my mama’s favor. Prayer in March. They were not afraid to have their face I started dating older men when I was 16. By the time I next to the faces of HIV/AIDS. Thank you, Jesus! Now we was 21, I was prostituting and selling drugs. At first, men can look at churches across the country that have role- would come up to my mother’s house and get high with LANA TAYLOR THE GRANDMOTHER > model HIV programs. —AS TOLD TO SHARON EGIEOBOR me. But then it got to the point where I was on the corner selling my body for $10 or just $2 or just for some dope. Lana Taylor, 60, suffered through several bouts of pneumonia and shingles before one doctor “I looked after Anything they wanted me to do, I did. I found out August GUY BROADY THE RADIO HOST finally decided to test her for HIV. That was four years ago. When the results revealed she had everyone except 12, 2003, that I was HIV-positive. I was 24 and still using the disease, Taylor joined the growing group of older Americans living with HIV/AIDS. Guy Broady, 50, is the host of G-Factor, a Christian radio talk and prostituting. But I finally got tired. I wanted to get to “Your results are positive,” the doctor’s assistant told me, and then added a chilling, know who I really was. I wanted to get my life together. It’s show in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He says the AIDS pandemic reflects just how out of sync humans are with God’s plan. “Maybe your work here on earth is finished.” I had built such a strong emotional wall myself. Then a been more than three years since I got clean. around myself over the years that I actually snickered in response. I was shocked when Clay: I met Brandy at Alexian Brothers Bonaventure House. Jesus tore up Babylon—destroyed it—because of the way people were conducting themselves. When it comes to my doctor recommended the test in the first place, and the result was unexpected. I mean, handsome friend I’ve been clean since November 2001. Now I volunteer with here I was, a grandmother with HIV. homosexuals, lesbians, being a whoremonger, it’s not the Coalition for the Homeless. We go out and try to help prostitutes recover. about God. Factor in brothers on the down-low swinging Later I realized I had put myself at risk by caring for everyone but myself: I’d raised four children I’d had out of wedlock; been there for two husbands, with one of the mar- charmed a tired, from a woman’s bed to a man’s and back, intravenous drug I started prostituting when I was 14. I’d been spending time at a trick house. By the age of 15, I really started blank- addicts sharing needles, wanton sex, and what you have is riages ending badly; volunteered to help first-time single moms at my church; and cared for my grandfather in his last days. I looked after everyone in my life except myself. Then lonely, frustrated a lethal mix. It’s no wonder that AIDS is so widespread. ing out. I was doing so many drugs because I didn’t want a handsome friend charmed a tired, lonely, frustrated woman into a relationship. to feel the pain of not being wanted and having to sleep You reap what you sow. Ain’t nobody talking about stoning anybody, but you can’t live any kind of way. And The disease has changed the way I function. Every day is a struggle. I have to get a shot woman into a with so many guys. I lived with my pimp, and after a while, every week, and I must take the same pills at the same time every day. Some of the meds yeah, I got feelings for him. He started getting sick in the beginning of 1999. When I went to the hospital, I walked in if my speaking out will help stop all this chaos, I am will- ing to suffer the backlash. —AS TOLD TO KATTI GRAY made me too tired to do the things I love—dancing, quilting, writing—so I stopped tak- ing those. My greatest fear is that the virus could leave me in a paralyzed mental state. relationship. on the doctor telling him that he had AIDS. After that, I went and got tested. I got my results back November 12, Look for part two of our series “The Story of AIDS Knowing that the medicine is designed for the average White man, I go to HIV work- shops and ask questions about the long-term impact of HIV on aging women. They don’t Now here I am, QUANTRELL COLBERT in Black America” in the December 2006 issue. 1999, a day after my thirty-fifth birthday. I was positive. have much research. But I keep asking. And I pass on the information I can to others. Back then I didn’t get up and walk away because I didn’t >>LOG ON TO ESSENCE.COM TO LEARN THE LATEST FACTS I’m choosing a positive response to my new life, and not succumbing to panic. Some- a grandmother know any other way to live. I’m just finding out all these ABOUT HIV/AIDS IN OUR COMMUNITY AND TO SHARE YOUR OWN times I think my diagnosis was a way of letting me know it was time to take care of years later who Lucretia is today. —AS TOLD TO KAI WRIGHT STORY OF HOW THE DISEASE HAS TOUCHED YOUR LIFE. Lana. And that’s just what I intend to do. —AS TOLD TO JAYME S. GANEY [ with HIV.” ESSENCE 186 11.2006