By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
(NNPA) …or so it seems if you rely on the mainstream media.
With the exception of a major series in the Washington Post over the last few weeks, discussion of HIV/AIDS seems to have all but vanished from most of the media. It has certainly been eclipsed by discussions of H1N1, the so-called swine flu.
In looking at 2007, two million people world-wide died of AIDS, that is 5,500 per day. It has become an illness of young people, with 45 percent of those infected ranging in the ages of 15-24. In the USA, during the same time period, 1.1 million people were living with AIDS, with a startling 45 percent of all new cases found among African-Americans.
As a society we seem to have forgotten about HIV/AIDS. Too many of us, awed by the new treatments that have made AIDS for many people a chronic condition rather than an acute condition, seem to believe that it is the equivalent of season allergies. This complacency has led to a falling back into old habits of not discussing sex, sexually transmitted illnesses or, for that matter, gender relations.
The continued existence of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the fact that African-Americans occupy the unenviable position of being among those with the fastest growing infection rates, means that something is horribly wrong within our community. Although there have been various community-based organizations and religious institutions that have been willing to discuss HIV/AIDS, in all honesty we are lacking a large-scale African-American-focused campaign on HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, and other sexually transmitted illnesses. I would suggest that there are two main reasons for this: one, self-destruction related to despair, and two, a broad unwillingness to truly discuss sex.
With regard to self-destruction, I think of this as the “cross the street in front of fast moving cars” phenomenon. We have all seen this. While it is not limited to the Black community it is VERY evident in Black communities. A Black man or woman—usually a Black man—will jay-walk while cars are fast approaching, daring the cars to hit him or her. While the activity is fundamentally insane, it is certainly a means to exert control over one small part of one’s life. But it is also a larger statement to the effect that one is willing to risk death for a thrill; a thrill when so much in life seems to be falling apart. Unprotected sex is nothing more than crossing that street when the cars are approaching at 50 mph. It just takes place in the bedroom.
The other aspect has to do with our continued uneasiness—as a community—with discussions of sex.
Whether allegedly for religious or other reasons, we do not wish to discuss homosexuality, multiple partners, or virtually anything else connected with sex and gender in public. The entire phenomenon of men “on the down low” or “men with men” is almost never discussed in respectable company as if to say that such discussions would somehow divulge some deep, ugly secret. We also rarely discuss, except to throw up one’s hands, how early our children are engaging in various sexual activities. The prevalence of oral sex in junior and middle schools with the children having no idea as to possible ramifications is just one example.
As a father I was astounded that my child was prepared to discuss this with her mother and me, yet few adults would ever raise the subject for serious consideration.
Black America desperately needs a very broad awareness/education campaign on HIV/AIDS, specifically to remind us that HIV/AIDS has not disappeared and that it should not be treated as if it is the common cold. But we also need to engage in frank discussions about sex, sex roles and gender. If we fail to discuss sex, we should understand that we are choosing to ignore the pandemic.
[NOTE: There are organizations in Black America addressing AIDS. One example is that of the Center for Disease Control which partnered with several Black community organizations to form the “Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative”. Efforts such as this need to be broadly supported. See: http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/aaa/leadership_initiative.htm]
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the co-author of Solidarity Divided. He can be reached at email@example.com.