Shedding Light on the AIDS Blackout

Tony Wafford, director of the county-funded Palms Residential Care Facility for minorities living with HIV/AIDS, is not infected with the virus. He is heterosexual, with more than a touch of black-man machismo that works as part of his considerable charm and personal energy. He had a comfortable career as an entertainment-industry publicist and concert promoter whose primary job was keeping things glossy and upbeat, and schmoozing with the likes of Eddie Murphy and Beyoncé. In other words, Wafford is not the face of the disease. In fact, he wasn’t even interested in going to an HIV/AIDS support meeting that a female friend invited him to several years ago, but he went, he said, simply to help her out.

There, he had a revelation that changed the course of his professional life. He learned that black people make up about 50 percent of all people living with HIV/AIDS in this country even though they are a mere 12 percent of the population. And black women now amount to nearly 70 percent of all newly reported HIV infections among women. Wafford says it all hit home for him when he connected the stats and the likelihood of infection to his 22-year-old daughter. "A light went on over my head," he says. "I love my daughter more than I love oxygen. That’s when I started getting involved."

The culmination of that involvement was a black HIV/AIDS summit convened by Wafford, courtesy of the county’s African American Community Development Initiative and the Office of AIDS Programs and Policy that was held last Saturday at USC’s Bovard Auditorium. Quasi-celebrity Tavis Smiley moderated the meeting, which was titled "The Cost and Casualties of Silence," and featured black speakers from across the country representing a range of disciplines — politics, PR, medicine, academia, activism, religion. The spirited scene outside Bovard gave little indication of the esteemed panel assembling inside; a van from The Beat radio station merrily blasted funk oldies and gave out music product while Wafford worked his walkie-talkie with the panache of the event coordinator he used to be. All that was just fine with Wafford, who created a program that offers free HIV testing at R&B and rap concerts. His goal for the summit was not simply to heighten public awareness among blacks, but to heighten it among blacks who resembled him before his conversion: dues-paying members of the middle or working class, probable churchgoers and pop-music fans who feel most detached from a shameful scourge like AIDS. The goal was also to examine the complicated and often unarticulated cultural, historical and psychological reasons for why blacks, and black women in particular, are falling prey to HIV in such record numbers at a time when most of America assumes the disease is more or less under control.

Many of those reasons are discomfiting and hard to build a consensus of action around, even among the panelists at the summit, which included Congresswoman Maxine Waters, black nationalist Mualana Karenga and motivational speaker and ex–talk show host Iyanla Vanzant. They all agreed there is institutional neglect of the problem, particularly in a current political atmosphere that is both racially indifferent and flat-out homophobic. But then there is the overarching problem of black self-esteem and its connection to just about everything else named as key factors in the crisis: the black male prison population that engages in homosexual sex on the inside and heterosexual sex on the outside; the unwillingness of black women starved for relationships to demand safe sex from their partners; the persistence of hypersexual images of black youth in music videos and elsewhere that tend to foil any messages about sexual caution.

Publisher-activist Danny Bakewell decried the "benign neglect" of government but also said that black institutions themselves — which theoretically would include video-heavy Black Entertainment Television — must be held accountable. Karenga declared that stereotypes, even the most pernicious, are something that black people are ultimately responsible for refuting. "Health and sexual behavior is an issue of black freedom and liberation — it’s all connected," he said. "We’re all worthy of being treated as sacred. Too many black people don’t value themselves or the lives of others. Having unprotected sex, not informing your partner of your condition, is reckless disregard of black life."

Physician and public-health expert Wilbert Jordan, who claims to have reported the first heterosexual case of AIDS in L.A. County in 1983, added that a whopping 92 percent of black men who infected black women knew that they were infected at the time of intercourse. "It’s power-based, ego-based behavior," said Jordan. "We have to find high-risk people and change their behavior. There needs to be more emphasis on values."

There was much discussion and allusion to values, though not of the politically disingenuous and divisive sort the word has come to mean. Smiley, who was more relaxed and opinionated than he is on his NPR and public-television shows, asked the panel at one point whether black women, who often knowingly put themselves at risk for HIV/AIDS, are simply "stuck on stupid." The panel agreed, to a point. "In order for women to have relationships, they have to make compromises," said Gail Wyatt, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist based at UCLA. "You say, ‘Yeah baby, I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’ For black women, sacrifices you make for family go way back."

It was Cleo Manago, founder of the AmASSI Health and Cultural Center, a national black health-advocacy organization with an office in Inglewood, who detonated the bomb that had been sitting for a good hour in full view of a capacity crowd that was shouting and clapping its approval as talk from the floor moved from increasingly honest to downright brutal. "Our community is full of brilliant people, but a lot of these brilliant, intellectual people still have HIV/AIDS," said Manago. "So the problem is that we think we’re niggers. We have an AIDS epidemic because blacks as a whole are full of shame, frustration, misdirected rage, post-slavery syndrome and the nigger problem. We may have brains but we don’t have a cohesive philosophy about ourselves."

Waters added that such analyses, while true, are increasingly hard to translate into public policy. "Does every new black mother need to be tested? Does every kid? Every man leaving prison?" she asked the assembled. "So far the whole political response to AIDS has been dictated by gay white males, and they’ve done a great job. But will the same policies work for our community?"

There were no hard answers to these and other weighty questions discussed at the summit. But Tony Wafford was glad that people were there asking them at all. Wafford’s focus now is making inroads into about 40 local black churches, which, with a few exceptions like First AME and Bryant Temple AME, where Wafford is a member, have long chosen to either condemn homosexuals or ignore AIDS based on the fact it is still largely associated with homosexuals. Wafford is confident that attitude can change, and that as a master marketer and promoter, he is the man to change it. "I’m a straight guy. I can get their [the churches’] attention," he says. "The common ground is that everyone is suffering and people are dying. The first thing you are is not heterosexual or gay, but black. Now more than ever, we’ve got to think that way."


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