A deathly silence

AIDS is attacking the black community with a vengeance, but despite the outspokenness of the Congressional Black Caucus and a number of other high-profile black leaders on the issue, the black community as a whole still seems relatively silent on the matter. We all know AIDS is a problem, but for the most part we’d rather talk about other things.

“I think AIDS has intersected with a whole band of issues that we’ve struggled to confront and solve,” Jacob Levenson told me during a phone interview the other day. He’s the author of The Secret Epidemic: The Story of AIDS and Black America (Pantheon), a fascinating and much-needed look into the myriad political and social/cultural issues surrounding black America’s discomfort with the disease. “Sexuality. Religion. Incarceration. Drugs. The breakdown of families. These are all extremely delicate issues to solve. The point is that because it’s so sensitive, because of the moral component that floats around AIDS, it becomes very difficult to talk about.”

Reading more like a novel than an academic study, Levenson’s book sheds light on how dramatically the AIDS crisis is devastating the black community and how that community still struggles with how to best confront the issue politically, economically, culturally and spiritually.

At least two decades after AIDS began receiving serious attention as a nationwide epidemic, and despite the fact that it is the leading cause of death for African-Americans between the ages of 25 and 44 — as noted on the Detroit NAACP’s Web site — we still seem to be responding to the matter as if white males are the only ones who have anything to worry about.

Are we really willing to just sit by and watch ourselves die? Shouldn’t we be making just as much noise about AIDS as we are about everything else, or are we still too ashamed and embarrassed?

“That’s exactly what has kept this disease soaring in our community for so long — the silence,” said Samiya Bashir, director of communications for Balm in Gilead, a New York-based organization with operations around the world centered on encouraging the religious and church community to become more actively involved in the struggle against AIDS. “It’s time to move beyond this place of fear.”

In June, Balm in Gilead is to roll out a major AIDS awareness effort called “Our Church Lights the Way: The Black Church HIV Testing Campaign.”

It has frequently been stated that the black community as a whole is socially very conservative, even though the overwhelming majority of voting-age African-Americans are registered as Democrats. It can also be said that we as blacks are hypersensitive to placing a spotlight on just about any issue that portrays us in a negative and ugly light because it feels as if that’s all we ever see or hear about ourselves in the media.

So when something like AIDS comes along, a disease which is still viewed by many as a fitting punishment for immoral, ungodly behavior, the first thing we want to do is turn our backs and desperately hope that it will go away. After all, this is the last thing we need to defend ourselves against when we’re already overburdened with the weight of so many other misconceptions. How are we going to prove that we are a decent and moral people when such a disproportionate number of us are afflicted by a disease that supposedly sniffs out immorality and kills it on sight?

But that’s the wrong question. The real question is how can we look ourselves in the mirror and call ourselves a good and moral people when we’re not even willing to call sufficient attention to a disease that is killing us off more efficiently than the Ku Klux Klan ever could. It would seem that when a disease is killing our brothers, uncles, fathers, mothers, sisters, and aunts in such mind-boggling numbers, we might want to reconsider our reluctance to embrace the gays and lesbians who have always been in our community, even if many of us have reservations about equating the gay struggle with the civil rights struggle. (And that’s not to say that heterosexuals don’t have plenty to worry about as well.)

In times of crisis, a good and moral people will come together to combat the crisis and defeat it, but instead it appears that the AIDS crisis is defeating us by using our silence as a weapon. Fortunately, there does appear to be some hope at the grassroots level where a variety of smaller organizations have been steadily working to force the issue from the darkness into the light where it can receive the appropriate amount of attention and understanding.

These types of efforts are encouraging, but if the efforts aren’t stepped up to where the issue begins to receive the type of urgent, four-alarm attention it requires — and soon — then we’ll all be looking at the “too late” marker in the rearview mirror.

Just to give you an idea of what we’re dealing with, consider the following statistics from the Centers for Disease Control:

African-Americans make up 12.3 percent of the population according to the 2000 Census, but we accounted for 39 percent — more than 347,000 — of the more the estimated 886,000 AIDS cases diagnosed nationwide since the beginning of the epidemic. By the end of 2002, more than 185,000 African-Americans had died with AIDS.

In 2002, African-Americans accounted for about 21,000 — or 50 percent — of the more than 42,000 estimated AIDS cases diagnosed among adults in the United States.

The AIDS diagnosis rate among African-Americans was almost 11 times the rate among whites. African-American women had a 23 times greater diagnosis rate than white women. African-American men had almost nine times the rate of AIDS diagnosis of white men.

Over 162,000 African-Americans were living with AIDS in the United States. They accounted for a staggering 42 percent of all people in the United States living with AIDS.

“One of the themes of the book becomes how to engage in a new and fresh conversation about race in this country that really thrusts the conversation forward, and I think AIDS has the capacity to engage people in that way,” said Levenson.

In other words, it just might take the ravages of a plague to force us to renew a dialogue that never should have stopped in the first place.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Samiya Bashir of Balm in Gilead is his step-daughter. E-mail [email protected]
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