Book paints sobering picture of AIDS in black community

By |2018-01-16T00:17:58-05:00October 31st, 2017|Uncategorized|

By Dawn Wolfe

On Feb. 1, the Black AIDS Institute released a report that said, among other disheartening things, “African-Americans now account for 54 percent of annual new infections, though they are just 13 percent of the population” in the United States.
The saddest thing about that report is that it isn’t news. HIV infection rates have been proportionally higher among blacks than among whites from the beginning.
“The Secret Epidemic: The Story of AIDS and Black America” explains why.
In “Secret Epidemic,” now out in paperback from Anchor Books, writer Jacob Levenson paints what he calls “an exploration of the interior experience of the black AIDS epidemic, lifted from the minds of the people on the front lines of public health, politics, urban America, the black elite, and the American South.”
“Secret Epidemic” takes the reader inside the hearts and minds of the people who are battling the disease. Over an almost twenty year period we meet David deShazo, a white social worker who is struggling to help his clients despite the stigma attached to people with HIV in the deep South. We follow Mindy Fullilove, a medical researcher who struggles to invent a new language to describe how racism, housing destruction and drugs are joining with AIDS to destroy her community. We anger, despair and ultimately triumph with Desiree Rushing, who faces down her infection with what becomes an unshakable spiritual faith. Along the way we meet white, gay male scientists who are facing HIV in their professional lives just as they discover that their own lives are about to be cut short by the disease, dedicated public health professionals, politicians, religious leaders and crack dealers. In perhaps the most deeply moving of many personal stories, we feel the shame, grief and ultimate dedication of Laura Hall, who responds to the death of her son, Ato, by being elected to the Alabama state legislature and pushing for increased government funding to help others infected with HIV.
So, why has HIV become one of the leading killers of black America? Though personal stories drive the narrative of this book, “Secret Epidemic” takes a complete look at the many and varied fuels that have fired the spread of AIDS among blacks. Levenson describes how urban renewal policies from the 1940s through the 1960s destroyed communities of poor blacks, tearing apart social bonds and leaving them vulnerable to epidemics from heroin to crack to AIDS. He shows how what might have been the intentional abandonment of New York City’s poor to fires in the 1960s and 70s led to the widespread destruction of affordable housing, which ultimately made the increasingly cramped New York slums a place that practically welcomed AIDS to take root. He takes us inside the minds of the people involved so we can see how fear, cultural ignorance, pride, homophobia – and even love – worked together to stigmatize HIV/AIDS and ultimately made it harder to study, prevent, and treat the disease in the black community. And Levenson details how the initial identification of the disease as a “gay disease” ultimately pitted the white gay community against the black community in the battle for public health funding.
While ultimately this is a book about race and about the impact of racism on black America today, Levenson doesn’t descend into finger-pointing. Instead, he details the very human reactions of the people whose lives are touched by AIDS, and touched upon in “Secret Epidemic.”
Levenson’s willingness to handle the complexity of his topic is exemplified by this excerpt, which details Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ response to being accused by a black gay male political operative of doing too little to help the poor in her community fight AIDS:
“Directing that criticism at Maxine Waters was arguably misguided. Born into a family of thirteen in St. Louis, she had begun her career teaching in Head Start and as a congresswoman had fought against welfare reform, the attacks on affirmative action, and three-strikes laws. … She was willing to fight for measures against AIDS, just as she was prepared to fight for the host of other needs of black Americans. Maybe even more so. After all, her sister was infected with the virus.”
For those seeking to understand AIDS in the black community, “The Secret Epidemic” is an essential text and possibly the most important book one could read.

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BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.