AIDS In Black America
7/10/2012 1:30:00 PM
By Alex Garner
Tonight PBS premieres the documentary Endgame: AIDS In Black America. The film offers an in-depth look at how black communities experienced HIV in this country. It’s a narrative we’re all too familiar with – HIV, homophobia, poverty, racism and sexism but these specific stories are the type we don’t hear enough of. Ultimately it’s a story of how black communities struggled to take care of each other when the government and society at large failed in its duty to do so.
AIDS In black America is, in many ways, a story of profound failure- failure of the government, the communities, the churches, the criminal justice system and the media. This film is a chilling reminder that the decisions made and the policies created at the start of the AIDS epidemic still have significant impact today.
People should look back at the failure of the media, in regards to AIDS, the same way they think of its miserable failure around the invasion of Iraq. You’re left wondering, how could this happen? How is it possible the media never held a president accountable who refused to say the word? How did they allow fear and sensationalism to replace real journalism? And who got to shape the narrative about what kind of epidemic this was?
When AIDS was discovered in 1981, it was noticed because people had symptoms and went to see the doctor. But the virus had already been spreading in various communities in this country. It’s understandable that it showed up in gay men first since we were, and continue to be, the hardest hit by this disease. But it seems like the media lacked a basic understanding of public health and epidemiology.
They preferred headlines like, “Gay Cancer” and “God’s Wrath?” to critical analysis of a public health disaster. Our community was complicit, in many ways. Many in the community were the first to say this wasn’t a, “gay disease,” it was impacting everyone. Because apparently the fact that is was killing scores of gay men wasn’t a good enough reason for people to care. That was how the “babies with AIDS” narrative was born.
People love to give money for babies with AIDS. In fact, that excuse is still used today. Just a few months ago I was at a fundraiser in Pasadena and someone from an AIDS service organization was imploring people to give money to help all the babies with AIDS. I guess they hadn’t heard that babies with AIDS are nearly non-existent in LA. But it’s an easy way to get people to write a check when they may feel less generous if they know most of the money goes to help young gay men of color.
Narratives have staying power. Sometimes they work for us and other times they work against us. In the black community the “down low” narrative has perpetuated the stereotype of the sexually predatory black man and the helpless, innocent wife. Too much time is invested in assigning blame for this disease and this documentary is not innocent of that.
Aside from the challenge of deconstructing the inaccurate AIDS narrative, this film is an indictment, not just of the media, but also of the government and the churches.
Many churches were an abysmal failure when it came to HIV in their communities. Black churches have a long history of instigating social change and fighting for justice but instead too many churches opted to spread their own disease of hate and prejudice. Many churches continue with those destructive ways today and religious institutions should be held to the same standard as our elected officials, if not higher. They can no longer be immune from intense criticism if they are using their house of worship to do harm.
When watching this film, it’s hard not to be consumed by rage at a government that did nothing and a president who was silent. The policies of Reagan and Congressmen, like Jesse Helms, still influence how money is spent on HIV treatment and prevention. We still have abstinence only education, laws against condoms in prison and against needle exchange, and we still can’t advertise condoms on television, in between the Viagra and Budweiser commercials.
President Reagan’s legacy is one of utter neglect of the poor and the sick. On top of that, his war on drugs only made the epidemic worse. Many of those policies have yet to be changed and some went unchanged until this past year.
I strongly suggest that you watch Endgame. It provides a better understanding of how HIV has impacted the black community and it makes clear what still needs to be done. There have been many failures but there have also been great successes by grassroots activist. This film reminds us that even though we live in the wealthiest country on earth, we can’t wait around for our government to do its job. The AIDS history is one of resourcefulness, creativity and survival. It’s those qualities that will assure that we will bring this epidemic to an end for all parts of our communities.
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