NOTE: This article appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer in February 2001. I entered the issue of AIDS and denial in the African American community. I locate the denial in homophobia, which is a form of bad faith.
AIDS is forcing us literally to redefine what it means to be black in the new millennium. It’s a pan-African crisis, striking blacks in Africa and in America . Yet African America is heavily in denial – to its peril.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released an alarming report showing that 30 percent of gay African American men in their 20s are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. These new statistics (along with those that show that 50 percent of women infected with HIV are African American) indicate that black people are bearing a disproportionate burden of HIV infection.
More than this, the AIDS pandemic is striking at the heart of African American culture and society: devastating the young, female, gay and most often poor. These realities must deeply trouble the souls of black people. We no longer have the luxury to turn away as though this were someone else’s problem. AIDS compels us, if we hope to survive this scourge, to reexamine our moral values, especially as they relate to human sexuality and gender.
I want to think about three important expressions of black culture – the streets, the church and the political arena. In each realm, black voices are denying that AIDS is a problem. They are saying that AIDS is not a major part of black reality.
These three cultural realms all say that black is straight and that black is male. We need the courage to say that this teaching is wrong, factually and ethically. Black is gay, young, poor and female, too, and as such, deserves the understanding and action of blacks for blacks.
To negotiate this new reality, we need what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as a revolution of values. That revolution must challenge the secular, the sacred and the political domains of black life. We must ask how will the codes of the street, the church and politics either make it possible for us to overcome or to be overwhelmed by HIV/AIDS.
Street culture is most often a male macho domain. To be a man in the streets means that one is neither female nor gay. The streets cultivate and perfect the image of a mindless monster, the tough guy, the Lone Ranger in the ghetto. The code of the streets defines manhood in ways that desensitize young men to their own humanity and that of their people.
On the other hand, the church rejects the code of the streets – at least on the surface it does. But where the street code (for better or worse) is straightforward about its values, the church sends confusing messages about tolerance for homosexuality and gender.
The position of the black church is complicated because it has been socially marginalized, segregated, relegated to a socio-economically unequal status in society. So the black church constructs the image of the religious tough guy, who rather than using openly sadistic methods to deal with differences, uses so-called “tough love,” which is often more sadistic.
Then there are the politicians. Black politicians are preachers in the secular arena. They try to combine streets with church – which means they often combine the weaknesses and intolerance of both worlds.
All three realms are proudly black. Each invokes blackness to justify its refusal to deal with the meaning of AIDS and the relationship of AIDS to what it means to be black in America. That’s a deep and critical irony.
Rather than a united confrontation with the problem, in our public stances we have turned to banishment of the sufferers, even to falsification of the facts. We ostracize part of our people, or deny they are in need. Because we are tough guys, moral leaders or a combination of both, we are literally killing an entire sector of our community. By falsifying the magnitude of the human need that emerges from AIDS we are in collective cultural denial. We create a fantasy in which ultimately everything is going to be all right – or that somewhere a god or goddess or the government or the medical establishment will find a cure and save us.
AIDS is not just a grim reaper; it can be a profound teacher. What it teaches black folk is potentially different from what it teaches whites. Its main lesson is that if blackness means anything in the era of AIDS it must mean one love, one purpose, one people and one struggle. Unless black public life is altered to reflect these values, AIDS will do what neither 244 years of chattel slavery nor 100 years of Jim Crow segregation could not do: Take us out of history. Rather than get tough on those we view as different, it is time to get tough on the problem and confront AIDS and its denial.