How AIDS Jumped the Color Line


In 2012 history of medicine professor Keith Wailoo (Rutgers University) explored the history of cancer and how its prominence in Black communities is a recent phenomenon. Historically, cancers showed up more often in White communities because of their association with more sedentary lifestyles and diets of rich foods. Black people used to do more physical work that provided plenty of exercise and we used to eat less processed, simpler food. Today, we are as sedentary as the rest of the society and take advantage of both convenience and fast foods. The results is that 85 percent of Black women in the US are considered obese and cancer has become more prevalent in our communities.
In the early 1980s I lived in the San Francisco Bay area when the AIDS epidemic hit. At that time people literally called it the “gay disease.” There was such terror associated with the disease that people would not allow themselves to be in the same room with someone who was HIV infected or with full blown AIDS. One of the early talk show hosts, Phil Donahue had an AIDS patient as a guest and all of the cameras were covered in plastic, the camera men wore surgical masks, and there was no studio audience. The rash of deaths that resulted from this mysterious disease that seemed to be devastating the gay male community became a national emergency. However. once the research dollars began to produce some promising treatments (despite not yet yielding a cure) the (White) gay community seemed to rest a bit. Additionally, some efforts were made to do needle exchanges in communities so that drug addicts could protect themselves from the virus.

Today, the AIDS epidemic resides in the Black community–the Black, female, heterosexual community. Black women are the major victims of AIDS primarily because of their relationships with men who are drug infected or who have had sex with HIV-positive males. But, the national emergency around AIDS seems to have subsided. According to the Black Women’s Health Imperative, “Every 35 minutes, a woman tests positive for HIV in this country.  And, the impact of HIV among Black women and girls is even more startling.  Nationally, Black women account for 66% of new cases of HIV among women.  HIV/AIDS related illness is now the leading cause of death among Black women ages 25-34.”

Those Blacks who consider themselves “educated” tend to think of AIDS as a disease that ignorant and uneducated people contract because they do not take proper precautions, but AIDS has made its way through the Black community–crossing gender, sexuality, and class lines. Despite all the admonitions most Black people don’t know their status. Some years ago I applied for some additional life insurance and the insurance carrier told me I needed to get a physical and an HIV test. I though, “Are you crazy? I’ve been married to the same man for ever. I have 4 grown kids. I have grandchildren.” But, if I wanted the coverage He told me I had to get the test. I cannot tell you what a relief it was to get a negative result…to know for sure.

The Black community is doubly burdened by the scourge of racism AND the challenges of everyday life (family, jobs, finances, politics, relationships, etc.). The fact that we have another health challenge that we can prevent (or at least diminish) by protective behaviors means we have to be more vigilant and as the late poet Maya Angelou would say, “When you know better, you do better!”

Stay Black & Smart!


One thought on “How AIDS Jumped the Color Line

  1. Thanks for spreading awareness about this important issue. Not enough people in our racial-ethnic community know their status–or know what to do with it once they become aware. I’d just caution that though black women are obviously more at-risk than other heterosexual women, it’s dangerous to point to black men as the sole/primary reason for their seroconversion–especially because CDC data hasn’t shown that and it harkens by to the damaging image of the now-debunked “downlow myth.” I’d also note that HIV seems to reside most heavily in black queer communities, with black men being 70% of all black cases, and queer men being 72% of that subset–despite being more likely to use protection than other risk group (according to CDC data, Dr. D. Malebranche and G. Millet.).


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