Column: Dispatches from Black America
By Phill Wilson
I grew up on the south side of Chicago. My mother never met a Jet or Ebony Magazine she was willing to throw away. So, like most Black folks of my generation, copies of Jet and Ebony were living room accents as important as coffee tables and lamps.
This month’s news of the death of their founding publisher, John Johnson, sent me back to those times. Ebony magazine often admonished us for not being where we, as a community, needed to be, but it always reminded us that we weren’t where we used to be, either. As we think about the AIDS epidemic in Black communities today, that balance is an important one to remember. On AIDS, we are clearly not where we need to be.
Much of the latest news about AIDS and Black people, either here or in Africa, is bad. Very bad. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that African Americans represent about half of the over one million people living with HIV in the U.S. – even though we’re only 12 percent of the country’s overall population. We’re not where we need to be.
But, in the spirit of Johnson’s magazines, there is a positive aspect to our journey on AIDS too.
Led by today’s Johnson Publishing, Essence Communications, the National Newspaper Publishers Association and others, the AIDS-related content published by Black magazines and newspapers last year added up to nearly 50 million “media impressions,” meaning the combined circulation of the articles they published. And that doesn’t even count broadcast media.
Over 220 Black-owned newspapers and magazines in 34 states published HIV/AIDS stories last year. No, we definitely are not where we used to be.
And that’s not the only place where we’ve made progress. Many civil rights organizations have recently put AIDS at the top of their agenda. The NAACP has officially made AIDS a top priority. This summer, the National Urban League Young Professionals and the Delta Sigma Theta made AIDS work the centerpiece of their annual “day of service.”
At their 30th annual convention in Atlanta this year, the National Association of Black Journalists offered three AIDS workshops, and President Bill Clinton dedicated his entire keynote speech to the subject.
Black churches are starting to come around as well. Churches like Trinity in Chicago, First AME in Los Angeles, Metropolitan in Nashville, and Riverside in New York are being joined by mega-churches like New Birth in Atlanta and Inspiring Body of Christ in Dallas in developing aggressive AIDS ministries.
On the heals of devastating news about HIV outbreaks among Black college students, L.I.F.E. AIDS (a student-led initiative of the Black AIDS Institute) has already expanded to 50 college campuses just one year after its launch. The students’ AIDS-focused magazine, Ledge, has a circulation of over 200,000 and is distributed on 150 campuses.
I don’t know if the glass is half empty of half full. At the Institute, we’re still getting the calls – the frantic late night and early morning calls, the calls from young people who just found out they are infected with HIV and are more afraid of the stigma than the disease.
Even as I write, I’m haunted by a call we got yesterday, from a young man whose father had just died of AIDS. He hadn’t even known his father had HIV.
Maybe it doesn’t matter if the glass is half full or half empty. Maybe it doesn’t even matter that we’re not where we used to be. After all, we have to get where need to be—the end of the AIDS epidemic.
But, it helps to know we are on the move. It helps to stop, take a deep breath and look around to see who’s joined the battle.
“I don’t feel no ways tired. I’ve come too far from where I started from…”
That’s a lesson John Johnson also taught. Good night, Mr. Johnson. I hope we learn your lesson.