Two of my aunts died from AIDS. One, a long-time IV drug user and mother to a daughter whose father had promised marriage. The other, a hard-working, single mother of a son in a long-term, monogamous relationship with an IV drug user who shot up between his toes - so she wouldn't know (Southern, country girls "didn't know nuttin' 'bout dem needles" - back then).
They were less than five years apart in age. My Grandmama had 15 children (a number disputed - 19 or 15 - mostly by those in the family who've bought into the White Supremacist Patriarchal belief that it looks bad for a woman to have had all those babies. Never mind she was born in 1909 and died in 2002! I'm workin' on the real numbers still.), most of them "girl chillun." Both had been a part of the Second Great Black Migration, escaping the heavily prevalent racism of Jim Crow and James Crow, Esq., for the promise of a "better life up North."
And as was our wont, back, "Once Upon a Time...When we were Colored," (remember that movie? Yeah, I know the younguns don't want to hear about , nor even, think about that past, but it's from whence I came), all siblings heading North, passed through my Mama's house. She was the oldest, and had moved to "the city," despite all odds - to own her own home. She was the sub-matriarch (who could read and understand "all dem white folks tricks"), teaching the newbies how to save, and handle their money in preparation to go North to those family members who were part of the First Great Black Migration. Ruthie and Sara Lee were among the first - of the second wave of Grandmama's children - to move to New York.
Sarah Lee - the older of the two - after stopping off in New York for a time, thought it better to move to New Jersey to raise her daughter, Angela. She was already hooked on the needle by then. Her long-time, country boyfriend, Fonza (short for Alphonso), didn't know what to do, how to handle her addiction (because - Southern, country boys didn't know nuttin' neither 'bout dem needles" back then). He left her and Angela - and came back home.
But Ruthie, she got to Harlem and flourished (I visited her when I was in the sixth grade and my country ass couldn't, for the life of me, understand what the big deal was about The Apollo, this theater that looked like the Lincoln Theater back home - with more trash). She got a good job with ConEd, met a guy from home (who just happened to be related - we later found out - to my mother's best friend in her grown-up life) - fell in love, and had a wickedly, smart baby boy (who's gone on to be a very successful chef). I remember her telling me when I graduated from my HBCU in Alabama back in 1978, "Come and stay with me in New York!" I wish I had.
She was like me - always was. While reading books and being good in school helped me escape the hooded demons of my existence, she depended on "what her Mama gave her" to succeed - a good head on her shoulders, the mastery of secretarial skills that would sustain her and her son, and the will - to return to "the country" on her own terms. She died, November 21, 1993 - two years and eight months before the sister, my mother, who'd guided her along the Great Migration path. Sarah Lee buried them both - along with my grandmother in 2002.
Back in October 2001, I wrote this column for my little South Florida daily paper. I offer it in recognition and celebration of this 21st celebration of World Aids Day. It's crazy to see how much I've changed in eight years (the whole religion thing slays me, yet still defines me. Weird right?) and how much the Keys, and the world have not.
Our churches must be our foundation
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Psalm 23: 1-4
The 23rd Psalm is probably one of the most well known and most depended upon for comfort and strength by those of us whose faith is deeply rooted in the traditional black church.
Once learned, it is never forgotten. I know that it has served me well all of my life, during good times as well as bad. As I sat thinking how best to express my thoughts on this topic, it occurred to me to call upon it yet again.
In mid-September, I met with Leevon Conner, education director at AIDS Help, Inc. and Darcell Deane-Lee, a beautiful, black sister with a smile that could light up a room. Her warmth and exuberance was absolutely magnetic and I just had to give her a big ole' hug. The first thing she told me, after we all sat down, was, "I'm HIV positive." I immediately thought of my Aunt Ruthie as my eyes searched her face for some sign of the disease. She reminded me of her with one small exception - she was willing to talk to me about it.
Lee wanted to brainstorm about more effective ways to reach out to the Bahama Village community. He informed me that only 22 clients of the 300-325 served by the organization were black.
It was as if I had been kicked in the stomach, though I was not surprised. After all, my own aunt had felt the intense stigma enough to not share her condition with anyone. That's just not how we roll. Most of us prefer to think and act like HIV and AIDS is only happening to other people. But the truth is, our rate of infection is growing faster than any other group in this country and we are dying in droves - because we choose to "wear the mask."
We decided to rely on the long-established, tried-and¬true method of our people; Approach the spiritual leaders in the community and ask them to be the forerunners. Accordingly, a "call" went out to the spiritual leaders in Bahama Village. The request was direct and to the point:
"We want to get the benefit of your experience on how we can best address this problem in our community."
With the blessings and participation of Robert G. Walker, executive director, AIDS Help, Inc. and, in collaboration with the Monroe County Health Department, represented by Clayton Lopez, The Faith Community Leadership Initiative luncheon, sponsored by Agouron Pharmaceuticals, Inc., was held on Oct. 6 at VFW Post 6021.
The featured guest speakers were Donna Nelson, Regional Minority AIDS coordinator, Broward County Health Department, and, also from Broward County, Virginia Anderson, Special Projects coordinator, Mount Bethel Human Services Corp., Inc./Churches United to Stop HIV/AlDS (CUSH), two thoroughly-furnished, fully-equipped sisters on a mission to save black lives.
The "call" went out, but the silence of the "response" was deafening and disappointing - at first. The group assembled was very small in comparison to the number of people invited. Noticeably absent were Bahama Village community leaders, both spiritual and secular.
I kept saying to myself, "Apathy will kill this community a whole lot faster than AIDS ever will." And though I understand that the indifference is borne out of a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, the gravity of this issue, as it pertains to us, begs a response. It has become a matter of life and death.
The little group assembled, however, forged ahead undaunted. Inspired by Donna and Virginia's stories of eventual success, we chose to name our committee CUSH as well. Our acronym, however, for obvious reasons, stands for "Community United to Stop IllV/AIDS." We decided that the continuity of the name, CUSH, was important because of its roots in African history and Christianity.
Everyone committed to undergo the four-hour, HIV/AIDS-Basic 104 training with Clayton, and once that is completed, the outreach work will begin. We believe that, in the tradition of "each one teach one," our ranks will swell to include many more concerned Bahama Village residents because we cannot continue to deceive ourselves. As Virginia said, "Everyone in the community is either infected or affected by HIV and AIDS." The sooner we accept that premise, the better off we will all be.
And I have faith that the spiritual leaders will come around. I know, in my heart, they believe as I do that, " ... He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake."
Key West, Ruthie, Sara Lee, Darcell - thanks for your lessons and having shared my existence on this planet!