Ramona Lisa Alexander performs the role of Mama in this photo from Up You Mighty Race Theatre Company’s recent presentation of “In the Continuum.” Community talk back sessions following performances at the Boston Center for the Arts focused on black men, the black church and the way they deal have with HIV/AIDS. (Craig Bailey/Perspective photo)
Lawrence Dalton was a successful musician who had every reason, he believed, to cheat on his wife.
Like many other heterosexual African American men, he said he felt the invincibility of youth, success and the attractiveness of being the alpha male capable of keeping women at home and on the side.
But everything has its price. On one evening in 1996, Dalton said he received a telephone call that changed his life. His girlfriend told him that she had tested positive for HIV.
“At that point, I had to make the most difficult call I have ever had to make in my life,” Dalton said. “I had to call my wife and tell her to get tested.”
Dalton told his story during a recent community talk back after a performance of “In the Continuum,” a play combining two stories written by female graduate students addressing the effect that HIV/AIDS has had on their respective cultures, at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Promiscuity was a key topic.
While a change in behavior after being diagnosed can help reduce the rate of infection, those who know their status carry other burdens.
“You have to understand,” Dalton said. “Once sisters know your status, it does affect your love life. I make sure — once I see the relationship is going in that direction — that I tell sisters up front that I am HIV-positive.”
While Dalton feels comfortable with disclosing his status to his partners, former Broadway actor greg-eugene finds it more important to emphasize practicing safe sex. eugene is openly gay and has been living with full-blown AIDS for the last 12 years.
”It’s not easy for everyone to disclose, and I don’t think that everyone should have to disclose,” he said. “ I think it’s more important — for me, at least — to say to a brother, ‘Hey, man, listen: We going to do this thing safe tonight?’ If he’s not with that, then it doesn’t go any further than that, but it’s not easy for everyone to disclose.
“I think a lot of people think of AIDS as a death sentence, but it’s more of a chronic illness,” he added. “I am very healthy — I take yoga classes, I swim, I eat well. Being fearful and being scared to get tested means that when it does show up in your system, it might be too far gone. It’s better to catch it early.”
eugene works for the Multicultural AIDS Coalition and encounters a spectrum of men in his daily outreach work.
“… The whole purpose is to raise awareness and have black men take some ownership,” he said. “A lot of brothers think that if you mention HIV, that makes a person gay. We had a brother who we gave a pamphlet with a man on it and he said, ‘No, man — if you want to get my attention, you have to have something with women on it.’ And I said, ‘No, man — we are talking about black men and black men’s health.’”
Concerning black men and their health, Lawrence Dalton sees a more deep-rooted cause for why men of color tend to be uninformed about their HIV/AIDS status.
”I think that there is a mistrust of the medical profession that is deep-seated,” he said. “They don’t feel comfortable; they feel that conversations are being had about them that are above their head. They don’t have the level of understanding of their own disease that will allow them to be good consumers. Hence, they back away, and don’t show up.”
The sense of invincibility and rejection of fear that can drive black men away from learning their HIV/AIDS status are often present in hip-hop culture. For many black men, the tales and images of sex in their favorite songs can supersede the facts — like the statistics that place young people between the ages of 14 and 24 among the groups with the highest rate of new HIV/AIDS infections each year.
TiElla Grimes, a youth worker and HIV/AIDS activist, started reaching out to her peers after three of her openly gay uncles died from the disease.
Now in her early 20s, Grimes has been working with teens since she was 17. She said she encounters many stigmas in her work, but tries very hard to overcome them and help her peers get educated about the disease.
Grimes also sees a connection between the consciousness of young people and HIV/AIDS and the consciousness of the hip-hop community toward the disease.
“To be honest, I stopped listening to hip-hop, because of the mixed messages that people were putting out there,” she explained. “See, you can have a [HIV education] campaign by whoever, but if you see them in their music video slapping some female on her butt, you don’t see them with a condom. It’s definitely mixed messages in the hip-hop community, because if you have rappers that are saying, ‘Wrap it up,’ but then in the video they are not doing it, all that they said has been erased.”
Another discussion session probed the response of the black church to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
During the civil rights movement, the black church emerged as the hub of community organizing and a crucial vehicle for dispersing information. But because HIV/AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease, dealing with its impact represents a very different sort of crisis — one that often causes faith-based organizations to teeter on the outskirts of direct discussion.
“We don’t like to talk about sex,” said the Rev. Martin McLee, district superintendent for the Metro Boston Hope District of the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church. “It’s not that the black church doesn’t care. It’s that the black church just doesn’t know how to talk about sex, whether it’s teen pregnancy, the homosexual situation [or] spouses cheating on each other.”
But McLee said he believes that the church should be a place to have those talks.
“When we begin to have the difficult conversations in our churches and provide safe places for these conversations, people will learn to change harmful behaviors, and risk will be reduced and the HIV/AIDS data will reflect a reduction,” he said. “And I am talking about the whole gamut, everything from condom usage to limiting sexual partners to use of clean needles for [intravenous] drug users.”
Like many of his colleagues in the clergy, McLee said he does not view HIV/AIDS as a punishment from God for man’s lasciviousness.
“HIV/AIDS as a punishment is myth that comes out of the ignorance of the truth of the word of God,” he said. “All you have to do is look at children who are born with AIDS, and they are innocent, have done no harm, have not sinned, yet they are challenged by being HIV-positive.”
While McLee addressed the myths surrounding HIV/AIDS and the black church, he also pointed out the community’s strengths and the major benefit the church can have as an organizing unit.
“The role of the church has been helpful when they encourage people to get tested,” he said. “If the test is negative, then the church should encourage people to do whatever they have to do to remain negative, whether it’s abstinence or encouraging safer sex practices.”
The church is not the only institution that can provide shelter from the myths and fears. The medical community also has a major role to play in helping individuals separate truth from fiction.
Dr. Bisola Ojikutu is an African American researcher who has been working in AIDS research since medical school. Ojikutu’s work puts her in direct contact with people in the U.S. and Africa, and she sees and hears the fears and myths surrounding HIV/AIDS in both places.
“There are so many myths out there, and all of them speak to our overall experience with the health care system,” said Ojikutu. “Unfortunately, these myths impede our community’s ability to access HIV prevention, testing and treatment.”
Among African Americans, she said, the most prevalent myth is that HIV was created in a lab to intentionally harm black people and other members of groups in which the disease is more prevalent.
“When I hear that comment, my response is that in terms of your own personal health, it doesn’t matter where HIV came from,” she said. “What we need to do is to aggressively prevent infection and treat it appropriately when someone is infected.”
Akiba Abaka is the producing artistic director of Up You Mighty Race Theatre Company.