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The Cost and Casualties of Silence: HIV/AIDS in Black America

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Tony Wafford
There is a terrible and terrifying creature stalking the Black community day and night. People regularly hear reports and sometimes see the horrible and constant toll that it’s taking on our lives, but there seems to be an unannounced agreement not to talk about it openly and honestly.  Perhaps, there is a desperate hope that if we don’t mention its name and recognize its presence, it will go away as quickly and quietly as it came.

At first, we saw it as a problem for people outside our community because the majority of the visible victims were white. But now, the victims are rapidly changing color and 66 percent of all newly diagnosed and dying victims are from the Black and Brown communities.  We also have seen the victims as mainly questionable and unworthy males even though they are often husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, and boyfriends, played the piano and preached at our churches and sang love songs at our concerts. Now we see new victims, Black women who are 65 percent of all new casualties from this terrifying and terrible creature among women of color. Even our children are not exempt, they have now become 75 percent of all its fatal victims.

Finally, we heard that it was a jail and prison phenomenon, isolated and too far away to affect us. But it came home with husbands, fathers, brothers, boyfriends and sons and is now wreaking havoc on our women, children, families and community.  This terrible and terrifying creature is called HIV/AIDS and it has come to our community and is consuming our life energy and undermining our future. It is now the number one killer of our people between the ages of 22-45. Although we are only 12 percent of the U.S. population, we are 50 percent of the casualties of this terrible and terrifying creature in its non-fatal form.

As the casualties mount day after day through disease and death, it is urgent and unavoidable that we as a community come together, set aside our fears, phobias, misconceptions and costly silence and actively confront this horrible threat to our lives and future as a people. To save and protect the lives of our children and people as a whole, there are several things we must do.

·         First, we must embrace the victims for who they are-above all, members of our community and families, our friends and fellow human beings, deserving the respect we all are due as bearers of dignity and divinity.

·         Second, we must practice an ethics of care and responsibility for the ill and vulnerable among us. This is central to our spiritual and ethical tradition as a people.  There was never a time needed to do this more than now in this devastating crisis.

·         Third, we must urge our leaders, organizations and especially our religious institutions to take up this issue in a serious and sustained manner, holding forums, speaking out, organizing and mobilizing the community to care for the ill, protect the well, and bury the dead with deserved dignity and remembrance, instead of with embarrassed silence and dishonest denial of the reason for their dying.

·         Fourth, we must each of us begin and help to build a national conversation about this most deadly disease-its causes, consequences, possible cures and means of prevention.

This will include an honest discussion of the varied sexual practices people engage in secretly and openly.

·         Fifth, we must urge testing as a key strategy for detection and prevention of its spreading. Testing is especially important for men in jail and prison who may have engaged in high risk activity and who will be reintegrating back into their families and the community.

·         Six, Also, we must organize to struggle for more resources to deal with this horrible crisis. As the color of the victims went from White to Black and Brown, so the resources began to dwindle and dry up.

·         Seventh and finally, we must realize and act on the knowledge that we are our own resources and rescuers. Indeed, it is our efforts, which are decisive in any struggle we wage. “For a people that cannot save it self is lost forever.” This is a fundamental point in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. We must repair our own selves, raise ourselves from the ruins of disease and oppression, hold ourselves and others responsible and together build the community and world we all want and deserve to live in.  Whatever else it may be, our community must be a good and loving community that embraces and cares for its own, especially the most vulnerable among us - the ill and aged, the children, the disabled and the poor.

Tony Wafford is the National Action Network Project Director of the Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative.

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