“People have moved on. The AIDS community has moved on and the Black community is in denial.”
On February 11th, I had the immense pleasure of hearing Emmy Award Winning HIV activist Rae Lewis-Thornton speak at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Encouraging an honest dialogue about the disease, Rae discussed everything from denial and disillusionment in the Black Community, the Down-Low Myth, and even Diarrhea.
Before then I had never met Rae. I had heard her story, but had never witnessed her testimony. Yet, after yesterday, I will NEVER forget the indelible impression she has left on my life and my desire to do more to continue to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS. Greeted by a solemn audience, Rae encouraged us to loosen up in order to become more receptive to what she had to say. “AIDS is so deep and heavy, but you have to have laughter,” she stated.
Diagnosed with HIV, in 1985, Rae was just 23 years old. The survivor of sexual abuse as a child, and a tumultuous relationship with her mother, Rae believed that if she had conquered those horrible experiences, she too could conquer HIV. However, Rae made conquering synonymous with avoidance and she drew “an invisible dividing line between HIV/AIDS.”
Seven years passed and she had only told five people she was HIV positive. It was in that seventh year she was diagnosed with full blown AIDS. It was at this time, she began to take control of her situation. In 1994, two years after she became public with her diagnosis, she was approached by Susan Taylor of Essence, who featured Rae on their cover. Voice breaking, Rae noted how she would “go down in history as the first Black woman to tell her story of ‘Living with AIDS’ in a national publication.”
However, “being on the cover of a magazine is not going to save my life.”
The most truthful and straightforward moment came as Rae attempted to dispel the dismissal of the effects of AIDS, simply because of her outward appearances. Similar, but in no ways identical, to Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Rae believes that her outwardly healthy appearance has led people to downplay the disease. However, the symptoms are something that she learned cannot be ignored or controlled, and they can come in the form of something so embarrassing as uncontrollable diarrhea.
Sitting in a restaurant, eating dinner, Rae recalled a time where she began to feel the diarrhea run down her leg. Dressed in expensive garments, and undergarments ($125 La Perla underwear), and Chanel Pumps, her clothes could not save her from her condition. Excusing herself to the bathroom, Rae cleaned herself off, removed her undergarments, rinsed them off and threw them away. That was the last pair she ever bought. Once, after telling her story, Rae was asked why she went through the trouble of washing out her underwear if she were just going to throw them away. Her response, was simple to her, yet profound to me:
“I respect public space…even in my pain…I considered the discomfort of others. AIDS is about “How one maintains one’s dignity when their back is against the wall.”
Throughout her journey, Rae has struggled to deal with the misconceptions and the stigmas surrounding HIV and AIDS. Initially, it was her fear of rejection from potential partners. However, now her main concern is that people have written HIV off. “AIDS is like diabetes,” is something she states she often hears and she hates that comparison. AIDS, like diabetes has “become a joke in the black community. People have moved on. The AIDS community has moved on and the Black community is in denial.”
Our denial, Rae says is “historically wrapped into who we are as a people.” Aware of the ramifications of ‘blaming slavery,’ Rae insists that not only was the damage done, but it has been carried on throughout the years.
“Black men made babies, Black women were raped. Black men were hung and their sexuality was used as social control… We have fought the ‘buck’ and ‘whore’ our entire life and it has paralyzed us to talk about sex.”
From spirituality to sexuality, the interwining of religion and relationships makes it so that we are not prepared to have a serious discourse on HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, we do not address issues such as homosexuality, and this too destroys the Black male gay community. “Black Gay Men aren’t prepared to admit that 1 out of 2 Black gay men have HIV.”
Throughout all of the conversation, however, the message is clear. Personal accountability. “You have to make your own choices,” she says. She drives this point across especially to young black women, who are now 72 percent of all new HIV cases amongst women. And in her own candid way, that captivated my attention at the beginning of her lecture, Rae warned “unless the penis is in your pocket, you don’t know where it’s been. If you are not married you should be using a condom 100 percent of the time.” I agree, Rae.
My name is Brittany Antoinette and I am fashionably rocking the red pump for HIV/AIDS awareness in the City of Chicago.
I joined the Red Pump Project because the faces of those most affected, look just like me. I joined because apathy is not a cure for AIDS/HIV. A recent graduate, with a minor in African American Studies and a concentration in Gender Women’s Studies, I have a passion to help women of color in areas of health care and education. The Red Pump Project combines the two. While I fully support the search to find a cure, I firmly believe that awareness has to be at the forefront of people’s minds.
You can find me on the internet at www.blackisbreezie.blogspot.com and Twitter. My handle is @BlkIsBreezie.