Fifteen years ago, author E. Lynn Harris published his first novel “Invisible Life.” That bestselling novel – and the 11 others that followed – have helped to forever shift the way African Americans view the complicated connections between race, sexuality and spirituality.
He brought the HIV and AIDS crisis to the hearts and minds of the Black community through the joys and suffering of one of the characters in the book, a Black woman named Candace. And he showed how much the spirituality of Black America is shared, how closely our sexuality is tied to who we are, and how the labels that divide us are more political than interpersonal.
All this week, Harris expands his pioneering literary work by advocating on behalf of Black America for the increased nationwide funding of HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and awareness within black communities. As part of Harris' brand new awareness HIV/AIDS initiative, he will participate in the 17th annual AIDSWATCH convening in Washington, DC, April 27-29, 2009.
What has sparked your new advocacy efforts around HIV/AIDS?
Actually I’ve always been an advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention and treatment specifically in removing from the disease the stigma which often surrounds it. In fact, many of my books have dealt with the stigmatization of sexuality and the choices we must make in overcoming it. When one is able to be honest with themselves and their partners, informed decisions can be made including safer sex practices and regular HIV/AIDS testing.
In recent years, the epidemic has been directly impacting the lives of an increasing number of African-American women. In fact AIDS is the leading cause of death among Black women aged 25-34. Much more aggressive action must take place in terms of outreaching to Black women, girls and their families in order to provide a multi-faceted approach to HIV/AIDS prevention.
Blacks in general across all demographic groups collectively make up 45 percent of new HIV cases and 46 percent of the more than one million people estimated to be living with HIV in America. We must develop and take an aggressive plan of action in reversing these shocking and completely preventable trends.
What will you be doing at AIDSWATCH to shine the light on the problem?
AIDSWATCH is an annual convening of AIDS advocates from across the country who travel to Washington, D.C. to lobby their U.S. Congressmen and Senators for their continued federal commitments to HIV/AIDS funding. I will be meeting with AIDSWATCH participants, most of whom are Black, to discuss localized solutions to this nationwide epidemic.
I will also be accompanying them during their lobbying visits and will speak one-on-one with the politicians who directly are responsible for making decisions on HIV/AIDS funding. I will also address the rapid growth of HIV/AIDS in Black communities and the steps that we must take to stop the spread of the diseases.
Why do you think HIV/AIDS is prevalent among African Americans, particularly women? What do you think should be done?
There is no one answer to this question. There are numerous factors which have influenced the growth of HIV/AIDS including having unprotected sex with multiple partners, drug injection use, the lack of proper health care and the overall lack of understanding that HIV/AIDS can affect everyone, not just a subpopulation of our communities.
When all of these factors are combined it creates a snowball effect that we are currently witnessing all across the country in both the major urban and rural areas alike. Hence, our plan of action must be comprehensive and inclusive of Black people across all demographics. HIV/AIDS does not discriminate based on how old you are, how much money you earn, what part of town you live, what religion you practice or what church you belong to.
Further, Black women must also be empowered to be able to stand up and protect their bodies and their lives through increased HIV/AIDS outreach. They have often been overlooked throughout the course of the epidemic and now they must be strongly advocated for on local, state, and national levels. We must make sure that their stories of struggle and hardship are heard, understood and firmly addressed when it comes ensuring they are protected from HIV/AIDS. I am committed to making this happen through both my advocacy and creative endeavors within the arts.
You spoke about the religion and church earlier. What should be the role of the Black church be now when it comes to HIV/AIDS?
Thankfully, today many Black churches are more proactive when it comes to HIV/AIDS. In fact, many have created their own outreach and support groups which provide a strong and spiritually nurturing place for those at-risk and/or infected with HIV/AIDS.
Further, faith based institutions that are inclusive of all people providing a non-judgmental environment, promoting both abstinence as well as safer sex practices for those who have sex outside of marriage or with the same gender will be poised in making the greatest gain against the epidemic within their local communities.
Do you plan on doing more work around HIV/AIDS and Black communities?
Yes most definitely! I am totally committed to lending my voice, name, and artistry to ending the epidemic. Far too many Black people have been infected and have died from something that is completely preventable. I am here to speak up for Black communities who cannot speak up for themselves when it comes to HIV/AIDS.
Herndon Davis is a journalist and consultant focusing on human diversity and can be reached at www.herndondavis.com