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Not In My Family

Uncovering America's silent epidemic

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We were fast friends, Terrence and I. A perfect fit: he was outgoing with enough feminine brashness for the both of us, while I was the sarcastic tomboy who didn't quite know what I had to offer. Over the course of the next few years, he became one of my best friends.

I don't even remember what I was doing before I received the call, but I'll never forget how the night ended. Terrence (and that's not his real name) called to ask me to drive him to his doctor's office because he didn't feel well. I'd known he was HIV positive for a while, but I'd shrugged it off because it had yet to complicate our friendship. As we waited for the doctor in the reception area, my friend laid on the floor because he was too weak to sit; I could actually see his body tremble with the effort to manage the pain raking his abdomen. I tried to remain calm, but Terrence's appearance alone was enough to unnerve me; he had lost so much weight that his high cheekbones poked violently through his freckled dark skin.

AGATE PUBLISHING
  • AGATE PUBLISHING

When his turn came, the nurse brought us a wheelchair to get him into the examining room. Once there, his breathing became labored and they had to put him on oxygen. His doctor decided he needed to be admitted into the emergency room. In that tiny examination room, with a bed the size of a gurney, I held my friend's hand and tried to lift his spirits (and my own) in my normal fashion: by telling inappropriate jokes. He laughed and tried to put on a brave face as we waited for the doctor to do something to relieve his agony. Finally, after waiting for hours, he told me he wanted it to be over -- and I knew instantly that he was talking about death.

Terrence did not die that night. After spending weeks in the hospital, he was finally released back into the world, skinnier, but as bold as ever.

The ordeal he and I experienced that night is nothing new; it's played out every day somewhere in America -- particularly in the African-American community. According to a report released earlier this month by the National Minority AIDS Council, "African-Americans have been overrepresented among those living with and dying from AIDS since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic 25 years ago." And sadly, due to a number of factors, black people -- as a collective group -- have suffered from the disease in relative silence. In the new anthology, Not in My Family: AIDS in the African-American Community, editor Gil L. Robertson IV attempts to dissect the psychology behind this silent epidemic. The book features a collection of essays written by a host of African-American notables -- such as comedian Mo'Nique, actor Hill Harper and Charlotte-based novelist Omar Tyree (see excerpt on opposite page) -- each sharing their perspective on the problem plaguing African-Americans and offering possible solutions. Creative Loafing recently spoke with Robertson about how he wrote the book and why it's needed, especially now.

Creative Loafing: "In 2006, AIDS in America is a black disease" -- that was a proclamation issued by Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute. Do you agree with that statement?

Gil Robertson: It's true that the disease right now has disproportionately affected folks in [the black] community. [However], it's not fair to call it "a black disease."

Well, that said, what's the purpose of this anthology?

The purpose of the book is to open up channels of communication that will lead to a change in behavior and attitude. There's a profound need within the general community, and within the African-American community in particular, for a comprehensive understanding of why certain groups are carrying the biggest burdens of this disease.

The book includes essays from a diverse group of writers -- from a porn star to a novelist. How did you go about choosing the writers?

The essays represent a wide cross-section of voices from [the black] community. So you have everyone from rich to poor, to young to old, to gay to straight, women, men, children, you have Afro-Latinos, African-Americans, Africans who have adopted America as their new homeland. You have a lot of desperate voices that have come together to address this subject matter with the goal of providing a comprehensive understanding of where [this] community is at where it comes to this disease.

The book also features essays by two representatives from the religious community. How important do you think it is to get religious leaders on board?

The two prominent ministers in the book [Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Calvin Butts], I think speaks clearly to the fact that this disease is something we are waking up to that the religious community had recognized. I think the religious community is waking up and as the most important institution in America when it comes to HIV and AIDS, when it comes to anything, it's very important that the religious community is part of the conversation.

What needs to happen to slow down the spread of this disease?

We need to talk. Dialogue is key. There needs to be a shift in the attitudes and behavior connected with people's thoughts about HIV and AIDS. That's number one. Adults need to have honest dialogues amongst themselves about their sexual habits and indiscretions and proclivities. Parents need to have dialogue with their children about physical intimacy, about sex. The community needs to demand that their public officials are securing funds to revenue allocation for education and awareness funding. Congregations need to demand of their ministers to put HIV and AIDS at the front of their ministries and to stop the finger-pointing and accusations. We need all of that really to effectively address this disease.

And what are your thoughts on the "down-low" (a popular term referring to "straight" black men who have sex with men), which has links to the black church, and its being targeted as a major influence in the rise in HIV infection in black women?

THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD: Editor Gil Robertson - OMARTYREE.COM
  • OMARTYREE.COM
  • THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD: Editor Gil Robertson

That's certainly a factor. Gay men aren't getting out of bed with other men to go home to their wives. So obviously, that phenomenon, to some degree, contributes to the problem. Couples need to have honest discourse. If you suspect something, you need to speak on it. Women can no longer afford to hold on to their traditional attitudes where they're placing that type of trust in their men because [this] isn't something you can just go to the doctor and get a shot for.

Is too much attention being placed on AIDS in Africa?

AIDS in Africa is a big problem and it certainly deserves our attention; however, you gotta take care of home first. We have to recognize that HIV/AIDS is becoming as much of a problem here as it is in Africa and black people need to begin to start loving ourselves and stop the denial. We have to stop living in some sort of dream state. In a situation like this, it's something that needs to be faced head-on.

Can you blame the government?

I don't blame anybody. If my daughter is dying, then I'm gonna take whatever effective course of action I need to take to find a cure. Granted, there's precedence. One only needs to think of Tuskegee to know that we have reason to be distrustful. But at the same time, if you're not taking any measures, if you're letting your daughter sit in the room in the dark and slowly die, then you have to look yourself in the mirror and answer that question.

How has hip-hop influenced the fight against AIDS?

Hip-hop has had a profound role in shaping their attitudes about promiscuity and about sexuality that hasn't really been a good thing for the community. I think a lot of our hip-hop artists have been grossly irresponsible in not framing their messages responsibly with regards to safe sex and having an understanding about a lot of different social issues, AIDS just being one of them.

If more hip-hop artists came to the forefront to combat AIDS, would more young people listen?

Absolutely. Black people have survived the Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Era; all of those things to get to the place that we are today and the only way we have been able to do those things is through mobilizing, coming together to effectively address a problem. I don't really know why there is such a disconnect in our community. I mean; we're talking about basic human life.

So, why aren't there any essays from the hip-hop community in the book?

None were interested. We approached a few and got crickets. No one said no, but no one said yes. Too busy being bling-bling. Yet, your people [their audiences that are making them rich] are dying in the street. That is ignorance.

What can the normal, everyday people do?

Communicate ... take the stigma out of it. There was one agency that was giving out T-shirts that said "I Have AIDS." If people would take the fear out of it, that would go a long way to getting people to come out of the closet, so to speak, to come out of the darkness and into the light about this particular issue.

Is your book a good starting point for that process?

We make [AIDS] real and familiar. We need to start looking at things for what they really are. To black people's defense, we have a lot to deal with: How am I gonna get these bills paid? Is Pookie graduating? Is my daughter pregnant? Is my mother sick? So when you come to a subject like HIV/AIDS, all you want to do is stick it in a corner and make it go away. But, unfortunately, the numbers are undeniable that this disease is a presence that's gained a foothold in the community and needs to be addressed. It's all of us.

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