Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Remembering family and friends on World AIDS Day


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.

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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."

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Key West, Ruthie, Sara Lee, Darcell - thanks for your lessons and having shared my existence on this planet!

4 comments:

ea said...

Did the community leaders ever come around? I bet you had quite the readership at your little paper.

Mi sentido pésame.

Deb said...

Gracias tanto, mi amor. Estaba hace algún tiempo pero todavía lo siento profundamente.

While I was there, no they didn't. We watched several Black, gay people die alone pretty much, while preachers told the congregation what "sinners" they had been. As I wrote this, I was talking to my youngest who remembered my friend Gary, "eating with us for some reason" and then dying - with none of his family around him.

I sent Clayton and email today after finding him. I wanted to see where they were with what we'd started. He's not yet responded.

Yes, the paper's readership definitely increased once I got my own column. That was the whole "business" purpose of the editor giving me the opportunity -though she said it was, "to make the paper look like the community it served." I know the purpose was to increase readership. And I was fine with that - because I thought I had something to say that would resonate with the disenfranchised - Black, Latino and otherwise.

But stupid me, I had no idea how it all worked until a friend - not the editor, but a reporter sharing my cubicle - told me about saving my "clips" (no journalism degree then, or now for that matter!). That's why I can't link directly to the pieces, but rather, I have to scan what I saved in order to re-post.

They got me good. I knew nothing about the newspaper business. My Black ass was just happy to speak for, and be heard - and of course, published - for posterity. That's also why I write this blog right now. Not for traffic, ads or blog awards - but for my children. I want them to always know who I was - outside of "Mom."

I'm sure there's something I can do, I just don't know what - yet. But I'm working on it. Those columns and editorials are my, "intellectual property" - in the words of the White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. I've started writing a sort of, "then-and-now" book on Key West (a compilation of the columns/editorials with updates on the subjects). And as soon as I find out how to get all my shit, they'll all be available without my having to scan, cut and paste.

My time there, was definitely the best part of my professional and personal life - I can't lie. I found my voice, myself. I became a part of that community like I never had anywhere else and I treasure that to this day.

Cinie said...

Deb, Deb, Deb...I can never just co-sign your posts with a simple, "okay?" or, "I heard that!" Lengthy compositions are not only inspired, but simply required by your thought-provoking essays.

I lived in Los Angeles for many of my early adult and early middle aged years. I worked with one of the first patients ever to be diagnosed with the "gay disease" that then had no name. It wasn't until after he passed away that I, along with the rest of the world, began to understand what the "cold or something he just couldn't seem to shake," as he described it, was.

I lived in West Hollywood back then, which was almost a homosexual Mecca at the time. The area teemed with so many (mainly male) homosexuals that it resembled a mega Pride Day parade every day, with crowds swelling to traffic-stopping proportions on Friday, peaking on Saturday, and starting all over again Sunday. A few short years later, the difference was startling. It was impossible not to notice just how many people were just...missing. Gone.

I remember going to Lakers games during that time and wondering to myself whether the players were taking responsible precautions, hoping they were, but suspecting they were not. When Magic Johnson announced his infection, I felt uncomfortably prescient and impotent, as well as incredibly sad. Fortunately, all of my personal friends managed to escape infection, but then, I've been known to give cases of condoms to everybody on my Christmas list.

Since I've been away from the area so long now, I'm kinda out of the loop, but, as far as I know everybody's still fine. But, all my friends and family dramatically changed our wild child behavior PDQ, and believe me, for some of us, that amounted to a 180 degree turn. But when I see the AIDs quilt all I can think of is all those nameless people who I used to see and party with and among back in the day, who suddenly so obviously just weren't there anymore.

Maybe one day I'll tell you about my maternal grandmother who had 13 children, 10 that lived past infancy, starting in about 1917, and my father's Pentecostal pioneer missionary "MuhDeah," who had 2, and looked down on her son's wife's family for being "country," "low class," and "po'," though both my grandparents' families made it to Chicago by way of downstate Illinois and Missouri respectively, after their predecessors "escaped" the Deep South at least a generation before.

Deb said...

Separated at birth is right! I welcome the compositions, Cin and am certainly glad to inspire them! Our stories matter, whether this generation cares about them or not. I just want to tell them before they're lost in the "melting pot."

Yep that is what we all thought about it back then - until Magic Johnson. Ruthie was so taken aback, she never breathed a word once she was diagnosed in the late 80s (she'd left the boyfriend and had another guy who really loved her by then).

It wasn't til she was hospitalized that I knew. Mama and her baby sister (5 years older than me) called to tell me they were driving up to pick me up in MD on their way to see her in NY. She'd told them she had cancer.

As soon as I walked on that ward, I knew. When I looked into her eyes - she knew I knew. I had to tell my mother and aunt, both of whom seemed to visibly retract their embrace. I couldn't, I had to hug her - tight. She wanted to leave her room for the day room(her roommate was merely charred-looking skin stretched over bones). So I brushed her hair, put my arm around her shoulder and off we all went. There was a piano there. The patients and nurses were singing all kinds of shit! We sidled on up, holding hands and joined in - loud, off-key, laughing. Her sisters sat off to the side - afraid.

She got better - no more lesions on her face, shapely, beautiful - and that mouth like a sailor was back! But now ALL the family knew and when she was around, you could tell. But she was back, on her own "Fuck 'em if they can't see it's still me!" terms.

She got her "papers" in order, knew who'd be raising her son (another sister living in NY - her first stop when she came up from "Down South") came home one last time to see her mother - and lived til she died a few years later. Another "dividing time" along this journey of me.

Most of us, gay or not, were lucky during those times - some were not. I know what you mean about the "missing." My time in Key West was like that. Friends died - Black, white, Latino. Some of their names are in granite at the Aids Memorial there.

I had a month-long birthday celebration one year ending in a night of drinking, dancing and laughing with 2 friends - a white gay guy and a Black woman (the husband's not a partier though I met him in a club. Go figure!). The next day I got a call from Norma saying Kenneth had died - after he got home that night! I wrote a column about it - maybe I'll scan and post it. So many memories...

See, you inspire as well.

I'd love to hear your grandmother's story,Cin. Already sounds a lot like mine! I've known a "MuhDeah" or two myself! :-) I hope you write it.

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