Measuring a Year in the Epidemic

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Dispatches from Black America

By Phill Wilson

“There’s only us.
There’s only this,…
No other road,
no other way,
no day but today.”

Jonathan Larson
February 4, 1960-January 25, 1996

I just saw Rent, the much anticipated movie adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock opera about a year — “five hundred, twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes” — in the life of a group of friends, some of whom are HIV positive, living on the lower East Side of New York City six years — or, three million, one-hundred fifty-three thousand six hundred minutes—before the arrival of the life-extending triple combination AIDS regimens used today.

I first saw rent on Broadway with the original cast in 1996, the year protease inhibitors came on the market. It was a time in my life when my own mortality clock was ticking very fast. I had nearly died a few months earlier, and no one expected me to live beyond the end of the year.

So much has happened since the play opened that I expected the movie to be dated. After all, World AIDS Day has rolled around 10 times since Rent debuted. Many of us with AIDS are living longer. I have been living with HIV for over 25 years and full blown AIDS for 15 years. But, more than that, the unimaginable has happened: We are making HIV/AIDS therapies available in the worst-hit parts of Sub-Sahara Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia. So I was surprised when, after the opening verse of the first real AIDS song, I found myself in tears.

The scene is of an AIDS support group. A few of my tears were a response to the memories that came flooding back. The faces of Chris, Rory, Craig, Roger, Lynn, Stephen, Bylinda, LeRoy and all my friends who are now dead suddenly filled my head. The grief and the fear that we all felt back then thrust me back into those support groups, those hospital rooms, those memorial services.

But even with all of that, most of the tears were not about my yesterdays. As I fought my way back from the memories, I realized the immense sadness and terror I was feeling was about what is going on with regard to Black America and AIDS today. You see, even with the new drugs, we are still dying in droves — and most of us don’t seem to care. What makes me so sad and so terrified is that I just don’t know what else to do to get Black folks to make ending the AIDS epidemic a top priority.

The statistics don’t seem to do the job — AIDS continues to be the leading cause of death for Black women between the ages of 24 and 34; Black youth represent over 56% of the new HIV/AIDS cases among youth in America; and nearly 50% of Black gay men in the U.S. may already be infected.

Knowing someone who is living with HIV/AIDS does not appear to be the answer, either. I estimate roughly 90% of Black people in America know someone who either is living with HIV/AIDS or has died from the disease. Yet we are still complacent.

Sure, there have been some successes. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported a 5% annual decline in the rate of diagnosis over the last five years. The Black media has responded in tremendous ways. Despite only lip service on the part of most, some Black groups and churches have made real commitments towards stopping AIDS in Black community. But these attempts are diddling around the edges of a massive health catastrophe, a viral Katrina.

According to the CDC, “Despite the decline, the rate of HIV diagnosis among Blacks remained 8.4 times higher than the rage among whites.” More than half of all HIV diagnoses in America are among Blacks.

Nothing less than a full community-wide mobilization will do, but, tragically, there has never been a mass Black response to the AIDS epidemic in America. To help try to ignite one, actors and humanitarians Danny Glover and Sheryl Lee Ralph have recently launched a national celebrity spokesperson campaign to stop AIDS in Black America.

Astonishingly, AIDS in Black America has never benefited from the power of celebrity in the way other communities have. Armies of Black leaders have not participated in AIDS walks to benefit people with AIDS in our community. There is not a “We are the World” or even “That’s What Friends Are For” to raise awareness about AIDS and Black people in America. I, for one, anxiously await to see what kind of response Danny and Sheryl Lee get from their call to action.

We won’t be able to execute the kind of response we need to stop AIDS in our community unless and until each one of us does two things:

1. Decide we deserve to live, a decision I fear not enough of us have made.
2. Commit to joining or starting a community response in each of our neighborhoods.

The opening song of Rent asks the question “How do you measure a year in the life?” The song offers a few possible answers: “In daylights, in sunsets, in laughter, in strife, in five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, how about love?” Love’s good. But, here’s another way to measure a year: the number of people who became infected with HIV last year. Last year, worldwide, it was 3.1 million, and most of them were Black. How about measuring 2006 by the number of things you do to stop AIDS? That would be love.

“There’s only us. There’s only this…, No other road, no other

Phill Wilson is executive director of the Black AIDS Institute. His column is syndicated monthly through the NNPA News Service.

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