From Magic to Tragic

By Warren Cornelius

            On November 7, 1991, when Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced that he had contracted the HIV virus, a state of shock was felt throughout the world.  Until that day, many viewed HIV/AIDS as a White gay man’s disease and felt that they were immune from the devastation that this disease can cause.  However, Johnson’s public battle against the HIV virus was the first major indicator that AIDS in the Black community was a serious epidemic that needed to be addressed, and it’s still a battle that is being fought almost 18 years later.

Despite the wake-up call that Blacks received when Johnson was forced to retire from the Los Angeles Lakers because of HIV/AIDS, AIDS in the Black community has reached epic proportions in many cities such as Washington, D.C.  In an attempt to educate people about the virus and inspire those with it, Virginia Commonwealth University Health System (VCUHS) Women’s and Children’s Clinic for Infectious Disease selected 12 original poems from HIV/AIDS patients, and produced a CD set to the background music of saxophonist J. Plunky Branch and other professional musicians in the Richmond, Va.  area.

            Although offered anonymity or pseudonyms, most participants chose to reveal their real names on the CD, entitled Living With It, which is the title of an original poem written by patient Dennis Hymes.

            “By presenting personal testimonies in this unique format, we can work to reach a younger generation about HIV/AIDS and its dangers,” said P. Muzi Branch, director of the VCUHS Arts in Healthcare Program.  “This CD will appeal to those who look to soul music, hip-hop, spoken word and jazz as sources of information and inspiration.”

            AIDS in the Black community is severely damaging the lives of Black women and youth, and sisters “Da General” and “Janet,” who were both infected by their mother, are among the 12 poets who hope that educating people about the disease will prevent more families from suffering the way they have.

            “We are grateful for these patients’ boldness and their willingness to share insights, to warn others about the dangers of the condition and to offer themselves as positive encouragement to inspire us all,” Branch said

            Washington, D.C. city officials are desperately hoping that stories like those from “Da General” and “Janet” will inspire the residents in their city to protect themselves against the deadly disease.

            According to the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, at least three percent of D.C. residents have HIV/AIDS, and only one percent is needed to constitute a “generalized and severe epidemic.”  That percentage translates to approximately 15,120 residents over the age of 12 living with HIV/AIDS, according to the 2008 epidemiology report by the District’s HIV/AIDS office.

            “Our rates are higher than West Africa,” said Shannon Hader, director of the District’s HIV/AIDS administration who has previously led the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Zimbabwe.  “They’re on par with Uganda and some parts of Kenya.”

            Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty believes apathy could be the main culprit for such high rates of AIDS in the Black community and believes everyone should step up to fight this epidemic.  “In order to solve an issue as complex as HIV and AIDS, you have to step up,” Fenty said.  “It’s the mayor and certainly other elected officials but it’s also the community.  You have this problem affecting us, and you tell people how serious it is and it literally goes in one ear and out the other.”

            Truthfully, the statistics on AIDS in the Black community could not be more serious.  More than four percent of Blacks in Washington, D.C. have HIV/AIDS, compared to two percent of Latinos and 1.4 percent of Whites.  Seventy-six percent of those infected with HIV/AIDS are Black, 70 percent are men and 70 percent are age 40 or older.  Heterosexual intercourse was the principal mode of transmission of AIDS in the Black community, according to study “Heterosexual Relationships and HIV in Washington, D.C.”

            AIDS in the Black community has also had a hard impact on Black females.  Black women represent more than 25 percent of HIV cases and 58 percent were infected through heterosexual sex.  Approximately 25 percent were infected through drug use.

            This study on AIDS in the Black community of Washington, D.C. was conducted with 750 participants in wards one, two, five, six, seven and eight.  The salary of 60 percent of the participants was under $10,000 annually, a similar percentage had never been married and 43 percent were unemployed.

            Consequently, if Johnson’s battle with HIV proved anything is that everyone can be infected, therefore everyone needs to be vigilant if the Black community is to defeat this deadly disease.

Cornelius is a writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine.

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