My favorite month of the year is February because it is an opportunity to celebrate and rejoice in the beauty and resiliency of Blackness. Fittingly, we annually commemorate February 7th with National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD). This year’s NBHAAD theme is “Let’s Stop HIV Together” and in my new role as President & CEO of the Black AIDS Institute (BAI) I’ve reflected on what stopping HIV together means for us as a community.
We’ve come a long way and made significant progress in the fight to end the epidemic, but there is still a long way to go, and miles to go before we sleep. We take this charge very seriously at BAI. We are the nation’s only Black think tank focused exclusively on ending HIV with a mission to stop the AIDS epidemic in Black communities by engaging and mobilizing Black institutions and individuals in efforts to confront HIV. Our motto speaks to our mission, “Our People. Our Problem. Our Solution.”
The horror of today’s epidemic is that we know how to end it, and yet the epidemic still rages in Black communities. People living with HIV who take HIV-medications as prescribed and maintain an undetectable viral load can live long, healthy lives and have effectively no risk of sexually transmitting the virus to an HIV-negative partner, a concept coined Undetectable=Untransmittable, or U=U. We also have Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for people who are HIV-negative. PrEP is a daily pill for HIV-negative people that can prevent HIV by more than 99%.
Yet, our 2019 reality is there are approximately 468,800 Black Americans living with HIV. Only 46% of Black people who know they are living with HIV remain in regular care and fewer (43%) remain virally suppressed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) half of Black gay men are projected to be diagnosed within their lifetime. Black people are by far the most affected racial or ethnic group with a lifetime HIV risk of 1 in 20 for men (compared to 1 in 132 for whites) and 1 in 48 for women (compared to 1 in 880 for whites). People living in the South (where the majority of Black Americans live) are more likely to be diagnosed with HIV over the course of their lifetime than other Americans, with the highest risk in Washington, D.C. (1 in 13), Maryland (1 in 49), Georgia (1 in 51), Florida (1 in 54), and Louisiana (1 in 56).
What these amazing medications cannot do is erase our American legacies of racism, transphobia, homophobia, and patriarchy that are a part of the structures that are woven into the fabric of almost every American institution today. HIV is a disease of intersectionality and syndemics. Just last week one of our board members, Jussie Smollett, was physically attacked with what is being investigated as a hate crime. Two Black men were found dead in the homes of an affluent white man in West Hollywood in the last 18 months. Black transwomen continue to be killed with little or no media attention. To truly end the HIV and AIDS epidemic we must respond to the reasons why Black Americans are not able to access and utilize the amazing tools we have that can end this epidemic.
We must respond to medical mistrust that is hallmarked by the Tuskegee experiment but still shows up in medical institutions and providers throughout the country today. We must fight for living wages, because when people don’t have the means to live, they are forced into situations that put their well-being in harms way. We must respond to patriarchy and the stigma it creates that fuels homophobia, transphobia, and intimate partner violence. Each day the team at the Black AIDS Institute works to ensure Black communities know about the tools we have to end HIV and make sure healthcare providers and institutions are culturally humble and ready to provide quality services to Black communities.
We are the generation that can end the HIV and AIDS epidemic. But we can only do it together. We must actively resist racist, homophobic, transphobic, and patriarchal systems and actors that don’t care to see us live. We must pull our brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents, lovers, and friends into actions that ensure the safety of Black people and generate actions, locally and nationally, that signify that all Black lives matter. We must vote and demand our elected officials replace institutions and systems that oppress us with systems that promote the freedom and wholeness of all Black people. To be the generation that ends this epidemic we must ensure that we respond to the layered, complex, and wholeness of us all and that takes all of us doing it together. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
*Copeland is the President and Chief Executive officer for the Los Angeles based Black AIDS Institute. It is the nation’s only Black think tank focused exclusively on ending HIV with a mission to stop the AIDS epidemic in Black communities by engaging and mobilizing Black institutions and individuals in efforts to confront HIV. Their motto speaks to their mission, “Our People. Our Problem. Our Solution.”