Startling rise in HIV/AIDS in US black community

A worker passes out flyers for free HIV testing outside a Walgreens pharmacy in Times Square in New York City. June 27 is National HIV Testing Day and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is rolling out a new program offering free rapid HIV testing in pharmacies in 24 cities and rural communities.
Credit: Mario Tama

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia — After spending six years working overseas as an independent filmmaker, I returned home to find a report on an eye-opening medical situation occurring: a concentration of HIV infections in black communities across the United States.

Convinced that we needed do something to draw attention to what is clearly a crisis, I assembled a small team and began pre-production on a film that would address this tragic situation.

Based on the startling statistics reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we began a journey seeking an answer to a singular question: How could 13 percent of America’s population of more than 305 million people now account for 50 percent of new HIV infections?

We started by posing this question to those most capable of providing an informed answer: physicians, journalists, legislators and clergy. Along the way, we met with a number of individuals who are living with HIV and AIDS. And after a 14-month investigation, what we learned shocked and amazed us.

“Sixty-two percent of [blacks who] tested [positive] for HIV within a year develop AIDS,” said Dr. Goulda Downer, head of Howard University’s HIV/AIDS program.

“Congress was slow, very slow to act,” acknowledged Atlanta Congressman John Lewis.

Popular rap artists have steered clear of performing songs addressing this epidemic. “They might think I am gay. Or they might think I use intravenous drugs… they might think I’ve got it. Why would I want to rap about it unless I’ve got it?” suggested Chris Bryant, founder and CEO of Streetz Smart Magazine.

Most illuminating, however, was the response of the black family and clergy that emerged from the interviews.

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Pernessa Seele, founder and CEO of The Balm In Gilead, told us that despite the fact that “every black family has someone who is on drugs and someone who is gay,” our community has consciously ignored such individuals at the annual family reunion or the Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone in the family knew about the “fag” and the druggie, but no one spoke about him/her. Then, when AIDS hit the black community, it upped the ante, adding yet a third issue to be consciously ignored.

In review of the 20-plus individuals interviewed for our film, “Thirteen Percent,” few of them had any genuine family- or faith-based support. Although the family and the church has traditionally been our source of salvation during times of need, we learned that both institutions turned a deaf ear to those infected by HIV. 

One young woman was 19 when she thought she found her “Prince Charming” — that is, until she was diagnosed with AIDS during a hospital stay. When she informed her boyfriend of two years of her condition, he dropped her like a bad habit (despite the fact that he was the one who had “passed it on”). Her mom tried to have her taken off of her health insurance, and ordered her to eat from Styrofoam plates and plastic utensils. Her so-called close friends caught a severe case of amnesia. Her rejection forced her to leave home, finding refuge inside her car. She slept there for two weeks, living on the brink of committing suicide.

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This was just one of numerous cases we found of people who are not gay or IV drug users or overly promiscuous, but who found themselves ostracized and marginalized by those they expected to be there for them during their moment of crisis.

The media coverage during the 1980s was almost exclusively focused on the white, gay, male community in LA, New York and San Francisco. All the while, the plague was spreading throughout the black community. But what did we do? Black America became the proverbial ostrich that stuck its head in the sand. While white gay America was shouting at the top of their lungs “We are dying over here!” black America, led by the clergy, ratcheted up its denial by essentially saying, “Nope. No AIDS problem over here.”

When we spoke to ministers who were around during that time, they remember the vastly growing number of AIDS-related funerals that they presided over. One black minister told us that in the mid 1980s, it was not uncommon to preside over 17 to 20 AIDS-related funerals per month. And he was quick to mention how the surviving family members would privately ask him not to mention that the deceased had died from AIDS-related complications. Rev. Rainy Cheeks of Inner Light Ministries was often told, “Say he died from cancer or leukemia. But you can’t say he died of AIDS.”

Our conscious ignorance has led to our collective silence. The silence will kill us.

When we finished our last interview on the upper West Side of New York, my director of photography and I quietly sat in a neighborhood restaurant reflecting on all that we had heard from those close to this disease. Following a long moment of silence, I asked him, “Given the thoughts and attitudes reflected by people related to those infected by HIV, had we shot this film 30 years ago, do you think the attitudes would have been any different?” After a long, despondent pause, he looked me in the eye, slowly shook his head and said, “No.”

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Art Jones is an independent filmmaker and part owner of Dream Factory, a media company located in Alexandria, Virginia. For the past 14 months, he has been engaged in research, writing and filming “Thirteen Percent,” a documentary about HIV/AIDS in the black community.

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