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Losing Dorothy 

If you’re black and poor in L.A., silence still equals death.

Wednesday, May 30 2001
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Photos by Anne Fishbein

The day Dorothy Travis got baptized, she woke up sick. Churning stomach, headache, tingling legs. She had grown accustomed to this wake-up call from the force that was slowly consuming her. But today the pain was more fierce than usual, as if trying to stop her from what she was about to do: tell the world she had AIDS.

With some effort she made her way from the bed to the closet, selected a burgundy sweat suit -- a practical choice for full immersion in the baptismal waters -- and turned to the mirror to make sure her hair was just right. She had always been proud of her looks, and for an instant she was startled by her reflection. Her skin, once smooth and creamy brown, was now dry and dull. Her curvy figure, which she'd maintained through the births of five children, had dissolved into loose flaps of skin. Her large brown eyes looked glazed, her lips cracked and chapped. This was not the image of the strong, energetic 33-year-old she wanted to be. How could she stand before the congregation looking like this?

It was a hot September morning, and Dorothy was covered in sweat by the time she got to Little Saint John, a tiny storefront church in South L.A. As her Aunt Bessie helped her out of the car and into her wheelchair, they could hear the congregation belting out one of Dorothy's favorite church songs, "Ain't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus." Dorothy's insides began to flutter. The last time she had faced a crowd was at her graduation from Compton High. Back then she was an ROTC regiment leader, and she had held her head high. That was pure joy. This was altogether something else. Not only was she going to publicly acknowledge for the first time that she had AIDS, she was also finally soon to seek the medical care she'd been avoiding. Dorothy had agreed, at Bessie's coaxing, to move to a hospice -- as long as she could get baptized first. Secretly, she hoped God would make her well.

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As the song came to a close, the pastor called Dorothy forward. Bessie steered her niece to the front, and all faces turned their way. The room was so quiet that Dorothy was afraid to breathe. Then the pastor put his hands on her shoulders, leaned over and looked directly into her eyes. He spoke loudly, so that everyone could hear. He compared her to Lazarus, who had died, but with the help of Jesus come back to life. Dorothy, too, could be healed. "Yes, you have AIDS and you are sick," he said. "Don't be afraid. You're God's child, and he's going to take care of you now."

The pastor led Dorothy to the baptismal font, a tub the size of a small Jacuzzi. She was too weak to get in, so he dipped his hand into the water and shook it over her head. Then he made the sign of the cross, embraced her and invited the congregation forward. One by one, every man, woman and child filed up to the front, kissed and hugged her, and welcomed her into the fold.

For many African-Americans, seeing one of their own dying of AIDS is an all-too-familiar sight. Over the past decade, the epidemic has engaged in a sort of reverse white flight, migrating steadily from the aeries of middle-class Anglo gay men to the ghettos of the poor, especially blacks. Thanks in large part to a range of highly effective new drugs, the overall number of deaths from AIDS has dropped by two-thirds in the past seven years. Meanwhile the percentage of people dying of AIDS who are black has risen steadily.

Scientists tracking this shift start in L.A., in fact, where America's first cases of AIDS were positively identified two decades ago this month. Of those five original cases, all were gay men, as were most of the hundreds of thousands who died in subsequent years from what came to be known as the gay plague. But by 1993, blacks, who represent about 12 percent of the U.S. population, made up an estimated one-third of AIDS deaths. And in 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available, half of all people who died of AIDS in America were black. That means that in 1999 more than 8,000 African-Americans died of AIDS, more than of emphysema, or of gunshot wounds.

Dorothy Travis had no idea of the extent of the damage AIDS had done -- just that she felt utterly alone. But for these few moments at the front of the church, she had made her illness visible to all, and she was accepted unconditionally. As the congregation surrounded her, the fear that had enveloped her fell away, and she began to cry. "So many times, people see me looking sick and they turn away, pull they kids back," she said later. "Having all these people, all these kids, kissing me, and nobody was afraid, that felt real good." In that moment, she felt ready to get help for her AIDS. For once in a life full of hard luck and wrong turns, Dorothy knew she was doing the right thing. What she did not consider was that it was probably too late.

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