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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.”